40–36/100 — Alice Rockets to the Bayou with Martian Rats
We’re officially in “every album is amazing” territory now! So let’s get straight to it. Thanks for following me this far!
40/100 — David Bowie — The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
I am in awe of the production and arrangements on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. The wall of sound that builds over the course of “Five Years” — from a simple drum beat and spacious piano chords to what feels like a full orchestra by the end — blows my mind.
And the way it’s followed by the heartbeat drum groove of “Soul Love” while simultaneous both bringing the energy back down and picking up the pace is incredible. The almost creepy background vocals and the picked harmonics filling in the spaces above and around the bouncing bass guitar add to the futuristic sci-fi vibe the album is riddled with. Then there’s the narrative of everyone on Earth finding out that the planet will die in 5 years, and the exploration of how people might react to that news. The narrator sounds extremely calm until the very end when his voice cracks to the point of screaming. It’s clearly too much.
“Soul Love” is a fairly straightforward song by comparison but is still chock full of interesting musical ideas. There’s some great background horns, and I love that both the vocal treatment and guitar tone shift drastically in the pre-chorus to add some good edge. Speaking of guitar tone, Mick Ronson is responsible for a lot of it and he appears on other albums I love such as Transformer — already on this list — and my favourite live album by Bob Dylan, Hard Rain.
The arrangements on Ziggy never cease to amaze me. The weird flute and horn riff that acts as a bridge of sorts on “Moonage Daydream” is almost silly, but it comes off as grand instead somehow. Meanwhile “Starman” has a deliciously crunchy boogie which erupts every now and then — and returns with full force on “Suffragette City” later. “Hang on to Yourself” is very clearly influenced by punk rock (that bass line!) but still manages to stay glam spacey. I also love Bowie’s vocals as they switch from an almost Dylan-esque talking blues to a whispered invitation (“Come on!”) to a high registered shout.
The song that initially made me really sit up and pay attention when I heard it tho was “It Ain’t Easy.” Something about the blues-style vocals (almost Led Zeppelin at times) contrasted with the bopping harpsichord tick-tock, and then the explosion of that descending guitar riff, really hit me at a gut level. It’s a brief song as well and always leaves me wanting more.
There’s also a loose narrative which also ties the whole album together thematically and adds to the enjoyment and rewards attention. The tale of a guitar player with a real star power who takes over a band and then comes to think of himself as some sort of Rock and Roll messiah before committing suicide when success begins to leave…and all with the ever-present question of whether or not he’s actually from outer space just to add some mystery and madness to the whole thing. It’s great.
I think Bowie used this album and the character of Ziggy Stardust to both poke fun at his own growing fame as well as to embrace it. By becoming someone else he can analyze his fame safely but also embrace it whole heartedly without any chance of self-conscious reality distracting him from achieving the next level in his career. It’s a ballsy move that was executed beautifully. What’s almost more amazing than the fact that David Bowie was able to make this incredible album is the fact that he managed to follow it up with another solid record only a year later. With some many musical ideas crammed into Ziggy, it’s amazing he had more in the tank. And clearly he did, as decades later, even in the year that disease was destroying his body, he was continuing to make great art right until the end.
Favourite Tracks: “It Ain’t Easy”, “Hang On To Yourself”, “Moonage Daydream”
Least Favourite Track: “Lady Stardust”
39/100 — Ramones — Rocket To Russia (1977)
Rocket to Russia has everything I loved about the Ramones self-titled debut, but more. All the angst, the focused energy, the crushing simplicity is there, but the songs are stronger and the sound is a little slicker without sacrificing any of the youthful rebellion.
“Rockaway Beach” takes on surf music and it’s hammer-on bass line is infectious af. “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” is almost a ballad of unrequited love. “I Don’t Care” slows things down and doubles down on the apathetic attitude.
There are a lot of solid songs on both Ramones and on Rocket to Russia, but the latter has what I think is the Ramones greatest song ever: “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.” It’s got a melody that could have been in a Beach Boys song, but it blasts through at that punk rock speed we’ve come to expect. It’s simplicity is both aggressive and catchy. It’s cute without any signs of weakness. It’s 2:50 of perfection.
Then immediately in contrast to “Sheena” is “We’re a Happy Family” which explores some of that underlying darkness the first album touched on. Things are not fine. Drugs, isolation, and fights show up in a broken home where denial is the MO. Then “Teenage Lobotomy” and “I Wanna Be Well” explore a desire for better mental health (albeit in a sarcastic and humorous manner).
There are some great songs to dance your face off to as well. “Do You Wanna Dance”, “I Can’t Give You Anything”, and the must-play-more-than-once cover of The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” always get me reaching for the volume knob to turn it up! “Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa!”
What else is there to say? 14 songs in 32 minutes and barely a second is wasted at any point. The darkness of a broken reality and the exuberant hope of youth clash in and meld into a delightful listen that never gets old for me.
