Bug

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Album: Bug

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.

Released: October 31st, 1988

Highlights: Freak Scene, Yeah We Know, Pond Song, The Post

As a more extreme and less popular version of the punk rock movement which inspired it, the American hardcore scene of the 1980s also naturally featured a far lower degree of professionalism. That is not to say the people involved in it did their job poorly or amateurishly; in many cases tasks were actually performed with much more passion than in its seminal counterpart. But given the corporate world of big labels and magazines showed little to no interest in taking over the reins of the music that was being made in the underground, the influence of money was minimal and positions – whether they were on the stage as a band or behind the scenes as part of the network that supported hardcore musicians – were far more accessible to anyone who was willing to give it a shot.

Ultimately, what this wide entry point meant was that nearly anyone with a guitar or the wish to say something could find a way in; a reality that for punk rockers in the 1970s quickly dissipated when the huge companies stepped in to attract its most famous offspring. As a consequence of that fact, American underground bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Minutemen, Fugazi, and the Butthole Surfers, which were mostly made up of individuals whose visible artistic talents did not match up with the expectations of the mainstream, could plug in to the amplifiers and rock.

In their midst, however, roamed one guy who was a bit out of the curve. J Mascis, the leader of Dinosaur Jr., was certainly a member of this independent environment. His talents, though, were more akin to those of folks who transited in the pop music charts. He could play guitar with a high degree of technique and he would showcase that ability clearly by frequently stepping into blistering solos. He could write songs based on classic chord changes that exhibited a smoothness that recalled power pop. And, on what was perhaps the biggest challenge to the ethos of a deliberately noncommercial scene, Mascis could write melodies with the potential to reach thousands. As such, it is no accident that to many of his musical peers, the vocalist and guitarist of Dinosaur Jr. was always seen as the man with a gift.

In spite of these greatly marketable skills, Mascis and his band never made it big, which means that something stood in the way. Anyone listening to “Bug”, the third release by the group, ought to recognize at least one of the elements that ended up keeping Dinosaur Jr. out of the big leagues; and that would be noise. Mascis enjoys playing as stridently as possible, making it sound like whatever amplifier he is using is about to implode due to the volume. Because of that, his simple, approachable, and lovable pop writing is drenched in a vicious guitar attack that veers into the limit between what is tuneful and what is feedback. If that is not enough of a tall barrier to widespread recognition, then Dinosaur Jr. builds it higher thanks to the vocal drawl and slacker attitude of Mascis.

Those two characteristics need to be mentioned together because they are nearly inseparable. Like a moody teenager or a stoned uncle, Mascis sings as if he is totally detached from both the feelings he is talking about and the noise he is making; his attitude tells listeners that he either does not care or is simply too cool to make an effort. Locked inside this unique lazy demeanor that would go on to construct the careers of a few bands, such as Pavement, Mascis does not even try to sing within the parameters of what most would judge as merely adequate; likewise, although his inborn creative greatness hands him a bunch of pop rock gems, his choice is to leave them unpolished and augment their original roughness by giving them a bath in underground noise alongside his bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph.

This battle of accessibility versus laziness and abrasiveness not only defines the entire career of Dinosaur Jr., but also firmly puts them in the underground scene they would otherwise not be a part of. “Bug” is particularly notable for being the point in which that combat reaches its most interesting level. It is not a stalemate, because laziness and abrasiveness certainly win the round, but the balance feels just about ideal. Whether they are pushing forward furiously (“Let It Ride”) or floating in a lazy haze (“The Post”), the members of Dinosaur Jr. here are always pairing up the right amount of melodic goodness to keep one attentive with the correct dosage of ear-splitting madness to stop the whole project from diverging into the mellow terrain its sweet hooks could lead it into. The sole exception to the norm is “Don’t”, which – sung by bassist Lou Barlow – is a cacophony of screaming vocals and guitars, hence shifting the equilibrium too much to one side.

Like it happens with nearly all other works by the band, it is nigh impossible to say the murkiness of “Bug” is polished, but the album holds a few touches of care that greatly benefit its excellent material. “Freak Scene”, the best cut of the record, is a delightful constant barrage of fuzzy strum, but its melodic beauty is enhanced by an accompanying acoustic guitar on its second verse; and that element reappears with even more constancy in “No Bones”. At one point, “They Always Come” brings down the noise to let the melody shine, but Mascis humorously turns the tables by singing in an unusually muffled tone. “Yeah We Know” has a rhythmic driving force that when combined with the cold vocals recalls The Jesus and Mary Chain. “Pond Song” seemingly nods to R.E.M. by featuring jangling verses and a chorus that tames the feedback slightly. “Budge” has a hook played on a relatively clean and slim guitar that nods to Sonic Youth’s more conventional moments. And before getting to its glorious chorus, “The Post” has a large, sparse, and dark soundscape on its verses, which indicates some post-punk influences coming from The Cure, Talking Heads, and even Joy Division.

“Bug”, therefore, is not just an album in which the struggle between pop rock sensibilities and freewheeling hardcore noise-making that defines Dinosaur Jr. gets to its most ideal level. It is also a work that knows how to nudge its sound, even if ever so slightly, towards interesting places that add an unexpected variety to the band’s usually steady music. Given his slacker spirit, it is unlikely J Mascis will ever admit putting effort into bringing out the best of the tunes he wrote for the project or even working on any of the songs until they were truly complete. And anyone listening to the album is sure to feel parts are missing or that “Bug” was not finished. But the fact is there is nothing really missing, and the record is as complete as pretty much any mainstream release. The noisy, chaotic, and lazy mess is just how Dinosaur Jr. operates; and although that has certainly kept them out of the top of the charts, it has also made their greatness even more interesting. And that quality has never found a better display than “Bug”.

five

Zen Arcade

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Album: Zen Arcade

Artist: Hüsker Dü

Released: July 1st, 1984

Highlights: Something I Learned Today, Never Talking to You Again, Pink Turns to Blue, Turn On the News

For a scene that was as much about music as it was about attitude and having freedom to express one’s ideas, the punk rock movement sure had a lot of unwritten rules that needed to be followed. This weird dichotomy between liberty and restrictions was present at the heart of the genre from day one, and anybody who dared to step out of pre-established expectations, be it by signing to a major label or by not playing songs that were loud and fast, was bound to be shunned by many. It is possible to argue such extremist thoughts were the natural result of a musical ideology that rose to combat, among many other ghosts, the artistic excess and elitist lifestyle of musicians of the 70s; therefore, keeping it all as pure as possible was important. Yet, there is something ironic about the fact that people who often sang against oppression and narrow-minded attitudes were so quick to establish a few guidelines themselves.

Whatever rules punk had, the hardcore movement – its American offspring – seemed to take them to a whole new level. If the Ramones played fast, Black Flag played faster. If the Sex Pistols had simple tunes, Minor Threat made them simpler. If Wire did not care about song structures, the Minutemen created a whole career out of the concept. And if The Clash, even after going into a major label, still did not bow down completely to capitalist practices, as evidenced by the fight the band put up to release the double “London Calling” and the triple “Sandinista” at normal prices, Fugazi simply never gave in to large corporations, going on to sell quite a whole lot of records solely via independent labels and distributors.

