Album #570 – The Last of the True Believers

Album #570

I first discovered Nanci Griffith and her music about 11 years ago. I was flipping through the channels one night and stumbled upon an airing of her live concert, Winter Marquee, on CMT. It was back when they still played music videos and aired music programming. Winter Marquee was filmed and recorded in Knoxville, Tennessee and was taken from a concert Nanci did to raise funds for that city’s beautiful Tennessee Theatre. I was amazed that I had never heard of Nanci before that point. I loved her captive stage presence, her songwriting and most of all the way she was able to combine certain qualities and feelings of the past with the present to make her music timeless. From that point on, I never forgot her name and started following her career. The Last of the True Believers was her fourth studio album and one that fully captures her amazing quality as a singer-songwriter and also interpreter of other people’s songs. Griffith was able to transport me to different places and feelings in her songwriting: small town life that seems to have been left behind in today’s modern world, love, loss and how beautiful life can be. All the different styles of county are present here: acoustic ballads, rockabilly, waltz, cosmopolitan, bluegrass, folk. Griffith’s voice and songwriting style fits in well but, she is a great storyteller above all. Her songs have always had this amazing visual quality and I can always picture in my mind what she is writing about. It’s no wonder that songs off of this album have been covered by other artists including Kathy Mattea. Griffith would move between mainstream and alternative country over the course of her career, never really having a chart hit of her own. I’m not sure why but, it could be because she has never be willing to compromise her style or her influences. They are wide ranging. I can’t think of many other artists within country who can collaborate with the Chieftains, the Crickets and Hootie and the Blowfish and do that seamlessly. That is why I have such as profound respect for Ms. Griffith. She is great at bringing people together and if you don’t believe me, ask Lyle Lovett. We’re it not for Nanci’s support early on, along with giving him the opportunity to be one of her back-up singers, I don’t think he would have gone on to have the career he has had. You can look for him on the album’s cover and hear him backing her up vocally on many of this album’s songs. Griffith would go on to have her greatest success through her two albums of covers, Other Voices, Other Rooms and Other Voices 2. The albums showcase her wide variety of influences, feature many of her musical friends and above all prove what an impact this female singer-songwriter from Seguin, Texas has had and continues to have on music. I got to listen to Other Voices 2 on a recent trip to Winnipeg and was blown away by how much fun she seemed to be having and the amount of talent on one album. The music world aught to have more Nanci Griffiths. With all of her connections, we might be on our way.

Highlights include: Last of the True Believers, Love at the Five and Dime, St. Olav’s Gate, Banks of the Pontchartrain, Lookin’ for the Time (Workin’ Girl) and Goin’ Gone.

Overall, I give The Last of the True Believers, 5 out of 5.

Next: Talking With The Taxman About Poetry by Billy Bragg

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Album #569 – Infected

Album #569

Album #569

Infected by The The is an album that 31 years after it’s release remains relevant. Matt Johnson, the group’s only consistent member and driving force, decided to focus on the world around him and social issues instead of himself and literary influence. He also created a video for each song on the album, a lifetime before Beyonce’s Lemonade shook up the music world as a video album. Infected’s sound is less synth pop, which I heard on Soul Mining, and contains more blues, folk and Americana influences. Thatcher, U.S.-Middle East relations, the military and religion are some of the themes Johnson explores in his songwriting. Many critics found the album upon it’s release in 1986 hard to take because of the harsh, negative nature of Johnson’s songs. It is a stark departure from the easier subject matter of Soul Mining. But, I say that this album is still relevant today because we have these issues present in 2017. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Maybe that made the album easy for me to digest. Trump has replaced Thatcher, the U.K. is just as strained with the Middle East as the U.S.  and religion is still divisive. There may be a greater separation between right and left in America but, these songs still stand strong. If you are looking for music to listen to in the Trump era, you should begin here. It will give you much to think about. Johnson’s anger and tension in his singing and writing would carry over to his next album, Mind Bomb. Clearly, this album’s themes weren’t a mistake or slight detour. I do like this more political slant to his work. Not many were doing this at the time and it made him stand out among his contemporaries. Johnson’s voice is also very distinctive: part British accent, a little nasal, low, no frills, bluesy. It works with the music; not against it.  I am realizing more and more as I get older, while seeing the past and the present of popular music, this surprising fact: it is much more difficult for songwriters in pop music to write about anything but themselves and their experiences. Many of today’s pop artists would not have the talent or audacity to make you think about important issues within their music. Today’s pop songs are almost a form of boasting. Look at what I have, look at what I’ve accomplished. It’s been that way for almost my entire life. A true songwriter can look at things around them and make all of us take notice. Country music songwriters still have this trait. That is probably why I feel so disconnected from much of today’s pop music but it is getting there. As a result, I think that these world problems still need to be talked about. Music for many is a form of therapy. It is surprising that the world’s problems would not be more of an inspiration to write meaningful songs. Fuel for the creative fire. It always feels good to get something out. Why can’t this be done through song? Thank God we have music from the past that does this well. Let’s hope Infected will mean as much in the future.

