Album: Vices & Virtues
Artist: Panic! at the Disco
Released: March 18th, 2011
Highlights: Let’s Kill Tonight, Memories, Always, Sarah Smiles
Ever since their debut, Panic! at the Disco had always showed strong tendencies for the overly theatrical and dramatic. With “Vices & Virtues”, those hints materialized into a full-blown cabaret spectacle. In a way, the ten songs contained here carry many of the characteristics of the turn-of-the-century pop punk from which the group emerged: the emotional angst, the spilling of once subdued anger, and the plodding verses that serve as a trampoline for sweeping choruses soaked in immediate melodies. However, “Vices & Virtues” presents that formula dressed up in wit, glamor, and bright lights. It is a clash of the group’s blatant pop vein and glam mannerisms.
With that mixture as a guiding light, the band moves through a set of tunes that presents an uncanny variety. Most of them, truthfully, are standard pop rock works smartly disguised through clever instrumentation and electronic trickery; “The Ballad of Mona Lisa”, for example, breaks away from its catchy structure and gravitates towards an echoing bridge with layers of effects. Meanwhile, “Hurricane” uses that same strategy on its verses to produce a borderline hip-hop groove before exploding onto a segment that transits between anthemic and dancing; “Calendar” is taken to grandeur thanks to its hypnotizing synthesizers; and both “Memories” and “Trade Mistakes” are great meetings between guitars, electronic elements, and impeccably moving melodies.
Simultaneously, though, the remaining duo of Urie and Smith also undertake intriguing journeys onto different musical landscapes, something that had already been hinted at in the group’s previous record, “Pretty. Odd.”. “Sarah Smiles” has touches of music hall that come through in a vaudevillian verse that is followed by a pure pop rock chorus; “Always” is an acoustic and beautiful ballad that could be qualified as folk if not for its numerous complementing sounds and synthesized strings; “Ready to Go” has a remarkable pulsating progression that reaches an energetic apex on its chorus, which would be right at home if played during a nighttime party; and “Let’s Kill Tonight” is the dark and feel-good Gothic tune its title implies.
“Nearly Witches” deservedly wraps up the package for it encompasses the quirkiness and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production that is present throughout the album, as it features a choir of children singing in French, a horde of sound effects, and – of course – a chorus that is positively irresistible. The wild trip of “Vices & Virtues”, then, concludes as its great musical flexibility is eventually pulled together into a cohesive work by the two constants on which it often relies: its absurdly garish spirit, and the obsessions – either pure or twisted – that invariably appear on its lyrics.
Alum: Electric Warrior
Artist: T. Rex
Released: September 24th, 1971
Highlights: Cosmic Dancer, Jeepster, Get It On, Life’s a Gas
Formally, “Electric Warrior” is the sixth record by the entity known as T. Rex, which started its career path under the lengthy name Tyrannosaurus Rex. However, by all means and effects, it feels like a debut, for it catches the group just out of one of the greatest and most mesmerizing transformations in rock history. Previously a folk duo that performed short acoustic songs focused on a wide assortment of medieval-fantasy themes, “Electric Warrior” sees T. Rex emerge as the most rock-infused act of British Glam music.
Once a hippie that sang tunes about dwarfs, knights, castles, prophets, and mages and that occasionally resorted to gibberish to fill out melodies, Marc Bolan appears as a sexual open-shirted guitar-wielding demi-god of rock. The change of image and sound was coupled with a considerable growth in songwriting. Where the group’s former works just hinted at fully developed hooks, “Electric Warrior” has them in droves, and Marc Bolan pulls all of them off by drinking on a source where rock and roll at its purest form lies. “Jeepster” and “Lean Woman Blues” are drenched in blues, and while the former pounds forward with the swing of a rockabilly number the latter features a 12-bar progression accompanied by Bolan’s lyrics about the sudden mood changes of a lover. Meanwhile, “Bang a Gong” and “Mambo Sun”, like much of the record, are mid-tempo rockers that, respectively, culminate on an energetic chorus and lock into an irresistible dirty groove that is thoroughly explored in all of its nuances via guitar solos and sexy vocals.
Although “Electric Warrior” is majorly comprised of rock music that sounds mean, looks glamorous, is recklessly recorded, and never takes itself seriously enough to give its detractors the opportunity to mock it, it also features some nods to the band’s hippie folk past. It is doubtful, for example, “Cosmic Dancer” – a literal and humorous tale about a man who danced through life – would sound this majestic with its acoustic guitars and orchestration if it had been performed by a standard rock group that hadn’t been in touch with mystical themes before. The same applies to the borderline gospel of “Monolith”, which features a constant choir and uses some vocabulary of medieval nature; the psychedelia of “Planet Queen”; and the folk of “Girl”, the record’s closest link to the band’s previous albums.
In the end, despite those pleasant detours that show up along the way, “Electric Warrior” is ultimately about loudly and wildly played rock. Although the production does strip the band of a portion of its on-stage energy, the music here is invariably exciting. In “Life’s Gas”, Bolan perhaps gives the final statement on why “Electric Warrior” is so great; he sings “I could have loved you, Girl, like a planet / I could have chained your heart to a star / But it really doesn’t matter at all / No it really doesn’t matter at all / Life’s a gas”. T. Rex performs as if nothing in the world was truly important, but the vigor and emotion in their tunes make their subjects of choice seem terribly relevant to the singer. It is in the midst of this urgency disguised as tongue-in-cheek rock glamor that greatness rises.
