Last year I did this with songs. Most rock music is most effective in song form – while it’s the traditional mark of “quality” that a band be able to create consistent records, this is largely a holdover from the seventies, when rock music started to be taken seriously as music, and the Powers That Were then Being decided that the longer form was the better form. This is partially a reactionary item – singles were for kids, see, and rock music was distancing itself from kid stuff.
The Stooges – Fun House
I mean, really. While Raw Power contains their (and rock music’s, see last year’s list) finest hour in “Search and Destroy,” Fun House is the kind of “once per civilization” record that dreams are made of. Even its sequencing is incredible – three grade-a yowling, thrashing songs (“Down on the Street,” “Loose” and “T.V. Eye”) that would, in a just world, be the biggest hits on the planet before side 1 is literally ground down by the Stooges great drone-dirge, “Dirt”. Then, side 2 starts with “!970,” which ends by pummeling its riff while a saxophone tears it apart, then the title track, featuring the most-unhinged Iggy performance set down on record, and finally “L.A. Blues,” which has nothing to do with L.A., and nothing to do with the Blues, and everything to do with the noise-jam meltdown that launched a thousand noise bands. There are better songwriters, there are better individual performers, there are better instrumentalists, there are crazier albums. There isn’t anything better than Fun House, though.
Slint – Spiderland
In many ways, Spiderland is at the other end of many spectra from Fun House. Where Fun House is a bunch of primitives playing rock music the only way they know how and not bothering to hold back until the album seemingly-collapses1, Spiderland is a masterpiece of restraint. Applying a dynamic sense heretofore unheard in rock music, applying ways of playing that are still pretty unheard, the music on Spiderland is beyond revelatory – it feels like hearing someone speaking a language that you understand perfectly the first time you hear it. The making of the record was enough to destroy the band – they had broken up by the time Spiderland was released, although they would reform sporadically throughout the last decade or so – which also adds to it sort of “lightning in a bottle” magic. Lots of stuff has been written about Spiderland, and it’s hard to avoid rehashing – it’s only six songs, only 42 or so minutes, and it’s been so admired, so picked over that there’s not much left, but it really is great enough to hold up to that, which is no small feat.
1 the great revelation in the Fun House box set – which gathers together every note recorded during the sessions and puts them in a row for obsessives – is how tightly-performed that album is, despite its abandon. So while it seems like it’s the product of a bunch of drug-addled lunatics (which they were) letting loose (pun probably intended) in the studio with no abandon, it was actually a bunch of dug-addled lunatics letting loose in a prescribed, jazz-like fashion. With, as is the case, no abandon. Anyway. Back to Slint.
The Replacements – Let it Be
Forming a sort of self-aware, inconsistently-operating ego to Fun House’s self-defining, consuming Id and Spiderland’s cerebral, carefully-planned Spiderland, Let it Be is the third way a record can be perfect: through wild imperfection. Whereas Fun House is a perfectly-shaped blast of aggressive chaos and Spiderland is a meticulous collection of six flawless gems, Let it Be is, like, five good songs and some inspired filler2. However, among those five good songs are “Unsatisfied” (see, once again, last year’s list), “Sixteen Blue,” “Androgynous” and “I Will Dare,” four of the greatest songs ever written. And among the filler (or at least the non-great songs) are “Seen Your Video” and their somehow-amazing cover of Kiss’ “Black Diamond”. And, of course, somewhere in the middle are “We’re Comin’ Out,” “Favorite Thing” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” (each of which at least makes it on its performance). It even earns bonus contrarian points in 2015 for the closing “Answering Machine,” which is great, being so hopelessly out-of-date that soon we’ll have to explain the title to people before we play it for them. But, of course, we’ll still play it for them, because even if it isn’t full of scary noise voodoo like Fun House or whispery black magic like Spiderland, it’s got something just as good: the sort of magic that comes from a bunch of people who only barely know what they’re doing throwing all of their heart into it3.
2 OK also “Gary’s Got a Boner,” which I don’t think is even inspired except in the sense that it somehow seemed like a good idea to put it on the record, which offers its own kind of amusement.