Still, in the midst of a scene with so much admirable ideological statements, there lies a monolith of ambition by the name of “Zen Arcade”. If both punk and hardcore pushed against excesses, then “Zen Arcade” is an offender in two senses. Firstly, it clocks in at seventy minutes, a length that takes it closer to the flashy psychedelic extravaganzas of the 70s than to standard hardcore albums, which tended to barely make it to half an hour. Secondly, as if such indulgence were not enough, the record commits the sin of being a concept work centered on the life of a young man who runs away from a toxic home; a nature which ties it to opera-making dinosaurs of the previous decades like The Who, with their “Tommy” as well as “Quadrophenia”, and Pink Floyd, of “Animals” and “The Wall”.

However, rather than attracting pitchforks and torches, “Zen Arcade” ended up being widely celebrated, and for good reason. Theoretically, this is an album that could be disastrous. Besides being a statement, the briefness of hardcore works was also a wise choice born out of the understanding that, for a genre so stylistically tight, putting too much into one package was a recipe for dullness. Yet, Hüsker Dü was far from being a run-of-the-mill hardcore group. Sure, they played fast; they sang furiously; they had little technique; their recordings were of famous low quality, even after they went big; and Bob Mould wielded a guitar tone of blistering deafening nature, playing a buzzsaw guitar that had seemingly been drowned in acid. But, as they had lightly shown in the material they put out before “Zen Arcade”, Hüsker Dü did not mind throwing some pop sugar into the wild racket.

Much to the benefit of the album, and as the main reason why its seventy minutes are not excessive, this is where the band’s signature melodic work becomes established. Bringing twelve solo compositions to the table, Mould is responsible for the more muscular anthemic tracks, those that rock furiously and invite the audience to shout along as the choruses get to their hooks. Drummer Grant Hart, meanwhile, is the sensitive core of the band; penning six tunes on his own, his tracks are ballads often disguised in hardcore presentation, and if his highly emotional lyrics are not enough to drive his explosive feelings home, his screaming without a care for formality is sure to do so. It is much due to the distinct personalities of its creative leaders and thanks to their consistency in finding good melodies that “Zen Arcade” escapes whatever stones someone was looking to throw towards it; and the alliance of these qualities with its bold artistic ambitions propels it to a classic status.

The strong melodic work is not the only reason why “Zen Arcade” manages to find stylistic variety, since Hüsker Dü also happens to take some unexpected detours throughout the album. “Never Talking to You Again” is an acoustic number whose frantic strumming does not let listeners forget the band’s hardcore origins. “Dreams Recurring” is a vicious instrumental piece played backwards. “Hare Krsna” is noisy and certainly punk, but its repetitive chants nod to psychedelia whilst replicating some bad acid trip. “Standing by the Sea” has some loud-and-quite dynamics, with Hart seemingly screaming in the middle of a cacophonous storm when the track explodes. Both “One Step at a Time” and “Monday Will Never Be the Same” are short piano interludes. “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess” is another cut that is played backwards, with the distinction being that it carries a dreamy atmosphere due to whispered vocals and jangly guitars. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a fourteen-minute instrumental jam that, like an opera, keeps returning to the same catchy central theme repeatedly when the band takes a break from making a beautiful racket.

Surprisingly, most of these weird turns work, with the annoying “Hare Krsna” possibly being the sole exception. The backwards instrumentals are thematically appropriate to replicate the character’s dreams. The short piano pieces offer nice breathing room between the guitar attacks. “Never Talking to You Again” is among the album’s best tracks. “Standing by the Sea” is an unlikely successful theatrical and dramatic moment. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a musical achievement: a long instrumental piece that never feels tired or indulgent. That does not mean, however, “Zen Arcade” is not dented in the slightest by its length. Although it begins flawlessly with four strong opening tunes in a row and closes mightily in the seven-song sequence between “Pink Turns to Blue” and “Reoccurring Dreams”, its mid section can drag a bit, because the weakest melodic moments of the album are all joined in this segment, giving birth to the most common downfall of hardcore groups: making sequences of songs that are too hard to distinguish from one another.

Despite that irregular portion, “Zen Arcade” has highs that more than make up for such stumble. “Something I Learned Today”, “Broken Heart, Broken Home”, and “Chartered Trips” would go on to serve as fantastic blueprints for future Bob Mould classic compositions that are equal part muscle and melody. “What’s Going On” has enough energy to outdo an atomic bomb. “Turn on the News” has an irresistible call-and-response chorus that urges the protagonist to return in order to face real life. And “Pink Turns to Blue”, which depicts the moving sad desperation in the witnessing of an overdose may as well be the best song produced by any band of the hardcore movement; a scene that took the punk spirit to sometimes shocking extremes, and that happened to find its finest hour in an album that went against many of the rules that first brought it to existence. Ironically or appropriately, “Zen Arcade” is the ultimate hardcore classic.

five

Never For Ever

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Album: Never for Ever

Artist: Kate Bush

Released: September 8th, 1980

Highlights: Babooshka, Delius, Army Dreamers, Breathing

Although not yet twenty when she sat down to put together her debut, Kate Bush was confident enough in her artistic vision to make sure that those around her – be them record engineers or executives in suits – became aware that she would fight to take ownership of her career. It is not that she did not appreciate the helping hands of the people who, amazed by her talent, played a key role in getting her a contract as well as in shaping her initial recordings, a cast of major rock figures that included Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. It is just that Kate knew that her ideas were so personal and unique that she would have to not only overcome a high degree of resistance, but also take control of the whole creative process in order to make her idealized musical concepts materialize as accurately as possible.

Case in point, when the initial single of her first album was being prepared, the record company pushed for the good yet standard-sounding “James and the Cold Gun” to be picked; Bush, however, famously stood her ground and made a case for the selection of the more ambitious “Wuthering Heights” instead, a daring choice that paid off when the song climbed to the top of the charts, stayed there for four weeks, and went on to become a pop classic. Despite the evident proof of her artistic tact, complete control over her work would take a bit longer to come. Kate’s debut, “The Kick Inside” was naturally not produced by her. Meanwhile, due to pressure from the label, which wanted to ride on the existing wave of success, the follow-up (“Lionheart) would be made too quickly. As such, the singer was not given enough time to develop fresh ideas, having to use older tunes and recycle the sound of “The Kick Inside”.

But then came “Never for Ever”. Released two years after “Lionheart”, it marks the moment when Kate Bush takes over, therefore emerging like the turning point that would down the line enable the creation of historical out-of-the-box classics like “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love”. Besides writing the tunes and performing them, Bush also produces the album alongside Jon Kelly; creates most of the arrangements; and plays, in addition to her usual piano, a horde of different synthesizers. These are all considerable shifts, but more important than what is written on the record’s credits is how it sounds like, and the change is absolutely notable.

