1965: Albert Ayler - Spirits Rejoice
Once in a great while, an album comes along that’s filled with so much god-awful beauty and spiritual intensity that every majestic note contained therein cuts deep into the dark places of your soul and leaves you with nothing more than the promise of sweet deliverance...
Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice is that kind of album. At least it is to me.
Spirits Rejoice emerged in 1965, around the time when the Stones were singin’ idiotically simple (albeit great) pop songs about frustration and discontent. On the other side of the Atlantic, we had Bob Dylan completely blitzed out of his gourd on mountains of speed, cranking out 15-minute rhapsodies that were more on the order of Ginsberg’s Howl than anything broadcasted on popular radio before or since. Meanwhile, Elvis was thundering his way through Tinseltown, galvanizing the silver screen with nothing more than his hillbilly charm and swagger. Never mind the fact that he couldn’t act worth a lick. When he gyrated his hips, girls everywhere screamed their lust-filled heads off – and when The King let his pipes loose with a serenade, it was then when history was in fact being made, because it was then when an aw shucks, po’ dunk truck driver became more popular than Jesus Christ. It was undoubtedly a seminal peak in the musical and cultural landscape. Boundaries were being crossed and possibilities seemed endless. In some cases, art was being made. And in rarer instances, something more than art was conceived – which is where Albert Ayler enters the picture.
See, Spirits Rejoice is a milestone, dig, a one-of-a-kind album that taps into the belly and heart of Americana, if not the Godhead itself. Moreover, you’ll never hear anything like this album today. Like those precious recordings on the Smithsonian folk and blues collections, the music in Spirits Rejoice encapsulates the hardships and joys and spirit of a very specific time and place in American history. And as far as innovations go, Spirits Rejoice adds a new entry into the annuls of jazz by combining Louis Armstrong’s brand of traditional New Orleans brass jazz with the wild, manic, almost uncontrollable swing of hard bop; which, incidentally, for awhile there, were two completely opposing factions within the parameters of jazz music. In fact, Tommy Dorsey dismissed Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as musical communists (which is an insult I’m not exactly sure I completely understand beyond being a shitty thing to say to any red-blooded American during McCarthy-era America). Anyway, Ayler fused these two forms of music so beautifully that it soon became ridiculously obvious that both camps were hopelessly ignorant in their attitudes about who holds the philosopher’s crown when jazz styles were concerned. I mean, it’s all just a heap of notes thrown together anyway. Whether it’s bop, punk, rock, rap, or whatever -- as long as it possesses some real vibrancy and swings hard and strong, why cheapen any form of expression by placing it into specific demarcated categories?
That was undoubtedly one of the questions coursing through Ayler’s fevered brain when he was blowin’ every fiber of his poor misbegotten soul through that tenor axe of his, because Spirits Rejoice is an amalgam of so many different musical styles – marching band, R&B, blues, soul, vaudeville, etc. – that the overall effect sounds like a blast of undeniable Truth. Jazz-writ extraordinaire Ralph Gleason wrote something along those lines in what was essentially Albert Ayler’s obituary in his column in Rolling Stone magazine. That Ayler was more focused on seeking eternal truths and beautiful melodies than he was with technical aptitude or how many thunderous notes he could cram into a single scale (which, incidentally, was the prevailing rage at the time). In fact, by most conventional definitions that many jazzbo’s adhere to, Ayler was far from the greatest jazz cat to touch a horn. Regardless, the closest sax player I can think of that matched Ayler’s aim was John Coltrane; and truth be known, Coltrane crushed Ayler by the simple fact that Coltrane had more of an impact than Ayler by his prolificacy. But what the hell? That ain’t sayin’ much cuz Coltrane was laps ahead of damn near everyone in music. And as far as technical virtuosity goes, heavyweights like Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker creamed Ayler, who albeit had a beautiful tone and fingers as nimble as say, Stevie Ray Vaughn, could nonetheless not keep up with those giants. And again, who could? Even when considering those who frontiered new platitudes and concepts in jazz composition, guys like Ornette Coleman and Charlie Mingus and Sun Ra beat Ayler by a long shot. But this ain’t a slam on Ayler; with all said and done, he ain’t no crumb. Moreover, as far as I’m concerned, Spirits Rejoice can stand toe-to-toe with any of the established masterpieces by those aforementioned legends and hold its own. Coltrane and Ayler's similarities stem from their ability to express such raw emotive passion on wax (which makes the likes of emo poster child Connor Oberst seem like a sniveling, whiny punk by comparison).
