With this, Love's fourth album, we move deeper still into the canyon. In fact, this was actually the very last record to be cut from the original Canyon 25, not on the basis of quality but because it exists just that little bit too far inside acid rock territory to fit in with the down-home 25. Still, even if it does exist just outside the boundaries of what constitutes canyon proper, it truly is a phenomenal, unique record, more than worthy of our attention in the context of this excursion.
It also works as a perfect transition into the final chapter of the Two Weeks In The Canyon saga: what will be a sort of mirror image 25, a selection of records from the other side of the canyon. That feature should be appearing here sometime later next week, so stay tuned. In the meantime, let us dig into this particular Love story and see where it takes us...
Led by the late great psychedelic visionary Arthur Lee, Love started out as one of the original folk rock combos (alongside fellow Angelenos The Byrds), turning in their self-titled debut in early 1966 (right in between The Byrds' Turn! Turn! Turn! and Fifth Dimension). It was a solid, garage-tinged record that nevertheless found the band still heavily indebted to their influences, most obviously The Byrds first and foremost but also British invasion bands like The Animals and The Who.
The band's chief songwriters — Lee and Bryan MacLean — were still finding their respective voices at this point, relying more heavily on cover versions — songs like Hey Joe (by folk singer Billy Roberts) and Bacharach/David's My Little Red Book — than they ever would again. It wasn't until the following year, on their sophomore album Da Capo, that the band began to carve out territory that was truly their own... and it turned out to be a world that no one else in rock had yet dreamed of.
Da Capo features another shot of the band in front of that same stone structure found on their debut (taken in the gardens of their communal home, which they dubbed The Castle), but its sound was a quantum leap from everything they'd done up to that point. Perhaps most notorious for the psychotic slab of garage punk called Seven & Seven Is, an excursion into warped surf rock (spiked with the distinct flavor of Ravel's Bolero) that would later appear on the epochal Nuggets box set. To this day, it remains one of the most extreme examples of sixties punk.
However, the real shape of things to come was to be found in the intricate arrangements of songs like Orange Skies (written by MacLean, it's the one song not credited Lee) and ¡Que Vida!. Replete with swirling organs, flutes and the distinct colorings of baroque pop, they found the band using the studio to their full advantage in creating songs with unique colorings firmly outside the bounds of straight ahead rock 'n roll. This was an approach that would of course come to full fruition later that year...
Released a mere nine months after Da Capo, Forever Changes — often considered one of the finest albums of all time — is the record that really put them in the history books. At this point, the band developed a mastery of incorporating orchestral elements like strings and brass into the very fabric of their (by this point) extremely distinctive folk rock style. Tunes like A House Is Not A Motel sound like the blueprint for all the best indie rock about twenty years before the fact, haunted by the definitive guitar sound that Johnny Echols conjures up on his six-string.
Nimble, breakbeat-propelled excursions like Alone Again Or and Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale are graceful in a way seldom heard in rock up to that point, cementing the record's status as a deservedly acknowledged classic. Without giving too much away, its boundless reach into regions beyond the typical folk rock and country forms will inform the next and final chapter of the whole canyon saga, where we dive into the more jazz and orchestral-inflected waters on the other side of L.A. — with routes stretching into jazz, psychedelia, hard rock and beyond — of which Forever Changes arguably stands at the apex.
And yet, after the record's release, the band ultimately parted ways. The reasons were many, including substance abuse problems within the band and friction between Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean (who was frustrated at not having more of his songs on the record). Forever Changes was also much more successful a record in the U.K. than it ever was in the States, where it was destined to gradually attain its status as a lost classic over time. Ultimately, MacLean left the group and Lee, discontent, dismissed the rest of the band. After recording a masterpiece, Lee found himself in the wilderness and in need of a new crew to run with.
It was at this point that he formed a completely new band, rounded out by Jay Donnellan on guitar, Frank Fayad on bass and George Suranovich on drums. Love MK. II got down to business in a converted L.A. warehouse, cutting three LPs worth of sun-baked high desert rock 'n roll in a series of marathon sessions. Four Sail was the first album culled from those sessions, and the band's final with Elektra (the remainder of the recordings would appear on the double-LP Out Here, released by Blue Thumb).
Starting from the cover photo and its iconic western imagery, which perfectly matches the acid country sounds found within, this record finds the newly minted Love operating as a looser and more free-wheeling outfit than Lee's previous band. His new circle of musicians also tended towards a harder, more blues-based approach, and he wisely met them halfway. Lee described writing songs around the new band, giving individual members space to express themselves musically, accounting for the change in direction toward a harder, more down-to-earth sound.
The band's liquid interplay defines the record, their turn-on-a-dime rhythmic theatrics kicking up a ramshackle glory with all the makings of a great cowboy movie. This is what you always wanted The Grateful Dead to sound like. Still, there's a lot of ground covered on Four Sail. Despite the swaggering bluster to this record's more turbulent theatrics, there's nevertheless some quietly intimate corners it manages to spend a considerable amount of time in. In short, it's a tour de force, and one certainly that deserves a second look here at Parallax Moves...
The record opens with the sort of trademark cyclical folk rock strum that one has grown to expect from Love, sounding like a dead ringer for what would one day be called alternative. Then, Jay Donnellan's acid-tinged guitar line rises on the crest of a machine gun rhythm from George Suranovich, heralding the record's masterful melding of musical forms with the blistering August. This is a place where country and folk, hard rock, sunshine pop and jazz all mix with wild abandon.
After slipping into a gently tumbling verse from Arthur Lee — his bittersweet paean to the month of August itself — the acid motif returns, serving as a wordless chorus as the guitars spar with scattershot snare riddims. At the tune's midpoint, it all drops back into that cyclical guitar pattern once again before collapsing into a violent eruption of Donnellan's acid guitar pyrotechnics through the tectonic plates of the track's rolling folk and country stylings, unveiling the new band's more hard-edged attack in full force. Indeed, Donnellan's guitars define this record.
It's all gloriously cinematic, you can practically see the dust being kicked up by the horses as the gang rides into town. This is every kid's cowboy movie fantasies writ large in sonic form. There's a controlled fury to the band's blasts of noise that keys into the sort of abstract blues that bands like the Groundhogs had just begun to explore, the band trading their liquid mercury lines with near-telepathic interplay. When everything goes into overdrive at the tune's halfway mark — the band jamming furiously in a cascading pile-up of throbbing bass, crashing drums and Donnellan's acid-drenched guitars — it's like you're riding directly into a sandstorm. And then, without warning, it all ends on the same fanfare it rode in on.
Without missing a beat, the band drops into Your Friend And Mine - Neil's Song a jaunty quasi-music hall number that recalls The Lovin' Spoonful's winning sunshine folk ditties like Best Friend and Lovin' You (see also Hot Tuna and The Kinks circa Muswell Hillbillies). Even Arthur Lee's lyrics sound like they're straight out of John Sebastian's playbook:
Only you can bring back the good old days.
Let's hear it again for a long lost friend.
Here's a little something to relax your mind
Now that we are two of a kind, my friend.
Donnellan's guitar carves out a little good time, country-inflected guitar line that runs through the entirety of the tune, occasionally creeping into the foreground for a playful kind of solo. The whole thing so brilliantly casual, tossed off even, making it a lovely playpen for Lee's vocals to wander after the blistering intensity of August.
It's not until the third song that we get something like the prototypical Love song. Sounding like a dead ringer for the original band's peak-era sound, I'm With You would have fit right in there on Forever Changes. It directly mirrors the quickstep approach of such prime material as Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale and A House Is Not A Motel, albeit with the overcast, baroque stylings of Forever Changes replaced with a sun-glazed blurriness.
Truly, it seems like no one else can pull this sort of thing off. Nimbly perched breakbeats carry the song's soaring trajectory as guitars seem to twist and turn on eight different planes, cymbals splashing up against the chorus like little waves as Lee recreates the horn section of Forever Changes himself with a wordless ba ba ba, ba ba-ba ba vocal. Simply sublime. It's worth noting one thing that isn't mentioned enough when discussing this band: Lee's vocals, which effortlessly veer between sweet falsetto, rich croon and mountain man roar (often in the space of a single song), and are some of the finest to be found in rock music.
Good Times creeps in out of nowhere on a jazzy shuffle, not unlike the one found in Simon And Garfunkel's Somewhere They Can't Find Me, albeit swinging a good deal harder. The guitars seem submerged in the mix before getting overdriven through a wah-wah pedal in the chorus, warping the entire groove and driving up the tension before rising into another one of Donnellan's linchpin solos. Nevertheless, Lee's vocals, switching as they do between the gentle grace of the smooth, cool cat verses and ragged rock 'n roll chorus (and back again), are the true star of the show.
Opening with a ringing guitar fanfare underpinned by more of those trademark Suranovich rolling drums, Singing Cowboy seems to kick up a dust cloud with its galloping beat riding roughshod over Four Sail's halfway mark. This tune in particular really cements the record's unique feel, along with my idea of it as that rare thing: an acid country record, utterly distinctive and worthy of praise in its own right (and not just a footnote to Forever Changes). Lee's lyrics seem to bear this out:
It's do or die, boy.
Say goodbye, don't you cry
Look out kid, I'm coming after you.
Iconic words that brilliantly match the sonic imagery conjured up by the band, bringing to mind some unprecedented fusion of Ennio Morricone and Gordon Lightfoot. The bridge is classic Love, featuring a descending three-stab guitar riff that on second return explodes into another burnt bronze Donnellan solo. This leads naturally into the track's protracted denouement (which incidentally takes up the second half of its five minute running length) throughout which Lee keeps chanting coming through to you and gotta keep on rolling on as Frank Fayad's massive churning bassline takes center stage.
Side two opens with Dream, a listless take on the more whimsical corners of Love's sound. Lee confesses I just woke up from a dream and the band perfectly captures that bleary-eyed dislocation of waking up in a place you don't remember being. One's reminded of the moping, exhausted feeling of The Beatles' I'm So Tired, rendered here with the benefit of a killer proto-hip hop be bop drum break. Donnellan drops another one of his secret weapon guitar solos, this one a likkle bit contemplative and searching (and seemingly copied in part by Oasis on Champagne Supernova!). The band seems to gather its last bit of energy to go into cowboy fanfare mode again for the dismount, before collapsing completely.
Surely spelling doom on the horizon, Robert Montgomery — the other big rocker here — opens with a razor blade guitar riff before Donnellan weaves his wrought iron lines across a twisted foundation of tortured bass and cymbal-splashing drums. This song isn't actually about the actor, but an autobiographical account of Lee returning to his old neighborhood to find that all the people that used to laugh at his proto-hippie style had by then jumped on the bandwagon. Sounding like he's clawing his way out from another bad dream, Lee unfurls a tale of lonely dislocation:
Robert Montgomery lived on the good side of town.
He went down to the people that he used to know, but they had changed
And though they looked different they still were the same...
It's like one of Ray Davies character studies rendered with shades of the apocalypse. Every note played, every drum crash, every stinging guitar line, seems to close in around Lee's soaring falsetto, matching his every move in a staggering dance of doom. Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, the track becomes a launching pad for some spiraling guitar work from Donnellan, but dark horse Frank Fayad rides in with some killer licks of his own, scrawled out in molten script at the rumbling low end.
The searching Nothing is something like the mirror image of Dream, only the cyclical folk tension of its verses find sweet release in the soaring chorus, a constellation of glistening stardust guitar and fathoms deep bass underpinned by crashing drums breaking out in a nimble display of gentle fury. Once again, Suranovich anchors the tune with his expertly splashy drumming, as he has consistently throughout the record (with the exception of tracks two through four, which are handled more tautly and controlled by The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown's Drachen Theaker).
Perhaps appropriately for a song called Nothing, there's a zen-like calm to the proceedings that seem to roll in and out with the tide. I often flash on Skip Spence's album closing Grey/Afro, with which it shares the same sense of stargazing shapes caught in a frieze of eternity while expanding rhythms drift in and out of focus. Whoa! It's all quite cosmic, and a secret ancestor to the sizzling post rock of Main, Flying Saucer Attack and Disco Inferno.
While we're on the subject of Skip Spence, Four Sail's penultimate track Talking In My Sleep comes on like a slightly more upbeat take on the cowboy songs found on Oar. What might at first seem like a boneyard throwaway adds a key bit of levity to the record's heavy home stretch (just as Neil's Song had to side one), with Lee modulating his vocals down an octave in humorous fashion and then back up to a falsetto over the tune's gently chugging rhythm. It always cracks me up how Lee sings talking in my slee-ee-eep! Of course it all breaks off into another acid country jam carried by Donnellan's razor wire guitar a couple times before the song is through, which I suppose we'd be disappointed if it didn't!
Always See Your Face closes the record out on a third and final whimsical note, albeit with a strong bittersweet aftertaste this time. This song has always struck me as predicting the sound of Rodriguez's Cold Fact (specifically songs like Forget It and Jane S. Piddy), with the pretty sting of its uncomplicated guitar melody underpinned by the added flourish of a chamber horn arrangement. Lee's sparse lyrics quite poignant in this context:
Won't somebody please
Help me with my miseries.
Can't somebody see, yeah
What this world has done to me.
And I know I know
And I say, oh, I say
That no matter where you go,
I will always see your face.
He's echoed by Donnellan's casually unfurled guitar solo at the song's midpoint, which sounds just something you might have heard on record decades later in the mid-nineties. It's the perfect signature etched onto a weary, accepting conclusion to this record's unspoken song cycle: a tragic epilogue to this cowboy movie of the mind.
And then it's all over... or is it? As mentioned earlier, the following double-album Out Here is a sprawling collection of 17 songs cut from the same cloth (the same sessions, in fact), and it makes a welcome companion piece to this record. This same band (minus Donnellan) turned in one more record — 1970's False Start — even roping in Hendrix on guitar for one song. And yet Four Sail is the cream of the crop, the peak of Love's Indian summer and a singular work that sounds like little else around (if at all, and even then only in bits and pieces).
I'll even go so far as to contend that it bests much of the San Francisco scene at its own game. I mean, I'll love them till the day I die, but Jefferson Airplane never made an LP this front-to-back consistent, this sharply focused. It plays like a brilliant short story, a no-nonsense filmic excursion that nevertheless manages to stay true to the band's garage punk roots (especially since, in essence, it was recorded in a garage!). One could read it as a precursor to something like Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, with its ramshackle widescreen epics, even as it makes undeniable future moves that call to mind The Mighty Groundhogs.
Then there's that undeniable sense of gravity found in the entirety of this record, an unforced sense of portent and mystery that manages to happen naturally as it unfolds. One can see why Jim Morrison had been an avowed fan of the group, dating all the way back to their early years. In fact, Four Sail even predicts The Doors dusty back to the roots blues rock moves on Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman by a whole year. Coincidence? I wonder...
At any rate, this is a crucial record down at the Parallax Room for similar reasons. On Four Sail, Love strike a perfect balance between spontaneous jamming and mapped-out arrangement, never getting bogged down in interminable solos even as they remain thoroughly unpredictable throughout. In a year like 1969 (the year of Woodstock, after all), that's no mean feat. And in the context of the canyon, it serves as the perfect segue between Laurel Canyon proper and where we'll be going next...
In putting together The Canyon 25, I went back and listened to a bunch of my favorite records from in and around that scene. In the process, it quickly became clearer than ever how quietly important Chris Hillman's contribution had been to the whole scene's development, not only as a musician and songwriter but also a strange attractor of sorts, bringing people and ideas together at just the right time.1
In there right at the beginning with The Byrds, his bass was the steady anchor of that band, the propulsion behind Eight Miles High's liftoff into the stratosphere, Inner Space and beyond. Even as early as Mr. Tambourine Man, the band's debut, his four-string input imbued the proto-garage punk of It's No Use with a sense of rhythmic danger. And who can knock the rapid-fire Bo Diddley punch of Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe?
However, it's with The Byrds timely invention of acid rock that Hillman's bass really takes on a life of its own, his throbbing basslines on tracks like I See You, 5 D Fifth Dimension and the awesome Psychodrama City (left off the record for some reason that's always escaped me!), pushing Mike Clark's drums into gear like a locomotive and providing the perfect environment for Roger McGuinn's Coltrane-inspired guitar pyrotechnics to take flight. There's no getting around it, Hillman's bass is the very heartbeat of Fifth Dimension.
Notable also is the fact that he's credited as co-arranger alongside McGuinn and David Crosby on both Wild Mountain Thyme and John Riley. One can't help but wonder if it's his fingerprints in evidence on the former's lush country-western-inflected filmic strings and the latter's shadowy midnight chamber orchestra. Later developments seem to confirm my suspicions...
After three albums spent largely enhancing the material of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby, the gloves come off on the following record (Younger Than Yesterday), when — much like George Harrison's ascent in The Beatles on Revolver — Hillman emerges as a formidable songwriter in his own right. The humming Beatle-esque power pop of Have You Seen Her Face is wonderful, but Thoughts And Words — with the overcast proto-alternative haze of its verses playing musical chairs with the bouncing breakbeat chorus — is the highlight of the record... a record that from the standpoint of songwriting might just be the band's strongest.2
His most timely contribution, however, comes in the shape of Time Between and The Girl With No Name, two country-inflected rockers that proved to be startlingly prescient as the next few years would come to pass. His love of bluegrass and country was felt early — on 1965's Turn! Turn! Turn! — with the band's cover A Satisfied Mind (the de-facto birth of country rock), an influence that would increasingly be pushed to the fore until it ultimately changes the band's entire direction altogether on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.
The following year's The Notorious Byrd Brothers opens blast of the horn-driven rocker Artificial Energy — the result of Hillman's suggestion that they write a song about speed — and sure 'nuff has another trademark Hillman bassline rumbling beneath it. The remainder of the record maintains an atmospheric, dreamlike quality throughout, with even the guitars swirling in an ethereal mist. Hillman's country flavor is further pursued (and sounding more natural than ever) in songs like Old John Robertson, Change Is Now and a country-inflected take on Carole King's Wasn't Born To Follow, foreshadowing the band's big change in direction in less than a year.
Of course, it's all eclipsed by Hillman's Natural Harmony, the album's absolute finest moment. I've gone on about this track before, the way it rises from within the surrounding fog sounding like The Beta Band thirty years ahead of schedule. That clicking hi-hat rhythm collapsing into a tricky shuffling breakbeat, guitars drifting mirage-like as the spooked orchestral tunings of John Riley are pitched into total eeriness. Roger McGuinn's prized Moog synthesizer (played here by Paul Beaver of synth pioneers Beaver & Krause) rising from the depths of the track like the Nautilus from the ocean, stalking its prey. What even comes close!? In fact, this might well be my favorite song in the band's entire oeuvre.
It was a chance meeting with Gram Parsons (in line at the bank, of all places) that eventually resulted in Hillman bringing him into the fold for the recording of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. With Hillman and Parsons' shared love of country music in full force, the band's focus shifted entirely toward the form. Often considered the first country rock record,3Sweetheart Of The Rodeo finds Hillman's songwriting receding into the background for the moment, making room for Parsons contributions like One Hundred Years From Now and Hickory Wind. All of which presages the direction the duo would take next as they left The Byrds (first Parsons, then Hillman) in a mere matter of months...
No longer Byrds, Parsons and Hillman holed up in their fabled Burrito Manor and conceived the perfect synthesis of rock and country, co-writing epochal songs like the rollicking Christine's Tune and Sin City's weepy balladry. Similarly, I've always loved Juanita, another tear-stained masterpiece, while the lackadaisical rolling country rock of Wheels features undisclosed bursts of satisfying feedback. Interestingly, Hillman switched to guitar for this record, leaving the bass duties to Chris Etheridge. I've gone on record about "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow's sublime steel guitar contributions, but suffice it to say that all the guitars on this record are just exquisite.
After one more (weaker) Burritos album, Parsons quits again, leaving Hillman to pick up the pieces. However, its the following self-titled album — while never reaching the heights of the debut — that is quite worthwhile, a minor gem even, full of gorgeous tunes like Colorado, To Ramona and Four Days Of Rain. I've often felt that it gets a bad rap mainly because it exists in the shadow of The Gilded Palace Of Sin, much as Can's later work gets unfavorably compared to Tago Mago. In both cases, the bands still manage to transcend their imitators and turn in something special.
After leaving The Burritos, Hillman spent the rest of the decade collaborating in various configurations of like-minded musicians, for instance the Souther-Hillman-Furay band and even reuniting with old band-mates Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn for a couple McGuinn-Clark-Hillman albums. Playing on a whole brace of canyon records, he even winds up in Stephen Stills' Manassas big band for the storied sessions of their debut recording.
Another stone cold classic, it resurrects the concept originally intended for Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, celebrating the breadth of American music spanning from folk, bluegrass and country to blues, rock and jazz, with even the distinct shades of Latin music felt throughout. Billed second only to ringleader Stills, Hillman is listed as co-producer (alongside Stills and Dallas Taylor) and co-writes two of the record's highlights, It Doesn't Matter and Both Of Us Bound To Lose.
In 1976, Hillman embarks on his solo career in earnest, debuting with Slippin' Away. This is a truly stellar record, and one I'd like to single out for praise. A minor gem, perhaps, like the third Flying Burrito Bros record, only more so. I've only recently discovered it... like why even pretend?! This is country rock of the highest caliber. The record is defined by its impeccable arrangements, gorgeous harmonies and great rolling basslines, more often than not played by Hillman.4 Indeed, this is a great bass record, showcasing that rich, telltale tone played with trademark nimble precision.
From the jazzy shuffle of the title track — with it's non-trivial arrangement and multi-plane harmonies — to the burning rocker Take It On The Run and the filmic sweep of Witching Hour (a Stephen Stills cover version), its an undeniable treasure trove of rock solid canyon songwriting. The closing Take Me In Your Lifeboat even touches down with Hillman's bluegrass roots, presaging an obsession that would become increasingly central to his sound in the decade to come.
With the dawn of the 1980s, Hillman reached deep into bluegrass and Bakersfield for inspiration, turning out a pair of excellent records on Sugar Hill (no, not thatSugar Hill!) in quick succession. First with Morning Sky and then with Desert Rose, he delivered a more intimate, stripped down sound that was often strikingly beautiful, defined by his gorgeous mandolin picking. Three years later, The Desert Rose Band found Hillman in a working band again, releasing a series of albums stretching well into the nineties. After that, further collaborations (most frequently with Herb Pederson) and solo records round out the long and winding career of a lifelong musician, a career that leads right up to the present day.
Last year's Bidin' My Time found him working once again with old ByrdsMcGuinn and Crosby, not to mention the late great Tom Petty (who also produced the record). With nearly sixty years lived in music, Hillman is still going strong (check out his website here4). In fact, there's currently a tour in progress with Roger McGuinn for the 50 year anniversary of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, which sounds rather interesting. It looks like the second leg of the tour has yet to be announced... so hopefully they make their way down to San Diego in the near future.