3 I mean, that’s what most of these bands, and all three of these top ones, have in common, but it really shows in the “don’t know what they’re doing” category with :Let it Be.
The Ramones – The Ramones
Sometimes not only is it true that less is more, but that you can do impossible large things by doing impossibly little. The Ramones proved that you didn’t have to be mechanically good, or even have a diversity of sounds, to sound like no one else. A lot of bands have tried to sound like the Ramones – really, very, very many – because it sounds as simple as can be. But A/B them sometime – play a band you think sounds like the Ramones, then play the Ramones. The difference you hear there is the difference between a competent band (or even a very good band) and an actually great band. The Ramones made rock music a different thing in their wake, and that’s the result of their ability to do something that seems so simple in a way that was uniquely their own.
The Jesus Lizard – Goat
Something like heavy metal, with post-rock’s time signatures and dynamic control. Something like The Stooges with world-class musicians, and, simultaneously, nothing like any of those things at all. At the time, the members of The Jesus Lizard were living together, touring together, and working together constantly. It’s impossible to not assume that this had an effect on the playing on Goat. In addition to being phenomenal musicians individually, the band worked as an alchemical unit, the guitar/bass/drums providing a single-minded bed from which David Yow’s impossibly intense, otherworldly vocals emerged, moving in and out of the instrumentation like a living thing of its own. Much like The Ramones, Goat is a testament to a band playing as a single unit, to the importance of rock music as a give-and-take, interactive form.
Pere Ubu – Terminal Tower
A collection of Pere Ubu’s first few singles, Terminal Tower is a fountainhead of rock-based weirdness. More than any other band possibly ever, Pere Ubu sound completely out of time and place. It’s not impossible to hear mid-seventies Cleveland – their actual time and place – in what they’re doing, but only if you’re aware of and inclined to find it. On a foundation of a top-notch standard rock rhythm section, Pere Ubu constructed layers of weird, de-funked bass grooves, inside-out but still-heroic guitar playing, non-musical, non-poetic singing, and, in perhaps their greatest gift to rock music, the incomparable synth playing of Allen Ravenstine. Before synthesizers, and their boring, stultifying usage, hung over the head of rock music like the Sword of Damocles, Allen Ravenstine was already using his to create otherworldly sheets of texture and sound, manipulating noise around the rest of the band in completely original fashions. So mercurial they were unable to even hold down a lineup while they recorded their first few singles, Terminal Tower shows the world a band that couldn’t lay down a song without inventing something, and one of the most wholly unique rock bands ever to exist.
The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms
In the east coast, in the late seventies, the scene immediately before and around punk was as likely to attract weirdo egghead-types5. The Feelies never wrote songs about getting high or wanting to destroy stuff or being angry. The opening track on their debut album is a jittery, high-tension ball of dense guitar energy that never really lets out. Moments of catharsis on Crazy Rhythms are few and far between, which makes them all the more valuable for their rarity. Powerhouse drummer Anton Fier6 provides many of them – although he left the band because he felt that the recording wasn’t adequately capturing his performances, which in concert were so forceful that they left him physically incapacitated afterward. The front half of the album is all barely-released tension, and a double, highly-interlocking, clean-guitar construction that prefigured a lot of what would become “college rock” (see REM7, below). But really, if a substantial portion of Crazy Rhythms’ allure begins in its relationship with non-masculinity (not necessarily an opposition, just a nonjudgmental lack of traditional dickswinging rock aggression), and the other with its punk-affiliated relationship with tension, the other predominant source of its energy is joy. From the unlikeliest Beatles cover (a version of “Everybody’s Got Somethign to Hide (Except For Me and My Monkey)” that takes the original’s staid, self-conscious loopiness and transmogrifies it into a celebration of off-kilter weirdness) to the penultimate track, and life-affirming and mind-blowing “Raised Eyebrows”, the moments of release on Crazy Rhythms are, in opposition to Fun House’s blind fury or Goat’s focused rage, exultation. This is about the joy of rock and roll, the catharsis of creation, the process of feeling good, even if what surrounds it is weirdness, awkwardness, perpetual nervousness. I said oh, I said oh, I said oh.
