Barry Adamson: Soul Murder (Mute, 1992) Rating: 12/20
The former Bad Seed's second solo album (somewhat obscure, in that it wasn't issued in the States until 1997) is almost cinematic to a fault, stressing portentous narration, montage and borrowed spoken-word clips as much as musical content. Based around motifs of film noir and spy thrillers, the mostly instrumental tracks are best when serving as swank background music (see "Cool Green World," "Suspicion," "The Adamson Family" and a reggae-flecked version of the "James Bond" theme), though the jazzy, autobiographical rap of "Split" is the disc's obvious highlight.
The Beach Boys: Surfin' Safari (Capitol, 1962) Rating: 11/20
The Beach Boys' inauspicious debut has "409," "Surfin'" and the title hit, but is otherwise burdened with novelty lyrics ("County Fair," "Chug-a-Lug," "Ten Little Indians"), banal doo-wop chords and a formulaic Chuck Berry beat (that's right, no ballads). "Cuckoo Clock," "The Shift" and "Heads You Win, Tails I Lose" have glimmers of melodic innovation, but other album cuts are mere background filler.
The Beach Boys: Surfin' USA (Capitol, 1963) Rating: 11/20
Surfin' USA isn't as generic as the first album, but it's dragged down by no less than five surf-rock instrumentals (even if "Misirlou" and "Surf Jam" nicely prove Carl Wilson's guitar skills). Vocal highlights include the anthemic fun of "Surfin' USA" and "Shut Down," the beautiful "Lonely Sea" and Brian Wilson's soaring falsetto on "Farmer's Daughter."
The Beach Boys: Surfer Girl (Capitol, 1963) Rating: 13/20
This early album still panders to beach-bound teens (five songs with "Surfer" in the title?), but it does have some ageless Beach Boys tunes: "Surfer Girl," "Catch a Wave," "Little Deuce Coupe" and the stunning "In My Room." Otherwise, the dozen tracks span the wretched "South Bay Surfer" (with an uncredited melody swiped from Stephen Foster), two adequate instrumentals, two classy ballads ("The Surfer Moon," "Your Summer Dreams") and a couple of underrated rockers ("Hawaii," "Our Car Club").
The Beach Boys: Little Deuce Coupe (Capitol, 1963) Rating: 13/20
This conceptual hot-rod album was tossed together for a Beach Boys-hungry marketplace, and four of the tracks (including the popular "Little Deuce Coupe," "409" and "Shut Down") were already available on other records. Rapturous lyrics about cars are doomed to be silly, but don't miss the adorable "Be True to Your School" and two underrated obscurities: "Ballad of Ole' Betsy" and the harmonically daring "No-Go Showboat."
The Beach Boys: Shut Down Volume 2 (Capitol, 1964) Rating: 12/20
This rushed response to Beatlemania has the spectacular "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Don't Worry Baby" and "The Warmth of the Sun," but is loaded with tedious filler. "In the Parkin' Lot" and "Pom Pom Play Girl" have cute melodic twists, but nothing can save the excruciating "'Cassius' Love vs. 'Sonny' Wilson," the self-explanatory "Denny's Drums" and a squeaky clean romp through "Louie Louie."
|The Beach Boys: All Summer Long (Capitol, 1964) Rating: 14/20
All Summer Long is the first great Beach Boys album, where Brian Wilson consistently sustained a personal identity beyond his surf 'n' cars formula and obvious '50s influences. "I Get Around," "All Summer Long" and "Girls on the Beach" are sheer genius, while "Hushabye" and "Wendy" have some of the group's most gorgeous ensemble singing ever.
The Beach Boys: Concert (Capitol, 1964) Rating: 11/20
This early Sacramento performance is more of a cultural document than a musical showcase -- some vocals were re-recorded later (so much for authenticity), and the disc's most resonant feature is its screaming hordes of starstruck teenagers. The set includes only four Beach Boys standards ("In My Room," "I Get Around," "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Fun, Fun, Fun"), but adds otherwise rare versions of contemporary hits like "Little Old Lady From Pasadena," "The Wanderer," "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" and "Johnny B. Goode" (however, the less said about "Long, Tall Texan" and "Monster Mash," the better).
|The Beach Boys: Today! (Capitol, 1965) Rating: 15/20
Today! is the album where Brian Wilson graduated from "major songwriting talent" to "Hall of Fame visionary," as his precocious orchestrations flowered into breathtaking brilliance. Marred by a worthless interview clip which closes the disc with a thud, the songs span exuberant fun ("Do You Wanna Dance," "Dance, Dance, Dance"), intricate pop ("When I Grow Up to Be a Man," a less recognized version of "Help Me Rhonda") and gorgeous swells of romantic introspection ("Please Let Me Wonder," "She Knows Me Too Well," "Kiss Me Baby").
The Beach Boys: Beach Boys' Party! (Capitol, 1965) Rating: 11/20
Few major artists have released an album as bizarrely conceived as this informal singalong, in which the Beach Boys and friends chuckle through an easy-going set of (mostly) cover tunes, adding little instrumentation beyond acoustic guitar, bass and bongos. There are too many novelties ("Papa Oom Mow Mow," "Alley Oop," "Hully Gully") and the contrived "party chatter" is irritating, but you do get three Beatles songs ("I Should Have Known Better," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and, best of all, "Tell Me Why"), a satirical take on "Barbara Ann" (which is actually more enjoyable than the crass hit version) and some tender harmony on the Everly Brothers' "Devoted to You."
The Beach Boys: Wild Honey (Capitol, 1967) Rating: 12/20
The group's most soul-influenced album, this spotty disc has sparse, unimaginative arrangements and a frustrating shortage of vocal harmonies. "Darlin'" is a joyous single, while "I'd Love Just Once to See You" and "Let the Wind Blow" are ingenious experiments, but other tracks are irritatingly half-baked.
The Beach Boys: Stack-o-Tracks (Capitol, 1968) Rating: 13/20
The Beach Boys were running out of chart hits by the late '60s, so Capitol tried to sustain the franchise by wiping the vocals off some older favorites and repackaging them as a Beach Boys instrumental album. Thanks to Brian Wilson's brilliant arranging, the results are far more captivating than expected -- most of the songs stand up beautifully as wordless music (especially "Let Him Run Wild" and the four Pet Sounds tracks), and subtle touches of harp, woodwinds and xylophone freshly emerge from the background.
|The Beach Boys: Friends (Capitol, 1968) Rating: 14/20
This gentle, melodically exquisite collection was an impressive rebound from the disappointing Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, and may be the Beach Boys' most underrated album. The songs are too short and there's scarcely an upbeat track on the whole disc, but beautiful tunes like "Wake the World," "Friends," "When a Man Needs a Woman" and Dennis Wilson's "Little Bird" are wonderfully refreshing.
