Album: Beggars Banquet
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Released: December 6th, 1968
Highlights: Sympathy for the Devil, No Expectations, Jigsaw Puzzle, Street Fighting Man
When 1968 came around, The Rolling Stones were going through a bit of a personality crisis. Instead of further exploring the blues-inspired songwriting that had emerged on “Out of Our Heads” and “Aftermath”, the band had – with a certain degree of success – ventured into Beatlesque pop with “Between the Buttons” and surfed the psychedelic waves that were sweeping through the world in “Their Satanic Majesties Request”. “Beggars Banquet”, then, was a return to the roots of American music, a realm the band had thrived in ever since their early days of records filled with reinterpretations of remarkable R&B numbers. The year-long hiatus from their favorite universe, though, seemed to serve both to increase the band’s thirst to produce songs based on rhythms from across the pond and also to give them a much higher level of musical maturity, for not only is “Beggars Banquet” utterly masterful, it also marks the beginning of the most mesmerizing five-year music-producing run any band has ever put together.
“Sympathy for the Devil”, the classic opener, might deceive most listeners into thinking “Beggars Banquet” will be yet another highly experimental venture, but under the dancy samba groove summoned by its percussion and piano, sit the foundations of a rock track, which surface when Richards, after Jagger has narrated how the Devil had worked as an active agent in many of mankind’s worst moments, breaks into a bitting blues solo. The album’s flawless first side is complemented by four numbers blatantly based on traditional American styles: “No Expectations” is a painful acoustic blues track where Jagger mourns over lost love; “Dear Doctor” is humorous, and borderline mocking, take on country – including Richards’ signature out-of-key backing vocals – sang by a man who is relieved to have been left at the altar; “Parachute Woman” is finely played blues where Richards’ tasteful guitar and Brian Jones’ omnipresent harmonica shine; and “Jigsaw Puzzle” has Dylanesque lyrics that depict a surreal scenario and an arrangement that follows a crescendo throughout the song, reaching its peak when Richards’ slide guitar comes into play.
Meanwhile, the record’s second side features its two most aggressive tunes, the politically charged “Street Fighting Man” and the politically incorrect “Stray Cat Blues”, in which The Rolling Stones turn their blues influences into a powerful rock sound; and the acoustic trio of “Prodigal Son” – a Biblical blues cover, “Factory Girl” – another country number, albeit one that is approached more seriously than “Dear Doctor”, and “Salt of the Earth” – a gospel ode to the working man that serves as a great album closer and whose style would later be replicated in the often misinterpreted hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
Stylistically, the band had already touched upon every stone they turn in “Beggars Banquet”; country, blues, R&B, folk, and gospel were always close friends to the boys from London, especially of Jagger and Richards. However, up until that point, never had these traditional genres been handled with such magnificence by any of the British youngsters that had been inspired by American music in the early 60s to assemble their own rock bands. With “Beggars Banquet”, The Rolling Stones transformed from a band that paid homage to those icons into one that moved the legacy of those men forward.
Album: American Idiot
Artist: Green Day
Released: September 20th, 2004
Highlights: Jesus of Suburbia, Holiday, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Wake Me Up When September Ends
“American Idiot” is an odd album in rock history. Adjectives such as bold, courageous, and unexpected have been attached to many of the works produced by the world’s most relevant rock groups; however, those qualities often come associated with astronomical stylistic leaps, such as the ones performed by The Beatles between “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”; “The Velvet Underground” between “White Light / White Heat” and their self-titled follow-up”; or Blur between “Leisure” and “Modern Life Is Rubbish”. “American Idiot” is bold, courageous, and unexpected; conversely, it does not exactly feature any groundbreaking musical exploits on the part of Billie Joe Armstrong and his crew. Musically, it is Green Day by the numbers: fast-tempo rock songs with a pop punk edge and catchy melodies, and a few sorrowful introspective ballads thrown in for good measure. The difference-maker here is thematic, and it does make quite a difference.
Green Day had always sung of the worries, concerns, and angsts of average middle-class teenagers and young adults. “American Idiot” takes those themes and gives them a much grander resonance by contextualizing all of those issues inside the most heavily debated topic of the American political scenario of the mid-2000s: the Iraq War. The cohesion brought by that unifying background turns “American Idiot”, the product of a not-so-serious band that had once named one of its albums after a poop joke, into a rock opera that bridges a micro universe, one that is riddled with personal troubles; with the major overarching tragedy of war. The fact that it went on to be the group’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed work should not, then, come as a surprise.
“American Idiot” is not flawless. Throughout the album, the band reaches for a level of songwriting that they had yet to achieve, though they had come quite close to it in both “Dookie” and “Warning”; the melodies are uniformly stellar, and even the nine-minute suites of “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming”, which serve as bookends to the album if one discounts its introductory and closing songs, never wane one tiny bit. Unfortunately, what is intended to be a solid storyline crumbles under the weight of its own ambition as the band is unable to pull all the pieces it sets in place, namely its three characters, together into one clear thread.
Still, despite those storytelling shortcomings, “American Idiot” is a great rock record that broadcasts its message loud and clear, whether it is in the character-related tales of “Jesus of Suburbia”, “St. Jimmy”, “She’s a Rebel”, “Extraordinary Girl”, and “Whatsername”; in the loud political declarations of “American Idiot”, “Holiday”, and “Letterbomb”; or when both worlds come together, such as in the loneliness of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and in the loss depicted in “Wake Me Up When September Ends”. It might not be a thoroughly coherent statement, but it is one that is true and representative of its time; an opportunity that certainly could not have been missed by a genre as relevant as rock.
