154

154

Album: 154

Artist: Wire

Released: September 23rd, 1979

Highlights: I Should Have Known Better, The 15th, On Returning, Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3

Much like The Stooges, the MC5, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls, Wire was a punk rock band that rather than fading away slowly, burned out quickly. In their case, the interval between 1976 and 1979 was all that it took for the quartet to burst into the scene, put out three influential records, and call it a day. Sure, anyone who knows of the group’s history will point out that they would eventually return into the fray nearly one decade later in 1987 and go on to publish more than a dozen new works. However, by the time of their comeback, not only was the whole punk rock explosion a distant sight in the rear-view mirror, but Wire itself was – naturally – quite a different band.

Unlike their short-lived punk rock peers, which used their brief careers in the genre to pound mercilessly at the same style of music, Wire went the other way and took advantage of their concise classic run to cover a lot of ground. Their legendary debut, “Pink Flag”, was not just purely punk to the core; somehow launching into twenty-one tunes in thirty-five minutes, the album was actually defined as the genre’s operatic suite. Released only a few months later, “Chairs Missing” was still quite direct and focused, but it had firmer song structures and – more notably – a heavy dosage of experimentation in dark sparse songs that signaled post-punk was the new tendency in rock.

Coming out one year later and serving as the third piece of that puzzle, “154” – a number that refers to the amount of shows the band had played up to that point – is another type of animal altogether. A quick glance at the duration of the record’s thirteen tracks is enough to reveal that Wire is, here, dabbling into material that is rather different: none of the tunes are shorter than two minutes and more than half of them go over the three-minute mark, which is – for those who had written “Pink Flag” – the equivalent to progressive rock running time. Of course, such lengths could indicate Wire has actually become a standard rock band that writes normal songs, but listening to “154” reveals that is far from the case. This is an album that is more artistically ambitious than all of those that preceded it, digging even deeper in the experimental direction of its predecessors.

“154”, similarly to “Chairs Missing”, can be safely labeled as a post-punk album. There is a deal of irresistible pop catchiness to it, which does the favor of bringing accessible counterpoints to its otherwise mostly confrontational nature, but through most of the way the record checks all of the boxes expected out of the more somber spectrum of the style. “154” is cold, dark, industrial, disturbing, and distant. It does not display these qualities to the extreme of contemporaries like Joy Division or The Cure, because Wire simply does not have the serious and dramatic artistic inspirations of Ian Curtis or Robert Smith. Nevertheless, those defining elements are certainly in the package, albeit in a very distinct format, which ends up doing the album a whole lot of good.

Ultimately, what makes “154” unique is the same set of ingredients that turned “Chairs Missing” into a notable work, with the difference being that they appear more prominently this time around. This is threatening and mechanical post-punk that goes hard on synthesizers, keyboards, and – especially – guitar effects to create a peculiar atmosphere. But instead of going for such oppressive environment via the meticulously constructed path taken by other post-punk bands of the sort, Wire shuns those approaches and bets on a more basic road. What the band is doing here is essentially taking the do-it-yourself punk ethos and applying them to somber post-punk. Although much of the material is daring, nothing is pulled off in a musically ambitious way. “154” is, therefore, as basic, raw, and stripped down as it gets, using that punk spirit not to play fast-paced rock and roll, but to create experimental music.

In general, the best cuts in the album are those that match wild sonic trips with strong melodies, serving as a perfect middle ground between straightforward punk and boundary-pushing music. “I Should Have Known Better” is a cavernous track that anticipates the early releases of Echo & the Bunnymen; with cold narrated verses that reach subdued despair in the hooky chorus, it moves forward at a mechanical pace, with the song’s central beat being mostly provided by the guitars, as the drums focus on adorning the ominous soundscape with clicks. “The 15th” is melodically gorgeous; built on a layer made up of a pair of guitars, one quite clean that plays arpeggios and another drenched in noise that forms the base, the track uses synthesizers to put together what is the closest Wire has ever gotten to a post-punk ballad. With sparse instrumentation, the lengthy “A Touching Display” plods in a threatening way with dissonant guitars and drones that make it a distant offspring of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. “On Returning” follows with a fast-paced progression filled with alien keyboard sounds that frantically build to a culminating emotional release. And similarly drenched in effects, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3” is a lighter poppier tune that flirts with new wave.

On the more purely experimental side, none of the tunes match the greatness of these five songs, but interesting results emerge nonetheless. “Two People In a Room” has a relentless paranoid groove that, in two minutes, features talking, shouting, and an attempt at a more melodic passage. Likewise, “Single K.O.”, which carries an iconic riff as its central hook, shows the members of Wire are still masters at packing unpredictable undefined structures into short running times, given this is a free-flowing composition that keeps attaching itself to different melodies as seconds pass. Finally, “Blessed State”, probably the album’s only relaxing song, has entwining guitars that – in a less technically proficient way – recall Television, since the two play contrasting arpeggio-based lines that clash in beautiful synergy.

As it happened with “Chairs Missing”, however, the downfall of “154” and the factor that keeps it away from being an equal to “Pink Flag” is the fact that Wire’s experimental detours – as commendable and inspiring as they were – fail to be totally productive with a considerable frequency. “The Other Window” and “Indirect Enquiries” are horror movie material of surrealistic musical quality, but are not exactly appealing as songs from a studio record. “Once Is Enough” and “40 Versions” have potential thanks to their interesting guitar lines, the former heavy and the latter nigh electronic, but disintegrate into chaos before they are able to build on their ideas. Lastly, “A Mutual Friend” reaches a satisfying melodic conclusion, but it takes a while wandering through dull experimentation to get there. Because of these weaker moments, “154” is far from being the stone-cold classic it could have been given the stylistic uniqueness of its construction. However, be it due to its influence on future generations or as a consequence of the bridge it builds between punk rock and avant-garde music, listening to it is not just generally enjoyable, but also key in understanding the changes rock went through when the spark of punk started to fade.

three-half

Everything Will Be Alright In The End

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Album: Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Artist: Weezer

Released: October 7th, 2014

Highlights: Eulogy for a Rock Band, The British Are Coming, Da Vinci, Cleopatra

From the early days of their career, it was pretty clear that Weezer – more specifically their leader – had one incredibly hard time adjusting to the pressures, trappings, and expectations that come with being a popular rock band. Rivers Cuomo’s demeanor is quiet, introspective, nerdy, and lacking much self-esteem, and all these traits, especially when combined, forge a personality that is not quite equipped to deal with the spotlight; at least not without first going through a whole lot of growing pains. As such, much of the group’s career can be read as a clumsily performed balancing act between two forces: the need to deliver material that the fans will appreciate, a pull maximized by Cuomo’s low confidence; and the artist’s absolutely natural urge to give air to what he feels, which – in the case of Rivers – includes a good amount of awkwardly expressed sentimentality.

