Franks Wild Years

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Album: Franks Wild Years

Artist: Tom Waits

Released: August 17th, 1987

Highlights: Hang on St. Christopher, Innocent When You Dream (Barroom), I’ll Be Gone, Yesterday Is Here

“Franks Wild Years” is the final piece of a trilogy that saw Tom Waits transform from a late-night bar crooner who played sorrowful ballads for drunkards and losers into a musical madman who sang like Captain Beefheart and whose band used an assortment of instruments acquired at the nearest landfill. Rather than feeling like a culmination of what preceded it, though, it comes off as comedown; such quality, however, is more closely tied to the excellence of the two legs that came before it than to the tracks it contains. “Swordfishtrombones”, from 1983, was a revelatory explosion of wild and insane ideas that were frantically splattered over the wall of a dark dirty alley located by a shady harbor where drunken sailors, abundant prostitutes, and violent mafia henchmen lurked. “Rain Dogs”, released two years later, was the consolidated masterpiece created in a colorful carnival that had the joy sucked out of it by a downpour, which led its attendees to go from happy families to bums and beggars looking for shelter inside the rides and tents.

“Franks Wild Years” is, therefore, the hangover: the sailors are back to the ocean, the prostitutes have receded into the brothels, the mafia henchmen have been killed, and the beggars and bums are lying unconscious over piles of garbage. Nevertheless, even if the scene is neither as refreshing and alluring as the one from “Swordfishtrombones” nor as inspired as the one from “Rain Dogs”, “Franks Wild Years” is quite fruitful, frantic, and varied. All the usual suspects from Waits’ rackety orchestra of lunatics are here: there are enough horns to assemble a big band, there is a melancholic accordion over which Tom sings at his most intoxicated, there is a piano for when sadness seeps in, there are keyboards and electric organs that are employed to create a foggy atmosphere, there are more kinds of percussive instruments than one can find in a calypso ensemble, and there is even a rooster, whose playing (done by undisclosed means) is credited to Tom Waits himself. With that army of instruments, which are most certainly in precarious states, Tom tackles – and finds success – in numerous genres, giving his restless spin to each one of them and somehow bringing it all together under an idiosyncratic umbrella.

Originally serving as songs for a play Waits wrote with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, “Franks Wild Years” follows the titular character through a sleazy trail that alternates hope and despair, which are always underscored by a destructive nature that appears right in the opener, “Hang on St. Christopher”, where Frank – who is driving recklessly – asks the patron saint of drivers for protection. As Frank takes his emotional turns upwards and downwards, the record zaps stylistically: “I’ll Be Gone” can bet better described as pirate music; “Straight to the Top” gets two wildly different versions, one in which Waits dabbles in rumba and another where he emulates Frank Sinatra; “Train Song” is a traditional Waits bawler where the piano takes center stage; “Temptation” is carried by the Cuban guitar of Marc Ribot; “Innocent When You Dream”, which earns two version as well, is an irresistible and tipsy sing-along; and “I’ll Take New York” is another shot at Frank Sinatra territory, only – in this case – Frank is too inebriated to care and his band has not rehearsed in a decade.

As such, even though the position of “Franks Wild Years” in Tom Waits discography has led many to qualify it as a lesser release – and it indeed is inferior to the two albums that came before it, such a drop does not stop it from being utterly remarkable. Due to the fact its tunes originated on the stage, as part of the same play, there is a thematic and atmospheric coherence that permeates the entire work, one that lends it a cinematic aura, as if it songs were meant to conjure – and perhaps be accompanied by – moving images. It is a trip through the back alleys of life guided by the always watchful, insightful, and romantic eye of Tom Waits, and he expresses what he sees and gives life to the characters that inhabit his mind in unashamed musical experimentation and rich lyrical imagery.