“The Kick Inside” and “Lionheart” were tastefully produced. Yet, despite Kate’s eccentricity, which channels her pop songwriting into artistic performances, these records ultimately sounded like pop albums from the 1970s. It is a characteristic that makes them be true to when they were made; at the same time, though, such trait threatens to turn Kate Bush into just another run-of-the-mill pop act. “Never for Ever”, on the other hand, runs no such risk. Sure, to a contemporary listener there are a few synthesizer textures and vocal arrangements that will seem dated, but “Never for Ever” sounds thoroughly unique as it hops from genre to genre or pulls them together to form weird little babies. Here, Kate drinks from classical music, progressive pop, and rock to land on a fabric that is much truer to her essence, consequently highlighting the theatrical aspects of her music, which manages to be simultaneously appropriate for a stage, a cabaret, and a chamber.

Naturally, the production cannot be solely credited for the artistic leap of “Never for Ever”, as in many instances it is the nature of the compositions themselves that ends up calling for a different treatment. Nowhere in her first two albums had Kate written anything as sparse as “Delius”, as operatic as “The Infant Kiss”, and as filled with movements as “Breathing”. Because of that, the first is so ethereal that it seems to anticipate the dream pop of the Cocteau Twins, with nearly indecipherable vocal inflections included, by at least one year, and that description is also quite suitable for “Blow Away”, the next track in the album’s sequence; meanwhile, the second starts like a piano ballad before quickly revealing it is actually a dramatic orchestrated piece that might as well have been extracted from the key emotional scene of a musical; and the third is a series of beautifully disjointed passages which slowly rise to catharsis connected by the same overall melody, hence coming off as mini-suite.

Interestingly, in many instances the unusual constructions presented by the songs are a reflection of the equally unique themes Kate brings to the table, meaning that they work like musical representations of the lyrics. “Egypt” boasts a dream-like aura and is backed by a guitar soloing notes that immediately recall the country; yet, it features a haunting chaotic coda that nods to the conflicts and poverty present in a nation that is idealized as a touristic destination by many. “The Wedding List”, inspired by the movie “The Bride Wore Black”, has a woman going on a killing rampage as she searches for the five men who killed the groom on the day they were to be married, and as the driving verses depict her vengeful intents, the foggy choruses show how the press and public perceive her quest. “Army Dreamers” is brilliantly arranged and sung like a lullaby, but its marching waltz progression underscores the suffering of a mother who lost her young son when he was called upon to fight a war. And the junction of beauty and horror that the alternating passages of “Breathing” have serves to speak of a baby that will be born into a world poisoned with nuclear fallout.

Most of the eleven songs that make up the album follow this pattern of structural flexibility, which is greatly responsible for giving “Never for Ever” the progressive soul that best defines, but in the midst of this complexity, Kate also opens up a bit of space for more direct tunes. Despite the pronounced fretless bass that gives its piano-led verses a jazz undertone, “Babooshka” is pure pop glory straight from the 1980s, with an energetic performance by Kate’s band and well-placed synthesizers adorning it nicely. “All We Ever Look For” may have kooky instrumentation (including whistling) and a weird break with sound effects, but it is a controlled slice of psychedelia. Finally, “Violin”, which is best described as a fast-paced rock tune accompanied by the titular instrument, shows that the singer – who was admired by none other than John Lydon himself – was perhaps not totally immune to the punk phenomenon.

Truthfully, not everything in “Never for Ever” works. “Egypt” is clever conceptually, but it lacks a melodic hook to make it worth it. “The Wedding List” is one of those moments when Kate’s eccentric spirit gets the best of her, as the tune feels convoluted. And such oddity also affects “Violin”, in which her unique tongue-in-cheek vocal approach to the song flirts with annoyance or parody. Rough spots such as these cause “Never for Ever” to fall below the upper echelon of Kate Bush’s work, meaning that although it is an essential part of her discography, it is no match for what would follow, especially “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love”. Yet, it will forever remain as the moment when the little girl from Devon started to stretch her arms widely enough to control all aspects of her work, kicking off the transformation from singer to musical legend that would soon come.

five

A Kiss In The Dreamhouse

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Album: A Kiss in the Dreamhouse

Artist: Siouxsie and the Banshees

Released: November 6th, 1982

Highlights: Cascade, She’s a Carnival, Melt, Painted Bird

Despite often – and rightly so – being labeled as one of the forging forces of the gothic rock movement, Siouxsie and the Banshees were rarely strangers to the concept of light. It is undeniable that when the band started their career with the sequence of “The Scream” and “Join Hands”, there was little space in the ominous darkness of their work for some luminosity to break through. But by the time their third effort, “Kaleidoscope”, came out, the idea that there was not enough room for artistic creation in the tight corner in which they had originated seemed to be quite clear in the minds of the band members, and so Siouxsie and the Banshees began to expand their sound in order to allow light to leak into the music.

To a point, such evaluation could be made about any gothic rock outfit that lived long enough to question themselves about the direction in which they should go next; eventually, in most cases, the music got brighter. But following “Kaleidoscope”, Siouxsie and the Banshees developed a very unique relationship with light. The Cure, their most popular followers, for instance, would go on to constantly operate inside the extreme dichotomy of utter gloom and joyous bubblegum pop, producing songs that were entirely in only one of those two camps. For Siouxsie and the Banshees, though, light and darkness never achieved total domination over one another, transforming most of their discography – especially their classic run – into a display of how those two elements could coexist.

During that period, there is little doubt that “Juju”, their fourth album, stands as the strongest proof of that formula’s greatness, as the popularity of singles “Spellbound” and “Arabian Nights” ought to confirm. But it is its successor, “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, that qualifies as the most interesting piece, because in it what is bright and what is sinister converge in rather intense states. The result of that radical mixture is a record that although firmly anchored in the post-punk tradition is also able to drive straight into psychedelia; merging the grayness of the British industrial towns that generated angry and dark acts such as The Fall, with the daring artistic extravagance of someone like Kate Bush.

The despondent post-punk undercurrent comes from the mechanical clank of the drums and bass; as it happens in the songs of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ contemporaries, Joy Division, these instruments loom tall, serving as the body of the tracks and broadcasting an uncomfortable aura thanks to their inhumanly steady plod. Meanwhile, the colors come from what is built on top of that framework, which – in the case of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” – turns out to be quite a lot. Specifically, the album is not notable because it brings keyboards and strings into the equation; the former had already been used to great effect in “Kaleidoscope” and the latter only appear in two songs. “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” is actually remarkable due to how audacious it is sonically, as its tunes – straightforward in construction – are decorated by layers of noises, overdubs, and effects that lend the pop contours of the band’s music one lush body.

The oddity of the parts greatly benefits from the versatility of Siouxsie Sioux herself, a woman that could sing – without ever feeling out of place – in a graveyard, at an avant-garde music festival, at a pop show, or in an opera house. And throughout “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, the singer and the Banshees make good use of that wide palette. Over a hypnotic and robotic duel of bass and guitar, “Cascade” dramatically builds to its chorus three times; and in every instance, it does so differently, with new instrumental lines and noises appearing in each run. “Green Fingers” takes a similar approach, but rather than feeling like a build-up, it is more of a constant rush adorned by occasional distorted hums and one quirky psychedelic hook played by a recorder. “Obsession”, meanwhile, follows the opening pair with industrial minimalism; part sinister march and part haunted nursery rhyme, the song is a repetitive melodic line sung over what appears to be a rainy landscape which is punctuated by a beat constituted of a guitar and a bell, as well as by the occasional appearances of menacing strings.

