History of Rock 15: Progressive Rock

Stepping a little outside the alternative rock focus of this site I have decided to do a series of playlists and short articles outlining the history of rock music. In this project, I have used a broader, more expansive definition of rock music than some would have, but I also recognize I could have gone deeper still into many genres and subgenres. I also recognize that there is overlap and, sometimes, disagreement about where a band fits in. Still, if you go on this exploration with me I think you will gain a great overview of rock history. Enjoy and feel free to follow the website (www.alternativealbumsblog.wordpress.com) and/or the Facebook page (@musicalternativereality) to get all the volumes as they come out.

Progressive Rock: This is a genre that felt that the sound of rock and roll music had become too predictable and restrictive. Progressive Rock bands were a genre, mostly British, that wanted to experiment and really push the boundaries of what rock and roll could be and these bands found a variety of ways to do this. Progressive Rock groups were among the first bands to make use of a new computer based device called the synthesizer; and while most of these groups would not yet use the synthesizer to make the actual music, they were among the first groups to use synths to add strange noises, sound effects and samples to their music.  Progressive Rock bands also often broke away from the traditional verse/chorus/verse structure of most pop and rock music and instead would tell long narrative stories, sometimes connecting entire albums with a certain theme or story and thus creating the “concept album”. These bands also pushed the lengths of their songs longer and longer and in many cases went well beyond the usual four minute single – having songs that reached six minutes or ten minutes or occasionally even more than twenty minutes in length. Many of these bands also liked to blend rock and roll with other, non-rock genres, and there will be attempts to mix rock with jazz, gospel, disco, opera, and classical music, among others. There was also a tendency to experiment with instruments outside of the core rock instruments of guitar, drum, and bass. Lyrically, these groups also tended to go beyond the normal rock themes of love, heartbreak, partying and such and delve into themes like space travel, science fiction and fantasy, dystopian societies, and classic literature. Progressive Rock bands were among the first groups to build up large and loyal fan bases that supported them whether or not they received radio play, which often was limited because of the experimental nature of the songs and/or song length. Progressive Rock really was successful in being experimental and pushing the boundaries of what rock and roll could be.

Progressive Rock: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1sQq7tjTXosalEnJiireDn

  1. “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen
  2. “Baba O’Riley” – The Who
  3. “Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2” – Pink Floyd
  4. “Mr. Roboto” – Styx
  5. “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” – Yes
  6. “Land Of Confusion” – Genesis
  7. “Carry On Wayward Son” – Kansas
  8. “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” – Blue Oyster Cult
  9. “Tom Sawyer” – Rush
  10. “Solsbury Hill” – Peter Gabriel
  11. “Pinball Wizard” – The Who
  12. “Money” – Pink Floyd
  13. “Bungle In The Jungle” – Jethro Tull
  14. “Godzilla” – Blue Oyster Cult
  15. “Somebody To Love” – Queen
  16. “Limelight” – Rush
  17. “Still…You Turn Me On” – Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  18. “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” – Genesis
  19. “Comfortably Numb” – Pink Floyd
  20. “Dust In The Wind” – Kansas
  21. “Biko” – Peter Gabriel

90’s Albums Revisited: April 1992

In 90’s Albums Revisited we will look at four key albums released month by month starting in January 1990.  As this is an alternative music site I will generally focus on albums that would fall under the “alternative music” umbrella, but I may stray into the mainstream world on occasion. Also, for whatever reason, the month of December is consistently a thin month for new releases so I will fill out the list for that month by including albums from earlier in the year that I originally did not include and will indicate these releases as such when I do this. I hope you enjoy this journey, may you revisit old favorites and find some new ones.  So click the link to explore the month:

This Month In History – April 1992: The world’s seven most wealthy nations agree to give $24 billion dollars in aid to the former Soviet Union. The battleship USS Missouri on which the Japanese surrender to end WWII took place is decommissioned. Conservative Party leader John Major is elected Prime Minister of the UK with the most votes is British electoral history. Three people are killed in London when the Irish Republican Army bombs the financial district. Crystal Pepsi begins test marketing in several markets before deciding on a full national roll-out of the clear cola drink. The first McDonald’s restaurant opens in China. After a jury acquits members of the Los Angeles police force of use of excessive violence in the beating of Rodney King riots break-out all over the city.

Listen To The List – April 1992: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2S7a3FibuvvOi09eg1uq3Y

“Wish” – The Cure

The Cure’s previous album (excluding the club-oriented remix album Mixed Up) was 1988’s icy goth masterpiece Disintegration. That album is a masterpiece and made the group international stars and cultural icons, but it was also so black and bleak that it was fairly obvious The Cure could not go further in that direction. So 1992’s Wish finds the band pulling back from the abyss and adding a little more color to the palette. Songs like the hit singles “Friday I’m In Love” and “High” and the album tracks “Doing The Unstuck” and “Wendy Time” were happy, if slightly twisted, pop songs that probably came as a shock to any new fans who discovered the band with Disintegration. However, these upbeat singles were something of a misdirect as Wish is not nearly as pop-oriented and happy as it may initially seem.  The album opens with the entrapped, alcoholic paranoia of “Open” and ends with the anti-fame apocalypse of “End”. In between is a collections of sad, angry and bittersweet songs ranging from the tragic “Apart” to the wistful “A Letter To Elise” to the heartbroken masterpiece “From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea”. Wish is not the monolithic masterpiece Disintegration is, but it also wisely never tries to be. It is more varied, more colorful and more textured, and while maybe not quite as good it is a masterpiece in its own right.

“Slanted & Enchanted” – Pavement

Pavement’s debut album is a lo-fi indie classic that is hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters. For me, calling it a masterpiece might be going a bit too far, but Slanted & Enchanted is a very good album that buries sweet pop hooks and melodies under layers of noise and strange production. It is an idea that was very in vogue in the early 1990’s with everyone from Nirvana to My Bloody Valentine and all points in between trying their hand at some version of this idea, however Pavement are successful because they do find their own sound and voice in that style; one that  they will further hone over the years. Indeed, Slanted & Enchanted feels like the missing link between looking back to the The Pixies and looking forward to Weezer and songs like “Summer Babe (Winter Version)”, “In The Mouth Of A Desert”, “Conduit For Sale” and “Two States” should appeal to fans of either of those bands. Elsewhere “Here” is a pretty indie ballad that reminds me of Big Star or Death Cab For Cutie and showcases another side to Pavement. All in all Slanted & Enchanted is an excellent album, just maybe not one quite as original and visionary as it is sometimes credited as being. 

“Check Your Head” – Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head is an interesting record and a reboot of sorts for the group. The Beastie Boys had burst onto the scene with their debut album Licensed To Ill a few years earlier and have become semi-ironic rap stars that both earned real credibility in the rap world while helping to establish rap with a mainstream white audience. Their follow-up Paul’s Boutique was a commercial flop though, and while the album slowly grew in critical status as its genius became more apparent over the years, it was seen as a huge failure at the time and a signal that the Beastie Boys’ success may have been a fluke. So the Beasties stepped back and rethought their direction for Check Your Head, an album still rooted in rap but that also recognized the Beastie Boys roots as a punk band and that served as a fusion between the two. With Check Your Head the Beastie Boys, to some degree, gave up on competing directly with the new generation of handcore gangsta rappers and instead shifted to be part of the emerging alt rock scene to find an audience for their punk/rap fusion. Much of Check Your Head is made up of short song sketches and instrumental noodling and this does sometimes lend the impression that the Beastie Boys were so busy working out this evolved musical direction that they didn’t work out enough actual songs. However, when they commit to full-blown songs they excel, as can be heard on classics like “Pass The Mic”, “So What’cha Want”, “Jimmy James”, “Gratitude” and “Professor Booty”. Check Your Head may not quite be a great album but it is very interesting and its best moments rival anything they did elsewhere in their career.

