(…and now one of those year-ending top-ten lists from guest contributor Mike Segretto of Psychobabble…)
I may purport myself to be some sort of authority on classic Rock & Roll, psych, pop, and punk records, but in reality, there are lots and lots and lots of them I’ve never heard. Nevertheless, I’m happy to say that I’m still discovering great old albums that are new to me, whether I’ve long heard about them but have yet to give them a spin or I’d never even been aware of their existences. Here are the ten finest retro-rock records that were new to me in 2010, presented in glorious chronological order…
1. We Are Ever So Clean by Blossom Toes (1967)
Having long read about We Are Ever So Clean, a real cult favorite of British psychedelia, I was a bit disappointed on first listen. “When the Alarm Clock Rings”, which concludes Rhino’s Nuggets II box set, was all I knew from Blossom Toes prior to hearing their only LP, so I was a bit taken off guard by how thoroughly daffy, and often cacophonous, it is. I’m glad I gave the record a number of additional spins. Now it sounds perfectly conceived, and that includes the more insane tracks, such as the borderline grating “The Remarkable Saga of the Frozen Dog” and “Look at Me I’m You”, which sounds like William Burroughs diced up the master tapes of Revolver, and reassembled them willy nilly. Still, the album’s best songs are its most straightforward. There’s the rousing “When the Alarm Clock Rings”, “I’ll Be Late For Tea”, a marvelous Kinks pastiche that fuses that band’s early heaviness with their mid-‘60s pastoralism, the groovy “Telegram Tuesday”, “What’s It For”, with its chugging cellos, and the Move-esque “I Will Bring You This and That”. Definitely the psychedelic find of the year.
2. Pandemonium Shadow Show by Harry Nilsson (1967)
I probably wouldn’t have given Harry Nilsson his fair shake if my friend and occasional collaborator Jeffrey Dinsmore hadn’t insisted I do so. I like “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Coconut” (more because it was used to great effect at the end of Reservoir Dogs than anything else) well enough, but “Daddy’s Song” and “Cuddly Toy” are not among my favorite Monkees songs and “Without You” makes me barf. Because Jeffrey was a former Nilsson skeptic, himself, I agreed to check out Pandemonium Shadow Show. This is a terrific vaudeville record, much closer in spirit to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band than a lot of records to which The Beatles’ album are often compared. Really, the predominant sound of Pepper’s is not psychedelia but old-timey music hall, so Pandemonium Shadow Show sounds much more Peppery than, say, Their Satanic Majesties Request. And not only did the Fabs inspire Nilsson, but he pays direct tribute to them when he covers “She’s Leaving Home” and cheekily mangles a variety of their songs in the hilarious mishmash “You Can’t Do That”. “River Deep, Mountain High” has been covered by too many people who aren’t Tina Turner, Nilsson’s version of “Cuddly Toy” is just marginally better than The Monkees’, and “Ten Little Indians” was neither a good song in the hands of its creator or The Yardbirds, who recorded the most famous rendition during their Jimmy Page period. The rest of the album is phenomenal though. “Sleep Late, My Lady Friend” is the lullaby Bacharach and David always wanted to write. Gil Garfield and Perry Botkin’s show-tuney “There Will Never Be” is an instant standard. Sparsely arranged with cello, bass, and flute, “Without Her” is a haunting melding of baroque and jazz balladry. The masterpiece of this collection is “1941”, an elegiac lament about Nilsson’s abandonment by his father (a recurring theme in his work that did not prevent him from pulling the same shit on his own first born). The album’s ultimate endorsement is that it won Nilsson a quartet of Liverpudlian super-fans, three of whom personally called him to tell him how much they loved his latest record.
3. The Natch’l Blues by Taj Mahal (1968)
Taj Mahal’s invigoratingly sloppy performance of “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” is my favorite non-Who, non-Stones moment in “The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus”. That track, which takes The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” and dunks it in six-feet of Mississippi mud, concludes but is not really representative of The Natch’l Blues, which is more rustic blues than Stax Soul. I mean, duh, “blues” is in the album title and all. Taj’s blues is nitty gritty, stripped down to dobro, bass, drums, barrelhouse piano, and the man’s gravel voice, yet as fresh as daybreak. That is pretty unusual for 1968, a year that started with Dylan spouting garbled apocalyptic biblical prophecies on the similarly acoustic John Wesley Harding and ended with The Stones claiming the world for Satan on their own down-home Beggars Banquet. Much truer to the original intent of the blues, Taj Mahal uses it to get outside his blues, and “Good Morning Miss Brown”, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Steal My Jellyroll”, the epic “Done Change My Way of Living”, and the standard “Corrina” are as uplifting as they are genuine.
4. Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde by The Byrds (1969)
The Byrds’ post-Sweetheart of the Rodeo material gets a bum rap, and in all truth, it isn’t the most essential stuff in the universe. But a Byrds fan such as myself has no excuse for avoiding it for as long as I did, and there are still great songs on later day records, such as The Ballad of Easy Rider and (Untitled). In my opinion, the most consistent of these is the LP that immediately followed Sweetheart. Its title underscores the schizophrenia that would plague The Byrds for the rest of their career. Were they still purveyors of jangly psych and folk-rock or had Sweetheart of the Rodeo forever recreated them as a rustic bluegrass combo? As jarring as that dual nature makes Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, the songs are very good for the most part. The two numbers McGuinn wrote for the Candy soundtrack are as dated and disposable as that movie, but “Old Blue”, “Your Gentle Way of Loving Me”, and the shit-kickin’ satire “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” are country tracks worthy of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. “King Apathy II” and “Bad Night at the Whiskey” are good rockers, and “This Wheel’s On Fire” is a Dylan cover that gets the job done even if it isn’t nearly up to the standard of “My Back Pages” or “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde is second rate Byrds, but I’d still rather listen to it than Turn! Turn! Turn!.
5. Four Sail by Love (1969)
Like The Byrds, Love is a band that released a string of albums rightfully regarded as classics, underwent major line-up changes, and never fully lived up to their earlier promise again. That doesn’t mean they became bad, though. Four Sail may not be a masterpiece on the level of Love’s first three masterpieces, but it’s still a pretty great record. Love’s fourth album generally gets written off as an unimaginative foray into hard rock, but the album is a lot more varied and creative than that. There is a winding, elliptical flavor to a lot of these songs, but none are directionless. “August” is a fabulous opener with astounding rhythm guitar work. “Robert Montgomery” is another fuzzy rocker that follows a mercurial path. “Your Friend and Mine—Neil’s Song” could pass for the Lovin’ Spoonful and “I’m With You” sounds like electrified Forever Changes. “Always See Your Face” doesn’t boast the poeticism of “You Make the Scene”, but it’s still an anthemic finale. Really, there isn’t a subpar song in the bunch. Four Sail is not the first Love album you should check out, but it should definitely be the fourth, even if you’re as late in hearing it as I was.
6. Richard Twice by Richard Twice (1969)
I first read about Richard Twice in a miniscule blurb in Mojo magazine a couple of years ago. The only valuable information I gleaned from the piece is that Richard Twice is a duo consisting of two cats named Richard and that their sole LP record might be something I’d want to check out. I finally did this year, and Richard Twice is an excellent light psychedelic folk album with (as a bit more research revealed) backing from members of The Kingsmen, Simon & Garfunkel’s band, Poco, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. The Richards harmonize in a pleasingly shrill manner reminiscent of The Smoke or The Searchers. Their songs zip all over popville, taking off with a rolling groove (“Generation ‘70”), zooming on with a vaguely Latin, vaguely Donald Fagen-esque electric piano jaunt (“My Love Bathes in Silence”), resting long enough to pinch the horn line from “God Only Knows” while paying tribute to The Left Banke (“1:25 A.M.), approaching Nick Drake’s grim folk but stopping short of his doomy lyricism (“God Give Me Strength”), soaring into chunky brass territory (“What Makes Me Love You Like I Do”), moving upward and onward. Richard Twice is a minor baroque masterpiece, as mysterious as the guys who made it.
7. The Marble Index Nico (1969)
Of all the albums on this list, the one I’m most reluctant to recommend is Nico’s The Marble Index, yet with the exception of the next album on this list, it’s the one I’ve listened to most. Those who love Nico’s pretty, baroque-folk debut Chelsea Girl will be shocked to hear her eject melody almost completely and sink into a Gothic, horror-scape of wheezing harmonium (the instrument on which she composed the album’s seven vocal tracks) and a clattering rogue’s gallery of classical and rock instruments all overdubbed by producer and former Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale. Listening to this album is a harrowing experience. When people usually use that phrase to describe music, they’re indulging in hyperbole and cliché, but it truly applies to The Marble Index. Listening to it all the way through makes me physically anxious, like I’ve been given a heavy dose of nasty medicine. Apparently the album’s nominal producer (Cale is only credited as arranger) decided to snip a couple of songs off the record because he figured listeners would start killing themselves if they had to hear to more than a half hour of this stuff. Yet there are some incredibly beautiful things in here too. Nico’s lyrics tend toward medieval despair and Poe-like creepiness, but “Ari’s Song” is a sweet lullaby to her son, albeit one sung over a disorienting backing track pierced with something that sounds like steam escaping from the valves of a pipe organ. The strings and vocal “No One Is There” has a stately grace, and Nico’s multi-tracked wails toward the end of the track are exquisite. “Julius Caesar (Memento Hodie)” enchants with its woozy duet of viola and harmonium. “Frozen Warnings”, the artist’s personal favorite of her own songs, is as icy as its title suggests, yet also ethereal, haunting. But “Lawns of Dawns”, “Facing the Wind”, and especially, “Evening of Light” are flat-out terrifying. Listen to it on the most overcast day in the most forebodingly empty landscape. You’ll crap your pants.
