Again, I ask, “What were they thinking?”
Seems to be a question I ask every time we get pounded with a proverbial Pagosa dump. Although we survived this last storm without anyone tearing down power lines or knocking out Internet, much less thoughts of an office Donner party, I was once again led to selections standing so far outside the mainstream, they appear as tiny caret marks on the horizon.
Which horizon? Well, it’s a shifting landscape and, at various times, those caret marks indicate a particular direction where music will eventually arrive. Like the artists and albums I mentioned in the last installment of my question, these disks are revolutionary works pointing to where music must go if it to evolve. And in that particular process, where adaptation is not just sufficient but necessary, evolution means survival.
While the last installment was exclusive to bands of the 1960s, the few bands here occupy spaces in the last three decades. The ’70s stand as a glaring omission: a decade of over indulgence and unnecessary noodling, it was only redeemed by the emergence of punk. For purposes here, however, no single release of the ’70s (With the exception of The Clash’s London Calling — a release worthy of its own column) stands as something I would regard as truly revolutionary.
A common thread between the ’60s and the years following 1981 is technological innovation and social evolution. In the ’60s, the ascendancy of the LP as an art form (as opposed to room to place multiple singles), the emergence of FM Rock radio and a counter-cultural revolution provided fertile ground for artists to experiment, defy convention and create music for alien life forms.
The ’70s merely rode the coat tails of the preceding decade, expanding the primacy of Rock on FM radio but not pushing its limits — it wasn’t until “college radio” took hold in the early ’80s that an underground music scene was given space to thrive. Likewise, the introduction of the synthesizer in the ’60s only served to make Rock bloated and pretentious in the ’70s
While the punk revolution cracked open in the mid-’70s, those bands released singles, eschewing the LP as symbolic of the rotting carcass that Rock had become (in their view). It wasn’t until the ’80s that the social movement really took hold and made a serious dent in the U.S. music business. Record companies could not ignore the ascendancy of independent labels and the listeners they served (eventually buying out a vast majority of those labels and their catalogs).
With the introduction of digital recording and the compact disk in the ’90s — allowing for inexpensive recording and distribution — indie and underground music exploded, fracturing pop music even further. “American Top-40” lost its relevance as music branched out into specialized genres.
The prominence of the Internet, file sharing and social networking, as well as digital downloads and satellite radio, further led to the specialization of music. Hundreds of channels cater to specific tastes, both in genre and sub-genre, while the curious listener can sample cuts from a variety of various music download sites or download free music from a particular band’s Web site.
The new century changed the dynamic: whereas bands took advantage of technology to expand the boundaries of the form, it is now technology that is driving innovation. Anyone with a computer, mixing software and Internet access can create music and make it available to a worldwide audience.
Considering the truly radical direction that music has taken over the past three decades, the selections here are truly radical releases. While readers may well ask, “What was he thinking?” if they dare to pick up one (or all) the selections included here, all of them represent remarkable breaks from the norm — however that is or was defined — and it is in listening to these albums that we can trace where, what we hear today, changed from what was conventional at the time. The emphasis here is not just “What were they thinking?” but how pivotal these recordings were when they were released.
As the mid-’80s punk scene stagnated into various sub-genres (hardcore, goth/industrial, indie, etc.), Sonic Youth kicked down the doors with their 1988 release, Daydream Nation. Taking their modal and atonal improvisations from the stage and putting them in the studio, Sonic Youth produced an album that was symphonic in scope, full of beauty and grandeur.
Released in 1988, Daydream Nation took punk music light years away from the limitations that were becoming painfully apparent at that time. The two- to three-minute song structure and sheer aggression of punk gets turned inside out on the album (much in the way Zappa turned pop music convention on its head with We’re Only in It For the Money). Yet, while almost half the cuts on the album clocking in around seven minutes (the powerful final cut ”Trilogy” comes in over 14 minutes long), none of it diminishes the aggressive power of punk and, in fact, extends it far beyond punk’s self-imposed limitations. Punk gets redefined as songs like Teenage Riot” and “Total Trash” not only extend the form but infuse them with pop sensibilities, while cuts such as “Candle” (my favorite on the album) and “The Sprawl” completely defy the direction mid-’80s punk was taking, destined to arrive in a creative cul-de-sac.
To paraphrase the original Rolling Stone review (I’m working from over 20 years of memory, folks), Daydream Nation contained “the sound of Rock to come,” and rarely has an RS review proved so prescient. Much of what we hear in modern indie music has its foundation in Sonic Youth’s ambitious and audacious release.
Following along the rough-hewn path marked by Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine released their weird and wonderful Loveless, an album that, like Daydream Nation, proved what the possible was only limited by imagination.
Previously known for producing innocuous (and largely forgettable) goth-pop, My Bloody Valentine burned their teen heart-throb bridges in 1993 in favor of distorted, hallucinogenic noise (I often wonder how many attempted to return a copy of Loveless saying, “There’s something wrong with this.”) Taking fuzzed-out melodies (ala Jesus and Mary Chain) and then warping them into an ethereal soundtrack. Songs like “Sometimes,” “Soon,” and “To Here Knows When” are as beautiful as they are disorienting. The legacy of Loveless remains, not only with the bands I mention next but in bands as diverse as Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Sigur Ros and Mogwai — among many others.
Four years later, Radiohead made their own transformation, from a straight-ahead alternative Brit-pop band to the standard bearers of how indie music would sound in the new century. With the release of OK Computer, Radiohead created a sound that was at once terrifying and beautiful, isolating and all-encompassing. As My Bloody Valentine had done with Loveless, Radiohead took multi-textured compositions and warped them, wildly, with abandon and twisted intention. Even “Electioneering” (the most straight-ahead Rock song on the album) bends the melody while songs like “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police” sound as though they were hand delivered from the “Subterranean Homesick Alien” (my favorite song on the album). Current alt-Rock bands like Keane, TV on the Radio and Snow Patrol (among so many others) owe everything to the release of OK Computer.
In this century, 2004 was marked by the release of two albums completely worthy of the “What were they thinking?” question. Xiu Xiu’s Fabulous Muscles creates a horrific landscape from snippets of electronica conventions, artful noise, random sounds and far-eastern percussion. Pop music in the broadest sense (and the songs on the album are, for the most part, filled with pop sensibility), Fabulous Muscles takes disturbing themes (mental illness, sexual abuse, destructive relationships, etc.) and dresses them up for the most depressing rave ever.
Yet, with tongue planted firmly in cheek often enough, Xiu Xiu never allows the album to sink into maudlin despair. Songs like “I Luv The Valley OH!” (with its mocking “la la la’s ”) is as cutting a satire as Zappa’s “Valley Girl” ever hoped to be while the explosive electronic assaults on cuts like “Crank” and “Brian the Vampire” are indications of what the next decade has in store for us. Current indie bands such as Passion Pit, XX, The Dirty Projectors and Hot Chip dominate college radio only because Xiu Xiu took a careless, carefree leap.
My final selection, Worn Copy by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti reminds me of the final line in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.”
Worn copy is like nothing I’ve ever heard, it’s as if a collection of ’70s Rock/Pop/Disco eight-track tapes melted and merged, the amalgam then mixed into a sun-warped vinyl copy of The Cure’s Pornography, with the resulting mix played at maximum volume in a futile attempt to drown out Michael Jackson’s Thriller blasting out from the apartment above you. Imagine that sound.
If you can imagine that, you’ve imagined the sound of Rock to come.