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9 (or 10) Albums You Don’t Own Most Of (But Ought To)


 I just noticed that we have nothing in our music section:  allow this to be the time wherein we correct this glaring problem.  Yes, I understand this isn’t the most original concept, but it’s in my wheelhouse, so I’m going to take a good cut at the ball.

Also, keep this in mind:  this is not to be construed as my favorite recordings of all-time, which may be obvious by the list’s complete lack of Replacements catalog offerings – it’s just a nice healthy smattering of awesome stuff, some pretty big at the time, some completely under the radar and harder to find, that you, as a music-loving American consumer, ought to have a yearly listen to.  These aren’t in any particular ranking or importance, music in general is too subjective to rate on an overall scale anyway – it doesn’t get more personal than your music, so nobody’s judging.  In turn, you keep quiet about the Michelle Branch you found on my iPod, deal?

Finally:  I know.  They aren’t really ‘albums’ anymore.  They aren’t even CDs anymore.  Screw you, I’m calling them albums until I’m dead.  Now, without further blithering…..

1) XTC – Oranges and Lemons (1989):  The best Beatles-inspired recording XTC ever made, despite several later forceful attempts to outdo themselves (Apple Venus Vol. 1, specifically comes to mind) Oranges and Lemons is all things melody, harmony and pretty weaved in and around itself.  Considering this was their second foray into a more traditional pop sound (after years as a proto-pop-punk outfit, and they were pretty damn good at that too), this is an amazing piece of work.  Find it today, it won’t sound any less remarkable than when it was first releases.  XTC still continues in some form or shape to follow this basic path, but all subsequent releases have felt overdone or too complicated – there’s some great songs, certainly, but O & L is comprehensively a great lesson in cherishing influences without allowing them to overtake a band and cheapen the effect.  Here’s their only Top 100 hit in the States, not surprisingly from this album, ‘Mayor of Simpleton’.  Enjoy.

2) Jellyfish – Spilt Milk (1993):  Okay, I take one thing back:  if any one recording on this list is a ‘must own’, it’s this.  Far and away.  Jellyfish, who had a total of two albums (and their debut, Bellybutton, is really worth the price as well) were an astoundingly accomplished band that were way ahead of their time – they looked like walked out of an episode of The Banana Splits, were prone to covering a lot of Paul McCartney and Wings (as well as Badfinger), and wrote songs for Cheap Trick and Ringo Starr (which were far superior to anything those guys were doing on their own power at the time)amongst their many accomplishments.  Spilt Milk, however is their masterwork.  The band didn’t stay together long after this, but in the longview, that was probably for the best, because this is as finely polished, interesting and substantial as an effort as they were ever going to put together, and they would have spent the rest of their band life chasing after the ring they already grabbed.  There isn’t a bad song on here; there’s an unbelievable amount of homage and tribute within pieces of each song; the mixing and arrangement is spectacular; the songwriting is astounding.  In short, I believe this is the perfect pop album, and you should have already bought three copies.  Check out ‘New Mistake’ for a taste.

3) Frou Frou – Details (2002): If memory serves, I first encountered Frou Frou watching Garden State, and couldn’t get the song ‘Let Go’ out of my head for days, and had no idea who created it.  Enter my purchase of Details, a one-off album (seemingly) that is a mash-up of English chanteuse Imogen Heap and a couple of her producers.  I don’t much often cater to full-length recordings that are synthesizer-based and production heavy; but then again, most of them aren’t by Frou Frou.  If all it did was break Imogen out to a larger audience (and by all means, I encourage you to check out her solo stuff as well) , then Details accomplished enough, but it’s unbelievably gorgeous from start to finish every time I listen to it.  From ‘Breathe In’ to ‘Must Be Dreaming’ to ‘Psychobabble’ (which is super-creepy to listen to in the dark), I must play this from beginning to end at least a half-dozen times a year.

4) Steve Earle – Guitar Town (1986) :  A country album!  What?  Okay, let’s set this straight – I don’t care for ‘modern country’ by and large – or, more specifically, most mainstream country from the last thirty years.  If that’s your bag, cool.  It’s not mine.  Just like how I feel the majority of mainstream pop music is derivative, auto-tuned and genericized to unlistenability, I find mainstream contemporary country to be – well, kinda soulless.  Sounding more like 80s and 90s pop in theme and arrangement, it just feels ‘designed’ rather than created.  More importantly, I don’t want my country to be sung to me by pretty people.  I don’t want a poppy drawl, I want doom-and-twang.