Album: Death by Sexy
Artist: Eagles of Death Metal
Released: April 11th, 2006
Highlights: I Want You So Hard (Boy’s Bad News), Cherry Cola, Solid Gold, Don’t Speak
Blues, in its original form, was a musical style often drenched in the sadness and longing that was such a close companion to the men who pioneered the genre and developed it. The sexual undertones, usually present in either the suffering or the desire brought on the composers by a remarkable woman, were never really more than that: undertones that played second fiddle to the sorrow that rose from every corner. Rhythmically, the Eagles of Death Metal are followers of that tradition, for both the tempos they use and the riffs they create are reminiscent of kind of song-crafting, but here the passion of the style comes with two twists: sex as its central subject, and a garage rock approach as its driving force.
These two qualities feed off one another, forming a spectacular high-octane combination that fuels the entire record. “Death by Sexy”, much like its predecessor, “Peace, Love, Death Metal”, is blues delivered by a raucous rock band that plays hard, fast, dirty, and loud; and they do it all while letting whoever is listening know that they are having a blast. The focus here is not in the delivery of a thoughtful and well-calculated work; it is in having as much fun as possible during the course of forty minutes. It is the “get in there and blow them away” mentality without the indulgence and superiority complexes; the goal is to merge into the crowd and celebrate alongside them.
That party atmosphere turns out to be the perfect environment for the group’s straightforward, yet impressively smart, lyrical content. “Peace, Love, Death Metal” turned humor into its motto; “Death by Sexy” is not devoid of funny moments, but – as its title implies – the sex that once took a backseat to sorrow in the blues decides to drive the car this time around, and it does so with flair. Sometimes it shows up blatantly, as it is the case in “I Want You So Hard (Boy’s Bad News)”, “I Gotta Feeling (Just Nineteen)”, and “Don’t Speak (I Came to Make a Bang!)”; but Jesse Hughes is a resourceful man, and he opts to – every once in a while – approach the matter with fun imagery, such as in “Cherry Cola” and “The Ballad of Queen Bee and Baby Duck”.
Sonically, “Death by Sexy” is a continuation of “Peace, Love, Death Metal”, as the group works within the same musical confines in which they built their debut. However, “Death by Sexy” is a monumental step forward in terms of songwriting, as it travels through the whole rhythmical palette of the genre – starting from mindlessly fast-paced, going through mid-tempo tension peaks, and touching upon slow and weary arrangements – while always delivering catchy and easy melodies, and unavoidable hooks. There are not any throwaway moments or uninspired tracks, and, even if there were, one would hardly notice them, for they would be too inebriated due to the heavy partying undertaken alongside the Eagles of Death Metal.
Album: Generation Terrorists
Artist: Manic Street Preachers
Released: February 10th, 1992
Highlights: Slash ‘n’ Burn, Nat West–Barclays–Midlands–Lloyds, Motorcycle Emptiness, Little Baby Nothing
With only a couple of singles and a four-track EP under its belt, the Manic Street Preachers publicly claimed that their forthcoming debut would be the greatest rock album ever made. Any band that dares to make such a statement is either setting up itself for major disappointment or asking to be mocked, or both, simultaneously. Upon sitting down with “Generation Terrorists”, the promised holy grail of rock, music fans will probably not agree with the band’s view that this work marks the peak of the beloved genre; however, listeners will not find much material for mockery or laughter either, as “Generation Terrorists” is big, ambitious, cohesive, and – most importantly – good enough to make it plausible, and maybe even probable, that its architects did indeed believe it would be an earth-shattering masterpiece.
“Generation Terrorists” is not the work of a fully matured group: the songs are monochromatic, the production is a bit too messy and unfocused for its own good, and the group mars overwhelming greatness with touches of mediocrity that exist in some tracks. However, there is no way to escape or deny its greatness: this is an eighteen-track seventy-three-minute record where the levels of energy and aggressiveness are almost always deafeningly high. James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore create music that is big and loud, a sort of vicious glam rock that borrows inspiration for its riffs from hard rock and heavy metal; while Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire write lyrics that match the tunes’ instrumental intensity, and put together melodies that are combative enough to belong in a riot but that shift the gear to melodic and easy-to-grasp when it is necessary.
As it turn out, that blend of destruction and catchiness is the key to the album’s success. “Generation Terrorists” is more political than any album ever put out by The Clash, as every single one of its songs brings matters of public utility to the forefront even if their primary subject is not a major social issue – a very rare occurrence. Given the incendiary and disjointed nature of most of the lyrics, which purposely mostly throw disjointed and fiery comments and ideas around without trying to build any sort of well-designed argument, such occasional melodic lightness is necessary to both make the message stick and alleviate the heavy tension.
In a way, that skill is omnipresent in the record, usually emerging punctually when the songs’ choruses or major hooks come around, offering a haven in the midst of a thunderstorm; however, fully melodic tracks like “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “Little Baby Nothing” display the group’s ability to tread into pop rock without abandoning their blatant political vein, as the former attacks the shallowness of consumerism and the latter exposes the tale of a woman that has been abused by other men throughout her life. “Generation Terrorists” is by no means flawless, as it lacks the stylistic flexibility that albums of such length usually demand and due to the fact that a couple of its tracks are dull. Still, it is an impressive rage-filled work that echoes the fears and worries of a generation that does not feel represented by the powers that be and that sees in its need to scream against the corruption and issues of the world the only path towards the opportunity to be heard, noticed, and understood.