Thursday, March 13, 2014

My Top Ten (Plus One) Albums for Springtime

Perhaps it's because here in Wisconsin it seems to last all but a week, but Spring was the hardest season for me to think of essential music for.  There really wasn't a go-to element that immediately came to mind; such as the sunny pop harmonies of summer or the stripped-down organics of autumn.  In a certain way, I feel like that ambiguity makes the selections for this list that much more genuine.  As I scourged through my music library I found album after album that belonged here, each for its own unique reasons.  Looking back there are some common elements that emerged, but when I set out to make this list I truly had no idea what I was looking for.  They all jumped out as soon as I came across them though, and it was because they all share a timeless, optimistic vibe; an energizing freshness that makes them perfect to listen to during the Spring awakening.  

11.  Green Day - Warning

In a certain way, Spring feels a little bit like the forgotten season.  Wedged between the harshness of winter and the excitement of summer, it can be difficult at the time to appreciate the transition.  In a similar context is Green Day's Warning.  By 2000 the band had clearly detached themselves and been disowned from their Gilman St origins, but they were still several years removed from their rebirth as punk-opera giants.  In the meantime they took advantage of the creative opening to make their most fearlessly original album.  While not at all ballad-oriented nor breakneck in pace, with Warning Billie Joe and company brought their outcast attitude to folksy, british invasion-style rock with unapologetic glee.  The lyrics focus on the random and monotonous blows of every day life, and rolling with them via buoyant acceptance.  Green Day still packs a punch with Castaway and the perennial concert-staple Minority, but it is the lighter moments that really elevate Warning.  The title track and Waiting thump along with rollicking, optimistic grooves, while Church on Sunday and Hold On offer a jangly, stripped down breeziness and Jackass comes directly out of The Kinks' playbook.  Overall this is the sound of a band that has weathered the shift from punk rock misfits to mainstream heroes, and emerged without giving any semblance of a damn.

10. Pearl Jam - Vs

Pearl Jam started to open up their sound with Vs, the followup to their breakthrough debut Ten.  The passion and intensity is still very much intact, but this time they "drop the Leash" and allow it to attack from whatever angle it may.  What makes Vs such a great Spring album is the way in which that angle often is one of aggressive redemption, rather than the claustrophobic darkness of Ten.   This is most apparent in hit singles Daughter and Rearviewmirror, but even the more straight-forward rockers like Animal and Glorified G have a spacious, confident aura.  In effect Vs feels very much like when the world seems to open up as the winter gloom finally gives way to the big thaw.  

9. George Harrison - All Things Must Pass

Drawing from his backlog of unused Beatles songs, George Harrison crafted by far the greatest post-Beatles offering of anyone in the group.  With the aid of Phil Spector's lush wall-of-sound production, Harrison put his deep spirituality on full display in the form of grand melodic arrangements and sweeping jam sessions.  His reflective and celebratory lyrics and expressive slide guitar are consistently on full display, particularly on standout tracks My Sweet Lord, What is Life, Beware of Darkness, and Awaiting on You All.  As a double album it does tend to drag along at times, but even at those times it falls right into line with the wavering weather of Spring.  

8. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes debut record has a very particular aura to it, which in its best moments is akin to sitting in a bath of pure sunshine.  At its core are woodsy, understated folk songs, but the arrangements and mixes are so sprawling and dense that it is easy to get lost in the calmness of the soundscape.  Ragged Wood, with the opening lines "come down from the mountain you have been gone too long/Spring is upon us follow my ornate song" lends itself especially well to the world's re-awakening.  As the guitars and percussion gently ebb and flow beneath chanted gang vocals and drawn-out chamber-pop echoes it has a sound of familiarity or homecoming; as if Spring itself is welcoming you back with open arms after a long time away.  

7. Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

Like the Spring season itself, Pavement seems to have some trouble making up their mind on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.  No two songs really sound alike, but they all share the same freewheeling, shambling vibe.  The album trades some of the explosive, fuzzy energy of its legendary predecessor Slanted and Enchanted for a more contemplative atmosphere.  Alternating jarringly between warm pop melodies and rainy-day drones, the individual songs are fractured and disjointed so as to almost sound like ice cracking and shifting as the earth thaws itself out beneath rays of melodic sunshine.  When the band settles into a groove it is just as cathartic and awakening as those first truly nice days of Spring, but they always seems to leave with loose ends as it disintegrates into those early-season rainstorms.

6. Grateful Dead - American Beauty

The Grateful Dead are a band that never quite grabbed me, but it is easy to see why they have had such a passionate legion of followers.  Legacy aside, their studio album American Beauty is just about perfect for that particular springtime feeling.  Opening track Box of Rain in particular is mellow and cheery almost to the point of annoyance, but fits the time of year perfectly.  It sounds like an afternoon nap, just enjoying the fresh sunshine or gentle rain for nothing more than what it is.  Friend of the Devil is my personal favorite from The Dead's catalog, weary yet upbeat and just begging for a campfire and a circle of good friends.  The rest of the album follows suit from there with a constant stream of laid-back folksy jams and euphoric harmonies, closing with Truckin', one of the all time classic road-ready anthems.  

