Genre: Alternative Rock
Preceded by: The Bends (1995)
Followed by: Kid A (2000)
Related to: Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
In my last year at university I had a course called ‘Science Critics’. For the orally exam I had to prepare a discussion about “something that drew your attention and could be linked to the content of the course”, which was about people wanting everything and getting nowhere by doing so, meanwhile destroying their environment. I wanted to avoid I was going to be outtalked by this grey professor about Dark Side of the Moon, so I picked Radiohead’s version of the 90’s. It was the most pleasant assignment I ever had at university. Welcome to the world of OK Computer.
The nineties were reigned by what’s called ‘alternative rock’, an umbrella term for several genres that emerged from the independent music scene of the mid eighties. So in fact there’s no specific musical style to describe the genre, basically all the bands belonging to it have only one specific thing in common: their most important instrument is the guitar. While The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction paved the way for grunge rock in the US, it were The Smiths introducing an alternative to new wave in the UK, being responsible for the renaissance of the guitar. It opened the doors for typical britpop bands like Oasis and Blur. Just when grunge as well as britpop were within an ace of death, the English rock band Radiohead released their third album: OK Computer. Radiohead quickly became kings of alternative rock, but left the genre again only shortly afterward, trading it for experimental rock on their next albums Kid A and Amnesiac.
The band, consisting of singer Thom Yorke, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, bass player Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway, already formed in 1985 but only started to perform frequently in public in 1991, after all band members (except the young Jonny) were graduated from university. Soon followed the debut album, Pablo Honey, which wasn’t that great of a success, although ‘Creep’ became a massive hit, especially in the US. It was the follow-up album The Bends which brought the band its recognition in the UK. The album was characterized by rather personal lyrics, in huge contrast to their next one and one of the landmark records of the nineties, OK Computer (obviously). The album consists in fact of two kind of songs: melodic rock songs like they made before (but greatly improved) and kinda experimental songs introducing some ambient and electronic influences. They all have one lyrical theme in common: modern alienation.
Because the sequence of the tracklist, together with the music, the lyrics and the artwork, is one of the elements that makes this album immortal, I’m going to run over it chronologically. Opening track ‘Airbag’ gives you the crying voice of Yorke supported by a sinister electronic drum beat, as the band members were great fans of DJ Shadow back then. Not a genius song, but a very solid opening song, introducing you to the theme of the album. That’s why I always consider it a sort of prologue to ‘Paranoid Android’. This one is the first masterpiece, like you’re launched in somebody’s schizofrenic head with the altering moods of aggression, desperation and hope. The multiple sections remind of The Beatles‘ ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’, mixed with the ‘slow down and explode’ music of the Pixies.
‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, is my least favorite song of the album of the album so I leave this one to you. The next gem is ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’. It’s a very naked song in the beginning, with only Yorkes voice (like later on ‘We Suck Young Blood’) and an acoustic guitar, progressing towards a climax in the end. Maybe this song reflects the spirit of the album best with Yorke singing ‘Breath, keep breathing’, ‘Sing us a song to keep us warm’ and the repeated ‘We hope that you choke’ towards the end. Some relief on the next track then, ‘Let Down’, which is driven by a very melodic, beatlesque guitar riff filled up with some nice vocal harmonies. Closing ‘side 1’ is one of Radiohead’s most famous anthems: ‘Karma Police’. It’s actually a quiete simple constuction, based around an acoustic guitar, Jonny’s piano and a very basic rock beat by Phil Selway. But the power of the song is the fact that when you whisper quietly to someone that you’re going to get him, it sounds much more powerful than if you would scream it loudly (and I don’t want to talk about The Beatles here all the time, but listen to ‘Sexy Sadie’ and compare the chord progression for yourself).
The album continues with the cold ‘Fitter Happier’, consisting of lyrics (typical nineties slogans) that are recited by a synthesized voice of a Mac. Not really a song, but totally creating the right atmosphere for the album. On ‘Electioneering’, Radiohead returns to its earlier rock sound, with guitar riffs, drum beats and Yorkes lyrics about political compromises pounding against each other. Following is one my absolute Radiohead favorites: ‘Climbing Up the Walls’. Just like ‘Exit Music’, it shapes a very dark atmosphere by its horror lyrics about serial killers and mental illness, and the powerful music with trip-hop influences. This always reminds me of the music Radiohead would later release on Kid A, Amnesiac and even Hail To the Thief. From horror to a a charming lullaby with ‘No Surprises’, considering the music with its acoustic guitar and glockenspiel. The lyrics however are about a very monotonous life in the modern world, which makes this an awesome contrasting song.