5 this is the same thing that would’ve attracted the Talking Heads or Television, and that would spread west to Cleveland and Akron and land Devo, the Mirrors, the Dead Boys (who would relocate to New York) and Pere Ubu, about whom see above).
6 Fier, himself a Cleveland emigre, would spend time in other bands on this list – Pere Ubu and Swans – although this is the only album on this list that he plays on.
7 Peter Buck, who was obviously listening closely to Crazy Rhythms when he started his own band, would go on to produce their second album, The Good Earth, which was released several years after Crazy Rhythms.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin (or Led Zeppelin I, if you like being wrong about stuff) is the kick-off of one of the finest runs of albums any rock band has ever managed, but none of them are quite the equal of the first one. Needing to fulfill contractual concert obligations as the owner of the name “The Yardbirds,” Page put together the Page/Jones/Plant/Bonham lineup that would reinvent the wheel, played some shows, then booked a studio to lay down a melange of the last few Yardbirds songs, two songs stolen outright from Willie Dixon (“You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quite You Baby,” credited to Dixon after a lawsuit) and another from their former opener, Jake Holmes (“Dazed and Confused” cribs heavily – i.e. the riff, some of the lyrics, the vocal melody – from a song of Holmes’ by the same name. He earned an “inspired by” credit after a lawsuit plus some decades), and one traditional number, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” which was, for whatever reason, credited more-or-less properly8. The result was just about the perfect distillation of all of the things that would, for better or worse, flow outward out of Led Zeppelin into the rest of rock music itself. Its place on the list, however, is its ostentatious, style-hopping attack: later Led Zepplin album would follow a consistency of sound and craft (II was high-volume, high-speed and aggressive, III showed them digging into their more composed, folkish interests, Zoso was a treatise on the standard rock form – which they were clearly done with even then – treated different sonically, and on and on). Lots of these albums are the result of a band doing their thing greatly, Led Zeppelin is the result of probably the best aggregate group of musicians in rock music history making everything around them their thing. Even the stuff they were blatantly stealing from somebody else.
8 seriously, if I understood anything about the way Jimmy Page credited things, I’d understand a lot more about the world as I live in it.
Mission of Burma – The Horrible Truth About Burma
Rock music is, in its most essential form, a music that exists live. The best examples of the form are about the interaction between players in the moment, and, consequently, most of the records on this list are made with regard to that precious interaction. Nevertheless, live albums are rarely canonically the best possible expression of the band’s best nature – documenting the live process is difficult and is, as often as not, zero-sum: the best you can hope for is something more-or-less as good as the band setting up in a competently-prepared room and playing their songs without the crowd or the immediacy or whatever. Records are, basically, a different impulse than playing – playing at someone means you are only trying in that moment to satisfy them, playing on a record is enabling them to be satisfied of their own accord over and over again. Since a live record can only ever reproduce the sound itself, its flying not only blind, but often without hands, and thus often presents little more than a curiosity for people to hear songs with which they are already familiar in a slightly different way. Mission of Burma never made a bad record, but most of their studio output suffers for being fairly put-together. They were, as much as any band, an act that existed for their own instantaneous output. So while The Horrible Truth About Burma may not transcend the limitations of the live album, it also presents the best recorded vision of a band for whom notes, chords or vocals were equal players with the volume itself, the chaotic nature of their brilliant tape-loopist Martin Swope9, and the lack of separation between what the three other players were doing – their records often impose a kind of traditionalist order on what was, often, three members playing three wildly divergent things at once that, when they came together had a hugely satisfying effect. The band always worked without a setlist, and with little regard for crowd favorites, which extended to their album sequencing and enabled them, at the end of the first part of their run – the album was recorded on the band’s final tour, and released after they had broken up – to finally capture the best of what they were capable of without worrying about hits (“That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” is here, as is “Peking Spring”, which is their finest moment and had been something of a local-college-radio hit in Boston in the late seventies, “Academy Fight Song” is not, and in place of it, or, say, “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate” are two covers10), although it’s probably fair to say that “hits” was a relative thing at the time.
