Song Inspirations: Baby Girl

This song was written just prior to the birth of my first child, Zoe. At the time, I was at somewhat of a crossroads in my life. I had recently graduated from college but had been unable to find a job outside of the meager income I made from running Muse Music. I was studying to take the GMAT so I could apply to grad school and have a better career. I was looking forward to some of the comforts that come from having a stable income, such as owning a house. I also thought about how many of my friends were reluctant to start families and were kind of drifting with the direction of their life.

Although I was nervous and apprehensive about the future, I also had this feeling that everything was going to work out. My life would never be the same but I was excited about this next chapter.

Start to Finish: Pavement

With Stephen Malkmus releasing a new album this year, it seems like a good time revisit Pavement’s catalog. Their influence on 90s indie rock is far reaching and can still be felt today musical landscape with bands like Dr. Dog, Modest Mouse, Snow Patrol, Spoon and many others. Let’s dive in.

Slanted and Enchanted (1992) – I bought a used copy of this album back when I was in high school during the late nineties. I remember thinking at the time “They sound like a sloppy version of Weezer” (see “In the Mouth A Desert”). This was a weird album to me because it was distorted and heavy but not really punk or typical Seattle grunge. It was goofy and serious at the same time. It sounded like they were trying but not too trying too hard (the laugh towards the end of opener “Summer Babe” sums it up). Despite being incredibly fragmented, the songs are still incredibly catchy. The chaos reaches a climax with the off-kilter approach on “Conduit For Sale!” where Malkmus repeatedly screams “I’m trying!” interspersed with segments of poetic story telling. Just as the album dives deeper into chaos , “Here” provides a nice soft relief and sums up the theme of the album: “I was dressed for success, a success the never comes. and I’m the only one who laughs.” Sonically, the album sounds pretty lo-fi: vocals lower in the mix, quiet kick drum, muddy bass, thin buzzy guitars – but it all adds to the charm. Overall, the title of the album seems fitting, as the lyrics and sound fit the absurdities of life and how we cope with them when we feel jaded and disillusioned. Essentials: Summer Babe,  In the Mouth A Desert, Here. 7.7/10

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994) - In many ways, Pavement sounds more like a traditional band on their sophomore effort. From the opening song, you can hear a step up in the fidelity of the songs – clear, punchy drums and bass, a fuller and well mixed sound – but their are plenty of moments where the off kilter, skewed delivery remains in tact.  “Cut Your Hair” and “Gold Soundz” are the catchiest songs of their career but they still manage to pack in plenty of raw moments of energy and yelling.  Stephen Malkmus’ singing can be off pitch at times but his urgency and confidence more than make up for it. The straightforward roosty/folk rock of “Range Life” is an interesting change up for the band but despite the more conventional sound, they still get goofy as they namecheck Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots in the same song. Overall, Pavement’s second album has produced a more palatable listen then their debut, while still retaining their edge. Essentials: Gold Soundz, Cut Your Hair, Elevate Me Later, Range Life. 8.9/10

Wowee Zowee (1995) – Wowzee Zowwee is an eclectic mess. On the one hand, there are some great moments on this album.  “Rattled By The Rush” balances the chaotic and catchy in what might be described as “classic Pavement”. The chiming guitars and distorted bend sounds on “Grounded” nicely blend the two worlds of post-rock (a la Explosion in the Sky) with arena alt rock along the lines of Smashing Pumpkins. At other times, they delve into folkier territories. The opener “We Dance” doesn’t sound out of place next to the David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era material. “Father to a Sister of Thought” is a nice country flavored change up with a pedal steel added to the mix. On the other hand, they continue cranking out the crazy, weird songs (“Brinx Job”, Serpentine Pad”, “Flux = Rad”) as well as songs that aren’t particularly inspired and act as filler.  Overall, it’s a mixed bag. The psychedelic overtones can sound interesting but are also distracting. The playing on this album sounds a little sloppier then the last, particularly on “Extradition”, where it sounds like the song could fall apart at any minute. Their charming looseness is starting to sound more like unrehearsed sloppiness, which is harder to swallow with an 18 song, 55 minute run time. Ultimately, it’s a good album but one that would have been better served if it were more cohesive and concise like  Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.  Essentials: Rattled By The Rush, Grounded, Father to A Sister of Thought, We Dance. 6.8/10