The Beach Boys: 20/20 (Capitol, 1969) Rating: 13/20
An always listenable but not particularly adventurous disc, 20/20 includes old-fashioned pop, electric rock 'n' roll and Dennis Wilson as a boosted songwriting presence. The simplistic "Do It Again" and "I Can Hear Music" are overrated singles, but "Time to Get Alone," "I Went to Sleep," Dennis' powerful "Be With Me" and two phenomenal Smile leftovers ("Our Prayer," "Cabinessence") are essential Beach Boys tracks.
The Beach Boys: Live in London (Capitol, 1970) Rating: 13/20
This concert recording of a Brian Wilson-less performance (alternate title: Beach Boys '69) didn't get much respect from Capitol -- it was recorded in 1968, released overseas in 1970 and not released in the States until 1976. The songs mix heralded masterpieces ("Wouldn't It Be Nice," "California Girls," "Good Vibrations," "God Only Knows") with quirky album cuts ("Bluebirds Over the Mountains," "Aren't You Glad," "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring," the underrated "Wake the World"), and draw extra intrigue from the deviant horn and woodwind arrangements.
The Beach Boys: The Beach Boys Love You (Brother, 1977) Rating: 13/20
Conventional wisdom says that the Beach Boys' post-'60s (or even post-Pet Sounds) catalog is easily ignored, but this overlooked disc is a cute little morsel, blessed with a heavy focus on Brian Wilson compositions, a minimum of pandering "rock 'n' roll" and unusual arrangements which substitute buzzing synthesizers for horn charts. The lyrics can be painfully vapid, but "Good Time," "The Night Was So Young," "Let Us Go On This Way" and "I'll Bet He's Nice" retain a surprising amount of the old spark.
|The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys (Capitol, 1993) Rating: 18/20
Containing a good 90% of the essential Beach Boys tracks, this five-disc compilation is a superb chronological overview of the group's legendary career. The quality takes a dip during the fourth disc (post-'60s material) and fifth disc (various rarities and outtakes, mostly redundant), but the first three discs are an embarrassment of riches, stretching from the band's early surf-rockers to the intermediate flowering of Brian Wilson's genius to the sacred Pet Sounds/Smile era to the quirkier (but often excellent) 1968-1971 material.
|Belle & Sebastian: If You're Feeling Sinister (Matador, 1996) Rating: 14/20
This Scottish ensemble arrives as an indie-pop sensation with these wistfully arranged character studies, typically focused on adrift, precocious adolescents. Songwriter Stuart Murdoch has an enviable gift for both sugary melodies and affecting lyrics, and his delicate vocals breathe life into addictive tunes like "Me and the Major," "Mayfly," the wryly self-referential "Get Away from Here, I'm Dying" and the exhilarating "The Stars of Track and Field."
Steven Jesse Bernstein: Prison (Sub Pop, 1992) Rating: 13/20
Tragically, this William Burroughs-influenced poet killed himself before Prison was even completed, so the album's searing mix of spoken word and program music makes a revelatory epitaph. Producer/composer Steve Fisk drops Bernstein's bitter rants of sexual degradation and urban misery onto tracks of industrial crunch ("Morning in the Sub-Basement of Hell"), film-noir swank ("No No Man"), hip-hop thump ("The Sport, Part Two") and art-damaged rock ("Party Balloon"), then retreats into silence to stress the raw childhood narrative of "Face."
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic: Magnetic Flip (Ace of Hearts, 1984) Rating: 13/20
Boasting two Mission of Burma members in a surprising new context, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic's first album unveiled the group's fascinating clash of propulsive rhythms and chamber-music sophistication. The sound is considerably more raw than on later works, and mixes the typically knotty momentum of "Terry Riley's House" and "Chên/The Arousing" with the shockingly furious "The Fundamental," the rippling piano of "Ptoccata," the meditative "Final Motif," the triumphant ascendancy of "The Tyger" and equally gonzo takes on (how's this for range?) "The Rite of Spring" and the Rocky & Bullwinkle theme.
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic: Dancing on A'A (Cuneiform, 1995) Rating: 12/20
This brainy instrumental ensemble (partially descended from Mission of Burma) sculpts tightly written pieces mixing classical, jazz and rock music. Their fourth album has the usual blend of keyboards, sax, electric guitar and percussion, and is most exciting when propulsive rhythms come to the fore as on the minimalist "Birdgam," the manic "A Band of Deborahs (Not Debbies)" and the title track.
The Birthday Party: Hee Haw (2.13.61, 1989) Rating: 13/20
This incendiary blast combines an early album and EP (circa 1979-80) by the seminal Australian noise-punks, who later evolved into Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Cave's howling, maniacal lyrics are scarcely intelligible, but the brutal, circular rhythms and chaotic guitar scratches are alternately exhilarating and terrifying -- try "Mr. Clarinet," "Happy Birthday" or "The Hair Shirt" for typical explosiveness, or "The Friend Catcher" for a more nuanced gnaw.
David Byrne: Rei Momo (Luaka Bop, 1989) Rating: 12/20
Byrne's first post-Talking Heads album is so determined to reverently catalogue South American subgenres that his own personality plays second fiddle. Some of these languid melodies are pleasing ("Dirty Old Town," "The Dream Police," "Marching Through the Wilderness," "Don't Want to be Part of Your World"), but this ultimately fails as a Latin answer to Graceland.
The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic, 1980) Rating: 13/20
The Holy Grail of undisguised filler, this exhausting triple-record requires major work to sort out the album's worth of quality material from the morass of casual experiments with dub, gospel, disco, rap, swing, calypso, backmasking and even children's music. Sounding sadly detached from the material, the imploding punk icons slip in a smattering of powerful cuts ("The Magnificent Seven," its sister track "Lightning Strikes," "Police on My Back," "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe," "The Leader," "Somebody Got Murdered" and "The Call Up" are among the most fully realized tunes), but their willful attempts to frustrate and wear out the listener are maddening.
Cluster: Zuckerzeit (Spalax, 1974) Rating: 13/20
The German synthesizer duo took a daring step with this classic disc, abandoning dissonant space jams for compact mood pieces which are full of harmonic tension and bumping tempos but notably without lead melody. Highlighted by "Hollywood" (watch out for its crazy time signature), "Caramba" and the manic "Rotor," the 10 instrumentals weave like snakes sliding through a Bavarian forest, methodically adding and subtracting subtle colors and fizzling bits of electronic percussion.
Ornette Coleman: The Music of Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!! (OJC, 1958) Rating: 13/20
Something Else!!!, Ornette Coleman's debut as a bandleader, pre-dates his seminal trio releases on Atlantic and shows the legendary saxophonist still finding his own groove. "Invisible," "Chippie" and "The Sphinx" glimpse the shape of jazz to come with their freewheeling solos and irregularly phrased themes, but other tracks are more traditional -- trumpeter Don Cherry adds some fiery runs, but the bassist, drummer and pianist don't seem especially receptive to Coleman's radical ideas about rhythm and harmony.
|John Coltrane: Coltrane Jazz (Rhino, 1961) Rating: 15/20
Directly following the universally worshipped Giant Steps, Coltrane Jazz is much more inspired than its bland title might indicate. Notable for Coltrane's dissonant use of dual notes and a look ahead to his later "cosmic" phase on Impulse, this superb-sounding reissue has three standards, two original blues, a fluttering tribute to Sonny Rollins and a pair of aggressively vanguard pieces ("Harmonique," "Fifth House"), while adding four alternate takes as an exciting bonus.