Murray Street

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Album: Murray Street

Artist: Sonic Youth

Released: June 25th, 2002

Highlights: The Empty Page, Disconnection Notice, Karen Revisited

More than an institution of noise rock, Sonic Youth has always stood as a role model for indie bands due to a career arc that saw the group emerging from the American underground scene until they slowly made their way to stardom on their own terms. Therefore, as four individuals who always approached music in the way they saw fit, it is hard to say that by 2002 the band was lost; they were, in fact, precisely where they wanted to be. Still, their latest two releases, “A Thousand Leaves”, from 1998, and “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”, from 2000, indicated a key element of their sound was missing, the very item that produced musical masterpieces that bridged the inscrutable experimentalism of dissonant soundscapes with immediate pop flavors. That sweet balance between avant-garde tendencies and likable hooks was too diluted in the long-winded jams of “A Thousand Leaves” and it was completely absent from the unstructured cacophony of “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”. In that sense, “Murray Street” is a moment of epiphany; a point in time when, whether organically or intentionally, Sonic Youth reconnected with their most accessible and best nuances.

It is not that “Murray Street” is devoid of challenges or unchained trips down a rabbit hole of buzz, it actually has plenty of those: “Rain on Tin” opens up with eight brief verses before being sucked into a gripping jam full of ups and downs that continues until the track hits the eight-minute mark; “Karen Revisited” follows three minutes of one of the band’s most hooky melodies with eight minutes of abstract noise; and “Sympathy for the Strawberry” also concludes with a lengthy instrumental segment that shows the band is still embracing the concept of extending songs to their limit, an idea that had been fully explored in “A Thousand Leaves”. In “Murray Street”, however, the band seems to be bent on contrasting beauty with chaos. As so, they build songs that lean as heavily on ringing guitars whose tones have the cleanliness of Television’s “Marquee Moon” as they do on Moore and Ranaldo extracting sounds from their guitars no one thought existed until Sonic Youth came along.

And it is with that concept in their hearts that the band travels through the length of “Murray Street”. Similarly to what happens in a great Pavement record, no song makes it to the end unscathed. The sweet and soft rock of “The Empty Page” features a middle segment where Moore and Ranaldo scratch the strings of their guitars to oblivion; the equally smooth “Disconnection Notice” has an omnipresent wave of feedback looming in its background; the astounding choruses of “Karen Revisited” are haunted by loud bursts of noise that threaten to make the song implode, which is exactly what happens at the three-minute mark, when listeners are taken to a void where only the most confronting sounds exist; and “Plastic Sun” is a short and angry tune where the buzzsaw guitars of punk rock are replaced by what might as well be a buzzsaw itself, only it is lacking oil, creaky, and spinning so out of control it might burst out of its axis at any moment.

Consequently, after seven years during which Sonic Youth opted to explore grounds far removed from those that yielded their finest records, such as “Sister” and “Daydream Nation”, the band comes gloriously back to that realm. “Murray Street” is a remarkably strong record from a group that has been able to maintain an unlikely consistency during a long career. And, much due to its impressive melodic components and sober guitar-playing during the sung portions of the tracks, it might as well be one of Sonic Youth’s most welcoming set of songs, setting the band up nicely for a stunning run of records that would bring a historical and transgressive path to a victorious close.

Heartworms

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Album: Heartworms

Artist: The Shins

Released: March 10th, 2017

Highlights: Name for You, Mildenhall, Half a Million, Heartworms

Through internal ups and down, the firing of band members, and one hiatus from which it seemed like the group would never emerge, The Shins have always stood as a comfortable and safe net for the indie movement. Unlike acts that – purposely or inadvertently – eventually find a way to break into the mainstream, which is viewed by more extremist listeners as some sort of unforgivable act regardless of whether it is done with artistic integrity or not, The Shins have remained right below the line separating the two clashing musical universes. In a way, such a fact may as well be seen as miraculous, for not only does the band’s debut date from 2001 (the year in which indie was propelled into the stratosphere by The Strokes), but James Mercer – The Shins’ leader and songwriter – has more than a few times written tunes featuring hooks that were powerful enough to drill through the wall guarding the market’s mainstream.