“She’s a Carnival” brings a radical shift of pace and mood to the album, throwing listeners into a hyperactive celebration of love that perfectly captures the vibe of the song’s festive title. In “Circle”, on the other hand, the once happy carnival seems to have taken a disturbing turn; led by a keyboard that plays what is best described as the sound a carousel makes when it is either broken or stuck in a bizarre time loop, the tune is a dissonant mass of elements that clash as Siouxsie sings about how children are negatively affected by the bad behaviors of their parents. “Melt” takes “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” back to the denser atmosphere of its first few tunes with a wide and majestic dream pop song that is, in both lyrics and music, drenched in sexual pleasure.

“Painted Bird” is, in the vein of “She’s a Carnival”, another slice of energetic pop rock, but in it the omnipresent darkness is more palpable, not only because of the grand cutting guitar line played by John McGeoch and the discomforting vocal overdubs by Siouxsie, but also due to how the song deals with the shocking story present in the book of the same title, where a man paints birds in a different color and returns them to their flock only to see them killed by their peers. “Cocoon” is bepop jazz but with a twist worthy of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, as the band appears to improvise a simple shuffle over a thick layer of odd sound effects and an echo-laden atmosphere. And “Slowdive”, which merges crude post-punk instrumentation and strings, describes a dance that – thanks to the moves it includes and the song it should be performed to – is ideal for a decrepit club whose attendees are mentally deranged or greatly affected by drugs.

There are times when the off-the-wall experimentation of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” dents it to different degrees: “Circle”, though conceptually excellent, verges on annoying because of the cycle in which its keyboards are stuck and of its length; “Cocoon” is a unique take on jazz, but could have benefited from firmer hooks; “Obsession” has a captivating melody, but its instrumentation could have been more developed; and “Slowdive” works as a post-punk dance number, but does not really leave any considerable marks. However, when “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” is firing on all cylinders, it displays one of the finest and most inventive bands of the era doing what they did best; that is, packaging both light and darkness into accessible songs that push the envelope in artistic terms but retain an irresistible appeal. Siouxsie and the Banshees may have produced a few records that are better than “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”; they have, though, never been as fascinating, jarring, psychedelic, and extreme as they were in their fifth release.

Born Again

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Album: Born Again

Artist: Black Sabbath

Released: August 7th, 1983

Highlights: Disturbing the Priest, Zero the Hero, Born Again

For a band whose nineteen albums are uniformly grounded on the same tight niche – the one of menacing and plodding doom-laden heavy metal riffs – Black Sabbath sure has an unexpected number of phases; and that nature, consequently, causes the band’s discography to feature a whole lot of works that could qualify as landmarks. A good portion of the credit for that characteristic can obviously be attributed to the fact that, after the departure of Ozzy Osbourne in 1979, the group went through a large amount of vocalists, but the separation points go beyond who was holding the microphone. “Sabotage”, for instance, is the last chapter of Black Sabbath’s classic period; “Never Say Die!” is the final breath of the original lineup; “Heaven and Hell” is their first encounter with Ronnie James Dio as well as their reconnection with the art of making good music; “Headless Cross”, in a similar vein, would later show the veterans still had fuel to burn; “13” marked a return to their pioneering sound; and the list goes on.

In that sense, “Born Again”, their 1983 release, could be seen as the first chapter of a relatively obscure run of albums that would extend all the way to “Forbidden” in 1995. With Osbourne having success in his solo career and Dio, whose two-record stint alongside the band revitalized their music, also out of the building, Black Sabbath would go on to struggle to maintain relevance, not only because they would embark on a frequent switching of vocalists that would all fail to give the group a distinctive personality, but also because – for a myriad of reasons not exclusive to the writing itself – guitarist Tony Iommi would be unable to put out enjoyable songs with the same consistency he did during the group’s heyday.

On paper, the lineup of “Born Again” is a heavy metal dream. The instrumentalists of the classic Black Sabbath period – Iommi, Butler, and Ward – are joined by another demigod of the genre: Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan. Unfortunately, a group that seems just about perfect in theory does not necessarily translate into good results; there is, after all, a very important variable to that equation called chemistry. And “Born Again” shows how critical and mysterious that little detail is, because regardless of the camaraderie that existed between the parts out of the studio (as Gillan famously agreed to join the band after drinking too much in a pub with both Iommi and Butler), in front of the recording equipment the always elusive artistic magic escaped them.

It is ridiculously limiting for one to dictate what a band should be about; therefore, saying that Iommi, Butler, and Ward plus everything that Ian Gillan brings to the table does not qualify as Black Sabbath would be to unfairly shove the group into a corner of shackling expectations. There is, however, a sense of incongruity emerging from many parts of “Born Again”. Gillan’s writing is light and somewhat more earthly than that of Dio and Butler – who was responsible for the lyrics during the band’s classic era. As such, the supernatural and slightly philosophical style of the two men, which had dominated Black Sabbath’s discography up to that point, ends up – in “Born Again” – being largely replaced by fun lyrics about cars, women, love, fame, and drinking.

Approaching matters such as those is certainly not a crime, but it creates a problem for Black Sabbath – and, more specifically, for the album – in two points. By “Heaven and Hell”, Iommi had already abandoned a little of his signature slow guttural riffing for a more traditional and crunchy heavy metal approach to the guitar; in “Born Again”, that tendency is still present in some tunes, and when it meets the mundane – though well-penned – subjects of Gillan, the members of Black Sabbath stop being the lords of the most sinister brand of hard rock and start sounding like a common metal band, as it happens in “Trashed” and “Digital Bitch”. On the other front, that is, when Iommi is summoning guitar lines that appear to have come out of the darkest furnaces of hell, the songs seem to be made up of parts that do not gel entirely, with the instrumentation pointing to utter doom while the lyrics nod to easily relatable topics and the high screams of Gillan recall a much looser and faster brand of metal, a mismatch that is very visible in “Zero the Hero”.

Issues like those mean that “Born Again” is one odd creature, lending it a stylistic confusion that – in Black Sabbath’s canon – can only be equaled by the mess seen in both “Technical Ecstasy” and “Never Say Die!”. As a consequence, many are the tunes it has that sink due to that characteristic: “Digital Bitch” boasts blistering Iommi solos all over it, but its lyrics and chorus are ridiculous; “Hot Line” packs an irresistible – albeit slightly commonplace – riff that could have done without Gillan’s high-pitched vocal inflections, which drive the tune to campiness; and “Keep It Warm” threatens to go the same way thanks to its overly melodic chorus, which turns one otherwise heavy track into a power ballad. Despite those faults, “Born Again” is not exactly one monolith of uninspired moments. For instance, although sounding like middle-of-the-road heavy metal, opener “Trashed” – which describes how a drunk Gillan destroyed the car of drummer Bill Ward – is a very good specimen of the breed, as it is fun, fast, energetic, and catchy.