Cowboy Junkies: Pale Sun Crescent Moon (RCA, 1993) Rating: 13/20
The Junkies insert some extra guitar distortion on their fourth album, which also includes a few unusually peppy tempos, a woozy Dinosaur Jr. cover and the surprisingly optimistic "Anniversary Song." Other tracks are the group's usual blend of murmured vocals, country/blues influences and eloquently morose lyrics, exemplified by "Crescent Moon," "Seven Years," the disillusioned "Ring on the Sill" and the paranoid sting of "Hunted."
|Creedence Clearwater Revival: Cosmo's Factory (Fantasy, 1970) Rating: 16/20
C.C.R.'s third landmark album in a row again boasts John Fogerty's amazing howl, chunky guitar licks and rustic lyrics, heading a mix of unassailable originals and mood-setting covers. Fifties rock 'n' roll plays a greater role via familiar templates like "Ooby Dooby," "My Baby Left Me" and Fogerty's anthemic "Travelin' Band," while "Lookin' Out My Back Door," "Run Through the Jungle," "Up Around the Bend," "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "Long as I Can See the Light" form an incredible block of hit singles which few bands have matched in an entire career (too bad about the overlong jam tracks, however).
|Miles Davis: A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Legacy, 1970) Rating: 15/20
This soundtrack to a documentary about the legendary boxer contains two epic tracks, played by an acclaimed lineup including Davis, guitarist John McLaughlin, keyboardist Herbie Hancock and drummer Billy Cobham. The surprising first piece is nearly a straight blues-rock vamp, the second is more vaporous and introspective.
|Miles Davis: Big Fun (Legacy/Columbia, 1974) Rating: 14/20
This gargantuan double-disc (almost two and a half hours, including bonus material) is a patchwork compilation of lengthy outtakes recorded between 1969 and 1972, employing larger ensembles which overlap with Davis' heralded Bitches Brew personnel. The insertion of various Indian instruments is a fresh touch, while fusion legends such as John McLaughlin (whose febrile electric-guitar solo on "Go Ahead John" is the set's highlight), Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Jack DeJohnette, Wayne Shorter and Billy Cobham practically overshadow Davis' restrained trumpet lines on these side-long, somewhat enervated vamps.
|Dillard & Clark: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (Edsel, 1969) Rating: 14/20
Strangely, the historians who laud Gram Parsons' groundbreaking hybrid projects often overlook this fine concurrent release, which blends traditional bluegrass, country and folk with the modern songwriting of ex-Byrd Clark, the Dillards' freshly liberated co-founder and future Eagle Bernie Leadon. All acoustic (it's even drumless), the front-loaded album opens with its most stirring tunes -- "Out on the Side," "She Darked the Sun" and "Train Leaves Here This Mornin'" would be recognized classics if they had been on Byrds records -- and the disc's only glaring flaw is that, at nine tracks and less than 29 minutes, it's simply too darn short (too bad that the reissue's indispensible bonus cuts weren't part of the original set).
Dinosaur: Dinosaur (Merge, 1985) Rating: 12/20
Dinosaur's debut finds the group's creative input still squarely split between J Mascis and (future Sebadoh leader) Lou Barlow, and maybe this helps explain why the album is so erratic. The Barlow-led "Forget the Swan" and "Severed Lips" show promise, while "The Leper" and "Repulsion" hint at the mature Dinosaur sound to come, but other tracks are trashy and amateurish.
Dome: Dome 3 (Mute, 1981) Rating: 10/20
Dome is a darkly experimental project of Wire's Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis, which some might cynically describe as "Wire, minus the music." These pulsing, monochromatic pieces are essentially undecorated rhythm tracks with irregular shots of vocal chatter and saxophone -- "Roos-An" and the No Wave-like "D-D-Bo" are the album's best entry points.
Dome: Will You Speak This Word (Mute, 1983) Rating: 10/20
The fourth Dome album is a bit artier and more remote, centered around the multi-sectioned rise and fall of the 18-minute "To Speak." The other five tracks include the brittle drum poundings of "To Walk, to Run," "To Duck, to Dive" (a remix of "To Walk, to Run" with typically ponderous vocals added by Graham Lewis), the woozy ramble of "This" and the relentless mechanical grind of "Seven Year."
Dub Narcotic Sound System: Boot Party (K, 1996) Rating: 12/20
Putting reggae aside, Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound System aims for a nostalgic R&B groove on its second full-length release. Evenly split between instrumentals and vocals, this charming disc peaks with Johnson's deadpan showcases ("Monkey Hips and Rice," "Shake A Puddin") and Lois Maffeo's soulful guest appearance on "Ship to Shore."
Einstürzende Neubauten: Ende Neu (Nothing, 1996) Rating: 12/20
Unreleased in the States until now, the seminal industrial group's latest album moves away from shattering blasts of random noise and toward a more lush, tighter, rhythm-based sound. A sizeable chunk of the band's drama is lost, but there is one quintessential Neubauten moment: a pencil and paper solo during "Die Explosion Im Festspielhaus."
Electric Light Orchestra: No Answer (United Artists, 1971) Rating: 12/20
Doomed for eventual mediocrity, the E.L.O. franchise began promisingly with an experimental set touting jagged arrangements of cello, oboe, bassoon, French horn, violin, recorder, guitar and anything else which multi-instrumental genius Roy Wood could find. Having more in common with Wood's preceding Move than E.L.O.'s commercial heyday, the record includes Lynne's wobbly Magical Mystery Tour revisions ("10538 Overture," "Mr. Radio"), two dainty pop gems from Wood ("Look at Me Now," "Whisper in the Night") and a light-classical bulk of erratically inspired program music.
|Marianne Faithfull: Blazing Away (Island, 1990) Rating: 14/20
Recorded in a Brooklyn cathedral, this concert album finds the weathered chanteuse crooning with a talented ensemble including Dr. John, Marc Ribot and the Band's Garth Hudson. Emotionally raw lyrics like "Guilt," "Working Class Hero," "Sister Morphine," "Ballad of Lucy Jordan" and the shockingly virulent "Why'd Ya Do It?" remain spellbinding, but the bloated track lengths and flashy instrumental solos do detract somewhat from her music's usual intimacy.
Bryan Ferry: Bête Noire (Reprise, 1987) Rating: 11/20
Bryan Ferry's dapper persona all but vanishes into these slick dance grooves, which are long on superficial polish but short on the gnawing melodic twists he used to navigate so effortlessly. "Limbo" and "Kiss and Tell" are decent mood music for wine-sipping lovers, but it's frustrating to hear a crippled tune like "New Town," which could have been far more distinctive if performed with Roxy Music's glittery pizzazz.
