Released: February 1st, 1969
Highlights: Ramblin’ Rose, Kick Out the Jams, Motor City is Burning
In the midst of the energetic Detroit garage rock scene, two of its main players – The Stooges and the MC5 – rose to prominence in 1969 when each published their debut albums. The former opted for a studio record, which would end up concealing the raw power they displayed on stage and that was such a relevant component of their greatness. The latter, though, smartly decided to take advantage of the rebellious force of their performances on “Kick Out the Jams”, a fierce fiery document that accurately depicts the wild punk sound coming out of Michigan at the very height of its power. It is not a work that tries to amaze on technical fireworks or tight songwriting; it is fully aware of the band’s greatest prowess and it uses it as its calling card.
Starting with a rousing speech, the band proceeds to burn the venue down with a sequence of four breathtakingly vicious numbers whose speed and delivery would create tidal waves that would bring punk rock to life. “Ramblin’ Rose” has verses sung in a careless falsetto and a rhythm that comes off as louder and more aggressive rock and roll. It is followed by the glorious riff of “Kick Out the Jams”, and the blatantly sexual “Come Together” and “Rocket Reducer”. The second half shows the group’s ability to tackle other palettes, culminating with the blues progression and vaguely political lyrics of “Motor City is Burning”, and “Starship” a psychedelic journey written in conjunction with the poet Sun Ra that describes in haunting feedback and words an outer space trip. “Kick Out the Jams” is an explosion of music that perfectly conveys the powerful force of nature that MC5 was when at their best.
Released: September 26th, 1994
Highlights: What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?, Strange Currencies, Bang and Blame, I Took Your Name
Coming on the heels of a massively successful duo of records – the pastoral “Out of Time” and the acoustic masterpiece of “Automatic for the People”, “Monster” is undoubtedly one of the most unexpected and bold turns any band has ever taken. A band once centered around the low-key emotions of Michael Stipe and the jangle of Peter Buck’s guitar decides to return to their early rocking days and ends up turning up the guitars and distortion to unforeseen lengths for the group. The sound here is overpompous and ridiculously garish, and Stipe wisely covers it with characters that are sexually and psychologically disturbed. “Monster” is like a decadent glam star, it tries to sound glorious and fabulous, but its inner psyche reveals a human being that is dark, obscene, obsessive, selfish and dangerously wild. It is a psychological work of art.
With echoes of the grunge movement, the album opens with the sweeping “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth”, a mockery of an old man who tries to connect with youth in ridiculous ways. From that point on, “Monster” emerges in sexual tension. When it is hopeful, such as in “You” (a creepily obsessive dirge), “Crush With Eyeliner”, “Star 69” or “Tongue” (a cabaret ballad sang from the perspective of a woman), it sparkles the tunes with disturbing eccentricity. When it is desperate, it becomes threatening and aggressive in songs like the musically dirty “I Took Your Name”, the explosive “Bang and Blame” and “Circus Envy”, which is by far the heaviest song on the group’s thirty-year catalog. “Monster” might not be as consistent in its songwriting as the band’s masterpieces. Tunes like “You” and “King of Comedy” overstay their welcome due to their monochromatic delivery. However, not only does it hold a handful of gems, it is also thematically engaging, presenting a number of delightfully dammed characters at the very bottom of human nature: passioned and troubled lust.
Artist: The Velvet Underground
Released: March 1st, 1969
Highlights: Candy Says, What Goes On, Pale Blue Eyes, I’m Set Free
After a debut that integrated avant-garde rock and an array of dark subjects with sensible dashes of pop music, and a second record that threaded the line between noise and music with uncanny brilliancy, the sound of The Velvet Underground’s self-titled third record comes as a shock. Gone are the distorted guitars with weird tuning, the murky production, and the twisted lyrics, and in comes a clean sound explored by calm songs that often wear country and folk influences on their sleeves. Where their two first records were perhaps the less derivative albums of the early rock days – as if they had been written and recorded in a mad isolated bubble – “The Velvet Underground”, without being an inch less incredible than its predecessors, cooks a safer yet beautiful palette that, for the band, was quite a bold move. In spite of its more standard sound, the album manages to maintain a sharp edge.
The band is out to prove they can produce easy-to-listen songs like their financially successful contemporaries, but they cut the tunes in ways that still get away from the norm. In its quietness, the album presents a remarkable variety of songs, most of which could have easily been major hits of the 60s. There are the discretely electric ballads (“Candy Says” and “Pale Blue Eyes”), the groovy and energetic guitar-centric tunes (“What Goes On” and “Beginning to See the Light”), and the astonishing crescendo of “I’m Set Free”. Despite the relative simplicity of most compositions, all of them have creative structures. And that inventiveness culminates on “The Murder Mystery”: a nine-minute piece backed up by a haunting organ and featuring – on the choruses and verses – dueling simultaneous vocals that make the lyrics one unintelligible riddle. That contrast between straightforward songs and a lengthy anthem to weirdness makes the record’s title incredibly appropriate, for it manages to perfectly define the band during its course: a group that could have spun numerous hits like so many other bands, but one that preferred to push the boundaries of early rock music instead.