Ultimately, however, three are the tunes in the album that could stand beside the band’s best work, if not in terms of sheer quality, at least as far as atmosphere is concerned. “Disturbing the Priest” is horror-movie material: ridden with sinister effects, a dark gothic-like keyboard that emulates a Gregorian choir, and – of course – a riff that seems to come with a knife on its hand at the listener, the song sees the band transforming the humorous real event of a priest complaining about their loud music into a ominous religious experience. A similar darkness emanates from the seven-minute “Zero the Hero”: one of the heaviest tracks of the Black Sabbath discography, it carries a hypnotic doom that takes it rather close to the group’s debut album. Finally, and perhaps more significantly, there is the title track: the band’s best shot ever at creating a ballad, it merges beauty, haunting terror, and melancholy into one powerful number whose challenging and dramatic vocal lines could not have been more ideal to Gillan’s incredible reach.

Truth be told, “Born Again” might have been improved if the record was not riddled with such lousy mixing, which gives birth to a terribly muffled sound. Without that issue, its nearly flawless good moments would have gained extra power; meanwhile, its bad tunes, which are usually carried by solid riffs and instrumentation in spite of the bitter result brought by the junction of their different ingredients, would have been more pleasant to the ear. Yet, even if that enhancement would have made it clearer that under the suffocating wrapping lies one of the heaviest albums of the band’s catalog, the fact would remain that the one shot Gillan and the Black Sabbath instrumentalists took at putting together a record was far from successful. What seemed like a glorious match made in hell on paper came off as a confused and mostly heterogeneous substance. As it turns out, chemistry of the artistic kind is very far from being an exact science.

Victorialand

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Album: Victorialand

Artist: Cocteau Twins

Released: April 14th, 1986

Highlights: Lazy Calm, Fluffy Tufts, Oomingmak, Little Spacey, The Thinner the Air

Ethereal. That is likely the adjective most frequently associated with the sound of the Cocteau Twins, a Scottish trio formed in 1979. Such link is, in fact, so strong that the band is often cited as one of the points of origin for all kinds of musical styles that lack an anchor that firmly ties them to the ground, be it dream pop or shoegazing. From the very start of the group’s career, their music, first introduced to the general public via their 1982 release, “Garlands”, took flight on how the guitar playing of Robin Guthrie – a misty cloud of screeching, ringing, and grinding – was accompanied by elements that were hardly solid. The percussive work that backed it up, either handled by a human or a drum machine, was sparse and punctual; meanwhile, the vocals, delivered by the gifted Elizabeth Fraser, were an indecipherable chant.

As unique as the Cocteau Twins might have been, though, their discography had – up to the days preceding the coming of “Victorialand” – held somewhat blatant ties to the scene that surrounded them. The dark and gothic aura produced by the music in “Garlands” and “Treasure” made it easy for one to draw comparisons between the trio and Siouxsie and the Banshees, especially when the sonic audacity that permeates the two bands’ work is taken into consideration. Meanwhile, the meatier moments of their second effort, “Head Over Heels”, such as “Sugar Hiccup” and “In Our Angelhood”, pointed to the more forward-driving and accessible instances of the post-punk scene.

Named after a region of Antarctica, “Victorialand” bucks the trend of easy comparisons and throws the Cocteau Twins towards the unknown. Guthrie, the instrumental heart of the band, chooses to strip the trio’s music bare, removing pieces from a constitution that was already quite basic in the first place. In the process of doing so, he bumps into a sound so light that it floats; so lacking in physically solid particles that it simply cannot be touched. As such, “Victorialand” is an absolute landmark in the band’s career. Within a trajectory that was all about making ethereal tunes, their fourth album is the point in which the Cocteau Twins show the world how heavenly and spiritual they can get. And they drive so intensely in that direction that they blast through the stylistic limitations of post-punk and land directly in ambient music.

There are no drums whatsoever throughout the entirety of “Victorialand”. Likewise, there is no bass. The album’s credits, actually, reveal that aside from Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and Robin Guthrie’s guitars, the only two other instruments present in “Victorialand” are a saxophone – audible in the lengthy introduction of the first track, “Lazy Calm” – and a tabla, the record’s sole percussive element, which makes a brief appearance towards the ending of the very same song. Looking at the album as merely a radical exercise in ethereal music, however, is misguided, because the Cocteau Twins presented here produce far more than a lighter and less anchored version of the band’s previous sound.

There is a visible change in mood brought by “Victorialand”. Borrowing a page from its Antarctic title, there is a palpable distance and coldness to the music. Fraser and Guthrie can be heard through waves whose origins are far away, and the inherent reverb they carry indicate the duo is somewhere which is vast and wide open. Furthermore, a wintry chill seems to envelop them, one that indicates that walking into the breeze in which they are can be deadly. Differently from the band’s previous material, though, which tended to care threatening undertones, in “Victorialand” the danger is subdued by beauty. It is a definition that may sound incongruent given the perils of low temperatures, but it makes sense when the alluring wonders of white snowy landscapes are considered: the danger is certainly there, but it is easy to forget about it when confronted with so much visual splendor.

Fraser’s signature soprano voice, in all its technical wonder, mostly utters words rather than the seemingly random sounds that made up most of “Treasure”. Yet, Elizabeth remains an enigma. She bets on cryptic poetry constructed by disassociated words, and names the tracks by quoting the book “The Living Planet: A Portrait of the Earth”, especially its passages that deal with both the Arctic and Antarctic. More importantly from a stylistic standpoint is the fact that her vocals, following the tradition of the Cocteau Twins, act like yet another musical component; instead of being highlighted at the forefront, they are as much a part of the songs’ instrumental body as Guthrie’s guitars. And together, they form a cold breath that takes the shape of beautiful music.

Abandoning the cacophony and the grind that dominated the guitars of their previous albums, Guthrie takes a much more delicate approach to playing, focusing – instead – on light arpeggios, picking, and clear tones, going so far as using acoustic sounds to form the core of two tunes: “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May” and “Feet-Like Fins”. Fraser, at the same time, avoids melodies that verge on pop – which do show up punctually in songs like “Lazy Calm”, “Fluffy Tufts”, and “Oomingmak” – for material of more classical inspiration, a quality that is undoubtedly made stronger thanks to the soprano nature of her voice. “Little Spacey”, for example, is part waltz part airborne ballet; and numerous are the tracks whose vocal lines boast a dramatic and operatic value that would sit comfortably in a music hall, even if the singers – in that case – appear to be floating in the mist miles away from the audience.

“Victorialand” is an album of remarkable musical and thematic consistency, as its packaging, title, and music uniformly pull in the same direction. Moreover, its tunes hold a hypnotic draw that drags listeners into its icy claws, keeping them immersed through the brief thirty-two minutes for which it lasts. Some of its cuts are certainly better than others, as at least a couple of tracks go by without building towards something significant or truly hooking audiences to notable instrumental and melodic baits. But the overall experience it presents is excellent, not only because it is the most ethereal work of a band that is tightly associated with the word, but also thanks to how it boldly drives post-punk to the realm of ambient music. Sonically, the Cocteau Twins were always daring; they, however, never showed as much audacity as they did in “Victorialand”.