Ultimately, however, what we have with Spirits Rejoice is essentially a lament on the plight and deliverance of the oppressed and downtrodden. When you’ve been pushed down and kicked in the teeth for so long, you are left with only two viable options: fight back or embrace your oppressors with love, and Spirits Rejoice is an emblem/tableau about choosing love in the face of pain, abuse, and hate. It’s a beacon of what could be, and what should be, no matter what the trappings of our environment are – and that, my friends, is ultimately why this precious little album means so goddamn much to me. It’s a constant reminder to choose LIFE no matter how dire your circumstances are. I mean, I have little doubt that Ayler’s life was no picnic. He was an African-American living in a volatile time. Plus, he was a penniless musician, his nigh obscurity punctuated by the fact that he died at the age of 34. Furthermore, suspicious circumstances surround his death. His body was found floating in the Hudson River, and nobody to this day knows how his body got there or what he died of. Perhaps the pain in his life finally got to him. Everybody has their breaking point, and a man can only take so much wretchedness before he breaks down for good. And poor ol’ Ayler was undoubtedly up to his ears in agony. But despite all his troubles, I believe Ayler had a lotta love in his heart; Spirits Rejoice articulates this love — love for people, love for God, love for life – deeper and more eloquently than any other album I’ve ever heard in my life.
1997: Jonathan Fire*Eater - Wolf Songs For Lambs
Jonathan Fire*Eater’s story is unfortunately all too common in the music business: band releases strong EP, band signs to major label, band releases major label debut, band is never heard from again. DreamWorks released Wolf Songs For Lambs on the heels of mountains of buzz, only to see the record fizzle despite critical acclaim. Yet it’s hard to imagine Jonathan Fire*Eater failing in 2007. In the blog era, the Washington, D.C. band’s brand of carnival organ-driven garage rock would surely find fast popularity through word of mouth; nowadays, bands with fewer hooks and more abstract approaches to rock music easily sellout clubs and find their songs playing on teenage TV dramas.
“When The Curtain Falls For You” begins the album, acting like a declaration of principles. It fades in with a slinky guitar playing mysterious minor and major chords, followed by a martial beat on snare. Then comes Stewart Lupton singing “What do children do with these colors so hallow/ Yes, I know their will is true” in a Mick Jagger bark. This is followed by a glorious mess of organ, which, mixed with the aforementioned ingredients, creates something resembling organized chaos.
Indeed, “When The Curtain Falls For You” is the record’s strongest track, but it’s followed by 13 other songs that go down like vodka at a dirty burlesque. The garage rock of “No Love Like That” recalls ? and the Mysterians, while “These Little Monkeys” steadily thumps like a cross between Motown and This Year’s Model-era Elvis Costello. Meanwhile, “The Shape Of Things That Never Came” (a reference to Ornette Coleman) is yet another song that should have been a hit.
Instead of having hits, however, Jonathan Fire*Eater broke up shortly after the album's release, while three of its members – organist Walter Martin, drummer Matt Barrick, and guitarist Paul Maroon – formed The Walkmen. It’s easy to recognize Jonathan Fire*Eater’s influence on that band’s breakthrough record, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, with its reverb-heavy production and cocksure percussion. That record manged to find an audience (thanks to an 8.7 rating on Pitchfork and an appearance in a Saturn commercial); Wolf Songs, on the other hand, makes its presence felt in cut-out bins. What a difference five years makes.