9 eventually replaced, post-reunion, by Shellac’s Bob Weston
10 it is probably not surprising to note that the two covers present on The Horrible Truth About Burma are The Stooges “1970” (from Fun House) and Pere Ubu’s Heart of Darkness (which appears on Terminal Tower)
Sleater-Kinney – The Hot Rock
By the time of their fourth album, Sleater-Kinney had burned through the riot-grrrl scene and launched themselves out the other side, where they would go from “very good jittery punk-influenced band” to “totally completely amazing godhead art-punk geniuses”11. Their first decidedly non-punk-type record was The Hot Rock, which sublimated most of their volume and brought their instrumental-interplay to the front12 – even prior to THR (albeit after their second album), Sleater-Kinney were Carrie Brownstein, the liquid-mercury guitar player whose lines always managed to be original and take whatever shape was necessary, highly-adaptive monster drummer Janet Weiss, and one of rock music’s best and most unique instruments, otherworldly singer Corin Tucker, but as of The Hot Rock, those elements became less straightforward, and more used in pursuit of much weirder, thornier ends. They would go on to explore pop forms more, and return to volume for the final volume of their first phase, The Woods, but they’ve never equalled the “great band channels music from another universe” feel of The Hot Rock.
11 this transition happens at Dig Me Out, which burned off the last of their punk-screamer impulses by blending them with some minimalist weirdness and their burgeoning classic-rock-type influences .
12 if you’ve been paying attention, this is the best way to make the best album.
Swans – The Seer
I have written so much about Swans records here, and really, I have written a lot about The Seer, so I won’t repeat myself. I will say that, maybe even a year ago, it would have been Children of God on this list, but The Seer (and especially its title track) continues to get better every single time I hear it, and that The Seer is much more the work of a rock band than Children of God, which is always somewhat disjointed, even if it itself is probably the twenty-sixth or twenty-seventh greatest rock album ever.
Wire – Pink Flag
While many of the British post-punk set13 are described in terms of “minimalism,” none, really, were as minimal as Wire was on Pink Flag. While their subsequent albums (the also-incredible, all-time-greats Chairs Missing and 154) were much more abstracted and non-traditionally rocking, Pink Flag serves as something of a survey of punk-inflected styles, over the course of 21 songs in 35 minutes. Building their sound out of economy, not over-adorning anything, and not spending any longer on an idea than was completely necessary, Wire invented a whole new argument for brevity – namely, that reduction creates concentration.
13 including Gang of Four and Joy Division, featured on this list, as well as The Fall and the Birthday Party (whose Hex Enduction Hour and Prayers on Fire, respectively, were cut out of early versions of this list), as well as, say Siouxsie and the Banshees, (who were never even considered briefly for inclusion on this or any other list I’ve ever made), or Bauhaus, (who never managed a great album).
Wilco – A Ghost is Born
Call it the pinnacle of Jeff Tweedy’s career: A Ghost is Born is the capstone of the run of completely bulletproof, absolutely unfuckwithable albums that date all the way back to Uncle Tupelo’s (Tweedy’s previous band) third album – an eleven-year run that’s basically unprecedented, and yielded some of the greatest songs ever written. Taking the weirdness that came from his love of kosmiche and experiemental music (and that had started to creep in on the claustrophobic, nervy, and wildly popular Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), and providing more musical control than before (former musical lieutenant Jay Bennett was famously ejected from the band during the YHF sessions), A Ghost is Born is a beautifully-produced, hatchet-wielding meltdown of a record. The opening track, “At Least That’s What You Said” is certainly the best guitar playing Tweedy has ever laid down (he would replace himself as the lead guitarist with Nels Cline before the tour started, but all the guitaring on AGIB is his). “Theologians” and “I’m a Wheel” are the connecting strands to the old Wilco, and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” points to a motorik-driven Wilco that never quite was. In between are bursts of songwriting so different from previous sounds (even for a band that never kept the same sounds around for long) that they could’ve come from three or four different bands. It is also, I believe, the only album on this list to win a Grammy award. Which I suppose counts for something.