For my liking, good country generally stems from decent-enough folks that are half-ugly and have an inability to stay out of trouble; no matter how successful they get, they just can’t stay out of their own way.  Merle Haggard.  Willie Nelson.  Johnny Cash.  To that end, I love Steve Earle.  Like a latter-day version of these legends, his debut Guitar Town features a cleaned-up-for-the-public image on the front, but real heartbreak, longing and dissatisfaction on the inside.  Earle has been in and out of jail and rehab a bunch of times, and his music is still genuine and true….and it all started here with his debut.  He’s a screw-up malcontent from the get-go, but one that doesn’t give up – ‘Everybody told me you can’t get far/on thirty-seven dollars and a Jap guitar/Now I’m smokin’ into Texas with the hammer down’.  I love those lyrics.  Here’s ‘Someday’, my favorite from Guitar Town: 

5) Stars – Set Yourself on Fire (2005):  Stars are a Canadian import that are one of those indie bands you discover about fifteen years down the road and just can’t believe you never heard them before that.  ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ is my favorite ‘running into an old lover’ song of all time, but it’s just one small gem in this necklace. It’s also proof positive that there just aren’t enough horns being used correctly in modern pop offerings.  Really, Stars have put out some amazing work throughout their run, and you can’t go wrong with any of them, I just happen to think SYoF is the best of the bunch.  Other faves on this particular recording include:

6) The Smiths –The Queen Is Dead (1986)/The Cure – Disintegration (1989)  Simply put, the two masterworks by the two most influential bands that came out of what used to be called ‘college rock’ back in the days.  These are both terrific examples of what pop bands should try to accomplish every time right out of the gate.  While The Cure certainly had ‘poppier’ sounding albums, Disintegration is by far their best encapsulated effort, and The Queen Is Dead features ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ which for my money is the pinnacle recording of The Smiths career.  In order to follow our stringent ‘equal time’ laws, here’s ‘Pictures of You’ from The Cure;   Oddly enough, this is as ‘regular guy’ as Robert Smith ever looked.

7) Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend (1991): Outside of Spilt Milk, this is my favorite pop album of all time, and it holds up after almost twenty years.  Granted, there’s a couple of clunkers in here (‘Don’t Go’ is a little trite, and ‘You Don’t Love Me’ is unbelievably whiny – let’s put it this way, did somebody just dump you?  This is your song.  No?  Skip.)  Overall though, this is great guitar-driven pop-rock, and catches Sweet before he completely submerged himself into a swimming pool of Yardbirds and Neil Young tributes.  ‘I’ve Been Waiting’ is a tremendous sing-along, and it’s only one of the highlights.  You’ve likely heard the title track ‘Girlfriend’, but the riff is worth rev-visiting.  Plus, it’s Japanimation is always fascinating, even when appropriated for a cheap music video.

8) Liz Phair –Exile In Guyville (1993):  This is one of the most amazing debut albums in the history of recorded rock-and-roll music.  Also, it’s got a ton of filthy-mouth in it, which you might not expect from a female singer-songwriter in her twenties who isn’t named ‘Ani DiFranco’.  But while DiFranco’s work tends to lean towards the folksy, and not-too-infrequently preachy side of things, Liz Phair just flat-out brings it on an 18 track lo-fi celebration of the basic tenets of rock, but from the then-never-really-heard perspective of a complicated female.  Titled as a strike towards the ‘boys club’ of the old guard – striking directly at the Stones in particular, Exile in Guyville is still bracing today on a first listen.  If your only experience with Liz is that ‘Why Can’t I’ tune from half-a-decade ago, or any of her last two albums, you likely won’t expect what’s going on here.  Again, it’s a case of ‘artist in the perfect storm’, and while I still dig her development, this is a lightning strike that will never hit twice.  Here’s one of my favorite three tracks off of this:   ‘Never Said’

9) Kowanko – Kowanko (1995):  Up until this point, everything I’ve covered has been relatively easily accessible – Itunes does cover a lot of ground, and Amazon usually covers the rest.  Here’s your exception, but trust me when I say it’s worth the effort.  Chris Kowanko is a dude who sorta works when he feels like it, and is currently involved in a band called Monsterbuck – but I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of him.  Essentially, while Dave Matthews and John Mayer continue to crank out watered-down versions of the same old thing and brand themselves as ‘singer-songwriters’, neither has jack on Chris Kowanko, and this debut from him is all you’ll ever need.  It’s got a timeless sound, great stories, and has been criminally ignored.  Case in point:  you can’t even find it digitally available.  You can find the Monsterbuck stuff and his second solo album Spell, but to get his phenomenal debut (which is this one, in case you weren’t following) you’re going to have to hunt down a used copy somewhere – a process I’ve actually undergone twice  – but the end is completely worth the journey. My fave  tracks include ‘Murder Girl’ ‘Modern Daze’ and ‘Wallflower’ but they’re all really solid.  As per his general non-self-publicizing manner, Kowanko never made any videos either – the closest I can get you is a fan-made, visually stagnant offering of ‘Grey Canyon’, just play it in the background and continue about your business.

 Extra Special Bonus Track!  The World’s Most Perfect Song.  I don’t care if you buy it, I just need you to listen to me.  In the last decade, the most perfect song ever written was born, and it’s criminal if you don’t know about it.  It has love, it has drama, it has a perfect arrangement, it clocks in at well under two minutes, and once you’ve heard it, you’ll never want to not hear it again right away afterwards.  And again and again and again.  Kids love it.  Your mom loves it.  Everybody loves it, so too should you. The artists?  James Kolchaka and The Zambonis.  The song?

‘Hockey Monkey’

You’re welcome.

One Comment leave one →
  1. meathorse permalink
    2010/07/04 2:38 pm

    That Frou Frou video is hypnotic…

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