It is hard to know exactly why the breakthrough never came; as Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo proves, quirkiness and awkwardness can win out when dressed up with genuine anger or irresistible pop sensibilities, and the wacky Mercer has a lot of the latter. Independently of the whys, though, and safely stuck in indie haven, where an eager audience will always be waiting for his next move, Mercer and The Shins get to their fifth record in “Heartworms”. By now, the world (or at least the small portion of the population that is listening) knows what to expect out of the band, and that is exactly what they get: light pop rock songs that lean towards the sweetest spectrum of folk music and that are decorated with Mercer’s seemingly endless stash of catchy melodies and lyrics that are smart without taking themselves too seriously.

What is different about “Heartworms” is how the folk rock elements are overtaken by modern electronic elements. These are not exactly new to The Shins: through their discography, sometimes to a lesser degree and other times to a much stronger level, synthetic sounds have always been present. “Heartworms”, however, pushes the boundaries to new heights. Although in some tracks they seem to be missing in action (“Painting a Hole”), Mercer’s acoustic strum and pleasant riffs can still be heard: they are in the entirety of “Name for You”; they guide “Mildenhall” and “The Fear”, the album’s purest folk tracks; and they make faint but key appearances in “Rubber Ballz”, “Half a Million”, “Dead Alive”, and “Heartworms”, where they are buried below keyboards. “Heartworms”, however, is undoubtedly characterized as a record where most of the musical hooks are not in the guitar, but in the colorful sounds that come from elsewhere.

The best aspect of “Heartworms” is that despite the shift in instrumentation, the album still sounds like a work by The Shins; the band’s soul – Mercer’s soul, that is – was not lost in translation. It is a far more psychedelic take on The Shins’ music, one that makes it seem like Mercer spent the time between “Port of Morrow” and “Heartworms” listening to a whole lot of acid-influenced rock like The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Axis: Bold as Love” or Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” and then proceeded to spit out his own contemporary and less technically prolific version of that music. It works well, and even though there are a few moments when it sounds like some songs will succumb to their electronic excesses, Mercer always manages to rescue the tracks via his signature melodic sorcery.

Fear Of Music

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Album: Fear of Music

Artist: Talking Heads

Released: August 3rd, 1979

Highlights: Paper, Cities, Life During Wartime, Heaven

The third studio album by the Talking Heads presents a considerable shift in tone and song-craft. Not because David Byrne suddenly decided to abandon his insanely paranoid artistic persona, which is still very much alive in a record that is appropriately titled “Fear of Music”, but because after two works majorly filled with quirky post-punk tunes that rocked in the most awkward way possible, the group opted to expand past the sonic walls of the corner into which they had backed themselves with “Talking Heads: 77” and “More Songs About Buildings and Food”.

In that process of reaching out, the Talking Heads stumble upon a myriad of styles that not only work towards making “Fear of Music” the most musically varied effort of their career, but also define it as the point in which the band first came into contact with many of the influences and ideas that would go on to elevate them from being one of the most important and recognizable new wave bands to walking, as equals, amidst the giants of rock history. And although the stylistic experimentation of the tracks produces results that vary in terms of net enjoyment, “Fear of Music” is almost always satisfying and invariably interesting.

“I Zimbra” announces the arrival of a new and improved version of the Talking Heads by engaging into the polyrhythms of popular African music, with its unintelligible chants and wild keyboards summoning thoughts of a party that is tribal yet modern. Even if it is not telling of what the rest of the tracks contain, as blatant touches of African music would only reemerge in the successor to “Fear of Music”, “I Zimbra” reveals a lot about the album; namely, that the keyboards, courtesy of Jerry Harrison, that had started to gain prominence in “More Songs About Buildings and Food” have taken over.

It is with them that the band, aided by producer Brian Eno, dabbles into new territory. With sirens and other effects that recall a bustling metropolis, they add urgency and anxiety to the madness of “Cities”; by working as a perfect complement to a driving signature guitar riff, they bring danceability to the relentless, wild, and oddly pleasant paranoia of “Life During Wartime”; as a cloudy low-key background to the music, they contribute to the angelic aura of the album’s most melodic tunes, “Air” and “Heaven”; and leaning on an assortment of noises, they augment Byrne’s inherent weirdness in the dark psychedelia of “Memories Can’t Wait”, “Electric Guitar”, and “Drugs”.