It has always been an odd road. Along it, advances and retreats have been common from both parts. “Pinkerton”, Weezer’s second work, was famously dismissed upon release only to slowly rise to the status of masterpiece over the years, with many changing their perception regarding the album. Similarly, the two records that followed it, “Green Album” and “Maladroit”, were initially treated warmly; however, as the band produced one dull shot at mass appeal (“Make Believe”) and two silly attempts to be hip (“Red Album” and “Raditude”), the pair began to be analyzed as part of the band’s classic period, exposing a genuine rock sound that fans claimed to miss and that Weezer – very much aware of those complaints – tried, but not quite succeeded, to revive in “Hurley”.

If there has been one point in this tortuous post-Maladroit journey in which the two sides of the struggle have been satisfied, with Weezer putting together the album that they wanted whilst pleasing folks who longed for the return of their classic sound, then it is “Everything Will Be Alright in the End”. Surely, as an artistic statement, its follow-up, “White Album”, is stronger, since it feels like a revitalizing step forward rather than a return to familiar grounds. But “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is equally alluring not only because it is a fun listen, but also due to the fact it is a delightful rarity in music: a conscious and successful move by an older band to go back to sounding like they did in their glory days.

Here, it all begins with producer Rick Ocasek. The leader of The Cars, and master of constructing immortal tracks that matched the dangerous attitude of rock with the accessibility of pop, had already lent his talent to two of Weezer’s best works: their untouchable debut and their solid third release. His presence behind the board, therefore, points to the music the boys were aiming to create. And, by all means, they hit it right on target. Like The Cars did in their heyday, Weezer rose to stardom via the combination of rock and pop. But where Ocasek’s group drank from the keyboard gloss of the era, Weezer borrowed their sweetness from power pop as well as from The Beach Boys while getting their heaviness from hard rock, punk, and even the grunge that dominated the scene at the time they got their start. Consequently, like both the “Blue Album” and the “Green Album”, “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is sustained by two elements: a stream of impossibly catchy melodies and a constant bed of guitars that is relentless like those of the Ramones, heavy like those of Kiss, and towering like those of The Smashing Pumpkins.

The return to the band’s roots as well as the ever-existing tug of war between Weezer and its fans are actually acknowledged by Cuomo himself in some of the lyrics, a move that brings thematic freshness to “Everything Will Be Alright in the End”. In the first single, “Back to the Shack”, not only does he recognize he might have alienated his audience with the musical detours he took in the years that preceded the record, but he also expresses concern over it, declaring Weezer will try to recapture the magic that was lost. As expected, the album also touches on Rivers’ usual topics of preference, including girls and his troubled relationship with his father, but even these tired matters seem to be tackled more charmingly this time around. When it comes to relationships, for example, “Da Vinci” is a likable, funny, and geeky love song, with the singer saying the subject of his affection could be neither captured by the Italian genius nor explained by Stephen Hawking; at the same time, in relation to his progenitor, “Foolish Father” turns the issue on its head when Rivers expresses fear that his daughter might see his own flaws down the line.

The album is not a smooth journey of power pop goodness all the way through. “Ain’t Got Nobody” and “Back to the Shack”, curiously the first two songs, are a tad average. Although they have plenty of guitar punch, with the second recalling the heavy metal flair of “Maladroit”, their melodies are mundane and their hooks feel forced. The opener, in particular, is further damaged by how in it – as its title indicates – Rivers falls victim to his greatest enemy, his self-pity, lamenting the fact he has been abandoned by his girl, his father, and his audience. Fortunately, as soon as “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” reaches its third cut (“Eulogy for a Rock Band”) and the spectacular riff it carries, the record kicks into a sequence of remarkable tunes that the band had not coined in well over a decade.

It is all there. Like it happened in the “Green Album”, the thick distorted wall of guitars joins the tracks at the hip, as if they were part of the same whole. Therefore, it is up to the elements buried in the noise – the searing lead guitar lines, the melodic work, the cutting solos, and the sunny backing vocals – to set them apart. And they do it quite well. “Lonely Girl” bursts out of the gate as immediately and loudly as “Buddy Holly”. “I’ve Had It Up to Here” has the band locking on a dancy groove and Rivers delivering a surprising falsetto. Covering the American Revolutionary War, “The British Are Coming” is the best song Weezer has produced in a while, making one wish Cuomo would take on historical themes more often. “Da Vinci” has verses built on playful whistling and acoustic picking that recall “El Scorcho”. “Go Away” is a sweet duet with Bethany Cosentino that mirrors the slower moments of the group’s classic era. “Cleopatra” pairs up unplugged guitars with electric ones in the same way as “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here”. And “Foolish Father” builds to a choir cathartically singing the album’s title over some hard rock pounding.

“Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is a triumph. And it is, thereby, suiting that it ends on what feels like a victory lap: a three-part suite that contains one song, “Anonymous”, book-ended by two loose and fun instrumental segments. Much like “The End”, which basically closed out The Beatles’ “Abbey Road”, it feels like a well-deserved celebration by a group that has just lifted a huge burden off its shoulders. But where the Fab Four were saying farewell to a career of musical wonder, Weezer is partying for a much simpler reason: getting back on track. On the great scope of musical history, the two occasions hardly compare; however, to Cuomo, to his bandmates, and to their fans, the moment will certainly feel just as big, because not only does “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” create a – temporary – peace treaty between the factions, but it also proves that Weezer is still capable of delivering good music, even if much of their output following “Maladroit” says otherwise.