Hootenanny

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Album: Hootenanny

Artist: The Replacements

Released: April 29th, 1983

Highlights: Color Me Impressed, Within Your Reach, Buck Hill, Treatment Bound

As defined by the dictionary, a hootenanny can either be an informal folk music session at which artists perform for their own enjoyment or a placeholder word to refer to an object whose name the speaker has forgotten. It is hard to think a term could have two meanings that are so divergent; yet, regardless of the reason why The Replacements opted to select the expression to dub their second album, many listeners will come to the conclusion that the two definitions apply perfectly. The first description clicks because “Hootenanny” is as informal as it can be, and its loose nature indicates that the Minneapolis boys are playing and recording these tracks for nobody’s sake but their own; meanwhile, the second is suitable due to the fact “Hootenanny” is so wild and incongruent that putting a finger on what it is exactly turns out to be a challenge.

Anyone who is familiar with The Replacements’ debut, the excellently titled “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash”, ought to know that ingredients such as informality, looseness, and wildness are not exactly news for Paul Westerberg, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars. They are elements that have always been part and parcel of the band’s package, as The Replacements simply do not exist without the good and the bad that are an inherent part of the careless demeanor of four boys that were outsiders among the outsiders and who, despite understanding that rock and roll was the only possible salvation for their lives, were simply unable to keep it together for long enough to grab a hold of that opportunity as strongly as they should have.

“Hootenanny”, however, deserves the name it carries more than any other record by The Replacements because it amplifies the innocent recklessness to a degree that was not reached by the group either before it or after it; and, to boot, it adds fuel to the fire by being stylistically errant to a point that makes it impossible for someone to classify it with any level of certainty. “Hootenanny” is a musical contradiction of the rarest kind: an album that is clearly a step forward in comparison to its predecessor, but that, at the same time, is far more clueless about what it wants to be.

“Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash” was brutally focused: it packed a whopping eighteen songs into less than forty minutes because they were played in the fast and furious tradition of the American hardcore scene, and it was able to give the genre a unique sway by anchoring itself on the rock and roll flavors of the punk sound of the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. It may have been monochromatic, like most rookie efforts in the style, but it sure was exciting and knew what its purpose was. “Hootenanny”, contrarily, simultaneously breaks away from that mold, hence leading the boys much closer to the kind of music that would give them three borderline masterpieces, and staggers around aimlessly and drunkenly. Its performances are so all over the place it feels like a rehearsal for an album rather than an official release; many of its tunes are so underwritten they could pass for demos; and it shoots towards such a ridiculous amount of targets it feels like a work-in-progress.

Shockingly, though, even if such nature definitely holds the record back tremendously, it does not demolish it entirely. As history would go on to prove, The Replacements sure knew how to write gigantic statements whilst hanging on the very edge of utter chaos; and although “Hootenanny” does not prove that ability, as it simply is not good enough to have numerous tunes that could be considered unquestionably excellent, it at least hints at that unlikely skill.

The cuts “Run It”, “You Lose”, and “Hayday” – though exciting and energetic – show the group treading water and revisiting the vicious punk spirit of their debut. The soul of “Hootenanny” is actually found in its other nine tracks, which have The Replacements having an absolute blast by seemingly doing whatever it is that came to their minds when the tape started rolling. Obviously, such irresponsible mindset gives birth to moments that, in spite of being clearly fun for the performers and somewhat endearing for the audience, are not exactly successful: the title track and opener is built on a traditional blues progression that gets more chaotic by the second as Westerberg shouts “It’s a hootenanny” repeatedly; “Willpower” is an unexpected shot at post-punk which, mixing the atmospheric drum-and-bass darkness of The Cure and Joy Division, stretches for too long; and “Mr. Whirly” breaks up a standard punk number with a mid-section taken straight out of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”.

The unbridled madness, however, does have its notable results. Even if based on hardcore instrumentation, “Color Me Impressed” has such a sweet melody it is almost bubblegum pop, making it an undeniable The Replacements’ classic. “Take Me Down to the Hospital” has a fantastic running bass line by Tommy Stinson, turning a punk track into a bouncy boogie. Over the beat of a drum machine and decorated by textures produced by guitars and keyboards, “Within Your Reach” is an excellent power pop ballad. “Buck Hill” is a stellar jangly instrumental that nods to early R.E.M. and gives signs of some of what was to come for The Replacements in the future. “Lovelines” is downright hilarious, as it is impossible not to laugh with Westerberg as he reads – and mocks – classified ads of a personal nature found on a local newspaper while the rest of the group executes one playful shuffle. And closer “Treatment Bound”, recorded precariously, is a marvelous acoustic song that shows how strong Westerberg’s songwriting could be.

“Hootenanny” is awfully hard to pin down. While most albums tend to be a very static portrayal of artists during a certain period of their lives, The Replacements’ second effort might as well be a picture that was taken with the target in motion and that, as a result, came out as a blurry unidentifiable mess. There is failure and there is success; there is moving forward and there is standing still; and there is both proof that it was a haphazardly put together product, which arises in its lack of focus, and also evidence of some careful planning, as the album carries a good deal of lines that are so smartly crafted it is hard to consider they were made up on the spot in spite of how impossibly sharp Westerberg can be with a pen. Regardless of those irregularities, “Hootenanny” is – in the least – a fun ride, because although its overall amateurish vibe can turn some away, there is something infectious about listening to a band like The Replacements have such a blast. And it is exactly such a feeling that “Hootenanny” encapsulates.

EVOL

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Album: EVOL

Artist: Sonic Youth

Released: May 1st, 1986

Highlights: Tom Violence, Shadow of a Doubt, Starpower, Expressway to Yr. Skull

There are, quite naturally, plenty of elements to be found in “EVOL” – Sonic Youth’s third album – that can be easily linked to pieces of the two full-length releases that preceded it: “Confusion Is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising”. The guitars, whose sounds expand and hang in the air for a while like a thin mist, present a delicacy in their physical manifestation that heavily contrasts with the uncomfortable feelings their atonal essence gives life to. As a consequence, the instrumental backing of the album’s tracks becomes shapeless, mysterious, and looming; the kind of material that could be employed as the musical basis of a psychological thriller that takes place in an urban, dirty, and industrial dystopia. And on top of those pieces lie vocal performances that are bold in their cold sloppiness, using partial indifference as a pathway to artistic value.

Yet, despite those glaring similarities, if there is one turning point to be found in the career of a group that – through thirty years, fifteen studio albums, and numerous labels (both big and small) – remained true to their alternative roots, “EVOL” is certainly it. The work marks the departure of drummer Bob Bert and the arrival of his replacement, Steve Shelley, which would stay with the band until the end of their run. And although it is hard to say how much that new addition contributes to the leap that is taken, as “EVOL” seems to be the natural conclusion of an evolutionary arch that was already relatively visible in its two predecessors, the fact of the matter is that a lot of that transition goes through Shelley.

“Confusion Is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising” were morbid, mean, and menacing like a film depicting horrifying madness that threatens to break through the screen and drag listeners into its downward spiral towards insanity. “EVOL” is not too different; but, in it, the noise of Sonic Youth gains notable muscle. Where in their first two albums the band was prone to getting lost amidst their unique craft, with the quartet going on to produce many songs that degenerated into aimless attempts at creating dark atmospheres through racket; in “EVOL” the group emerges as a more focused entity. Instead of drifting out dully into the ether, their more experimental hours are anchored to the ground; meanwhile, their ability to construct tracks whose structures have a more traditional lean – which do so without ever abandoning their noisy edge – is more explored.