Brighten the Corners (1997) – It seems Pavement realized things got a little too messy on Wowee Zowee and that they need to bring in an outside producer to tighten up their sound. The results are pretty dramatic. They’ve eliminated all the weird, crazy songs and stuck with a more convention path: many of the songs are slower and more pleasant to listen to, the drums follow more traditional beats with the ride cymbal,  the singing and melodies are more on pitch and developed, and the recording quality is fuller and punchier. That’s not so say haven’t branched a little and tried a few new things. “Date With Ikea” is heavily influenced by the 12-string jangly guitar pop of REM. “Transport Is Arranged” features an interesting mellotron part contrasted with a twisted chord progression. Despite being a more restrained album, the highlight is the energetic opener “Stereo,” where they let loose and deliver the catchiest chorus of their career as if their lives depended on it. Overall, Brighten the Corners is a solid record where they have managed to restrain the chaos while still retaining some of their edge. Essentials: Stereo, Transport Is Arranged, Date with Ikea, Fin. 8.2/10

Terror Twilight (1999) – While continuing in relatively conventional territory, Pavement brought on acclaimed producer, Nigel Godrich, to add a little sonic variety to the pallet. Godrich was best known for his work on Radiohead’s OK Computer and was working on Travis’ The Man Who album around the same time. The production qualities seemed to be less influenced by the former than they are by later. The recording sounds very full and clean, which great attention paid to detail: extra little sound effects, occasional drum machines, and a focus on atmosphere. “Spit On A Stranger” is one of Pavement’s prettiest (and most conventional) melodies and has the sensitivity of their early staple “Here.” They also continue to dabble in alt-country as they have on their last few albums. “Platform Blues” features a fun distorted harmonica part played by none other than Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. “Folk Jam” features the first banjo in a Pavement song (that I’ve aware of). Some of the songs bring back the edge that they rubbed off on Brighten the Corners: “Speak, See, Remember” has a fragmented structure that jumps genres, “You Are A Light” has occasional bursts and triplet lead guitar lines, and “Cream of Gold” evolves into moments of chaos. Towards the close of the album, “The Hexx” adds a dissonant, almost creepy vibe not present in their other songs. While not their catchiest album, it is certainly their album with the greatest atmosphere and a fitting close to their recording career. Essentials: Spit On A Stranger, Major Leagues, The Hexx. 7.8/10

 

 

 

 

Start to Finish: Pink Floyd

Spotify just released Pink Floyd’s entire catelog for streaming! That’s means it’s time for another installment of “Start to Finish,” where I evaluate an artist’s entire discography to better understand their artistic progression.

My background with Pink Floyd is admittedly limited. I have vinyl copies of Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, which I have listened to several times but haven’t really ventured beyond that. I imagine most people are in the same boat as me.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) - Pink Floyd’s debut is the epitome of psychedelic. It’s definitely out there. Plenty of weird sounds and experimenting going on. The lyrics seem a little goofy and nonsensical. You can definitely hear the potential in their sound, as well as the influence they had early on in psychedelic music, which continues to ring today with bands like MGMT, the Flaming Lips, and Tame Impala. Essentials: Interstellar Overdrive. 6.2/10

A Saucerful of Secrets (1968) - After Syd Barrett began losing his mind and became too difficult to deal with, the group enlisted David Gilmour and soldiered on without Syd. With  Roger Waters in the creative pilot seat, the approached shifted slightly. They downplayed the more nonsensical lyrics and random noises to a somewhat more focused approached. The songs seem to be more about atmosphere. Occasionally, there are goofy moments like in Corporal Clegg when they bring out the kazoos. In the nearly 12 minute instrumental title track, they push the boundaries further into new sounds and moods. The songs take on a more mystical quality. The production makes use of the marimba, xylophone, whistles, horns, and many others sounds. The result is a step forward into territory equally as bizarre as their debut but re-imagined with more focus. Essentials: See-Saw. 7.1/10

