Released: December 1st, 1976
Highlights: X Offender, In the Flesh, Rip Her to Shreds, Riffle Range
Forged within the same legendary club – CBGB – that would go down as the trampoline for artists like Patti Smith and The Ramones, Blondie naturally internalized much of the punk attitude that ruled over that joint. However, differently from their venue peers, Deborah Harry and the boys had an uncontrollable knack for writing tunes that were dripping with sweet pop melodies. Their self-titled debut, even if it would eventually be topped by “Parallel Lines”, showcases that ability at its purest, roughest, and brightest state.
In their hearts, these eleven songs are undeniably punk. The elements are all here: the trashy guitars, the attitude, and the volume. Deborah Harry delivers her snarky lines with an enormous chip on her shoulder, yet also finds time to be playful and vulnerable. Chris Stein attacks the notes on his guitar with carelessness, while Valentine and Burke cook tempos that support everything from straight rock attacks like “X Offender” and “Rip Her to Shreds” to flirts with other genres, be it ska on “In the Flesh” or calypso on “The Attack of the Giant Ants”.
It is James Destri’s instrumentation, though, that is the key to the album’s success. The band displays unbelievable versatility both in terms of execution and writing, but it is the organs, synthesizers, and pianos added by Destri that allow the record to gravitate around punk while reaching towards unique terrains. Sometimes it is done blatantly, such as on “Look Good in Blue” and “A Shark in Jets Clothing”, which are respectively led by a piano and a synthesizer; but, most of the times, he stays on the background adding smooth encompassing layers to tracks that are thorny in their essence, such as on the borderline bubblegum of “In the Sun”.
The record’s greatest success, though, is the fact that it does not lift its foot from the acceleration pedal at any point. This is a solid thirty-minute barrage of rock songs with a sensible amount of sugarcoating delivered by a band that stood out in an environment where performing with a load of energy was the norm. It is an endless succession of delightful hooks that seem progressively better: it is catchy, fun, witty, and it rocks with uncanny force. Few debuts have been better.
Artist: Queens of the Stone Age
Released: August 27th, 2002
Highlights: No One Knows, A Song for the Dead, Go With the Flow, God is in the Radio
“Songs for the Death” features echoes from “The Who Sell Out”. While the latter nodded to pirate radios, with commercials and public service announcements breaking up the songs; the former uses a car trip through the Mojave Desert as its motif, and illustrates that journey by the constant switching between stations. And it is in these radio waves that the listener tunes into the fifteen stellar songs that compose “Songs for the Death”: Queens of the Stone Age’s masterpiece, and one of the finest rock albums of this yet-young century.
The sound effects that suggest the shifting tuner and the clever sequences of DJ chatter suit the record just fine, because the content here is greatly varied and all of the numbers would certainly not be at home on the very same station. At heart, though, this is definitely a Queens of the Stone Age work, because the genre-spanning music takes place within the confines of the two elements that have come to define the group: the relentless punch of their loud guitars, and the irresistible soft hooks that contrast so beautifully against the backdrop of their vicious hard rock.
The album has brushes with bubblegum pop (“Go With the Flow”, “Gonna Leave You”, “Do It Again”, “Another Love Song”), embraces shouted metal madness (“Millionaire”, “Six Shooter”), tackles the apocalyptic (“The Sky Is Fallin’”), embraces sheer darkness (“ A Song for the Dead”, “A Song for the Deaf”), goes for acoustic grandeur (“Mosquito Song”), settles for hard rock (“No One Knows”, “First It Giveth”), and even finds the time to throw a loose The Kinks cover into the mix (“Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy”).
More than everything, “Songs for the Deaf” is product of Homme’s ambition to constantly join different people – and, consequently, influences – under his band’s umbrella. The fruits of that attitude have never been fresher than they appear to be here, and those effects are both clear in performance (Dave Grohl’s out-of-this-world drumming) and songwriting (the album holds five shared compositions). Although Josh is the group’s head, his vocals lead the way on only half the songs, with Oliveri and Lanegan taking charge on the other tracks. It is on that collaborative environment that “Songs for the Deaf” is born, and it is that atmosphere that makes it such a masterpiece.