Firewater: Get Off the Cross...We Need the Wood for the Fire (Jetset, 1996) Rating: 12/20
Ex-Cop Shoot Cop leader Tod A. fronts this unusual ensemble, who moves away from post-Foetus bombast toward a muscular mix of traditional Jewish music and Tom Waits' crunching tangos. Sax, violin, clarinet, accordion and cello replace Cop Shoot Cop's thorny keyboard samples, while Mr. A. growls about his usual derelict, alienated characters via intriguing tracks like "Some Strange Reaction," "When I Burn This Place Down," "Mr. Cardiac" and "Bourbon and Division."
Wild Man Fischer: An Evening With Wild Man Fischer (Bizarre, 1968) Rating: 12/20
This ultra-rare double record is so completely perverse and twisted that it defies serious criticism, but it is intriguing when viewed as a case study of one spectacularly deranged mind. Only a few tracks (notably "The Taster," "Merry-Go-Round" and "Circle") actually contain instruments -- the remaining time is filled up with rambling stories, field recordings and Fischer's poignantly pathetic a capella ditties.
The Folk Implosion: Take a Look Inside... (Communion, 1994) Rating: 10/20
Lou Barlow (also of Sebadoh) and partner John Davis cram 14 song sketches into less than 22 minutes, making this one of the shortest "albums" imaginable. On this early Folk Implosion release, the skeletal funky beats which became the duo's commercial calling card haven't emerged yet -- instead, we get uneven garage-rock vignettes highlighted by "Had to Find Out," "Waltzin' With Your Ego," "Boyfriend, Girlfriend" and the title track.
Bruce Gilbert: Music for Fruit (Mute, 1991) Rating: 10/20
This 32-minute disc collects three experimental tracks from the ex-Wire guitarist: the title work (commissioned for "Fruit," a dance piece), "Push" (commissioned for an animated film called "signature") and a shorter piece conceived in a late-Wire style. The latter "You Might Be Called" has a rigid, rhythmic throb -- the other two are more amorphous, suggesting polished steel machinery crunching in the distance.
Gong: You (Virgin, 1974) Rating: 12/20
The third part of Gong's Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy focuses more on flashy instrumental grooves than Flying Teapot and Angels Egg, making it less enjoyable and more aligned with the prog-rock indulgences of its era. Still, enough of the band's trademark airy goofiness shines through to (partially) compensate for the drop in melodic appeal.
Grenadine: Nopalitos (TeenBeat, 1994) Rating: 11/20
Grenadine's second album is a disappointment, hindered by repetitive guitar pickings, careless songwriting, silly novelty tunes and lazy production. "Mexico Big Sky," "Speeding" and "Drama Club" are sweetly melodic, but other tracks meander without purpose while Mark Robinson's "Hell Over Hickory Dew" and "Roundabout on a Tuesday" are excruciatingly precious.
Guided by Voices: Vampire on Titus (Scat, 1993) Rating: 11/20
Vampire on Titus is like an obstacle course of aesthetics, where you try to ignore what's actually on the disc and imagine what the album could have been if it was recorded with more care. Bursting with 18 tracks (average length: well under two minutes), this short disc is a model of inspired imperfection -- many of the top songs ("Wished I Was a Giant," "Dusted," "Expecting Brainchild," "Sot") sound like audience-taped bootlegs, trivial fragments have the best fidelity and other tunes ("Wondering Boy Poet," album highlight "Jar of Cardinals") are frustratingly brief.
The Hang Ups: He's After Me (Clean, 1993) Rating: 12/20
Brian Tighe's knack for melody is already obvious on the Hang Ups' debut, which packs a dozen intricate songs into a brief 34 minutes. The guitars are ungainly at times -- this style of clever pop can't withstand much distortion -- but clearly, the band arrived as a fully realized unit with loads of potential.
Harmonia: Musik von Harmonia (Brain, 1974) Rating: 13/20
The first supergroup collaboration between the keyboard duo Cluster and Neu! guitarist Michael Rother is a hypnotic set of repeating, pedal-point tracks which -- to their great credit -- always sustain their playful humanity rather than ballooning into cold, sci-fi excursions. The typical track hides moaning electric-guitar lines behind frisky squirts of syncopated synthesizer ("Watussi," "Dino," "Sonnenschein"), but the eight instrumentals also include headier passages like the eerie, low-frequency warbles of "Ohrwurm" and the 11-minute trance epic "Sehr Kosmisch."
Harmonia: De Luxe (Brain, 1975) Rating: 13/20
The German trio's second album of pulsing synthesizer/guitar vamps is just as strong as its debut, though poor sequencing pushes the best tracks into the first three slots and leaves behind a disappointing conclusion. Unlike the previous year's Musik von Harmonia, this disc does include some harshly chanted vocals on the title cut and "Monza (Rauf und Runter)," and the intuitive, non-linear shifts of such extended pieces are what's most fascinating here.
Jon Hassell: Power Spot (ECM, 1986) Rating: 13/20
Another evocative effort from Hassell, with his inimitable filtered-trumpet washes floating above hypnotic beds of Middle Eastern percussion. The disc isn't as varied as his acclaimed earlier release, Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics, but the texture (again, co-produced by Brian Eno) is simply gorgeous.
Henry Cow: Western Culture (East Side Digital, 1979) Rating: 13/20
The influential prog-rock quartet bowed out with this elegant set of jazzy chamber music, its compositions evenly split between woodwind specialist Lindsay Cooper and multi-instrumentalist Tim Hodgkinson. Inventively arranged and rhythmically fiendish, the seven vocalless tracks can wander, but "Industry," "Gretel's Tale" (enhanced by some chaotic piano licks) and "1/2 the Sky" have an intriguing sense of warped pomp.
Peter Holsapple: Out of My Way (Monkey Hill, 1997) Rating: 12/20
The solo debut of the dB's co-founder is a modest sleeper, roughly performed and recorded but still blessed with the parent band's skewed harmonies and unusual, sliding chord changes. Clunky drumming ruins at least one track ("Couldn't Stop Lying to You") and Holsapple's vocals are somewhat colorless, but the seductive drag of "No Sound," the wriggling riff of "I Been There," the post-Bo Diddley "Don't Worry about John" and a pair of bittersweet, Paul Westerberg-like ballads ("Shirley," "Pretty, Damned, Smart") transcend their homely presentation.
|Japan: Tin Drum (Blue Plate, 1981) Rating: 14/20
During his entire solo career, David Sylvian has never topped this masterful disc, a vivid blend of Oriental exotica, synthetic funk and dapper balladry. "The Art of Parties," "Still Life in Mobile Homes" and the appropriately haunting "Ghosts" have the most striking melodies, but the real star of the show is the amazingly intricate interplay between drummer Steve Jansen and bassist Mick Karn (just listen to his instrument "speak" on the miraculous "Canton").
Jethro Tull: Heavy Horses (Chrysalis, 1978) Rating: 13/20
Arguably the final album of Tull's essential period, Heavy Horses has a restrained folk-rock shimmer and a preoccupation with the inner lives of everyday animals (dogs, cats, moths, horses, mice). The underwhelming initial tracks are breezy and lightweight, but the disc's second half is considerably more potent, boasting the regal title song and the nimble wanderings of "Weathercock," "Rover" and "One Brown Mouse."
