It kind of makes sense that The Beatles were being ripped apart at the seams during the recording process for the white album. At 30 tracks and over 90 minutes—not even to mention the impressively eclectic collection of stylistic references—the album is clunky as all hell.
Tackling topics from the very serious to monkeys and pigs, it’s not an album that tackles a singular mood or emotion, but it proves just how potent the illustrious quartet of songwriters could be no matter what sound they were looking for.
You can still hear the rawness in the work almost 50 years later. Yes, with No Wave on your mind, “Helter Skelter” sounds FCC approved as anything has ever been, but in the context of the album, the band takes a huge jump from the clean, backing-trio vocal harmonies of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” to those screeches of saxophone—the work alone goes to show the change the group would inspire in the ensuing decades of rock.
The band also set the tone for the folkisms/popisms/free jazzisms/bluesism that would dominate rock history to this day. Again, yes “Yer Blues” might sound like it came from a group a bit out of their element next to Buddy Guy, but the way The Beatles placed pieces of other traditions through their own aesthetic lens would certainly inspire the incorporation of all kinds of ideas into the umbrella of rock for years.
To this day, the album is both easy and difficult to write about. Give me a word count and I can fill it up with points about interesting parts of the album, but no amount of words can fully capture the essence of the work and I don’t that will ever change.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
“Happiness is a Warm Gun”
“Back in the USSR”
How did all of these come off the same album. seriously.
Bjork’s third full-length saw the combination of her iconic vocal mannerisms with an equally potent electro-acoustic instrumental pallet, a bit more focussed than her sophomore LP. The album is relentlessly icy as electronic beats and soaring strings both underpin the ridiculous passion with which Bjork delivers each line.
The album dots the line between symphonic grandeur and more condensed danceable material. “Pluto” pulls straight out of the industrial underground with a death-defying vocal effect; “5 Years” is a bit stripped back, but the beat delivers a bit of head-nodding ear candy; then, on the other hand, tunes like “All is Full of Love” or “Bachelorette” read as operatic.
Bjork seems to find peace at the end with the triumphant “Alarm Call:” “It doesn’t scare me at all,” but for much of the album the pulsing tension in the sonic landscape is matched by Bjork’s anxious lyrics. On “Joga” she embraces “the state of emergency,” whereas “Bachelorette” places a relationship through a dire lens: “I’m a path of cinders burning under your feet.”
Of course Bjork also maintains her talents for the tongue-in-cheek as epitomized on Post’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” but this time perhaps a bit less brash: “I tried to organize freedom, how scandinavian of me;” “I’m no fucking buddhist but this is enlightenment.”
Like nearly all of her works, Homogenic was an entirely unique, left-field collection of tunes that also managed to conquer the world. Her creativity is unfathomable and to this day she remains a force in music and an inspiration to songwriters of all genres.
Hex is one of those accidental–and perhaps impractical–masterpieces. From the use of a church’s natural reverb to drench the heavy dose of electronic sampling to the various guest appearances, including trumpets, string quartets, and tamboura, Bark Psychosis crafted a painstaking work impossible to recreate on a night by night basis–especially considering the domineering nature of guitarist Graham Sutton that gradually kicked out the rest of the band. Nonetheless, the work survives to this day as one of the most important re-calibrations of the rock aesthetic of the past 30 years.
Sutton spent a great deal of time playing with different sounds leading up to the Hex sessions. The Loom is perhaps the most akin to typical rock song forms, but the long hand-drum sounding groove at its center is encapsulated by these aquatic drone sounds before crunchy sampling eventually kills any possibility of a chorus. The longest track, Pendulum Man, contrasts bass noodling and distant guitar cries with a glorious crystal of electronics that swells blissfully, stringing the listener along for 10 minutes.
The beauty of Hex takes a deep listen to garner, but the big moments on the record are certainly breathtaking. Eyes & Smiles digs in more than most tracks with battling trumpets, whereas Absent Friends’ high pulsing guitar melodies and screaming drones hypnotize for the whole second half of the track.
Hex was almost sacrificial in the end. Bark Psychosis didn’t survive to make a handful of records and their touring history is minimal, but their fingerprint is all over the post-rock that followed (the term was coined in Simon Reynolds’ review after all). While everyone in Seattle at the time was trying to distortion their way back to 1974, Bark Psychosis stood far out in left field trying to figure out how to wrangle every sound they could think of into the next era of rock.