Who

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Album: Who

Artist: The Who

Released: December 6th, 2019

Highlights: All This Music Must Fade, Ball and Chain, Hero Ground Zero, Street Song, Break the News

It may be jarring to some, but fans of The Who – particularly those who are familiar with Pete Townshend’s personality and its unique blend of insecurity, arrogance, and dangerously honest rhetoric – will not be too surprised when they realize the band’s guitar player and songwriter opens the group’s twelfth album by penning a review of his own. Sung by Roger Daltrey, the first verses of “All This Music Must Fade” claim that “I don’t care / I know you’re gonna hate this song / And that’s fair / We never really got along / It’s not new, not diverse / It won’t light up your parade / It’s just simple verse”. It is a great, but obvious, defense for a man who – well into his seventies – knows that any music he produces at this point will be compared unfavorably to his classics of the past; and it is also a perfect description of what many people will feel regarding “Who”. Yet, the statement is not entirely accurate.

Townshend is correct when he says that the batch of eleven original tunes in the album is not new, diverse, or structurally challenging. Likewise, it does not take the knowledge of a music business insider to confidently state that the tracks of a The Who record released in 2019 will not light up any parades. He is probably lying, though, when he says he does not care. As much as the public’s perception of “Who” will not do much to affect the life a multimillionaire rock star, Townshend has always – accidentally – let the world know he is very much worried about the acknowledgement of his genius, and that is bound not to change. Finally, his immediate disparaging of “All This Music Must Fade” is downright wrong: it is a fantastic tune, one that carries his band’s signature sound whilst being contemporary enough to make it with any kind of crowd.

Although the quality of the songs oscillates as “Who” moves along, that is a description that could easily apply to the work as a whole. In a way, the record is a bit of a miracle; after all, since the band’s last good original product, 1978’s “Who Are You”, more than four decades have passed, and during that period the group was far from productive, releasing two mediocre LPs (“Face Dances” and “It’s Hard”) during the 80s that failed to reconstruct the band following the death of legendary drummer Keith Moon and publishing “Endless Wire” in 2006, a bloated and conceptual piece that diluted some very good musical moments amidst an overwhelming amount of lackluster cuts. However, looking at “Who” from another perspective reveals that its relative success makes sense.

Townshend has always been an excellent songwriter, and not only does “Who” come on the heels of a worldwide tour whose quality proved that, up on a stage, the current incarnation of The Who could still deliver the goods, the album also benefits from the fact it holds no frills at all. “Who” is the result of a well-oiled machine and one of the British Invasion’s brightest composers walking into a studio, doing what they know best, and putting the whole process on a tape. Without a storyline or an overarching message for him to get lost in, and with a very good band operating at high capacity, Townshend succeeds in assembling an enjoyable and straightforward rock album, an artifact that many doubted he was still capable of creating.

As it is the norm with The Who, the operation was not as simple as it looks. Townshend and Daltrey, who have repeatedly stated over the years they were never friends, recorded their parts separately and by using different producers. Nonetheless, it all comes together. Despite the lack of a unified theme, “Who” could be seen as some sort of older brother to “The Who by Numbers”, for while in the latter Townshend’s personal lyrics revealed that a rock and roll hero had come crashing into a mundane midlife crisis (showing such dreaded phase is an inevitability even to those who seem immortal), the former has numerous tracks that deal with old age. Starting with “All This Music Must Fade”, in which the songwriter embraces the fact that everyone eventually becomes irrelevant, regardless of whether they have written their names in the history books or not, the album features several moments when Townshend confronts his wrinkles, going into digressions about mortality, reincarnation, wisdom, and The Who’s own history.

It is a recipe that could be dangerous for a rock album, for the genre was never really favorable to the ramblings of older folks; “The Who by Numbers” itself was – despite its greatness – warmly received in large part because of its tendency to deal with thoughts that appear as the years accumulate. The theme, though, is much safer this time around: Townshend knows most of those who are still listening to him are old as well and, therefore, can relate; furthermore, still showing sings that – at heart – he remains a rebellious punk, he makes it clear he remains ready to fight. In “Rockin’ in Rage”, he mockingly and cleverly summarizes that conflict in the chorus when he says “I’m rockin’ in rage, forward and back / My bones is engaged / They splinter and crack”.

Appropriately, the music of “Who” also exhibits that dichotomy. It is punctually angry and occasionally contemplative. “Ball and Chain”, for instance, is a tense and quietly furious blues track where Townshend gets political, attacking the injustices of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; “Beads on One String” is a ballad showered by lush synthesizers that seems to simultaneously comment on two kinds of war, those that are personal and those that are collective; “Break the News”, written by Simon Townshend, is a gorgeous acoustic stomp; “Street Song” could be the steady soundtrack to a march or a protest; “Hero Ground Zero” is – like the best tunes out of “Tommy”, “Who’s Next”, and “Quadrophenia” – simple but able to muster a gigantic size thanks to a layered arrangement that includes electronic elements and an orchestra; and “I’ll Be Back” is the classic Townshend jab at folk, being honest and filled with personal anguish.

“Who” fails to reach for full excellence due to a few dull moments: “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” starts out promising but could have used a better chorus; “Detour” is playful and bouncy, relating to the band’s R&B origins, but ultimately uninspired; and both “I’ll Be Back” and “She Rocked My World” click as intimate statements but do not nail it as songs. However, there is no denying it is a worthy addition to The Who’s canon: it features tasteful production; it has Townshend being particularly inspired in his signature usage of synthesizers, which invariably enhance the tunes quite a bit; it boasts fantastic vocal performances by Roger Daltrey, whose voice has aged unbelievably well; and it simply contains a lot of notable songs. In the end, the self-deprecating statement that opens the album is nothing but a bluff; Townshend knows that “Who” is good, and most that listen to the album without questioning whether The Who should be making music as of 2019 (a matter that only truly concerns the members of the band and their will) are likely to realize it.

