Album: The Suburbs
Artist: Arcade Fire
Released: August 10th, 2010
Highlights: The Suburbs, Ready to Start, Modern Man, City With No Children, Suburban War
As harsh as it may sound, rock stars are – mostly – lousy storytellers. Surely, they are capable of telling a coherent tale during the amount of time it takes for a pop song to run its course; however, when they try to stretch the plot over an entire album, one ends up with an item that may be musically appealing – as are “Tommy”, “Quadrophenia”, and “The Wall”, to mention a few – but whose script does not hold under scrutiny. And that is why “The Suburbs”, by Arcade Fire, is so utterly brilliant. As a concept album that builds all of its songs around a firmly defined idea but chooses not to construct a tale on top of it, it understands the pitfalls musicians who embrace their operatic aspirations too tightly fall into and avoids them altogether. “The Suburbs”, therefore, does not sacrifice quality songwriting with the purpose of moving a story forward; and neither does it fret over putting together a narrative to take place in the world it assembles.
The beauty of that approach is that not only is every single one of the record’s sixteen songs good at worst, and excellent at best (an absolute rarity for concept albums), but also that, by not dwelling on intricacies and events, “The Suburbs” makes its message universal. And it is hard not to understand and relate to what Win Butler and his group are expressing concern over, for it is a feeling everyone who has stepped out of adolescence and into adulthood has felt: the somewhat haunting notion that the place where one grew up has changed; and that the environment that gave birth to one’s generation is now different and will, thereby, produce human beings older folks will fail to comprehend. It is about reminiscing on a past that is long gone, worrying about the new kids, and being fearful of the world into which your own children will be born.
It is all there, neatly encompassed in incredible tunes that take Arcade Fire’s often expansive indie rock to new realms: the title track dives so much into music hall, with its dancing piano, The Kinks’ Ray Davies might as well have written it; “Ready to Start” sounds so gigantic every bass note and guitar strum hit listeners like a hammer; “Empty Room” matches punk guitars with Régine’s angelic voice, which buried in the midst of the overwhelming chaos tries to find calm inside a hurricane of loneliness; “Suburban War” has a chiming riff that could belong to either R.E.M. or The Byrds; and “Sprawl II”, with its catchy beat, is possibly inspired by the encounters Blondie had with synth pop, only darker, as Régine – once more taking lead vocals – sings of feeling suffocated by the metropolis the once charming suburbs have turned into.
It is in that mix of joy and concern “The Suburbs” exists. “But in my dreams we’re still screaming and running through the yard”, sings Win Butler in the opening track, only to, a few verses later, fall back into the reality where such a past does not seem to mean much, as it is being erased and replaced, “And all of the houses they build in the seventies finally fall”. And what he sees rising is a generation with empty values (“Rococo”), that is broken by economic and social issues (Half Light II), controlled by technology (“Big Blue”), and living incarcerated inside private condos that destroy nature, restrict freedom, and pasteurize life (“City With No Children”). It is a concern all human beings have held, and it is quite remarkable to hear it so clearly broadcast through music that is excellent and varied. “The Suburbs” is the perfect concept album.
Album: The Stone Roses
Artist: The Stone Roses
Released: May 2nd, 1989
Highlights: I Wanna Be Adored, She Bangs the Drums, Made Of Stone, I Am the Resurrection
As the end of the 80s was approaching, British rock was surely in need of some palette cleansing. Through the biggest part of that decade, British youth had been served a brand of music that, while of unquestionable high quality, was also uniformly sulky. The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division, and The Jesus and Mary Chain produced numerous classic albums that allowed teenagers and young adults to sink into their misery, with only the latter band providing some sort of way out of that dark deep well – in that case, indifference and anger – but they had locked their listeners into self-pitying patterns. It is hard to know if being tired of wallowing in despair was what caused those youngsters to quickly flock towards the Madchester movement – which merged rock, acid house, psychedelia, and 60s pop. But when the late 80s came around, musical trends indicated the British had abandoned poorly lit rooms and awkward social demeanor and opted to send their demons away via pop songs and dancing.
