Friday, April 6, 2012

My Top Ten Summer Albums

If you felt a bit overwhelmed by the evilness in that last post that is okay, I did too.  Which is why we are gonna take this opportunity to make a 180 and talk about music filled with good times and good vibes.  

You may be wondering what exactly it is that makes a good "summer album".  Is it music that puts you in a hammock on a quiet beach or throws you into a night of debauchery with people you may or may not know?  Is it just music that you've listened to so many times during the summer that it has become a nostalgic embodiment of the season itself?  After spending some time trying to come up with some sort of objective criteria on the subject I realized that, as with so many things when it comes to music, it's really just something you feel- and that's all there is to it.  It is all of the above and an infinite amount more.  The following are, for me, the albums that take on a new life during those few glorious months.  

Before I get to the list itself, there are three albums that demand to be acknowledged in their own context:

The untouchables.  Within these collections lie THE most timeless classic songs of summer music.  They are ingrained in our DNA.  They don't embody summer, they ARE summer.  To not include them in an article on this topic would render the whole thing irrelevant.  There is nothing I could possibly say about these compilations that hasn't already been said.  
Anyway, on to the list-

10. The Ramones - Rocket to Russia (1977)

The rawness of their first album gives way slightly to surfy bounce and wall-of-sound production.  These are both positives when it comes to making good summer music, especially when the album is chock-full of catchy pop-punk classics.  Rockaway Beach and Sheena Is A Punk Rocker are what The Beach Boys might have sounded like in a twisted alternate universe.  In true Ramones fashion, they acknowledge this with a lightning-fast cover of Do You Wanna Dance, before proceeding shortly thereafter with a throwaway take on Surfin' Bird.  At any rate, there's something about the lighthearted melodies placed over crunchy, driving guitars that sends you directly into good-time mode

Summeriest Moment: 
When Joey's only care in the world is hitching a ride to catch some sun at Rockaway Beach. 

9. Pepper - No Shame (2006)

This album is just overflowing with mellowness.  The melodies float effortlessly over the frothy rhythm section, while the guitars bounce and sparkle like sunshine on the water.  This album encapsulates everything that is summer, from the long, lazy days to the festive nights, and from the drunken revelries to the waterlogged mornings that follow.

Summeriest Moment:

  The last 30 seconds of Green Hell, when the slow-burning reggae groove erupts into a swirl of shimmering guitar arpeggios and symbol splashes 

8. Slightly Stoopid - Live & Direct:  Acoustic Roots (2001)

Maybe including a live album is bad form, but who cares, it's summer.  There is something uniquely positive about reggae music played simply by two guys on acoustic guitars.  When it's Miles Doughty and Kyle McDonald they might as well be at the end of a pier somewhere, performing for nothing but the sun.  The impeccable chemistry between the co-frontmen has never been on better display than it is here.  Their guitars are often operating as one, indistinguishable from each other, while their voices weave around and overlap perfectly.  Of course the tunes are great, but it is the minimalist approach to this record that takes it to a new level of laid-backitude.  

Summeriest Moment: 

The euphorically carefree Fire Shot

7. King Tuff - Was Dead (2008)

The perfect soundtrack to a night spent sitting around a bonfire with a few coolers of cheap beer.  Kyle Thomas' voice has a Marc Bolan-like mischievously playful swagger to it, and it meshes perfectly with his warm guitar work.  Set him in front of jangling rhythm guitars and a pulsating bass and drums, and you've got a perfect good-time album.

Summeriest Moment: 

When the band kicks in on the exquisite Sun Medallion, which somehow seems to perfectly fit any occasion

6. Wavves - King of the Beach (2010)

Nathan Williams, unwilling master of mixing snotty punk and druggy surf music, hit a new stride with his first album recorded in an actual studio.  His (in)famous underachieving vibe is still prominent- the guitars are still fuzzed out and sloppy and the lyrics are concerned with such pressing matters as aliens, the beach, getting high, and getting high with aliens on the beach- the big budget allowed him plenty of room for exploration, with great results.  Many of the songs exist far below the surface of an ocean of effects (instead of his previous tape hiss), and Baseball Cards even features an Animal Collective-esque thump.  When he's not over his head in the rabbit hole he's still cranking out brilliantly self-loathing psych-punk slacker anthems.  In either case the slapback drums and splashy guitar keep it firmly planted in the sand.

Summeriest Moment: 

The dreamlike Linus Spacehead, which does the best job of incorporating the increased exploration and complexity into Wavves' familiar sound  

5. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Stadium Arcadium (2006)

While I agree with the common sentiment that the sprawling Stadium Arcadium doesn't exactly work as an album, I do think that the layout of it lends itself very well to the playlist generation, and there are plenty of standout individual tracks to fit any mood.  At its high points it is as good as any soundtrack to many long days and nights in the sun.  The drums in Desecration Smile echo like waves rolling over the rocks far below a tropical cliff, which you are brought soaring to the top of every time the chorus blows in.  Meanwhile the driving Make You Feel Better epitomizes the freedom of a wide-open, sun drenched stretch of road.  