White Light/White Heat

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Album: White Light/White Heat

Artist: The Velvet Underground

Released: January 30th, 1968

Highlights: White Light/White Heat, Here She Comes Now, I Heard Her Call My Name, Sister Ray

Given its indisputable status as one of the greatest albums of all time, it is hard to say there is one particular variable that made “The Velvet Underground & Nico” be so remarkable. Yet, much of its irresistible, dangerous, dark, and subversive aura stemmed from the balance of forces that existed within the group; more specifically, the one that consisted of the dirty street-smart rock and roll power of Lou Reed, and the avant-garde spirit of John Cale. Although much of the writing was done by the former, which kept the songs firmly grounded on the format and hooks expected out of pop music, the latter’s desire to experiment with sounds, arrangements, and multiple sorts of atmospheric elements was passed onto the band members themselves, including Reed, and – consequently – leaked into the fabric of the tracks that were cut.

It was a harmony so perfectly adjusted that in the spectrum that denotes the gap between pure rock and roll energy and inscrutable artistic delusion, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” stood precisely in the middle of that range; achieving a hard-to-match stability that allowed its most significant tunes, like the plodding menace of “Venus in Furs”, to be fierce but mysterious; violent but elegant. As the second, and final, album recorded while Cale was in the band, “White Light/White Heat” exhibits that very same battle between opposing forces; however, in its case, the result of the struggle is clearly askew, because the musical chaos it contains could not possibly be the product of a finely tuned and perfectly stabilized balance.

It is, though, not the case where one side has obviously come out on top. As such, claiming “White Light/White Heat” was birthed by the submission of rock to avant-garde aspirations is somewhat off. The album exists as it is because the chemical reaction between guitar music and weird noise, which was quite well-managed in “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, has suddenly gone out of control. And in the wake of the explosion caused by the accident, the creature that was once capable of restraint has been transformed into a berserk entity that lives in loudness, thrives in destruction, and indulges in disturbing forms of sentimental expression.

“White Light/White Heat” is not rock brutally murdered by rabid art: it is music corrupted by insanity; it is sound affected by odd creative whims. Because, when it is all said and done, amidst the overwhelming noise, the unstoppable desire to wreck, and the relentless attempts at reaching for all that is ugly, the album rarely loses its ability to please, be it by unearthing the occasional beautiful melody, landing on the always desired musical hooks, and bringing forth those grand moments of release. There is method to the madness of “White Light/White Heat”, and that gives a purpose to the sonic assault it presents through most of its duration other than producing shock and confronting audiences, as it is also able to entertain almost thoroughly.

Its opening track, which lends its name to the album, is surf rock on amphetamines not just because its lyrics deal with the effects of the drug, but also thanks to how its music might as well have been made while the band was high on them. Propelled by a pounding piano, it has a call-and-response structure that includes harmonies that nod to The Beach Boys, only the neat California lads were hallucinating so much they mistook a dirty bathroom for a clean studio and failed to keep it all together for too long, as the whole performance deteriorates into mindless banging as it reaches the two-minute mark.

The pair of “Here She Comes Now” and “I Heard Her Call My Name”, meanwhile, stand on opposite sides of the aesthetic scale. Although the band sounds absolutely aloof through it, the first is a beautiful and melodic interlude whose ambiguous lyrics, which leave the door open for one to question whether Lou is talking about his guitar or a woman, are at the same time underlined by gentle instrumental work by both Reed and Morrison as well as, in true avant-garde fashion, partially demolished by a repetitive pattern that goes nowhere. Contrarily, the second, which also bets on a circular format, is ugly, visceral, energetic, and delightfully grating. In it, Morrison, Cale, and Tucker stay locked into a demented pulse; simultaneously, Reed’s guitar – mixed as loudly as possible – spirals away madly, spitting venom into the ears of listeners, who are greeted by one of rock’s most wicked solos while the singer rants as if possessed and the rest of the group occasionally repeats the song’s title.

And then there is “Sister Ray”. Relating a story that involves transvestites, an orgy, as well as a heroin deal that goes wrong and ends up in murder, it is a seventeen-minute jam put to tape in one take that begins with a simple guitar riff and slowly mutates into a monstrous cacophony. As legend tells it, the session’s recording engineer refused to sit around and listen to what the band was about to perform, choosing instead to simply press the button and walk out. Exaggerated tale or not, “Sister Ray” puts together quite a case for it being true, for it speeds up and slows down wildly and features all four members of the band competing to be the one playing the loudest instrument in the room, as Reed vies for that spot with blistering guitar solos but is ultimately outdone by Cale, who causes an absolutely glorious racket with an organ whose volume would probably get him arrested for attempted manslaughter in any civilized country.

Even though often thrilling to the greatest degree, the wildness of “White Light/White Heat” does not always click, as it generates a couple of lesser moments. “The Gift” is an eight-minute spoken-word track with vocals and instruments mixed to separate channels that, despite featuring a fantastic jam, gets boring after one has listened to its disturbing tale once; and “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is just interesting, with a lot of that value emerging thanks to how its music and sound effects work together to bring to life the messed up lobotomy of a transsexual woman. But given how much of an effort the record puts towards pushing the lines of what is musically and thematically acceptable, missteps are nothing but utterly natural. After all, the process of challenging norms and breaking rules is bound to give one a few bruises; these, however, turn out to be more than worthy if the subversiveness yields a few good results. And in the case of “White Light/White Heat”, The Velvet Underground sure uncover some precious music that would not have been found out if nobody was willing to take the mad leap.

Ode To Joy

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Album: Ode to Joy

Artist: Wilco

Released: October 4th, 2019

Highlights: Before Us, Everyone Hides, Love Is Everywhere (Beware), An Empty Corner

For a good while, Wilco has been slowly traveling down a slope. And such an evaluation is valid in two ways. Firstly, it is true from a quality perspective, as following 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born”, the creative spark that guided the group through its first decade has been progressively decreasing in intensity, with all albums that came after that work being unable to strike the same level of greatness found in those that the group had put together up to that moment. Secondly, it applies due to how it seems that, dragged by the increasingly sullen mood of Jeff Tweedy, their leader, the band has been digging deeper and deeper into an infinite well of melancholy.

