Friday, December 10, 2010

The Five Essential Albums of Rock and Rap

Thanks to the incomparable Joe Venito for suggesting this topic. I can't say for rap, but I'll take a shot at rock. I've always been a greatest hits type, never one to listen to full albums (with the exception of David Bowie). So I'm just going to write about my five favorite rock artists/bands. You guys can read a history of rock anywhere so this entry is not so much an authoritative analysis of the genre . . . it's just my personal top five.

The Rolling Stones:

For me, rock music began with the Stones and achieved its classic high point with the Stones. They are the archetypal rock band: they've got the badass attitude; charisma; a powerful, distinctively grooving, rock rhythm section; hot guitar work; everything's sweaty and improvised . . . they were/are rebels par excellence and, above all, they knew how to capture that feeling of rebellion and translate it into musical sound.

Rock music grew up under the Stones. Before the Stones, it was the soundtrack to suburban teenage life, you know, sock-hop fare. But, with the Stones, rock started to sound smart, powerful, mature, soulful, . . . and very much for grown ups (at least college kid age, we'll say). It wasn't just for teenage girls to squeal at. Plus, it sounded musically sophisticated. The Stones were great players and, even this many years later, their records still sound fresh and grooving . . . particularly an album like Exile on Main Street.

Also, I think more than any other band, the Stones fused together blues, country, and RnB and gave it a little something extra to form bona fide rock music. Pre-Stones rock music tends to sound too heavily rooted in one genre or another, particularly country or RnB, to really sound like rock. Think of the country twang of rockabilly music (Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes") or the keyboard-driven RnB of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," the latter of which sounds like Ray Charles only faster and sillier. Or take a number like Elvis's "Hounddog": it's got that RnB thump to it, the beat hadn't quite changed . . . and it sounds like the great old blues singer Big Momma Thornton's version, only more uptempo and with pop-inflected backing vocals and hand claps. The genres had yet to gel with one another to form rock music, and, even though several key ingredients were in place (the backbeat, the party/rebel vibe, the instrumentation), the music just didn't rock yet. The Stones somehow knew how to make it rock, and they did this by making the music equal parts country, blues, and RnB with some gospel thrown in for good measure, and giving the music a new, tough, sexy attitude.

Part of the genius of the Stones is that they struck just the right balance between these disparate genres of music, not only fusing them to create rock, but using them to give the music just the right color. Their music is bright and sunny thanks to the country and gospel influences, but not too bright and sunny, like the Allman Brothers, or even Lynyrd Skynyrd. That said, their music is also somehow spiritual, deep, and even dark at times thanks to the blues, without getting too dark and bluesy like proto metal, e.g. Led Zeppelin, which I actually love, but which sometimes gets a bit too dark because there's no country or gospel influence to brighten things up.

I have the Rolling Stones to thank for my appreciation for American roots music, in particular country, blues, and gospel. Their album Exile on Main Street features all these genres and more, (even mixing in some Cajun if I recall correctly), to magical effect. I didn't even listen to country music until I heard Mick Jagger say he liked it, at which point I followed suit. The Stones showcase all of these genres to their best effect and further helped me understand an important principle: each of these genres, particularly country and the blues, is rooted deep in the American psyche. So, when rock music is steeped in these sounds, it strikes a primordial chord in the ear of the American listener--or really any listener, given the power of these genres of music--and has a kind of holiness about it.

Quite an achievement for a British band, eh?

For the reasons listed above, the Stones are my favorite band of all time, hands down. It's like, there wouldn't be Rock music with a capital R without them . . . and who knows what might have happened to hip-hop as a result. Run DMC made hip-hop cool by injecting it with a tough, rebellious, rock-n-roll look and sound. In other words, they put some Rolling Stones into hip-hop. Actually, we should say they put the Rolling Stones through Aerosmith, into hip-hop. Otherwise hip-hop might have remained some kind of novelty, dance/party music, I dunno. I saw a documentary on early, early, early hip-hop and it sounded silly, frankly, with cutesy-bootsy rhyming over dance beats. Even the battling sounded light, it really needed some muscle, some attitude. Perhaps we could say that the Rolling Stones helped rock *and* hip-hop to mature.