Favourite Tracks: “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”, “Rockaway Beach”, “Surfin’ Bird”
Least Favourite Track: “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow”
38/100 — Creedence Clearwater Revival — Bayou Country (1969)
Bayou Country is 34 minutes of swampy blues rock goodness. When I was at Nimbus School of Recording Arts (shout out to the Nimbus family!) I got to record a cover of album opener “Born on the Bayou” straight to two-inch tape. You can’t record something without it becoming part of your DNA. That bouncing bass line, the undeniable cowbell backbeat, those slightly tremolo’d guitar solos, and that freaking voice! “WEEEELLLLLL!!!!!” are deeply embedded in my psyche. I can feel this song two rooms over now. So of course this album is this high up.
(You can check out my version HERE if you want, but be warned…even after we dropped it by a whole step I’m still blowing my voice out trying to hit those high notes haha.)
“Bootleg” feels like it inverts the previous groove but the relentless guitar strumming and bending guitar licks drive it ever forward. It also may boast some of the most delightfully incomprehensible vocals of the record. I would never have guess John Fogerty was singing the word “Bootleg” if it wasn’t right there in the title (“Buh lay — Boo leh!”) After two driving tunes, “Graveyard Train” shifts the mood to dangerously sinister and slow. It almost sounds like something The Cramps might cover and it takes it’s sweat time rambling and sweating over 8.5 minutes. Seriously, that harmonica solo is deadly.
Side 2 kicks off with an absolutely banging version of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly” that I rarely listen to just once. UGH! The bouncy blues riff with those roaring guitars with that absolutely screaming vocal just gets me movin’ in a rare way. “Penthouse Pauper” is so richly steeped in the 12-bar blues tradition that I was actually surprised it wasn’t another cover. I love when a group can repurpose blues tropes in new and exciting ways (that may be one of the motifs of this whole Top 100) and CCR does it expertly here.
Of course we can’t ignore the penultimate track — mega hit “Proud Mary.” It’s very different from the rest of the album and was clearly designed as a single, but it doesn’t feel so out of place as to disrupt the flow of the record. It’s catchy as all get out and has some great backing vocals, a smoother-style solo which is a crazy effective earworm, and that push-pull guitar work that is a backbone to so many CCR songs. It’s the nearly 8 minute album closer “Keep On Chooglin’” that really brings down the house for me. This epic blues jam has some of Fogerty’s best guitar work ever, and the way the band plays with the tempo and dynamics is absolutely enthralling. Once that train gets rolling you best get on or get out of the way. Once again they’ve managed to create their own contribution to the greater blues canon and I think they’ve done a worthy job.
I miss the days when albums new what they wanted to say and didn’t overstay their welcome. There’s so much bloating these days. But Bayou Country is all get in, get down, get out, and isn’t scared to kick anyone who gets in the way. I love it, and I don’t think that will ever change.
Favourite Tracks: “Born on the Bayou”, “Keep on Chooglin’”, “Good Golly Miss Molly”
Least Favourite Track: “Penthouse Pauper” I guess.
37/100 — Tom Waits — Alice (2002)
Alice is one of Tom Waits’ weirder projects — I once heard it described as an oddity among oddities. It also happens to be the first Waits album that I bought when it was released. I’d only known about his particular brand of weirdness for a couple of years and ip until that point I’d been playing catch up on those parts of his back catalogue I could track down. I was nearly fifteen years old, and this is one of those albums that I absorbed as only someone in their mid-teens can — obsessively and deeply.
Alice lives in a sweet spot between Waits’ wild experimentation and macabre sense of humour, and his love for a beautiful, heart-wrenching melody. Everyone is either crazy, dying, sad, or all three at once. Moody album opener and title track “Alice” is about a man who skates on thin ice, spelling her name twice while mourning her loss and falls through as his skates cut through the ice. It’s tragic, but in a dreamy, “Is this really it?”, resigned sort of way.
“Everything You Can Think” is more of a throwback to Waits earlier bizarrities like “Underground” or even his collaboration with Primus (“Coattails of a Dead Man.”) It has his gruffest delivery on the album with every syllable being barked out, a lonesome steam train whistle, and a few stagecoach “HAAAH’s” for good measure. In contrast with this track and it’s compatriots — “We’re All Mad Here” and the delightfully vibrant german horror show that is “Kommienezuspadt” — the rest of the album is mostly comprised of some of Tom Waits’ saddest and most interesting ballads.
“Flower’s Grave” is a mournful lullaby (“Tell me who will put flowers on a flower’s grave?/who will say a prayer?”) which still gets my throat a little tight. So does the sad tale of impossible love between a bird and a whale (“Fish & Bird”). Seriously, the lyrics are beautiful and painful:
He said, ‘You cannot live in the ocean’
And she said to him
‘You never can live in the sky’
But the ocean is filled with tears
And the sea turns into a mirror
There’s a whale in the moon when it’s clear
And a bird on the tide
“I’m Still Here” continues the lovely sadness that makes this album one of my favourites. It boasts one of Tom’s simplest and loveliest piano melodies, and recalls some of his early bar tunes, but it’s less bitter and more lonesome.