Summeriest Moment: 

When everything collapses into the sea during the cathartic outro chorus/guitar solo of Wet Sand

4. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America

More so than other albums here (which tend to lean towards the relaxing side), Boys and Girls in America puts the spotlight on those endless summer nights spent cutting loose- driving nowhere in particular, hanging out with anyone and everyone, getting hammered, hooking up, and so on.  What makes this album great though is that it is all delivered with the bittersweet awareness that none of it really lasts, which is probably what makes it so much fun in the first place.  The fact that more than a handful of the songs are basically love letters to the Twin Cities doesn't hurt either.

Summeriest Moment:  

There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right
Boys and girls in America
they have such a sad time together

3. T. Rex - Electric Warrior (1971)

This album is widely considered an influential classic of British glam-rock (and rightfully so), but to me the sound lends itself exceptionally well to summertime.  Behind Marc Bolan's understated sensual vocal style are rolling percussion and warm, sparse guitar stabs.  It all comes together into a breezy sound that makes you want to just sit on a curb somewhere, cold beverage in hand, and watch the world go by.

Summeriest Moment:

But it really doesn't matter at all
life is a gas
(I hope it's gonna last)

2. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)

Something of a 21st century Pet Sounds, Merriweather Post Pavilion takes a different, more modern approach to achieve a beautiful summery soundworld.  Particularly, it does so by creating poppy songs that operate well outside of traditional pop structure (or any structure whatsoever) and weaving them into intricately layered soundscapes.  The songs loop and overlap, occasionally meeting for a climactic chorus, only to dissipate once again.  Vocals emerge from and disappear back into a reverby haze.  Effects-drenched guitars, sampled percussion, and synth noises all converge into one, all while the deep electronic bass keeps things pulsing along.

Summeriest Moment: 

Two minutes into the opener In the Flowers the album officially kicks off when Avey ruminates about just wanting to "leave his body for a night", and the swirling ambience explodes into thumping bass and high-flying synths

1. The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds (1966)

This could just as easily have been one of their earlier works, and while more than a few handfuls of those tunes are good for some fun in the sun, none of them stack up to Pet Sounds as albums.  The face-value pop songs and intricate vocal harmonies are still very much intact, but this time they are bolstered by dense soundscapes including innovative field recordings of wind chimes, bicycle bells, and yes- pet sounds.  The end result works on many levels, especially as a soundtrack to laying half-asleep on the beach. 

Summeriest Moment:

This album has way too many moments to pick just one

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Classic Album: Acid Bath - When the Kite String Pops (1994)

While I like to keep this focused mainly on new (or at least active) bands and current musical happenings, I do have quite a backlog of bands/albums/etc that I feel are worthy of writing about given their impact on the music world and my personal outlook on it.  This is the first of such blurbs, but will not be the last.

Now I'm no metalhead, but that doesn't mean that I don't occasionally enjoy taking a little journey into the darker corners of music and the human psyche.  Granted triggering such an experience is no easy task for a record to accomplish, as simply being heavy doesn't cut it.  This is an album that pulls it off.  Regarded as a classic of underground/alternative metal, it has become increasingly engulfed in legend over the years to the point that it transcends itself.  The band burst onto the scene for a few short years before all but disappearing.  Their music on their breakthrough album is too heavy and innovative to ignore but too defiant of categorization to make a lot of sense of.  The cover of the damn thing is a self-portrait of John Wayne Gacy done while he was in prison awaiting execution.  Everything about it adds to the overall menacing vibe.

Acid Bath formed in 1991 deep in Louisiana, where the only thing sludgier than the swamps is the music.  The band (led by vocalist Dax Riggs) set out to make what they described as "death rock".  In practice this revealed itself to be a unique take on sludgy doom metal taken to extreme lengths and infused with blues, folk, and country.  After their demo earned them a deal with Rotten Records, they put out When the Kite String Pops in 1994.  

Simply put, WtKSP is an engaging, provocative, and often outright disturbing exploration of sprawling dementia.  It shifts seamlessly from thundering lurch to thrashing hardcore punk to deranged ballads featuring almost spoken-word poetry.  All the while the songs make their way through a maze of time and tempo changes while somehow maintaining the simple feel of insanity.  The compressed drums and processed vocals add an industrial dimension to the overbearing menace of the album.  Riggs does an admirable job of navigating the diverse and ever-changing material, moving seamlessly between tortured screams and crooning poetics reminiscent of Glen Danzig.  At times he displays the surprisingly complex lyrical passages with an almost southern sounding twang.  I suppose it goes without saying that the aforementioned lyrics consist of relentlessly dark themes including psychosis, drug abuse, death, and violent depression.  That said, the album manages to frame the material in such a way that presents it as a darkly poetic and musically stimulating exhibition of the dark side of human nature.  That said the length of it (clocking in at over an hour) makes it a difficult straight-through listen- (It's usually somewhere around "Dr Suess is Dead" that I feel the need to take a shower)- but The Blue, Finger Paintings of the Insane, Scream of the Butterfly, etc are still incredible as standalone tracks.

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