Five Albums Worth a Listen on Apple Music
Or Just An Excuse to Share Five Great Albums
With iTunes dominating music sales the last few years, the album has been largely relegated to the sideline, often little more than a value proposition. Its position as a whole greater than the sum of its parts seemed largely anachronistic. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, no one listens to albums, so artists produce less music with an album in mind, which gives even less reason for consumers to buy albums, etc ad infinitum. But with streaming music, there’s some hope that this trend could be reversed, the thought being that if you’ve already paid for access to a library of music, you might be a little more adventurous, or at least be little more patient to make your way through an entire album. So with the launch of the soon to be massively popular Apple Music, here’s a list of albums that might not have been worth a purchase for any one track, but are definitely worth a listen as a whole. (All links are to Apple Music)
This is one of the oddest live albums I’ve ever heard. Instead of the energetic but compromised audio quality of typical live recordings, Asylum setup Waits in a full studio, but setup a nightclub inside. The benefits are amazing, Waits feeds off the crowd, the backing band sounds fantastic, and you never miss any of his snarls or gasps as he goes through his bum balladeer material. This is pre-Swordfishtrombones, not as abrasive or ambitious, leaning hard into the jazz rhythms flowing behind him, a low-life romantic as he sings songs about self-gratification (“Better Off Without a Wife”), domestic working class dread (“Putnam County”), and romantic frustration (“Warm Beer, Cold Women”). But the glue that makes this album work (and frustrates the individual songs when they come up on shuffle) is Waits’ play with the audience between the songs, they almost feel incomplete without his burlesque comedian shtick setting them all. All of it serves to suck you into the character of the album, and make it immensely unsatisfying unless presented as a whole.
I’ve never heard anything else by this band before or after this album. When you create a space opera about 19th century Atlantean lore that goes rapidly from surf rock to trip-hop, includes a dirge by the largest instrument in the world, and doesn’t completely fall apart under its own conceit, anything else your band produces will diminish your worth in my eyes. When you get past the addictive hooks and sharp production, there’s actually a narrative that flows throughout the album. Its kind of beside the point, but once you get past the bombastic drama of the music itself, its a nice cherry on top. The energy of the album is almost living, it knows when it needs to slow down and let you catch your breath, but never lets you rest long enough to stiffen up (although it comes close with “In the Cave”, the only moment when the indulgent nature of the album skirts the edge of palatable). If Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson ever collaborated on a soundtrack with Django Django, it might sound something like this.
The first live techo/electronica/EDM/whatever-you-want-to-call-the-genre I heard was Daft Punk’s Alive 2007. Previous to that, the idea of a live album for Daft Punk seemed a little silly, wasn’t I just going to here them play the same samples but with lesser quality and some crowd noise? Alive 2007 was a revelation in that regard, if for no other reason then it gave a purpose to the otherwise deeply repetitive offering Human After All, the reinterpretations of the songs were amazing. But Alive 2007 wasn’t perfect. It was obviously recorded in front of a huge crowd, but they sound so distant that their energy is severely diminished in the recording. Also, the tracks are clearly delineated into what songs were mashed together to create them, and while I can’t fault their quality, their discrete separations diminished some of the mystique. Its predecessor, Alive 1997, cures all of these issues. Granted, there’s something impenetrable about a single 45-minute track, there’s virtually no chance of really skipping around the piece. But by being unapologetically dense, it helps insure you’re ready to pay attention to the experience. The first three minutes are actually similar to things later heard on Alive 2007, a mix of the classic “Da Funk” proceeding fairly conventionally as a remix. But the mix gets continually trippier from there out. The elements from their songs gets more disjointed as they invite you into the energetic labyrinth of the piece. There’s a buzzy breakdown in the middle of the piece, but by that point Daft Punk is counting that they’ve earned your trust to bring you through to the other side (or that the ecstasy is kicking in), and then when you realize the thread their picking up in the piece, its almost purifying. I’ve always found Daft Punk’s best work to be self-realizing, that the listener thinks that an element is building to something, and then by the end of the piece the build up you were enduring is the climax, and this fabulous trick is on display here. Its amazing how it morphs and changes throughout the 45 minutes, this is the beauty of Daft Punk’s labyrinth, you’re not sure where you are or where you’re going, but you enjoy your time where you’re at.
The music of Junior Kimbrough is sadly about compromise. Not in the songs themselves, but looking at his modest discography, there’s no truly encapsulating work. Instead what we get are snippets of his genius, delivered often through severely compromised recordings. Meet Me in the City offers a more concise look at the essence of his style, but most of the album is marred by loud tape hiss, which is a shame, because the last three tracks of the record are some of the best live recordings of the man. You Better Run is a compilation, and by its very nature suffers from artificiality. This is an easy concession to make for what is offered, a selection of remarkably clean recordings by one of the most distinctive voices in Blues. Imagine John Lee Hooker distilled down to a primal rhythmic sound, stripped of production, leaving something raw and immediate, that’s what Kimbrough offers. In some other recordings, producers have tried to capture him solo, but Kimbrough is at his best here when he’s provided by rhythm section to play within, and luckily this album offers it early and often. The highlights of the album are the heart wrenching “Sad Days Lonely Nights” and the opener “Release Me”, which starts out on a singular, almost menacing moan. The only shame is that one of Junior’s signature songs, “Done Got Old”, isn’t a great recording, a solo guitar track with just too much reverb. Still, the album does a great job of capturing the sadness of Junior Kimbrough and the raw, unapologetically grimy sound of his world.
This album baffles me, there’s really no great single on it, the production is overwrought, and the “protagonist” as portrayed throughtout is at turns whiney and odious. And yet, I unapologetically love it. It might have something to do with the fact that I have no idea how Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) is rapping, after 10 years of listening to it, it still sounds like its completely accidental. I can only assume this is somehow brilliant. This is the first rap album I’ve heard embrace utter banality. The opening track “It Was Supposed to Be So Easy” has a bombatic brass blast sampled throughout, as Skinner runs down the misfortunes of being a broke slacker who somehow has £1,000 stolen by his roommate. This sets up the through line for the rest of the album, and helps build a relationship with the listener. The album runs the gamut of emotions, from flirting (“Could Well Be In”), denial (“Not Addicted”), and heartbreak (“Dry Your Eyes”). Throughout, Skinner maintains a vulgar charm that without the overarching story of the album might be tiresome, but works perfectly within that context. Seriously though, all the rapping sounds entirely incidental.