That wide range turns “Fear of Music” into an album that alternates moments of accessible pop rock with occasions when the bizarre overtakes all other elements so completely that the tunes may become unsettling to some. Such an irregular tone may lead to accusations of lack of focus, but – as a whole – the work is permeated by one constant characteristic that besides uniting all tracks also gives reason to their schizophrenia: Byrne’s lyrics and singing.

His expression as a man who lives in terror and anxiety is nothing new, but “Fear of Music” takes it all to new amusing levels. Here, he is seen falling into despair as he muses about which city suits him best; he maniacally worries about his documents as he concludes humanity has dangerously put everything that is official and that makes the world go around onto fragile sheets of paper; he sees his life as an endless urban guerrilla, as guns are always around the corner and supplies can become scarce at any moment; he goes through a very bad drug trip; he ponders that the perfection we so desperately seek to achieve is flawed in itself; and he is generally rather suspicious of everything that surrounds him, as animals have a secret agenda, his guitar is being manipulated, and air – which is annoyingly omnipresent – may have dangerous side-effects the world has not been warned about.

Through it all, Byrne shouts, talks, screams, sings, and frets. As the band he is in produces rock music that borrows some of the aggression of punk while adorning it with a world of styles, with the swing of funk being particularly vivid in the rhythmic work of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, he fronts it while presenting a thick layer of sweat in his brow. He is not perspiring from the excitement that stems from the music, though, but because the world is out to catch him. And although that persona was a constant during the incredible career arch built by the Talking Heads, it is arguable that in “Fear of Music” such trait is found at its smartest and quirkiest point.

However, the album is not just about untamed paranoia; it is about a group successfully moving out of their initial sound and maturing past the new wave label that had been attached to them due to the context in which they emerged. Without it, the Talking Heads could have gone down in history as a nice little post-punk act with a couple of hits and solid records; with it, they started to transcend that fate.

Innerspeaker

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Album: Innerspeaker

Artist: Tame Impala

Released: May 21st, 2010

Highlights: It Is Not Meant To Be, Lucidity, Expectation, I Don’t Really Mind

Given the absolute peak of psychedelic rock came about in 1967, when the waves of the Summer of Love were powerful enough to sweep through the United States and have its outermost ripples reach far beyond the country, it is only natural that every single release inside the genre be compared to the legendary masterworks that were being produced in that era. And since the happy vibes of psychedelia were quick to succumb to the harshness of reality and to the heavy drug abuse of its musical leaders, works that attempt to recapture the magic of that era run the serious risk of either sounding like caricatures of the past or playful oddities that have arrived out of time. With those pitfalls in mind, it is a gorgeous miracle “Innerspeaker”, the first album by Tame Impala, does not end up being a bloody victim of the circumstances that surround it, especially when one considers how much it borrows from the inescapable pillars of acid rock.

Firstly, there is how Kevin Parker – the man responsible for writing, singing, and playing pretty much all of the material contained within the record – sounds a whole lot like George Harrison. However, instead of singing of mind-altering experiences over a plucked sitar, as Harrison did on some of the most experimental tracks by the Fab Four, Parker does so over a lush soundscape that has soothing waves of effect-laden guitars that wash over listeners in the same way as the ones from Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love”, while not overlooking the whimsical hooks of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Magical Mystery Tour”, and the daring yet approachable experimentation of the whole of Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” or of the most welcoming moments of Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”.

With all of those influences in his mind, Parker strives to create psychedelic songs that he can call his own. And although there is nothing revelatory about the record, “Innerspeaker” is certainly good enough to be loudly praised and worthy of the foundations on which it is sitting. Its verses are often quiet and contemplative, as if listeners are invited to look into a natural setting – as the one depicted on its cover – to ponder upon decisions, relationships, and habits. Its choruses, meanwhile, are the moment of transcendence, when enlightenment is unlocked and Parker is sucked into a colorful vortex of wisdom. And “Innerspeaker” brings that concept together in both music and lyrics. In terms of the former, there is a frequent repetition of melodic patterns that seem to be stuck in search of a getaway, and the path out of that vicious circle comes in sweet explosions of effects. As for the latter, Parker employs conflicted and indecisive inner dialogues that find relief and direction when the pop choruses come around.