The album almost came to an end then, and after all the emptiness, bitterness and anxiety of the previous ten tracks, the future is again full of hope and lying in front of us. We were ‘Lucky’ of course, but maybe there’s still something in for us. It’s kind of a Floydian song (especially the intro) and also resembles the opening track ‘Airbag’, like this song finally explodes here, with a terrific guitar solo in the end. The album is definitely closed by ‘The Tourist’, which is (in my opinion) just like the opening song not outstanding, but a perfect clincher, easily sliding you out of the world of OK Computer.
This album is like a room with a secret camera with a different character walking in each song. That’s kind of how Tom Yorke once tried to describe it, and I can only agree with it. The interesting thing about this album is that Radiohead is searching for something, just like the characters in its songs. But the band is not searching to find something, it’s just searching because of the searching and is going somewhere nobody else went. The searching on this album resulted in an unquestionable rock classic, an album you absolutely must hear, apart from what your favorite music genre is. But to really experience the album, you have to make an effort. This is no background music, this is a documentary. (Try to) enjoy.
Genre: Folk Rock
Preceded by: –
Followed by: Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965)
The Byrds are called a source of inspiration for several bands a number of times here, and I’ve declared that it’s time for one of their own albums now: Mr. Tambourine Man. Just like with The Doors, the sublime debut album is the perfect starting point in this case. It’s an absolute must-have for all Beatles-fans out there, as this album is the missing link between Bob Dylan (which is covered four times) and The Beatles, being the American forerunner of Rubber Soul.
The Byrds formed in Los Angeles about a year before releasing their first album. It all started when core members Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark started to perform together in California, mainly covering early Beatles songs. They originally played in different folk bands, just like David Crosby, who joined them a little later. They called themselves The Jet Set and tried to mix this traditional folk music with the sound of the then emerging British Invasion bands. This resulted eventually in the band’s distinct trademark: the wonderful vocal harmonies of McGuinn, Clark and Crosby combined with McGuinn’s jangly Rickenbacher guitar. Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke were recruited on bass an drums respectively, they changed their name to The Byrds and defined the new genre of ‘folk rock’ with the album Mr. Tambourine Man.
The album opens of course with the famous title track, one of the four Dylan covers. However, the song immediately introduces you to that specific Byrds-sound, with the typical guitar intro followed by the vocal harmonies of the chorus instead of a first verse. McGuinn is the only Byrd playing an instrument here, as the rest of the band was not yet adapted to each other at the moment of recording. You can ask yourself what Dylan exactly wanted to tell with the lyrics, but Mcguinn turned them into a kind of psychedelic prayer. The other Dylan song on side 1 is ‘Spanish Harlem Incident’. Dylan would have written it about a gypsy girl he once saw, but the remarkable thing about his song for me is that McGuinn sounds like the perfect mix of Dylan’s and John Lennon’s voices here.
Other Dylan compositions on side 2 are ‘All I Really Want to Do’ (b-side of the single ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’) and ‘Chimes of Freedom’. The latter one is the longest track on the album, on which McGuinn shows another good effort to match his voice with the one of the original songwriter while singing about a lightning storm. This was the last song of the album to be recorded as Crosby initially refused to sing on it, wanting to leave the recording studio. After being physically forced to stay they recorded the song after all, luckily for us, as the harmonies are really awesome on this track.
So what is this, some kind of release of a Dylan coverband? Certainly not, this thing has way more to offer you. Listen for example to ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’, one of the songs from Gene Clark (who was the band’s primary songwriter) and for me personally the ultimate Byrds song. It’s an upbeat song, very Beatlesque and with the geniusly added word ‘probably’ into the line ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’. Talking about Beatles, listen to ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ and ask yourself where George Harrison got that sweet guitar riff from ‘If I Needed Someone’.
And there’s more. You can already hear on this album how The Byrds would evolve later on the sixties. ‘Here Without You’ lyrically is a kind of love song, but reminds me of the group’s later psychedelic anthem ‘Eight Miles High’ with it’s typical intro. On side 2 there are two similar songs: ‘I Knew I’d Want You’, sounding like Jefferson Airplane would do a few years later, and ‘It’s No Use’, with that British Invasion ingredient. The last two songs are covers again, ‘Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe’ even adds a little fifties rock ‘n roll to the album and ‘We’ll Meet Again’ is a reinterpretation of Vera Lynn’s classic war song.