“Nonsuch” – XTC

XTC were a mainstay of 80’s alternative rock, mixing arty and edgy new wave with baroque Beatlesque pop and a pastoral sense of Englishness. Partially because of this combination of sounds and styles XTC were always more of an underground act in the USA than they were at home in the UK. By 1992 XTC were nearing the end of their run, and while they hadn’t ever really abandoned their eccentricities, they had smoothed away enough of their rough edges to get a little mainstream attention with the martyr song “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”. It is a good song and a great introduction to the world of XTC’s Nonsuch, an album that deserves more credit than it gets, both in general and in XTC’s discography. The album is full of interesting, unusual and mature indie pop like “Dear Madam Barnum”, “Then She Appeared” and “The Disappointed” and more somber and thoughtful moments like “My Bird Performs” and “Wrapped In Grey”.  Nonsuch wouldn’t be the last hurrah, XTC would return seven years later with the Apple Venus/Wasp Star albums, but for many years it seemed like Nonsuch was a great end to a great band, and while that didn’t prove to be the case Nonsuch still feels like a warm and rich coda to a wonderful career.

24 To Fight For: Violent Femmes

24 To Fight For: Violent Femmes

Listen To The List: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7lfNFALKDiUMGxqBU3UcVu

Imagine if you had to choose a desert island playlist for a band you really love. Imagine if for some reason you were going away and could only take a single 24 song playlist with you for that beloved group and those would be the only songs by that artist that you could ever listen to again. What would you choose? What 24 songs would you fight for and say that these songs are your personal favorites and/or the best that the artist has to offer. That is the premise of my 24 To Fight For playlists. For this project I will choose my personal favorites from an artist and make the tough call of ranking those songs from #24 to #1 (trying to NOT let the fact that some songs may be overplayed influence me but basing them on my original feelings are much as possible). This is my list and I would love to see you play along and make yours too! What songs would you fight for?

I recently did the Violent Femmes classic self-titled debut album as part of my “Albums Re-Imagined” series (click here if you are interested in reading that article and listening to the re-imagined version of the record: https://alternativealbumsblog.wordpress.com/2021/01/16/albums-re-imagined-violent-femmes-by-violent-femmes/ ) Doing so got me thinking about the Femmes discography again. That first album is a stone cold classic without a weak track on it, which is what makes the rest of their discography somewhat maddening. Pretty much every other Violent Femmes album has great songs, some of which rival the songs on their debut, but most of those albums are also very inconsistent. So I thought Violent Femmes would be a perfect choice to tackle in this “24 To Fight For” series and here it is:

#24 – “Mirror Mirror (I See A Damsel)” – From the album New Times 

Violent Femmes have a history of writing and recording some very strange and unsettling songs but “Mirror Mirror (I See A Damsel)” is even a bit odd for them. Musically, the song borrows liberally from the sound of eastern European or Jewish folk music and creates a feeling of a childhood fairytale gone awry, like a musical backing track for one of the Brothers Grimm’s most creepy myths. Over this unusual musical foundation singer Gordan Gano tells a tale of unrequited love and unslaked lust that seems to cross the ages and slowly descends into madness. I would like “Mirror Mirror” even better if the song ended with Gano’s lyrics and dropped the weird instrumental coda that goes on far too long at the end.

#23 – “Dating Days” – From the album

Violent Femmes’ album 3 is a strange album in that the trio can’t seem to decide which direction to pursue. Much of the album is dark and relatively serious material but the album is also punctuated by the juvenile angst songs that made their debut such a delight. “Dating Days” is from the latter category and, while it never ascends to the heights of their debut (in part because the band weren’t actually angry, horny teens anymore), it at least comes fairly close and is one of my favorites from 3.

#22 – “Blister In The Sun” – From the album Violent Femmes 

It is hard to be objective about “Blister In The Sun” anymore. It was the first thing I ever heard from Violent Femmes and I still can remember how it made me feel both excited and a little uncomfortable. However, it was never my favorite song from the debut in spite of it being the “hit”. Furthermore, like it or not, the song has been ubiquitous in the years sense and so it is very hard to hear it with fresh ears. That said, the strummed folk/punk guitar riffs, the driving bass groove, and the staccato drumming all still are effective and sound great and the song has remained a classic alt rock staple for more than forty years now and while it may not ever feel new to me anymore it still is a great listen.

#21 – “All I Want” – From the album Freak Magnet  

More than a decade passed between Violent Femmes’ sixth album New Times and its follow-up Freak Magnet as the Femmes largely sat out the alternative music revolution they helped inspire. And when they did return Freak Magnet was a decidedly hit or miss affair. However, one of the gems of that long-awaited album is the moody “All I Want”.  “All I Want” is the rare Violent Femmes song that is mostly both mature and serious, lacking very little humor or irony.  While maturity is a theme and mood they have at times struggled to master (it is always hard for bands who become known for juvenile angst and silly humor to grow up) the Femmes rarely do it better than on “All I Want”. “All I Want” is a song that perfectly fits what the teenager who sang “Add It Up” would be like feeling and thinking as he enters his middle years.

#20 – “Lies” – From the album

As I mentioned above Violent Femmes 3 is an album pulled between two directions, the song that combines those two polarities best is probably “Lies”. Musically, “Lies” recalls the folk/punk acoustic busking the band is best known for, but lyrically Gano is tackling the topic of hypocrisy. Of course, hypocrisy is a topic that applies to teenage frustrations as easily as adulthood, but here Gano seems to mostly be tackling the topic from an adult perspective and “Lies” bridges the two moods of the record quite nicely while still being a good song in its own right.

#19 – “Fat” – From the album

“Fat” is juvenile, silly, and a little rude…and it’s better for it. In truth, the song is a clever take on longing for the girl who got away, not a mean-spirited song attacking her for leaving. Gano’s protagonist is merely daydreaming of what conditions might bring his lost love back. It’s a simple and strangely sweet, which is an unexpected twist from a song whose first line is “I hope you got fat:”.

#18 – “Hallowed Ground” – From the album Hallowed Ground 

Over their career one of their career one of the major themes Violent Femmes’ repeatedly explores in their music is the tension between the sacred and the profane. And while the band’s characters almost always fall on the wrong side of that line there is a fear of looming judgment and potential damnation running through much of their music. This tension is the heart of Violent Femmes second album Hallowed Ground, as can be heard on this, the title track from that record. One of the Femmes’ best serious songs “Hallowed Ground” shows that the band’s sound could grow up without losing its identity with Brian Ritchie’s prominent bass work tying it to their past while producer Mark VanHecke’s subtle piano fills lends the song both a sense of seriousness and a hint of spirituality. 

#17 – “Hotel Last Resort” – From the album Hotel Last Resort 

When the Violent Femmes’ burst onto the underground scene in the early 1980’s part of their appeal was how unique their sound was. However, that doesn’t mean that the Femmes’ didn’t have influences and one of their most obvious were post-punk pioneers Television. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that “Hotel Last Resort”, a song that features Tom Verlaine of Television on lead guitars, feel like the most interesting song the band has done since at least 1994’s New Times album. A trippy and vaguely psychedelic folk rocker “Hotel Last Resort” seems to move the Femmes’ sound subtly forward by creating loose echoes of the past. Not only does Verlaine play on the song but moments feel like a demented Dylan, while the title at least calls to mind the Eagles’ “Hotel California”. The song doesn’t really feel like Television or the Eagles and only slightly like Bob Dylan but it does feel like one of those songs that has always existed and was just waiting for someone to capture it and bring it into the world, making “Hotel Last Resort” a somewhat unexpected late career near-classic from Violent Femmes that I love.

#16 – “I Held Her In My Arms” – From the album The Blind Leading The Naked 

“I Held Her In My Arms” is the best known song from Violent Femmes’ third album The Blind Leading The Naked and was a minor hit in college rock and 80’s indie circles. That said, it is a song that for years I just didn’t like, then one day it just clicked for me and it became a favorite. I think I fought against liking it for so long because it just didn’t fit my preconceived notions of what the Femmes should sound like. “I Held Her In My Arms” does still have some of the smarmy humor and attitude of their early albums but it is a more traditionally structured song and a more fully produced song, even featuring a full-blown horn section. For whatever reason I was slow to embrace this song but eventually I realized how good it is.