In signing off, I'll leave you with this performance from a couple years ago, featuring Hillman working his magic on mandolin and harmonies alongside Herb Pederson live in the studio. Just two old-timers doing their thing, like it's no big deal, and achieving casual perfection.
I once had a friend who confessed that — generally speaking — she couldn't tell what the bassist contribution was. I told her to listen to dub reggae for a weekend and everything would make sense(!). Of course, I could just have easily said to listen to a bunch of records that Chris Hillman played on.
Music from the canyon played a large part in my musical youth by virtue of my Dad's formidable record collection. I remember hearing things like the Eagles, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Loggins & Messina — alongside canyon-adjacent figures like Jim Croce, Simon And Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Gordon Lightfoot — in heavy rotation, particularly on rainy days. Pops worked construction, and since rain meant his job site was too wet to pour concrete, he'd have the rare day off and often spend the early morning chilling in the living room listening to records. To this day, much of that music reminds me of stormy days staying home sick from school.1
However, my true way in came sometime later, when I first heard the records of Van Morrison and The Byrds (circa 2003). My initial trajectory took me from trip hop and techno through jazz, funk and soul (peppered with new wave, naturally) into this music. It was the next stop. Needless to say, it made a huge impression. I have distinct memories of running after dark in the dead of winter, descending the hill above my old high school to the triumphant strains of Van Dyke Parks' organ solo at the climax of 5 D (Fifth Dimension). My mind also turns to digging trenches in the early summer morning while Astral Weeks swirled around me on the morning mist, the clank of my pickaxe striking the ground in time to the music.
This exposure sent me off searching deeper into the extended canyon scene by way of The Byrds' various tributaries: Gene Clark, Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Flying Burrito Bros, alongside other canonical figures like Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Neil Young. I remember hiking around Mission Trails in the aftermath of the great Cedar Fire (2003) — nothing but great hills of ash left in its wake and not a soul in sight — with all of this music alongside CCR, Dylan, Cash and the rootsy Stones records ringing in my headphones. I also remember the sight of those great rolling hills slowly coming back to life in the long months to follow, a spectacle that remains inextricably linked with this soundtrack whenever I reflect on my memories of the era.
Fast-forward to about a month ago. Sari and her sister Leah get to talking about canyon folk, and they start working out what is canyon and what isn't canyon. After all, some of the best canyon records aren't from Laurel Canyon at all, and some figures actually from the canyon aren't remotely canyon-esque in sound.2
Confused yet? Well, it gets worse. There's also the timeframe to consider: too early and you're dealing with straight up folk (Judy Collins, Fred Neil, Buffy Saint-Marie, et. al.); too late and you veer into yacht territory (as purveyed by figures like Ned Doheny and Steely Dan). The sweet spot is right there in the middle... that's where the canyon lies.
The Laurel Canyon scene was defined by a coterie of singer-songwriters to emerge from L.A. as the sixties turned to the seventies: figures like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The heart of this scene was found in Laurel Canyon (located in the hills rising to the east above Los Angeles), where various refugees from sixties bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Mamas & The Papas had retreated to get back to basics after the blazing phantasmagoria of the 1960s. Along with The Beatles' The White Album and The Rolling Stones' run of rootsy records starting with Beggars Banquet, this was part of a broader back to the roots project in the culture, a retreat from the Icarus heights of acid rock and psychedelia future shock into the comforting, sepia-toned mystique of the past.
With a few notable exceptions, the Laurel Canyon people's roots were in folk and its subsequent plugging into the electrical grid by one Bob Dylan. Records like Bringing It All Back Home and Richard & Mimi Farina's Reflections In A Crystal Wind sprung from well outside the canyon scene but were nevertheless a crucial influence upon it, blending as they did straight folk with shades of rock 'n roll while the arrangements became increasingly ornate and sophisticated. Critically, this is also the point when the more declamatory style of folk singing gets softened into something far more intimate.
Bands like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield ran with these innovations across a stretch of great folk rock records, records like Mr. Tambourine Man and Buffalo Springfield, paralleling Dylan's own forays into rock 'n roll best exemplified by Highway 61 Revisited. Coincidentally, all three figures gradually injected the crucial ingredient of country into their sound — culminating in Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Last Time Around and The Basement Tapes, respectively — at just the moment that psychedelia's luster had started to wane. And at that point, there was no turning back...
Gram Parsons often gets the credit for bringing country to the canyon, but the truth is far more complicated. Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri (incidentally the town where my maternal grandfather was from as well), The Byrds' Gene Clark famously grew up listening to Hank Williams records, while band-mate Chris Hillman shared a similar affinity with the form. One need look no further than the band's 1965 sophomore album Turn! Turn! Turn!, which features a cover of Jack Rhodes and Joe "Red" Hayes' Satisfied Mind, possibly the first example of country rock on the ground. The Beatles even covered Buck Owens on Help!Linda Ronstadt — who had been a fixture of the L.A. scene since its infancy in the mid-sixties with her group The Stone Poneys — was also firmly rooted in country, with a well-documented passion for covering old warhorses like Crazy and I Still Miss Someone.
It's at this axis of folk and country that the canyon sound happens, with the warm afterglow of the 1960s still felt between the lines of its rootsy sway. The sound is typically mellow, albeit occasionally spiked with more than a hint of darkness (after all, it was the dawn of the 1970s). Elements of Delta blues and jazz sometimes can be felt as well (especially the latter). Listening to a whole brace of these records over the past month, it became clear that jazz was nearly as important a contagion as rock and country on the burgeoning folk scene. In fact, the latter might be the crucial ingredient in synthesizing the whole yacht rock phenomenon, just as country had been for canyon.
All of which (in a round about way) brings me back to this protracted canyon discussion between Sari, Leah and myself.
In the process of working through the canyon ideal, we each decided to put together a little list of our top 25 canyon albums. We even had a little party and put on presentations while Leah was in town, the whole nine! Well, that was a lot of fun certainly (Sari and Leah's lists were incredible), and I even got turned onto a bunch of great records — especially recent ones — that I hadn't yet heard before. So I've got some serious listening to do, which is always a great place to be.
In the spirit of this whole endeavor, I figured I'd post the director's cut of my own list up here to kick off a little Laurel Canyon mini-series. It's an early autumn thing, seen. If I'm not mistaken, Sari and Leah will be posting theirs up as well in the near future. Don't worry, I'll extend a link their way when the time comes. I should note that I'm setting aside the entirety of British/Celtic folk for the moment (even Van Morrison!), which obviously could sustain an entire list of its own. Maybe next time! Today, it's a strictly canyon affair...
So without any further ado, this here list is the culmination of my roughly 15 year journey through this music since first getting hooked up with Astral Weeks and Mr. Tambourine Man way back in 2003. Regulators, mount up!
The Canyon 25
I can think of no better introduction to the canyon than The Mamas & The Papas. The third album from the canyon's first family, Deliver features the intricate arrangements of John Phillips reaching their peak (even if their debut still beats it on the songwriting front). The focus on lush production and Michelle Phillips' ethereal vocals mark it out as canyon-esque, pointing the way toward what would become the dominant sound in L.A. in the coming decade.
Strictly speaking, this is actually proto-canyon: emerging as it does just in time for the Summer Of Love, it mostly lacks the confessional nature of the singer-songwriters. In truth, I almost included John Phillips' country-tinged solo album instead. Ultimately, I see Deliver as a crucial building block in the whole canyon enterprise, veering away as it does from earlier British invasion influences toward a sort of folk-inflected chamber pop. One could even read The Mamas as the midpoint between The Beach Boys and CSN. Shoot me down, but I hear it!
Kicking off with their definitive take on The Shirelles' Dedicated To The One I Love, the group also trade verses on Creeque Alley, a Lovin' Spoonful-style folk stomper that namechecks John Sebastian's gang in an autobiographical hootenanny laying out The Mamas' origin story in detail (both groups rubbed shoulders in the Greenwich Village folk scene). Also of note is the strung-out version of Twist And Shout, which remains my all-time favorite version of the song, beating out The Beatles and even The Isleys' original.
The founder of the feast gets down to business in Nashville, breaking down the walls once and for all between the rockers and the good ol' boys with some tasty country rock action. The culmination of his Basement Tapes sessions with The Band, this finds Dylangoing to the source, so to speak. The previous year's John Wesley Harding may be the more consistent record, but the highs on Nashville Skyline are so sublime that one can't help but be won over by their rustic charm.
The sumptuous production and Dylan's unexpectedly soothing year vacation from smoking vocals are a special treat, especially in the moving rendition of Girl From The North Country (originally from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan), featuring a duet with the great Johnny Cash. The key to this record's charm lies is its unfussy, lived-in character. This is a million miles away from the stark dust bowl portraits of Blowin' In The Wind and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall! In fact, Peaceful Easy Feeling might be the best way to describe songs like One More Night and I Threw It All Away.
In fact, it's almost too easy! This feels like a setup... definitely a setup. We need something weird, right away... our survival might just depend on it.
Ah yes, this fits the bill! Kinda obscure, but not really. Spirit were rising stars at the turn of the decade (Led Zeppelin even opened for them early on), generating a lot of buzz in the burgeoning rock press at the time even if they were largely forgotten by classic rock radio over the ensuing decades. That's a whole class of band right there,3 isn't it, bands that made the charts and appeared on American Bandstand or Top Of The Pops but ultimately got beveled away from mainstream consciousness by the passage of time. Such a shame! Surely oldies stations would have benefited from spicing up their rotation a little with songs like Uncle Jack and Fresh-Garbage? I suppose there's always Radio AG!
At any rate, this lot dealt in a sort of jazz-inflected art rock — shot through with a strong dose of folk and country — that was L.A. to its core. You can hear echoes of The Byrds, Love and even David Axelrod in multifaceted excursions like Mechanical World, Straight Arrow and Gramophone Man (later sampled by fellow Californian Peanut Butter Wolf!), where the band cycle through these ever-changing movements with a turn-on-a-dime precision that prefigures the rise of progressive rock. The melody of Taurus was even lifted by Jimmy Page two years later for the opening to Stairway To Heaven!
Post-techno country folk by Scottish chanteuse Dorothy Allison. Starting out in the dream pop group One Dove, she later went solo even as she continued to regularly collaborate with groups like Death In Vegas and Slam (which is how I first found out about her, incidentally, on Alien Radio's sublime Visions). Her wispy vocals were instantly recognizable no matter the context, and it was only a matter of time before I picked up her first record (and then her second, when it came out).
This was her third, coming five long years after We Are Science (my favorite thing she's done),4 and its dreamy Appalachian balladry couldn't be further from Science's electropop stylings if it had sprung directly from the grooves of Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music. I remember once hearing Andrew Weatherall compare it to Gene Clark at the time, and sure enough songs like Sunset and Quicksand seem to resurrect ghosts of the sessions for White Light and The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark.
It's worth noting that this album perfectly distills the spirit of Death In Vegas' Scorpio Rising most canyon-esque moments (Help Yourself and Killing Smile) into a potent album-length statement. I really wanted to include Scorpio Rising in this list, steeped as it is in a sort of sweeping desert mythology, but like Kenneth Anger's film of the same name, it's just that little bit too preoccupied with leather/Velvets imagery to qualify for the down-home Canyon 25. Next!
The Lovin' Spoonful were the playful other to The Byrds' heavy folk rock trip, with John Sebastian's breezy tunes perfectly capturing the more wistful currents of the times. Sunshine pop, to a man. This record finds them at their absolute rootsiest, bigging up country music in Nashville Cats, perfecting their springtime folk pop in Lovin' You and Darlin' Companion, and even predicting the canyon sound in the gentle shades of Rain On The Roof and Coconut Grove (thus facilitating David Lee Roth's solo turn twenty years later!).
Another proto-canyon moment (and East Coast to boot), I nevertheless could not in good conscience exclude it. Factoring as they do into The Mamas & The Papas' origin-story showcase Creeque Alley, The Lovin' Spoonful were a crucial agent in buttoning down folk and loosening it up a little for the good times, and nowhere more than on Hums. In the reissue liner notes, R.E.M.'s resident music historian Peter Buck even names Zal Yanovsky his favorite guitarist of the 1960s. Good man!
Against all odds, The City Of Angels happened to have their very own Rolling Stones in Lowell George's outfit, a band that drunkenly ran roughshod across the canyon scene for the duration of the 1970s like they were The Clash. Outlaw bizzness in full effect! Much like The Clash, Little Feat were increasingly influenced by the sounds of New Orleans r&b as their career progressed, but their anomalous debut was a different story altogether. Riding westward on the strung-out sounds of country rock, this plays like the blueprint for Exile On Main St. and Sticky Fingers.
Rootsy rock 'n roll jams like Strawberry Flats and Snakes On Everything play like FM staples beamed in from a parallel dimension, while the gritty stomp of Forty Four Blues/How Many More Years offers up some of the dirtiest blues you could ask for. Then, Lowell turns around to tear out your heart with Willin' — featuring the exceptional slide guitar of Ry Cooder — a sparse, deeply soulful bit of country balladry. Any and all fans of "roots-era" Stones (roughly speaking 1968-1974) owe it to themselves to hear this one.
The square root of P.J. Harvey, Ellen McIlwaine comes on like a one-woman Led Zeppelin. The first side of the album (recorded live at The Bitter End in New York) largely features blues workouts showcasing her virtuoso slide-guitar work. Tunes like the breakneck Toe Hold and a cover of Up From The Skies (originally by her old pal Jimi Hendrix) make a virtue of their stripped-down arrangements, while Losing You is naught more than a slide-guitar frenzy that would make Tony McPhee proud. She even ropes in salsa legend Candido Camero on congas for Pinebo My Story.
The second side plays like an extended trip through the mountains, with the early morning balladry of Can't Find My Way Home kicking off the travelogue. Like side one's Weird Of Hermiston, it keys into the same mystical folk vibes that Zep did on tracks like That's The Way and (rather appropriately) Going To California. Then, out of nowhere comes a cover version of Kitty Wells' It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, done as a straight up Nashville number heavily indebted to the great Loretta Lynn. Lord have mercy!
In which Morrison & co. reinvent themselves as a hard blues band, beating all contemporary blues-boom merchants (with the exception of Beefheart and the Groundhogs) at their own game. Heavy-hitting numbers like Waiting For The Sun and Maggie M'Gill appeal to the part of me that wants to pudge out like Marlon Brando and sort of go about town dressed in a straw hat and off-white suit, looking — as my man Snakes once put it when describing The Score to me — like I had a washing machine stashed in my shirt.
However, it's gentle reveries like Blue Sunday and Indian Summer that run parallel to what was happening in the canyon, albeit with a strong dose of sun-glazed psychedelia mixed in for good measure. Perhaps the most controversial entry here, I nevertheless find it to be of a piece with the self-titled debuts of Little Feat and Crazy Horse. In fact, to my mind these three records form a loose trilogy, embodying as they do the sound of an L.A. before the steel and glass and concrete took over. It's a reminder that beneath it all, beneath the roads and the sidewalks and the skyscrapers, one still finds the parched earth of a desert stretching westward to meet the sea.
The bad Beach Boy gets down with some tasty post-Surf's Up canyon pop action, turning in a stone cold masterpiece at a time when his band was at its lowest ebb. This is manna from heaven for fans of Wilson's idiosyncratic songwriting found on late-60s/early-70s Beach Boys records like 20/20 and Sunflower (particularly things like Slip On Through and Be With Me). Needless to say there are plenty of Wilson's trademark malfunktioning bleeps and skewed synth flourishes in evidence throughout.
Playing like a cloudy day at the beach, towering ditties like River Song and Dreamer sound just like the churning waters of the Pacific Ocean, while near-ambient works like Thoughts Of You and Farewell My Friend play with great washes of oceanic sound in such a way that would make his brother Brian proud. In fact, it's the sad-eyed other to some of The Beach Boys' absolute finest moments. As one might expect, that evocative cover speaks volumes about the raggedly soulful sounds contained within...
Randy Newman's sophomore album sidesteps the intricate orchestration of his debut to fuse his New Orleans roots with the quintessential sound of the canyon, tackled head on in a dream jam session featuring canyon stalwarts like Ry Cooder and various Byrds (Clarence White and Gene Parsons) in attendance. The stylistic détente turns out to be the perfect setting for Newman's caustic tales of various burnouts, stalkers, losers (and more!), sounding unlike anything else in the man's extensive discography.
More than any other record here, 12 Songs maintains a strong foundation in the blues. Songs like Suzanne and Lucinda conjure up a bluesy swagger festooned with Ry Cooder's deliciously atmospheric slide guitar, while Have You Seen My Baby and Mama Told Me Not To Come recall peak-era Ray Charles. There are plenty of surprises in store as well (Old Kentucky Home even offers up a sneaky bit of bluegrass), while songs like Underneath The Harlem Moon and Yellow Man are quintessential Newman.
Notoriously hard-to-impress rock critic Robert Christgau called it a perfect album, and true enough, there's not another one quite like it.
Sure, this out-of-time masterpiece may have been the Rosetta Stone of alt. country, but it manages to transcend the confines of its own scene to stand shoulder to shoulder with the classics of the genre. Everyone knows the band's revelatory re-imagining of The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane, but also check their stunning take on Blue Moon, a reading that for my money tops even the storied Elvis Presley and Billie Holiday versions.
Factor in dark, bluesy numbers like I Don't Get It and Working On A Building (sounding like nothing so much as Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk), and you've got an out-of-time masterpiece that paradoxically could have only happened in the late eighties.
J.J. Cale's low slung slacker blues, in tune as it is with the canyon, remains utterly in a universe of its own. Naturally was Cale's debut, recorded on a shoestring in light of the apparent fact that everyone seemed to be covering his songs. Cale made a virtue of his meager resources, utilizing rhythm boxes and a Gaussian-blurred, lo-fi aesthetic that gives the whole affair a hazy, dreamlike quality. Songs like Crying Eyes and River Runs Deep seem to emerge naturally from the sunset sound of songbirds and crickets when you're fishing down at the creek.
I once played this album for my Dad, who was blown away by the contents but remarked how would you ever think to check out a record with that cover? To which I replied, how could I not?! True enough, the sleeve is a perfect representation of the backwoods country blues sounds found within, where Cale fashions oft-covered songs like Call Me The Breeze and After Midnight into their definitive versions.
Not my favorite Byrds record, but undeniably brilliant nonetheless. The Notorious Byrd Brothers plays like a sprawling vision of American roots music, juxtaposing state-of-the-art country rock like Wasn't Born To Follow with the lush folk pop of Carole King's Goin' Back and David Crosby's Tribal Gathering (which offers a glimpse of what he'd be up to with CSN in but a few months). Taken as a whole, it all marks this out as The Byrds' definitive proto-canyon moment.
Of course, they couldn't neglect their status as pioneering space rockers (see Fifth Dimension), with Chris Hillman turning in the peerless Natural Harmony and Roger McGuinn commemorating the Apollo 11 moon landing with Space Odyssey (both of which feature cameos by McGuinn's newly-purchased Moog synthesizer). Natural Harmony in particular sounds like something The Beta Band might have come up with at the peak of their powers.
Fusing aspects of jazz, Broadway, folk and the blues, Phoebe Snow was the quintessential New Yorker who nevertheless had a strong sonic affinity with the canyon. Her gentle urban folk — with its plush, velvet-cushioned production — is the cosmopolitan flipside to L.A.'s earthy nature boy reveries. At times, one can even hear pre-echoes of Tracy Chapman in her extraordinary no-nonsense approach to deeply personal songwriting.
Boundless in the most subtle of ways, her self-titled debut opens with Good Times, featuring unmistakable shades of The Beach Boys, before following immediately with the impossibly intimate cool jazz (that other West Coast touchstone) torch song Harpo's Blues. The hit single Poetry Man would be the perfect Laurel Canyon song if only it weren't from the wrong coast. Beyond that, all sorts of surprises are in store, including unexpected flourishes of Mellotron.
Despite earlier incursions like The Byrds's Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and The International Submarine Band (both of which were also profoundly shaped by Gram Parsons), this remains the quintessential country rock record. But set aside Gram for a moment (he gets plenty of props already). Let's talk about Chris Hillman, the Bruce Willis of the canyon, the glue in not only Burritos but also The Byrds before them, who quietly wrote killer song after killer song while his more garrulous band-mates got all the column inches.
And then of course there's "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, the John Coltrane of steel guitar and the x-factor behind this record's atmospheric magic, paving the way for later pedal steel iconoclasts like B.J. Cole and King Sunny Adé. It's no small coincidence that it's with Kleinow departure, rather than Parsons' exit a year later, that the band's wholly unique sonic presence largely seeps out of of the music (in fact, I actually prefer the self-titled third album to Burrito Deluxe — the latter made when Gram was still kicking around). Here, they're unstoppable.
Ooh, this is a good one now: we're in the top ten with a bullet! Blissed out dream pop from L.A.'s coolest band of the nineties. Part of the reason I love the decade so much5 is that it'd routinely toss up something like this, which you'd swear was vintage but then nothing from the sixties or seventies ever sounded remotely like this. I dare you to find anything this languid and hypnotic from the peak era of canyon (but if you do, please send it my way!). You needed someone with the Gen X sensibility to make it all feel so achingly melancholic.
Take a song like Cry, Cry, with its smeared steel guitars dragging that weary rhythm along in a morphine haze — all the while Hope Sandoval cooing her lunar country couplets out into the ether — before droplets of liquid guitar rise up like fractals to meet the gorgeous chorus. Weep to the bittersweet balladry of Flowers In December and free fall downstream on the slow-motion cascade that is Roseblood, then lose yourself in Umbilical's organ-drenched black hole before Look On Down From The Bridge comes in to guide you back home.
I used to daydream hard to this record back in high school. You have no idea... I don't know what else to add, other than David Roback is a genius and Hope Sandoval may have actually been an angel.
Bleak canyon blues from The Loner himself. It would be the quintessential 70s record if only it didn't sound so much like the future. From Watergate and the OPEC oil crisis to Cielo Drive and Hollywood narcissism, its all here in black and white. Appropriately enough, three songs have the word blues in their title! Of course you'd never guess it from the relatively upbeat opener Walk On, which finds Young literally leaving his troubles behind.
Similarly, the sparse bluegrass of For The Turnstiles — featuring Young's lonely picking on a banjo — might be the coolest fuck you song ever written. Revolution Blues — a slow-burning rocker rumored to be about the Manson family — was famously played by Johnny Rotten on his Capitol Radio show with Tommy Vance (that's kind of like a gold star around here), while the title track sounds like post rock/Radiohead twenty years before the fact (unsurprisingly, they've covered it live): blank-eyed and beautiful.
From its stunning cover photo on down, On The Beach is the perfect low profile denouement to Young's self-styled ditch trilogy and one of the key records of the decade.
Lindsey Buckingham's obsessive tour de force, which manages to capture rock, country, folk, yacht and even proto-new wave within its sprawling 75 minutes. Raw and lush in all the right places, some moments even sound like a sun-baked Krautrock, with a title track that would sit comfortably on Faust IV, while the skewed country hoedown of The Ledge and That's Enough For Me negotiate roots music even as the band have one foot planted firmly on the yacht.