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
If rock music is about volume and breaking the rules, then here we are. The least band-driven of all of the albums on this list, Loveless is almost entirely the creation of a studio. The band would recreate most of its songs live, although that’s aided by the fact that the primary instrument of the record is volume. The Stooges used volume as aggression, Mission of Burma used as an element of chaos (creating phantom tones and echos and harmonics that crowded out the notes being played), Swans used it to overwhelm. My Bloody Valentine used it for purposes of beauty. Big like the ocean is big, loud like the ocean is loud, Loveless is played in the manner of the heaviest of rock bands to do, essentially, what Phil Spector or Brian Eno were trying to do: by burying each discrete sound in the mix, so that what came out of the speakers (following the four drum beats that lead into “Only Shallow”) was basically indistinguishable. It’s also performed, instrumentally, almost entirely by the guitar player, Kevin Shields14, who also provides something just under half of the vocals. Legendarily difficult to have produced, Shields also claims that there aren’t very many guitar tracks (there certainly is no evidence that he isn’t to be believed, but, again, it’s pretty hard to pick anything out individually), and he definitely did the whole thing without much by way of effects – he holds his tremolo bar while he plays, which moves the strings in and out of tune over the course of the stroke, and there’s some EQ effects at a couple of different points in the record, and here you see why it’s the least-likely candidate to be a great rock record: no real interplay, highly-technical, highly-composed and fussed over, and yet the whole running time is one enormous, enveloping, crushing masterpiece.
14 even the drums are mostly loops built around samples of their drummer, who was largely not present during the sessions, although he also played on the song credited solely to him, “Touched”
Sonic Youth – Sister
Sonic Youth spent their first few years pulling away from standard rock music: from the post-no-wave of Kill Yr Idols to the strung-together, ungrounded Bad Moon Rising and the melancholy, deliberate EVOL. Sister found them bringing back all of their tricks – from droning structures through full-out noise freakouts – back fully into the rock music context. Some bands make great records by showing other bands how to do something. Sonic Youth’s high points are insular, expertly-executed studies in being Sonic Youth. As much as it seems like “Schizophrenia” or “Catholic Block” are regular rock songs, it’s tough to imagine anyone doing anything with it, let alone anything effective, and that’s leaving aside the weirder things like the hideous churning nightmare of “Pacific Coast Highway” or the insane, rambly “Pipeline/Kill Time”15. Sister is, unquestionably, the sound of a band of particular individuals reaching their utmost natural expression.
15 perhaps ironically, one of the album’s anchor points is a note-faithful cover of Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart”, which sits on the second side and sort of kicks off the band’s flirtation with the semiotics and effects of rock stardom.
PJ Harvey – Rid of Me
PJ Harvey would go on to enormous acclaim for basically all of her albums, and some of them are even pretty good, but it was her second record that stands above them all. Later records she would be more self-consciously directed – exploring the Blues (To Bring You My Love), or New York (Stories from the City, Stories From the Sea), or solitude and origins16 (White Chalk), or whatever else, but on Rid of Me she’s one of the all-time great rock singers, and a much more interesting guitar player than she traditionally gets credit for being17. Her first two albums (Dry is the name of her debut) are sort of a weird mish-mash of writing and recording, but by whatever means, most of the really great performances ended up on Rid of Me. The title track alone is a mind-blowing exercise in Slint-style18 tension/release dynamics, and the remaining thirteen tracks on the album form a treatise in fury, and one of the most eardrum-blastingly cathartic experiences ever pressed to vinyl.
16 I think?
17 this is not helped much by the fact that she doesn’t. fucking. play. her. guitar. anymore.
18 in the liner notes to Spiderland, there’s a brief missive at the end that states that Slint are looking for a singer, preferably female, and according to legend, one of the respondents was Polly Jean Harvey from Cornwall. The world in which that worked out is the best timeline. Can you even imagine? Jesus.