“EVOL” is, as such, the moment when Sonic Youth realized that their relentless desire to challenge the limitations of guitar music should not bar them from looking at the possibilities that reside in the more straightforward pop approach. It is a record that proves to the band as well as to their followers that pushing for abrasive tones, aesthetically unpleasant tunings, and weird distortions are not mutually exclusive with embracing the power of good hooks; and, in that process, “EVOL” shows that the extremist and confrontational rejection of conventional rock and roll values captained by the no wave movement – in which Sonic Youth was born – could be tamed into an excellent middle ground.

The record opens with a triple punch that immediately announces Sonic Youth has changed for the better. “Tom Violence”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, and “Starpower” are not just the finest tunes the band had coined up to that point; they are also testaments to how Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo, and Shelley could embrace sheer catchiness without losing their personality. By far the poppiest points of the album, they are fully developed pieces that merge immediacy and experimentation. In “Tom Violence”, sandwiched between segments with beautiful ringing guitars and a fantastic melody, there is a gripping instrumental break that disintegrates before slowly springing back to life. The delicate whispers and picking of the dreamy “Shadow of a Doubt”, Kim Gordon’s signature song, are interrupted by a nightmarish slice of noise that has the singer screaming in the background as if trying to escape from perturbed sleep. Finally, “Starpower” catches a hold of its racket to alternate between occasions when it drives forward in punk rock fashion and instances when it becomes abstract.

At the same time, though, “EVOL” holds enough room for Sonic Youth to go purely experimental, and in those cases the band also displays notable growth; particularly in how they are – almost always – able to steer clear from pointless indulgence. Boasting spoken vocals that seem recklessly thrown over its fantastic backing track, “In the Kingdom #19” recreates a car crash. “Green Light” flirts with pop when it opens with Moore singing a hypnotizing melody, but quickly ventures into noise. “Death to Our Friends” is an angry and fast-paced instrumental. “Secret Girl” is half a weird intro filled with dull sounds and half a fantastic recitation of poetry by Kim Gordon, who does so over a simple but touching piano loop. And “Marilyn Moore”, the album’s sole misstep, has bored and irregular vocals by Moore, which match an equally uncertain instrumentation.

Appropriately, the catchy and the experimental sides of “EVOL” meet in perfect harmony to give birth to the record’s culmination: its closing track, “Expressway to Yr. Skull”. Clocking in at seven minutes, the song starkly opposes the rest of the album, which delivers its contents in relatively brief spans. “Expressway to Yr. Skull” uses a format, of which “The Diamond Sea” is likely the best and most extreme example, that Sonic Youth would go on to tackle multiple times during their career, as the tune grabs a melody many pop songwriters would have killed for, uses it for a small amount of time, and makes a sudden turn towards the land of lengthy musical freak-outs, essentially pushing the formula of “EVOL” to its utmost limits before the record slowly decomposes and comes to a close.

Although a surprisingly strong effort by a band that, slightly more than one year earlier, was clearly looking for solid footing, “EVOL” ranks among Sonic Youth’s best efforts without quite making a serious run for the top spot. Almost entirely free of instrumental frivolity, it still falters in lyrics and vocals, two areas which – for many – the band would never exactly nail, but that would nevertheless see clear evolution in the following years. Yet, as the muscular backbone of their tracks would start gaining notable strength with the follow-up, “Sister”, and as the substance in the band’s songwriting would also increase, “EVOL” is a unique middle ground between Sonic Youth’s purely atmospheric beginnings and the rest of their career, which would be more firmly grounded on the alternative scene. And, in that sense, it is a key – and thoroughly enjoyable – moment in the history of all kinds of rock that see noise as an integral part of their constitution.

Born In The U.S.A.

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Album: Born in the U.S.A.

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Released: June 4th, 1984

Highlights: I’m on Fire, Bobby Jean, No Surrender, Dancing in the Dark

In purely chronological terms, the distance between “Born in the U.S.A.” and its immediate predecessor, “Nebraska”, can be calculated in the earthly measure of years, for just about a couple of them separate the release of those two Bruce Springsteen classics. In stylistic matters, however, the gap between the duo is so gigantic that one might as well apply the astronomical unit of light-years to better visualize how far apart the pair stands. “Nebraska” was a uniform dark and acoustic piece that was recorded in such a precarious manner that an unsuspecting listener may think it reasonable to claim that it was put to tape in the same studios, in the same decade, and with the same budget that Robert Johnson himself used to perpetuate his works.

“Born in the U.S.A.”, on the other hand, is everything but contained or humble: it is so wild one could mistake it for an American patriotic celebration; it is so flashy it falls seamlessly alongside other major pop albums; and it is so boisterous in its display of musical confidence and power that it seems like an effort that was, from the get go, engineered to be an unstoppable blockbuster that would leave absolutely nobody unaware of or indifferent to its existence, fearlessly turning heads in admiration and disgust as it strolled effortlessly into the hit parades. Yet, such insurmountable distinctions are somewhat deceiving, because under the surface, there are a lot of links that can be made between the two.

If set to the same ominous and basic backing of “Nebraska”, a lot of the material of “Born in the U.S.A.” could end up having a rather dark facet revealed, one that – in many cases – would have been truer to the lyrics they possess. The title track, for instance, would be able to make it very blatant that its narrator is a Vietnam veteran that feels betrayed by his country, with the seemingly patriotic chorus actually being an anguishing cry of sadness and irony; the characters of “Working on the Highway” and “Downbound Train” could be more easily perceived as folks that, besides being lonely, also happen to be stuck in situations that will keep them well away from being able to rise in life; the sexual tension of “I’m on Fire” would take a turn for the criminal and creepy; the dramatic end of a friendship portrayed in “Bobby Jean” would have a more resonating sadness to it; and the old school pals that meet up in “Glory Days” to talk about their joyful and fun past could come off as people whose current dull lives force them to find happiness in days that are long gone.

That is to say that, even though “Born in the U.S.A.” certainly packs a handful of tracks that do not fit such depressing narratives, like the rebellious youthful spirit of “No Surrender” and the innuendo present in “I’m Going Down”, the writing found in both albums is not notably different, and that much of what makes “Nebraska” and “Born in the U.S.A.” so alien to one another can be credited to their musical department.

Borrowing a page from the most frantic cuts in “The River”, released four years earlier, “Born in the U.S.A.” drenches itself in the rock and roll spirit of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, throwing short and bouncy guitar riffs as well as dancy pianos at the working-class character studies Bruce Springsteen is known for, effectively re-purposing – without ever losing sight of the energy and the fun – a rhythm that was originally used to tackle simple themes, and using it to dive into subjects that are slightly more observational. It is a formula that worked before and that, here, clicks again with perhaps an even stronger intensity for the simple reason that not one of the twelve songs that Springsteen penned for “Born in the U.S.A.” lacks in hooks, catchiness, and immediacy, making the fact the album produced a whopping seven top-ten singles feel like an obvious twist.