1978: Squeeze - Squeeze
Most begin and end their Squeeze shopping list with one record: 1982's compilation Singles: 45s and Under. But for the adventurous and chronologically-minded fan who wants to dig deeper into Squeeze's catalog, it might seem like their 1978 self-titled debut is a good place to start. Unfortunately, it isn't.
Sure, it's their debut record, features the band's most prominent lineup (including Jools Holland, most well-known for his work in television), and was produced by John Cale (who had become quite a prominent record producer by 1978), but when Squeeze went into the studio, Cale made them scrap the songs they'd written and write new ones on the spot. Squeeze did as they were told and wrote a batch of 11 new songs -- they're really not that bad, but they aren't Squeeze. The fact that "Bang Bang" and "Take Me I'm Yours," the only songs Squeeze managed to keep from the original bunch, are the best songs on the album really makes the listener question Cale's ‘advice.’
That's really the trouble with this record. Since its their debut release, the goofy and amiable songs on this record are unfairly compared to the rest of the band's catalog of literate, sophisticated pop, the kind of songs that aren't on this record. It does have its highlights -- "Bang Bang" and "Take Me I'm Yours" are catchy and enjoyable, and "Wild Sewerage Tickles Brazil" is an instrumental silly enough to have been recorded by The B-52s -- but the rest of the songs are as lyrically and musically slight as you'd expect from a band who had to write a brand new set of songs before recording an album.
Listeners who want more Squeeze in their lives would be better served by picking up a copy of the band's second LP, Cool for Cats. This record is a more realistic introduction to Squeeze's catalog, while their debut should really be considered their bastard child, much like how Squeeze, the album the band named themselves after, was the bastard child of The Velvet Underground's catalog.
1997: The Damned - Damned Damned Damned
Before punk won the hearts and minds of the jaded and socially exiled, it destroyed rock ‘n’ roll. It condensed lavish guitar solos into throbbing, four-note whines. It transformed drawn-out psych jams into bursts of rhythm and power chords. Mystical/neo-romantic poetry decayed into 90-second cultural reprimands. Punk empowered anyone with a voice, a pawn-shop drum kit, or enough sheer nerve to join a band. Suddenly, the individual mattered again; rock music ceased its tenure as a phenomenon and became a creation, deities fell and became androgynous vampires, the glue of rock crusted away, to be replaced by three chords, spit, and a safety pin. On both sides of the Atlantic, punk was a welcome and revered deviation from mainstream rock, if not a shocking one. The early progenitors of UK punk held a new banner for chaos, disorder, and social challenge, and their musical output remains startling, yet earnest even today. Their ranks included The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols, and irrevocably, The Damned.
Occupying the sonic bridge from early 1970s glam rock, The Damned were perhaps the most flaunting members of early punk. Each player -- Brian (guitar), Rat (drums), Captain (bass), and Vanian (voice) -- had a penchant for the limelight, merging glam’s bratty strut with punk’s lewd power. The Damned were in as many ways pioneers, as they were the first punks in the UK to record a single and the first to share a stage with their US counterparts. Damned Damned Damned was also the first UK punk LP, beating the Sex Pistols’ more illustrious Never Mind the Bollocks by several months. Without foresight or agenda, it became a model for punk rock releases, signing to the then fledgling independent label Stiff Records and garnering an underrated producer in Nick Lowe. It was Lowe who kept the record’s production down, giving it a gritty, organic quality that contrasted with the Pistols’ sharp lucidity.
