Anna Marketti ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Music Editor
1. In Rainbows (Radiohead)
Spearheading the revolution in the piracy of music, Radiohead released their seventh album on a “pay-what-you-want” basis. Thom Yorke clearly clung to the idea of letting everyone in on the creative process, later releasing his solo album for the same price of $whatever on BitTorrent. Nevertheless, In Rainbows not only reached new heights in terms of accessibility, but in showing the diversity and possibility in Radiohead’s sound. “Bodysnatchers” is sodden with snyth, and “Reckoner” is the hearkening call to indie nerds everywhere. Explorative and immersive, the album pushes Radiohead to their limits, and shoves them off, waving as it watches them fall.
Fun fact: If you do it very carefully, the tracks from OK Computer align perfectly with those on In Rainbows.
2. Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. (Simon & Garfunkel)
Though we all know them best for “Sounds Of Silence,” the duo’s inaugural LP is arguably their best work. Echoing harmonies that incorporate equal parts from each, Art and Paul explore their ranges, respectively, and intertwine them in the most beautiful ways. “Benedictus” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain” may be Latin and gospel, but perhaps those are the genres more suited for Simon & Garfunkel. The emotion in Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., especially on the more antiquated songs, show the connection to gospel music that imposes itself throughout their career. The titular track is simplistic, beautiful poetry, observing a lover at rest in the purest way. It’s Simon & Garfunkel’s cleanest work, and their best.
Fun fact: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel kind of can’t stand each other now.
3. White Album (The Beatles)
Who knew Paul McCartney could scream like that? Overlooking the disaster that was Magical Mystery Tour, White Album finds itself in the Beatles’ lineup proceeding Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was a subversive album in and of itself. A concept album that mocked the concept of concept albums, Sgt. Pepper was what rocketed the Beatles to the mainstream, a statement declaring that they were here and they were staying. Well, taking that, White Album was the Beatles’ declaration that they weren’t just a British pop band. The ripping “Helter Skelter” and Harrison’s heartbreaking “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” intertwine magically with Lennon’s ominous “Julia,” making for a monolith of a double disc album. It’s really a showcase of each Beatles’ talent. We get to see Lennon’s tender side, and Harrison earns another few song credits—something that had only just begun to happen by this point in his career. Of course, White Album has its throwaways, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is simply whimsical and ridiculous, more at home on Magical Mystery Tour than here. Nevertheless, White Album capitalizes on the beginning fission between McCartney and Lennon’s friendship, polarizing their songwriting talents. McCartney asserts himself as a balladeer—save for “Helter Skelter”—and Lennon cements his badass rockstar status. While Paul is writing about his dog, Lennon is penning wandering, mysterious tracks about the trials of war. It’s a variety show packed into an album.
Fun fact: “Blackbird” is an empowering civil rights anthem. Go ahead, listen closely to the lyrics.
4. Illinois (Sufjan Stevens)
The second (and final) installment in an ambitious project that Stevens abandoned after realizing just how difficult it would be, Illinois marks the second state-named album in Stevens’ repertoire. The project was to create an album for each of the fifty states, but he settled on one about his home state Michigan, and one celebrating the Prairie State. Illinois features some of Stevens’ longest titles, and some of his most immersive works—self and otherwise. The famous “Chicago” finds home on this album, as does the melancholic “Casimir Pulaski Day,” a lamentation for bone cancer and the various things it claims in its wake. Songs with prairie-wide titles touch on all edges of the state, from Chicago, to Metropolis, to Decatur, which is a refreshing change of pace in an urban-centric world. Stevens plays haunting piano melodies, his voice hovering in some world between the present and that from which music comes. There’s a panflute, there’s a song about zombies; there’s something for everyone when it comes to Stevens. Where Stevens truly excels is in his composition: he writes like a classical composer, but sings like a pop artist. What happens in the middle is beautiful, fragile, and fleeting. He incorporates dissonance and atonal riffs throughout to create an unsettling feeling, but pairs it with triumphant horns in an odd sort of irony. The entire album is theatrical, and the songs flow together seamlessly, announcing the beginning of the next in the end of the previous. Illinois might be the last of the state albums, but that’s in no way disappointing.