Even if it does not abandon that neat musical architecture for a second, save for in the instrumental “Jeremy’s Storm”, “Innerspeaker” never comes off as an album that is treading on the same ground aimlessly, because under every somewhat similar stone that he upturns, Parker finds a track that is noteworthy and distinguished. When his melodies are not utterly gripping, they are – like the mind of a classical romantic poet – wandering amidst nature in search of a great discovery, and they are invariably able to locate and expose the coveted treasure. “Innerspeaker”, therefore, uses its pieces to form one cohesive piece that is tightly constructed under a defined conceptual umbrella. The Summer of Love may be long gone, and psychedelic rock may be no longer a cultural phenomenon, but their children and grandchildren are still holding tightly to their message and spreading it through excellent music.

Spitting Image

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Album: Spitting Image

Artist: The Strypes

Released: June 16th, 2017

Highlights: Behind Closed Doors, Grin and Bear It, Great Expectations, A Different Kind of Tension

Initially, The Strypes caught the eyes of the likes of Elton John, Dave Ghrol, and Noel Gallagher not only for being a group of four lads that paid homage to the pub and blues rock of Dr. Feelgood and The Yardbirds by bringing it to the 21st century, but also for being able to do so pretty well. Sure, there was nothing particularly original about neither their songs nor their first two records, but among a crowd of pop musicians that dominate the charts and indie rockers that rule over the rock subculture, they stood out for looking back onto an era that is often ignored by teenagers of the 2000s. With two complete albums and a strong set of songs that gravitate around blues behind them, the time had come to either move on or run the risk of being stuck in the same subgenre for a good portion of a decade, and “Spitting Image” makes it very clear right on its cover that the boys found new music to be infatuated with and proceeded to write tunes with new influences in mind.

Bands that approach blues rock have grit; and that is not an adjective that is suiting for the colors and clothes “Spitting Image” features on its art, and it takes about three seconds into “Behind Closed Doors” for listeners to realize the change is not merely aesthetic: it is musical. What connects “Spitting Image” to its predecessors is that it is not modern; it is absolutely old-school. The difference is that instead of looking up to Jimmy Page, they pray at the altar of Elvis Costello. “Spitting Image” comes straight from the late 1970s, with all the love for strong melodies, light guitar riffs, and clean production that existed during those days. And, surprisingly, what The Strypes uncover with the move from the pub to the concert hall (a path that British music itself followed during that decade) is their best record up-to-date.

“Spitting Image” is fun, unpretentious, and loose. Despite his young age, Ross Farrelly delivers his lines with the utter confidence of someone who has a handle on life and that just knows better than everyone else. And with that air, he smartly talks about characters whose lives have taken a turn for the worse: there is the father who lost his family due to alcoholic vices (“Behind Closed Doors”); the couple that loses a part of their youth because of an early and unexpected pregnancy (“Grin and Bear It”); and the aimless youngsters that alternate between enjoying life to the fullest and wondering if what they are doing is right (“Black Shades Over Red Eyes”). The fact the grim nature of those situations and others that pop up along the album gives birth to tunes that are jovial speaks volumes about the kind of energy with which The Strypes wrote and performed these tracks. It feels like they are either too smart to be caught up in those binds or too self-assured to fret over those problems.

The true reason behind such cool smoothness, though, probably lies in how the songs of “Spitting Image” are just overloaded with sugary hooks; The Strypes unabashedly abandon a ship that was mean and rough, and out of that confinement they find acoustic strums, jangly guitars, and replace technical flair for infectious simplicity. “Spitting Image” does have space for some of the aggressiveness of previous albums, which surfaces in the form of a few strong tracks where a punk aura shines through (“A Different Kind of Tension” and “Turnin’ My Back”), a fact that bodes very well for a rock record – where a certain edge is essential. But, as a whole, “Spitting Image” is a delightful pop rock work that shows the lads will find success away from the nest of pub rock into which they were born.