The songs themselves fit and pound and surge; they holler out anti-anthems like “Neat Neat Neat,” “Fish!,” “Stab Your Back,” and “Born to Kill.” There’s the haunting narrative of “Feel the Pain” that reads like a gothic rendition of The Velvets’ “Venus in Furs.” These songs don’t resound the way The Sex Pistols’ and The Clash’s first albums did; that is to say, Damned Damned Damned offers nothing that could be stitched to a leather jacket or spray-painted on the walls of Parliament. Instead, there’s a deeper, embedded aesthetic at work. Within the unrelenting backbeat, the howling guitars, the bounding, precise bass, and David Vanian’s undead-Elvis croon we find expressions of both torture and absurdity.
Take “New Rose,” the album’s first single: it begins almost as a romp on a 1950s sock-hop before it delves into lines like, “I don’t deserve somebody this great/ I’d better go or it’ll be too late.” “I Fall” follows a similar bent: “I'm a falling angel, falling down/ Be a falling angel, won’t you come round?/ Don’t be scared to follow, it’s no crime/ You’re a falling angel before your time.” And it’s here that The Damned reveal an emotional authenticity that exceeds the occasional social posturing of the other early, memorable punk albums. The 30-year anniversary edition of Damned Damned Damned, with its two (slightly redundant) bonus discs, serves to further capture this spirit. Disc 2 compiles John Peel sessions, B-sides (including a double-time take on The Beatles’ “Help”), early singles, live tracks, and demos. Despite the scattershot recording of Disc 3’s live gig at London’s 100 Club, it succeeds in bringing forth The Damned’s sheer power and disregard for rock ‘n’ roll.
That said, there’s no one device that makes Damned Damned Damned worthy of a massive year-30 anniversary reissue, which could perhaps explain its general regard in punk history as a near-classic that failed to inspire the masses the way that Never Mind the Bollocks or The Clash did. Rather, the sum of its parts and the blood on its hands made this a punk’s punk record, an unmolested expression of all things worth fighting for: love, power, brutality, and the contrary right to destroy all of it.
2000: Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele
Top five reasons (amongst many others) why Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele is among the best hip-hop albums of our current decade:
1. Ghost rhymes “big microphone hippie” with “Poughkeepsie,” probably the first person in the world to ever couple these words. Never mind that they wouldn’t rhyme had anybody else said them. Never mind that he outshines almost every other MC on the planet with this couplet. However, you may want to take into account that this all comes within 15 seconds of his first verse on the record. Kinda makes “It’s gettin’ hot in here/ So take off all your clothes” seem like it was written by a five-year-old, doesn’t it?
2. The man knows how to pick beats. A perfect example of his now-trademark cherry-picking: jacking Inspectah Deck’s self-produced beat for “Elevation” for his own “Stay True,” immortalized by the original tracklisting where it’s called (what else?) “Deck’s Beat.” Even since Supreme Clientele, Ghost has continued to display the ability to sift through filler and pick out only the hottest shit, whether it’s stealing a simple loop or calling in a proper collection of should-be higher-profile producers, like Juju of the Beatnuts for “One.” The majority of Wu solo albums were unable to accomplish this same feat after 1997, although they certainly tried (see Raekwon’s Immobilarity and GZA’s Beneath the Surface).
3. “Who Would You Fuck” is the best hip-hop skit ever made, bar none. And it only gets funnier with age. Every guy has conversations with buddies about famous women they would sleep with. But this team is the first to put it on an album, which makes it all the better for treading the line between stupidity and brilliance. It sounds like the crew just decided to press record when they were up late smoking blunts and drinking beers, talking about things guys talk about. Naomi or Tyra Banks? Nia or Halle Berry? Ahh, the wonders of hypothetical sex.
4. Raekwon talks all kinds of shit about a pre-fame 50 Cent on the “Clyde Smith” skit. In hindsight, his recognition of 50’s controversial “How To Rob” street hype seems to be a prophetic way of decrying media stunts in the current hip-hop mainstream. Perhaps to avoid too much drama, Rae’s voice is rendered unrecognizable, but heads have come to realize that it was indeed he who says, “I don’t even know why he tried to do that dumb-ass shit right there.” Still, the whole situation provides a subdued counterpoint to the overblown Game/Fiddy G-Unot nonsense that has inexplicably dominated message boards for the past few years.