Of course, there's more to this record than Buckingham going wild in Mick Fleetwood's home studio (including an episode where he freaked out and cut his own hair with a pair of nail clippers!), with Stevie Nicks in particular turning in some of her most gorgeous songs: look no further than Sara and Sisters Of The Moon and swoon. I'd be willing to bet Bryan Ferry did... (see Avalon for details).
When it came time for Joni Mitchell to record her debut album, rather than recording songs that she'd previously written for other artists (as was common practice for songwriters at the time) she decided to write a whole set of entirely new material. The resulting song cycle — an oblique take on her experiences moving to the West Coast — is absolutely stunning, and remains my favorite thing she's ever done (for me, even beating out more obvious contenders like Blue and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns... but then I'm extremely abnormal).
From the opening notes of I Had A King, you can tell you're in for an adventure. Joni's restless, searching tales bear an almost medieval quality that prefigures the most bewitching corners of prog, and David Crosby's spacious production gives the alternate tunings of Mitchell's spidery guitar work an isolated, wintry atmosphere through which her soaring voice swoops and dives with unshackled abandon. The stunning sleeve art — which was actually painted by Joni herself — goes some way to describing the wonders found within.
At the dawn of the seventies, the man who wrote Eight Miles High and I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better conjured up this stone tablet of canyon folk informed by the Hank Williams tunes he treasured growing up in his native Kansas City. Filled with fragile country-inflected numbers like Because Of You and For A Spanish Guitar (a song Bob Dylan famously said he wished he'd have written), its a treasure trove of quivering, open-hearted songcraft. Songs like With Tomorrow and Where My Love Lies Asleep are impossibly tranquil ballads unparalleled on those terms by anyone else in the canyon.
The title track — the record's one truly upbeat moment — was once compared to The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane by none other than Woebot himself, and it undoubtedly shares that song's sense of boundless freedom. Like everything on White Light, it is defined by Gene's rolling harmonica shadings and peerless country croon, both imbued with the pathos of endless longing. It's a deeply affecting sound, both soulful and searching, and timeless in every sense of the word. Even with clipped wings, this Byrd soars.
Emerging from the deepest recesses of David Geffen's West Coast empire, Essra Mohawk turns in this criminally overlooked collection of fathoms-deep piano chansons. Informed by a broad musical vision that takes in everything from folk, soul and country to baroque pop, rock 'n roll and Broadway, these songs tend to unfold in the most surprising ways, casually twisting and turning through their various movements as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Mohawk's vocals soar throughout, sometimes over unexpectedly funky backing in tunes like Spiral and I Have Been Here Before, while Looking Forward To The Dawn — the album's gentlest moment — quietly sneaks in to conquer all. If the Laurel Canyon scene had a Charles Mingus or a Salvador Dali, that is a visionary iconoclast effacing into abstraction all preconceived notions of what is possible within their chosen idiom, then it was undoubtedly Essra Mohawk.
After early years as The Rockets and then Neil Young's backing band, L.A.'s secret weapon step out from behind The Loner to deliver this masterpiece of dirty country rock. Against all odds, they manage to transcend Young's own formidable body of work with a selection of gutsy rockers like Beggars Day and Gone Dead Train, even managing to sneak in weepy ballads like Look At All The Things and I Don't Want To Talk About It into the spaces between the spaces before breaking into full-on hoedown mode in Dance, Dance, Dance.
Essential listening for any and all roots rock aficionados (and everyone else besides), it features blazing guitar from a teenage Nils Lofgren (who joined just in time for the recording sessions) and Ry Cooder on slide guitar (he's everywhere today!). Notably, this also bears the unmistakable fingerprints of Jack Nitzsche behind the mixing desk (and piano), adding to its skewed aura of gritty outsider charm (imagine putting out The Wild Bunch while everyone else was still doing Dodge City!).
It's also the only Crazy Horse album to feature founding guitarist and ringleader Danny Whitten, whose untimely death by o.d. but a year later would inspire Neil Young's tortured The Needle And The Damage Done.
Zero gravity canyon folk from the ex-Byrd/CSN rabble-rouser. Featuring a huge cast of luminaries from both L.A. and San Francisco — including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana and most of Jefferson Airplane — Crosby's networking pays handsome dividends in the shape of ethereal missives like Laughing and Traction In The Rain, while the low slung canyon funk of Cowboy Movie finds him telling the tale of CSN's disintegration through the western lens of The Wild Bunch.
Of all the records to spring from the CSN nexus, this remains the absolute strongest, coming on like an entire LP extrapolated from the low-slung widescreen funk of Crosby/Kanter's own immortal Wooden Ships. The pair of ethereal closing tracks — Orleans and I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here — are a particularly visionary masterstroke, evoking an oceanic Pacific endlessness as the record slows gently to its inevitable close.
The bewitching Judee Sill unfurls a spellbinding selection of delicate country folk songs that belie her rough-and-tumble past and tragic life story. Her vocals deftly weave through these great cathedrals of lush orchestration, sounding perfectly at home within them as if she were simply curling up by the fireplace... and doing so with such unforced grace that it makes you feel at home too.
Tunes like Enchanted Sky Machines and Jesus Was A Crossmaker (the latter produced by Graham Nash) have an almost Broadway-informed punch to them, while Ridge Rider and The Phantom Cowboy ply an uncomplicated country seemingly informed by the wide open spaces of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. The peerless Lopin' Along Thru The Cosmos, meanwhile, is quite simply too beautiful for words.
Number one, and without a moment's hesitation either. Folk crooner drifts languid and bittersweet along the Pacific coastline on a jazz-kissed breeze, the largely straight up folk of his first two records transformed here into a swirling slipstream of existential proto-canyon songcraft. Sun-glazed reveries like Strange Feelin' and Buzzin' Fly are the order of the day, while the poignant Sing A Song For You harks back to the sombre corridors of his folk roots.
The real kicker is a pair of marathon tracks that combined eclipse the running time of everything else here. The sprawling Love From Room 109 At The Islander On Pacific Coast Highway is defined by Buckley's mournful reminiscence against the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Conversely, the unexpected monster groove of Gypsy Woman swerves bravely toward the kosmische future, predicting not only Buckley's sensual, r&b-inflected Greetings From L.A. but also the inner space funk of Damo Suzuki-era Can (try and beat that!).
Like a lonely hawk surfing thermals high above Topanga, this isn't just canyon folk... it's the whole canyon.
If it's raining then it's cold out, which means if you're a kid you get soaked on your walk home from school... so chances are you'll catch a cold sooner or later. Which meant that if there was a day Pops and I were both home on a weekday, it was during winter.
That's why, to this day, when I hear Cat Stevens I still feel like I'm getting a sore throat. The mind is a crazy thing... I can practically taste the Sucrets!
The other great thing about the nineties is that you could listen to this back to back with trip hop, r&b and techno! It was quite a heady mix, after all, going from Among My Swan to One In A Million and Sean Deason's Razorback.
In 1999, Material released Intonarumori, a sprawling double-album sourced in the seedy underbelly of hip hop stretching from the Wu-Tang Clan and Company Flow all the way back to Schoolly D and the Death Comet Crew. The record was as ugly and twisted as you could hope for. Demented downbeat jams rubbed shoulders with asymmetrical big beat symphonies that owed as much to Tackhead as they did the RZA, while Killah Priest rapped over a beatless illbient soundscape of eerie flutes and droning tambura before a dusted beat drops in at the last minute.
With old skool legends like Rammellzee, Kool Keith, Flavor Flav and DXT (consequently all of which warrant further exploration today) trading verses with the grimiest voices in dead end underground hip hop (including a cadre of figures from the WordSound crew), it's a perfect culmination of the most abject and abrasive tendencies in New York hip hop.
Of course, by the end of the century Material bassist and ringleader Bill Laswell's involvement in rap music had already spanned the better part of twenty years. As covered in Terminal Vibration V, the original incarnation of Material was a downtown post punk group that specialized in bass-heavy punk funk records like Temporary Music 2 and Memory Serves. When they signed with Celluloid Records, the group were tapped to produce a series of rap records for the label.
Ultimately clocking in seven 12" singles (all released in 1982), ranging from electro-tinged slated like Grand Mixer D.St. & The Infinity Rappers' The Grand Mixer Cuts It, The Smurfs' Smurf For What It's Worth and Phase II's The Roxy to odyshape post-p-funk grooves like Fab Five Freddy's Change The Beat and Une Sale Histoire, Tribe 2's What I Like and Futura 2000's The Escapades Of Futura 2000 (which featured an electrofunk backing from The Clash!), these were records of varying quality that nevertheless managed to consistently offer up a left field take on rap (the original undie records?).
By the early 90s, Laswell was producing the sessions for what would become the Jungle Brothers' ill-fated third album, Crazy Wisdom Masters. The unreleased tapes — recently leaked on the web — reveal a druggy, abrasive sound very much in the vein of Intonarumori (albeit informed by a greater sense of demented humor).
The record that finally did surface in 1993, J. Beez Wit The Remedy, may have tightened up the edges and introduced a spoonful of sugar in the shape of downbeat summer jams like Good Lookin' Out and My Jimmy Weighs A Ton, but that only served to highlight the strangeness of the material that was preserved from the initial sessions. Tunes like Spittin' Wicked Randomness and For The Heads At Company Z were complemented brilliantly by the smoked-out, Gaussian blurred beats that the crew had come up with in the intervening years. In either form, it was clearly one of the most unique rap albums of the decade (and incidentally my #1 rap album ever).
In 1999, the same year that Material's Intonarumori hit the shops, the New York-based WordSound label put out a stunning four track EP of recordings from the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (this long before anyone had heard the untouched masters) on the Black Hoodz subsidiary imprint. Hinting at the rougher edges of the initial recordings, Battle Show and Ra Ra Kid were abrasive, asymmetrical slabs of left field big beat hip hop. Naturally, this fit the WordSound aesthetic perfectly, which was a grimy, staggering vision of hip hop informed by dub's bottom end gone lost in the wastelands of the big city. Releasing records by the likes of Spectre, The Bug and Dr. Israel, it was something of a stateside, gutter mirror image of James Lavelle's Mo Wax empire.
Crucially, WordSound was also linked with the Axiom imprint that Bill Laswell was running across town, with Laswell contributing substantial material to WordSound's output — including the Crooklyn Dub Consortium series — while various WordSound personnel would regularly appear on Axiom releases. One such figure was Sensational (aka Torture), an iconoclastic MC who had a profound impact on the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (and by extension J. Beez Wit The Remedy). The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that Laswell introduced the JBs to Sensational while he was freestyling over a Stockhausen record as he was scratching it!
Although not all of his raps survived to the finished product, one can feel the spirit of his contributions in a continuum stretching from Gram Parsons' on The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo to J Dilla's on Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope. Whatever the case may be, he managed to release two excellent records of skewed hip hop as the 90s drew to a close. Loaded With Power, in particular, is a brilliantly claustrophobic slab of decomposed hip hop (think REQ's Frequency Jams) that descends into the same sense of hydroponic psychosis showcased on Tricky's contemporary records (especially The Hell EP, recorded in part with the Gravediggaz).
Meanwhile, across the city DJ Spooky was mirroring trip hop's modus operandi with his own vision of dub-soaked, abstract hip hop, a sound that he called illbient. Importantly, Spooky was not only a DJ and producer but an arch theorist, ruminating on hip hop's sampladelia with the most intricate detail since David Toop started checking the music in the early 80s. His own music stalked the outer rim of what would come to be called dark ambient, with low slung hip hop beats squeezing through the claustrophobia of bass pressure and slow-motion industrial sonix.
Nevertheless, with a keen ear for a hook, Spooky also excelled at the sort of block rockin' hip hop that would fit right in with the likes of EPMD and The Beatnuts (not to mention the jungle of Dillinja and Roni Size). Tunes like Object Unknown, Galactic Funk and Peace In Zaire would have been radio staples in a parallel world where figures like and Rammellzee became superstars and managed to reshape hip hop in their image.
Indeed, Rammellzee is surely one of the key figures in the development of an abstract, avant garde strain of hip hop. Appearing on stage clad in a trench coat with Shockdell during the climactic show at the end of the film Wild Style, he provided one of the most memorable moments of the film, rhyming rapid-fire over an awesome synth sequence with a mic in one hand and a toy machine gun(!) in the other. This sense of the strange carried over into his collaboration with K-Rob and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the epochal Beat Bop (a record that Peter Shapiro once declared the Rosetta Stone of trip hop1), a record that in retrospect sounds about a decade ahead of its time.
The Death Comet Crew record followed swiftly afterwards. A collaboration with Ike Yard's Stuart Argabright and Michael Diekmann (along with Shinichi Shimokawa), the Death Comet Crew realized perhaps the most uncompromising fusion of rap attack and angular post punk sonix yet essayed with Rammellzee rapping over uptempo electroshock beats cooked up by the remainder of the group. These tropes were further explored a couple years later on the Death Command/Lecture 12" collaboration with Shockdell, which culminated in the excellent Missionaries Moving LP by the Gettovetts.
In many ways, Kool Keith was the figure in rap's next generation who picked up the baton of rap's mad scientist. Starting out as the scatological court jester of the Ultramagnetic MC's, he also happened to be by far the greatest MC in the crew, spitting his surreal wordplay (informed by mathematics, non sequiturs and bizarre insults) in singularly nasal fashion.
The Ultramagnetics turned out a trio of excellent LPs — the utterly essential Critical Beatdown, the deeply unpopular (though I've never understood the hate for it) Funk Your Head Up (which nevertheless turned up the epochal Poppa Large) and the bleak hip hop noir of The Four Horsemen — before Keith struck out on a long and singularly weird solo career.
His first move was the Dr. Octagon record (recorded with Dan The Automator), a surreal slab of perverted hip hop whose eerie downbeat atmosphere boasted a startling détente with the contemporary trip hop of Tricky and DJ Shadow (indeed, the record was even licensed by hip downbeat institution Mo Wax).
Similarly, Mo Wax also put out a record by abstract hip hop pioneer Divine Styler. Wordpower 2: Directrix featured Styler rhyming abstract-to-the-max over ice cold breakbeat geometry, which found the MC entering the slipstream of the burgeoning hip hop underground. Of course, he'd laid some of the foundational architecture for that underground in the first place with the first Word Power record (check Tongue Of Labyrinth) in 1989 when he was still aligned with Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate.
In between those two records lies the enigma of Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light, a record that would strain at the confines of any generic definition, let alone rap. Grey Matter, the one moment of more-or-less straight up hip hop, shares space with extended spoken word pieces like Heaven Don't Want Me And Hell's Afraid I'll Take Over and spacious post-Hendrix psychedelia like In A World Of U and Walk Of Exodus. This album is one of the most unexpected moments in rap's winding history, and remains essential listening for curious minds.
Divine Styler's dalliance with rock mirrors Ice-T's controversial thrash metal output with his band Body Count, as well as T's embrace of noise on the recordings that bear his own name. Early records like Rhyme Pays mirror Code Money's crashing productions for Schoolly D, while O.G. Original Gangster runs parallel to the dense noise-collages that The Bomb Squad unleashed behind Public Enemy and Ice Cube (with a hint of Dr. Dre's contemporary productions with N.W.A.).
Public Enemy and N.W.A. both flirted with elements of metal in their music at times (see Public Enemy's She Watch Channel Zero?! and The D.O.C.'s Beautiful But Deadly), a tradition that dated at least back to Run-DMC with Rock Box, King Of Rock and Rock This Way). Def Jam-co-founder Rick Rubin (that notorious heavy metal head) is the other great conduit of rock dynamics into hip hop, a primary example of which is his production of Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill (which also turned untold hordes of rockers onto the sounds of rap).
Moving beyond literal rock 'n roll sonics, the crucial element in this strand of hard-edged hip hop to surface in the 80s was in their harnessing of noise: looped snatches of atonal sound, heavy on-the-one stabs, and huge, skyscraper-crumbling beats. Upon their emergence, Run-DMC's beats hit harder than just about anyone else's and ushered in what would become rap's second era.
The stark minimalism of Rick Rubin's drum machine matrix in productions for the likes of T La Rock, the aforementioned Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and especially LL Cool J honed hip hop down a stripped-down essence of an shouting over block rockin' beats, defining the dominant sound in rap for the next couple years (with Jewel-T's I Like It Loud a particular highlight). Schoolly D and Code Money amplified the sound to a preposterous degree (see P.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"), inadvertently spawning gangster rap in the process.
Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate, who had their own significant strains of hard edged hip hop, produced by the great DJ Aladdin, seemed to pick up where Schoolly D left off. Along with that other forefather of West Coat rap, Too $hort, they laid the foundation for the twin poles of L.A.'s rough/smooth dialectic, with Ice-T's hard-edged beats playing the bad cop to Too $hort's low-slung street funk.
This thread was picked up most infamously by N.W.A., who took Ice-T's hard-hitting beats to a whole new level, spiked with a generous helping of intricate funk programming dished up by Dr. Dre. Starting out in the World Class Wreckin' Cru, sequined purveyors of West Coast electro par excellence (see 1984's Surgery), Dre moved into this heavier style to complement the heavier subject matter being explored by MCs like Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Ren, along with the rest of the posse.
Interestingly, early N.W.A. member Arabian Prince had similarly strong roots in electro before hooking up with the crew, ultimately splitting in 1989 to put out the excellent Brother Arab, a shadowy fusion of computer beats and proto-g-funk.
The D.O.C. turned out possibly the greatest negotiation of Dre's hard-edged production style on Straight Outta Compton and his later g-funk sound with the aptly titled No One Can Do It Better, featuring a dense sonic concrete jungle that found Dre expanding his earlier innovations into the sound that would inform the rest of his career. N.W.A. upped the ante with 100 Miles And Runnin' EP, alongside up-and-coming L.A. crews like Compton's Most Wanted and Above The Law, nearly managing to outdo everything that came before with their final LP, Efil4zaggin.
Efil4zaggin is a production tour de force, featuring Dre's most fully-realized productions ever, it only suffers from a descent into puerile humor and less inspired detours in its second half. It seemed the crew needed Ice Cube around to keep things focused (see AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and the Kill At Will EP), although one wonders what might have gone down if The D.O.C. had never had his car accident and folded into the group to take Cube's place...
Of course, at the center of any talk of hip hop's noisescapes will always be Public Enemy and their production masterminds The Bomb Squad, who tore up the fabric of sound a stitched it all back together again into a dense collage of confrontation. This sound, which utilized hard breakbeats, guitar stabs, vocal exhortations and illogical snatches of sound was the perfect complement to the stentorian vocals of Chuck D and Flava Flav's wise guy antics (who fulfilled a role similar to Kool Keith and Eazy-E in their respective crews). The turntable skills of Terminator X provided that certain x-factor of scratchadelic noise, so crucial to the era, rounding out Public Enemy's unique sonic attack.
The Bomb Squad's approach had a crucial influence on not only the next wave of hard-hitting hip hop but also the feedback-drenched, distorted breakbeat sound taking shape across the Atlantic, a sound that would come to be called big beat. Bomb The Bass were out the gate early with records like Into The Dragon, even continuing to have hard moments (the big beat perfection of Bug Powder Dust) even as they sprawled out into a sort of post-hip hop blues.
However, if there was one crew that shaped this sound (and they don't get nearly enough credit for it), it was Meat Beat Manifesto. The group's mastermind was Jack Dangers, who gradually took their sound from a sort of heavy industrial-inflected, post-Bomb Squad rap (imagine a dystopian, J.G. Ballard-damaged Beastie Boys) into a densely populated breakbeat sound that split the difference between big beat and trip hop (with a healthy dose of dub thrown in for good measure). There was a paranoid aspect to the music, bordering on psychosis, that only became more unhinged as the group pared down to the central figure of Dangers. In 1998 — the same year as Actual Sounds + Voices — Dangers even collaborated with Public Enemy, producing Go Cat Go (along with Danny Saber) for the He Got Game OST.
A lot of big beat leaned heavily on the classic rock side (Fatboy Slim springs to mind), which is not relevant to this discussion, but a lot of it was heavily indebted to the hard beats Bomb Squad-era hip hop. The Prodigy, for one, betrayed Liam Howlett's roots in UK hip hop after their ardkore era had run its course with Music For The Jilted Generation, even collaborating with Kool Keith on the album to follow (1997's Fat Of The Land). Howlett's mix adventure The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One encapsulates this drift perfectly, featuring Public Enemy acolytes Hijack's awesome Doomsday Of Rap. There's that whole lineage of UK rap that fits squarely into this continuum, crews like London Posse, Hi-jack and Ruthless Rap Assassins.
The Chemical Brothers offered the best of both sides of the big beat coin, indulging in blissed out reveries like Where Do I Begin and Asleep From Day (featuring Beth Orton and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, respectively) and Tomorrow Never Knows-inspired sixties psychedelia worship with Setting Sun even as they unfurled feedback-drenched beats like Loops Of Fury, Song To The Siren and Block Rockin' Beats.
Records like Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole seemed to exist in the tradition of instrumental hip hop landmarks like The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel and The 45 King's 45 Kingdom (not to mention Frankie Bones' series of Bonesbreaks records).
Representing this phenomenon at its darkest, although he did have moments that predicted the Brothers (see Shaolin Buddha Finger), is one Jon Saul Kane. As Depth Charge, he combined the hard beats that were big beat's calling card with the oppressive atmosphere and dragging tempos that would come to define trip hop. Combining a pervading sense of sleazy darkness with copious martial arts samples, Depth Charge created a unique sonic vernacular all his own out of whole cloth. Notably, Kane also released the Beat Classic compilation on his own D.C. Recordings imprint, which made scarce hip hop grails available once more (often in instrumental form).
If the equation of bleak soundscapes, heavy drums and martial arts samples sounds familiar, it's probably because a certain East Coast crew happened to be taking a similar approach into the charts around the same time. Master producer the RZA wove desolately downbeat sonic tundras for his cadre of MCs to haunt. Figures like the GZA, Method Man and Ghostface Killah provided the perfect counterpoint to the RZA's visions of doom.
The early Wu-Tang records — records like Liquid Swords, Tical and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — might be as close as rap ever got to post punk sonix within the mainstream drift of 90s hip hop. Strange, decomposed moments like Sub Crazy and 4th Chamber rubbed shoulders with hits like Bring The Pain and C.R.E.A.M., while peripheral Wu-Tang records like Soldiers Of Darkness/Five Arch Angels by Sunz Of Man took this sound to its outer limits. Collaborations with figures like Tricky and Genaside II were scattered amongst the crew's extended discography, while Method Man's Release Yo Delf was even remixed by Liam Howlett of The Prodigy!
One thing that Wu-Tang seemed to lay the foundation for was what would become the modern hip hop underground. I once read an interview with El-P where he explained that when he started out, the underground was merely the seedy underbelly of hip hop culture, whereas it would ultimately break off into its own world that bore less and less resemblance to the body hip hop. The Company Flow and Cannibal Ox projects that he masterminded certainly bear this out, during an era when rap was becoming increasingly electronic.