On their second LP as Digable Planets, Ladybug Mecca, Butterfly, and Doodlebug combined their laid-back, internal-rhyme-heavy verses with landscape-sketching beats and infectious yet fleeting refrains for a project that is at once relentlessly mellow and chock full of hidden detail.
Blowout Comb opens on classic horn punches, but a tiny guitar melody follows with warm vocals, before a verse from Ladybug. Black Ego follows with seven minutes that thrive nearly entirely on instrumentals with a solemn acoustic bass melody combined with highly articulated drums and distant, whispery backing vocals.
The group wear Brooklyn on their sleeves on Borough Check–which starts with a crunchy, live rap-battle setting, before finding a more smooth studio sound–and Graffiti, where the planets strut their stuff and out-rhyme the whole city.
Political undercurrents pop out on Black Ego‘s sketch of an arrest–“like I ever had rights?” and although the album is famously not radio friendly, the infectious Ohio Players sample on 9th Wonder (Blackitolism) shines as lyrics address mainstream consumption of black style–“Now glamor boys want to be triple phatted.”
Shouting out Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus (among others), the group owned the Jazz-Rap tag and brought it to new heights on the masterful Blowout Comb.
On his first album as a band leader, Roscoe Mitchell gave the world a first glance at the music that the Art Ensemble of Chicago–of which Mitchell and a few of these musicians were a part of–would be enamored with throughout their illustrious career. Coming seven years after Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Sound extended Coleman’s message with a more collective playing style and further dives into experimental textures. The aptly named opener Ornette follows the same melody-improvisation-melody formula that Coleman used so often, but The Little Suite follows with great deal of components, each of which tested limits of aesthetic and timbre with harmonicas and other texturally driven instrumental sounds. At 20-minutes long, title-track Sound was certainly one of the most rebellious offerings of the 1960s.
Chicago was a town that always held an influence on jazz history as many New Orleans-born heroes had to flee to a less racist part of the country late in their careers. The Art Ensemble of Chicago proved the importance of the city’s art music scened by pushing the idea of improvisation further than it had ever been with each performance. Sound was the start of their rise and without it the fundamental ideas of free improvisation would not be where they are today.
On Cut, The Slits wore feminism on their sleeves and presented a pivotal late-70s rock record that fused post-punk, reggae, and art-rock into one eclectic jangle. “Instant Hit” kicks things off with a taste of the group’s open, back-beat grooves and collective vocal delivery. “Spend, Spend, Spend” and “Shoplifting”battle consumerism before “Ping Pong Affair” depicts the ever-present possibility of facing violence as a woman in society. Perhaps the work’s most notable single is the anthemic “Typical Girls.” Switching between that pretty piano melody and the driving punk riffage, vocalist Ari Up sarcastically drums up society’s formula for the respectable woman and rips it down with her iconic snarly high-notes. From the quirkier approach to synths that the Talking Heads would take up in the 80’s to the lo-fi obsession of the 90’s, reverberations of this album would be heard all over rock music for decades.
1971 found the United States deeply involved in a seemingly meaningless war in Vietnam. Families were destroyed, men were drafted across seas to fight for unclear reasons, and many an American was simply wondering what was happening to the world. Mowtown legend Marvin Gaye took a step back and concisely asked “what’s going on” over eloquently produced orchestral arrangements for 35 minutes of flawless, politically-charged musical material. The album is a singular concept work, each song flows into the next, and some absolutely transcendent musical moments strike in the middle of the individual tracks. The soaring high note as Gaye pleads “save the world that is destined to die” on “Save the Children” descending a half step on the final beat has always struck me as well as the massive shift from driving funk with smokey horns back to the spacey darkness of the rest of the album on “Right On.”
It’s also important to remember that this work is not entirely meant for “all Americans.” Alongside “War is hell,” Gaye also wonders when the police brutality facing the black community will end: “for those of us who live where hatred is enslaved.” He wants to know when he–and other people of color–will truly feel welcome in their own country. It’s an album that criticizes war and asks for a movement for peace for all, but it’s also an album that tackles racially driven inequality at home.