The Stone Roses

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Album: The Stone Roses

Artist: The Stone Roses

Released: May 2nd, 1989

Highlights: I Wanna Be Adored, She Bangs the Drums, Made Of Stone, I Am the Resurrection

As the end of the 80s was approaching, British rock was surely in need of some palette cleansing. Through the biggest part of that decade, British youth had been served a brand of music that, while of unquestionable high quality, was also uniformly sulky. The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division, and The Jesus and Mary Chain produced numerous classic albums that allowed teenagers and young adults to sink into their misery, with only the latter band providing some sort of way out of that dark deep well – in that case, indifference and anger – but they had locked their listeners into self-pitying patterns. It is hard to know if being tired of wallowing in despair was what caused those youngsters to quickly flock towards the Madchester movement – which merged rock, acid house, psychedelia, and 60s pop. But when the late 80s came around, musical trends indicated the British had abandoned poorly lit rooms and awkward social demeanor and opted to send their demons away via pop songs and dancing.

The Stone Roses’ debut is the biggest landmark of that movement and not just because nearly all of its thirteen songs (in the album’s American version) have deservingly grown into classics. “The Stone Roses” succeeds because it manages to encompass and display Madchester’s various influences and facets in the tracks it brings together. “Fools Gold”, for instance, with its funky bass line, scratchy guitar, and focus on rhythm, is pure irresistible dance rock; meanwhile, “Don’t Stop”, built over a rewinding tape of the track that precedes it (the beautiful ballad “Waterfall”), has so much of acid house in the trippiness that stems from its construction that it would not feel out-of-place in a rave. Mostly, however, “The Stone Roses” is an album of jangle pop.

John Squire’s guitar rings in the same fashion as those from the great players of the genre: Johnny Marr (The Smiths), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), and Tom Petty. However, differently from those, The Stone Roses play inside a soundscape that is as wide as that of British post-punk bands and as bright as that of the American bands of the Summer of Love. It sounds as if the group is unleashing poppy sweet anthemic choruses and impossibly catchy melodies from inside a coral cave located deep underwater, with the soundwaves gaining new colors every time they bump onto the rocky walls. It is a sensory delight, and Squire – like Marr – works like a guitar orchestrator, filling up all that vast expanse with entwining riffs that form a rainbow-like rock symphony. In that beauty, Ian Brown spins brutally acid lyrics, as if he is trying to conceal overflowing bitterness in sugary pop, and it works.

There is the wish to see a former lover die in horrific fashion (“Made Of Stone”); the joyful contemplation of the ending of a relationship (“Shoot You Down”); the ironic mocking of someone who is never satisfied with what they get from their partner (“Sugar Spun Sister”); the desire to hurt oppressing policemen (“Bye Bye Badman”); an open threat to the queen (“Elizabeth My Dear”); the act of painting himself as a messianic figure for being able not to violently hate someone who broke his heart (“I Am The Resurrection”); and the haunting clairvoyance of “I Wanna Be Adored”, which boldly anticipates the importance their debut, which would serve as a major cornerstone of the Britpop movement, would have for British rock. It is all so powerful and delivered with such confidence that, even many years later, it is hard not to believe Ian when – in “She Bangs The Drums” – he claims “The past was yours but the future’s mine”. There are not many albums that can make such a statement without seeming clueless and arrogant, and “The Stone Roses” is certainly one of them.

Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols

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Album: Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols

Artist: Sex Pistols

Released: October 28th, 1977

Highlights: Holidays in the Sun, God Save the Queen, Anarchy In The UK, Pretty Vacant

Whether or not one considers “Never Mind the Bollocks” to be the classic the mass music media claims it is usually hinges on how one perceives the punk rock phenomenon. If the album is seen as the starting point of the movement, and therefore as a mind-blowing new kind of music, it will receive the accolade of being the musical equivalent of discovering a new continent (one inhabited by infuriated and wild youngsters). On the other hand, if it is analyzed as yet another punk rock record in a line of albums by various groups that were taking a page from the MC5 and The Stooges and revolting against overly pompous music, it is bound to be anointed as average or rubbish. As it is often the case, the most balanced way to look at “Never Mind the Bollocks” lies somewhere between those two extreme poles, and through that view it is possible to see that while it is indeed a rather derivative work, it is easy to understand why it is seen as so revolutionary.