#15 – “I Hear The Rain” – From the album Hallowed Ground 

Short and frenetic, “I Hear The Rain” sounds and feels like a furious and fast moving storm; full of fury, but quickly spent. The intensity of the song is only increased by the expertly placed layered voices that eventually split into multiple competing vocal parts. Drummer Victor DeLorenzo also steps aside from his drum kit to play a xylophone part that cleverly recreates the sound of falling rain that serves the song perfectly.

#14 – “Confessions” – From the album Violent Femmes 

Violent Femmes amazing debut is, in many ways, the perfect album about the highs and lows of the adolescent experience. This is why it is somewhat ironic that the album’s centerpiece, “Confessions”, is the most mature and adult song on the record. “Confessions” tackles many of the same themes as the rest of the album, but does so without the humor and sophomoric jokes. This is not a negative as it lends a gravitas and weight to “Confessions” that separates it from the rest of the album and makes it something of an emotional anchor. Indeed, without “Confessions” the rest of the album may lose some of its power because it might seem like a novelty or joke. Confessions never sounds or feels like either, it is just a great song whose presence makes the rest of the album feel more grounded in reality.

#13 – “Look Like That” – From the album Why Do Birds Sing? 

Why Do Birds Sing?, the Violent Femmes fifth album, is the album that most closely matches the sound and feel of their classic debut. “Look Like That” reverts to the frustrated teenager persona of that album and tackles the everpresent adolescent topic of peer pressure and trying to fit in. Who hasn’t felt the pressure of trying to discover who you are and where you fit in? And who hasn’t realized how shallow some of the behavior that makes the distinction between cool and uncool is? This song addresses that while also nodding to how important it still is to be accepted.

#12 – “He Like Me” – From the album Why Do Birds Sing? 

While “He Likes Me” and “Look Like That” are not sequenced near each other on the Why Do Birds Sing? album to me they have always been sister songs that are connected in my head. The two songs seem to be connected (at least to me) and draw on the same themes of high school acceptance and inclusion (or rejection and exclusion) in a way that feels very real. Because of this I always placed them back to back on any Femmes’ mix tapes or playlists I made and have done so again here since I love both songs.

#11 – “American Music” – From the album Why Do Birds Sing? 

“American Music” is the classic sound of the Violent Femmes debut album given a touch of maturity and professionalism and it works very well. Indeed, “American Music” is the kind of song that should have been a hit, especially as it came out just as alternative music was leaving the underground and becoming mainstream. Regardless of its commercial success though “American Music” is a great song, a great opening track to their second best album, and a great entry point into the band’s sound.

#10 – “Please Do Not Go” – From the album Violent Femmes 

On “Please Do Not Go” the Violent Femmes decide to graft reggae and island music influences into their acoustic busking style. This is the kind of weird hybrid that an older, more experienced band may have immediately dismissed as a “dumb idea” but the Femmes pull it off well. Musically, the song has a languid, breezy feel to it built off of a light ska rhythm and it merges the diverse elements into something sunny and warm. However, “Please Do Not Go” has an internal tension that lends it strength because Gordon Gano’s lyrics depict enough emotional bloodletting that they could be the blueprint for any early 00’s emo band (not to mention the emotion he pours into his actual singing) and this sits at odds against the gentle island sway of the music. It is this dichotomy that makes “Please Do Not Go” a superb track.

#9 – “Country Death Song” – From the album Hallowed Ground 

A dark, twisted satire of the country music genre, “Country Death Song” uses many of the sounds and tropes of traditional country music and twists them into something uniquely Violent Femmes. Brian Ritchie plays a classic country bass line that lends the song a sense of authenticity while guest musician Tony Trischka lays down a mean and slightly crazed sounding banjo riff. Meanwhile, Gordon Gano taps into the longstanding trope folk/country trope of the murder ballad, only here he sings a first person accound of a broken farmer and family man who is slowly descending into madness, resulting in the murder of his daughter and his own suicide. It is a bleak but effective look at isolation, loneliness, and madness, given just a sly touch of humor by selling it as a “country” song.

#8 – “Kiss Off” – From the album Violent Femmes 

Yet another classic song of teenage angst and frustration from the Femmes’ classic debut album. Like so many of the best Violent Femmes songs the music is their unique combination of folk and punk with vocals from Gano that are packed with the kind of emotion that only comes from real life experience. “Kiss Off” just uses this form better than most and adds a memorable hook with its famous “count up” section over the bridge.

#7 – “Good Feeling” – From the album Violent Femmes

“Good Feeling” may be one of the saddest songs ever written.  Gano’s lyrics are bittersweet and his vocals lend them just the perfect touch of pain and resignation because he knows the good times never last.  However, the song’s perfect touch is the barroom piano that gives it a dusty, worn-out, Old West feel and the slightly out of tune violin Gano plays over the bridge. A masterpiece of mood that ends one of the best debut albums ever and whose real pain is accentuated by the half joking, half crazed tone of the rest of the album.

#6 – “Breaking Up” – From the album New Times 

“Breaking Up” is one of the best Violent Femmes songs to stray from their classic formula. Somber and menacing, Gano sings in his creepy lower register and steps into the madman persona he inhabits so well while inverting the lyrics to Neil Sedaka’s classic “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”. Sedaka’s song is cheerful and naive and captures the innocence of teenage relationships in the late 1950’s. The Violent Femmes twist that feeling into something dark and deranged, capturing the anger and inner turmoil of the jilted lover very well. And when the electric guitar comes roaring in at about the halfway point, backed by (then) new drummer Guy Hoffman’s crashing drums, it is one of the most intense and perfect moments in any Violent Femmes song. 

#5 – “Color Me Once” – From The Crow Motion Picture Soundtrack  

I have always wondered if “Color Me Once” was originally written as part of the recording sessions for 1994’s New Times and was somehow not used on that album or if it was written afterwards specifically for the movie The Crow. If it is the former then the Violent Femmes somehow chose to leave the best song they did after their classic era (which covers their first five albums and ended in 1993 when original drummer Victor DeLorenzo left the band) off their own album and instead give it to the movie soundtrack for an obscure gothic action comic book movie (the movie turned out to be a classic but there is little chance anyone expected that ahead of time). If the latter though and it was written for the film, then “Color Me Once” is pretty obscure because while it does fit the mood of the film, it does not really directly tie into anything from the film’s plot or themes. Either way the gloomy mood and schizophrenic emotions of the song work perfectly and, I believe, “Color Me Once” is easily the best song Violent Femmes released after 1991’s Why Do Birds Sing? 

#4 – “Never Tell” – From the album Hallowed Ground 

The #9 song on my list was “Country Death Song” from the album Hallowed Ground, which is a satire of the classic country and folk murder ballad trope. However, later on that same album the Violent Femmes tackle the murder ballad again in a more serious and traditional fashion on the song “Never Tell”. On “Never Tell” though the Femmes focus on guilt, the building tension of knowing a dark secret, the stress of knowing that others also know that secret and that you cannot control their actions, and how all these things can slowly eat away at a person. The song slowly builds itself up musically as the tension in the narrator builds as well and in the process creates one of the Violent Femmes best songs.

#3 – “More Money Tonight” – From the album Why Do Birds Sing? 

In many ways Violent Femmes second best album, 1991’s Why Do Birds Sing? Is a return to form because it, more than any other album, returns to the sound and themes of their classic debut. The album isn’t a retread or rewrite, the songs are more restrained and come from a slightly older perspective, but many of them use the same folk/punk style of the debut and draw on themes of teenage lust, loneliness, and the degradations of high school. “More Money Tonight” captures the mood and sound of the debut nearly perfectly but twists the plot. On the debut the outsider never got the girl and never got to be cool. Here, on “More Money Tonight”, the outsider (and Gano sings it too directly for it to be anybody other than himself) finally gets the last laugh as he is the rock star now; telling off the former tormentors and hangers-on with the lyrics “I’ll make more money tonight that you ever dreamed of/You thought I was strange just look at me now/If you are lucky I’ll play in your city/And you can come see me/If you have the money”. Revenge is a dish best served cold. It’s funny, brutal, and must have felt so, so good.