8. Fear by John Cale (1974)
By far my greatest discovery of the year is that John Cale made some of the most incredibly crafted and daring singer-songwriter records of the ‘70s. His most polished of these, Paris 1919, and the one on which he really started folding his avant garde past back into his contemporary work, Slow Dazzle, could easily have found places on this list, but I wanted to limit each artist to a single disc. It took me a fraction of an instant to settle on Fear, which as I indicated above, is the record I’ve spun more than any other in 2010. It commences with “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”, which starts off as a piano-based pop song before climaxing with frenzied bass noise and paranoid primal shrieks. It’s exhilarating, scary, and a sharp contrast to the deliberate, choral beauty of “Buffalo Ballet”, which follows. A reggae rhythm lays the groundwork of “Barracuda”, but Cale provides the hooks with his mumbled melody, circusy organ fills, and screechy viola solo. “Emily” is an expansive, gorgeous ballad, and —like “Buffalo Ballet”, “Barracuda”, and the soulful “You Know More Than I Know”— makes very tasteful use of gospel backing singers (a real rarity in the mid-‘70s!). The sparkling arrangement of “Ships of Fools” conceals a creepily Gothic lyric. The stomping “Gun” is an epic, sweaty-palmed tale of a criminal on the run. The sweet sounding but satirical “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” reveals Cale’s love of Brian Wilson (who he pays more explicit tribute to on “Mr. Wilson” from Slow Dazzle). Lou Reed got all the press with his solo career, but I’ve never heard him do anything as accomplished or as eclectic as Fear post-Velvets.
9. Some People are on the Pitch They Think It’s All Over It Is Now by The Dentists (1985)
The Dentist’s dreamy “Strawberries are Growing in My Garden (And It’s Wintertime)” was one of my favorite discoveries on Rhino’s 2005 Children of Nuggets. Really, nearly any track on their first long player would have been almost as worthy of inclusion on that box set of neo-psychedelia and garage rock, from the barn burners ( “Tony Bastable v. John Noakes”, “I Had an Excellent Dream”, and “Back to the Grave”) to the lovely ballads (“Mary Won’t You Come Out and Play”, “Kinder Still”) to the moody, churning pop numbers that fall between (“Flowers Around Me”, “I’m Not the Devil”, “You Make Me Say It Somehow”). Some People are on the Pitch They Think It’s All Over It Is Now is a nonstop knockout of jangly guitars, more flavored by The Byrds and Beau Brummels circa ’66 than the psychier ’67-sounds of the “Strawberries are Growing…” single. Yet it also clearly sounds like a product of the ‘80s paisley underground scene that spawned similar groups such as The Three O’Clock and The Long Ryders, even though the South East England-based Dentists were a long way from the LA-based paisley groups. And unlike a lot of the paisleys, The Dentists are not betrayed by anachronistically slick production. Some People are on the Pitch They Think It’s All Over It Is Now really sounds as though it could have been recorded two decades earlier than its release with its organically flat drum sounds and biting, twelve-string guitars.
10. Pleased to Meet Me by The Replacements (1987)
Pleased to Meet Me is the album I was most embarrassed to include on this list because I should have already been listening to it for 23 years. There wasn’t much else happening in ’87 that was this raw, this alive, even though the record does suffer a bit from antiseptic ‘80s production. The Replacements fight against that slickness like rabid pit bulls on the opening cut, “I.O.U.”, but when they give in on “Alex Chilton”, they manage a genuine ‘80s power-pop classic worthy of its namesake rather than the embarrassing sellout it might have been. The Replacements can’t even be sunk by the brass on “I Don’t Know” because they overpower the grungy sax with their drunkenly garbled backing vocals and herky-jerky rhythms. One might be a bit skeptical of the lounge jazz of “Nightclub Jitters” if it wasn’t so clearly a parody and so clearly a well-conceived little number that contributes to the anything-and-everything vibe of Pleased to Meet Me. The ‘Mats then storm through cranky, R.E.M.-style jangle pop (“The Ledge”), Stonesy Rock & Roll (“Valentine”), sleazy cock rock (“Shooting Dirty Pool”), lovely folk rock (“Skyway”), and yet another ‘80s classic only to be found left of the dial (“Can’t Hardly Wait”) before slumping out the door. My only regret is that I hadn’t met Pleased to Meet Me sooner.