Surely, fans may rightfully cry out that, along that journey, there have been a few outliers in the two senses. Although by no means amazing, 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky” and 2011’s “The Whole Love” showed promise that Tweedy still had some fuel left in him. Meanwhile, to lovers of the more electric and noisy facet of Wilco, a record like 2015’s “Star Wars” must have come like an unexpected gift, as it was mostly made up of the ragged guitar freak-outs that were once an abundant presence in their output. Still, in both mood and greatness, the arrow that describes Wilco’s career arch has been generally pointing down for some time. “Ode to Joy”, their 2019 release, represents a notable shift in one of those two fields.

Contrarily to what its title indicates, though, such change has certainly not occurred in the subject of tone. If anything, Tweedy likely named “Ode to Joy” as some sort of internal joke between him and those who listen to the music he puts out; an attempt at deception which is fully aware of its weakness considering that fans are, by now, way past the point of being able to believe Tweedy can be cheery or positive. He is the miserable, thoughtful, frayed, and lovable uncle of alternative rock, and he seems to wear that hat very proudly, as in “Ode to Joy” he goes into lyrically concise lamentations on lost love, isolation, the inherent difficulty of human relations, and his own inability to overcome the vices that lead him to stumble repeatedly.

If in the matter of words “Ode to Joy” ends up naturally bumping into old subjects and problems, in overall mood it actually ventures into new territory; and given the Wilco trend that the album bucks is not the one related to spirit, it is safe to say that this previously uncharted land is sadder and more lethargic than any of the sorrow that came before it, confirming that Tweedy is moving steadily downward. It is true that, to an extent, in terms of emotional weight, the band has certainly been more heart-wrenching in the past, but never has Wilco produced a record that feels so passive and resigned. Tweedy sings of sadness like a man that knows he simply cannot escape it, and like one who is very much used to the troubles that lead to this emotional state, he seems to – throughout “Ode to Joy” – just accept his fate and analyze it with his head hanging down.

It sounds like a lot of self-pity to take in; and, in a way, it is indeed. But Tweedy has a down-to-earth nature that makes his misery either easy to relate to, at least to those who have been there, or a target of empathy. With his hushed and defeated tone of voice, he contemplates what brings him down; simultaneously, the band follows suit, assembling an instrumental bed that is steady in its softness, a characteristic that makes it work like an ideal platform for the drowsiness that afflicts their leader. Save for the drums, which appear prominently and clearly in the mix, popping and clicking in well-recorded beauty, the rest of the instruments feel distant, uncertain, and inhibited, creating an atmosphere that is foggy yet intimate and allowing “Ode to Joy” to stand as an album of outstanding cohesion, as if all of its eleven tracks were truly part of a single uniform piece.

It all amounts to a magnitude of low-key quietness that may cause some listeners to look at “Ode to Joy” as boring, which would not be a completely unfair call. However, below a surface that is positively monotonic and whilst confined to a tight spectrum of sound, the album finds room to stretch. Anchored by a relentless bass drum, “Quiet Amplifier” repeats its main melodic line endlessly while an orchestra of guitars builds noise around it, making the track slowly swell; “Everyone Hides” and “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” are straightforward, and somewhat energetic, pieces of folk rock; “We Were Lucky” is slow-moving and menacing, like The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”, and – to make the comparison even more appropriate – it has a signature Wilco guitar freak-out that gives it an avant-garde edge; finally, “Hold Me Anyway” could pass for a happy playful track if it had different lyrics.

As evidenced by the omnipresent sadness within it, which is there even when it might appear like it is not, the recent Wilco trend that “Ode to Joy” ultimately breaks is the one that has to do with quality. It is the best work by the band in quite a while, possibly since the release of “Sky Blue Sky”, and its consistency is outstanding, with none of its tracks leaving a negative impression. As such, even if the whisper-like nature that permeates it may hide some of its hooks or beauty for some time, multiple spins are likely to eventually reveal them.

The calculated quietness of “Ode to Joy” could have been a trap to Tweedy and Wilco, as monotony and lethargy have been the villains behind some of their past missteps. However, here, that pitfall is thoroughly evaded due to the simple fact that the songwriter seems to have rekindled his relationship with the art of writing touching melodies. Carried by them, the simple, defeated, hopeless, sleepy tracks of “Ode to Joy” rise; not with the power of a wave, but with the welcoming comfort of a delicate mist, which slowly envelops listeners and takes them on a ride through the softest and most sullen music that Tweedy has ever produced. Thereby, whether the mood gets sadder or happier in the future, fans can be hopeful that the trend of quality can continue to rise, as, with “Ode to Joy”, Wilco proves they are still capable of producing very good material.

Quadrophenia

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Album: Quadrophenia

Artist: The Who

Released: October 26th, 1973

Highlights: The Real Me, I’m One, 5:15, Sea and Sand, Love Reign o’er Me

The first half of The Who’s career, which also happens to be – by far – the band’s creative peak, can be perceived as a display of how Pete Townshend’s ambitions as a composer progressively grew as the years went by. Starting with a basic album that was nothing more than an excellent collection of songs (“My Generation”), the group would go on to produce a record that contained their first multi-phased track focused on storytelling (“A Quick One”), a fully conceptual work (“The Who Sell Out”), a massive rock opera (“Tommy”), and a musical project that was so grand in scope (“Lifehouse”) that it ended up never truly materializing, with some of its spare parts being used to put together one of the most inescapable staples of classic rock (“Who’s Next”).

In that timeless run of ever expanding pretension, “Quadrophenia” was the next step, and considering that never again would Townshend and The Who aim for operatic grounds, the effort also qualifies as a final chapter of sorts. Rather than closing an epic saga on a sour note, though, “Quadrophenia” lets the band move forward onto simpler grounds with a loud bang, not just neatly summarizing the traits that made the group so special in the first place, but also emerging like the grand culmination of a cycle, consequently allowing Townshend to walk away from the conceptual realm not like a loser, but like a man who knew he had achieved the summit of the format.