#2 – “Add It Up” – From the album Violent Femmes 

“Blister In The Sun” is the gateway drug into the Violent Femmes; the song most people first heard from the band and introduced them to the band. However, “Add It Up” is their most classic track, the perfect encapsulation of everything that made the band different and special. It is a microcosm of the rest of their superb debut album (and to an extent their entire discography). “Add It Up” is punky and folky, angry and horny, creepy and crazed, funny and frustrated, decidedly juvenile and shockingly adult. It captures the maelstrom of teenage emotions, hormones, hopes and disappointments perfectly and still sounds as fresh and relevant now as it did in 1983.

#1 – “Gimme The Car” – Originally a UK single; bonus track added to the album Violent Femmes

Others could argue the Violent Femmes have better or more important songs and they would likely be right, but my favorite has always been “Gimme The Car”. All of the pieces that make songs like “Add It Up” or “Blister In The Sun” classic archetypal Violent Femmes songs are present on “Gimme The Car” as well. The lyrics are another perfect description of the lust and frustration felt by many a teen and, in this case especially bitter and ironic, as our ever present Femmes’ outsider hero finally has a girl who is willing only to still have to overcome one final obstacle: Convincing his dad to give him the car so that his lustful and nefarious plans are not all in vain. It is blackly humorous and absolutely glorious and how it was not included on their debut album in the first place is baffling. Musically, the song also is archetypal Femmes with Brian Ritchie’s bass popping and growling and driving the song forward, while Gano’s guitar has the most perfectly placed guitar note ever. On “Gimme The Car” the Violent Femmes capture both a sense of realism and of absurd black humor expertly and it makes the song one of the best they ever recorded and my personal favorite.

History of Rock 14: Underground Rock

Stepping a little outside the alternative rock focus of this site I have decided to do a series of playlists and short articles outlining the history of rock music. In this project, I have used a broader, more expansive definition of rock music than some would have, but I also recognize I could have gone deeper still into many genres and subgenres. I also recognize that there is overlap and, sometimes, disagreement about where a band fits in. Still, if you go on this exploration with me I think you will gain a great overview of rock history. Enjoy and feel free to follow the website (www.alternativealbumsblog.wordpress.com) and/or the Facebook page (@musicalternativereality) to get all the volumes as they come out.

Underground Rock: So this is not really a genre or style of rock, not in any real sense of similar sound or influences. However, these are all key pioneering artists in the formation and foundation of what will, in the future, be known as “alternative rock”. For much of the history or rock and roll – certainly from the late 1970’s through at least the year 2000 (and maybe beyond) – rock fans were divided between two camps or tribes that allowed for very little crossover between them (and if you grew up during that time you certainly were aware of it). On one side were those who liked the more mainstream genres of rock that were more traditional in sound and received most of the support from radio and the record companies, and on the other those who liked “alternative” or “underground” rock in all of its forms and formats; rock that was less conventional and received far less support from radio and the record companies, at least until the 1990’s when alternative rock broke through to the mainstream and began to change the narrative (but we will get to that later). 

Prior to the emergence of punk rock in 1977 (the first real genre to be fully part of the anti-mainstream alternative tribe) nearly all artists were seeking for mainstream acceptance and commercial success, at least to some degree. The artists here were among the few outliers that were not actively courting mainstream appeal and were making music far outside the norms of the time (or in the case of David Bowie would abandon his success every time he achieved it and radically rework his sound and image). Thus, the artists in this “genre” were groundbreakers and pioneers of rock’s less traditional side, but were doing it before there was really a name for it or a place for them. They were ahead of their time and it took years for their influence to be fully felt, their genius to be fully recognized, and commercial success, if it ever came, to finally happen.

Underground Rock: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1rGx4kE7qyeD7fBnOAiqES

  1. “Venus In Furs” – The Velvet Underground
  2. “Heroes” – David Bowie
  3. “The Passenger” – David Bowie
  4. “Dancing Barefoot” – Patti Smith
  5. “Computer Love” – Kraftwerk
  6. “Sound + Vision” – David Bowie
  7. “September Gurls” – Big Star
  8. “Pale Blue Eyes” – The Velvet Underground
  9. “Personality Crisis” – New York Dolls
  10. “Search & Destroy” – Iggy & The Stooges
  11. “Pablo Picasso” – The Modern Lovers
  12. “The Model” – Kraftwerk
  13. “Because The Night” – Patti Smith
  14. “Thirteen” – Big Star
  15. “I Wanna Be Your Dog” – Iggy & The Stooges
  16. “Suzanne” – Leonard Cohen
  17. “Sweet Jane” – The Velvet Underground
  18. “Redondo Beach” – Patti Smith
  19. “Lust For Life” – Iggy Pop
  20. “Ashes To Ashes” – David Bowie
  21. “Radioactivity” – Kraftwerk

90’s Albums Revisited: March 1992

In 90’s Albums Revisited we will look at four key albums released month by month starting in January 1990.  As this is an alternative music site I will generally focus on albums that would fall under the “alternative music” umbrella, but I may stray into the mainstream world on occasion. Also, for whatever reason, the month of December is consistently a thin month for new releases so I will fill out the list for that month by including albums from earlier in the year that I originally did not include and will indicate these releases as such when I do this. I hope you enjoy this journey, may you revisit old favorites and find some new ones.  So click the link to explore the month:

This Month In History – March 1992: President George H.W. Bush apologizes for raising taxes after pledging not to. This broken promise was a key factor in his defeat in the upcoming Presidential election. Cold War era Soviet newspaper Pravda stops publication. Terrorists bomb the Israeli embassy in Argentina, killing 29. Britain’s Prince Andrew and his wife Sarah, Duchess of York announce their separation. Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev returns to Earth after spending ten months aboard the space station Mir. 

Listen To The List – March 1992: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4bSlEt7seJ8tCSrrcyKa7q

“Priest = Aura” – The Church

After signing to a major label and recording their two previous albums in Los Angeles with L.A. session man Waddy Wachtel producing (the albums are strong but the band disliked the experience and the lack of control they felt they had) The Church decided to return to following their own muse and the result is the stunning, if slightly less commercial and streamlined, Priest= Aura. This decision likely proved wise since The Church’s sound was decidedly out of step (at least in the US) with the grunge and alt rock at the time regardless of how they were produced or which label they were on. Priest = Aura rivals for the title of their best album and kicks off in fine fashion with the atmospheric “Aura”. The first half doesn’t have a weak song and features standouts like the mean and brooding “Ripple”, the pretty and restrained “Feel”, and the coiled tension of “Swan Lake”. However, it is the back half of Priest = Aura that elevates it to classic. Every song is strong and carves out a unique niche in The Church’s sound. “Kings” is a sonic cousin to Unforgettable Fire era U2 without sounding like a cheap imitation, “Witch Hunt” is a short, creepy waltz that can interpreted in many ways, while “The Disillusionist” is an eerie epic that clocks in at well over six minutes. The album sequencing is part of its genius as well as “The Disillusionist” segues into the quiet and warm “Old Flame” which itself serves as a nice interlude (while being a good song in its own right) between “The Disillusionist” and the almost  ten minute psychedelic rocker “Chaos” which serves as the album’s emotional conclusion, before the closing coda of the well-crafted instrumental “Film”. Priest = Aura is an album that has been overlooked by many and deserves a good listen as it is a largely undiscovered gem.