Kostars: Klassics With a K (Grand Royal, 1996) Rating: 12/20
The Kostars -- a side project of Luscious Jackson's Jill Cunniff and Vivian Trimble -- sculpt the same brand of loose-limbed shuffles found in their primary group, but drop the funky drums for a more acoustic, lounge-like mood. This short, unplugged disc is dynamically flat and lacks any exceptional songs, but it's a refreshing, romantic listen.
Lyle Lovett: I Love Everybody (Curb, 1994) Rating: 12/20 Recorded at the height of the Julia Roberts fairytale, I Love Everybody is accordingly drippy, full of cutesy lyrics and lightweight tunes which lack Lovett's usual dark undercurrent. Unlike his more eclectic releases, this disc doesn't stray far from a standard country/folk blend -- "Creeps Like Me," "Hello Grandma," "They Don't Like Me" (a playful jab at his new in-laws?) and "Just the Morning" are the most resonant tracks, but hardly push conceptual boundaries like his best work.
Shane MacGowan & the Popes: The Crock of Gold (SPV, 1997) Rating: 12/20
Luckily, the Popes are a top-notch ensemble, because MacGowan's own contribution to this underwhelming disc (tellingly, only available on a small German label) is sadly uneven. Backed by sprightly (if somewhat rote) Irish rounds which occasionally stray into country and reggae, MacGowan sings in a whiskey-soaked slur and fails to infuse his hard-living tales with his usual strain of pathos.
The Magick Heads: Before We Go Under (Flying Nun, 1995) Rating: 13/20
This occasional project -- one of the infinite permutations of the New Zealand pop scene -- is headed by singer/guitarist Robert Scott, whose previous work with the Bats is an obvious harbinger of the Magick Heads' simple, circular tunes. However, this group has a more refreshing, varied palette, thanks to Jane Sinnott's lovely folk vocals and Alan Starrett's contributions of violin and hammer dulcimer.
Mrs. Miller: Will Success Spoil Mrs. Miller? (Capitol, 1966) Rating: 9/20
Unlikely as it may seem, the dowdy, good-natured housewife from California returned with a second album of novelty cover songs, again dumping her earsplitting vibrato and catastrophic pitch on her shellshocked listeners. Her ridiculous, pseudo-operatic warble is funniest when pitted against contemporary pop like "A Groovy Kind of Love," "Sweet Pea" and "Monday, Monday," but she's merely tedious when her phrasing drops too far behind the tempo (as on the standard "Strangers in the Night").
|Charles Mingus: Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (Impulse!, 1963) Rating: 15/20
This classic disc, oozing with burnished sensuality and a brainy balance between composition and collaborative exploration, finds the influential bassist/pianist leading a pair of robust, 10-member ensembles. The crackling "Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul" and the seductive "Theme for Lester Young" (previously known as "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat") are among Mingus' most famous works, while "II B.S." boasts a film-noir swing, "Hora Decubitus" smolders with rave-up energy and "Mood Indigo" slides into an exquisite languor.
|Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark (Asylum, 1974) Rating: 15/20
Mitchell's commercial apex was this seductive collection of rippling, romantic tunes topped with her acrobatic vocals and unique, word-flurried phrasing. The plush, mainstream arrangements can be irksome -- a sax solo here, some string charts there, an overdubbed backing chorus somewhere else -- but the eloquent, deceptively catchy lines of classic tracks like "Help Me," "Free Man in Paris," "Raised on Robbery" (check the unlikely flashes of the Andrews Sisters) and "Just Like This Train" demonstrate why Mitchell is still the yardstick for measuring introspective female songwriters.
|Joni Mitchell: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum, 1975) Rating: 14/20
Fresh from Court and Spark's commercial breakthrough and some increased industry clout, Mitchell veers off the path with an experimental, jazzier disc that includes a strange piece for multi-tracked vocals and synthesizer ("Shadows and Light") and "The Jungle Line"'s amazing use of Burundi drums (which pre-dates acts like Peter Gabriel, Adam & the Ants and Bow Wow Wow by several years). "In France They Kiss on Mainstreet," "Shades of Scarlet Conquering" and the title song have the tightly constructed accessibility to placate her new fans, but even the most meandering tracks stay compelling with their exquisite vocals, image-rich lyrics and consummate musicality.
Joni Mitchell: Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (Asylum, 1977) Rating: 12/20
A short double record which should have been cut to one, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is where Mitchell's hunger for experimentation finally gets the best of her. Indulgent orchestrations, annoyingly loose melodies, the 16-minute bloat of "Paprika Plains" and a pointless calypso instrumental are among the drawbacks of these relaxed, jazzy pieces, and Mitchell's leisure-time musings about romance, travel and childhood aren't evocative enough to compensate for such poorly focused music.
|Van Morrison: Bang Masters (Legacy, 1991) Rating: 14/20
This definitive compilation of Morrison's early Bang sessions proves that his magnetic presence, personalized imagery and stretched-meter phrasing were in place from the start, though some of the music lapses into pedestrian, session-guy comping. A few obvious classics (the ageless "Brown-Eyed Girl," nascent versions of two future Astral Weeks tracks) are here, plus underexposed gems like "Joe Harper Saturday Morning," "It's All Right," the tequila-flavored "Spanish Rose" and the San Francisco haze of "The Smile You Smile."
Mouse on Mars: Instrumentals (Thrill Jockey, 1997) Rating: 12/20
Newly reissued after a limited-run three years ago, Instrumentals bundles up seven leftover tracks from the German electronic duo. The arrangements are less varied and inventive than on the best Mouse on Mars discs, but the group's mix of disciplined pacing and percussive whimsy is magnetic on stronger pieces like "Owai" and "Rompatroullie."
Sinéad O'Connor: Universal Mother (Chrysalis, 1994) Rating: 10/20 The trouble with O'Connor's fourth album isn't her heavy-handed politics -- it's her terrible sense of melody, as she formulaically warbles major-key arpeggios and aimless stanzas in these forgettable, mostly acoustic tunes (her ignorance about chords and harmony remains a glaring problem of her songwriting). Not surprisingly, covers of Nirvana ("All Apologies") and Phil Coulter ("Scorn Not His Simplicity") rank among the top tracks, while O'Connor best illustrates her own focus on God, country and children in "Red Football," the sensual "Fire on Babylon" and the hip-hop monologue of "Famine."
Mike Oldfield: Ommadawn (Virgin, 1975) Rating: 12/20
Mike Oldfield's third album-length composition doesn't quite measure up to his previous Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge -- the piece's second half is miles inferior to its first, despite a pleasing bagpipe section and an unexpected folk song as an off-the-wall postscript -- but Ommadawn retains a sense of leafy spirituality which has aged better than much of Oldfield's prog-rock competition. With melodies again based in traditional English folk (a sprightly hornpipe passage midway through part one is the album's peak moment), the work showcases Oldfield's remarkable multi-instrumental talents but, typically, has a dismaying sense of being in perpetual forward motion without ever arriving anywhere.