 5. Oasis - (What's the Story) Morning Glory

As Seattle's pitch black "grunge" scene exploded throughout the States, the UK responded with a wave of bright, harmonious music that became known as Britpop.  Although at the time it was something of a genre (and even national) rivalry, the contrast now seems very symbolic of the awakening into spring. The breakthrough act of this movement was Oasis, and their pivotal album was (What's the Story) Morning GloryOasis echoed the garage-rock aesthetic of those Seattle Bands, but traded the angsty howls for clear British voices, and the gloomy distortion grind for bright, jangly interplay between guitars and piano, all framed by soaring, anthemic choruses.  Morning Glory especially is packed with classic songs- the undying fratboy staple Wonderwall, the crystal clear power-pop songcraft of Don't Look Back in Anger and Cast No Shadow, and the sprawling, sublime drone Champagne Supernova.  What they all have in common is that joyous, assuring feeling like the sun as it emerges from behind a cloud.  

4. Guided By Voices - Bee Thousand

When this album came out in June of 1994, it was a burst of sunshine in the form of the manic energy of aging hipsters.  By that time bandleader Robert Pollard and his crew of 30-something, beer swigging, rock 'n' roll enthusiast buddies had been making laundry room recorded music for years.  In the 90s burgeoning indie rock scene they finally found their audience with Bee Thousand, their greatest collection of songs to date.  There is a certain mysterious quality to the album- it was recorded entirely on consumer-level four-tracks, the songs are short and tinny sounding, the arrangements are a bit off-the-wall, and damn near all of the lyrics are just plain weird.  Above all though, these songs are CATCHY.   With 20 of them packed into around 36 minutes, none of them make more than a brief appearance, but the brevity of it puts even more emphasis on the spontaneous bursts of carefree energy.  Pollard presents his work from his perspective of an unabashed music fan, packing each tune with timeless hooks and rock tenets.  When thrown through the enigmatic filter of the lo-fi recording technique and surreal lyricism, it all has a way of sounding perpetually fresh and exciting. 

3. Tom Petty - Wildflowers

During the spring semester of 2009, and my last at Stevens Point, I used to love to walk out to the nearby Schmeeckle nature reserve.  I had known by that time that I wouldn't be returning to school there, and spent many afternoons by the lake contemplating my future.  My iPod always at hand, Tom Petty's Wildflowers is an album I often found myself listening to as I sat on those rocks watching the water.  I was as lost as I've ever been, but Wildflowers helped me turn it into something to embrace, and gave me a lust for life like few other records have.  Between heartfelt send-offs to loved ones and empowering anthems of self-reliance and chasing destiny, this album is an amazing account of a time of transition into the unknown.  On contemplative tracks Wildfowers and Time to Move On, as well as driving rockers You Don't Know How it Feels and You Wreck Me, The chiming guitars and sympathetic lyrics find ways to burst open the horizon and invite you to run towards it; armed with a clear mind and unshakable independence.  

2. The Strokes - Is This It

"Is this it?" is a question every one of us asks ourselves as soon as the freezing weather breaks and the end of winter's tunnel is in sight.  Although that isn't necessarily the intended context, it fits remarkably well with all of the pent-up energy displayed by The Strokes on their debut LP.  Throughout Is This It the band seems on the brink of explosion, but keeps it contained beneath smothered leads, droning rhythms, and a general detached cool.  The energy is still palpable however, and it mirrors that which is felt during the bi-polarity of spring when summer is still vaguely on the horizon.  Nowhere is the jolt of optimism more apparent than on near-perfect singles Someday and Last Nite

1. The Beatles - Abbey Road

I hate writing about The Beatles.  Don't get me wrong, I love the band as much as anyone else- but just like everyone else there is not a whole lot that I could say at this point that hasn't been better said already.  Abbey Road however, is an album that truly hits me.  At the time of its recording, it was well known that the band was on the outs with one-another.  Their legendary stint as the Fab Four had run its course, and The Beatles were all but over.  As such (along with the benefit of hindsight) the feeling of them admirably setting aside their differences for the sake of laying it all out there one last time is almost tangible throughout the entire record.  Although it is symbolic of the death of a band, the cleansing nature of Abbey Road fits incredibly well with the re-awakening of Spring.  

The albums first side features some of silent troubadour George Harrison's greatest contributions to the Beatles catalog.  Something makes a strong case for the Beatles' greatest song, with fluid guitar leads weaving though around ethereal lyrical lines and a bridge section that soars like few others.  Later on is another great Harrison track- a little tune called Here Comes the Sun- which to this day is THE definitive springtime anthem.  It is so ubiquitous of the season that I could just as easily have made this list ten album's worth of this song on repeat.  Meanwhile on side one are Paul McCartney's soulful vocal showcase Oh Darling! and  the rolling thunderstorm of showstopping blues workout I Want You (She's so Heavy).  Even oddball track Maxwell's Silver Hammer and good ol' Ringo's surreal Octopus's Garden fits the strange feeling transitioning away from winter, when everything is sloppy and wet and, well, a little bit weird. 

Already great to this point, Abbey Road shifts into a new gear for side two.  Often considered an unofficial medley, each song blends into the next and reoccurring elements pop up on many occasions.  With perfect execution and just some damn good songs, the album's closing 20 minutes are pure musical bliss.  As a listener one is guided seamlessly through glowing tranquility (Sun King, Golden Slumbers), lighthearted ruminations on odd personal troubles (You Never Give Me Your Money, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window), and the curious tales of volatile characters Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam.  All together it feels like a bittersweet roller-coaster on some sort of collision course- not unlike The Beatles themselves at the time.  It all culminates as the cathartic gang vocals in Carry That Weight ramp up and finally thrust us into the cathartic farewell of The End.  All four members give their goodbyes in the form of explosive solos before dropping out to deliver their final message in unison - John Lennon's most immortal verse "And in the end the love you take, is equal to the love that you make".  

Happy Spring everyone, and be sure to LIKE the Noisepaper Facebook Page for quick updates and new articles!

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