The Stone Roses’ debut is the biggest landmark of that movement and not just because nearly all of its thirteen songs (in the album’s American version) have deservingly grown into classics. “The Stone Roses” succeeds because it manages to encompass and display Madchester’s various influences and facets in the tracks it brings together. “Fools Gold”, for instance, with its funky bass line, scratchy guitar, and focus on rhythm, is pure irresistible dance rock; meanwhile, “Don’t Stop”, built over a rewinding tape of the track that precedes it (the beautiful ballad “Waterfall”), has so much of acid house in the trippiness that stems from its construction that it would not feel out-of-place in a rave. Mostly, however, “The Stone Roses” is an album of jangle pop.
John Squire’s guitar rings in the same fashion as those from the great players of the genre: Johnny Marr (The Smiths), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), and Tom Petty. However, differently from those, The Stone Roses play inside a soundscape that is as wide as that of British post-punk bands and as bright as that of the American bands of the Summer of Love. It sounds as if the group is unleashing poppy sweet anthemic choruses and impossibly catchy melodies from inside a coral cave located deep underwater, with the soundwaves gaining new colors every time they bump onto the rocky walls. It is a sensory delight, and Squire – like Marr – works like a guitar orchestrator, filling up all that vast expanse with entwining riffs that form a rainbow-like rock symphony. In that beauty, Ian Brown spins brutally acid lyrics, as if he is trying to conceal overflowing bitterness in sugary pop, and it works.
There is the wish to see a former lover die in horrific fashion (“Made Of Stone”); the joyful contemplation of the ending of a relationship (“Shoot You Down”); the ironic mocking of someone who is never satisfied with what they get from their partner (“Sugar Spun Sister”); the desire to hurt oppressing policemen (“Bye Bye Badman”); an open threat to the queen (“Elizabeth My Dear”); the act of painting himself as a messianic figure for being able not to violently hate someone who broke his heart (“I Am The Resurrection”); and the haunting clairvoyance of “I Wanna Be Adored”, which boldly anticipates the importance their debut, which would serve as a major cornerstone of the Britpop movement, would have for British rock. It is all so powerful and delivered with such confidence that, even many years later, it is hard not to believe Ian when – in “She Bangs The Drums” – he claims “The past was yours but the future’s mine”. There are not many albums that can make such a statement without seeming clueless and arrogant, and “The Stone Roses” is certainly one of them.
Album: Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols
Artist: Sex Pistols
Released: October 28th, 1977
Highlights: Holidays in the Sun, God Save the Queen, Anarchy In The UK, Pretty Vacant
Whether or not one considers “Never Mind the Bollocks” to be the classic the mass music media claims it is usually hinges on how one perceives the punk rock phenomenon. If the album is seen as the starting point of the movement, and therefore as a mind-blowing new kind of music, it will receive the accolade of being the musical equivalent of discovering a new continent (one inhabited by infuriated and wild youngsters). On the other hand, if it is analyzed as yet another punk rock record in a line of albums by various groups that were taking a page from the MC5 and The Stooges and revolting against overly pompous music, it is bound to be anointed as average or rubbish. As it is often the case, the most balanced way to look at “Never Mind the Bollocks” lies somewhere between those two extreme poles, and through that view it is possible to see that while it is indeed a rather derivative work, it is easy to understand why it is seen as so revolutionary.
Musically, there is absolutely nothing new about “Never Mind the Bollocks”. The Sex Pistols are, through the eleven tracks contained here, emulating – whether they admit it or not – punk bands from the United States that had come before them. The reckless fast pace in which the tunes are played, the constant and uniform guitar-strumming that is virtually the same in all songs, and their bare-bones construction with few chords that are played in a never-ending cycle until the band runs out of things to say had already been forged – and rather well-explored – by both the New York Dolls, in their 1973 debut and 1974 follow-up, and the Ramones in their self-titled 1976 record. Moreover, by the time “Never Mind the Bollocks” was released, other groups in Britain itself (The Clash, and The Damned), in Australia (The Saints), and in the United States (The Heartbreakers) had beaten the Sex Pistols to the punch by publishing albums that ran head-first into that formula.
The difference is that the Sex Pistols broke into the mainstream in a way none of those groups did, and they achieved so by not only having a pretty efficient marketing machine spinning behind the curtains, but also by producing tracks that were as catchy as they were angry. “Holidays in the Sun”, “God Save the Queen”, “Anarchy in the UK”, and “Pretty Vacant” have more hooks in their repetitive melodies and guitar riffs than one can count, and it is no wonder each of them have become timeless classics. Additionally, similar to what The Clash did, the Sex Pistols were original in putting politics into punk; however, where Joe Strummer was a political activist with a clearly leftist program and a goal in mind, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were unapologetic nihilists: they did not give a damn about anything, and they wanted to watch the world burn for the sake of it.