Fun fact: The demo for “Chicago” is really, really cool and gritty. Listen.
5. Blue (Joni Mitchell)
Mitchell stood as an icon of the ’60s, and rose to her position with her markedly piercing operatic voice. Her wavering soprano wanders all over the world, as she sings of California, Paris, Amsterdam, and ethereal places untouched save for melodic explorations. Mitchell wows with “A Case Of You,” the demented love song all the estranged lovers didn’t know they were missing. She dips into the sensual with “River,” imagining a slick sheet of ice for her to “skate away on,” away from her problems, away from the real world—imaginative and relatable, Mitchell has total command of her voice and her music. Her wordplay is truly masterful on Blue, dropping rhymes that would make Dr. Seuss jealous. Intermingled with that is her incredible vocal range, which takes her otherwise sweet voice and adds an edge to it. “You’re a mean old daddy but I like you,” Mitchell sings in “Carey.” The album is packed with ’60s slang, like “daddy” and “freak,” and shows that even Joni Mitchell can be a bad girl, with songs about affairs. (“Carey” is rumored to be about her and her occasional guitarist James Taylor.) An iteration of sugar and spice, Blue is a departure from Mitchell’s political music, but a successful one.
Fun fact: Joni Mitchell had a cat named Nietzsche.
6. …Is A Real Boy (Say Anything)
As meta as an album can be, …Is A Real Boy begins with punk boy wonder Max Bemis discussing his anxiety over recording the nine word intro to the album. “And the record begins with a song of rebellion,” Bemis declares, finally. Tinny, distorted guitar churns relentlessly beneath Bemis’s nasal vocals. The album pursues some nameless thing aggressively, with swipes at an unplaceable angst throughout. Bemis touches on his Jewish roots; “Alive with the Glory of Love” tells the story of his grandparents during the Holocaust; and ex-girlfriends, in “Every Man Has a Molly;” as well as his coming to terms with his bipolar disorder and seeking help for it in “Total Revenge.” The album is admittedly self-indulgent, but it does it in such a flagrant manner that it’s almost parodic. This is exemplified in the closer of disc one, “Admit It!!!” a six-minute long epic putting down hipsters in their primitive 2004 forms. The song folds itself inside out towards the end, with Bemis screaming, “I’ll be just fine, my car and my guitar.” Although he’s criticizing hipsters for their superiority complex, he’s turning the finger towards himself, realizing and recognizing that he fits inside some of the very categories he’s complaining about. It’s the pot calling the kettle black, but both are the same person. Disc two then opens with “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too,” a poppy, keyboard heavy track about phone sex. Bemis is an expert at writing introspective, scathing songs, and setting them to gritty punk to set the mood. …Is A Real Boy, as their inaugural album following a string of self-released EPs containing angst-ridden tunes Bemis wrote as a teenager, is Say Anything’s foray into the world, an annunciation of the unity between indie and punk.
Fun fact: Max Bemis is married to one of the singers from Eisley, whose sister is married to the drummer from Mutemath. Music runs in the family it seems, blood or not.
7. Mermaid Avenue (Billy Bragg & Wilco)
A collection of unpublished Woody Guthrie songs bestowed upon Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy—though rumor has it, he asked Dylan first—Mermaid Avenue embodies the essence of folk. With allusions to Walt Whitman and Ingrid Bergman, it retains a sense of charm that preceded the baby boomers. Bragg’s guttural vocals spar with Tweedy’s wavering tenor, all while the two pluck along on their guitars. With Natalie Merchant thrown into the mix for “Birds and Ships,” the album allows each artist to make each song their own. “Hoodoo Voodoo” has the whimsy and chaos of a great Wilco tune, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” plunges to the depths of Bragg’s range, and everything else in between falls neatly into place. Like any great Woody Guthrie song, the tunes are packed with lore, whether it’s the story of meeting Walt Whitman’s niece, or a lover lost at sea. The thundering, insistent drums give the album a sort of old world charm. And it gives the audience that down-by-the-beach feel, with the incorporation of steel guitars and somewhat subdued vocals—apropos considering the locale of the namesake of the album.