This the era that southern rap was on the ascendant, and empires like Cash Money and No Limit were firmly established. Records like Lil Wayne's Tha Block Is Hot and Juvenile's 400 Degreez seemed to recreate the density of sampladelia with digital materials, harking back to Mantronix even as they often bore striking resemblance to the atmosphere conjured up by The Prodigy circa Music For The Jilted Generation. There would be an interesting echo of this in Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury half a decade later.
It's rather appropriate that these twin wings of rap would eventually meet in the middle — no matter how unlikely — with Run The Jewels, featuring an elaboration on El-P's production for Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music that resulted in a full-scale collaboration for three albums (and counting). Which takes us right up to the present day, where Kanye West puts out Yeezus — a stark slab of an album featuring EBM/grime/Code Money-inflected hip hop — on Def Jam (the original home of hard beats). Likewise, Vince Staples' Hell Can Wait was also released on the label, sounding like something Terranova might have produced at the turn of the century.
It all ties back to those base materials, the idea of rap conjured up by Material's Intonarumori, a grimy cyberpunk vision of hip hop, where droppin' science is meant to be taken literally. This is the realm of Rammellzee, Dr. Octagon and Hank Shocklee, where mad scientists split the atom again and again, refracting rap's beat matrix through the bleak prism of Metal Box, Liaisons Dangereuses and Front 242. A place where breakbeats collide with guitar stabs, found sounds, rude electronics and pure noise, as MCs unfurl tangled mathematical phrases over the surface. This is the sound of rap at the edge of no control...
TV007: Edge Of No Control
Killer MikeBun B, T.I. & TroubleBig BeastWilliams Street
Meat Beat ManifestoGod O.D. Part 1Mute
Jungle BrothersBattle ShowBlack Hoodz
Public EnemyShe Watch Channel Zero?!Def Jam
Schoolly DP.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"Schoolly D
Kanye WestOn SightDef Jam
Method ManRelease Yo Delf Prodigy MixDef Jam
Ultramagnetic MC'sPoppa Large East Coast MixMercury
Ice-TNew Jack HustlerSire
Ice CubeThe ProductPriority
MaterialAhlill The Transcending Soldier, phonosycographDISK & Jerome "Bigfoot" BraileyFreestyle JourneyAxiom
Lil WayneRemember MeCash Money
Public EnemyGo Cat GoDef Jam
Vince StaplesFireDef Jam
DJ SpookyPrince Poetry & Pharoahe Monch of Organized KonfusionRekonstructionOutpost
It's been three years and three days since I first posted the original Parallax 100, and I've been wanting to delve into the next 100 for some time now. Over the course of the intervening years, I've worked up a little list that I've tweaked here and there but have somehow managed to shape into a sequence as firm as the original rough-and-tumble 100.
The rules remain the same: each of these records have had a critical, sustained impact on me beyond the rush of a great new record, are all killer front-to-back and I still listen to them all the time. Albums, EPs and singles all rub shoulders here in what is — in the spirit of the original list — a deeply personal selection from the log book of my sonic travels.
Take it as a check-it-out list from a 21st century lapsed rave-dancing chrome-plated digital soul man chilling beneath the computer blue palms of the Parallax Gardens, sipping on a glass of cognac while the soundsystem is likely pumping out any of the following sounds on any given day while the Heights does its thing all around.
Once again, each and every one of these is a stone cold killer.
And so we descend...
Mystic exotica from the man who wrote Nat "King" Cole's Nature Boy (he once said that he "heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains"). A concept album shaped around a drifter's encounters on a mysterious island, with gently swaying rhythms cut adrift in an ocean of sound. It's tempting to think of this as one of the very first "head" elpees, arriving just in time for the new decade.
Smoldering Miami soul, like an even more lush and lived-in take on Willie Mitchell's Hi Records output (Al Green, Ann Peebles, et al.). Gwen McCrae's tough vocal presence, already in full force on this her debut LP, is one of the great treasures in soul music. The centerpiece here must surely be the lavishly glazed, smoldering sway of 90% Of Me Is You, which remains one of the great downbeat jams in seventies soul.
Improbably early oddball house from the two Fine Young Cannibals that aren't Roland Gift. The original version comes on like prime Yello, while the remix finds Derrick May stripping the track down to its essential organ/whistle framework (while not forgetting that trumpet!) and injecting a nagging piano vamp into this stop-start motor city groove.
West Coast g-funk spanning ten sides of vinyl like an endless stretch of California highway. There's an almost undisclosed amount of straight up techno running throughout, emerging in the moody surfaces of In Flight and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky, but the heart of the record lies in the blissed out machine soul of Brookside Park and I Wanna Thank You For Steppin' Into My Life. The atmosphere takes me back to endless summer afternoons in the heat of the mid-nineties, daydreaming to similar moods and grooves for hours on end.
Raga-rock hybrid, in which massed choirs, oscillating Moogs and Shankar's sitar stalk the streets of Calcutta. First, you notice the excellent (and utterly unique) covers of rock 'n roll standards Jumpin' Jack Flash and Light My Fire, but it's the haunting downcast moments like Snow Flower and Sagar The Ocean that give the record it's unfathomable depth and dimension.
Icy disco inna new wave style by Yoko Ono, from the last sessions John Lennon ever played on (he was holding these tapes when he was shot). The surreal mood seems to predict both Yello's most atmospheric sides and David Lynch's later cinematic adventures, but Lennon's violent rubberband guitar solo still sounds wholly alien. It's all thoroughly in the tradition of the Plastic Ono Band records, with It Happened and Hard Times Are Over both incredibly moving expressions of a woman coming to terms with devastating loss and vowing to soldier on no matter what the future holds.
Well into his late-period career as a baroque pop crooner, Nat King Cole reunites with his original trio for some cool jazz action in a dream after-hours jam session. The group work their way through standards like It's Only A Paper Moon and a killer rendition of Duke Ellington's Caravan, while revisiting Get Your Kicks On Route 66 and even cutting the opening song from Tin Men (Sweet Lorraine).
The birth of soukous, the Congo's beloved post-rumba musical export. In L'Orchestra African Fiesta (the group Docteur Nico formed with Tabu Ley Rochereau), his finger-picking style came to define the sound of the genre. This record the eighth entry in an flurry of LPs that emerged in the late sixties to chronicle contemporary Congolese music, three of which were devoted to Nico and remain the easiest way to get ahold of the man's music. The whole set should be reissued — in a spirit similar to the William Onyeabor box set put out by Luaka Bop a few years back — with gorgeous sleeve art intact.
Instrumental reggae 7" crafted by man from the EastHerman Chin-Loy around the singular Melodica stylings of Augustus Pablo. Its smeared exotica stylings and off-kilter skank always make me think of The Man Who Would Be King and Michael Caine and Sean Connery's long journey through the Khyber Pass and beyond.
Unfettered head to head guitar duel between two luminaries of MPB, wherein loose strings are bent into soaring fractals as guitars tango like clockwork in the sunset. Transcending even their most stellar individual work, the duo flutter between the lush calm of Nega and the wild careening frenzy of Taj Mahal. The fact that the vocals seem almost improvised, an afterthought even, only adds to the charm of this loose, freewheeling double-album.
Electronic hip hop epic in widescreen. MC Tee's trademark rapid-fire raps hit hard before flipping into sing-song mode for the chorus, all of it backed by impressively futuristic production from Kurtis Mantronik. You also get an extended mix thrown into the bargain, along with a dub version — which might be the man's absolute finest — in which the track's filmic descending spiral gets chopped into strange shapes before shocking you with a cyborg rap in the climax.
Chicago juke. I first crossed paths with Rashad's music via DJ Godfather's Twilight 76 and Juke Trax labels (this within the context of Detroit ghetto tech electro) back when I was living at the 1808, and I've kept an ear tuned in ever since. I was pleasantly surprised when he hooked up with Hyperdub a couple years back for both the Rollin' EP and this record, a true masterwork. Hypnotic synths soar over a bed of furious drum programming throughout, as slow-motion raps and bottomless bass twist and turn within. The man was a virtuoso and his music still sounds like the future.
Grachan Moncur's great galleon of soul-inflected free jazz, coming out of left field on the storied BYG imprint (arguably the genre's spiritual home). Moncur's trombone flourishes glide gracefully over the loose, swinging rhythms of Andrew Cyrille and Alan Silva's wide open double bass as he trades lines with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell and Archie Shepp. It's the sound of wide-open spaces and crystal clear skies, full of freedom and possibility.
Stranded in the south of France, The Rolling Stones lose themselves in the basement studio at Nellcôte and manage to wring magic from the whole affair. Careening from the dirty barroom rock of Rip This Joint into the raw Clavinet funk of Ventilator Blues and spending a satisfying amount of time with Gram Parsons-inspired country rock numbers, this band of dandy rogues turn out a ramshackle masterpiece that manages to capture the very essence of rock 'n roll.
Sun-warped post-Beach Boys blues. When You're Sad is a joyously aching teenage daydream with Alex and Rudi's gently soaring harmonies drenched in wild-eyed feedback. Meanwhile, the b-side's Haunting offers up an unresolved slab of guitar melancholy that seems to lay the blueprint for the whole shoegaze endeavor and by extension predicts the sound of nineties indie rock about four years ahead of schedule.
The birth of canyon folk, featuring songwriter Joni Mitchell front and center with virtuoso fretwork and that voice. In a bold move, Mitchell decided to rely entirely on new material rather than fall back on songs that she'd already provided to other artists (as was common practice for singer-songwriter albums at the time). The results are stunning, with a rich thematic continuity running through the record even as individual songs like Marcie and Cactus Tree glisten like gems in their own right, epitomizing everything that makes Mitchell's music such a treasure.
The Burning Spear's debut album, full of deeply spiritual roots music. Bottomless bass and rock hard riddims play out in stately slow-motion while Winston Rodney's haunting vocals hover above it all like a ghostly mirage. Songs like Ethiopians Live It Out and Fire Down Below ride tough rocksteady beats into the sunset, while the deeply moving Creation Rebel and Down By The Riverside are among some of the most gorgeous roots music you'll ever hear.
The final Funkadelic record, where all previous electrofunk innovations are taken to their illogical conclusion. P-funk's engine is deconstructed, the parts spread out across the floor of a Detroit garage while the band methodically rebuilds them into freaky malfunktioning warped machines. The deliciously bizarre Funk Gets Stronger (featuring Sly Stone), seems to rev its engine only to reel it back down again in a nagging stop/start groove, while the title track re-routes their early guitar freakouts through the new wave hall of mirrors before wiring it all up for the next decade's dancefloors.
Dutch techno par excellence from the inimitable Dobre and Jamez, in one of their myriad guises (Jark Prongo, Klatsch!, Tata Box Inhibitors, Chocolate Puma, etc. etc. etc.). The carnivalesque wild ride of Spectacle De Foire is undoubtedly the centerpiece here, but the Moroder-inflected digital disco pulse of Houp! seems to contain the germ of house music's next ten years in its gloriously geometric groove.
Algerian raï from a true pioneer of the form. Cheb Khaled plays the cosmopolitan desert mystic, singing his winding, hypnotic chansons over sun-glazed synths and spidery machine rhythms in a stunning roots 'n future mash up that defies its period of origin with striking clarity. He'd go on to international stardom and eventual political exile in France, but this record — released smack in the middle of the eighties — remains Khaled's crowning achievement.
Pre-eminent post punk malcontents lose themselves in the studio, intoxicated by the twin experimentations of krautrock and dub, in the process deconstructing the album format into three 12" singles packaged in a metal reel-to-reel film cannister. The ten-minute Albatross creeps out the soundsystem like a ghostly steamroller, Jah Wobble's ten-ton bass kicking you in the chest, while Keith Levene's searing guitar shoots sparks across its surface and John Lydon wails deep into the abyss. And that's just the first side...
Iconoclastic chanteuse Brigitte Fontaine blends sophisticated songcraft with Areski's droning inflections (inspired by music of the Algerian musicians that he grew up around) in a haunting set of skewed chansons. Les Borgias and Ragilia are shot through with a distinct North African inflection, while Il Pleut Sur La Gare and L'abeille come on like Medieval folk ballads. The duo also touch on their jazz roots in Déclaration De Sinistre and venture into acid folk with L'engourdie, a gently psychedelic reverie. Indispensable.
Brittle art techno masterpiece. BDP's deep space sonics remain in full effect throughout this sprawling set of electronic head music, touching on everything from skittering techno to ambient house and the abstract hip hop that had informed their music since day one when they first set to work cloistered in the mystery of Black Dog Towers. The esoteric current running through the trio's work — that ancient quality haunting the music's shadows even as they pushed headlong into the future — inhabits every corner of this record and sounds like the soundtrack to some secret society in lunar orbit.
Siren song in 3D. Sumptuously produced headphone r&b laid down by Da Bassment cohort Darryl Pearson and masterfully inhabited by star-in-the-making Mýa. From that period when a slowjam would casually sound like a UFO landing in your backyard. Every element, from the crisp beats to the blurred instrumentation and of course Mýa's wistful multi-tracked harmonies, is meticulously placed and blissful to the ear.
Lazing Texas rap from Devin The Dude, featuring guest appearances from the likes of Scarface, Spice 1 and the rest of his old crew, the Odd Squad. It's a supremely lush and mellow LP, to my mind surpassing even the excellent Fadanuf Fa Erybody as the finest full-length on Rap-A-Lot. A laidback, homegrown live sound prevails throughout, with deep blunted bass, smooth guitar runs, synth strings and dusted bleeps enveloping Devin's loose-limbed raps like a twilight mist.
Discomix reggae cover version of the Dazz Band's immortal Let It Whip, self-produced by the great Derrick Harriott, which somehow manages to surpass the sterling original. The version on the flip is reworked by Paul "Groucho" Smyke, who also dubbed King Sunny Adé's Ja Funmi into oblivion around the same time. The sumptuously pulsing bassline quickly grows hypnotic as myriad shards of sound reverberate across the soundscape, marking this out as the neon-bathed cousin to the x-ray dubs of Lloyd Barnes on Horace Andy's Dance Hall Style.
Definitive jazz funk produced by the Mizell Brothers during their blazing arc of seventies studio excursions. This one is without a doubt my favorite, featuring veteran key master Johnny Hammond tinkling the Rhodes over rock hard rhythms and soaring ARPs while that odd spectral chorus weaves its way in and out of the ether. The sound of the city.
Candy-coated ardkore from the man with the golden haircut, recorded well before he turned to the darkside and pounded the jungle scene into submission with his techstep brethren. The Full Mix rides tumbling breakbeats into the trancelike bridge before collapsing into a blissed out lovers rock chorus, while The L Mix brings hard-edged hoover stabs into the equation before exploding into the ecstatic piano-led climax.
My absolute favorite era of The Beach Boys is the six year period spanning between Smiley Smile and Holland. There's a strange charm and paradoxical rough-hewn smoothness to the sound that seems of a piece with both Lee "Scratch" Perry's sun-glazed productions at the Black Ark and latterly The Beta Band's oeuvre. The only trouble is, most of these albums are fairly patchy (thanks Mike Love). The one exception is Sunflower, in which Dennis Wilson emerges a master songwriter in his own right, kicking off the whole affair with Slip On Through's insouciant counter-clockwise groove and striking yet again with the immortal ballad Forever. Brian Wilson's presence remains in full force as well, lending his touch to the gorgeous sunstruck reverie Dierdre (co-written with Bruce Johnston), All I Wanna Do's ethereal drift and the ambient surf music of Cool, Cool Water.
Cheo Feliciano cut his teeth in legendary groups like Tito Rodriguez's Orchestra, the Joe Cuba Sextet and the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra before gradually descending into drug addiction and bad times. After a stretch of rough years and hard miles, Cheo kicks heroin for good and finally makes his record. A delicately crafted masterstroke, it finds him confidently working through a peerless set of Tite Curet Alonso songs like Mi Triste Problema and Poema De Otoño with unmatched depth and splendor.
Nocturnal electronic jazz from Detroit whiz kid Matt Chicoine. Standing outside the boundaries of any one scene or genre, he unfurled a number of exquisite delights on an unsuspecting public at the turn of the century, none better than this astonishing five track EP. Kicking off with the oddball deep house of Soul Clap 2000 before launching into Get There Tonight's off-kilter boogie and the bebop stomp of Landscaping, it's not long before he's easing into the half-lit downbeat moves of Insomnia In Dub and Four Ways Of Saying Goodbye's multi-part jazz funk excursion. A crucial record for me at the time, it's stayed with me ever since.
An utterly out of time acid-soaked masterpiece, existing in the netherworld between post punk and a living, breathing psychedelia. The Blue Orchids splintered off from the mighty Fall, and in the process stretched that band's speedfreak intensity out into a wild, pantheistic celebration of the great outdoors. Una Baines' ghostly keyboard mirages are the crucial factor in these eerie, widescreen sonic tapestries. The mood here curiously similar to On The Silver Globe, and I've often thought that this album could soundtrack the haunting ritual beach scenes from the first half of the film.
The soundtrack to your nightmares. Mark Arcadipane — the man behind The Mover — wrote the blueprint for rave hardcore with Mescalinum United's We Have Arrived and a sequence of uncompromisingly bleak 12"s that surfaced on his Planet Core Productions (yeah... PCP) imprint. This double-pack combines both volumes of the Frontal Sickness EPs into one blazing package of sonic extremism, ground zero for the zombie sound that would come to be called gloomcore.
Stone cold blues from the Mississippi Delta. Skip James' music remains deeply unconventional, full of shadow and mystery, marking it out as utterly unique even within the rich terrain of early blues recordings. Still, there's quite a bit of weary joy to be found hidden within this record's grooves, even if only in the promise of salvation after a lifetime of hardship and tragedy. Hope against hope, in other words.
Cymande — featuring musicians from Guyana, Jamaica and Saint Vincent — are the sort of group that could have only formed in a town like London. Merging Jamaican Nyabinghi rhythms (the bedrock on which reggae was formed) and American funk, the crew forged a wholly unique sound that on first listen seems almost too good to be true. The glorious rock hard beat of Bra rubs shoulders here with gentle moments like Listen and the slow-burning groove of Getting It Back, while the eleven-minute Dove finds the group stretching out into a rolling longform jam. There ought to be a copy in every home.
A particularly elegant slice of slinky UK garage, Love Bug's bionic two-step groove seems to expand on both the liquid garage sound of Roy Davis Jr. and Timbaland's android r&b. Diva Lynsey Moore's vocals get chopped and twisted through the tune's very fabric, in which every piece clicks like percussion in the clockwork machinery of this sultry digital juke joint jam.
Uptight New Yorkers cut loose in widescreen, stretching the impenetrable atmosphere of Fear Of Music to its outer limits as they mainline on African rhythms and the information overload of modern America. Each track is a dense web of sound spun from layers of throbbing bass, drifting synths, strange guitars and those rolling, polyrhythmic beats. Hard to believe the album predates the sampler, so intricate is its multifaceted construction. Indeed, you can hear the germ of nineties music (and beyond) buried deep within these unfurling, technicolor grooves... it sounds a lot like a blueprint for the future.
Eighties electro-afrobeat monster jam, with Fela Kuti's right-hand man in the driver seat, rocking the drum kit with singular style and finesse. N.E.P.A comes on like one massive arcing groove stretched over two sides of vinyl, each housing a song in two versions (with both an original and a dub) that probe different aspects of the same central theme. Sounding a lot like a pirate radio transmission from the distant future, this is the original groove that won't stop.
Digital dancehall! This the instrumental companion piece to Wayne Smith's epochal Sleng Teng LP, produced by Prince Jammy, which famously brought reggae into the computer age. Taking Sleng Teng's brittle electronic rhythms into the spacious realm of dub, these tracks embody a sort of machine perfection that one usually expects from places like Cologne or Detroit, but slackened and smoked out with a singular Jamaican flavor.
The Three Degrees hook up with Philadelphia International after their appearance in The French Connection, resulting in a vocal masterpiece of lush Philly soul. The ladies' breathless harmonies deftly swoop and glide through the gossamer orchestration of Gamble & Huff's Sigma Sound, their exquisite production ringing clear as a bell. You can hear disco's wings begin to spread in the driving pulse of Dirty Old Man, while in If And When's epic balladry and the swirling A Woman Needs A Good Man their pathos is undeniable. You also get When Will I See You Again, quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
A joyful hip hop symphony composed by the late great J Dilla just before his untimely departure from planet Earth. Slicing and dicing all manner of loops and breaks from his seemingly bottomless crates of arcane records and reconstructing them into rock hard beats and interlocking movements, he created his unassailable masterpiece: a boundless, wildly shifting song cycle that feels like a glorious tribute to life itself.
Dub techno par excellence. As difficult as it is to narrow it down to just one record from the dynamic duo of Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, for me Quadrant Dubjust edges out Lyot Rmx for the #1 spot. Its two elongated tracks — spanning one to each side — last the better part of forty minutes, dubbing Round One's soul-inflected I'm Your Brother deeper and deeper into shimmering cascades of four-dimensional sound. Over twenty years later, it still sounds like the future.
In a further elaboration on the towering eighteen minutes of Tago Mago's Halleluwah, Can submerge their mercurial kraut-funk deep into the swampy voodoo of their Inner Space studio and surface with a spooked out set of seven songs teeming with otherworldly atmosphere. The proto-world music of Spoon sets a rhythm box against a gently swaying, lopsided rhythm, while I'm So Green showcases the group's pop sensibilities at their absolute finest. The spectral tango of One More Night even points the way toward Future Days and beyond.
Offbeat slacker blues debut from the great Okie troubadour, this one goes down like the smoothest bourbon at sunset. Containing the original, superior versions of After Midnight and Call Me The Breeze, it's a veritable treasure trove of exquisite songwriting. That crawling rhythm box is a particularly far-sighted touch, putting Cale in shared company with Kraftwerk and Sly Stone as the first artists to put electronic rhythms on record. In the context of the hazy dreamtime sparkle of songs like River Runs Deep and Crying Eyes, it's almost as if they're springing naturally from the surrounding terrain itself. A casual masterpiece.
The a-side cover version of Jacob Miller's Augustus Pablo-helmed lovers rock standard is a post punk proto-trip hop masterpiece, submerging Lorita Grahame's torch song vocals within a murky stew of towering bass, metallic percussion and film samples from John Carpenter's Escape From New York. The flipside's Looks Like We're Shy One Horse, meanwhile, mines Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West over an apocalyptic groove skanking endless into some dystopian horizon as a blood red sun sets in the distance.