Album: The Colour and the Shape
Artist: Foo Fighters
Released: March 20th, 1997
Highlights: Monkey Wrench, My Hero, Everlong, Walking After You
Historically, drummers rarely double as songwriters. Therefore, it came as quite a surprise when the drummer of Nirvana, Dave Grohl, materialized as one of the brightest sparks of rock music that appeared during the period following the sad ending of his former group. “Foo Fighters” was a great and refreshing hard rock effort; however, it showed plenty of limitations within its solid songwriting due to the fact it was all the work of a single musician that was still coming around to the position of leadership in a major act. A second record, then, this time backed up by a full-fledged band, was a prime opportunity for musical growth and maturity; unquestionably, “The Colour and the Shape” delivered precisely that.
In this case, it all starts and ends with the lyrics. Where “Foo Fighters” was an almost indecipherable work by a man still grasping for confidence in his voice and in his words, “The Colour and the Shape” is nearly blatant: its songs are themed around Grohl’s separation from his then wife and the darkness that followed. The content here, consequently, is far stronger and it positively affects both Grohl’s singing, which is far more emotional and asserted, and the power carried by the songs. Moreover, the ups and downs of a relationship – the tenderness and anger that constantly alternate in such a delicate environment – are the perfect trampoline for the Foo Fighters’ affection for quiet-and-loud dynamics and Dave’s tendency to scream out his lyrics.
Everything that is great about “The Colour and the Shape”, that raw emotion and the pop undertones of its heavy brand of rock, is exposed within its first four minutes. “Doll” is a quick and sweet ballad, and it opens the way for “Monkey Wrench”, where a shouted pre-chorus and a contagious simple chorus appear before a bridge in which Dave spills his anger fiercely while shouting vicious breakup words like a madman. And that is the nature of the album: the constant shifting between peace and war; calm and fury; love and resentment; self-control and emotional violence. Most of the songs switch between those gears in a flash and burst into explosive segments that match those Black Francis would compose for a Pixies song.
Smartly, as a way to find closure before the ending, though, “The Color and the Shape” – following eight songs that, with the exception of “See You”, navigate through those troubled waters – closes the deal with four gorgeous ballads that hint at a calm after the storm. The uniformly beautiful quartet, which includes “Everlong”, the band’s greatest song, tracks a painful process of healing that starts with the hitting of the bottom of the well in “February Stars”; the birth of a new sudden and unsure love in “Everlong”; the eventual retread into old feelings in “Walking After You”; and the eventual liberation in “New Way Home”. It rounds up a spectacular work powered by the energy of a newly formed band that was clicking into place while firing on all cylinders.
Album: The Who Sell Out
Artist: The Who
Released: December 15th, 1967
Highlights: Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand, I Can See For Miles, Can’t Reach You, Sunrise
“My Generation” introduced to the world Pete Townshend’s songwriting talent and The Who’s ability to play loudly vicious rock music. “A Quick One”, particularly its closing nine-minute attempt at a mini rock opera, hinted that a great deal of thematic ambition hid behind the group’s pop rock sensibilities. “The Who Sell Out”, the group’s third record, is the joining of both of those worlds; it combines the compositional prowess of the debut – albeit in a more refined and adventurous state, with the wish to produce a set of songs that comes together into a uniform package of images and ideas that was present in the sophomore effort. The result is simple: one of the greatest albums of the 60s .
From its opening thirty-second snippet that leads the way into the aggressive and purposely oddly mixed “Armenia City in the Sky”, whose progression is punctuated by out-of-place background noises that rise and vanish, “The Who Sell Out” nods at its goal: to feel like a transmission from a British pirate radio station. The Who supports that concept by filling the intermissions between tracks with either real-life jingles or short musical segments produced by the band itself, which ends up lending the album a uniform levity and lightheartedness that is mostly unparalleled in the rock realm even nearly fifty years after the album’s release.
Delightfully so, the theme contaminates some of the record’s songs themselves. John Entwistle, who would in later works prove to be a very good and funny – yet not very prolific – composer, turns in two original musical commercials in the hilarious “Heinz Baked Beans” and “Medac”, an anti-pimple cream that saves the young Henry, who had a face like “a currant bun”; and also contributes with the whimsical but sinister “Silas Stingy”. Townshend, meanwhile, delivers the full-fledged “Odorono”, about a girl who loses a job opportunity because of an ineffective deodorant brand; “Odorono”, he claims, would have been the right choice. The greatness of “The Who Sell Out”, though, does not lie exclusively in wackiness, humor, and satire, for it is packed with impressive numbers that make up the core of the record.
“Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand” is a catchy folk ballad with psychedelic undertones about a girl who was rather popular with the boys; “Tattoo” has a bit of an operatic multi-phased structure compressed in its three-minute length, and it is filled with remarkable melodic lines; the classic “I Can See For Miles” is noisy, chaotic, energetic, anthemic, and explosive; “Our Love Was”, “I Can’t Reach You”, and “Sunrise” are three of the most heartfelt, simple, and honest love songs Townshend – one of rock’s best composers – has ever written; and both “Relax” and “Rael” also rank highly within the group’s catalog, with the latter being a simple hypnotic number and the latter a mini opera. By packing such a colorful palette inside thirty-eight minutes of music, “The Who Sell Out” is easily one of the standout works of the band’s discography and one of the wildest and most amusing musical journeys available out there.