Fun fact: “Mermaid Avenue” refers to the street Woody Guthrie spent a large portion of his life on in Coney Island in New York.
8. The Velvet Underground & Nico (Velvet Underground)
Readers have to listen to this one on vinyl. The Velvet Underground & Nico begins with the sugar sweet tinklings of the celesta, dripping notes like honey over the remainder of the album, Lou Reed’s voice saturating them. The album’s cohesiveness is what makes it stand out, each track segueing effortlessly into the next, bringing tone and quality with it. Each track on the album also stands alone as remarkable, though some more than others. “Heroin” enters lazily, Reed’s vocals stumbling drunkenly into the song as the drums finally enter, revving it up for that rush that floods the song like a good shot of smack—and then it plummets back to its slower rhythm, riding the highs and lows of a heroin rush. Nico’s velvety vocals add more sensuality to the album, interspacing Reed’s more resonant, reedy (no pun intended) voice. “Femme Fatale” and “Venus in Furs” are about as polar opposite in sound as two songs can get, and yet they mesh so well together in the flow of the album. A sweet pick from start to finish, ripe as the banana on the cover.
Fun fact: Lou Reed was among the first prominent “out” rockstars.
9. Rumours (Fleetwood Mac)
Yes, it’s the album that made Fleetwood Mac famous. No, it doesn’t have “Landslide” on it. Rumours is still a hot topic in the music industry due to its production values and pure diversity of sound. Steady bass and drums underscore the entire album, with Lindsey Buckingham free to shred away on his guitar. Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks passed the mic back and forth for the vocal components of the album, giving some songs the edgy rasp of Nicks’s voice, and the sultry, clear tones of McVie’s. Though their eponymous album (yes, the one with “Landslide”) that was released prior to Rumours reached number one on the charts, Rumours wins out in its appeal as a whole album. “Rhiannon” and “Landslide” were great for radio play, but the remainder of Fleetwood Mac isn’t as rife with rich musicality as Rumours. The twinkling guitar riffs on “Never Going Back Again” that support Buckingham’s nervous vocals are mystifying, and McVie’s command of the piano and her voice in “Songbird” is truly heartbreaking. Every member of Fleetwood Mac gets a turn to strut their stuff on Rumours, and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
Fun fact: You may know “I Don’t Want to Know” thanks to Paul Rudd.
10. Horses (Patti Smith)
Horses begins with Smith’s ragged voice declaring, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” over a whisper of piano. She says it with conviction, trailing off into a quasi-melody as the piano builds beneath it. Suddenly, there are drums, guitar, even a bass. The melody and rhythm build and build, until towards the middle of a song, it breaks, falling apart, collapsing in on itself until the end of it. Her voice leaps, it chirps, it lilts on the edge of something song-like throughout the entire album. Many people write off Smith for her non-traditional looks and voice, but the way she growls the letters spelling “Gloria” at the end of track one is the purest form of rock’n’roll, and if it doesn’t totally blow audience’s minds, nothing will. Packed with frenetic energy and paralleled by the stoic calmness of Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous portrait of Smith on the cover, it’s no wonder Horses made Patti Smith a household name and a frontrunner of women in the rock scene. An entire essay could be written on “Gloria” alone, but the other songs on the album would lay neglected. A read through Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, reveals that “Kimberly” is about her sister. Smith is best known for uniting poetry with music, a well-established poet and visual artist in New York in addition to her music career. “Little sister, the sky is falling,” Smith sings on “Kimberly.” “I don’t mind,” she continues, a tender testament to how she will always protect her siblings. The album closes on a raucous cover of The Who’s “My Generation,” Smith’s voice squealing and stuttering with unrelenting power. She name drops John Cale, of the Velvet Underground, and the band dissolves into indistinguishable static. So it goes for Patti Smith.
Fun fact: She was born Patricia Smith, and married Fred “Sonic” Smith (of MC5), joking that she only did so she “wouldn’t have to change her last name.”