Remain In Light's (edgier, younger and slightly mad) sister record takes its forward-thinking fourth world moves further yet into proto-sampladelia and
the avant-garde. Side one is stuffed with non-stop crazy rhythms: The Jezebel Spirit is a left field disco staple for good reason, spooling an actual on-air exorcism out over a frenetic rhythm matrix, while Regiment's stone cold funk is something like the interzone flipside of Once In A Lifetime. Side two stretches out into pure atmosphere, its individual tracks seeming to materialize from the shadows before drifting off again into the night, spectral and sublime.
A quasi-compilation pulling together a whole raft of choice instrumentals from contemporary 12"s and unreleased material, this record offers a stunning glimpse into the mind of Larry Heard. Bookended by the genre-defining Can You Feel It — the song that took Europe by storm during the Second Summer Of Love — and Mystery Of Love (which has the distinction of being Larry Levan's favorite song of all time), the record also ventures into the deep space ambient house magic of Stars, Bye Bye's sleek electronic soul and the proto-acid madness of Washing Machine. Crucial in every respect.
Exceptionally lush and melancholy jazz for big band, orchestrated and conducted by the late great Duke Ellington. Moody and spacious, the record evokes lonely nights, long moonlit walks and downbeat solo blues. Melancholy meditations like Solitude and Willow Weep For Me are swathed in layers of sumptuous atmosphere, while wistful reveries like The Sky Fell Down and Prelude To A Kiss overflow with the promise of romance. There's even a solitary vocal showcase in Autumn Leaves, featuring the vocals of Ozzie Bailey intertwined with Ray Nance's weeping violin, a haunting duet in a lonely place.
Steeped in nuclear dread, economic uncertainty and post-Watergate blues, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson casually laid down the definitive late-seventies soul album. I was turned onto this record by Moodymann's set at the first DEMF, which he opened with We Almost Lost Detroit (a rumination on the meltdown at Three Mile Island). I was blown away and simply had to track down the album, which includes songs ranging from Under The Hammer's synth-smeared funk to the downbeat blues of Delta Man and everything in between, each of them rising slowly from languid pools of soul.
The definitive statement in bleak mid-nineties hip hop, that era when the RZA's sphere of influence seemed to spread across the entirety of the genre. Showcasing the peerless words and sonix of Prodigy and Havoc, the loping unresolved piano figure of the epochal Shook Ones Part II is matched here by the more elusive first part, sounding like something that sprang from the same New York shadows that Terranova was just beginning to essay from across the Atlantic. You ain't a crook, son... you just a shook one.
The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers' eyes, sings Bowie as the record opens, setting the stage for his transition from plastic soul crooner to fearless sonic trailblazer. Using his recent forays into Philly Soul as a jumping off point into churning proto-disco rhythms — shot through with the motorik drive of German groups like Neu! and his avowed love of Kraftwerk — he kicks off with the ten-minute multi-part rush of the title track and closes with a heartbreaking rendition of Wild Is The Wind, touching on everything from the insouciant funk of Golden Years to TVC 15's robotic pop in between.
I'm a huge fan of Santana's music throughout the seventies, all of those excursions into space rock and interstellar jazz, but the raw frenzy of the debut remains my absolute favorite. This is where it all began, with the same band that rocked Woodstock within days of this record's release. Songs like Soul Sacrifice and the cover version of Babatunde Olatunji's Jingo are masterful in their building tension and release, while Evil Ways remains one of the great jukebox tunes of all time. If you dig the sound of the Hammond B3, then you need to get down with this record..
This is where Janetgoes deep. There's a breadth and depth to this record that one usually expects to find in an Erykah Badu or Moodymann LP — you can really get lost in this record's grooves — but it's really just a logical progression of everything she'd been up to since the days of Control. Jam & Lewis square their production finesse in the age of Timbaland and — with the help of Q-Tip and a young J Dilla — unfurl a set of tracks that are both state-of-the-art yet at the same time imbued with the timeless gravity of 70s soul, remaining right at home in the present all along.
Released hot on the heels of his excellent Visions LP, this is my absolute favorite moment from Robert Owens (the voice of house music). Teaming with master producer David Morales and Satoshi Tomiie on keys, this seems to be an attempt to recreate the dynamic of their epochal Tears (masterminded by one Frankie Knuckles) in sprawling widescreen. The Original Def Mix is a moody dancefloor burner of the highest caliber, but The Glamorous Mix takes it to another level altogether, where driving strings and organ runs are woven into an echoic epic over which Owens' voice soars.
Grime taken out to die in the frozen wastelands. Crafting a surprisingly varied landscape within this icy realm, Wiley roams between the crystalline garage moves of Doorway and the bleak tundra vision of the title track, essaying the almost straight up hip hop shapes of opener The Game and the shimmering r&b inflections of Special Girl along the way. I've always preferred Thin Ice to Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner, which is the classic grime LP by critical consensus (and a classic it is), but this ploughs a deeper furrow and remains my absolute favorite grime record.
Neon-lit bedroom funk from Miles alumni James Mtume, taking seventies cosmic jazz into the computer age. This is without a doubt the greatest electro boogie LP of them all, boasting computer blue dancefloor burners like Green Light and Your Love's Too Good To Spread Around, while both mixes of Juicy Fruit remain twin pillars of atmospheric machine soul and a font of inspiration for so much music (from Dâm-Funk and SA-RA to Timbaland and The Neptunes) that I hold dear.
When weaving this record's captivating pan-global menagerie of sound, Yusef Lateef looked East for inspiration, predating just about everyone — from The Beatles to John Coltrane and even Sun Ra — in his exploration of the wider world's sonic shades and timbres. The Plum Blossom employs Chinese globular flute in it's off-kilter shuffle, while Three Faces Of Balal features a notably stripped-down exercise in rhythm. Rudy Van Gelder's peerless production imbues these sonic excursions with an almost exotica-esque sense of space, remarkable within the context of contemporary jazz.
The There's A Riot Going On of swingbeat, Sons Of Soul is a lushly multi-textured record that makes for a dense, absorbing listen. Some strange turns are taken in the shifting corridors of this record's jazzed-out r&b (see the almost subconscious funk of Tonyies! In The Wrong Key), even shading into the epic with the closing ten minutes of the Anniversary/Castleers suite. I can't think of many records that I get as much pleasure listening to, regardless of the mood I'm in (indeed, Fun may be the most honest song title you'll ever come across).
FSOL's sterling debut, featuring ten tracks of brilliantly vivid, four-dimensional breakbeat techno. A brace of tunes from the Pulse EPs get paired with new material like Expander and the epochal Papua New Guinea, rounding out a deft song cycle shot through with unmistakable cyberpunk vibes. From Buggy G. Riphead's striking sleeve art to the paranoid interludes and Central Industrial's slow-motion widescreen cascade, the whole thing conjures up imagery of Neuromancer, Blade Runner and Cabaret Voltaire in its long flowing corridors of Chiba City blues.
Exceedingly warped, fathoms deep disco on the legendary West End imprint. Forrrce unleash a proto-rap party jam with an unforgettable whiplash bassline tearing through its very fabric, while François Kevorkian works his inimitable magic on the flip, stripping the track down to its frame and rebuilding it like a ramshackle mine cart before running it off the rails through the illogical machinery of Jamaican dub.
Weird reggae forged by its greatest band and produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry at the peak of his powers. The title track is one of the finest dub outings ever, running down a languid skank before collapsing into a rock-hard slow-motion climax, while the Tell Me Something Good cover version blows away everyone I've ever shown it to. Throughout, Scratch coaxes the swirling sounds of the Black Ark into a singular negotiation of reggae roots and the deepest chasms of futuristic dub.
Of all the records to spring from N.W.A.'s axis, this is hands down my favorite. A dense, varied record, full of twists and turns like the liquid funk of the title track and the skittering fast-forward groove of Portrait Of A Masterpiece, it even features the entirety of N.W.A. on The Grand Finalé. Dr. Dre's ace production splits the difference between the hard edges of Straight Outta Compton and the nimble funk of Efil4zaggin, while The D.O.C. out-raps everybody else in the crew. No One Can Do It Better indeed.
Cosmic canyon folk from ex-Byrd and CSN main man David Crosby, recorded in San Francisco and featuring local luminaries like Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia (along with further members of Jefferson Airplane, Santana and The Grateful Dead) and a few L.A. colleagues for good measure (including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell). This ad-hoc supergroup shines in Cowboy Movie's low-slung, eight-minute canyon funk jam (a chronicle of CSNY's dissolution as seen through the prism of The Wild Bunch) and the murky tumble of What Are Their Names' abstract, blazing protest, while gentle, otherworldly moments like Traction In The Rain and Orleans quietly steal the show with a shimmering magic all their own.
Sparkling proto-new wave from a four piece group of hard-dreaming CBGB luminaries. Picking up where West Coast acid rockers like The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane left off, Television reshape yesterday's wild psychedelia into a contemplative sonic menagerie — with just a hint of punk attitude — that ushered in a whole new era for rock.
Pastoral Krautrock from a large, shifting group of musicians centering around the vision of Florian Fricke. Gentle instrumental sketches like Kleiner Krieger and Morgengruß set the stage, gradually giving way to the title track's lush, multi-part longform jam — featuring the ethereal vocals of Djong Yun — that dominates the entirety of side two. The common thread running throughout is a bucolic sense of tranquility and near-telepathic interplay between the musicians.
Two holdovers from eighties new wave are joined by younger techno DJ Darren Emerson and dive headfirst into dance music, sculpting a moody masterpiece of electronic noir. Karl Hyde's rock dynamics are crucial to the record's singular tone, with the overcast alternative rock stylings of Tongue and Dirty Epic's subterranean guitar moves utterly unique within the context of nineties dance. This is "binary skyline" music, to borrow a phrase from Snakes, shimmering on a cloudy horizon.
Twelve-inch post-disco dancefloor action from synth wizard Wally Badarou, lifted from his excellent Echoes LP of the same year (recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau). The Vine Street mix by Paul "Groucho" Smykle is the absolute best version of Chief Inspector (and it can only be found here!), gliding along with percussion inspired by D.C. go-go and slipping into a zero gravity moonwalk for its dreamlike refrain. Tying together strands stretching from disco to post punk, dub to hip hop and even the nascent house music, Badarou winds up with an eerily prescient hallucination of the next twenty years of club music.
Late sixties minimalism from one of the prime architects of the form. Absorbing the hypnotic electric pulse of Indian classical music as a prime influence, Riley treats the organ as a proto-synthesizer and plays every note by hand, becoming the human sequencer as he multi-tracks myriad layers of keyboards, harpsichord, tambourine and goblet drum into a cycling electronic ballet on the sidelong title track. The flipside's marathon workout, Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band, trades kinetic flow for gently droning arcs, with Riley's improvised saxophone dancing across its surface.
Jefferson Airplane are the embodiment of radical sixties counterculture's interface with rock and are the obvious precursor to seventies German groups like Amon Düül II (the commune that coalesced into a band) and Ash Ra Tempel. This 7" single stands as their greatest merger of righteous joy and anger into a triumphant firebrand vision of acid rock, continuing the everyone sing at once (preferably in a different key) and let the chips fall where they may late-period sloppy proto-punk vocal style that they'd pursued since Volunteers. Mexico, possibly the greatest song about smuggling marijuana into the country, expands on the spirit of songs like We Could Live Together, while Have You Seen The Saucers is quintessential West Coast space rock, setting the stage for Paul Kantner's Jefferson Starship and Blows Against The Empire.
Sleazy new wave glam rock, where punk meets disco in the red light district. You can see where Duran Duran got most of their ideas (executing the whole Sex Pistols meets Chic equation years before it had even occurred to Nick Rhodes and Simon Le Bon), and I've often thought that you can hear a bit of Royal Scam-era Steely Dan in the jazz-tinged grooves of Wish You Were Black and Television. An utterly original sound in evidence throughout, this record deserves to be be more widely heard (and imitated).
Cyberpunk jungle. Taking in the sonic skyline of Vangelis' Blade Runner Blues and sampling a snatch of Roy Batty's "tears in the rain" speech from the film's conclusion, Dillinja runs riot with his trademark depth charge bass bombs and speaker-shredding breaks to create one of jungle's all-time greatest rollers. The two tracks on the flip pursue the same path of shape-shifting, aerodynamic drum 'n bass intensity, rounding out a three-track set of superbly engineered breakbeat noir.
Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer may have gestured ominously in the general direction, but this monolithic, towering LP was the de facto birth of heavy metal. Slowing hard rock down to a robe-shrouded crawl, Black Sabbath injected a blood-soaked sense of the occult into their music while everybody ran for cover. A key outpost in rock's grappling with James Brown's elegant, funky beats inna caveman stylee, this stone tablet is cherished by rock, rave and hip hop heads alike (just ask Ice-T and Joey Beltram). Containing five ruminations on slow-motion fury, for me the debut remains their finest hour.
Mande music snaking its way through the desert sands of Mali, cooked up by the region's finest band and fronted by the inimitable Salif Keita, whose piercing wail cuts through the dense instrumentation like a knife. The towering title track rocks a dusty downbeat rhythm before breaking into a double-time frenzy in its coda, while Kandja refracts Caribbean music back across the Atlantic in mutant form. Balla closes the record on a gentle organ-led shuffle (think Booker T. & The M.G.'s), with a vibrant repartee between the band as they ride off into the sunset together.
Endless cosmic jam by an ad-hoc supergroup of Krautrock luminaries, the results edited down into a series of five spaced-out kosmische LPs (of which this is the first) by Rolf-Ulrich Kaiserwithout the knowledge of the band. This is true outer space/inner space music, with one extended track sprawling across each side. The opening Galactic Joke is a pulsing excursion into deep sonar architecture — its guitars arcing gracefully into oblivion — while the flipside's Cosmic Joy inhabits a dark textural sprawl that ultimately spawns a ten-ton bassline. The record should come with a spacesuit.
Brian Eno once called this the most important record ever made, and when you hear it booming over a nightclub soundsystem at full volume it's pretty hard to argue. Pulsing machine music produced by Giorgio Moroder, this forward-thinking computer disco remains wildly influential. And then there's the matter of Donna Summer, who takes the whole affair to another plane altogether, her voice soaring in graceful arcs around that central rhythm and putting all manner of would-be divas to shame in the process. This is hardcore.
For my money, the greatest late-summer hip hop LP ever. East meets West in this extended song cycle about two cousins from opposite coasts spending a summer together in the city that never sleeps. If you imagine a rap record produced by Roy Ayers, you wouldn't be too far off. Even the skits are good. This always takes me back to August of '95 when my brother and I were refinishing a deck for walking-around-money, tripping out under the blazing sun with Jammin' z90 coming through like a mirage in the Santee heat... Born To Roll, the man said.
The perfect encapsulation of Nu Groove's half-lit, anything goes vision of house music, where reggae, disco, ambient and acid rub shoulders on the dancefloor and nobody misses a beat. Of course it's hard to choose just one Bobby Konders 12", but this one's the reason the man's a household name where I come from. From the rolling pianos of Let There Be House to the searing 303 lines of Nervous Acid, Massai Women's eerie Serengeti atmospherics and the sprawling deep house epic The Poem, it's an unmissable EP of off-the-wall New York house.
This is the sound of my youth. I could have picked any of their first three LPs, but this one's dubbed out, rootsical bass architecture marks it as my absolute favorite. The voodoo calm of Karmacoma, Weather Storm's invisible soundtrack, Mushroom Vowles, Tracy Thorn's mournful croon, the smoked out Light My Fire cover version, Horace Andy's x-ray falsetto, the depth-charging 303 basslines, Nicolette's serenading of the spirits and Tricky's dread magic — still in full force at this point — all blur into the perfect prescription of blunted Bristol blues and a true smoker's delight.
Mingus' Impulse! debut finds him righteously at home in the house that Trane built, working through a series of four complex suites inspired by Duke Ellington that — with all apologies to Count Basie — seem to take big band jazz into the atomic era. Mingus was so impressed with Bob Theile's in-house production that in the liner notes he proclaimed that his fans could throw out all of his old records because this was the sound he was after all along!
Skeletal, dubbed out reggae from the concrete jungle. Black and white newsprint paranoia reigns supreme throughout, not unlike a remake of The Parallax View set in contemporary Kingston. Spying Glass, later covered by Massive Attack, drapes gutter-glazed synths over its stately, slow-motion crawl. Horace Andy's lonely falsetto is cloaked in layers of desolate production courtesy of Lloyd Barnes, who stretches these solarized riddims out into echo-chambered infinity.
Dark and moody electro dubbed out into a mirage on the fabled Cutting Records imprint. Hashim advances from the sparse, crisp edges of his epochal electro jam Al-Naafiysh The Soul into deeply blunted terrain, the sound of which seems to strangely overlap with that of certain late-period post punk records like 400 Blows' Declaration Of Intent in its slap-bass fueled approximation of William Gibson's visions of the future. This always makes me think of riding around with Snakes back in high school, bombing down the lonely corridors of Grantville and Mission Gorge at night.
The spectacularly powerful debut, and the unacknowledged midpoint between Kate Bush and Neneh Cherry (by way of 4AD). A treasure trove of striking moments, ranging from the machine rhythms of Jerusalem and I Want Your Hands On Me (which seem to trace a jagged line between Control and Buffalo Stance) to the warrior charge of Mandinka (featuring the unmistakable guitar of one Marco Pirroni) and the indie rock drone of Just Call Me Joe (sounding like The Breeders a couple years early), the record's heart lies in majestic numbers like Jackie and the drama of Troy's towering suite, while the lush folk balladry of Just Like U Said It Would B and Drink Before The War swoop in deftly to conquer all. O'Connor wields her voice like a weapon throughout, and on The Lion And The Cobra she takes no prisoners.
After his stunning major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar went on to top it soundly by improbably hooking up with jazzmen like Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner and Kamasi Washington, crafting a vital modern rap record in thrall to figures like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. There's a wealth of material here, from the staggering modal grandeur of How Much A Dollar Cost to King Kunta's nightclub stop and the free jazz interludes in between, while the bleak intensity of tracks like u and The Blacker The Berry are balanced by occasional moments of lighthearted euphoria like These Walls and i. The sonic breadth in evidence throughout is matched only by the vast array of subjects Lamar explores over the course of this often harrowing — if ultimately uplifting — record. Someday, someone will write a whole book about this record.
The kid from the Jackson 5 delivers yet another pop masterpiece, the claustrophobic machine shapes and soaring chorus of which mark it out as my absolute favorite moment from the man. The Extended Dance Mix stretches the tune's crashing groove to nearly eight minutes of sonic perfection, with Jackson vamping sublime over its protracted jam. I've often thought this tune was a kindred spirit with the contemporary techno output of Detroit's big three: when those gorgeous, soaring synths hit in the chorus — Jackson's vocals sliding effortlessly across the surface — you're cruising the same sprawling metropolis corridors essayed in Reese's Rock To The Beat, Rhythim Is Rhythim's It Is What It Is and Model 500's Off To Battle. File under futurism.
Swashbuckling ragga ardkore produced by PJ and Smiley of Shut Up And Dance. Setting the tone for the nineties, this swings wildly from the breakbeat madness of Ragga Trip and Wipe The Needle to Illegal Gunshot's straight up dancehall moves and the awesome EWF-pillaging groove of The Killing. The instrumental 18" Speaker — a bassbin-shattering slab of dubbed-out ravefloor magic — spools wild bleeps across a shuffling breakbeat strapped with a bassline like an oil tanker. One of those records where everything comes together to form an unlikely masterpiece (in truth SUAD had quite a few of those under their belt), this is what raving is all about.
Legendary proto-punk Detroit heavy metal. Maybe the wildest live album ever recorded, and certainly my favorite. The title track and Come Together ride great churning riffs deep into the redline, while I Want You Right Now seems to split the difference between Wild Thing and 1983... A Merman I Should Turn To Be in a slow-motion come-on of epic proportions. The closing Starship borrows from Sun Ra in a wild freeform launch into the stratosphere, rounding out a chaotic masterpiece that manages to transcend its era and feel brazenly alive in the present.
An urban troubadour rises from the streets of Detroit to cut a blistering folk LP. Rodriguez hits plain and direct throughout — rather than hiding behind layers of abstraction — as he chronicles his singular visions of the inner city. Each of these tunes progress with a wicked internal logic that slowly creeps toward their inevitable conclusion (like the baptism scene from The Godfather). I only recently learned that it was arranged and produced by disco/funk stalwarts Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey. Right on!
The lushest, most laidback LP from Stevie Wonder in the seventies, an era when the man could do no wrong. After surviving a near fatal car accident the previous year, he seemed to enter the studio in an even more introspective mood than usual. Indeed, aside from the blistering electronic funk of You Haven't Done Nothin' — the last in his line of songs to take on our very own Parallax icon Richard Nixon — this is by far his most mellow album of the decade. Even more lavishly arranged than usual, it features appearances by figures like Minnie Riperton, Syreeta and The Jackson Five, lending their rich backing vocals throughout, while Tonto's Expanding Head Band coax the verdant shapes of their machines into a sumptuous bed of sound.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, firing on all cylinders, dropped this 12" hot on the heels of their debut full-length and somehow managed to surpass everything on it. A crucial, forward-thinking elaboration on The Message, with a next-level reality rap flowing sharp and precise over skyscraper-crumbling beats and a searing, futuristic production, this anticipates and exemplifies basically everything I love about modern music.
Jungle came out of nowhere a few years back with this absolutely blinding album, a sterling debut haunted by a dozen of their gloriously fractured dancefloor hymns. Sounding wholly alien and unlike anything else around, I like to imagine this intoxicating hall-of-mirrors post-disco trip would have sounded right at home pumping out the immaculate soundsystem at the Paradise Garage. These shimmering grooves shift and slide like liquid metal, melting into a sonic T-1000 reclining at the cutting edge of dance music and pop.
The mesmerizing Edu Lobo's most intimate record finds him unveiling a thoroughly unique take on lush Brazilian samba. I always liked how Woebot would refer to him as "the Brazilian Bryan Ferry". Here you definitely get that same sense of sophisticated languor one finds in Roxy's more downbeat moments. The peerless Quarteto Novo, fresh from Miles Davis' Live/Evil sessions, provide sumptuous backing with their patented turn-on-a-dime rhythmic panache and nimble touch. Everything here is light as a feather, yet deep as the ocean.
Cinematic free jazz with its eyes locked firmly on India. Alice Coltrane takes her boundless vision into widescreen with a full string orchestra in tow for this record's five swirling rhapsodies. Her masterful reworking of late husband John Coltrane's A Love Supreme breaks into a left field beat that leaves you blinking in disbelief at the improbable perfection of it all, while the sprawling Galaxy In Satchidananda feels like the soundtrack to some metaphysical sword-and-sandal epic set on an alien planet orbiting a distant star.
Wild-eyed Celtic folk troubadour cuts loose with a jazz combo, reaching his true potential as he unleashes a stone cold masterpiece imbued with gentle soul and a spiritual elegance all its own. The heart of the record lies in sprawling character studies like Cyprus Avenue and Madame George, where Morrison lingers on these sad characters longer than most would dare. Sweet Thing and the title track seem to magnify the sum total of human love until it threatens to eclipse all of its bitterness and hate, embracing the world in its weary arms. And really, what could be better than that?