More – Orginal Film Soundtrack (1969) - This album found the band venturing into more conventional but also more extreme territory – the soft acoustic numbers are softer, the rock songs rock harder. The Nile Song sounds like they took a page from Jimi Hendrix’s playbook or maybe the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” The opening track, Cirrus Minor, is a soft acoustic number with organ and other soft elements, with is also representative of the rest of the album. Some of the songs also venture into jazz and Spanish guitar, as well as a blues lead guitar. Most of the chaotic elements from the first two records are absent, with makes for a more palatable listen, more along the lines of Dark Side of the Moon, but not nearly as cohesive. Essentials: The Nile Song, The Main Theme, Cirrus Minor. 7.3/10

Ummagumma (1969) - This primarily instrumental double album consists of a live recording on disc one and a studio recording on disc two. Disc one is mostly filled with long rock guitar solos. Disc two, the studio counterpart, finds the band experimenting with noises and drones. This is definitely an album  where you have to meet them on their terms. It’s requires a patience listen to appreciate. Going off of just my initial listen, I don’t feel like the payoff is really there for these songs. If may feel different after repeat listens but I found myself bored and felt like finishing the album was a chore. Still, I can appreciate the ambition to build a unique sound and create distinctive moods. 5.1/10

Atom Heart Mother (1970) - The instrumental title track is an ambitious and grand achieve. The multiple movements and inclusion of concert brass instruments practically put the genre into classical music territory. The difference between this and the basic approach of Ummagumma is that the songs are soft, melodic and pleasant to listen to instead of abrasive, which make the extended length tolerable. “If” was probably Pink Floyd’s prettiest song to date. The lead slide guitar parts complement the nylon string guitar well. The rest of the album also benefits from a more melodic and occasionally symphonic approach. Essentials: If, Atom Heart Mother 8.2/10

Meddle (1971) - The opening track for Meddle, “One of These Days”, is exciting because it’s new territory to Pink Floyd. Although instrumental, it incorporates new and catchy sounds: tremelo on guitar and bass, reverse cymbal on the drums, two sets of drums playing simultaneously, and what is now considered a metal-style chug rhythm. The middle of the album finds the group in more conventional territory, including the excellent “Fearless,” which sounds like something Neil Young could have written during that era. The closer, “Echoes,” is epic in scope but without getting weighed down by itself like some of their earlier material. By now, there seems to be larger division between their longer, jammy, experimental sound and their more conventional approach. I think the variety serves them well and makes for a more enjoyable album listening experience. Essentials: One of These Days, Fearless, Echoes 9.4/10

Obscured By Clouds (1972) - The music for this album is based on their soundtrack for the French film “La Vallee.” Stylistically, this album goes in many direction: The CSNY meets Boston sound of “The Gold It’s in the…”, the acoustic guitar/harmonies of “Wots… Uh The Deal”, and the 1960s, “Spirit in the Sky” inspired “Free Four.” Moments of record hint at the feel they are going for on Dark Side of the Moon, such as the guitar solo of “Mudmen” and the funk groove of “Childhood’s End.” Overall, this album has a larger ratio of conventional material then most of their previous albums. In some ways, that’s good. It’s makes it a little more digestable but the album starts to lose many of their strong qualities  and doesn’t have the cohesion of  Meddle. Essentials: Childhood’s End, Wots…. Oh the Deal. 7.8/10

Dark Side of the Moon (1973) - It’s hard to find a more seamless album than this one. They incorporated all the musical directions they had done to this point and combined them into one cohesive set of music (sans acoustic guitar). They also included new sounds like the saxophone, synthesizers, clock sounds, and the distinctive female soul vocalizations on “The Great Gig in the Sky.” The sounds weave together nicely, with most of the transitions fading from one song to the next and elements of songs reprising into each other. I think part of the strength of the album is how concise it is. They don’t let the songs drag on too long, making it an album that is hard to get sick of. Essentials: Breathe, Money 10/10.