In the years following Mr. Tambourine Man The Byrds (with Roger McGuinn being the only consistent member) would release another number of excellent albums in the genres of psychedelic rock and country, but on this one they define the genre ‘folk rock’ for the first time in rock history. Besides, it’s a great example of how bands were propelling themselves to unique heights by continuously influencing each other. It’s well known that Brian Wilson made Pet Sounds in reaction to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, but those guys were inspired themselves by an American band that once originated as… a Beatles coverband.
Preceded by: Hearts and Bones (1983)
Followed by: The Rhythm of the Saints (1990)
Related to: Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
Some months ago I started this blog introducing my own concept of ‘the basics’. This is the seventeenth and last album belonging to that concept, meaning it’s time to expand your album collection a little more in depth from now on. But not after a little celebration at Paul Simon’s worldbeat party Graceland.
After the split of Simon and Garfunkel in 1970, of which Simon was the primary song writer, the next logical step was a solo career. This eventually was a big success, releasing a couple of highly acclaimed albums. Simon had already experimented with strange music influences while working with Garfunkel (‘El Condor Pasa’), and continued to do this on his solo records. He incorporated a reggae song on his debut album and kept adopting world music in his work that followed, especially on the live album Live Rhymin’ which was released in 1974. But there was a decline in Simon’s songwriting and recording towards the late seventies and early eighties, and his work became less successful. You could say Simon faced his own kind of midlife crisis, but instead of buying a big sports car he went to South-Africa (despite the cultural ban of the United Nations against the apartheid regime) to design his new musical future. Down in Johannesburg, he recorded Graceland, inspired by the local township music. The album became Simon’s most successful solo album, and one of the defining works of worldbeat, blending western pop music with traditional and world music.
The origins of the album are to be found in the fourth track, ‘Gumboots’. This was originally an instrumental song by The Boyoyo Boys, which Simon accidentally heard and wrote his own lyrics to. Simon liked this new sound that much that he started to write a number of others songs, absorbing musical styles like isicathamiya and mbaganga. I have actually not a single clue what typically characterizes those specific styles, but that’s not at all required to enjoy the album. The first time you can hear this African influence on the album is on track 3, ‘I Know What I Know’, where one of those typical Simon-rhythms is fused with zulu yells and a gospel choir. My absolute favorite in this genre however is ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’, closing side 1. The intro is sung by a traditional African choir, after some time alternating with Simon’s voice. Then some Caribean guitar riff smoothly kicks in, supported by a delicious drum rhythm. Simon tells us a little story about a wealthy girl while this melody goes on, with the choir returning again in the end of the song.
On side two there’s Simon’s lyrical ode to Africa and it’s rhythms and music: ‘Under African Skies’. This track features Linda Ronstadt’s beautiful harmonizing voice and a nice bassline. It flows over in ‘Homeless’, with an outstanding vocal performance of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a male choral group. Those tracks all show that Simon made another effort to step into other musical cultures, the African one this time. But he clearly didn’t do this just for the sake of it, he really wanted to incorporate this influences into his own style because of their added value. After all, Paul Simon will always be Paul Simon, and this is best demonstrated on the wonderful title track. Another very smooth guitar riff escorts Simon while he’s making a road trip through America towards Graceland after the failure of his marriage. This still is one my favorite songs of all time, with The Everly Brothers contributing some harmony singing.
The album contains another two of such ‘musical stories’, starting with the opening track ‘The Boy In The Bubble’. It actually has an accordion intro, after which Simon kind of ridicules the modern society with all it’s innovations. The most famous track is without any doubt ‘You Can Call Me Al’, the lead single of the album. It’s an (autobiographical?) story of a man in the middle of an identity crisis. Especially it’s video, featuring actor Chevy Chase ‘singing’ the lyrics, had a great impact as it was a success on MTV, launching Simon to the forefront of pop music again.
The last track of the album, ‘All Around the World or The Myth of the Fingerprints’, brings us our ‘lawsuit of the week’. Simon played with Los Lobos (as one of his guest musicians) during the recording of the album and after Graceland became a massive success, Los Lobos claimed Simon stole this song from them without crediting them. However, Graceland is an album filled with brilliant songs, delivered by Simon as little stories. This is one of those rare albums you can recommend to almost everyone, regardless of their musical references. Enjoy.