Musically, there is absolutely nothing new about “Never Mind the Bollocks”. The Sex Pistols are, through the eleven tracks contained here, emulating – whether they admit it or not – punk bands from the United States that had come before them. The reckless fast pace in which the tunes are played, the constant and uniform guitar-strumming that is virtually the same in all songs, and their bare-bones construction with few chords that are played in a never-ending cycle until the band runs out of things to say had already been forged – and rather well-explored – by both the New York Dolls, in their 1973 debut and 1974 follow-up, and the Ramones in their self-titled 1976 record. Moreover, by the time “Never Mind the Bollocks” was released, other groups in Britain itself (The Clash, and The Damned), in Australia (The Saints), and in the United States (The Heartbreakers) had beaten the Sex Pistols to the punch by publishing albums that ran head-first into that formula.

The difference is that the Sex Pistols broke into the mainstream in a way none of those groups did, and they achieved so by not only having a pretty efficient marketing machine spinning behind the curtains, but also by producing tracks that were as catchy as they were angry. “Holidays in the Sun”, “God Save the Queen”, “Anarchy in the UK”, and “Pretty Vacant” have more hooks in their repetitive melodies and guitar riffs than one can count, and it is no wonder each of them have become timeless classics. Additionally, similar to what The Clash did, the Sex Pistols were original in putting politics into punk; however, where Joe Strummer was a political activist with a clearly leftist program and a goal in mind, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were unapologetic nihilists: they did not give a damn about anything, and they wanted to watch the world burn for the sake of it.

That is why, throughout the album, the Sex Pistols aim a cannon of vitriol towards pretty much everyone, and their goal is clear: to offend as much people as possible (the queen, the conservative British society, their former label, the New York Dolls, futile teenagers, Londoners, politicians, those who were afraid of discussing sex and abortion, and more). And by doing so they garnered the attention of teenagers and young adults who saw, in that relentless venting, the escape valve to their frustrations and anger. In the voice of Johnny Rotten and in his mad singing, the musical highlight of the album, those people found a way out of whatever hole they were stuck in and even if “Never Mind The Bollocks” features more average tunes than it does great ones, it is quite hard not to notice it and be somewhat entertained by its shameless madness.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

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Album: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Artist: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Released: November 9th, 1976

Highlights: Breakdown, Hometown Blues, Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, American Girl

One of the greatest qualities of rock and roll is the fact it is so adaptable. The rhythm originally propelled towards the stratosphere by Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley has grown and mutated through the years either by borrowing from other genres it has no relation to or by shifting its focus in the direction of one of the many styles whose mixture started all the hip-shaking and guitar-breaking. And, by 1976, it had already lived long enough to be made poppier by The Beatles; blown up to new proportions by psychedelic progressive bands; deconstructed by the punk movement; turned into soothing music by folk and country rockers; and much more. Given this never-ending inflow of different ornamentations and arrangements, the playing of basic and straightforward rock and roll becomes – in its simplicity – utterly remarkable, and that is precisely where Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers come in.

There is absolutely nothing new about the set of ten songs that make up the now-legendary group’s self-titled debut, nor is there anything shockingly inventive about the numerous records that would follow. However, that is the beauty of it; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers never aspire to be more than they are, which is a fantastic rock and roll ensemble, and Petty works hard with a guitar, a notebook, and a pen to give his musical machine the material that will serve as fuel for the combustion that is The Heartbreakers’ brand of rock and roll.

In “Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers”, just like he embraces the rhythmic characteristics of the genre, he also throws himself into the pool of the style’s usual themes: girls and partying, be it separated or joined together in the same song. In the infectious and positively danceable “Hometown Blues”, there are girls who leave town to chase their dreams of becoming rock stars; in the ballad “The Wild One, Forever”, there is the girl who is an impossible catch and the one that – naturally – the singer desperately pines for; in “American Girl”, by a wide margin the album’s strongest cut, there is the girl who strives for a new life away from the constraints and heartbreaks that surround her; and in the brief opener “Rockin’ Around (With You)”, there is the girl who cures the composer of his pain by accepting to be with him whether for a couple of dances or for a while longer than that. Petty, however, finds the time to take some thematic detours during the atmospheric “Strangered in the Night” and “Luna”, which take advantage of Benmont Tench’s keyboards to approach a sinister and almost supernatural story – in the case of the former; and an unexpected introspective take on loneliness – in the case of the latter.