Wish You Were Here (1975) - With the conceptual masterpiece of Dark Side of the Moon under their belt, they side stepped some of the spacier elements to create an album equally as classic. This time around, the synthesizers play a stronger role in the arrangements. They also continue to explore the different angles to the funk/groove sound they previously dabbled in. There isn’t a weak track on this album and, much like Dark Side of the Moon, the run time of the album finishes before the songs have a chance to wear out their welcome. One of their best. Essentials: Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Wish You Were Here. 9.5/10

Animals (1977) - Although the majority of the songs are over the 10 minute mark, the band incorporates a more conventional 70s rock sound with acoustic guitars and harmonizing lead guitar parts. The influence of artists like Led Zeppelin, Peter Frampton, and Cat Stevens are starting to surface. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: just different. Aside from the mid-song breakdowns, the synthesizers take a back seat (compared to being mostly front and center on the Wish You Were Here album). The concept for the album doesn’t seem quite as deep as some of their other records. There are occasional animal sounds effect and the talkbox in “Pigs” at times recalls the squeeling of a pig. There are some great moments of the album but overall, the impact is somewhat lost. Essentials: Dogs 7.3/10

The Wall (1979) - This sounds like the band is struggling to stay relevant. What is essentially the title track, “Another Brick In The Wall,” sounds like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” crossed with disco. Some of the heavy parts sounds like the typical arena rock bands of the team. “Mother” starts out like Cat Stevens and goes into 80s power ballad territory. “The Show Goes On” sound a little like Supertramp. “In the Flesh” sounds like David Bowie. One of the strengths of the album is how they are able to incorporate the songs themes into each other like they did on Dark Side of the Moon: “Hey You”, “Run Like Hell” and “Waiting for the Worms” all contain the main elements from “Another Brick In The Wall.” The highlight of the album is “Comfortably Numb;” one of the moments where everything is clicking. This time around, the group included songs mainly backed by orchestras and an all out broadway style score for “The Trial.” With the length and amount of variety, there is an easy comparison to be made to the Beatles’ White Album. But it many cases on the record, it seems like the songs came second to the theme,concept, and story of the Wall. Essentials: Hey You, Comfortably Numb, Run Like Hell 6.8/10

The Final Cut (1983) - This album seems to be a more songwriter driven approach with less emphasis on the arrangements, which is unfortunate because that’s really where the band’s strength lies. Most of the songs fall in the ballad/power ballad bucket. Lyrically, the topics center mostly around war, politics and religion. Although none of the songs are particularly bad, as a whole they seems to fall flat with no real hooks to keep them memorable. Despite it’s flaws, The Wall at least had the theatricality and ambition to prop it up. This feels like a band losing steam and falling back on cliches and boring arrangements. Essentials: When the Tigers Broke Free 5.1/10 

A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) - With Roger Waters gone, it’s David Gilmour’s show. Unfortunately, this album is drenched in the overproduced, over reverb super cheesy production so prevalent in the 80s. Having only been a small kid at the time, I have a hard time really connecting with that sound (despite the fact that’s it’s been creepy it’s way into music again in a big way for the last decade). Occasionally the songs are able to shine through the dated production and some interesting ideas emerge. When you compare this album to the Water healmed “Final Cut,” there are more risks taken and new sounds explored so I have to give it credit there. Essentials: One Slip, Terminal Frost 5.4/10

The Division Bell (1994) - For Pink Floyd’s final album, they took a little more of a straight forward approach than the previous album. Although most of the cheesy synth sounds are absent, the record still has the 80s timestamped on it (despite the fact that it was released in the 90s). The gospel singers and the computer voice are some cheesy moments they could have done without. However, there are some solid upbeat tune: “Take It Back” and “Coming Back to Life,” both featuring a classic U2 vibe. There are also some nice acoustic picking arrangements on “Lost for Words” and “Poles Apart.” Although these moments are welcomed, most the album falls flat. Essentials: Lost For Words, Poles Apart. 5.7/1

Start to Finish: Bob Dylan

This is the second installment of my “Start to Finish” series (the first being the Beastie Boys). Over the course of about 2 months, I listened to Bob Dylan’s entire discography in order (excluding the bootleg series) to get a better understanding of his progression as a songwriter and artist. This consists of 41 albums (35 from the studio, 6 from live performances), spanning 50 years (from his 1962 self titled debut to his latest 2012 album, Tempest). I rated each album and gave some commentary. Each day this week, I’m posting an article dedicated to each decade of Dylan’s career. There has been so much written about Dylan and his discography that I kept it brief. This is just the impressions of a casual fan diving deeper into his discography. If you want a more thorough analysis of Dylan, I recommend checking out these articles in AllmusicWikipedia, or checking out one of the many films or biographies about his life. I put together all the “essential” tracks in my Bob Dylan Essentials Mix on Spotify (or you can go to Spotify to listen to his entire catalog yourself). I also welcome any comments or insights people are willing to share.