Yoko Ono: Plastic Ono Band (Rykodisc, 1970) Rating: 12/20
Ono's first solo release -- a companion piece to John Lennon's renowned album of the same name -- pits her wordless squalls, chatters, sighs and wails against free riffing from a raw band including Lennon and Ringo Starr. The screeching abrasiveness of the opening "Why" is excitingly bold, but the other tracks (even one recorded live with Ornette Coleman's classic trio) don't really sustain that intensity.
Graham Parker & the Rumour: Stick to Me (Mercury, 1977) Rating: 13/20
Considerably less heralded than the surrounding Parker albums (Heat Treatment and Squeezing Out Sparks), Stick to Me has a more operatic, Born to Run feel with its overstuffed brass and vocal arrangements. The first half boasts some typically incisive snarls ("Soul on Ice," "Clear Head," the title song), but the intensity fades during the latter half, as party-rock filler mixes with dour narrative epics.
The Pastels: Suck On (Rockville, 1988) Rating: 12/20
This out-of-print disc compiles ten early Pastels singles, recorded between 1983 and 1985. It's not easy to explain the Pastels' appeal -- their vocals are embarrassingly off-pitch and their songs rudimentary, but these innocent slices of jangling pop (here, somewhat crisper than on the band's dreamier recent releases) have a gawky, childlike charm that's difficult to deny.
Pink Floyd: More (Capitol, 1969) Rating: 13/20
This soundtrack to an early, drug-themed Barbet Schroeder film may be Pink Floyd's most maligned album, but it's far from a disgrace. The instrumental work is inessential (strong exception: the adventurous, five-minute "Main Theme"), but no Floyd collection should be without the psychedelic majesty of "The Nile Song" and "Ibiza Bar," or the rippling ballads "Cirrus Minor" and "Crying Song."
Shockabilly: Heaven (Shimmy-Disc, 1985) Rating: 12/20
What's most interesting about the final Shockabilly album is how well its woozy, chaotic, lo-fi psychedelia served as a blueprint for the entire Shimmy-Disc catalog (bassist/producer Kramer founded the label, not long after Shockabilly's demise). This reissue gleefully displays the bizarre range of the group's interests: a few disemboweled standards (T. Rex's "Life's a Gas" is best), a perverse tribute to Charles Manson, four druggy Kramer-helmed tracks (basically a shapeless mess) and, most importantly, some sharp songs from demented singer/guitarist Eugene Chadbourne (the death-rock of "When You Dream About Bleeding," the country-punk "She Was a Living, Breathing Piece of Dirt," the warped rockabilly of "Vampire Tiger Girl Strikes Again" and an acoustic holiday ballad with a surprisingly pretty clarinet arrangement).
|Sleater-Kinney: Call the Doctor (Chainsaw, 1995) Rating: 14/20
This female trio's second album is a brazen call-to-arms, boasting rattled punk rhythms, fiercely independent lyrics and the unique, love-it-or-hate-it power of Corin Tucker's piercing voice. A 30-minute disc can't afford to fade in the final tracks as this one does, but the Sonic-Youth-meets-Go-Go's wallop of the title song, "Anonymous," "Stay Where You Are" and the pivotal "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" is just awesome.
Snakefinger: Chewing Hides the Sound (Ralph, 1979) Rating: 12/20
The mysterious Residents sideman's first album set the tone for his whole catalog with its scuttling rhythms, twisted lyrics and, of course, the inimitable, goony buzz of his harmonized guitar leads. His New Wave-era vocals and strident quirkiness keep his music from aging as well as the Residents, but his covers of Kraftwerk ("The Model") and Morricone ("Magic and Ecstasy") are inspired, and the topsy-turvy riffs and occult storytelling of "Kill the Great Raven," "The Vivian Girls" and "Picnic in the Jungle" are intriguingly bizarre.
Snakefinger: Greener Postures (East Side Digital, 1981) Rating: 12/20
Fans of Snakefinger's blistering work with the Residents may not be as thrilled with his early solo discs, which have a dated, synthetic quirkiness more derived from the surrounding New Wave era. Greener Postures, his second album, is dampened by its antiseptic mix and Snakefinger's exaggerated, Bowie-esque vocals, but a few songs are surprisingly catchy ("I Come From an Island," "Living in Vain") and his processed slide guitar -- typically sounding like a laughing swarm of cartoon bees -- is slyly perverse on tracks like "Don't Lie," the stop-start "Save Me From Dali" and the clipped reggae of "The Man in the Dark Sedan."
Snakefinger: Manual of Errors (East Side Digital, 1982) Rating: 13/20
Philip "Snakefinger" Lithman's somewhat dated third album sounds like a product of its time, with its New Wave quirkiness and affected, half-spoken vocals. His unique slide-guitar harmonies and stop-start riffs are the prime attraction of typical tracks like "You Sliced Up My Wife" and "I Followed George's Dream," but the album also includes two songs co-written with the Residents, the suave walking jazz of "Beatnik Party" and warped covers of Joseph Byrd and Nino Rota.
Squeeze: Sweets from a Stranger (A & M, 1982) Rating: 13/20
A release from Squeeze's peak years, this one adds a more pronounced soul influence than heard on previous discs. The tracks (led by the hit, "Black Coffee in Bed") are tuneful, cleverly arranged and wonderfully sung, but as always, the band can't quite move beyond pop craftsmanship and establish a genuine personal vision.
Squeeze: Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti (A & M, 1985) Rating: 11/20
From the regrettable era of Phil Collins and Mr. Mister comes one of Squeeze's most easily ignored albums, a lightly funky blip of weak melodies, springy bass and slick synthesizers which is clearly a pop release of its time. "King George Street" has some pretty chord changes and "Last Time Forever" is a well-crafted (if lyrically miserable) single, but the rest of these tepid songs fall short of the group's usual standards.
Chris Stamey: It's a Wonderful Life (Albion, 1983) Rating: 12/20
Clearly inspired by Big Star's Sister Lovers, Chris Stamey's first solo record is an endearing but wholly experimental affair where clattering, gated drums and intentionally skeletal keyboard/guitar licks replace the sweet jangle which we would expect from an ex-member of the dB's. "Face of the Crowd" is a relatively conventional pop song, but the other eight tracks include a Satie-like piano piece, an opening tune which surprisingly recalls late-'70s Genesis, some Television-like jamming on the title cut, the transparently Chilton-esque "Depth of Field" and a few other songs ("Get a Job," "Brush Fire in Hoboken") which sound like they were practically improvised on the spot.
Ken Stringfellow: This Sounds Like Goodbye (Hidden Agenda, 1997) Rating: 10/20
The first solo album from Posies co-leader Stringfellow is a casual mishmash of demo-level recordings, several of which are scarcely releaseable. "Here's to the Future" and "Too True" are fine blueprints for Posies tunes and "Your Love Won't Be Denied" is a bracing mix of melody and woozy noise, but otherwise, the record sinks under aimless instrumental loops and a barely-trying cover of Big Star's "Take Care."