Sure, the Wait’s crazy characters are all still here — “Poor Edward” is about a man with a woman’s face on the back of his head who drives him to suicide, “Reeperbahn” is a list of insane occupants in Germany’s most notorious red light district and how they got there, and “Table Top Joe” is reminiscent of the carnival freak show story of the “Eyeball Kid.” — but it’s the lovely melodies, and the way Tom let’s his voice really seep with emotion that sets this record apart for me. Also the arrangements! Yes, they’re strange and unconventional, but more often than not it adds to the atmosphere rather than distracting from it. Gosh, I need to just list some of the musicians on this thing to explain how great a band it is. Here goes: regular collaborator Larry Taylor of Canned Heat fame returns on bass; saxophone phenom Colin Stetson plays an assortment of wind instruments, and Dave Brubeck’s son Matt plays cello, and of course an assortment of other people add organs, strange percussion instruments, marimbas, vibraphones, and other bizarre contraptions to the mix as well.
Tom Waits has always been able to conjure a wonderful sense of melancholy, but Alice just takes it to the next level. I’d say a good half of my favourite sad Waits songs are on this album. They’re lovely and tender and yet his gruff voice lends a weight to it, and there still manages to be some of his regular fun freak show hijinks to balance it out a bit. But man, fifteen years later it’s those heartbreakers that still crush me and call me back.
Favourite Tracks: “Fish & Bird”, “Kommienezuspadt” “Flower’s Grave”
Least Favourite Track: “Everything You Can Think”
36/100 — Frank Zappa — Hot Rats (1969)
Frank Zappa seems to be best known for his biting lyrical wit and sometimes childish silliness, which is a real shame because Hot Rats proves his ability as a composer and bandleader. This almost entirely instrumental album (with the exception of Captain Beefheart’s mostly improvised stream of consciousness insanity on “Willie the Pimp”) has some of Zappa’s best jams and strongest instrumental melodies.
“Peaches en Regalia” opens with a massive piano flourish accompanied by guitars, horns, and absolutely stellar drumming. Every 12 - 16 bars a totally new set of musical timbres and instrumentation takes over the melody in much the same way that classical composers would pass a motif from orchestra section to section to bring new life to a strong central idea. I can’t even start to describe how much sonic territory gets covered in under 4 minutes here. And yet it manages to feel homogenous somehow. It’s absolutely brilliant.
The aforementioned “Willie the Pimp” is a more straightforward jam (except for the bonkers lyrics) but it has that same ripping electric violin that I talked about so much on Burnt Weeny Sandwich. It runs for over 9 minutes but the dance that the bass, guitars, and violins dance around the drum groove keeps me wanting more by the end. Oh, and when the drums open up in the last quarter the dance just gets tastier. This is improvisation and interaction that many jazz bands would envy. “Son of Mr. Green Genes” takes a three-minute silly ditty off of Uncle Meat (which croons about sauerkraut as if it’s a lover) and expands it into another 9 minute jam in a style similar to the classical idea of “variations on a theme.” To me this doesn’t come off as self indulgence as much as it is the elevation of silliness to a form high art. It’s completely baffling and thrilling when the whole sound opens up in double time around the 6 minute mark, and like “Peaches en Regalia” there are constant sonic shifts throughout the piece.
Side 2 opens with “Little Umbrellas” which feels like it is purely a jazz composition until it degenerates into dissonant complexity. Which maybe means it is jazz. I think if you heard a more traditional jazz sextet perform this you might think, “Ya, that makes sense.” Ending the album is the other relatively short piece, “It Must Be A Camel” which feels like a big sister to “Little Umbrellas.” But wedged between these highly composed slices of mad jazz is the 17 minutes (!!) of absolutely expansive jam carnage known as “The Gumbo Variations.” It got a James Brown back beat, massive horn stings, and a funky as hell groove over which all manner of wind, horn, and stringed instruments solo — sometimes two or three at a time. It’s a cacophonous delight and the sheer amount of notes being played is intimidating, but also means that it keeps revealing new glorious moments with each listen. Sometimes I can’t take my ears off of the monster sax solo. Other times I’m blown away by what the guitar and bass player are doing behind and underneath the sax and how much careful listening it would take to make it all work. Oh, and the drummer is pure fire the whole time. I can’t imagine how many calories the dude burned in this session. Seriously. Zappa yells “Take two!” at the beginning of this. How did they have anything left in the tank. I hope for the band’s sake there was a false start for take one.
As far as I’m concerned, Hot Rats contains some of the best improvisation ever, anywhere, but unlike some of the great blues jams of the era, this also has strange and exciting new ideas around which to improvise which puts it even higher for me. A killer album which proves that Zappa could transcend his own (wonderful) silliness and really make some incredible compositions.
Favourite Tracks: “Peaches en Regalia”, “The Gumbo Variations”, “Son of Mr. Green Genes”
Least Favourite Track: “Little Umbrellas”