As the band’s second rock opera, “Quadrophenia” naturally draws comparisons to “Tommy”; a parallel that would be daunting to just about any other composer, but that to Townshend simply means he is going against a slightly younger version of himself. And that difference in age and creative experience causes “Quadrophenia” to feel like a piece that is more fully formed. Part of the credit for that condition can be attributed to its theme. Where “Tommy” was a somewhat absurd tale that tracked the journey of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy through encounters with doctors, abusive uncles, prostitutes, drugs, and pinball machines until he becomes a public sensation and cult leader, “Quadrophenia” is far more grounded.

The album tells the story of Jimmy, a young member of the mod subculture who struggles to find his true identity (“The Real Me”, “I’m One”, and “Is It In My Head?”) in the midst of his working-class background, the pressure to fit in with his peers (“Cut My Hair”), his relationship with his parents (“Sea and Sand”), the scarce job opportunities he encounters (“The Dirty Jobs”), the disappointments he has with those he admires (“The Punk and the Godfather” and “Bell Boy”), and the general nonsense society throws his way (“I’ve Had Enough”). It is certainly an image that Townshend saw not only when he looked into the mirror, but also when he gazed at his fans, a fact that is highlighted by how Jimmy is reportedly a combination of the traits the guitar player saw in some followers of the band that he knew personally. Due to that, in its mixture of disillusionment, anger, and personal troubles, as Jimmy tries to find his true self in the four split personalities that the record highlights (hence the play on schizophrenia present in its title), “Quadrophenia” ends up being much easier to relate to.

The other reason why “Quadrophenia” emerges as a more consistent work is musical. As it covers its plot, sometimes quite directly and occasionally through more tortuous paths, it does so via seventeen songs that uniformly stay away from ranking as filler merely intended to advance the story. As the unwritten rules of rock operas seem to dictate, the album does contain a cut – its opener – that is an amalgamation of moody sound effects; likewise, it has two long instrumental suites (“Quadrophenia” and “The Rock”) that – in their case, brilliantly – combine the musical hooks and elements that appear throughout the record in unified compositions.

All of the remaining tracks, however, are pretty much what The Who fans expect from the band: rocking and melodically solid tunes, alternating between those that have dramatic breaks ideal for theatrical presentations and those that go straight for the jaw. All the while, the individual members of the band execute the performances of a lifetime. Daltrey sings with his usual force, but there is an extra aura of conviction in the way he delivers Townshend’s lyrics, and it is hard to find – in the entirely of the band’s catalog – a vocal with as much raw emotion as the one he pulls off for “Love, Reign o’er Me”. The de facto solo players of the group, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle, run as wild as ever, with the former putting vicious beats, fills, and rolls in unexpected places with such an astounding frequency that the album lacks any sort of steady rhythmic work during all of its eighty minutes; and the latter playing bass lines that frantically cut through the songs regardless of the other instruments, as seen in the historical show he puts on during “The Real Me”.

In the middle of that rhythmic chaos, Townshend is the anchor, putting on a clinic of his signature base guitar, as he displays his unique ability to combine short bouncy licks and equally brief riffs with moments of silence that leave listeners wondering when the next punch will come in. In a way, that is the description of The Who by the numbers, but in “Quadrophenia” that recipe powers both an especially elevated degree of thematic cohesion and rock songwriting of the first order, showcasing a level of consistency that in the band’s discography is only seen in “The Who Sell Out” and “Who’s Next”.

The album, however, upgrades that traditional instrumental framework with two elements that in “Quadrophenia” appear more prominently than in any other release by the group: synthesizers and a brass section. As proof of Townshend’s great taste in production and arrangements, though, these two assets never overpower The Who’s brand of rock and roll, serving – instead – to make it lusher and give it a grand progressive edge, in the case of the synths, which greatly boost the instrumental tracks and “Love, Reign o’er Me”; and to add more power to their already explosive nature, in the case of the horns, which turn the chorus of “Doctor Jimmy” and the entirety of “5:15” into barn burners. It is a slick and layered sound that gives “Quadrophenia” a musical identity and solidifies it as The Who’s most inspired work, allowing Townshend to get to the top of his operatic ambitions and give a worthy conclusion to a stunning creative cycle.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

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Album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Artist: Wilco

Released: September 18th, 2001

Highlights: Kamera, Jesus Etc., Ashes of American Flags, Reservations

There is absolutely no doubt that, with “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, Wilco turned a corner. Until then, led by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennet, the group had spent much of their early run concentrated on a safe brand of radio-friendly alternative country. And although almost none of it was unquestionably bad, for Tweedy and Bennet sure knew how to write great tunes together, a lot of it was bland, and it often seemed as if Wilco – a band born from the ashes of alternative country trio Uncle Tupelo – was either unwilling or unable to move out of the clutches of the genre.

The coming of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, therefore, arguably marks the very first time the band assembled a truly distinctive work, a fact that perhaps partially explains why – before being released to widespread acclaim – Wilco was able to acquire the rights to the record from their label, which was not too keen on its release, for free. And by listening to the eleven tracks contained within it, it is somewhat possible to catch a glimpse of the reasoning that caused the record company to make such a decision, because even if “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” still retains touches of Wilco’s former style, they are way too buried by loads of idiosyncrasy that ultimately overwhelm it.

“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is a bit noisy, as feedback hums, low-key distorted guitars, and electronic beats accompany all of its tracks or build the bridges that work as the transitions between them; it is atmospheric, for sometimes the always present acoustic strumming is subdued by layers of keyboards and other impressively varied, well-employed, and brilliantly produced instrumental ornaments; and it is, in the oddest of ways, poppy, because even after the musical shift the album operates it is rather obvious Jeff Tweedy has not lost his knack for writing catchy melodies. Most of all, though, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is lethargic.