Gang of Four – Entertainment
Rock music, as a genre, succeeds where others don’t for its ability to incorporate the rigorous ideas and practices of composed music within itself while also consisting, materially, of the physical (and, at least when it works, emotional) expression of the effects of those ideas. Lots of bands have taken their turn at expressing those ideas – the sixties were full of ideologues who had Something to Say and put it to rock music – but no band so effectively married the expression of their own sociopolitical ideas to the abandon of rock music as effectively as Gang of Four on Entertainment. The music is economical and austere, constructing effectively a funk-influenced, groove-oriented collection of punk rock tunes using a militaristic drummer, a flexible bass player and, their secret weapon, a guitar player who plays like he’s holding a grudge against his instrument. Construction riffs and lines out of chords that feature two or three notes, avoiding barre chords or power chords or the whole neck or even particularly fast stroke patterns, and leaving room for their incomparable rhythm section, Andy Gill essentially invented a new way to play rock guitar. Meanwhile the music bore out the reality of the political theorems set out in the lyrics, which were incorporated by Jon King’s non-rock vocal non-delivery, often spoken or, at best, speak-sung. Uniformly singing about the economic realities of things that rock music had heretofore been about in a completely nonrealistic sense – partying, interpersonal relationships, sex specifically, and, at the end of the record, the monolithic “Anthrax,” which is pointedly about the band not writing love songs19. The whole effect is something like dancehall reggae (“Damaged Goods” especially is practically a reggae song as it is) as delivered by angry robots.
19 the album version of Anthrax is the better musical version, but the single version (which was the B-Side to their first single, “Damaged Goods”, which remains the finest debut single ever released in rock music history) has Jon King singing the same lyrics about the hopelessness of not being able to control your own emotions while Andy Gill recites technical details of the recording of the song, including a list of equipment. The album version has Gill declaiming an essay on the specific subject of why the band doesn’t write love songs,
Can – Tago Mago
For their third record, Can became one of the only bands to successfully and vitally continue on after switching a lead member – singer Malcolm Mooney returned to America, leaving the band to acquire top-shelf ranter Damo Suzuki. The second-greatest double album in history20, Can turned studio-improvisation into a compositional tool when Michael Karoli stitched together the band’s in-studio jams (usually performed while some technical issue or other was solved21 into new pieces. Tago Mago opens with the band’s most rocking pieces – “Paperhouse,” “Mushroom” and “Oh Yeah”, and by the end of side three all of that has dissolved in tape music and repeated grooves for the almighty “Aumgn,” one of the finest pieces of experimental music ever recorded. Side four settles down a bit, especially with the closing, (relatively) conventional “Bring Me Coffee or Tea.” It sounds (and indeed is) like rock music made by people who are only interested in rock music theoretically – who use the instrumentation, dynamics and volume of rock music, but don’t want to leave behind their compositional and jazz-grounded impulses behind, and, as such, invented a kind of rock music that was essentially unlike anything else in the world.
20 technically The Seer, which finishes above Tago Mago on this list (see above) is a triple album (and a long one at that, it’s nearly two entire hours from start to finish), so I suppose that Tago Mago is the greatest double album in history, but who wants to only be technically right? That’s the worst kind of right.
21 I genuinely have no idea if the studio they were recording in was made of cardboard and duct tape, or what, but if the liner notes to the huge reissue were any indication, apparently shit just broke down all the time.
Fugazi – The Argument
There is a bare handful of bands whose best album is their final album (the only other one on this list is Slint, and their last album was also their second album). Fugazi ran through fifteen years of consistently great records, sounding like no one but themselves the entire time, and then, before they called it off, they threw the rest of their ideas into The Argument. Like The Hot Rock, Sister or The Seer, The Argument is a band finding and testing their own limits. The fact that they could find such unexplored, consistently-interesting areas of their own ability to play together and still make music that was, no matter how unconventional, still able to rock straightforwardly – it still makes you want to shout along, or dance along, or whatever Means of Rocking you employ – is a skill that’s never been employed so well since.