Morton Subotnick: The Wild Bull (Nonesuch, 1968) Rating: 12/20
This experimental record (two long tracks, totalling 28 minutes) is from the giddy early days of synthesizers, when electronic-music pioneers were so enraptured with new sonic textures that compositional structure often took a back seat. Not as evocative as Subotnick's more famous Silver Apples of the Moon, The Wild Bull dubs layers of jagged bleeps, squirts and moans into otherworldly mood music, but listeners without a music degree will only enjoy it as an abrasive novelty.
Superchunk: Superchunk (Matador, 1990) Rating: 12/20
The Chapel Hill foursome's debut is closer to straight punk than later albums, but hints of the group's incipient pop sensibility and crafty guitar duels still sneak into the mix. Squalling frontman Mac McCaughan is barely intelligible, but the explosive, anthemic energy of "My Noise" "Not Tomorrow," "Let It Go" and (of course) "Slack Motherfucker" is enough.
David Sylvian: Brilliant Trees (Virgin, 1984) Rating: 12/20
Sylvian's solo debut opens with an upbeat track similar to the precision space-funk of his old band Japan, but quickly moves into warmer, more diffuse ballads with plenty of room for interpretation and embellishment. Borrowing the talents of top-flight musicians including Jon Hassell, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Mark Isham and Holger Czukay (not to mention Japan's Richard Jansen and Steve Barbieri), Sylvian saddles us with some excruciatingly self-conscious introspection ("My whole life stretches in front of me/Reaching up like a flower/Leading my life back to the soil," gimme a break), but the atmospheric arrangements help his pretensions go down easier.
David Sylvian: Secrets of the Beehive (Virgin, 1987) Rating: 13/20
This brief, nine-track album has far tighter melodies than other Sylvian releases, and its classy, light-jazz arrangements (piano, acoustic guitar, trumpet, doublebass, strings) insure that it ages better than his more synthetic works. Often writing in waltz time, the ever-mannered Sylvian croons his introspective imagery in graceful ballads like "The Boy With the Gun," "Let the Happiness In," the beautifully modulating "Orpheus" and the flamenco-tinged "When Poets Dreamed of Angels."
T. Rex: T. Rex (A & M, 1970) Rating: 12/20
Marc Bolan's first album under the shortened "T. Rex" moniker finds him halfway between his past elves-and-wizards folklore and the circular boogie-rock which soon became his trademark. With little help beyond weak-skilled percussionist Mickey Finn and an occasional string chart (did Jack White ever hear "Jewel"?), Bolan foreshadows his future with the sketchy pop of "Is It Love?" and "Beltane Walk," while showing his melodic gifts with the more acoustic "Diamond Meadows" and "The Visit."
That Petrol Emotion: Fireproof (Rykodisc, 1994) Rating: 12/20
That Petrol Emotion lost its Virgin deal but surprisingly rebounded with one final album, bringing back the gritty guitars lost on those increasingly commercial major-label discs. The group's golden Undertones connection is all but irrelevant now, but the wriggling beats of resilient tunes like "Detonate My Dreams," "Catch a Fire" and "Shangri-La" wrap up a nice run which was more than just a footnote to the previous band's glories.
Richard & Linda Thompson: Hokey Pokey (Carthage, 1974) Rating: 13/20
One of the Thompsons' lesser collaborations, this short record collects 10 samples of the duo's personalized brand of folk-rock. Some songs are overly polite and sluggish, but the title track has brilliantly stinging guitar, "I'll Regret It All in the Morning" is a dark character study with some signature Richard Thompson motifs, "The Sun Never Shines on the Poor" has a wonderful carnival-esque lurch and "Smiffy's Glass Eye" is a touching narrative of a childhood misfit.
Richard & Linda Thompson: Pour Down Like Silver (Carthage, 1975) Rating: 13/20
The Thompsons' third album as a duo comes off a bit drab and downbeat, despite some fine Richard Thompson compositions scattered throughout the set. A few of the tunes which Linda sings appear musically facile (see "For Shame of Doing Wrong," "Jet Plane in a Rocking Chair" and "Hard Luck Stories"), but the authentic arrangements (acoustic guitar, fiddle, accordion) give resonance to the excellent "Streets of Paradise," "Beat the Retreat" and "Dimming of the Day."
The Tinklers: Sting Along With Itch, Vol. 1 & 2 (self-released, 199?) Rating: 11/20
The ever-lovable Tinklers released this cassette themselves, containing 29 eclectic cover tunes performed in their inimitable, low-key, broken-toybox style. These casual tributes aren't as interesting as the duo's own material, but the impressive spectrum of songs spans pre-rock 'n' roll ditties ("Hold Tight," "Oh Dem Golden Slippers," "Diga Diga Doo") folk/blues ("Explosion in the Fairmount Mines," "Big Rock Candy Mountain"), '60s-rock classics (tracks from the Byrds, Troggs, Incredible String Band and Beach Boys), pure novelties ("It's Not Easy Being Green," "Barney Clark," "Nose Job," "Bryllcreme") and beyond.
Tiny Tim (with Brave Combo): Girl (Rounder, 1996) Rating: 11/20
Patiently assembled over an eight-year period, Girl is a surprisingly credible twilight release from the inimitable entertainer, blending a few contemporary novelties ("Stairway to Heaven," two Beatles tunes, a sweet duet on the Goffin/King obscurity "I Want to Stay Here") with the Tin Pan Alley relics which Tiny loved most. The keyboards and drums can be too shopping-mall sterile (just one reason why polka bands are stigmatized!) and his vibrato endured better than his bloodcurdling falsetto, but the performances of "That Old Feeling," "Sly Cigarette" and "Over the Rainbow" still have an eerie, sentimental magic.
Traffic: Last Exit (Island, 1969) Rating: 12/20
Taking two sides of a strong single ("Medicated Goo" and "Shanghai Noodle Factory") and padding them out to an album, this hodgepodge of leftovers sounds a sour note, sandwiched between the brilliant Traffic and John Barleycorn Must Die. "Just for You" is another of Dave Mason's cute folk-meets-raga ditties, but the rest of the disc slogs through the so-so "Withering Tree," a throwaway instrumental and two dreary concert jams.
Tuxedomoon: Desire (Ralph, 1981) Rating: 12/20
The second album from these Bay Area experimentalists adds Winston Tong's unpleasantly stilted vocals, often sounding like an ambient take on early Roxy Music. Whether grimly atmospheric ("East," "Music #1") or thumping with a dance pulse (the title cut, "Again"), the pieces typically dress up a rubbery bass figure with organ, violin, saxophone and Tong's heavy-handed lyrics ("We are all victims of the dance," "What suffering is born in the name of love?").