“Walking In London” – Concrete Blonde

After years of toiling in the 80’s indie and college rock underground, Concrete Blonde finally had their breakthrough with the almost accidental success of the song “Joey” from their previous album, 1990’s Bloodletting. “Joey” may have been a surprise hit but it brought exposure to the excellent Bloodletting album. Concrete Blonde wisely decided to not tweak the formula very much for its follow-up Walking In London. Songs like the excellent title track and “Why Don’t You See Me” would have been right at home on Bloodletting and continue the sound and feel of that record nicely. There are also a few interesting and unexpected left-turns on Walking In London like the bilingual ballad “Les Coeurs Jumeaux”, the humorous faux-country rock of “Ghost Of A Texas Ladies’ Man”, and the bittersweet pop rock of “Someday?”. However, the other half of Walking In London keeps it from achieving the quality of Bloodletting. Most of these other songs are not necessarily bad, they just are not as interesting or well-written as what came before, with two notable exceptions in “City Screaming” and “It’s A Man’s World”. The former is an inferior and lumbering rewrite of several early career songs and the latter being a misguided cover of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World” that was likely meant to be social commentary but mostly just falls flat. Overall, Walking In London will likely please fans and is a pretty solid listen, but it also generally falls short of the quality of Bloodletting and doesn’t offer enough successful new directions to bring in more new fans.

“Honey’s Dead” – The Jesus & Mary Chain

While it’s reputation has improved over the years, The Jesus & Mary Chain’s third album Automatic was seen at the time as a misstep by most critics and many fans, so 1992’s Honey’s Dead was viewed by many outside the band as a crucial moment for the group. With that in mind The Jesus & Mary Chain use Honey’s Dead as both a return to form and as a new beginning. Much of Honey’s Dead returns to the original blueprint of the band that saw shiny pop melodies buried under massive layers of sound and distortion as can be heard on the excellent opening one-two punch of “Reverence” and “Teenage Lust”. However, the band achieves this return to form without abandoning the use of electronic percussion and synths, two of the main complaints levelled at Automatic; thus weaving together the different strands of their sound effectively. The rest of side one is equally strong, if a little less abrasive. “Far Gone and Out” keeps the basic formula but lightens up on the noise some to become one of the band’s most successful singles while “Almost Gold” feels like something the Beach Boys might have recorded had they been young and cool in 1992 rather than 1962. “Sugar Ray” closes out the end of a nearly perfect first side. The rest of the album is slightly less distinctive but never loses momentum, making Honey’s Dead a fine return to form and a great listen in its own right.

“Apollo 18” – They Might Be Giants
Apollo 18 is the follow-up to They Might Be Giants’ commercial breakthrough (and peak) Flood. That said, Apollo 18 is nearly its equal in terms of song quality and the full band sound of many of the tracks gives the album a bigger sound with more kick. Apollo 18 still is a They Might Be Giants album though, full of odd detours, strange lyrics, weird musical choices, unusual influences and off-kilter humor, so this album is not an effort to cash in on the success of Flood. One of the highlights is the lead single “The Guitar”, which is an unusual sci-fi adaptation of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Another standout track is “Mammal” which continues They Might Be Giants’ chain of quirky, science-based pop songs. Other favorites include “I Palindrome I”, “Dinner Bell”, “Hall of Heads” and “Hypnotist of Ladies”, all of which find the duo trying out different sounds and styles effectively and with their usual sense of strangeness. Finally, the secret gem of Apollo 18 is “Fingertips”, a suite of twenty-one mini songs (nearly all under thirty seconds in length) that were each tracked individually on CD versions of the album, thus ensuring a completely different listening experience every time when the CD was played on shuffle. The “Fingertips” songs are funny, well executed, and completely random, giving Apollo 18 its own unique flavor and personality even when compared to the odd albums made by They Might Be Giants.

Albums Re-Imagined: “Violent Femmes” by Violent Femmes

Albums Re-Imagined: Violent Femmes by Violent Femmes

Listen To The Re-Imagined Album: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/782TkUWDz1nTRyd5r3YwCV

Violent Femmes fantastic debut album is one the great adolescent rites of passage. Few albums better capture the angst, lust, desperation, and emotional schizophrenia of the teenage years. That said, because its sound and style was (and is) so unique and novel – basically acoustic folk played like punk – it is also one of the pioneering albums of the early alternative moment and it remains a great listen long after one leaves behind their teenage years. 

The original version of Violent Femmes had ten tracks but during the CD era two UK singles’ B-sides from the same time period were added to the end of the CD version as a bonus. These two songs – “Ugly” and “Gimme The Car” – have become fan favorites and are both of high quality and therefore deserve a place on the record. However, they have always felt tacked on to the end to me (because they were), ruining the flow of what is otherwise a well sequenced album. So, I have decided to re-imagine Violent Femmes eponymous debut, rearranging the album and adding those two tracks in. It is an interesting experiment to me because I actually think the original version flows very well other than those two additional tracks; so we will see if I can add them in and rearrange the running order while still keeping a good album flow. Wish me luck…

  1. Add It Up – Okay, this was an easy choice to serve as the new opener for my re-imagined version of the album. “Add It Up” is one of the highlights of the album and is a fitting choice to set the choice for the album as it both showcases singer Gordon Gano’s penchant for angry tales of desperation and lust and allows bass player Brian Ritchie’s incredible bass work, which to a large degree defines the unique feel of the Violent Femmes music. On top of all that though “Add It Up” is the perfect song to open the album because of the song’s a cappella “Day after day…” intro, which serves as the perfect album opener. Indeed, I find it a little surprising that “Add It Up” wasn’t used as the first track on the original version of the album.
  1. Promise – “Promise” is the most punk-infused and visceral song on Violent Femmes and moving it up early on the record both reinforces the unique folk/punk sound the band develops and the teenager-out-of-control persona Gordon Gano inhabits throughout the album. The song is strong but the thing that really sets it apart and makes it great is Gano’s vocal performance which swerves back and forth from control to madness and back again as he sings, wails, moans, and talks to himself as he tries to get some kind of reassurance of similar feelings from his romantic interest. 
  1. Gimme The Car – “Gimme The Car” is one of two songs not included on the original version of the album but that was later added to CD versions. Placed here in the third spot “Gimme The Car” continues the run of songs narrated by lust-filled losers looking for attention and finding little assurances or comfort in the tough world of high school romance. “Gimme The Car” slows things down a little and adds some grit and menace, along with a little dark humor (and a perfectly placed bent note) as our protagonist realizes that even though he may have found a willing girl there are still other obstacles to overcome, namely acquiring the car from his father. It would be a humorous novelty song if not for how darkly scary and real Gano makes his emotions. From the first time I heard “Gimme The Car” I was baffled how this song was not included on the original version of the album. It’s a classic and my version of the album will feature it as such.
  1. Kiss Off – Moving away from the frustrations of unrequited lust and such “Kiss Off” is a tale of another elusive teenage desire: popularity. Yet another highlight and favorite from the original version of the album I like the flow between “Gimme The Car” and “Kiss Off” as the one segues into the other. Here Gano seems to be both simultaneously defiant towards the popular kids and longing to be one of them. It presents a dilemma we all face at some point in life: Is popularity and/or success worth becoming the thing we hate? Or is it better to be our real self but feel rejected?  “Kiss Off” addresses this prevalent teenage pressure head on. The song is bitter and bleak, but still incredibly catchy and has not one, but two, great novelty hooks with its snarky “permanent record” aside and genius count-up section. Another great song.
  1. Blister In The Sun – Violent Femmes’ biggest hit and best-known song originally served as the album opener but I am moving it back here to be both the centerpiece of the album and as a break from the dark tone of the album so far. Not that “Blister In The Sun” is especially happy or joyous, but its lyrics are a little more oblique and its music, while urgent, feels more upbeat, propulsive, and pop-oriented; especially when compared to the songs that have come before it. “Blister In The Sun” still has a crazed mania to it, but there is a little of the sunshine of the insane running through it too and it makes it feel more breezy and light and that works well here.
  1. Please Do Not Go – Probably the most warm and upbeat feeling song on Violent Femmes is the breezy, almost lightly Caribbean-kissed ballad “Please Do Not Go”. Of course, like everything else on Violent Femmes, that sense of warmth and ease is something of a fake as Gano’s lyrics find him begging his love to stay. Still, the song has a groovy sway to it and the lyrics don’t have the wicked bite of much of the rest of the album. Thus, “Please Do Not Go” sits nicely next to “Blister In The Sun” as a falsely warm heart at the center of my re-imagined version of the album. 
  1. To The Kill – Matching the tempo if not the tone of “Please Do Not Go” allows “To The Kill” to serve as a sort of dark cousin to the previous track. One of the more grownup feeling songs on Violent Femmes “To The Kill” lacks the juvenile humor and high school hysteria that permeates much of the rest of the album. Sitting back to back as I have placed them “Please Do Not Go” and “To The Kill” almost tell a connected story where a young man goes from stressing about losing his high school love to obsessing over her now that they have grown up and moved on. Just have to note that Ritchie’s bass playing on “To The Kill” is grimy, mean, and unique, and really is the key to the song.
  1. Ugly – The second additional track tacked on to the CD version of the album is “Ugly” and while it is not nearly the lost classic that “Gimme The Car” is it is a raucous and humorous song that fits in with the rest of the album. It is upbeat and frenetic and punky and thus is a perfect choice to follow-up the slower tempo pairing of “Please Do Not Go” and “To The Kill” and bring the energy back up.
  1. Gone Daddy Gone – Continuing the more upbeat music pacing of “Ugly”, albeit with a somewhat darker tone, is the most unique song on Violent Femmes – “Gone Daddy Gone”. A fairly straightforward song by the band done in the band’s style with the key exception that Victor de Lorenzo’s drums are switched out for a xylophone. This unexpected shift makes all the difference and elevates “Gone Daddy Gone” from a decent but unremarkable song to one of the highlights of an already unique album.
  1. Good Feeling – The original closer for the album (which is the spot it probably fits best but I always try to mix it up) is the sad, barroom piano ballad “Good Feeling”. Probably the most mature and traditionally pretty song on the record it is a good indication that these frustrated man-children may yet grow up into adults; although the melancholy and world-weary tone here suggests adulthood never dealt them a better hand than high school did.
  1. Prove My Love – “Prove My Love” is upbeat and fun and fits the themes and mood of the album and so fits in fine on the album. However, it also doesn’t really have anything to make it stand out and so it is one of the more middling songs on Violent Femmes; “Prove My Love” is a fine listen but Violent Femmes do the same ideas better and with more clever hooks elsewhere on the album.
  1. Confessions – The original album closer “Good Feeling” provided a warm, if bittersweet, conclusion to the album. However, that was largely lost when the CD added “Gimme The Car” and “Ugly” to the end. I decided that since my own rules wouldn’t let me end with “Good Feeling” that I would close out what is already a somewhat bleak album with its most bleak and hopeless song in “Confessions”.  A crawling dirge about the mess the world has become, “Confessions” is musically strong but its real strength comes from Gano’s emotionally desperate vocals. The anger, frustration, and isolation you can hear in his voice come from a true place and it makes “Confessions” a disturbing reflection on depression and hopelessness, and a visceral, if dark, way to end an emotionally charged album. 