Highlights include: Infected, Heartland, Angels of Deception, Sweet Bird of Truth and Slow Train to Dawn.

Overall, I give Infected, 4.5 out of 5

Next: The Last of the True Believers by Nanci Griffith

Album #568 – Master of Puppets

Album #568

Album #568

Master of Puppets is a metal masterpiece. Metallica are in fine form in this album. I have known most of it’s songs for over ten years. But, this was the first time I listened to the classic album from start to finish. The themes discussed on Master of Puppets still relate to society today. It is somewhat timeless in its themes but, it’s production is very 80’s sounding. Echo-y guitars and drums would feel out of place today. But, for those who think metal is dark and evil, they will be surprised to find the humanity and relatability that is present here. This album is also surrounded by tragedy. Original bassist Cliff Burton died in a bus crash as the group were touring to promote the album in Europe. Things would never quite be the same for Metallica. But, this album created a form of metal that wasn’t being seen in the mainstream. Hair metal ruled the airwaves and mainstream rock radio. Metallica took away the glitter and glam, getting back to the genre’s roots. Without Metallica’s success with this album, there would be no Slayer, Pantera, Rage Against The Machine and other metal acts who didn’t fit the hair metal mold. Metallica also proved that like their British counterparts (Maiden, Priest, et al.), they could write songs about real things. Important things. Things that impacted their everyday life instead of a rock star fantasy dreamworld. That is something I can instantly relate to. Today, James Hetfield’s voice is a punchline but back then he was doing something very different. There was anger and aggression in his voice. It was rough, loud and angry. He was not trying to hit the highest note or scream. Instead of being something he wasn’t, he was himself. That is why he is one of my favorite singers. If anything, Bob Rock’s production made Hetfield more of a cliche. The musicianship of the band is also phenomenal. All the members, including Lars, can play. Their virtuosity, especially that of Cliff Burton, is astounding. These aren’t musicians who do things in a half-ass way. Instead of being just noise, their is lots of different emotions throughout the album. It may not be sunshine and rainbows but, Master of Puppets has always made me feel something. The best music and my favorite music always does that. By the time this album was released, Metallica were well on their way. The proof is their opening act slot on a tour with Ozzy Osbourne the same year. Metallica were so good live at this point that they were even better than the performer the audience came to see. Once Metallica finished their set, the audience wanted more!!! Any band or artist that can do that, has my utmost respect.

Overall, I give Master of Puppets, 5 out of 5.

Next: Infected by The The

Album #567 – Licenced To Ill

Album #567

Album #567

It has been almost a year since I published my last post in this ongoing project. My life has become very busy as of late and I have had to take a much needed break from the challenge. Now, partly because Facebook keeps reminding me that I haven’t posted in awhile, I’m getting back into listening and reviewing. The first three posts will feature albums that I listened to back in January. Album #570 will be the first album I have listened to from the challenge since then. So, thank you for your patience and it feels good to dive back in. Licensed To Ill was THE album that really made me want to explore hip hop and rap music.  As I stated previously, I have always liked certain groups and artists in the genre and The Beastie Boys are among them. But, I’ve never taken the time to really go back and look at the genre and discover. This challenge allows me to do that and has opened my mind up to many amazing sounds. This album was a revelation. Hip hop and rap music, when done right, sounds amazing, makes you think and can cause some controversy. This album does all three. Many thought that the Beastie Boys were not serious about this musical art form. Several rappers felt that the group were making fun of hip hop because of their juvenile lyrics. But, that wasn’t really the case. The group started out as a hardcore punk band before moving into rap. In fact, in the next decade they would play real instruments on their albums, a perfect match to the alternative rock sound of the 90’s. This album’s biggest single, Fight For Your Right, was actually a satirical song about the frat boy mentality. But, the message was lost on many.  Thankfully, this group decided to become more artistic with their follow-up, Paul’s Boutique. But, the genesis of this experimentation is found on Licensed to Ill. The samples on this album are used in a very creative way. There are no hooks from other famous songs but, the samples aren’t the focal point. Instead, they form the creative backbone of the song. The Golden Age of Hip Hop is my favorite because of this. Mainstream Hip Hop when I was growing up in the early 2000’s, for the most part with a few exceptions, couldn’t be further away from this. The Beastie Boys also take a page from Run-DMC’s book on Licensed to Ill. The songs are catchy and also sound great combined with heavy metal guitar, as heard on Fight For Your Right and No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn. Rick Rubin’s influence I’m sure also helped with the album’s hard rock influenced sound. Looking forward to hearing Paul’s Boutique and, if this album was an indication, I’m in for a real treat.

Overall, I give Licensed to Ill, 5 out of 5.

Next: Master of Puppets by Metallica

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