The problem with “Born in the U.S.A.”, however, is that the re-purposing it does is not limited to making a lyrically deeper version of rock and roll, as it also stylizes the genre to make it palatable for the general audience of the 80s. And as a product from an year in which all the negative traits of the decade’s production style were either peaking or emerging, the album irremediably falls victim to the vices of its context, meaning that synthesizer work that currently qualifies as cheesy and artificially bombastic drums abound.

As such, just like all of the album’s tunes pack loads of irresistible melodies, they are also uniformly dated by a sound that, to ears listening in from this side of the mid-eighties, comes off as tacky and fake. To those unable to look past the production work, that is – rightfully – a large enough flaw to condemn the entirety of “Born in the U.S.A.”. To everyone else, though, the album will hold plenty of nice surprises. Surely, there are tunes that will inevitably be brought down by the way they were recorded, such as the title track, whose instrumentation is centered around the two core elements – drums and synthesizers – that are the biggest criminals of the era.

Likewise, at times, it is possible to feel that Springsteen sacrifices perhaps a bit too much of his good taste in songwriting in search of a hit, like he does in the shockingly repetitive “I’m Going Down”. However, in the end, “Born in the U.S.A.” is loaded with too much genuine energy and too many catchy moments to be thrown away. It is impossible to remain unmoved by the intensity of the guitars of “Cover Me”, the saxophone break of “Darlington County”, the frantic rockabilly of “Working on the Highway”, the anthemic spirit of “No Surrender”, the touching tale of “Bobby Jean”, the perfect pop beat of “Dancing in the Dark”, and the unexpected introspective turn of “My Hometown”. And with those weapons in hand, the record can overcome the considerable obstacle that is its production to reach the ears of a contemporary audience.

Combat Rock

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Album: Combat Rock

Artist: The Clash

Released: May 14th, 1982

Highlights: Should I Stay or Should I Go, Rock the Casbah, Straight to Hell, Inoculated City

When The Clash gathered to lay down the bases of what would turn out to be their fifth full-length studio work, the band certainly had a problem in their hands. The punk rock movement that had guided the group through their first two releases was, by then, long gone. To make matters worse, the ground they had explored in their subsequent works, “London Calling” and “Sandinista!”, was so vast that almost nothing they could potentially produce would be revelatory, because where the former had been an eighteen-song stylistic shift that saw the quartet embrace genres related to rock as well as the black rhythms they encountered in the multicultural arms of London; the latter was a delightfully indulgent trip through world music that, via the natural ups and downs contained in the vastness of its thirty-six tracks, dynamited every single barrier between the band and the styles that existed outside of their geographical confines.

Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon could, therefore, not really produce anything that would come off as being bigger than what they had already done; likewise, they could not put together a more varied package than those of their previous two efforts. Their answer to the tight corner into which their past excellence had taken them was “Combat Rock”.

When compared to “London Calling” and “Sandinista!”, “Combat Rock” feels almost inconsequential: it only has twelve tunes and it runs its course before the fifty-minute mark is reached; in other words, it is a normal album rather than a notably ambitious product. However, there are bridges that can be built between it and its predecessors. For one, “Combat Rock” is not hermetically shut. Surely, even during their punk days, The Clash always showed awareness regarding what was musically going on outside the domain in which they operated; however, the influence of “London Calling” and “Sandinista!” can be felt in the sense that, here, no walls whatsoever stand between “Combat Rock” and the world.

Unquestionably, the blood that runs through its veins is still politically engaged and socially conscious; its tunes, after all, approach matters such as the fight against authoritarianism, the existence of rampant inequalities, the proliferation of atomic weapons, the cruelty of the capitalist engine, the love society has for violent entertainment, the damages caused by wars, among many others. Still, that punk aura is diluted in the music itself, which mostly abandons aggression for the sake of stylistic flexibility. In hindsight, though, where “London Calling” and “Sandinista!” – due to their releases in 1979 and 1980, respectively – seem to boldly foreshadow the world music tsunami of the 80’s, “Combat Rock”, in the way it lets diverse rhythms freely seep into its heart, feels like it is merely riding the dominant wave of globalized sounds. The absence of a more prominent trailblazing nature, however, does not stop “Combat Rock” from feeling audacious.

African percussion, recalling the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light”, emerges as an integral element of many tunes, often fighting for the spot of ranking as those songs’ leading instrument; unusual composition structures abound; spoken passages are not a rarity; and, melodically, Strummer and Jones appear to take some inspiration out of the Middle East. It is a cauldron of influences that gives “Combat Rock” an exotic vibe, as if it had been crafted by a group of Englishmen that exiled themselves from their home country for a while in order to get in touch with the world, losing some of their British aura in the process and gaining a beneficial cosmopolitan spirit along the way.

As such, there is a degree of Englishness to some of the tracks: “Know Your Rights” is as ferocious and as punk as The Clash ever got; “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, with its classic riff and famous call-and-response format, is an unashamed and successful shot at chart-friendly rock; and “Atom Tan” is a shiny piece of guitar-oriented pop. What dominates “Combat Rock”, though, is the worldly. The dancy reggae catchiness of “Car Jamming” almost makes the capitalist horrors Strummer sings about come off as amusing. “Rock the Casbah” is part disco and part Middle Eastern rebellion. Both “Red Angel Dragnet” and “Ghetto Defendant” pair up rhythm-centered instrumentation with a blend of singing and talking, with Paul Simonon and Kosmo Vinyl narrating and acting out the violent event that the former talks about and writer Allen Ginsberg beautifully spilling his own poetry over the latter. Meanwhile, “Overpowered by Funk” dives into the genre that names the song; “Sean Flynn” is a very weird atmospheric piece of free jazz; and the start-and-stop cinematographic nature of “Death Is a Star” makes one feel like they were transported to a charmingly decadent theater.

“Combat Rock” does not work completely. “Know Your Rights” may be powerful in lyrics, but it lacks the sharp melodies and dynamic shifts Strummer and Jones used to create with so much ease, and that missing extra spark can be noticed in many other tunes that rather than reaching for greatness are merely satisfied with achieving some quality. Furthermore, “Red Angel Dragnet” gets lost amidst its narration, “Overpowered by Funk” is clunky thanks to its genuinely annoying sound effects and melodic hooks, and “Sean Flynn” is pointless indulgence.

These issues make the album be inconsistent; its high points and interesting experiments, though, make it worth it, with its two major hits (“Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah”) and the pair of “Straight to Hell” and “Inoculated City” appearing as highlights. Out of that final duo, the second stands out due to how its mechanical marching army-like progression matches the content of its lyrics; meanwhile, the first is a unique anthem whose existence could not have happened without the focus “Combat Rock” puts in rhythm. Lyrically approaching English and American resistance towards immigration, especially the latter’s treatment of Vietnamese children fathered by soldiers during the war, it is a dark, atmospheric, and moving number that speaks volumes about The Clash’s firm position as a heavily political and musically inventive group. And although “Combat Rock” does not capture that machine at the peak of its powers, those two elements gain fantastic traction in the tracks where they meet true inspiration, which makes “Combat Rock” a good farewell from a lineup that would fall to pieces soon afterwards.