Alternative Music Playlists – Vol. 45: 2020

Alternative Music Playlists – Vol. 45: 2020 

Listen To The List:  https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0HfJPttTglJactjl7HkxNJ

2020 was an unusual year due to the global Covid-19 pandemic and its fallout; both in our daily lives and in the world of music. There were some albums from the early part of the year that were written, recorded, and released without the shadow of Covid-19 hanging over them, but those were outliers in a year where the Coronavirus seemed to affect everything and everybody.  Alternative music seemed to generally deal with the spectre of the virus in one of two ways. The music of 2020 either seemed to be somber and brooding, reflecting the state of many as they dealt with illness, isolation and economic stress or rooted in the sounds and styles of the hedonistic and carefree 1980’s (or occasionally 1970’s) as a throwback of sorts to a happier age. This led to newer bands drawing on 80’s influences while several 80’s artists returned with real vigor. So, 2020, is a mix of the light and the dark and the old and the new, and while it was a terrible year to live through it actually did make for some pretty good music.

  1.  “I Hate How Much I Want You” – The Struts 

If you are a fan of the over the top, oversized, riff-driven rock of 1970’s glam and/or 1980’s hair metal then The Struts are what you have been waiting for, as few bands make bombastic rock and roll like this anymore. If you miss the eccentricities of Queen, the sleaze of Motley Crue, and the pop/rock gloss of Def Leppard then you are in for a treat because the boys from The Struts are back and “I Hate How Much I Want You” is reminiscent of the sound and spirit of bygone times. Indeed, The Struts left their native UK with a plan to go to Los Angeles and revel in the seedy hometown of their Sunset Strip heroes while recording this album, and while Covid kept them from following in the footsteps of their Hair Metal heroes behavior, they still drew upon them for inspiration. In fact, Def Leppard’s vocalist Joe Elliot and guitarist Phil Collen both show up for the fantastic and fun “I Hate How Much I Want You”, a Hair Metal homage that is just knowing enough to be in on the joke and feel ironic at the same time.

  1. “Bloodstream” – Soccer Mommy

Soccer Mommy (the stage name for singer/songwriter Sophie Allison) expertly walks the line between confessional singer/songwriter and 90’s grunge rocker. This is territory she has mined before but what makes her 2020 album Color Theory more interesting is that she recorded in the studio with her live backing band for the first time. This gives the music a fuller sound than on previous releases and allows her to draw on her interest in 90’s rock more directly as can be heard on the album’s opening cut, the excellent “Bloodstream”.

  1. “Bad Decisions” – The Strokes

The Strokes came back in 2020 with The New Abnormal, one of the best albums of their career.  The band continued the trend of their more recent work where they blend elements of the garage rock of their early years with 80’s new wave and post-punk influences. The change here though is that on The New Abnormal The Strokes rarely rock out. It is a much more mid-paced and moody record and “Bad Decisions” is a great example of this direction. While “Bad Decisions” never sounds like anyone other than The Strokes the band infuses a guitar riff lifted straight from Modern English to create a moody and tense hybrid of classic sounds from different eras. 

  1. “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” – Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam had put out several very solid records in the 21st century. All of them are very listenable and feature some really good songs. That said, Pearl Jam fans generally knew what they were going to get with a new Pearl Jam record as well as the band had fallen into a comfortable late career groove and maybe had even become a little staid at times. So it came as a shock that delighted some fans and shocked others when “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” came out as the lead single ahead of their album Gigaton and the song featured synth-like keyboards and a tense and jerky new wave-inspired rhythm that made many think of Talking Heads. While little else on the album sounded much like “Dance Of The Clairvoyants”, it showed that Pearl Jam still had a desire to experiment and evolve, and while some old fans didn’t like it, I personally found it to be an exciting new direction and one of the best songs of their latter career.

  1. “Come On Out” – The Airborne Toxic Event

Mikel Jollett, the singer, primary songwriter, and driving force behind The Airborne Toxic Event, released a book based on his life titled Hollywood Park and the band’s most 2020 album of the same name is meant to be an aural companion piece to it, drawing on the same textures, stories, and influences as the book. It is another solid record from The Airborne Toxic Event and one of the standout tracks is the dark but yearning “Come On Out”. Built up from a pulsing rhythm “Come On Out” finds the sweet spot between moody post-punk, colorful new wave, and anthemic epic.

  1. “Aries” – Gorillaz 

What started out as an art rock meets hip hop collective fronted by Blur’s Damon Albarn has evolved over the years into a melting pot of sounds, styles, genres, and collaborators, all loosely held together by Albarn (and his co-conspirator visual artist companion Jamie Hewett) as Gorillaz evolved into his main musical focus over the years. While not as strictly tied to its hip hop influenced origins as it once was the musical circus that is Gorillaz still mashes together anything that catches Albarn’s fancy and his ability to work with others successfully has become almost legendary. “Aries” is a collaboration between Gorillaz and former New Order bass god Peter Hook and “Aries” sounds like nothing less than a great lost New Order song. In a way this makes perfect sense as New Order, like Gorillaz a decade or so later, was interested in mixing alt rock with club culture and urban rhythms. The song is excellent and hearing Hook dig into the bassline with his singular sound is the best kind of ear candy.

