Artist: The Smiths
Released: February 20th, 1984
Highlights: Reel Around the Fountain, Pretty Girls Make Graves, This Charming Man, Suffer Little Children
While R.E.M. was fueling alternative rock in America, The Smiths were doing the same on their British playground. Their self-titled debut marks the beginning of a four-year four-album journey that would rightly put the group on the rock pantheon. Their magic is mostly supported by Johnny Marr’s jangly Rickenbacker. Instead of giving the songs rhythmic muscle, hence influencing the melodies, his guitar work – like a full-fledged electric orchestra – paints a musical landscape on which his bandmates can operate. Morrissey is given freedom to come up with wide and irregular melodies that transmit emotion effectively, while Rourke and Joyce – true to the post-punk tradition inaugurated by Joy Division – create a rhythmic section that fills in the gaps as a very prominent melodic bass dances around and keeps up with Morrisey’s vocals.
It is a thing of beauty, and here it is used to touch upon various themes: homosexuality on “Reel Around the Fountain”, “Hand in Glove” and “This Charming Man”, the strength of fatherly love on “The Hand the Rocks the Cradle”, the broken relationship of “Still Ill”, the ambiguous celibacy on “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, and the heart-breaking retelling of the real-life abduction, abuse, and assassination of five children on the album’s closer “Suffer Little Children”. While some songs hint, with dashes of pop, at the aggressive punk that preceded the band, a great part of the album points towards new sonic directions when the guitar-playing focuses on constant and complex chiming sounds. Right out of the gate, the group is able to display their unique quality, as Morrissey showcases the full power of his baritone and Marr technically mesmerizes on his quiet virtuosity.
Released: November 3rd, 1998
Highlights: Acquiesce, Listen Up, Rockin’ Chair, The Masterplan
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. Under the light of Oasis’ “The Masterplan” – a collection of B-sides from the band’s three initial records – that saying inevitably comes to mind. It features a group of fourteen very strong tunes, including a live The Beatles cover (“I am the Walrus”) and the full version of an instrumental that had partially shown up on the “Morning Glory” album (“The Swamp Song”). In fact, most of the numbers are so amazing it is impossible not to wonder why Noel Gallagher decided against including them on the albums, as those songs would have made the near-perfect “Definitely Maybe” and “Morning Glory” even better. Due to the lengthy period of the group’s career that it covers, “The Masterplan” is extremely varied, finely striking numerous elements that display the ways through which the group can impress.
“Acquiesce” has a soaring chorus and vocals that switch between Liam and Noel; “Talk Tonight”, “Going Nowhere” and “Half the World Away” are simple acoustic ballads where Noel takes center stage, and “The Masterplan” features the orchestral grandeur that was everywhere on “Be Here Now”. On the more aggressive side, “Headshrinker” is as loud of a song as the group has ever performed, while “Listen Up” and “Stay Young” – both with prominent and traditional, by Oasis’ standards, wall of sound production – and the masterpiece that is “Rockin’ Chair” are easily among Noel’s greatest compositions. Even faced with the flooring quality of their first two albums, it would be no exaggeration to claim that “The Masterplan” is the band’s greatest collection of original material. Going to show that either Noel had no clue whatsoever how brilliant all these songs were, or that he was on such a creative roll that some gems simply had to be left behind.
Artist: Black Sabbath
Released: June 10th, 2013
Highlights: God is Dead?, Age of Reason, Dear Father
After their first six classic records, Black Sabbath had been awfully irregular both in terms of lineup and music. “13”, coming nearly two decades after their latest album, is the creative offspring of the reunion of Iommi, the man whose guitar sound invented heavy metal; Butler, the dark genius of the ominous bass and the twisted lyrics; and Ozzy, the voice that added a sinister layer over the group’s early sluggish sound. Following a lengthy hiatus, the work could have been lazily labeled as an attempt at squeezing cash out of an incredible legacy. However, “13” throws all of those labels out the window as soon as the first guitar blows of Iommi announce “End of the Beginning”, the album’s opener and a song that features clear links to “Black Sabbath”, the first song of their debut album. The album is marked by long slow-paced tracks that are as dark and heavy as anything the band has ever done, and the structure of the songs reach for the complexity found on “Sabotage”.
Threatening riffs turn into grand solos, and the band usually delivers a couple of verses and choruses around each song’s main riff before venturing into fast-paced metal attacks. That general mold is broken up by “Loner”, a short and aggressive track with guitar lines that would perfectly fit on early Metallica tunes, and “Zeitgeist” a moody experimental number that inevitably brings up memories of “Planet Caravan”. Even if it occasionally suffers from a suffocatingly loud compression and a couple of songs that are a little bit too similar to their first classics, “13” could not have been any stronger. With eight stellar tracks, not to mention the four great tunes that were left out of the record, it comfortably finds a seat among the band’s greatest records and shows that the band’s long absence only served to increase its creative fire. They sound like a band with a lot to prove, and they show that they still got it.
Artist: Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Released: May 14th, 1969
Highlights: Cinnamon Girl, Down By the River, Cowgirl in the Sand
“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” is pretty much the perfect title for Neil Young’s second record. After a debut that revealed a promising songwriter who was still developing his craft, and lacked full confidence in his singing and arrangements, the sentence shows that Young acknowledges the path of rock stardom does not lead to where he wants to go. The song that lends its name to the album is a road-weary tune that urges for the tranquility of home instead of the wild schedules of a star, and it is perhaps the realization that he wants peace and quiet – the coming to terms with his own wishes – that allowed the production of such a strong and mature album. Even if his singing is still not stellar, and even if the production is still too thin, it is a record that delivers masterfully on the most important component of musicianship: songwriting.
“Cinnamon Girl” kicks things off with a majestic riff that announces the arrival of new rock-infused Neil Young. His rockier country-flavored side becomes prominent on “The Losing End” and the two lengthy album centerpieces “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”, whose lyrics are delivered in incredible hooky melodies punctuated by massive jams and solos that extend both songs over the nine-minute mark. At the same time, he showcases folk aspirations (perhaps inspired by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell) on “Round and Round”, a deep reflection on the harms of isolation; and “Running Dry”, where accompanied by a haunting fiddle a lonely character regrets his selfish actions. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” manages to be incredibly varied inside the simplicity of its delivery, and it is a record whose value grows with each listen. It is not Young’s ultimate masterpiece, but it is a telling blueprint of what he would achieve down the line.