One would be right to say that such a feeling is not exactly a stranger to Wilco’s singer, a man who had sounded, through the entirety of the group’s preceding three records, like a lazy, yet likable, drunk. But while in those efforts there was some muscle to his singing, as if he would eventually recover, get up, and pick up the fight right from where he had left it off; in “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” he sounds absolutely defeated. His good intentions, either due to his own mistakes or due to the bad turns life sometimes takes, have produced no results: he broke the hearts of those he loved best; his indecisiveness has led to lies; and whenever it seems like he is on the way to recovery, his past blunders come to haunt him.

It is a tone that gives “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, alongside its instrumentation, a lot of character and unity, which make it thoroughly respectable as an artistic statement. It, however, does not always work in the compositions’ favor. “Heavy Metal Drummer”, which recalls pleasant memories of his youth backed by cheery and colorful instrumentation; “I’m the Man Who Loves You”, which stars a noisy, sloppy, and loud guitar; and “Pot Kettle Black”, a moment of great self-affirmation, are all energetic moments that could have used the more muscular version of Tweedy, as it is hard to feel moved by these tunes when the singer himself seems to be just going through the motions.

Sure, perhaps that is exactly the message here: that when one is this dejected or in self-doubt they are unable to feel good even about statements or memories that would otherwise be jubilant. Nevertheless, these are tunes that, albeit being fine (the last one is particularly good), feel like they are lacking something. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, atmospheric moments, more specifically those in the slow, relatively long, and monotonic “Radio Cure” and “Poor Places” occasionally flirt with boredom, because despite a very interesting and rich musical background, it appears Tweedy could not care less about putting some heart behind these melodies. Again, it is arguable that is part of the ideas “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is putting forth; however, such value does not stop these cuts from being a bit too flat for their own sake.

Everywhere else, though, it is easy to see the stylistic jump executed in this forth work allowed the band to uncover impressive gems that would have certainly not surfaced had the musicians remained locked inside alternative country. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is a flawless opener that announces the layered lethargy of the record via a lengthy, moving, and free-flowing track filled with soaring keyboards and instrumental details; “Kamera” and “War on War” are accessible and catchy pop rock tunes with rich playing and production; “Jesus, Etc.”, the album’s best song, carries not just stellar melody and lyrics, but spectacularly blends a violin, an electric piano, and a slide guitar into an irresistible groove; “Ashes of American Flags”, which also falls into the set of the record’s slower tracks, marches forward smoothly along its signature drumbeat and reaches beautiful emotional catharsis in its chorus; and “Reservations” wraps it all up in a ballad where Tweedy, joined by a piano and noise, acknowledges he is the problem and that perhaps, by fixing himself up, he can recover the love he has lost.

“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is, therefore, an album of ups and downs, but one that never loses sight of the impressive richness of its sound, the experimental touches of its instrumentation, and the defeat of its tone. And even if is possible to find better and more consistent records in the era during which it came to be, it is certainly hard to find one that is more surprising and that showed as big of an evolution in relation to the style of the material that came before it.

I See You

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Album: I See You

Artist: The XX

Released: January 13th, 2017

Highlights: Say Something Loving, Performance, I Dare You

Progression is key to all kinds of good music; after all, artists who get stuck in the same place for way too long end up metamorphosing into caricatures of themselves: people who try to recapture a moment that is long gone in the past and that end up sounding like bad cover versions of their initial material. If there is something that can be said about the first three albums of The XX is that there is a good deal of progression to them; better yet, it is a kind of evolution that is cohesive. Their debut record was filled with lyrics that portrayed the tension and excitement of young love; meanwhile, their sophomore effort carried feelings of loss. Hopefulness was gone, and so was love. And in their place all that was left were ashes, scattered pieces awaiting to be picked up, and disappointed broken hearts. Given such context, it is only natural “I See You” is the step that comes after that: the search for new love; one that is done in the attempt to balance lessons learned from hurtful experiences with joyful new hope.

Whether the smoothness with which the band has traveled through that arch is part of an artistic plan or merely a reflection of their own lives is up in the air. However, one thing is for sure: Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim nailed it both in terms of writing and performance, for in “I See You” they sound like two people who are trying to move on but that have punctual trouble escaping the vines of the past that are holding them back, and freeing their hearts to love again. Nowhere is that idea best encapsulated than in “Say Something Loving”, in which Oliver sings “I just don’t remember the thrill of affection” and “I do myself a disservice / To feel this weak, to be this nervous”. It is intimate; it is vulnerable; and it aligns itself perfectly not only with the subdued singing of the duo but also with the band’s sound, which in “I See You” moves forward without losing its core identity: minimalism.

What the group does here is move its minimalism between scenes: if the two predecessors of “I See You” were rooted in the post-punk of Joy Division – albeit a brand of post-punk that adorns its beats and bass with electronic trickery; “I See You” runs full speed towards the indie electronic landscape. Consequently, the record almost completely does away with the organic sounds of Romy’s guitar and Oliver’s bass, and tips heavily towards the synths and the turntable of Jamie Smith. Beats and samples, then, tower over all other elements, turning “I See You” into a delicate electronic work that knows how to use silence and introspection in its favor, which are the two main characteristics that connect it with everything else the band has done.

“I See You”, however, falls short in the hard task of matching its precursors. Given the limited area and emotional scope in which they operate, The XX had always sounded like a band that ran the risk of producing an album that is a little too monochromatic for its own good. And “I See You” seems to have been the one to have fallen into that trap. The duets of Romy and Oliver (whether they are singing simultaneously and through each other, or tackling different lines of the same song) remain as overwhelming as ever. Yet, the fact the band digs itself into a mostly electronic corner here makes the tracks, with the exception of the anthemic “I Dare You”, almost merge into one another. Still, “I See You” is a touching and beautiful album with a large degree of cohesion both within itself and inside the band’s oeuvre, and that is an impressive feat.