  1. “Simmer” – Hayley Williams 

Punk-pop princess Hayley Williams of Paramore took a break from her band to make her first solo album with the superb Petals For Armor. Sometimes when band leaders make solo albums they seem to have little reason to exist as a solo record other than the artist doesn’t have to share the money but that is definitely not the case with Hayley Williams’ Petals For Armor. This is an album that she could not have made with Paramore and, quite frankly, it is better than most of that band’s work. Here, Williams draws on a list of female alt rock influences (most notably Tori Amos and Kate Bush) to create a vibrant and interesting record of indie pop of which the slow burning “Simmer” is probably the best.

  1. “Cyr” – Smashing Pumpkins

The title track to Smashing Pumpkins 2020 release is the type of icy, synth-driven rock that Corgan and company began exploring with “1979” and then delved into more fully on the Adore album. While the Pumpkins made their name with their bombastic and vaguely psychedelic alt rock, Corgan has never hidden the fact that he is a child of the 80’s and loves that eras new wave, post-punk and synthpop, and he has steered the band increasingly in that direction over the years. “Cyr” may well be Smashing Pumpkins best synth/electro-rock moment since “Eye” was included on the soundtrack for the film Lost Highway (or maybe even all the way back to “1979” itself). What Corgan and company manage to do on “Cyr” is create a song that is driven by its synthesizers while still feeling like a big, full, rock song and this makes the song feel special.

  1. “No-One” – Psychedelic Furs

The Psychedelic Furs came out of a twenty-nine year recording hiatus and sound like they never went away. The songs on Made of Rain are very strong individually and the album is among the classic band’s best. There is no pandering to modern trends, no attempt to reinvent themselves, update their sound, or protect their legacy. All across Made of Rain the Furs create tense, angular, moody, heartbroken rock just like they did in their early 80’s heydey and it works, both because musical trends have brought their style back into vogue and because their atmospheric and angst-driven music is a great fit for the mood of 2020. The album is full of great songs but “No-One” is among the best and embodies everything that works about the album.

  1.  “Anxiety” – Idles

Idles mashes together elements of hardcore punk, angular post-punk, and the nervous energy of early new wave without ever quite sounding like any of those influences. “Anxiety” is tense and tough and continues a strong run of albums from the band while also capturing the feeling of many during the pandemic of 2020. Something about “Anxiety” is almost timeless; it feels like a song that could have come out in the 1970’s, the 1980’s, the 1990’s or anytime in the 21st Century. 

  1. “Shameika” – Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple’s “Shameika” was the lead single from her 2020 album Fetch The Bolt Cutters and the song, like the album, feels like it is right on the edge of losing control of a carefully contained rage. One can still hear the melodic indie and pop influences of Apple’s early career that scored her hits like “Criminal” and “Shadowboxer”, but “Shameika” and the other songs on Fetch The Bolt Cutters are more experimental and non-traditional. “Shameika” still has a melodic heart but it veers off into unexpected directions without warning to create a unique sound and vision from one of modern indie rock’s most unique artists.

  1.  “Waving At The Window” – Travis

While Travis never found the success of some of their earnest and anthemic indie peers like Coldplay, Snow Patrol, and Oasis, especially in the USA, the band has been releasing beautiful, melodic, melancholy indie rock for almost three decades now. Nothing about their 2020 album 10 Songs is revelatory or a major change for the band. It is another album of excellent songs from a band who know who they are and what they do best and album opener “Waving At The Window” is a prime example of that and rivals their best work or that of their more famous peers.

  1.  “Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know?” – Morrissey

While his politics have made Morrissey a pariah in the indie circles that once idolized him, that hasn’t stopped him from creating some of the most unusual and unexpected music of his career. And while his latter-day albums are not as consistently strong as either his work with The Smiths or his own early solo work, he still can create stunning (and even shocking) music, which he does on “Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know?”. The song begins as a very good, put somewhat standard Morrissey song, but just when you feel like you know where the song is going Morrissey’s still tremendous voice is joined by the soulful voice of forgotten 1970’s disco queen Thelma Houston. It is a completely unexpected pairing that can feel jarring at first, but then quickly becomes strangely perfect. Then, just when the vocal pairings genius feel natural, Morrissey allows his bandmates to add synthesizers, a circus organ, and jazzy horns. All of this creates a song that would have been almost unimaginable for Morrissey to make during his early career, yet feels like a natural, if very unexpected, evolution. Much of the rest of his 2020 album I Am Not A Dog On A Chain can’t match this level of unexpected creativity but Morrissey proves he still can push boundaries with his music.

  1.  “Nerves Of Steel” – Erasure

Erasure has continued to release catchy synthpop since the mid 1980’s and 2020’s The Neon continues that trend. “Nerves Of Steel” was the second single from The Neon, an album that was meant to recall the band’s early days (although since Erasure’s Vince Clarke almost always relies on classic analog synths everything they do feels tied to the 80’s). And while the album doesn’t necessarily feel all that different than their other recent albums in sound, it does seem more consistent. “Nerves Of Steel” could be from 1987’s The Circus or 1988’s The Innocents (that said it would feel right at home on 2005’s Nightbird too). However, what the song does do well is showcase Andy Bell’s still gorgeous voice and expansive range while also showcasing Clarke’s synth hooks. True, that is what good Erasure has always done but it is nice to see them still doing it so well halfway through their fourth decade.

  1.  “Caution” – The Killers

The Killers continue to put out very good albums that blend the sound of 80’s new wave with the earnerst storytelling of Bruce Springsteen and the cinematic grandeur of U2 and 2020’s Imploding The Mirage was their best album in a while. “Caution” is classic sounding Killers that recalls their early 00’s heydey, falling somewhere in between the neon glitz of Hot Fuss and the dusty cinematic sprawl of Sam’s Town. “Caution” is catchy and affirming and has a great guitar solo from none other than Lindsay Buckingham.

  1. “First Nation” – Midnight Oil

Always a political band Midnight Oil came out of a fifteen or so year retirement to address some of the political fallout of their homeland in 2020. Long champions for the rights of Australia’s aboriginal peoples (and other first nations around the globe) Midnight Oil released a new EP that addresses these and other concerns. The Oils sounds, for the most part, like little has changed. Their music is muscular and tight, the work of a band that has been playing together since the late 1970’s and Peter Garrett still sound like a mad prophet. The only nod to the current music trends are that the song is performed with Tasmin Keith and Jessica Mauboy, both of whom add some modern flavor. However, even when Keith raps it fits the song and doesn’t sound forced, especially in the context of the whole EP which is intended to be a collaborative project.  “First Nation” is a nice treat that whets the appetite for Midnight Oil again and hopefully they will not wait another fifteen years.

  1.  “Life In Quarantine” – Ben Gibbard

Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard spent much of the 2020 quarantine performing at home shows in an attempt to raise money for those in need and awareness of responsible behavior during the Covid quarantine. Connected to this effort was a simple, pretty solo song Gibbard released called “Life In Quarantine”. The title says it all and, while not a hit, it definitely could be the song that best fits the feel of the year.

  1.  “Fare Thee Well” – Stone Temple Pilots

In spite of the death of two former frontmen in Scott Weiland and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington (who was vocalist for the band for a few years and did one studio EP with the band) 90’s rockers Stone Temple Pilots have persevered. Hiring new singer Jeff Gutt a few years back and moving on yet again. 2020 saw the release of the album Perdida, a largely acoustic and melancholy affair meant to help the band deal with the deaths of their friends and other trials. While written and recorded pre-pandemic, the mood and tone of the album is a perfect match for its time and “Fare Thee Well” feels like classic, if subdued, STP. Gutt’s voice is similar to Weiland’s and it is easy to fall into the song and feel like you are listening to a forgotten favorite from their 90’s peak.

