Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Released: February 2nd, 1996
Highlights: Henry Lee, Where the Wild Roses Grow, The Curse of Millhaven, O’Malley’s Bar
Nick Cave is the poet of the dammed. A gifted observer of the psychology of the disturbed. After more than ten years writing about individuals inflicted with pathologic obsessions, “Murder Ballads” represents a disturbingly fitting peak for his maniacal lyrics. Concluding either ironically or hopefully with Bob Dylan’s “Death is Not the End”, the only song where a murder does not occur, the record has a shocking body count. Sixty-five deaths occur through the record’s ten songs. There are murders for rightful revenge (“Crow Jane”), the implied familicide of “Song of Joy”, the mad serial-killer of the “The Curse of Millhaven”, the brutal slaughter of “O’Malley’s Bar”, and the innocence of the murder victims of “Where the Wild Roses Grow” and “The Kindness of Strangers”.
“Murder Ballads” is varied in the kinds of deaths it depicts and in the characters it portrays, and Nick Cave’s ability to switch from leaving things to be read in-between the lines and being brutally obvious turns the songs into a psychological ride that is both intriguing and disturbing. The songs’ instrumentation also conveys a whole lot about the inconstant and unpredictable behavior of its characters. “Henry Lee” and “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, with the beauty of their piano-driven melodies, make death seem like a blissful passage; “The Curse of Millhaven” has a progression that could be easily reused for a joyful sing-a-long pub song; “Lovely Creature” overlaps the innocence of the “la-la-la-la-la” backing vocals with looming echoes of danger; and other songs thrive on the brutality of the Bad Seeds’ signature dirty and dangerous sound. It is an achievement; a record that says more about the mind of murderers than many books on the subject do. And, as awful as this confession might sound, it is awesome.
Artist: The Byrds
Released: August 30th, 1968
Highlights: You Ain’t Going Nowhere, You Don’t Miss Your Water, Hickory Wind, Blue Canadian Rockies
By the time The Byrds sat down to write their sixth record, the band had already exhausted all possibilities their folk rock offered, including a few incursions into psychedelia. Initially planned to be a trip through the history of traditional American music, the record – influenced by the group’s newest member, Gram Parsons – immersed itself in country music. The result is a collection of gorgeous covers and original tracks that gain a lot from the two main staples of The Byrds’ music: heavenly harmonies and McGuinn’s jangly guitar. It is one of the first marriages between pure country and guitar music, and it is such masterly produced nice fit that it might be the pinnacle of the very genre it founded.
“One Hundred Years from Now”, one of the two originals that inhabit the album, is the closest The Byrds come to sounding like they did on their first five records, but in the other ten tunes the band remains recognizable in spite of the major sonic change. The traditional material is approached with respect, and although slide guitars and banjos – alien elements to the band’s sound – are profusely used, the laid back groove of the band did not have to be greatly altered to extract the best out of these country numbers. That factor leaves the group largely comfortable to take on these new songs, and it produces arrangements that highlight the beauty, the longing, and the loneliness that is present in country music. As the merging point between country and rock, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is a classic for both genres, and the blissful sound achieved here is the inspiring fuel for the countless bands that understood the value country holds for the making of good rock music.
Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Released: July 27th, 1993
Highlights: Today, Rocket, Disarm, Mayonaise
In an era where teenage angst was utterly dominating alternative radio, nobody was doing it louder than Billy Corgan and the Pumpkins. And, at the same time, no one was able to push so much melodrama into absolutely glorious melodic hooks. “Gish” offered hints the Chicago-based band could be a major force on a grunge-ridden world by exploring the same themes only with more sorrowful melodies and louder guitars, but it was “Siamese Dream” that announced the juggernaut had arrived. It is an album whose high running time, occasionally complex song structure, and orchestrated balladry revealed Corgan’s ambitions at a time where simpler songs ruled the market. And it was all so smartly sprinkled with accessibility that the band’s path towards stardom would have been clear to anyone had listened to the record before its release.
Starting with “Cherub Rock”, where Corgan reveals a conflict with his band’s signing with a major label and entering the dirty music industry, the album is quick to reveal that not much had changed musically since “Gish”. The songs are lead by heavy walls of guitar overdubs which are slowly paced by Chamberlin’s awe-inspiring drumming. The constant loud guitars could have caused the songs to dangerously merge into one another, but not only does the album sequencing break the heavy stuff with punctuating ballads – “Today”, “Disarm”, “Spaceboy” – that alleviate the feeling of sameness, but the heavy songs also contain extraordinary amounts of movements and riff changes to keep the whole thing dynamic. “Siamese Dream” is a classic of the early 90s, and an album that – like all of the Pumpkins’ first four records – pulls off the miracle of making the whiny drama of teenagers sound great despite the cheesiness.