Unrest: Malcolm X Park (No. 6, 1988) Rating: 12/20
Reissued yet again, Unrest's second album is so wildly eclectic, it almost seems like a stunt -- especially since the band achieved all this variety in the most primitive of recording situations. Flip through these 17 quick tracks (six are under two minutes), and you'll find a buffet of jingle-jangle pop ("Can't Sit Still," "Christina"), punk ("So You Want to be a Movie Star," "Castro 59"), post-Elvis rock 'n' roll ("Ben's Chili Bowl," "Stranger in My Own Hometown"), moody drones ("Lucifer Rising," "The Hill"), folk-blues ("Ragged"), a Nick Cave-esque dirge ("Dago Red"), a Kiss cover ("Strutter"), a piano instrumental ("Dalmations") and, oh yes, ferocious indie-rock.
The Wedding Present: Bizarro (Manifesto, 1989) Rating: 13/20
The band's first album to be released in America, Bizarro is a typical set of aggressive-yet-sensitive pop, characterized by rattling guitar textures and David Gedge's oddly strangled voice. The sound wears a bit thin over the hour, but the group's instrumental energy is always exciting.
|Ween: God Ween Satan: The Oneness (Twin/Tone, 1990) Rating: 14/20
Ween's 26-song debut was an off-the-wall enigma when it first barreled into stores, but its shock tactics make perfect sense now, given the duo's subsequent releases. Actually, this disc surpasses almost any other Ween album, with its merciless parodies of hard rock ("Tick"), punk ("You Fucked Up"), pop ("Don't Laugh, I Love You"), reggae ("Nicole"), power ballads ("Birthday Boy"), blues ("I Gots a Weasel"), psychedelia ("Marble Tulip Juicy Tree"), gospel ("Up on Th' Hill"), flamenco ("El Camino"), funk ("Let Me Lick Your Pussy"), Springsteen ("Old Man Thunder"), Donovan ("Squelch the Weasel")...did I mention hard rock?
|The Yardbirds: Greatest Hits, Volume One: 1964-1966 (Rhino, 1986) Rating: 14/20
The Yardbirds' evolutionary timeline hinges on the group's legendary parade of lead guitarists (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page), but since Rhino never released Volume Two, we'll have to be content with this definitive look at the early years with Clapton and Beck. The slashing power of the hits ("For Your Love," "You're a Better Man Than I," "Shapes of Things," "Heart Full of Soul," "The Train Kept A-Rollin'") is undeniable -- however, it's a bit dismaying that "I'm Not Talking" is the only lesser known track with the same level of inspiration.
Yes: Yes (Rhino, 1969) Rating: 12/20
Recorded before the group's sound (and personnel) congealed, Yes' shaky debut is mostly a showcase for the already powerful talents of bassist Chris Squire and drummer Bill Bruford. Jon Anderson's unique vocals are distinctive and polished, but the tracks are uneven, mixing two strong rockers ("Beyond and Before," "Looking Around") with ridiculously overextended covers, a couple of fey ballads and, most importantly, two suite-like pieces ("Harold Land," "Survival") which foreshadow the group's mature style.
Yes: Time and a Word (Rhino, 1970) Rating: 11/20
Yes' second album is a low point of the band's glory days, saddled with immature material, failed experiments with orchestration and Tony Kaye's crude organ tone (on the plus side, Chris Squire's knobby bass lines are already astounding). Most tracks have a theme/interlude/reprise structure typical of the era, but "Sweet Dreams" and the graceful title song are the only memorable melodies.
Neil Young: On the Beach (Reprise, 1974) Rating: 12/20
One of Young's least engaging '70s albums, On the Beach takes some potentially powerful songs and deadens them with limp singing and listless, underrehearsed accompaniment. Dwelling on gloomy themes of retreat, disillusion and destruction, the album has "Walk On," "Revolution Blues" (a dark, rumbling portrait of the Manson family) and the wonderfully stinging banjo of "For the Turnstiles," but "Vampire Blues" sounds like a half-written outtake and the other tracks just wander vacantly.
|Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise, 1979) Rating: 16/20 Half folk and half distorted sludge, Rust Never Sleeps is one of Young's classic conceptual statements. "Hey Hey My My" has become an enduring anthem, the vanishing-frontier masterpieces "Thrasher," "Pocohantas" and "Powderfinger" rank among his most eloquent lyrics, while "Sedan Delivery" and "Welfare Mothers" are ferocious (if somewhat silly) nods to the concurrent punk invasion.|
|Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Reprise, 1979) Rating: 16/20
Young and his most famous backing band crank through an almost unassailable track listing (well, minus the treacly "Lotta Love") on this double-length concert album. Perennial favorites like "Powderfinger," "Cinnamon Girl" and "The Loner" show a tighter, more disciplined version of Crazy Horse -- the group wasn't stretching every song to eight minutes, back then -- and Young's opening acoustic set shines on "After the Gold Rush," "Comes a Time" and Buffalo Springfield's "I Am a Child."
Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Re-ac-tor (Reprise, 1981) Rating: 12/20
This loud, loud, loud transitional album has a thrilling sound, combining Crazy Horse at its most incendiary with some New Wave-era production ideas, but lazy, impersonal songwriting detracts from a potentially exhilarating record. "Opera Star" focuses on a delightfully weird "Ho ho ho" figure and "Shots" is a blistering climax, but other tracks seem like riffs in search of songs (particularly the nine-minute, one-idea "T Bone," which is shockingly blatant filler).
|Soundtrack: The Mission (Virgin, 1986) Rating: 14/20
Ennio Morricone's gorgeous soundtrack has an exotic spirituality which mirrors the film's story, as a conventional orchestra soars against panpipes, choral voices and tribal drums. The album's tone changes with some dark, suspenseful tracks near the end, but most of the music revolves around three distinct themes: the lovely meander of "Gabriel's Oboe," the brittle rhythmic thrust of "On Earth as It is in Heaven" and the meditative "Falls" (a simple four-note melody which is somehow utterly transcendent).
|Soundtrack: Once Upon a Time in the West (RCA, 1969) Rating: 14/20
Arguably the masterpiece of both composer Ennio Morricone and director Sergio Leone, "Once Upon a Time in the West" was musically centered around two classic Morricone themes: the majestic title piece and the awe-inspiring, electrified "Man With a Harmonica." Many of the soundtrack's cuts are variations on these two melodies, but the record also offers "Farewell to Cheyenne" (clip-clopping, traveling music), "Bad Orchestra" (a rollicking twist on saloon-piano clichés) and "The Transgression" (stark, percussive rumblings in a modern, avant-garde vein).
Soundtrack: What's Up, Tiger Lily? (Kama Sutra, 1966) Rating: 13/20
The Lovin' Spoonful's delightful score to Woody Allen's innovative spy spoof features the same good-time, jugband pop found on the group's proper albums. "Respoken" and the syllable-crammed "Pow" are the vocal gems unique to this record, but the breezy half-hour also includes the charming "Fishin' Blues" (see Do You Believe in Magic?) and some sharp instrumentals ("Unconscious Minuet," "Speakin' of Spoken," the Western-flavored "Phil's Love Theme").