Although Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers would go on to produce better records, their self-titled debut stands as one of the strongest points of their output because of its humility, sincerity, and – of course – its songwriting. Petty was never a Dylan, nor was he ever a Springsteen; and in knowing that he sought not to replicate their grandeur, but to aim for a different market and goal. As one of the album’s most energetic cuts says, “Anything that’s rock and roll’s fine”, and Tom Petty knows how to conjure that feeling better than everyone else.

Fun House

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Album: Fun House

Artist: The Stooges

Released: July 7th, 1970

Highlights: Down on the Street, Loose, 1970, Fun House

Although The Stooges’ self-titled debut is gigantic in historical terms, for it is usually appointed, along with the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”, as the albums that spawned punk rock and all kinds of music that are played with more focus on instinct and anger than technique and calculations, it is a flawed product. The Stooges became notorious for their ferocious live performances and, when taken into the studio and produced by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, much of that energy was lost. The problem was not the quality of the songs (they were pretty excellent for the most part) or the fact Iggy Pop couldn’t smear meat on his body, attack the audience, or stage dive on record. The issue lay in how the band seemed to be just going through the motions when locked up in a room, as if they were so far out of their natural environment that they were too bored to care. Less than one year after that album came out, though, The Stooges would redeem themselves, and allow those who could not go to their shows to witness their might, in “Fun House”.

The line that would define Iggy’s persona (“I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm”) would only appear in the successor to “Fun House”, the impressive “Raw Power”, but it is here that such a character was fully forged and first shown to the major public. Iggy and the band sound like caged animals trying to break free, and it is not just because the vocalist emits animal growls and howls like a maniac in all of the album’s songs. The Stooges’ rage is palpable; the guitar riffs are so threatening they likely walk with a concealed pocket knife; and listeners who turn on their stereos in a volume that is worthy of the record will likely find themselves jumping around their living rooms punching the air while secretly hoping they will hit something, or at least they will wish doing so were socially acceptable. “Fun House” hits like a ton of bricks, and despite its dark contours, it is ridiculously alluring; one can easily picture Iggy Pop himself standing in front of a decrepit garage door with a worn out sign that reads “Fun House” while inviting passer-byes in with a wicked smile on his face.

Iggy Pop may be the Grand Master of the party, but the only reason he is able to come off as an impossible-to-tame combination of man and animal is because The Stooges are a train that threatens to come off the tracks at any second due to its uncanny momentum. Few riffs in the entire discography of rock music pack as much menacing energy as the one from “Down on the Street”. The double guitars of “Loose”; the circular pounding riff of “T.V. Eye”; and the mad eight-minute jazz-rock jam of the title track – which combines a thumping bass, cutting guitars, and a wild saxophone – are bound to make those who bear witness to their power lose all control of their senses; and the perfectly recorded drums, which appear to be in the same room as the listeners, are heartbeats that feel like powerful punches.

By being the album in which The Stooges are finally let loose, “Fun House” also contains incredible bits of improvisation, and although the group is not exactly technical, it is their impeccable primal instincts that take over in these occasions. Both “Dirt” and “Fun House”, which run past the seven-minute mark, are classic examples of shining gems that emerge because the guitars and the saxophone, in the case of the latter, are allowed to run free; however, even tunes that are more straightforward, such as “Down on the Street”, offer opportunities for improvised guitar licks and shouts that lend uniqueness and wildness to each riff repetition. The extreme culmination of all of that is “L.A. Blues”, the album’s closer, and an instrumental about chaos that sends its message by producing a cacophonous rock symphony. The Stooges wrap up their wild party by tearing down the garage, and the ending is suitable, for – after this one – no other celebration could live up to such greatness and be worthy of the location.