The 1960s

Bob Dylan (1962) - Dylan’s debut is heavily inspired by his hero, Woody Guthrie. The songs are rooted in tradition harmonica heavy folk and delta blues. It’s a solid album but one that only hints at his greatness to come. Essential: In My Time of Dyin, Baby, Just Let Me Follow You Down. 6.7/10

Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) - It’s impressive to think that by his second album and being merely the age of 20, Dylan had already crafted several songs that have gone on to become pop standards. This is the iconic sound comes to mind when people think of Bob Dylan. You can still hear the Woody Guthrie influence but his songs are starting to take the shape of his own voice and style. The whole album is a great representation of his original iconic sound and the era.  Essentials: Blowin In The Wind, Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Don’t Think Twice Cause It’s Alright. 8.2/10

The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) - Dylan continues the his traditional folk sound but with more emphasis with storytelling and war protest songs. He also starts to incorporate 3/4 time into the mix. A very good and relaxing listen. Essentials: The Times They Are A-Changin, With God On Our Side, Boots of Spanish Leather. 7.6/10

Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) - As the title of the album indicates, we are starting to see a new approach. This is Dylan’s serious entry into surrealist imagery. A good example of his poet approach is “My Back Pages.” His occasional lisp and off kilter quirkiness on ”All I Really Want to Do” reminds me of Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock. On “I Shall be Free No. 10″ Dylan states “You’re probably wondering now what this song is all about,” which may sum up the sentiment of some listeners, who view his songs as puzzles (or even prophecies). Essentials: My Back Pages, It Ain’t Me Babe. 8.4/10

Bringing It All Back Home (1965) - This is the album where Dylan famously turns his back on traditional folk and goes electric. One thing that’s interesting between the LP days versus now is that albums were viewed in two acts. In the case of this album, side one focued on the electric, side two on the folk. This albums combines the stream of consciousness/surrealest style with his story telling/humor style. This is Bob Dylan ultra hip and on the top of his game. One of my all time favorites. Essentials: Maggie’s Farm, Subterranean Homseick Blues, Mr. Tamborine Man, It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). 9.3/10

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) - With this album, Dylan goes further in developing his folk rock style, collimating in arguably his best and most beloved song, “Like a Rolling Stone.” In addition to including electric guitar and drums in his sound, he is also incorporating organ, mandolin, honky tonk piano and others sounds, including roadhouse blues. The result is another classic. My only complaint is I feel he could have used a little more variety in the melodies instead the “talk singing” approach but at this point, Dylan is more concerned with creating a distinct mood with the lyrics and sounds than making the songs catchy. Essentials: Like A Rolling Stone, Tombstone Blues, Ballad of a Thin Man. 8.5/10

Blonde on Blonde (1966) - By this album, Dylan has started to let loose. There are some great grooves  and distinct relaxed feel. The new-orleans-meets-stoner march of “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35″ doesn’t really do it for me but the rest of the album is absolutely amazing. Another masterpiece.  Essentials: Visions on Johanna, Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, One of us Must Know (Sooner or Later). 9.5/10

The Basement Tapes (Recorded 1967, Released 1975) - The story with the album is that Dylan began jamming and putting together demos with the Band (who were his backing band the last few tours) in Woodstock, New York while he was recuperating from a motorcycle accident. The songs were intended as demos to be recorded by other artists and not as an official release. As these demos began circulating, they turned into a much sought after bootleg. It wasn’t until 1975 the they songs were given a proper release. The result is a handful of gems among a loose, raged, and sometimes sloppy jam session. It doesn’t sound like fully conceived album because that’s not what it was. But you can hear the collaborative spirit in the air (The Band sings and writes on a handful of the songs) and fun they must have had arranging these tunes. Essentials: Million Dollar Bash, Katie Been Gone, Bessie Smith, Apple Suckling Tree, Tears of Rage, Ain’t No More Cane, You Ain’t Going Nowhere, This Wheel’s On Fire. 8.1/10