Dense NDW. This is a space music that sounds like something SETI picked up on a particularly long range scan, those churning alien sonics emanating from within the center of some distant black hole. Voices echo just on the outer rim of the soundscape as fractal synth sequences pulsate all around, literally absorbing everything within reach. It feels like a staircase spiraling off into oblivion as gravity's pull draws you ever deeper into the churning vortex below. Surreal and occasionally disturbing — like late-period David Lynch — and the true soundtrack to In The Mouth Of Madness.
Juan Atkins's second release on his own Metroplex imprint is characteristically ahead of its time with its ultra-modern stripped down production and racing computer blue sequences. A lone driver's tale unfolds, recounting a freaky trip through the nocturnal highways of Techno City and the mysterious passenger he encounters along the way. The flipside is a turbo-charged rework of No UFOs (the centerpiece of the first Model 500 record), which finds Atkins short-circuiting World War III by landing a spaceship in your backyard. A bold, angular line drawn through the middle of the 1980's... this is what Detroit Techno is all about.
Rising from the ashes of post-industrial Cleveland, Pere Ubu are without a doubt one of the great American bands (in fact, they're almost too good to be true), working up their own unique brand of post-Velvets racket long before punk — let alone post punk — even existed. In the past, I'd always gravitated toward their earliest sides (essayed on the Terminal Tower compilation) but over the last year or so the razor-sharp precision of The Modern Dance finally won me over once and for all. This is either the sound of perfection perverted, or perversion perfected... take your pick.
Dreamy, jazz-inflected folk from one of the early visionaries of the Laurel Canyon scene. Lazy reveries like Strange Feelin' and Dream Letter drift weightlessly beneath the setting sun, even as a curling undertow continues to build up deep within until the interminable jamming of Gypsy Woman threatens to pull all of its surroundings into orbit before collapsing into a swirling vortex of proto-Krautrock intensity. Sun-baked with an undercurrent of dread, this is the L.A. of Inherent Vice.
Monumental, unclassifiable moody psychedelic cabaret rock 'n roll from the days when giants roamed the lazy beaches of California. Jim Morrison comes on like a twisted beat-poet crooner (echoes of Eden Ahbez in full effect) while Ray Manzarek wields his keyboards as if they were synths. Meanwhile, John Densmore seems to draw his tricky rhythms from anywhere but rock and Robbie Krieger's crystalline guitar style anticipates Carlos Santana. The whole effect is entirely unique, yet so easy to take for granted owing to the sheer magnitude of their historical impact. Utterly essential.
German b-boys cut loose in widescreen with Krautrock legend on guitar. Basically a jazz record, Tokyo Tower is eight minutes of somber perfection, while the flipside's Clone is a slab of seriously bleak microtonal madness that drops you into the middle of The Parallax View without map or compass. Terranova's album from a couple years later was good, but this right here is magic. When this first dropped, it seemed to me like a record from another age... whether that age was twenty years in the past or twenty years in the future, I'm still not quite sure...
Chris Corner steps out of the shadows to front his own group — sounding like some unholy blend of Scott Walker and Marc Almond — who wrap him up in the raw architecture of feedback and ragged downcast beats on the long road to ruin. The whole trip feels deeply unhealthy and self-destructive — making plenty of stops in some incredibly dark places along the way — yet somehow in its resolute, brave stance finds itself at a strangely uplifting conclusion, crawling through the basement to find redemption. If OK Computer were as good as everyone says, it would sound an awful lot like this.
NOTE: To continue onward to The Parallax 100, click here.
There exists a particular sound that seems to leap out the speakers in vivid colors, engulfing its surroundings and drawing you into its world. I've come to refer to this as the day-glo sound. There's a four dimensional character to it... you can hear the neon in the air around you. It's something that's captured my imagination from day one, and I've been wanting to pull these records together for some time now. They tend to spring from the intersection of new wave and the dancefloor (at least initially), but in truth you might find them just about anywhere, from rap to techno and machine soul.
The reason I find this particular sound to be crucial is that it manages to spark up brilliant images in the mind's eye even as it throws spectacular shapes across the dancefloor. This is music for the mind, body and soul. It's verdant and full of life, with a four-dimensional depth that's thoroughly engrossing. Indeed, it's no surprise that some of the greatest pop music has keyed into this sound. It's particularly germane to the present moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it pointed a way out of the quandary music currently finds itself in.
Rather appropriately, we begin our survey at the dawn of the eighties. There are bits and pieces from earlier records that may hint in the general direction, but they ultimately belong to a parallel lineage (one that I plan to discuss sometime next month). It's in the eighties that the day-glo aesthetic truly catches fire, coloring each of these records from the sleeves on down to the sonics held within. In rough chronological order then...
If we're talking day-glo, then there's no better place to start than with The Beat. Coming from the late-seventies ska revival (as spearheaded by The Specials and their Two-Tone stable of artists), they stand out by virtue of their sumptuous sonic palette. The Specials debut — with its stark black-and-white sleeve design and Elvis Costello's no-frills live-in-the-studio production — was thoroughly monochromatic working week music. From the baleful tenor of Concrete Jungle to the dead-end doldrums of Too Much Too Young, it was packed with no-nonsense photo-realistic documentary reportage.
In contrast, I Just Can't Stop It leaps out the speakers in vivid shades of violet and magenta, like neon lights dancing against the jet black of night. Mirror In The Bathroom, from the production on down, must be one of the most futuristic records ever produced. With five humans locked into the metronomic pulse of Everett Morton's drums and David Steele's creeping basslines, it almost seems to approach a state of machine music in its motorik drive and clockwork precision, with every texture clutching at your ear and pulling you deeper into its world.
You can sense the glitz of disco seeping into the post punk vanguard here,1 cementing the day-glo aesthetic that would color so much of the decade's music. An affinity with Giorgio Moroder's motor-disco, the spangled shapes of Prelude and above all the tropical, dubbed-out sounds of the nascent Island disco output can be felt throughout. The music spread across the entirety of this LP seems to exude a balmy glow, practically defining the word vibrant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains one of my absolute favorite pure pop records of all time.
This is the point where post-disco morphs into eighties electro-boogie (see also Kleeer/Universal Robot Band, along with everything going down in Minneapolis at the time). You're The One For Me maintains the metronomic linearity of disco, lacking the top-heavy verticality of eighties electrofunk, but its machine rhythms do bear a striking resemblance to those of the electro boom looming on the horizon.
James Williams' soaring vocals swoop and glide over spangled synthetic shapes, wired into that central electronic groove, while Hubert Eaves III (the man behind the seventies jazz funk tile Esoteric Funk) gets busy on the keys. The instrumental version even begins with a liquid synth figure that sounds like loose wires shooting electricity across the third rail, kicking off a wild subway ride into the depths of the New York night.
Indeed, the whole Prelude aesthetic sits comfortably within the day-glo realm, from the rambunctious electronic shapes of The Strikers' Body Music, shifting and burning over tight mechanical rhythms, to the more organic sounds of Empress' Dyin' To Be Dancin', still firmly grounded as they are in the rules of disco proper.
Much of it has a vivid, compact clarity that seems to predict the architecture of eighties dance, but D-Train's You're The One For Me represents that crucial step forward, heralding a sea change in the way dance records would be constructed. Just compare 1980's Gap Band III to 1982's Gap Band IV, Cameosis to Alligator Woman or even Off The Wall to Thriller!
Another well-documented favorite of mine. It's also another singular pop record shaped in disco's shadow, combined with the arch grandeur of film music in an overwhelming clash of sonics. A definite case where the sleeve really captures the sumptuous moods found within. This music suggests ornate ice sculptures spiraling into the sky, crammed with so much richness of detail that they threaten to come crashing down at any moment, while Billy MacKenzie's shrieks pierce through their crystalline corridors with wild abandon. Every texture seems to pulsate fiercely, wherein unstable elements garland paranoia and raging emotion: this is blacklight affair music.
Songs like It's Better This Way and Skipping careen at a furious pace, seeming to combine euphoria and dread into a single emotion, every surface shimmering like storm clouds caught in a ray of sunlight. Conversely, No and Gloomy Sunday glide along at a more stately pace — with MacKenzie almost seeming to revel in his grief — but are no less overwhelmingly powerful for it. Every corner of the record is imbued with a raging intensity, as if all the colors — shades of blue, green and violet — were burning too bright to last for long. The dreamlike Party Fears Two is something like the embodiment of this sensation.
The CD reissue includes a wealth of bonus material (up there with Fifth Dimension's bonus tracks in terms of enhancing the original album experience), including an astoundingly raw early version of It's Better This Way (titled The Room We Sat In Before) and the moody instrumental Grecian 2000. The former is a splendid showcase for Alan Rankine's guitar finesse, as he strangles strange tangled shapes from his instrument, while the latter is a masterpiece of electronic noir: a captivating post-disco pulse cloaked in a haunting synth refrain, evoking paranoid pursuit through deserted city streets in the dead of night.
Needless to say, it's exactly the sort of thing we dig here at The Parallax Room.
The Island disco sound that I'd mentioned in passing while discussing The Beat, was in large part fueled by the inimitable Compass Point All Stars. The All-Stars were a crucial conduit through which both discomix reggae and dubbed-out vibes entered the eighties mainstream, and everything they touched was shot through with lush tropical flavor and a new wave glow. They backed Gwen on her first three albums (Gwen Guthrie, Portrait and Just For You), picking up where they left off with Grace Jones' excellent Island trilogy (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life).
The Padlock mini-album finds Larry Levan remixing a selection of tracks from Gwen's first two LPs into one extended atmospheric trip. The production here conjures up images of a steamy dancehall bathed in primary colors as viewed through a fun house mirror, evoking the spirit of Levan's Paradise Garage in its verdant, gently psychedelic atmosphere.2 The abstract machinery of dub remains in full effect throughout, righteously casting this cutting edge post-disco boogie as the head music of the eighties. Just keep in mind, this is the sort of head music that you can't help but dance to.
Tracks like Getting Hot, with those glimmering electronic flourishes spiraling out into infinity, and Peanut Butter, riding atop those insane rolling basslines, both burn with a raw, almost tactile sensuality. Hopscotch appears here in its most minimal version, while the title track (as featured on Parallax Pier) gives you a front-row seat at Club Paradise. When Gwen sings We'll sail away to shores... in Seventh Heaven, backing synths pouring through in a rush of sunlight, it's as if the feeling of pure ecstasy has been captured on wax.
Soul woman Barbara Mason had a history in the seventies as a no-nonsense truth-talker, rough hewn and down in the nitty gritty, smoldering with hard-won intensity on records like Shackin' Up and Caught In The Middle. Coming out nearly a decade later, Another Man is a sequel of sorts to her ballad She's Got The Papers I Got The Man, picking up where that tune left off — once the dust had settled on its romantic intrigue — with a humorous tale of infidelity and the realization that she really might not be his type after all.
Another Man has the shadowy, dubbed-out flavor you'd expect from a West End record, but it's wired to a cutting edge electroid groove that seems to be infused with hot pink liquid neon. Like D-Train's You're The One For Me, it's another killer late-period record from a disco powerhouse label that seems to cavort with electro in the half-light, laying out a blueprint for the future in the process. Notorious B.I.G. later used its sleek, depth-charging groove as the basis for his hit record Another, but trust me — you need to hear the original tune in all its glory.
The title track is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of atmospheric machine soul (especially The After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part II version), while its striking music video3 perfectly captures the whole aesthetic on showcase tonight: day-glo and neon burning in the twilight. The florid magenta hues of those jackets they're wearing on the sleeve give you the first clue as to the vibes found within. Fog hangs over late night city streets bathed in neon. Cars creep in slow-motion by while the sounds of the corner disco seep out into the wider world, coloring the evening of the passers by.
This is post-disco funk music, fueled by rubberband basslines and twilight atmosphere (it's after six), cutting edge for its time it remains a pungent sound full of possibilities in the present. From Green Light's nimble, sure-footed boogie to the low key sway of Ready For Your Love, the group slide from dancefloor to bedroom with impeccable finesse. It all flows together so naturally, even as they take you to some unexpected places along the way (Hip Dip Skippedabeat is an electrofunk monster with a proto-rap that — in a strange twist of fate — recalls Lightnin' Rod's Hustlers Convention), that you can't help but get caught up in their moonlight vision. Without a doubt one of the great funk LPs of its era.
Compass Point's main keyboard man Wally Badarou strikes solo with an instrumental excursion that bravely expands on the groundwork laid out by the earlier Compass Point records, meshing lush jungle atmospherics with the power grid of the city. It's a rather astonishing tune to drop smack in the middle of the eighties, as it seems to predict whole swathes of the next decade's beat-oriented music even as it remains grounded in the gloriously lush post-disco climes of its day. The best of both worlds, in other words.
The original version — from his 1984 LP Echoes — was excellent, but the Vine Street mix on this 12" takes it to a higher plane altogether. When the verse's sleek groove unfolds into that insouciant low key moonwalk during the chorus — synths bathed in hypnotic half-light — it's as if you're gliding three feet above the ground. That it was released on 4th & Broadway is a perfect touch, as this was the label that would deftly navigate post-disco waters in the interzone between hip hop and house (charting the emergence of swingbeat and trip hop along the way). Rather appropriate for a record that plays like a roadmap to the future.
The original version, firmly of-its-era modern soul, gets stretched and spaced-out into timelessness by Andy Sojka (owner of Elite Records), Chris Madden and Keni Stevens himself at The Madhouse. The Ultra-Sensual Mix flows from its vocal to instrumental version flawlessly, recalling the low key half-lit brilliance of Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On when that tune memorably stretched out into its extended instrumental coda.
The central groove has been stripped down to an ultra-light frame and rebuilt like a graceful aero-glider, with not one element out of place. This has always struck me as something of a sister record to Barbara Mason's Another Man, those same sleek machine shapes grooving gently in the shadows. Yeah, I've gone on before about its rolling deep blue vectors bathed in moonlight, and yeah it's something of a touchstone around these parts; it's still a tremendous record. Paradise and polygons, you're in the grid now.
Early Detroit bizzness, which finds Juan Atkins picking up where he left off with Cybotron and No UFO's, venturing even deeper into nocturnal atmosphere and dubbed-out electronic shapes. Night Drive Thru-Babylon is surely one of the key records of eighties. It's just perfect, with Atkins' narration riding atop an elegant, starkly minimal electroid groove.
He's bombing up and down deserted Detroit streets, encountering strange freaks and existential loneliness in the darkness. That beat, a perfection of the electro structure, glides along like a rebuilt street racer. The vessel is cast deep blue on black, rushing past in luminescent streaks on the highway, everything bathed in scattered rays of unnatural moonlight. You're feeling the dread in that bassline, tronix swooping and rising like sparks over shimmering synth surfaces in otherworldly harmony, and your hands slowly tighten on the wheel...
Late eighties post-disco action produced by Bob Blank (of Blank Tape Studios), with the fingerprints of one Arthur Russell in evidence throughout. Certainly many other Russell tracks could qualify here — the cavernous shapes of Dinosaur L's Corn Belt and Indian Ocean's madly abstract Treehouse/School Bell spring to mind immediately — but this one's low key brilliance sits most comfortably among present company. Its swirling texture and slow-motion groove seem to evoke the feeling of floating underwater,4 and as is usually the case when Russell is involved, that water is gonna be deep (inna Larry Heard stylee).
Every texture pulses, throbbing against that gently chugging rhythm like unsteady electrical current running through a wavering light bulb. Think early Carl Craig, particularly the Gaussian blurred strokes of his Retroactive and Psyche/BFC material, but here everything is vivid and hyper-textured. Lola Blank's untamed vocals burst in and out of the mix as if she were inhabited by different personalities, while Arthur Russell does his inimitably subtle backing vocal thing (see also Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face) throughout, poised just on the edge of the mix and weaving around Lola's breezily captivating lead to satisfyingly hypnotic effect.
Such a beautiful record, filled with the most absorbing house music you could imagine, made simply and elegantly by two Chicago kids armed with not much more than a DX-7 synth and a TR-707 drum machine. The Virgo album is essentially an expansion on the Ride EP, doubling the tracklist and stretching out into a thoroughly engrossing, immersive sonic trip. Sure, the gorgeous sleeve gives tantalizing clues as to the sounds held within, but dropping the needle on the record still never fails to take my breath away.
Do You Know Who You Are?, cloaked in lush synths cast in deep aquamarine, throws smooth shapes at placid angles off the clubhouse walls; it's as if you've passed through a door into the backroom and wound up on the far side of the galaxy. Tracks like In A Vision and Ride persist on a course through deep space, with luminescent textures routed through a hall of mirrors, cascading gently into infinity.
Starting with Ride, a handful of songs feature murmured vocals, feeling like a soft-focus take on what Jamie Principle had been up to during the preceding four or five years, placing sensitive, introspective men among the machines. Here, the duo fade into the mix like ghostly apparitions. All The Time is one such moody burner (vocals glide over the shifting ocean surface, locked onto the horizon), while Never Want To Lose You has the duo sneaking Bowie-esque into the foreground while an uncredited female vocalist intones acid house phrases like move your body! and listen to that beat!.
This lush machine soul reaches its twin peaks in both Going Thru Life — with those cascading synths and stark piano lines in spiral orbit over the deepest bassline you could imagine — while the warm geometric pulses of School Hall anchor a touching missive that surpasses even Kraftwerk's Computer Love in teaching machines to cry. There's this recurring moment when everything stops and the bassline just hangs there for a second — in suspended animation — before dropping back into the mix in a tumble of tones... oh man, it's one of my favorite things in the world.
More prime deep house, this time from New York's Mark Wilson. The whole Nu Groove aesthetic fits snugly within this realm (things like Rhythm Masters, The Sound Vandals and Bobby Konders' records spring to mind immediately). In fact, I often think that Nu Groove picked up on what the Compass Point All Stars had done and ran with it, bringing it into the nineties with their singular, multifaceted take on deep house. It's a sound that folds disparate strands of dub reggae, hip hop and r&b into its digital disco, offering up a definitive New York take on house music and a crucial stepping stone into the next decade.
Go directly to the New York Mix. Every surface is immaculate: that rolling bassline rides a gliding, shuffling rhythm with impeccable finesse, while underwater synths pulse deep in the background (making it feel something like a distant cousin to Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector). That oceanic synth — springing as it does from deep within the mix — certainly helps strengthen the comparison, sounding strikingly similar to the one rolling beneath long stretches of Badarou's track. Tons of tones tumble in and out of the ether, scattered against light reflected off the cityscape, as all surrounding entities are submerged into the deep. Shimmering and aquatic, this is underwater music for real.
The next node in the sequence brings us to the UK. So appropriate that this follows, as I've often thought that Dougans and Cobain's early records owe a huge debt to not only the Nu Groove aesthetic but also Compass Point's: they wired that same verdant, kaleidoscopic atmosphere into rave's kinetic breakbeats and the stark futurism of Detroit. This is where the two meet.
A definite cyberpunk flavor can be felt throughout, with shades of Cabaret Voltaire lurking between the cracks and of course Buggy G. Riphead's gorgeous artwork remaining a key period signifier. The Blade Runner vibes are most apparent in the shades of paranoia threaded throughout the record, and also in tracks like Moscow and Central Industrial, with the duo living up to their chosen name.
Accelerator is the culmination of all their early records, released under names like Humanoid, Mental Cube and Indo Tribe (indeed, many of these tracks had already appeared in various forms on the four volumes of The Pulse EPs). The opening track, Expander, rolls in on clouds of foreboding before dropping into a loose breakbeat groove, the unstable synth notes of the chorus spiraling out into crimson swirls.
On the flipside, Central Industrial closes the record with a staggering downbeat rhythm, each and every texture piercing into the darkness like an early prototype of the duo's Yage visions. In between lies all manner of magic, from the freewheeling calypso shapes of Stolen Documents (yet another track that seems to recall Badarou's Chief Inspector) to the sumptuous shades of While Others Cry, with its uncredited vocals seeming to connect literally to the tropical flair of Compass Point.
A key ingredient running through many of the tracks is a riverbed of percussion lying just below the surface, placed within dubbed-out caverns of echo (see tracks like It's Not My Problem and 1 In 8)5 while another is the near-constant stream of subspace breakbeats threaded through a 4/4 techno beat-matrix. Tracks like Calcium and Pulse State unveil shimmering vistas, hypnotic swirls of sound painted in vibrant color against Monet-like skies. These are some of the album's deepest moments, during which FSOL perfect a sort of rolling, filmic techno, as if a perpetual motion machine's course had been charted into the sunset.
Then there's the matter of Papua New Guinea, which rides a slice of gently unfurling breakbeat magic over a bassline lifted from Meat Beat Manifesto's Radio Babylon, prefiguring the path of rampant sampladelia the duo would engage in for the remainder of the decade. Further related capers can be found on its 12" single, with an excellent Dub Mix and the Journey To Pyramid version in particular shot through with the vivid colors of a certain day-glo psychedelia.
The one you want is Guido's Aquasonic Ice Rink Dub. Check that bassline, the awesome DX-100 bass sound that graced hundreds of records from the era, sparring with the nagging refrain of an after hours organ emerging in violet shades from the darkness. The vocal version is no less special, with the presence of an uncredited dancefloor diva wailing defiantly against the track's sumptuous nocturnal backdrop.
I still remember stumbling upon this record at an indispensable thrift shop (whose name eludes me) that once existed down the street from the Clairemont Library back when I worked there after school. The place was a goldmine of dance and hip hop promos that had apparently been shed by local DJs in an effort to pare down their collections. I used to drop by every Thursday during my lunch break and pull loads of killer garage and rap cuts for next to nothing, so I've gotta give props to those cats for hooking a young (broke) brother up back in the day.
Lush, melodic Bay Area hip hop. The cognoscenti seem to prefer his earlier Playaz N The Game, but I reckon that this one's his masterpiece. Every surface seems to exude a warm glow as shapes shimmer in the darkness and colors get scattered at random. From the title on downwards, it's as if JT had immersed himself in the studio on a mission to conjure up the most amazingly vibrant sounds possible, smearing the rough-hewn edges of these homespun studio mixes into a sleek flow of rolling machine music. The result is casually psychedelic, but electrofunk tight.
All techno heads must hear Root Of All Evil immediately. Like E-40's In A Major Way, with its astonishing shades of Drexciya atmosphere, this seems to share an affinity with those same plangent computer sonics (via West Coast rap's roots in electro). The drums snap with a quintessential coastal crispness that dates back to the days of Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover, while the bass itself seems to melt into the spaces between.
JT's tight flow is augmented here by guest spots from Rappin' 4-Tay and San Quinn, along with other Bay Area luminaries like E-40, Mac Mall and Celly Cell elsewhere on the record, while shadowy figure The Enhancer crops up behind the boards on both Representing and the aforementioned Root Of All Evil. Free-flowing horizontal grooves like Ain't Something Wrong and Bay Area Playaz perfectly capture the feeling of cruising down the 5 as the late afternoon blurs into evening, the world half-lit somewhere between darkness and daylight (like in the movies), while the sun and moon ease onto the horizon at opposite ends of the sky.