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
Along with Can’s Tago Mago and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Unknown Pleasures is really something of a treatise on how the studio can be a part of rock music, rather than working against it. Conventionally, the studio is an impediment to the proper duplication of a rock band – the intermediaries of microphones and things are part of it, but many recordings (done piecemeal, and not letting the band perform in the way to which they are accustomed21) also impose more restrictions – the use of editing to “fix” small differences in playing, the overuse of studio effects, and pop-influenced production tricks like flying in choruses and digital tweaking all sorts of naturally-extant human traits of the performance to make them “perfect”. It’s a rare band that can lean into these potential disadvantages and come up with a compelling way to incorporate them into their music. Joy Division as a live entity (at least as captured on the recordings that survived – I wasn’t alive in 1979, let alone in Manchester going to punk gigs) were much denser. Their albums construct a sense of space, and of separation, not only between the individual elements of the band, but also between the band and the listener itself. It’s music that sounds open, desolate, deserted, all of which came by painstakingly arranging the recording around the way the recording should exist. It’s still a potentially-terrible way to make a record22, but in this case it worked out extraordinarily well, especially for a band whose extremely brief existence meant that it was the best possible thing for the world that they had incredible, memorable records. Oh, and “New Dawn Fades” is literally life-changing, which is why it’s Unknown Pleasures here instead of the nearly-equally-great Closer.
21 that is: a band learns to play by playing in a room together and, whether they play out or not, writes songs by playing in a room together. Most bands also play shows, standing on a stage in a room together. That is the space in which songs live, and the amount of rock recording that’s done by having the band not play their songs in a room together – which includes whatever methods of creation they came up with to be most comfortable – is detrimental nearly 100% of the time. That’s not to say there aren’t great records that are made that way (some of them are even on this list), it’s just that it’s harder to represent the band accurately when you’re representation is accomplished by yanking it all apart and gluing it back together first, rather than just letting it exist as it is.
22 and indeed, the producer, Martin Hannett, has a long track record that includes surprisingly few successes considering what monsters both Joy Division records are.
REM – Document
Some bands come by greatness by having wholly original ideas, or at least by executing their ideas in wholly original ways. REM’s magic was that they were less generators than synthesizers – the ideas of an enormous amount of music, of history, of American culture, of literature, of place and sound and time all flowed through them, like they do everyone else, and they caught it and braided it all together and ended up with something original and unique, while still traditionally-bound and presented. Document is the first of their big “Rock” albums (the other is Monster, a much weirder and not quite as successful record), a mode that they spent not enough time in. Like Wire’s Pink Flag23, Document seems like the sound of a band surveying rock history and making it explicit which parts of it they’re keeping and making their own.
23 a song from which, “Strange,” is covered on Document
Pink Floyd – Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Perhaps no band is as poorly-served by their own impulses as Pink Floyd. Capable of some of rock’s finest moments24, they rarely sustained an entire album without spending part of it mired in self-indulgent fiddling. Compounding this, their later records are harmed by their obsession with studio “perfection,” often burying huge chunks of the performance with concerns of note accuracy or stereo separation25. Contemporaneous demos (the best way to experience late-period Pink Floyd’s music) show that they were still capable of being a pretty ferocious band, they just didn’t play that way in the studio. Shame, really. Their first album, however, was recorded before they had the ability or budget to tweak everything to death – to spend months obsessing with completely inconsequential sounds26, or fighting with each other, or abandoning entire sessions (Household Objects, bits of which would turn out to be the origins of Wish You Were Here) – and instead had to go in with the material they had and play it. The result is the best studio document of Pink Floyd as a band, from the twee weirdness of “The Gnome” to the all-out noise-jam attack of “Interstellar Overdrive”. Pulled together out of the haphazard detritus of Syd Barrett’s (this is the only album on which he’s a singer, and his lone appearance on any other Floyd record is “Jugband Blues” from Saucerful of Secrets, although he is also the subject of most of Wish You Were Here) creative drive, Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a testament to weirdness and singularity, predicting much of outsider music and drug-steeped cutsiness, while buoying above being more about the weirdness than the rocking on its own well-honed inter-band musicianship.