John Wesley Harding (1967) - This is Dylan’s quiet return from exile. Curiously, he set aside the experimenting and variety he has developed the last 4 albums and went with a more stripped down approach, with just acoustic guitar, harmonica, bass and drums. The songs are more storytelling based but lack interesting production and melodies. Essentials: Down Along the Cove, All Along the Watchtower 6.7/10

Nashville Skyline (1969) - After another break, Dylan returned with a country influenced album (appropriately recorded in Nashville). His voice takes on a noticeable different and distinct tone, which isn’t really better or worse, just different and surprising. The songwriting this time around has improved. The songs are upbeat, melodic and concise. The Johnny Cash collaboration on the opening track is great. The peddle steel and lap steel guitars add some interesting and welcome flourishes to the production. This album is fun, refreshing, and sounds like the begging of a new era for Dylan. Essentials: Girl From the North Country, Lay Lady Lay, Tell Me That It Isn’t True 9.1/10


1970s

In the 1960s, Dylan established a legacy through releasing a string of critically acclaimed albums; a difficult mark to live up to. The 1970s found Dylan in a state of transition. He released several live albums, a film soundtrack, a few albums considered outtakes, his 70s masterpiece (Blood on the Tracks), became a born again Christian and started a string of gospel albums. He incorporated new instruments into his sound, which tended to change from album to album. Still, It’s obvious there is still a genius at work.

Self Portrait (1970) - While listening to this album, I read review after review which panned the album, describing as a low point or slump in Dylan’s career; his attempt to shed his audience. In my opinion, this is one of his most underrated albums. This is Dylan gone eclectic; his own white album, if you will. The songs have renewed energy, compared to the flat dullness of John Wesley Harding. He tried new production ideas like adding strings, horns, and soulful female backup singers (see opener “All the Tired Horses”, which doesn’t sound out of place in today’s context of the retro Feist/Arcade Fire sound). He mixed things up by including live reinterpretations of some older material and some great new originals. By keeping the songs in the 2-3 minute range, the album keeps an enjoyable pace for a double album. Perhaps if doesn’t have the cohesiveness of some of his earlier albums but it makes up for it in being an enjoyable listen; an album that sounds like he had fun making. Essentials: Let It Be Me, Alberta #1, The Boxer, Take Me As I Am (or Let Me Go), Take a Message to Mary, All the Tired Horses. 8.7/10

New Morning (1970) - After the commercial disappointment of Self Portrait, Dylan quickly recorded and released New Morning. This time around, he blends folk, country, honky tonk, blues, soul, and jazz with mixed results. It’s loose and sometimes a little sloppy at moments. It sounds as if Dylan is searching for his sound. Essentials: If Not For You, New Morning, One More Weekend. 6.9/10

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) - This soundtrack to the film of the same name features a more spanish influenced. He occasionally adds banjo and fiddle. Since it was intended for a film soundtrack, it features mostly instrumental but is notable for the inclusion of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”. Essentials: Billy 4, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. 6.5/10.

Dylan (1973) - These are essentially leftovers from the Self Portrait sessions, which Dylan reportedly did not want released. Several of the songs are covers. For some reason, this is considered his worst album and only listenable for hardcore fans. I’m not sure why. I really enjoyed listening to it. It has a pleasent sound and a good variety, an extention of Self Portrait. Essentials: Lily of the West, Mr Bojangles, Spanish Is the Loving Tongue. 7.8/10.

Planet Waves (1974) - Reunited with the Band, Dylan recorded this album in three days. It’s a very natural and comfortable sound for Dylan, which complements his songwriting style well. The arrangements are cohesive and unifed by the band’s folk rock touch.Essentials: Something There is About You, Forver Young, Never Say Goodbye 8.6/10.