Glorious technoid house from Chicago original Marshall Jefferson, released on the heels of his Day Of The Onion album but surpassing it in every way. That's a whole mini-category right there... Robert Owens' I'll Be Your Friend and Romanthony's The Wanderer spring to mind immediately. At any rate, I suppose that trilogy sits so comfortably together also because they're each instances of brilliant house artistes operating at the peak of their powers to forge masterful statements of futurist soul. All three of them stone cold classics.
The Horse is a fast-forward house rhythm, 909 snares bouncing everywhere — sparks shooting royal blue into the night, every surface glistening — and evoking the feeling of careening at top speed down the freeway in the middle of the night. The flipside almost sounds like something Kevin Saunderson might have knocked off during the same era — just think of The Dream, or even the E-Dancer remix of Blackwater — with a grinding bassline and rough cut percussion battling in full effect throughout.
Pairing these tunes together was a stroke of genius, as the 12" taken as a whole seems to stand astride the twin worlds of house and techno, its unshakable trancelike shapes shimmering gloriously in the milieu of late-nineties dance.
Around the turn of the century, the minimal sound of micro-house revealed itself to be one of the leading hot spots in dance music for a spell. In truth, it's a sound that had been bubbling under for the better part of five years, but its sleek, gliding surfaces seemed the perfect sound to take house into the 21st century. Labels like Force Tracks and Kompakt became powerhouses, practically defining the sound in the public imagination.
The form threw up loads of great 12"s and even a handful of excellent albums, but — with the possible exception of Isolée's Rest — this one is my absolute favorite. It's a wholly surreal record that slips and slides through six deeply hypnotic missives of luminescent alien disco, perfectly capturing the state between consciousness and sleep... when dreams can bleed out into reality. Every track lasts ten minutes or longer, gliding on liquid machinery and fixed to the endless horizon, pairing lush machine shapes with seductive (and uncredited) human vocals.
The jazzed-out, three-dimensional electronic chords of Market set the stage, sparring with a squelching bass figure that gradually gains momentum, before swooping into a kinetic groove at the track's midpoint that seems to rearrange itself before your eyes. Getting down to the root of the matter, the flowing motorik drive of The Right Wing is closest thing here to the dubbed out techno of Basic Channel, who without question had a profound influence on the whole micro-house/minimal scene.6
Luomo share a similar mastery of the architecture of atmosphere, and employ it on a shadowy dancefloor half-lit in the moonlight under the stars. My absolute favorite moment, Synkro, is also the record's most spacious, with fathoms deep disco set adrift in a neon haze. Every element so lush that you feel as if you're swimming in its fluid textures as they tumble and cascade over one another. The mix practically defines the term four-dimensional.
Matching the deft play of mood and texture throughout this record is some truly stellar songcraft. Even without its heady production, Tessio would make for an excellent pop song. With the production factored in, the track is quite simply mind-bending, scattering those spongy bass tattoos — that seem to slide and shift gears beneath a clicking rhythm track — all across the soundscape, as two mystery singers engage in a fractal duet. Listening in feels like you're surfing waves of blurred emotion.
Throughout their tenure as Atlanta's unofficial hip hop ambassadors, Outkast had traded in verdant shapes and sounds. As far back as ATLiens, and even on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, their music always seemed to exude a warm neon glow. Stankonia is the culmination of everything the duo had been up to during the nineties, and finds them descending even deeper into a sort of psychedelic machine soul.
The vibrant technicolor dream of Ms. Jackson is universally known (and deservedly so) — its lush sonic imagery could be heard everywhere at the time — and to this day it remains a masterpiece. The spectre of Prince looms large throughout, not only in Andre 3000's vocal moves but also in the record's dense, multi-faceted synth-led sound. Indeed, songs like Ms. Jackson and Humble Mumble seem imbued with the spirit of Paisley Park.
The electra glide textures of Zapp, Mtume and Kleeer, are in evidence throughout, laying the groundwork for the next decade's glorious blurring of hip hop, funk and r&b. I'll Call Before I Come gets into undeniable Atomic Dog territory, but Stankonia goes even deeper into the realm of Funkadelic with the twisted psychedelic soul of the title track. Between its Eddie Hazel/Jimi Hendrix guitar figure and that wailing group chant, it conjures the same dread vibes as March To The Witch's Castle and predicts Brain On Drugs a couple years ahead of schedule.
This long, strange trip curdles with Red Velvet's gnarled computer funk and the strung out psychedelic soul of Toilet Tisha, offering a starkly modern update of Superfly for the new millennium. Perhaps nothing sums up the record quite like ?, a strange junglist sketch and the album's shortest track, it's title hovering over these proceedings like a spotlight... hinting perhaps that even to this day, Stankonia remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma: try as you might, you'll never get to the bottom of this one.
Seeing these last three records together makes the turn of the century seem like some sort of golden age! Well, I suppose it was, after all. Jaxx's debut Remedy was easily the better record, but its sonics were sourced in wild pitch house and seventies disco (with Rendezvous and Red Alert coming on like turbo-charged Studio 54 gear).
Rooty, on the other hand, seemed informed by the new wave eighties (with the duo at the time referring to their sound as punk garage), and moves beyond house into a sort of crazed maximalist boogie (I think they've got the kitchen sink in there somewhere). Which, of course, makes it right at home in present company...
Hard-edged tracks like Where's Your Head At (built around a renegade Gary Numan riff) and Get Me Off roll with reckless abandon through the gutters of the red light district, trading in just the sort of sleazy, low-slung glamour that I wish pop could manage to muster in 2016 (although next year will be another story altogether, I'm sure of it... fingers crossed!).
Like contemporary Outkast, the duo channel Prince in Breakaway, sounding like a wild fairground ride experienced through a cracked fun house mirror, while the album-opening Romeo recalls Sheila E. Coming on like Remedy gone freestyle, its squelching synths seem shot through with hot pink liquid neon.
Two years earlier, Jaxx paid tribute to the machine soul moves of Timbaland with U Can't Stop Me, a strung out slice of stop-start machine funk built on an approximation of the man's trademark spidery beat matrix. Circa 2001, it looked like they'd returned the favor, with Timbaland's work on Missy Elliott's 4 My People and The Neptunes' productions for Britney Spears (Toxic, in particular) sounding like dead ringers for the relentless house sound of Basement Jaxx.
Golden age is right!
That initial run of Metro Area EPs were excellent, picking up where The Driving Memoirs left off, but introducing an expansiveness to the proceedings and opening up the soundscape considerably. This record is a culmination of those earlier releases, encapsulating a very special time with incredibly crisp, deep production that stands comfortably with the best records of the turn-of-the-eighties era that it's so clearly inspired by.
Dan Selzer's stunning sleeve art really captures the mood here, all those half-lit mystery dancefloors out of the past, present and future. I played this one over and over at the time, even if I thought that Morgan Geist's contemporary Moves EP was even better. Now I'm not so sure. This is one of those records that takes a sound previously confined to 12" singles and tucked away on b-sides and gives it room to breathe across an entire double-LP.
The record kicks off with two tracks featuring the tight string arrangements of Kelley Polar. I've always though that Dance Reaction sounded a bit like a long lost dub of Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. The first record seems to emphasize live musicianship, with everything from piano to terse vocal harmonies and even acoustic guitar embellishing the warm, uncomplicated soundscapes. Piña rides a Latin piano figure before slipping into Spanish guitar for the placid, dreamy coda. Itis Tandoor's live percussion runs through half the tracks here, opening up the sound considerably into a tactile, physical experience.
The string section and live playing give way to gorgeous machine disco on the second record, where things get down and dirty in a moody stylee. Those bright spangled synths take over, bouncing off the nightclub walls all around the listener as if Super Breakout had gone musical. I've always thought that Soft Hoop was this record's quiet masterpiece, that spongy synth sparring with the bassline in chambers of the deep, while Atmosphrique traps the listener in its hall of mirrors with an almost psychedelic play of, you guessed it, atmosphere.
The closing Caught Up seems a fusion of both sides of this record, pairing the strings of the Kelley Polar Quartet and a gorgeous piano/organ duet with the rubberband synths and dubbed-out rhythms of the last four tracks in a moving conclusion to a quietly powerful record.
Nearly everything this crew put out would be eligible, but this one's here for a few reasons and they all have to do with the b-side, Death Of A Star SUPERNOVA. First, those blacklight synths that seem to spray across the track like day-glo champagne, bathing its chanted vocals even as they threaten to take center stage. Second, those guitar trills that seem to recall nothing so much as peak-era Duran Duran, driving the beat before shearing off into the distance.
Third, is the energy, the fire and the tune itself — after all, it wouldn't mean anything if it were just a finely executed pastiche — marking it out as one of the tunes of the decade. Conjuring images of some outer rim nightclub nestled among the stars, its cosmic disco spheres orbiting as they cast glimmering lights all across the firmament. And yea, this is another sleeve that perfectly illustrates everything the record's about.
This is the point where the day-glo impulse really came into focus again and began to catch fire underground, culminating in a lot of the best music from the last decade or so. The strung out auto-tune r&b of Double Dutch CO CO POPS predicts the sound of the latter half of the decade, even if I've never been crazy about it.
As usual, however, the instrumentals are something special. SA-RA Space Theme is a low-key entry in their line of astral jazz outings — picking up where Herbie Hancock and Dexter Wansel left off — sounding for all the world like Herbie and Sly Stone jamming circa Fresh. Hangin' By A String, on the other hand, comes on like liquid neon, staggering along on a stop-start beat it seems to have been synthesized from unstable, radioactive elements. Part of SA-RA's charm lies in the fact that no one else sounds remotely like them.
I liked the first Gorillaz record a lot, so at first I missed the dubbed-out vibes of Dracula and Clint Eastwood. I got over it pretty quick though, as this is very much the superior record. What's more, parts of it seemed to key into the machine funk of Kleeer and Mtume... who would have guessed!? Check that synth squiggle in Feel Good Inc., featuring De La Soul in fine form, rough house rhyming over an electroid beat that cuts out just in time for the acoustic Staring At The Sun-esque chorus.
The sound at first seems more stripped down than the first record, but its really just a sleeker, more aero-dynamic approach. Tracks like Kids With GunsNeneh Cherry and El Mañana are skeletal tunes built on spartan drum machine rhythms and glistening analogue tones. Opener Last Living Souls is cut from the same cloth, only in slow-motion. All Alone features Roots Manuva doing his bashment thang over roughneck breakbeat riddims and a garage bassline while Martina Topley-Bird swoops in angelic and sublime for the breakdown.
The masterful Dirty Harry is that rare track to feature a children's chorus that works, spiraling into electro-funk territory once it really gets going and sounding like a dream version of something from Whodini's Escape. When The Pharcyde's Bootie Brown drops in on the mic for the guest spot, a ragged breakbeat takes over with its grinding bass accompaniment.
Dare is just perfection. Clearly one of the finest songs of the decade, it seems to pick up where the Dazz Band left off before immersing it all in vast cathedrals of sound. The record goes through various twists and turns before ending in a bizarre Brian Wilson hinterland, with Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head featuring Dennis Hopper's narration (recalling old-time radio serials like Escape and The Mysterious Traveller) and the sumptuous Surf's Up moves of Don't Get Lost In Heaven, before swerving into the Rotary Connection-esque Broadway soul of the title track.
This double-CD (5xLP!!) album is the perfect distillation of decades of West Coast machine soul, ranging from the rolling basslines of g-funk to the computerized rhythms of electro, taking in the squiggling shapes of Solar Records, boogie and even mysterious shades of straight-up techno for good measure along the way.
Every track seems bathed in computer blue moonlight, wired up to neon (literally LAtrifying, as one song puts it) and drifting through a dreamlike haze. It's the perfect soundtrack to those late summer evenings spent cruising the sprawling web of city streets in the south side of California, just as dusk begins to fall, palm trees cycling by in the rear view mirror.
I certainly can't think of a record that better encapsulates the vibe of late afternoons and late nights down here in San Diego. It's the sound of crashing waves, the freeway stretching through rolling hills in burnt sienna and the grid of the city nestled within, the calm heat of the desert hanging wraithlike in the air. It's the sound of late night trips to your favorite taco shop, cruising down El Cajon Boulevard at midnight, or flipping through a stack of Parliament and Zapp records at your homeboy's spot. It's a million different memories all rolled into one, drifting bittersweet and beautiful out of the past like a mirage.
For instance, I Gots 2 Be Done Wit' U always takes me back to August of '95 and afternoons spent listening to One Way and Kleeer, soaking up their atmosphere while playing Atari 2600. Later I'd go roller-skating with my brother and our main man Gregory, the day seeming to stretch on forever.
Tracks like Spacecapades and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky seem to key into a stream of pure techno soul, as if the sounds of Detroit were refracted through the cool water of the Pacific Ocean to sound right at home in the Golden State. In a sense, it sheds some light as to why this music always made perfect sense to me, a kid growing up two-thousand miles away. Parts of this record bring back vivid memories of bombing around San Diego back in the day, listening to Model 500 and Drexciya in the moonlight, taking the longest route home to hear just one more song and stretch the magic out across the electric shades of the evening.
A wildly inconsistent record, but a fascinating one with an engaging sound, seeming to exist comfortably alongside SA-RA and Dâm-Funk in the context of 21st century machine soul. Its release was tucked away toward the end of a year that had already seen one Leslie LP, his self-titled debut. Transition was apparently inspired by a late-summer romantic affair and knocked out in an off-the-cuff series of sessions.
That its release was buried is the only way I can square the fact that it didn't bother the charts with songs like You're Not My Girl and Zodiac, sounding something like the hypothetical album Michael Jackson might have released between Thriller and Bad (circa Kleeer's Intimate Connection and The Isley's Between The Sheets).
Leslie made his name producing Cassie back in 2005, and after a few years he got the chance to launch a solo career of his own. This and the self-title debut came out during a period when I was mainlining on SA-RA and seeking out anything and everything in a similar vein. New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) had just seen release the previous year, featuring tracks produced by SA-RA, and it seemed like something special was in the air.
I remember when this and the Kid Cudi album dropped, and I was totally sold on their sleeve art from the jump: this had to be interesting. Actually, the sleeve is not a bad place to start if you're looking for a thumbnail sketch of the sounds held within, conjuring images of deep green vectors unfurling in slow-motion neon. The album-opening Never Gonna Break Up more than lives up to the anticipation, with Leslie slinging luminescent analogue synths across a gently chugging rhythm while doing his modern soul man routine on vocals. Leslie 's thing is switching between r&b vocals and quasi-raps, which suits his productions just fine.
A track like Sunday Night flows gracefully on moody synth swirls, while Nothing trades in almost new wave shapes. The new wave thing is actually in full effect throughout: All My Love even seems to recall New Order in its string/synth progression. The slow-burning post-disco boogie of You're Not My Girl just might be the finest thing here, rolling along on that nagging verse before slipping into its sublime refrain.
This lot have been the biggest surprise since SA-RA, coming out of nowhere with a killer record that sounds unlike anything else around. I've gone in depth on them before. Not much to add, but I still can't quite believe that they exist... and I don't understand why they aren't the biggest thing around right now. Sari and I have caught them live twice, and both shows were excellent in different ways. I suspect they can make any venue their own, their atmosphere seeps into every corner of the space.
Possibly the first group to spring fully-formed from within the day-glo aesthetic, rather than approaching from a tangent (be it post punk, disco, hip hop or rave). I've said before that they seem to build their songs out of texture as one would sculpt matter: everything here is like day-glo cast in gold and chrome liquid set against jet black skies, where everything glows gently.
It would have sounded incredible on the dancefloors of the Paradise Garage, yet it's perfectly at home in the context of now-pop, excelling most of the half-finished ideas that currently set the charts ablaze. This of-the-moment music exists in a continuum stretching back decades... nevertheless it sounds unlike anything that's come before.
Ranging from resolute floor-fillers like Busy Earnin', Time and Julia to moody burners like Accelerator, Drops and Platoon, Jungle imbue everything here with a sense of gravity and physicality. There's a deeply haunting nature running through these atmospheric reveries to the night. In effect, its a stone cold masterpiece. This crew are more than suited to take this sound screaming into the future, and I'm awaiting their next record more anxiously than any other. These are the things that dreams are made of.
Whereas before it was disco's method, its production techniques that were taken on board by the post punks: artists like PIL ejected the sunshine and engulfed their tracks in pure dread. Even The Human League were still making righteously strange synth music at this point — see 1980's Travelogue — at times Moroder-inflected yet stark and severe, with the full-on pop of Dare! still a year away.
Picking up where we last left off, it was January of 2006. I found myself back in the Heights — living with my brother in a spot off El Cajon Blvd. — after a year spent living between Hillcrest and Balboa Park. The neighborhood was my kind of place, with a varied working class population crammed into a timeworn infrastructure that pre-dates the second world war. There was a public library a few blocks away and an excellent bar down the street called Shamrock's that played a selection of vintage rock (of the San Francisco variety) or block rocking hip hop and r&b, depending on the night.1 As Lamont Dozier might say, I was going back to my roots.
A couple of synchronous events had occurred just before the move that colored the next year or so. For one, I discovered Woebot's blog by way of his epochal list of The 100 Greatest Records Ever (via a timely link from Blissblog2), which — more than any list I've ever found — seemed to align with my own musical priorities.3 It was uncanny! In truth, I'd only heard about half the records in the list, many of which were among my own favorites, and I'd heard of maybe another 30%; the rest represented a new frontier. It quickly became clear that most of them would be right up my alley, and it was time to get hunting.
There were loads of cool revelations, like how often our favorite records by key artists overlapped: Kraftwerk's Computer World, Herbie Hancock's Sextant, The Velvet Underground's self-titled record, Neu! '75, Rhythim Is Rhythim's The Beginning and Captain Beefheart's Safe As Milk.4 His list also tuned me into the music of Scott Walker, Virgo, Edu Lobo, Brigitte Fontaine and Allen Toussaint, sounds that would come to mean the world to me. This isn't even taking into account the writing itself, which always came off witty and warm, coloring even his most esoteric excursions into the avant garde with a down-to-earth flavor. Without a doubt, discovering Woebot's scurrilous activities in sound remains one of the key moments in my musical life.
The other event that went down toward the end of my time at the 1808 was the near-simultaneous appearance of SA-RA and Hot Chip on the pop music landscape: two crews that were so very tailored to my tastes that it was almost comical. There's a piece I've been working up centered around their appearance (in light of the recent Hot Chip show), but for now suffice it to say came along at just the right time for where I was at in 2005.
Moodymann's recent Black Mahogani LP was fast overtaking Silentintroduction as my favorite record of his, and I'd been diving deeper into disco and garage than I'd ever been able to before. The output of labels like West End and Easy Street were in constant rotation, along with some other things that I'd been turned onto by one Kenny Dixon Jr.5 There were loads of greet electro-boogie records to be found for pennies (an ongoing obsession), things like Ray Parker Jr.'s Woman Out Of Control and One Way's Who's Foolin' Who.6SA-RA dropping at this point only served to bring my various obsessions into focus.
Shamrock's had tuned me into a whole bunch of hip hop and r&b around this time, along with a number or choice rock selections. This the era when Comets On Fire dropped their masterstroke, Avatar, sending me into the past digging up a bunch of storied Head Heritage material like Pentagram, the first three Blue Öyster Cult LPs and early Grand Funk Railroad.7 Augmenting old favorites like the Groundhogs, MC5 and Blue Cheer (not to mention Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen, of which my brother was a huge fan), it provided the soundtrack to that summer.
Barney Hoskyns' Hotel California had just come out around this time, illuminating the context around the Laurel Canyon scene in L.A. (something I was a bit thin on). Nearly everything I already knew I'd found out by simply following the various lines of flight from The Byrds' orbit. Things like Gene Clark's solo records, The Flying Burrito Bros and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Which then connects to Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young/Crazy Horse, not to mention of the early solo albums by David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. That's how it works, this music thing, you go from node to node. Hotel California simply fleshed it all out, and provided the impetus to dig a little deeper.
All of which sets the stage for the second era of Radio AG, a period stretching from the dawn of 2006 to the close of 2007. I finally had a proper setup for my decks again (I'd had them laid out on the floor at the 1808). The mixes from 2006 were all coming to terms with the above tributaries, threading them into a matrix of groove-based music and taking the intended audience just a little deeper into the realm. There's that one mix where I played out the entirety of Halleluwah because it seemed like the right thing to do. The lions share of the year's mixes were from the summertime, and it shows. Lot's of high desert action, dry and dusty.
2007 was really the sea change. The winter mix was the first where I was really able to run wild with a consistent atmosphere, opening with Asmus Tietchens and closing with When The Levee Breaks. Everything had an glacial cast to it, from an unreleased Kelis tune to late-period Gentle Giant and early Simple Minds (a perennial favorite), it came on like an icy gust of wind. The next few mixes got deeper and deeper into beats, which is something I'd always meant to do. Firm favorites like Drexciya, Scan 7 and Theo Parrish all got a well-deserved look in. The table was finally set.
At the end of the year, G.B. loaned me a stack of records with the stated mission to make a mix out of them. The result was Episode 012. It was a great experience, working with a bunch of records I'd never heard before (I was only familiar with something like five of them), and on the whole pleasantly disorienting (like one imagines deep sea diving to be). Especially eye-opening were the SneakmoveMinicomps and the records on Bully, which were great breakbeat-driven slabs of noise seemingly built atop live drums.8
The uniting thread throughout was a sort of post-rock, post-everything even, selection of sounds. There were beats that seemed to blur the lines between IDM and abstract hip hop, like the remix of Boom Bip by Boards Of Canada. There was James Figurine's cover of Other 99 (an old Big Audio Dynamite song that became the name of my original blog back in 2003) along with a G.B. original. It was a fascinating realm to spend some time in, resulting in the second true winter mix. Coming at the close of 2007, it's also the perfect way to close out the second chapter of the Radio AG saga.
Whereas the canonical picks at the time would have looked something like this: KraftwerkTrans-Europe Express, Herbie HancockMaiden Voyage or Head Hunters, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Neu!'s debut, Rhythim Is RhythimNude Photo and Captain BeefheartTrout Mask Replica.
Take for instance his DEMF set (available on Groovetech), where he opened with Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson's We Almost Lost Detroit before running through Curtis Mayfield and William DeVaughn chestnuts, ultimately settling into a boogie groove with The Brides Of Funkenstein and André Cymone.
I'd been seeking out this one for ages. It turned up on the floor of some indie rock shop for 50 cents and was the only record I bought that day. Cutie Pie was one of my key jams circa '93 that for whatever reason was in heavy rotation along with The Isley Brothers' Between The Sheets and Kleeer's Tonight on Jammin' Z90. I'd taped them all off the radio, along with Ice Cube's It Was A Good Day, Duice's Dazzey Duks and the Geto Boys' Six Feet Deep, on what was the first tape I ever made.