History of Rock 13: Hard Rock & Heavy Metal

Stepping a little outside the alternative rock focus of this site I have decided to do a series of playlists and short articles outlining the history of rock music. In this project, I have used a broader, more expansive definition of rock music than some would have, but I also recognize I could have gone deeper still into many genres and subgenres. I also recognize that there is overlap and, sometimes, disagreement about where a band fits in. Still, if you go on this exploration with me I think you will gain a great overview of rock history. Enjoy and feel free to follow the website (www.alternativealbumsblog.wordpress.com) and/or the Facebook page (@musicalternativereality) to get all the volumes as they come out.

Hard Rock & Heavy Metal: In a sense, Hard Rock and Heavy Metal bands were just taking the elements of Arena Rock and pushing them to the extremes. These bands were still usually focused on big riffs, power chords, guitar solos, and the other elements of Arena Rock, but the music took on a harder, heavier, and often darker edge in both its sound and lyrics. Many of these bands also played up the theatrical nature of rock and would wear costumes and do unusual things as part of the show (Alice Cooper would often decapitate live chickens as part of his concerts for example). Indeed, these bands sometimes leaned into the dark and occult as a way of gaining attention for themselves and to appeal to their audience. While seventy years of rock history has taught us that this kind of dalliance with dark theatre is generally just role playing – a part of the show – the concept was new in the 1970’s and Hard Rock and Heavy Metal bands often gained the ire of the more conservative elements of society. These genres began in the 1970’s but continued into the 1980’s with relatively little change.

Hard Rock/Heavy Metal: Listen To The List – https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1nRjeUckTuNffRnWWZ1c01

  1. “Thunderstruck” – AC/DC
  2. “Enter Sandman” – Metallica
  3. “Immigrant Song” – Led Zeppelin
  4. “Iron Man” – Black Sabbath
  5. “Breaking The Law” – Judas Priest
  6. “School’s Out” – Alice Cooper
  7. “Rock You Like A Hurricane” – Scorpions
  8. “Run To The Hills” – Iron Maiden
  9. “Peace Sells” – Megadeth
  10. “Got The Time” – Anthrax
  11. “Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne
  12. “You Shook Me All Night Long” – AC/DC
  13. “Living After Midnight” – Judas Priest
  14. “Fade To Black” – Metallica
  15. “Paranoid” – Black Sabbath
  16. “Rock & Roll” – Led Zeppelin
  17. “The Trooper” – Iron Maiden
  18. “Symphony of Destruction” – Megadeth
  19. “One” – Metallica
  20. “Highway To Hell” – AC/DC
  21. “No More Tears” – Ozzy Osbourne

90’s Albums Revisited: February 1992

In 90’s Albums Revisited we will look at four key albums released month by month starting in January 1990.  As this is an alternative music site I will generally focus on albums that would fall under the “alternative music” umbrella, but I may stray into the mainstream world on occasion. Also, for whatever reason, the month of December is consistently a thin month for new releases so I will fill out the list for that month by including albums from earlier in the year that I originally did not include and will indicate these releases as such when I do this. I hope you enjoy this journey, may you revisit old favorites and find some new ones.  So click the link to explore the month:

This Month In History – February 1992: Jury selection begins for the Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King. Jeffrey Dahmer found sane and guilty of the murder of fifteen young men. The Irish Supreme Court rules that a 14 year old rape victim can legally get an abortion in spite of national laws to the contrary.

Listen To The List – February 1992: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6eAp4LUZVZ4781omgh4A5G

“Seven” – James

James had completely revamped their line-up and sound for their previous album. This had led them to find chart success in their native UK and made some inroads in the American indie rock scene. However, it was Seven, their fourth album overall (and second with their new line-up) that really saw their sound and style come together as their own, bringing together the folk elements of their early years with their Madchester experiments and U2-styled earnestness. Lead single “Born of Frustration” used a very unique vocal hook to stand out and earn some notice in both the UK and the US, while epics like “Sound”, “Seven” and “Don’t Wait That Long” show a cinematic grandeur. James perfects their folk-influenced pop/rock side on “Ring The Bells” and “Protect Me”. Overall, James’ Seven is a leap forward and a fairly consistent record, showing that the band could weave in the violin, trumpet, keyboards, and other newer elements into their formula successfully.

“Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” – Social Distortion 

Social Distortion had bigger hits on their previous eponymous album, but 1992’s Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell is their best and most consistent album. “Bad Luck” was the excellent lead single and pseudo-hit, but “Born To Lose”, “When She Begins” and “Making Believe” are just as strong and could have been hits. In fact, it has always baffled me why Social Distortion didn’t find more mainstream success in the punk-influenced 90’s. Anywhere, Social Distortion always understood the connection between traditional country and punk; both genres that celebrate outsiders, criminals, and common men who have been trampled by the system and that connection is here in spades. “99 To Life” sounds like a Johnny Cash classic that has been punked up while “This Time Darlin’” sounds like a remake of a country classic (both are originals though). Other great tracks include the pummeling “Sometimes I Do” and tough “Cold Feelings”. All in all Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell is both a very underrated 90’s album and Social Distortion’s best.

“Sap” – Alice In Chains 

Following the commercial breakthrough of Alice In Chains debut album Facelift the band released the four song EP Sap in early 1992. Facelift was a heavy album, marketed to appeal to metal fans as much as fans of the budding alternative/grunge scene, but Sap showcased a softer, if just as bleak, side to Alice In Chains. The four songs on Sap are largely acoustic and slower tempoed, but they still featured the lyrical and tonal bleakness the band was known for as well as the tight vocal harmonies between Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell, and so felt connected to the bands earlier work while also showing them in a new light. While neither “Brother” or “Got Me Wrong” were hits at the time, they have both gone on to become Alice In Chains classics and fan favorites. While “Right Turn” brings in Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm to create a song that fuses the sounds of several of the Seattle scenes best bands. Heart’s Ann Wilson also contributes backing vocals on “Brother” and “Am I Inside”. Sap is a stellar release that has only gained in prominence over the years. It also pointed the way toward Alice In Chains’ next album, the masterpiece Dirt. This EP has often been overlooked by those who are not rabid fans of the band but shouldn’t be as it is some of Alice In Chains best work and one of the best EP’s of the 1990’s.

“Stick Around For Joy” – The Sugarcubes

Coming out of Iceland, The Sugarcubes had slowly made a name for themselves in the late 80’s in the college rock and indie scenes. 1991’s Stick Around For Joy would be the band’s last album though before Bjork left the group to pursue a solo career. Stick Around For Joy is idiosyncratic and strange and therefore not for everyone, but for those who like unusual pop music it is one of The Sugarcubes’ best. Songs like the almost hit “Hit” and “Leash Called Love” both create dreamy, pop-oriented soundscapes with enough melody to grab hold. Elsewhere songs like “I’m Hungry” and “Happy Nurse” show off other sides of the band (“I’m Hungry” in particular has a dark menace that works surprisingly well). Overall Stick Around For Joy is a very good album and is likely the group’s most consistent release. The Sugarcubes were sort of an Icelandic B-52’s, full of quirky ideas and strange diversions, and sharing vocal duties between Bjork and male vocalist Einar Orn. The problem is that, unlike with The B-52’s who found a correct balance between the silliness of Fred Schneider and the pretty harmonies of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, The Sugarcubes are all about Bjork. Every time Einar Orn’s barking, pseudo-rap like vocals break in it ruins the magic and flow of the song. Stick Around For Joy is a good listen, but it also makes it clear that Bjork was a talent that needed to go solo.

Alternative Reality: Songs of the Day Playlist – December 2020

This is the playlist of the songs used on my Alternative Reality Facebook site as the “songs of the day” for the month of December 2020. This month I focused on holiday and winter songs and this month’s list includes songs by The Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, Reel Big Fish, Sara Bareilles, Annie Lennox, The Boy Least Likely To, and many more.

Play the List – December 2020: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3M83YU7UIIGTT8maVTvuMN