Pinkerton

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Album: Pinkerton

Artist: Weezer

Released: September 24th, 1996

Highlights: The Good Life, El Scorcho, Pink Triangle, Butterfly

The unwritten manual of good songwriting dictates that it is the artist’s job to transform the storm of feelings that lies within the human soul into digestible phrases. Songwriters must filter primal, brutal, and intense instincts and turn them into poetry – it doesn’t matter if it is abstract or straightforward. “Pinkerton”, Weezer’s second album and the successor to a brilliant collection of heavy pop rock tracks, is unusual in how it shuns those rules; there are no barriers between what has been put onto paper and what Rivers Cuomo, the band’s creative leader, was feeling at the time he forged these songs, which makes it as honest of a record as the rock genre has produced. The result of a self-pitying insecure geek that was suddenly thrown into musical stardom, “Pinkerton” is in equal measures awkward and messy; it is frank, absurdly specific, and intense, as if it were produced and published without much consideration, making it the rock and roll equivalent of a message sent by a rejected lover in a drunken stupor to the one who broke their heart.

Considering its context, it is not surprising “Pinkerton” is best described as embarrassing. Likewise, it is not shocking to discover that Cuomo himself regretted, and avoided, the album in the years following its release. In the self-explanatory “Tired of Sex”, he rattles off the name of his daily dates and laments he cannot find true love; in “Across the Sea”, he talks about an eighteen-year-old fan from Japan with whom he had been exchanging letters, proclaiming he wishes he could touch her and blatantly stating he thinks about how she gets intimate with herself; and in “Pink Triangle”, he openly discusses the disappointment of discovering the target of his affection is a lesbian. Cuomo shows absolutely no restraint in revealing to listeners the ghosts, fears, anguishes, and failures he faces, and the language he uses is so direct, that cringe-inducing lyrics such as “I asked you to go to the Green Day concert / You said you never heard of them / How cool is that? / So I went to your room and read your diary” are the norm rather than the exception.

All of those characteristics make “Pinkerton” an utter unmitigated disaster. This is an artist having a complete mental breakdown; only, instead of doing it in private or while running away from paparazzi, he decided to burn it onto a record. And that is precisely why it is so fantastic; the album could have easily come off as the shallow ramblings of a young adult who remains an adolescent in numerous matters, but it – for some miracle – lands like a punch to the stomach. “Pinkerton” is punk in how it constantly baffles listeners and gives a middle finger to the controlled emotional mindset society expects, and in that sense it is incredibly courageous. Meanwhile, it is also somewhat emo, but not in the derogatory sense the word acquired during the turn of the century. It does not wear eyeliner and carry sad songs because it is commercially viable, Rivers and his band-mates are too nerdy for those two acts; it talks about its feelings because they are just too overwhelming.

On top of that, “Pinkerton” climbs to the upper echelons of music because it rocks with vengeance in its heart. Save for the beautiful “Butterfly”, the acoustic and introspective closer, the album is accompanied by guitars that are played loudly and distorted to the limit that separates music from noise. Its instrumentation, thereby, lives up to the raw intensity of its lyrics, and every single track is populated by more than one inescapable hook, such as “El Scorcho”, which has a wandering and weird guitar riff; an orgasmic chorus; and a bridge played at top speed and delivered with furious anger. In later years, Weezer would – sadly – become a caricature of its former self; in “Pinkerton”, though, they were as true as a band can be, and – as a consequence – they gave the world their messy masterpiece.

The Who Sell Out

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Album: The Who Sell Out

Artist: The Who

Released: December 15th, 1967

Highlights: Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand, I Can See For Miles, Can’t Reach You, Sunrise

“My Generation” introduced to the world Pete Townshend’s songwriting talent and The Who’s ability to play loudly vicious rock music. “A Quick One”, particularly its closing nine-minute attempt at a mini rock opera, hinted that a great deal of thematic ambition hid behind the group’s pop rock sensibilities. “The Who Sell Out”, the group’s third record, is the joining of both of those worlds; it combines the compositional prowess of the debut – albeit in a more refined and adventurous state, with the wish to produce a set of songs that comes together into a uniform package of images and ideas that was present in the sophomore effort. The result is simple: one of the greatest albums of the 60s .

From its opening thirty-second snippet that leads the way into the aggressive and purposely oddly mixed “Armenia City in the Sky”, whose progression is punctuated by out-of-place background noises that rise and vanish, “The Who Sell Out” nods at its goal: to feel like a transmission from a British pirate radio station. The Who supports that concept by filling the intermissions between tracks with either real-life jingles or short musical segments produced by the band itself, which ends up lending the album a uniform levity and lightheartedness that is mostly unparalleled in the rock realm even nearly fifty years after the album’s release.

Delightfully so, the theme contaminates some of the record’s songs themselves. John Entwistle, who would in later works prove to be a very good and funny – yet not very prolific – composer, turns in two original musical commercials in the hilarious “Heinz Baked Beans” and “Medac”, an anti-pimple cream that saves the young Henry, who had a face like “a currant bun”; and also contributes with the whimsical but sinister “Silas Stingy”. Townshend, meanwhile, delivers the full-fledged “Odorono”, about a girl who loses a job opportunity because of an ineffective deodorant brand; “Odorono”, he claims, would have been the right choice. The greatness of “The Who Sell Out”, though, does not lie exclusively in wackiness, humor, and satire, for it is packed with impressive numbers that make up the core of the record.

“Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand” is a catchy folk ballad with psychedelic undertones about a girl who was rather popular with the boys; “Tattoo” has a bit of an operatic multi-phased structure compressed in its three-minute length, and it is filled with remarkable melodic lines; the classic “I Can See For Miles” is noisy, chaotic, energetic, anthemic, and explosive; “Our Love Was”, “I Can’t Reach You”, and “Sunrise” are three of the most heartfelt, simple, and honest love songs Townshend – one of rock’s best composers – has ever written; and both “Relax” and “Rael” also rank highly within the group’s catalog, with the latter being a simple hypnotic number and the latter a mini opera. By packing such a colorful palette inside thirty-eight minutes of music, “The Who Sell Out” is easily one of the standout works of the band’s discography and one of the wildest and most amusing musical journeys available out there.