David Bowie:

David Bowie made rock music an artistic, avant-garde art form. His imaginative and literary lyrics; gender-bending personae; theatrical performing style; passion for modern art, science fiction, and fashion; and keen interest in new sounds (e.g. new styles of soul music and electronica), resulted in a sophisticated, rather high-brow brand of rock that lost none of its edginess in the process. Bowie showed that rock could be used to tell any story and express any and every emotion. In the process of becoming several different characters, (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke), and writing in a dizzying array of styles, I think one can safely say that no rock artist has ever used rock music to say and do so much. Bowie showed that rock 'n roll wasn't merely "sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll" as the saying goes.

What I learned from Bowie: be imaginative! Approach rock music with the awareness and depth of an artist.

Jimmy Page:

I guess I could have put Led Zeppelin here, but, in particular, I'm fascinated by Jimmy Page. He's my favorite guitarist. It's hard to put into words what I love about his playing, but I'll try. It sounds so manic: jagged and menacing at one moment, sensitive and heart broken at another, enchanted and otherworldly at the next. He sounds virtuosic and yet rough and raw. Above all, his playing sounds dangerous, like anything can happen. Really, for me, it's a very mystical pull. Every time I get discouraged in my practicing, I just watch a Led Zeppelin DVD. 1 min. of watching Jimmy will do the trick, and he's the one who made me want to play the guitar in the first place. His music is that force, that presence in the musical universe that makes me think, "Playing guitar in a hot rock band is the be all and end all of human existence, the absolute best-est, most badass thing a person could ever do and the most fun a person could ever hope to have, so . . . I just can't give up!"


In my opinion, Nirvana absolutely reinvigorated rock music. In the 80s, all the pop music was great and heavy metal was having a hey day, but rock music fell off the radar. Classic rock had run its course, the genre was tired out. Since the essence of rock music is rebellion, what was needed was a fresh take on that concept, and Nirvana did just that at the dawn of the 90s. Their music was psychologically rebellious. It was mental and, frankly, scary. You know, it was the whole dark grunge thing. But, somehow, when Nirvana did it, it was exciting. Their followers, who constitute the genre of "post-grunge" tended to just sound depressing. But Nirvana brought rock music to new "lows" without stripping the music of its vitality. And they sounded sophisticated and poetic doing it, also creating a new style of guitar work in the process (the grunge guitar sound).

Nirvana proved that rock music can stay relevant and, like Bowie, they showed that it can be used to explore most anything, so long as it is rooted in the concept of "rebellion." Their music wasn't about the standard fare . . . cars, women, drugs, (well, maybe drugs, I dunno). But it seems to be more about internal pain. I know Cobain was a big Bowie fan, covering Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," I think he got cues from Bowie to take rock music in a darker, more introspective direction. But, unlike Bowie, he made that angst the meat and potatoes of his sound. But it worked because it was just a new way of being rebellious, and that's what rock is all about. The lesson I learned from Nirvana? Be a rebel, in your own way, whatever that means.

One more thing I learned from Nirvana: the pen is mightier than the axe. While the heavy metal people were shredding away, Nirvana created music that was equally powerful if not more so because the lyrics were razor-sharp.

Jack White:

While I haven't actually listened to a lot of his work, what I've heard commands my respect because he did what I thought was impossible: he reinvented the blues. He made the blues sound contemporary all over again by giving it a new, punk attack. It's like punk blues. What I love, love, love about this is that his style of rock sounds current without sacrificing its core ingredients. Most artists, including my beloved David Bowie, modernized rock by stripping it of its traditional influences, (e.g. country and blues). But Jack White has a self-proclaimed love for Americana and roots music (I'm assuming that's why he lives in rural Tennessee). He's updated rock by updating its key ingredients, not tossing them out and replacing them with something foreign like jazz, pop, or electronica. His music gives me hope that rock music can stay vibrant into the future without losing touch with its roots. That's another way of saying that rock music as I know and love it and hope to play it, (warmed up by country and made soulful by the blues), will be relevant and a career playing in that mode is possible. That's pretty huge for me, so thanks Jack.

What about you, Joe? Who do you like?


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