5. Endless slang invention. For kids in the suburbs, Supreme Clientele is like hieroglyphics; it takes years of training to figure out how to translate it. It would be easy to equate his rhymes on this album to the works of a poet, but Ghost is no Wordsworth or Frost. He speaks in a highly encoded language, coming across as completely alien on first listen, but if you pick apart his verses, they make profound sense in small portions, as if he were spitting clear stream-of-consciousness thoughts straight from his brain. Slowly but surely, the listener is able to put his stories together, figuring out something new every time they listen. This isn’t just poetry; these are street puzzles, God. For real.
1977: Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
The oxymoronic matrimony of harmony and heartbreak proved to be an especially stimulating and fertile musical cocktail for Fleetwood Mac during the recording of their aptly titled album, Rumours – the most popular and critically acclaimed work in the canon of the ever-evolving band.
In 1974, founders Mick Fleetwood (drummer) and John McVie (bassist), as well as McVie’s wife, Christine McVie (singer/keyboardist), were joined by Lindsey Buckingham (singer/guitarist) and his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks (singer/pianist). Together, they formed the most gifted ensemble of songwriters and musicians in the band’s history. Having already recorded one successful album in 1975, the self-titled Fleetwood Mac, the band was reaching an artistic zenith, as the recently minted lineup self-actualized into a musical entity.
Each musician's disparate strengths and influences -- from Fleetwood and McVies’ funk-inspired grooves to Nicks’ esoteric melodies and rhythms to Buckingham’s affinity for riff-driven ‘50s styled rock -- coalesced flawlessly to create the engaging mood and exciting songcraft. This hallmark sound is best displayed on “The Chain,” the sole track written by all five members. The fractured song unites, despondent and ebullient, with striking results, as a richly ornamental Buckingham guitar riff enlivens an ominously pulsating McVie bassline while august harmonies juxtapose bleak lovelorn lyrics: “If/ You don't love me now/ You will never love me again.” Although “The Chain” produced the album’s signature mantra, the buoyant “Never break the chain,” turmoil in the band’s numerous amorous relationships led to painful breakups, which were never rekindled during the recording of the album.
As the band was reaching musical concord, each member was experiencing emotional discord. Their incestuous relationships left them writing about and recording with bandmates they once, but no longer, loved romantically. The most musically interesting of these separations was between Buckingham and Nicks. Both songwriters treated Rumours as a cathartic canvas for their broken hearts to decant out onto. As Buckingham sardonically cries, “I ain't gonna miss you when you go,” on his anxious opener, “Second Hand News,” there is Nicks harmonizing with her jilted lover. Buckingham returns the favor, as Nicks more sanguinely sings, “I don't want to stand between you and love/ Honey” to him on her bucolic “I Don’t Want To Know,” creating a fascinating dynamic that resonates throughout the album.
Christine represents the dissolution of her marriage to John with her trademark joyous, sunny pop. Excising any feelings of bitterness and remorse from her palette, she instead composes with invigorating optimism about the future (“Don’t Stop”), showcasing a resolute fondness for romance as she repeatedly professes: “I love you” (“Songbird”). Fleetwood was not freed from heartbreak himself, as his wife had an affair with his best friend. Although Fleetwood and John were not able to express themselves lyrically, Fleetwood’s passionate drumming on “Go Your Own Way” and “Don’t Stop,” along with John’s bluesy basslines on “You Make Loving Fun” are at their finest.
Although recorded over 30 years ago on a foundation of sorrow, Rumours doesn't sound dated or stand as a testimonial to acrimony and gall. Instead, by portraying the timeless themes of compassion, absolution, and perseverance with pleasing, accessible aesthetics, it remains an enduring touchstone of pop music.