24 “Echoes,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Brain Damage/Eclipse,” “Astronomy Domine”, “Comfortably Numb,” “Dogs” – I actually quite like even late-period Pink Floyd, my criticism about their overworked records notwithstanding.
25. Dark Side of the Moon is oft-praised by hi fidelity enthusiasts (who are, for the record, never ever right about anything ever) for its sound reproduction qualities, which officially makes it the consensus Favorite Record of People who Mostly Listen to Train Sounds.
26 and, probably, to take the kind of drugs – cocaine, pills – that make you obsessive and self-centered, having as they did to stick to the kind of drugs – LSD (which pretty much incapacitated Syd Barrett, and so clearly was not without its hazards to the band) and marijuana – that make one more outwardly-focused. This is, probably, the transition between the expansive, experimental Piper and the crazy, paranoiac, ego-fuelled The Wall in a nutshell.
Low – Things We Lost in the Fire
Most of what makes Low great are also the things that make REM great – the synthesis of their musical and environmental27 influences, the relentless march toward not repeating yourself. Unlike REM, however, they weren’t as self-consciously referential. They internalized their influences more deeply, and spent more time exploring each idea. Things We Lost in the Fire is an album-length examination of vague, bittersweet melancholia. Where rock music generally makes its bones on overtness – high volume, directness, formal simplicity – Things We Lost in the Fire does most of its work impressionistically. By playing elliptically and not calling attention to any one element, Low create something laden with emotive power and musical imagery, and show a way to be quiet and contemplative without losing the ability to be forceful and direct.
27 Low could not have come from anywhere except Minnesota, in the same way that REM could not have come from anywhere but Georgia, or The Ramones could not have come from anywhere but New York. Contrast with, say, The Replacements (also from Minnesota), who could have come from basically anywhere, or Can, who probably aren’t actually from this planet.
The Who – Live at Leeds
Another band whose early (and also best) work was poorly served by albums, Live at Leeds provides the definitive takes on the best pieces of their sixties material28, which is some of the best material in the rock idiom of the sixties. Then-standard rock forms played with ferocity, aggression and (here’s this word again) volume that was previously-unheard, The Who in the sixties were a heraldic force of destruction. Basically, all of the things that I praise most of the previous entries for subverting were things that The Who perfected in their shows as an actively touring band. To specify, and as a bonus, the reissue is the one that’s here: the original is fantastic, but only has six songs. The reissue more than doubles the runtime, including just about every song that’s absolutely essential. And, lest you be confused by this being near the bottom of this list, it’s the twenty-fourth best rock album ever made. All of the songs are essentail.
28 their one actually great album during the sixties, Tommy, is too long by about half, and too precious by about twice as much as it is long*. Its follow-up, Who’s Next, is about as fantastic as they got in the seventies, but it’s still too fussy and overbaked. Plus about half the songs are way too long for their own content (Pete Townsend’s love of the extremely long coda is never particularly invigorating). Quadrophenia is also very good, but isn’t really even in the same league as Tommy or Who’s Next, let alone their sixties material**.
* I realize there’s some pretty tricky math going on there, but I think you get what I mean.
** Not to mention: you see that joke up there about synthesizers hanging over rock music like the sword of Damocles? yeah, Quadrophenia is when they hit ol’ Petey pretty hard.
Godspeed, You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
GY!BE’s albums are often entirely about contrasts – loud/quiet, beautiful/ugly, calm/harsh. By adding older, traditional forms and instruments (strings and the like), they abstracted further from rock music, blowing out the standard structure to the length of a traditional composed piece, including dividing it into movements. Drawing from classical music and film scores as well as modern forms, Godspeed created a constantly-shifting hybrid without ever actually separating from the rock music dynamic29. By showing that rock music can achieve new and interesting ways of communicating through the re-adoption of older ideas as well as through their rejection, GY!BE do as much as anyone to show that there is nothing that can’t be successfully incorporated into the rock idiom, even if your version of the rock idiom is six thousand Quebecois playing orchestral strings while a rock band thunders on in front of them.
29 this is why a strong operating definition of what rock music is helps in exercises such as these.