Artist: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Released: July 25th, 1970
Highlights: Ramble Tamble, Lookin’ Out My Back Door, Who’ll Stop the Rain, I Heard It Through the Grapevine
When analyzed out of context, numbers can be deceiving. Case in point: “Cosmo’s Factory” is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s fifth record, and as such, a great deal of evolution is expected to be seen when comparing it to their debut. However, even though this is album number five, it came out a meager two years after the band’s starting effort. Such a fact denotes a very impressive level of productivity, but – most importantly – given the startling difference between their self-titled premiere and this work, what is truly astounding here is how much growth the band went through during such a short period of time.
Creedence Clearwater Revival went down in rock history more as a band that strung together an uncanny amount of hits than as a group that produced flawless historic records. The reason for that is simple: their LPs, though mostly great, were generally irregular. “Cosmo’s Factory” is the exception to that norm, and from track one to eleven it is an endless stream of great music that is born in the confluence of rural sounds with the swamps of the South. This is country and blues mixed in a tight package of impossibly catchy rock.
John Fogerty’s abilities as a composer hit their very peak here. He reaches anthemic grounds with the sweeping chorus and rousing riff of “Up Around the Bend”; attacks the Vietnam War on “Run Through the Jungle”, where he is able to musically capture the movement the song’s title indicates; spins the sing-along cozy country of “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” while using fantastic, and possibly hallucionegeny, imagery; and even finds time to write two of his greatest ballads, the powerful “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and the fragile “Long as I Can See the Light”.
The true beauty here, though, is that John was not the only one on top of his game during the making of the record; the band also plays with unprecedented tightness and determination. Nowhere is that clearer than on the album’s two longest songs: the hypnotizing mid section of “Ramble Tamble”, which bumps into progressive rock; and the thrilling fiery jam that takes the classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” over the 11-minute mark without ever being anything but wondrous. “Cosmo’s Factory” captures CCR at the pinnacle of their powers, and it stands as the ultimate proof of their greatness.
Artist: The Doors
Released: January 4th, 1967
Highlights: Break on Through, Light My Fire, Take It as It Comes, The End
While, in 1967, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Pink Floyd would all release works drenched in the psychedelic, one band would beat all of those four giants to the punch by a matter of months. The Doors released their first album in January 1967, and armed with nothing but a singer, a guitarist, a drummer, and an organ player, they would craft one of the trippiest works in rock history.
What truly makes “The Doors” such a remarkable listen is the fact that, somehow, the band is able to sound – simultaneously – experimental and faithful to the roots of rock. Jim Morrison’s voice and the generally slow-paced progression of the songs evoke connections to the passionate bluesmen, and the strength with which the group explodes in some of the choruses could be linked to Led Zeppelin or The Who. Yet, surrounding each of the eleven tracks found here is a fog of mysticism that cannot be shaked; an aural esoterism.
Much of that feeling is intrinsically related to the organ work. While in some occasions it is used to power straight rock numbers such as “Twentieth Century Fox”, “I Looked at You”, and “Take It as It Comes”, it is more frequently employed to spin a web of hallucinations. “The Crystal Ship” conveys a dreamlike state where it is hard to distinct between what is real and what is not, “End of the Night” sounds as eerie as the title implies, and “Alabama Song” exhales the air of a decadent carnival. The instrument is also the core of the extended jams that take “Light My Fire” up to the seven-minute mark and carry “The End” past the eleven-minute pole.
The Doors tread the line between hard rock and psychedelic music with such ease that the mixture comes off as something utterly natural; a recipe that had always been destined to be tried. The result is an album that sounds honest in each of its passing seconds and offers great rewards in multiple listens. It is an effort of great originality and whose magic is awfully hard to replicate; it is the musical definition of capturing lightning in a bottle.