This is part one (of two) in a series of loosely interconnected glimpses of the sonic revolution, where righteous protest and sonic exploration meet in time and space...
The resistance started in folk and the blues, stretching from songs like the 17th century Diggers' Song into the fourth decade of the 20th with Leadbelly's Jim Crow Blues, chronicling the ills of their day with a resolute spirit that vowed to one day reach the mountaintop.
Some years later, Billie Holiday kicked the door open into the mainstream with Strange Fruit, unmasking the horrors of the Jim Crow south with stark clarity shone right in the media glare. We will no longer be ignored. This spirit coursed through the veins of jazz to come, with Max Roach's We Insist! symbolically ringing in that decade of change with a demand for Freedom Now.
The whole modern folk tradition — which reached critical mass in the early 1960s — seems to stem from this same impulse, summed up in the spirit of a song like We Shall Overcome. It enters the realm of rock 'n roll via Bob Dylan's early records, featuring songs like The Times They Are A Changin' and Blowin' In The Wind, which had a profound impact on the likes of The Beatles and The Byrds.
San Francisco's acid rock seemed to split the difference between the two forms (via The Byrds' durable folk rock template and their Fifth Dimension ruminations on John Coltrane), particularly in the case of Jefferson Airplane, who lent songs like We Can Be Together, Mexico and Have You Seen The Saucers a razor sharp tone with a paramilitary edge. The contemporaneous Wooden Ships, a gentle slice of sun-glazed folk psychedelia written by the Airplane's Paul Kantner in conjunction with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, places two adversaries from an unnamed war alone together on an uninhabited island and marvels at their slow acceptance of one another in a true meeting of the minds.
The influence of this sort of West Coast folk psychedelia — blended with The Beatles — could be felt down south in Brazil's Tropicália movement and Argentina's psychedelic underground, and in both instances proved an aggravation to their countries' respective military dictatorships. In a climate of increased militarization and the pitched culture war of the times, Jefferson Airplane's Crown Of Creation seems to run the kaleidoscope of sixties idealism through an apocalyptic prism, offering a glimpse of seventies dread looming out there on the horizon.
This was the backdrop when Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Shimmering Hendrix-penned numbers like Castles Made Of Sand, Bold As Love and the phantasm of 1983... A Merman I Should Turn To Be seem to paint across the cosmos the image of a world at peace, while the fiery flipside of the man's legacy could be felt entering the crucible of Michigan's factory cities, with the proto-punk onslaught of Detroit's MC5, Ann Arbor's Stooges and the working-class rock 'n roll of Flint's Grand Funk Railroad raising the stakes and turning up the volume. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a cold wind cut through Birmingham as Black Sabbath crawled from the darkness to chronicle a bleaker era of opposition with songs like War Pigs and Wicked World.
Now rewind for a moment to 1960s San Francisco, where Sly & The Family Stone made their glorious run of recordings that embody the spirit of righteous protest, records like A Whole New Thing (featuring the triumphant Underdog) and Stand!, which remains — along with their performance at Woodstock — some of the most life-affirming music you could ever hope to hear. The group exemplified the era's optimism and open-mindedness, with their integrated lineup and singular sound imbued with a driving funk soul spirit that touched on the rock 'n roll attitude of the contemporary San Francisco scene.
But in truth, soul's tradition of visionary protest stretches back even further. Sam Cooke famously penned A Change Is Gonna Come in 1964 after hearing Bob Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind, while The Impressions took things even deeper with Curtis Mayfield-penned numbers like Keep On Pushing and People Get Ready. True to spirit, this was empowerment as much as protest — empowerment as protest, even.
James Brown had his own anthem of empowerment in Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud, which caught fire in 1968 and later kicked off a series of of records stretching deep into the seventies, including The Payback, Revolution Of The Mind, Hell and The J.B.'sDamn Right I Am Somebody (the latter two are potent ruminations on the Watergate era, shot through with a deep sense of seventies dread).
Brown's righteous on-the-one funk of course had a profound effect on Fela Kuti, the storied revolutionary musician operating in Nigeria out of his Kalakuta Republic, who unleashed records like Roforofo Fight, Expensive Shit and Zombie that remain searing indictments of government corruption and brutality to this day.
Edwin Starr's War seemed to picked up where Sly Stone's driving rock soul workouts left off, with a rousing call to (dis)arm riding a peak-period Norman Whitfield production, while The Chambers Brothers' The Time Has Come offered one of the great signposts of the era with its title track1 — a signpost of rock-inflected soul in a Sly & The Family Stone stylee.
All of this was taken to its logical conclusion with the wild seventies excursions of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic empire, with records like America Eats It Young and Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow sprawling out into a singular acid-fried vision of seventies unrest.
At the dawn of that decade, this impulse went into soul supernova, with Curtis Mayfield's eponymous solo debut — featuring the triumphant Move On Up — and the subsequent Curtis/Live!, its extended reflections on the troubles of the world matched by Mayfield's graceful determination. Something special happens when songs like We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue, We're A Winner and I Plan To Stay A Believer mix with his gentle between-song banter, and you can glimpse a beautiful future in the record's grooves. It's the sound of hope in the face of hard times, digging deep to Keep On Keeping On and trying to somehow make the world a better place.
Marvin Gaye picked up the baton with What's Going On, a glorious song cycle that captured the mood of the day in elegiac style, opening the door at Motown for Stevie Wonder's stunning sequence of seventies records. Check out Innervisions, with the rough and tumble stomp of Living For The City — capturing a gritty slice of urban life in its tough seven minutes — and the gorgeously plaintive Visions, a song that dares to envision a world in which hate's a dream and love forever stands.
Former TemptationEddie Kendricks continued this thread with the hypnotic chant People... Hold On, a resolute march to empowerment, while back in Chicago, Syl Johnson hit hard in 1970 with Is It Because I'm Black. Featuring the melancholic strains of title track and the majestic grandeur of Concrete Reservation and I'm Talkin' Bout Freedom, it was a record that bubbled deep underground before gradually picking up its richly deserved recognition as a stone cold classic.
Just as everyone seemed to have caught up with where he was going, it seemed that Sly Stone's relentless positivity had curdled into a mystified haze at the turn of the decade.2 He took a left turn into the downbeat with There's A Riot Goin' On, a weary entrance into the seventies — especially after the previous year's wild funk 7" Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin — that seemed to signal a sea change in the tenor of the times.
From the weary Philly soul of The O'Jays' marathon epic Ship Ahoy (which lasts the better part of ten minutes) to Eugene McDaniels' staggering Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse,3 there were a great many complex soul records that grappled with the demons of the day in unflinching detail.
This was the context from which the bubbling of the sharp, gritty poetry of The Last Poets' debut record — along with ex-member Gylan Kain's scorching The Blue Guerrilla — sprung, both pervaded with a fire-stoked revolutionary fervor informed by the harsh realities of life in the shadow of COINTELPRO. Similarly, Nikki Giovanni's The Truth Is On Its Way — with Ego Tripping's shades of female empowerment — was a sharp-tongued verbal strike in step with the times.
Gil Scott-Heron, with partner in crime Brian Jackson, had the longest — and arguably most fruitful — run, unleashing a breathtaking series of records — including Winter In America and Pieces Of A Man (featuring the incendiary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) — throughout the seventies. Theirs was a music — along with The Last Poets, Kain and Giovanni — drenched in soul and low-slung funk, but more than anything was shot through with the spectre of jazz.
Jazz, that enduring edifice, was of course still going strong. John Coltrane had already chronicled transcendence and laid the blueprint for astral jazz, which was later elaborated on by his wife Alice Coltrane and former sideman Pharoah Sanders in expansive Indo jazz excursions like World Galaxy and Black Unity, respectively.
All of this ran parallel to Sun Ra's empire building (in fact, Pharoah Sanders had played with Ra even before hooking up with Coltrane's quintet), his independent Saturn Research label and mind-expanding records like The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra and Space Is The Place (the birth of an enduring sentiment that stretched into the nineties and beyond).
Figures like Ornette Coleman (with his symphonic Skies Of America record), Don Cherry (responsible for the intriguingly amorphous Organic Music Society) and Marion Brown (whose Vista LP featured a cover version of not only Harold Budd's Bismillahi 'Rrahman 'Rrahim, but also Stevie Wonder's Visions) continued chronicling the spirit of the times even as they voyaged deeper into inner space.
Similarly, Carlos Santana's continual focus on transcendence had resulted in a series of lush jazz-tinged records spanning the decade (he even collaborated with John McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane), bridging the gap between Woodstock and Montreux in the process. Herbie Hancock cut a similar path through the seventies, with his band adopting Swahili names in the wake of their thrust into cosmic jazz with records like Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant.
Around this time, he also provided the score to the film The Spook Who Sat By The Door, with its revolutionary theme echoing shades of his earlier material like The Prisoner (and prefiguring the direction of his funky Headhunters-era material). Hancock's lush jazz mosaics of the Mwandishi period delved deep into abstraction, engaging with the mind's eye as much as any literal interpretation or meaning. The music seemed to be charting other worlds, mapping their terrain, and opening up the possibilities that they offered.
This spirit found embodiment in Krautrock. A record like Can's Future Days is immersed in the oceanic depths of Inner Space (incidentally, also the name of their studio), while Neu!'s motorik pulse seems eternal — locked onto the infinite horizon. Neu! '75 even predicts the second half of the decade in the proto-punk onslaught of Hero and After Eight. Similarly, Faust's ragged spliced-tape adventures seemed to preempt the experimentation of post punk even as they reveled in a sing it all together now communal spirit, while Amon Düül II sprung from an honest-to-goodness commune.
Over in France, Heldon's electronic assaults were informed by a militant spirit (indeed, Richard Pinhas was at the barricades in Paris during the student uprising of 1968) that pervaded atmospheric records like Électronique Guerrilla and Agneta Nilsson. All of this is heavy textural music that transcends literal statement to commune directly with the mind's eye, weaving the fabric of space and time into a stirring sonic tapestry.
Across the Atlantic, the reggae sounds of Jamaica were steeped in a similar expansiveness, most famously in the music of Bob Marley And The Wailers — and later in Peter Tosh's stalwart militant anthems and the spiritual sustenance of Bunny Wailer's recordings — but reaching a sublime peak in Burning Spear's self-titled debut and Junior Byles' immaculate Beat Down Babylon. Songs like Creation Rebel and Beat Down Babylon embody a spirit of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, offering visions of a better world in opposition to the surrounding harsh reality.
This path stretches deeper and deeper into the realm of atmosphere as the decade advances. One need look no further than the saga of Declaration Of Rights, a story stretching from The Abyssinians' steadfast original to the depth charging bass of Johnny Clarke's cover version (produced by Bunny Lee and mixed by King Tubby), culminating in the cavernous dub shadows of King Tubby's Declaration Of Dub version. This is music that you feel in your chest when it takes hold. Figures like Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry tore up the very fabric of sound in search of new potentials, spooling them out into three dimensions. It's no surprise that King Tubby's studio and Perry's Black Ark often invite comparisons to sonic laboratories or starships.
A record like Dadawah's sprawling Peace And Love used the techniques of dub to create a heady psychedelic trip steeped in Rastafari, spread across four extended grooves, while Fred Locks's roots-informed Black Star Liner (a reference to Marcus Garvey's historic Black Star Line) reveled in dense imagery, with the dread vibes of Walls evoking the plight of the concrete jungle.
On a similar tip, Prince Far I's Heavy Manners chronicled life under marshal law in the run up to Jamaica's national elections. This is a list that could go on and on, from Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon to the Mighty Diamonds' Right Time, all of it contributing to a rich legacy of righteous protest and sonic exploration.
It's a legacy that sets up the next leg of our journey: at the cusp of 1977, that year when two sevens would clash, and everything would change...
Looking down from the Georgia Street bridge, into North Park and the places where it all went down, the memories of the early days of Radio AG come flooding back.
While uploading the first five episodes of Radio AG over the past few weeks, I was struck by how rough a lot of the mixing was! Sure, partially this was down to being rusty (I'd taken a hiatus from spinning and music production to concentrate on finishing school), but I also suspect it was due to the fact that for the first time I was grappling with a lot of material that wasn't typically intended to be found in the mix.
Up until then, I'd primarily spun techno and house, on the one hand, or downbeat rap and trip hop, on the other. Mixing disparate selections from the sixties, alternative, new wave and so forth — much of it music that wasn't made with the DJ in mind — well, it was like learning to mix all over again. The first year was pretty ramshackle, truth be told, but it was an enjoyable experiment in figuring how to segue between tracks of such varying structure and sequence them to successfully carry a sustained mood (I wouldn't figure out the latter until the following year!)
In retrospect, I'd always tended to approach spinning from more of an electro/hip hop mindset anyway, playing with cuts and juxtaposition, whereas the general tendency with minimal techno at the time was to work gradual fades between similar tunes. The pivotal moment for me was hearing Kevin Saunderson scratch into Carl Craig's Piano Mix of R-Tyme's Use Me (on his X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio mix): this was everything I wanted dance music to be.
On the flipside — the trip hop side — Terranova's DJ-Kicks was a revelatory experience, boasting a broad selection taking in hip hop, dub, post punk, electro and Detroit techno, all while maintaining a consistently vivid atmosphere throughout. Listening to both of these mixes for the first time — within months of each other! — was quite simply a mind-expanding experience, changing the way I listened to music from that point forward.
As such, when I put together the original Allied Heights mix (back in 2002), it already seemed natural to drop things like The B-52's Mesopotamia and Brian Eno & David Byrne's The Jezebel Spirit — not to mention Derrick May's remix of Tired Of Getting Pushed Around for 2 Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet — in the mix alongside prime techno cuts like Scan 7's Black Moon Rising, The Martian's Meet The Red Planet and UR's Electronic Warfare, opening up plenty of real-estate for raw house material like the KSR Vocal Mix of Octave One's Blackwater, Susumu Yokota's discoid fantasy Future Memory and Carl Craig's awesome garage-tinged A-Dub Mix of The Reese Project's I Believe. There were even a couple brand new Shadez Of Colour cuts — that were just about to be pressed up at NSC in Detroit — slipped into the mix. It was a nice little mix that captured a time when things where humming in the Heights and it seemed as if it would go on that way forever...
But I'd be out of the game in a matter of months, commencing a roughly two-year period during which school, work and other real world commitments managed to monopolize my time completely. The music was still there, however, and I'd spent those years exploring other sounds: lines of flight into the wider world via the post punk (PIL, Mark Stewart, etc.) and reggae (King Tubby, Horace Andy, etc.) that I'd become aware of thanks to trip hop, and the funk (Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone, etc.), synth (Kraftwerk, YMO, etc.) and jazz (Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, etc.) music that techno had tuned me into along the way.
Winding back through seventies soul into the sixties — Stax and Motown — on a similar tip and sideways into krautrock, prog and arty seventies music like Roxy Music (by way of Brian Eno), it was only a matter of time before I'd worked my way back into the sixties: The Beatles, The Byrds, Hendrix and beyond.
At the end of 2004, I moved out with a couple of mates into a spot over by Balboa Park that we came to call the 1808. The scene that coalesced around the place centered on what you might call the indie rock set, with various bands and scenesters in orbit, doing their thing. I was mainly rocking out to grime like Wiley's Treddin' On Thin Ice, Dizzee Rascal's second album and the Run The Road compilation, plus Roni Size's Return To V — which seemed to key into the same prevailing mood — along with Moodymann's Black Mahogani, Amp Fiddler's Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly and Theo Parrish (with material like The Rotating Assembly's Rusty Waters in constant rotation).
There was a solid weekly techno night at the Honey Bee Hive (just up the street), and I did manage to catch the odd desert rave with Snakes and crew, but all of a sudden it seemed like indie rock was everywhere and dance was increasingly hard to find. This felt something like the wilderness years, and I was a stranger in a strange land.
So I decided to go back to my roots and start a mixtape series that would take in a bunch of the stuff I grew up on, before I'd even really struck out on my own, musically speaking. I'd basically started out in new wave with Adam Ant and Depeche Mode, along with eighties dance pop like the JacksonsMichael and Janet, before hip hop and swingbeat rolled into town. So why not start there — since this was more or less the lingua franca of my intended audience anyway — sprinkling in an ever increasing dose of beats and atmosphere along the way? Radio AG was born.
The idea at first was to construct a mix in the same way the closing song cycle from the second side of Abbey Road was structured, drifting from one pop song to the next in a kinetic flow. Along with my bedrock of past favorites, I'd lean on everything I'd picked up in the interim, ranging from Can to The Beach Boys and even some of the indie stuff I'd picked up like the Pixies (rock hard beats for miles) and Pavement (whose Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era is basically a breakbeat dance track).
Going back into the nineties, my hip uncle Matt from Chicago had tuned me into all sorts of great power pop and indie dance (like Blur, Happy Mondays and so on) that had a profound shaping influence on me at the time. This material flowed logically into groups like Gorillaz (AlbarnandRyder, together), A.R. Kane and The Beta Band that I'd later crossed paths with via dance music, and all of it would in turn form part of the foundation of the series.
So I did one mix, and then another. And then another. By October, I'd knocked out a fifth episode — The Halloween Special — and the series had become a reality. I was pulling in shipments from Submerge on a monthly basis, their shelves still stocked with the finest Detroit techno in abundance. A few months later, I crossed paths with SA-RA and Hot Chip. Woebot dropped his 100 Greatest Records Ever on New Years Day. Suddenly things didn't seem so lonely anymore. And then, couple weeks later I'd move in with my brother Brian — the same place where I live today — and dig into the next chapter of the Radio AG saga. But that's another story for another day!
The other day (for obvious reasons) I get to thinking about Rudy Van Gelder's vast recording discography. The man practically defined what a bop-era jazz recording should sound like, even as he experimented with unorthodox methods for capturing the sounds he was after. Famously secretive about his recording techniques, Van Gelder enjoyed a reputation as the mad scientist and sonic architect of bop-era jazz.
There are so very many phenomenal records bearing the man's touch that it's tough trying to single out a favorite: Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch! and Andrew Hill's Point Of Departure spring immediately to mind as stone cold classic selections that would be hard to argue with. However, if I had to choose an absolute favorite for myself, it would have to be Yusef Lateef's Eastern Sounds.
It makes sense that Van Gelder's sensitivity to things like tonal coloring and atmosphere would be a perfect fit for Yusef Lateef, that visionary multi-instrumentalist whose affinity with music beyond the confines of the West pre-dated just about everyone else's (not only in jazz but the entire pop music sphere). Eastern Sounds is something of a showcase for Lateef's vision, extending the West Asian fascination of his 1957 offering Prayer To The East even deeper into the continent. Rudy Van Gelder's fingerprints are in evidence throughout, with the deep, rich tones of Lateef's quartet bathed in soft reverb, both spacious and crystal clear.1
The record shifts deftly between a number of modes, stretching from proto-world music excursions to lonely downbeat elegies, film music and even touching down with some straight-no-chaser bebop. Lateef's quartet embraced atypical instrumentation throughout these sessions, with Ernie Farrow switching between double bass and rabaab, while Lateef's use of flute and oboe — along with the expected tenor saxophone — add to the record's depth of texture. Every sound seems bathed in vivid shades of color, as if glowing gently in the darkness.
The opening song, Plum Blossom, features extensive use of the Chinese globular flute — or xun — by Lateef, carrying the melody before passing it off to Barry Harris' rolling piano lines and then back again. Meanwhile, Lex Humphries taps out a simple percussive figure in unbroken repetition. The track is verdant and life-affirming, full of the promise of new grass, hope and possibility. Lateef's xun offers a striking, crystalline sound — a sound that cuts through the years to feel right at home in the present (whenever that may be).
Blues For The Orient follows, shifting into a slightly more conventional jazz environment. As the title implies, the tune marries shades of Asian melody to a sort of low key blues shuffle. Ching Miau continues in this vein, speeding up the tempo considerably with a first-rate exercise in bebop alchemy. Grounding the record in jazz fundamentals, both tunes are largely straight-up jazz laced with the tones and progressions of Asian music.
Snafu is cut from similar cloth, but manages to surpass the both of them. Indeed, this is not only the record's longest track but also one its clear highlights: perhaps its finest moment of pure jazz. The rhythm section really shines here, with Ernie Farrow's double bass seeming to carry the whole track as it careens down a winding staircase into the abyss, while Humphries' rolling drum breaks unfurl into orbit all around. There's a distinct sense of depths being plumbed, portals opened and passed through. Strange as it may sound, Snafu seems to predict a sound that The Doors would come to explore extensively in a few years time.2
The record features not one but two interpretations of film music, both of them epics: Spartacus and The Robe. Even in the context of a record as singular as Eastern Sounds, these two tracks possess an atmosphere all their own, with lush textures flowing over clockwork rhythm like a brook over the smooth stones of a riverbed. Love Theme From Spartacus (taken from Alex North's score to the Stanley Kubrick film) is haunted by Lateef's searching oboe coiled at its center, while Love Theme From The Robe (by Alfred Newman) finds him trading sumptuous flute passages with Harris' keys in a beguiling seduction of the senses.
The downbeat melancholia of Don't Blame Me features sparse piano and sax interplay over a creeping, languid rhythm. Notes and timbres are allowed to drift into the ether, evoking a solitary loneliness: haunting sounds haunted by memory. Similarly, the gorgeous Purple Flower crawls along at a snail's pace — its slow-motion brushes manage to evoke both weight-of-the-world and zero-gravity simultaneously — conjuring images of deserted city streets in the dead of night. The closest comparison I could make would be Duke Ellington at his most downcast; either that or Generique from Miles Davis' soundtrack to the French film Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud.
The record closes with The Three Faces Of Balal, a tune more sparse and spacious than anything that has preceded it. The eerie melody rides another one of Humphries' circular percussive figures (this time mirrored by Farrow's bass, to fine effect), with Lateef once again blowing flute and trading lines with Harris. It's the album's most mystical moment, even as it seems to deconstruct itself before your eyes, like the final flush of a dream. You can almost feel the record winding down, as if receding back into the darkness. Landing at your final port of call, all movement ceases and only memories remain...
I struggle to think of an earlier recording with an atmosphere quite as evocative, so full of depth. The only one that comes to mind is Eden's Island by Eden Ahbez, another record in thrall to The East.
Guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore were both heavy jazz heads who decided to play in a rock 'n roll band. In fact, most of Densmore's rhythms on the early records come from jazz and Latin music, while the band — like The Byrds — were deeply touched by the music of John Coltrane. Check out this little interview3 with Krieger for some words about the influence of jazz on The Doors).
Samuels II, Charles. What was it like to... Interview Robby Krieger for the Documentary "Jazz Guitar". The Doors Collectors Magazine, Nov. 1998. http://www.doors.com/magazine/jazz_doc.html. Accessed 8 Sep. 2016.