Before The Flood (1974) - Live double album with the Band. Most of the songs are given an more upbeat interpertation than the studio recordings. It includes some of the classics from the Band’s catalog. Dylan’s fresh take on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, “Just Like A Woman” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” sound more along the lines of the folk/punk anthems of Billy Bragg than his original version. Essentials: Lay Lady Lay, The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). 8.1/10.

Blood On The Tracks (1975) - This is often cited as Dylan’s comeback album. While the acoustic guitar sounds a little more in the forefront than his past few albums, his singing style does continue in the “belt it out” singing style he showcased in Before the Flood. The songs are catchy and upbeat with the straight forward, concise arrangements, which straighten the songs in the this case. With Dylan’s divorce happening at the time, many of the songs are more introspective and personal than his other work. A solid album of great material and an enjoyable listen. Essentials: Tangles Up In Blue, Meet Me In The Morning, Buckets of Rain. 8.7/10.

Desire (1976) - Most of the tracks are more laid back and slower then the predecessor. Every song features the violin, which is a nice and welcome change. There is also some accordian and a little bit of spanish guitar influence. It’s a good album but lacks some of the variety of Blood on the Tracks. Essentials: Hurricane, Oh Sister, Joey. 7.3/10

Hard Rain (1976) - Dylan decided to release another live album only 2 years after Before the Flood. This album showcases Dylan tendency to re-interpret his own songs live, with mix results. Some of the version are nice, but as a whole this album doesn’t seem to add too much to the catalog. Essentials: One Too Many Mornings, Lay Lady Lay, I Threw It All Away. 5.4/10.

Street Legal (1978) - Dylan sounds refreshed and relaxed. This time around, many of the songs feature saxophone, gospel singers and gospel organ, which works very well with this group of songs. His singing is also a little more understated than some of his recent albums to this point (especially compared to the live albums), which help ground the album and strengthen it. A solid record. Essentials: Changing of the Guards, No Time To Think, True Love Tends to Forget. 8.3/10.

Slow Train Coming (1979) - Dylan’s first album after becoming a born again christian. Lyrically, there are obviously more references to his faith, quotes of biblical phrases (Do Unto Others….), and current events. It’s not too radically different from some of his earlier material (see “Masters of War”).  A big part of the sound of this album is the electric piano and a clean electric blues guitar. Overall, the result is sort of a hybrid of smooth jazz/lounge, blues, and even reggae. The solo piano closer, “When He Returns”, is one of the most moving and heartfelt songs Dylan has ever written; a strong testiment of his faith. Essentials: Precious Angel, When You Gonna Wake Up, When He Returns. 7.8/10.

At Budokan (1979) - His 3rd live album in 5 years. It’s interesting hearing re-interpretations of his own songs, including reggae takes of “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “Knockin’ On Heavens Door”. Sometimes the combination of violin and saxophone sounds a bit like Dave Matthews Band. I can’t say I always love the new versions but the arrangements this time around (and his singing) are restrained and more pleasant to listen to than they are on Hard Rain. On a production note, I wished they would have mixed the transitions between the songs to flow better so that it doesn’t sound like it’s jumping from song to song. Seems kind of critical for a live album. Essentials: Like A Rolling Stone, Blowin’ In The Wind, Simple Twist of Fate, All Along the Watchtower. 7.3/10.


1980s

The 1980s was a not the best decade for Dylan. His songwriting had gone downhill and the production of his recordings molded to fit the times (the embarrassingly over reverbed, synthy sound of the 80s). Luckily, he ended the decade with the Daniel Lanois produced Oh Mercy, an album that showed he still had it in him, as well as signaling the coming of his latter day renaissance era of the 90s and 00s.