That is why, throughout the album, the Sex Pistols aim a cannon of vitriol towards pretty much everyone, and their goal is clear: to offend as much people as possible (the queen, the conservative British society, their former label, the New York Dolls, futile teenagers, Londoners, politicians, those who were afraid of discussing sex and abortion, and more). And by doing so they garnered the attention of teenagers and young adults who saw, in that relentless venting, the escape valve to their frustrations and anger. In the voice of Johnny Rotten and in his mad singing, the musical highlight of the album, those people found a way out of whatever hole they were stuck in and even if “Never Mind The Bollocks” features more average tunes than it does great ones, it is quite hard not to notice it and be somewhat entertained by its shameless madness.
Album: Brand New Eyes
Released: September 29th, 2009
Highlights: Ignorance, Playing God, Brick by Boring Brick, The Only Exception
Punk rock and the numerous subgenres that have the movement as their root and stem require some level of anger in order to be good and genuine. Therefore, it comes as no surprise the musical highlights of those styles are born through the hands of bands that are pretty young; after all, there is no point in life when one carries as much resentment inside themselves as when they are transitioning from their teenage years to adulthood. There is anger at the world for making it particularly difficult for them to find their place; there is anger at friends for sometimes not being there when necessary or for being unable to understand their feelings; there is anger at parents and family for the failure to recognize them as responsible and capable human beings; and there is anger at themselves for not living up to the ideals they held when they were younger. It is a complicated mess, but if an artist is able to navigate through those messy waters, they will most likely be able to strike gold, delivering a work filled with words and feelings that connect to an audience that is going through the same painful motions but that is unable to articulate them as effectively and beautifully.
Whatever kinds of anger she may have been feeling when she wrote “Brand New Eyes” (probably all of the above), one thing is for sure: Hayley Williams – Paramore’s vocalist and lyricist – is pretty pissed off. With the exception of “Looking Up” and “Where The Lines Overlap”, celebrations for the fact the band is still going strong and surviving it all, and “The Only Exception”, which takes a pretty positive and hopeful look at love, “Brand New Eyes” qualifies as sheer emotional vitriol. “Careful” is a wake-up call to anyone who thinks the world will give them what they want for free; “Ignorance”, “Feeling Sorry”, and “Playing God” are anthems on independence, the former two directly addressed to friends and lovers who do not accept the changes a person goes through, and the latter aimed at a controlling partner; “Brick By Boring Brick” uses fairytale references to talk about the end of innocence that comes with the hardships of life; “Turn It Off” and “Misguided Ghosts” paint a sad picture of being faithless, hopeless, and friendless; and “All I Wanted” closes the record on a sour breakup that happened because the relationship did not meet initial naive expectations.
The tornado of feelings inside “Brand New Eyes” is interesting and too strong for one to look away, and that is not only because Hayley suddenly decided to spill her guts in public. What takes it over the top is that her bitterness seems to be – most of the time – directed towards other members of the band, for they are the ones who made her go through that emotional roller-coaster. And even though “Looking Up” and “Where the Lines Overlap” try to indicate the group found unity after the mess, the events that would follow the album’s release – which included public negative comments and the departure of some key members – would reveal “Brand New Eyes” is actually the sound of a band falling to pieces in front of their fans’ eyes.
Thankfully for them, though, before the Farro brothers went looking for brighter shores away from Paramore, they closed the group’s initial cycle with an album that is as strong as possible. “Brand New Eyes” feels more dynamic than its predecessors, and not just because it presents the first few instances of Paramore going acoustic in “The Only Exception” and “Misguided Ghosts”, but due to the fact even the louder tracks have more room to breathe. The band no longer operated solely in the alternation between heavy verses and heavier choruses, and the more sparse guitar arrangements – including ringing tones and silence in-between the riffs – give more power to Hayley’s melodic choruses, which rely on hooks that – here – are as great as they have ever been. Therefore, although the relationships among the original members of Paramore did not survive their troubled transition from adolescence to adulthood, at least they were able to keep the ship together for just about long enough for them to find, in “Brand New Eyes”, the treasure that lay beyond the storm of that period.