Saved (1980) - This album sounds more of what you would expect as a gospel-influenced album from Dylan than what was on Slow Train Coming. The sound doesn’t seem to fit him particularly well and overall, the songwriting isn’t quite up to bar. Essentials: Covenant Woman, Solid Rock 5.7/10

Shot of Love (1981) - With Dylan’s third album since becoming a born again Christian, he’s toned down the more overt spiritual lyrics, striking a balance in expressing his faith and writing music more accessible to a secular audience. The music is an improvement over Saved, following a more traditional bluesy sound with some pleasant soft songs.Essentials: Heart Of Mine, In the Summertime, Every Grain of Sand. 6.9/10

Infidels (1983) - This is cited as Dylan’s return to secular music, although he still throws in some gospel/biblical references from time to time. The songs and production are solid but not especially great. Essentials: Jokerman, I and I, Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight 6.5/10

Real Live (1984) - As with Dylan’s other live albums, his current versions of his past songs come with results. The highlights are the solo section of his set and the blues lead guitar parts. All and all, a solid listen but nothing extraordinary. Essentials: It Ain’t Me Babe, Tangled Up In Blue, Masters of War. 6.7/10

Empire Burlesque (1985) - This effort is heavily influenced by the 80s production at the time (massive reverb on the drums, cheesy synthesizers, etc), which makes it sound dated. Even when I try to look past the production, the songs are just okay. We do get some relief at the end with Dark Eyes, a pretty, simple tune which makes a return to the sparse acoustic guitar/harmonica sound that initially made Dylan famous. Besides that, it sounds like Dylan is losing his touch. Essentials: Dark Eyes, When the Night Comes Falling From The Sky. 4.9/10

Knocked Out Loaded (1986) - While still using the now dated 80s production sounds, this album is an improvement over Empire Burlesque thanks to some help with the songwriting (including Tom Petty). There is a little more variety and the album is kept short, which makes for a more interesting listen. Essentials: Got My Mind Made Up, Under Your Spell, Precious Memories. 6.5/10

Down In The Groove (1988) - This is essentially an odds and ends records full of covers and recorded at various times. The production approach is still very 80s and a little campy. There are a few gems in this batch of songs (usually the softer ones) but for the most part, pretty mediocre. Essentials: Death Is Not The Death, Rank Strangers To Me. 4.6/10

Dylan & The Dead (1989) - This sounds like a great idea on paper but the result of this live collaboration with the Grateful Dead is bland, uninspired interpretations of some of Dylan’s standards. The guitar and keyboard parts do not blend well. It sounds like too many chefs in the kitchen. Essentials: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door 3.4/10

Oh Mercy (1989) - Dylan sounds very fresh here. He put aside the cheesy 80s production in favor of more direct sound. The record has a great atmosphere with flourishes of tremolo guitar and restrained blues. He’s also written a great batch of solid and direct songs and his voice has never sounded better. The result is his best album in years.Essentials: Ring Them Bells, Man In The Long Black Coat, Disease of Conceit 8.3/10


1990s

The 90s found Dylan constantly touring, continuing his work with the Traveling Wilburys, and recording folk covers. He went about 7 years without releasing new material. “Time Out of Mind” became his comeback album, which brought him back in the spotlight and ushered in his critically and commercial successful 2000s material.

Under The Red Sky (1990) – It sounds like Dylan used his best material for Oh Mercy and put the leftovers on this album. The songs sound uninspired and the production is boring. Perhaps he was trying to make a light, “fun” record but in my mind, Dylan sounds best when he is going for depth. Essentials: Under The Red Sky, God Knows 6.2/10

Good As I Been To You (1992) – Dylan’s traditional folk record. This is a refreshing sound, getting back to his sparse roots of just him and a guitar. Although Dylan didn’t write any of these tunes, he makes them his own. There is quite a bit of finger picking, which is great but it occasionally sounds like Dylan has a hard time keeping up with himself. Still it’s a relaxing and charming listen. Essentials: Blackjack Davey, Hard Times, Froggie Went A-Courtin’ 7.4/10

World Gone Wrong (1993) – Continuing in the vein of his last album, Dylan put out another record of traditional folk tunes with just himself and a guitar. There are a some real gems in here and the songs take on a little more serious of a tone. I just wish he had included some orginals this time around. Still a solid record. Essentials: Two Soldiers, Jack-A-Roe, Love Henry, Lone Pilgram 7.1/10

MTV Unplugged (1995) – This is a very solid, refreshing performance for Dylan. He focuses more of the attention his classics from the 60s. The arrangements are very well done and include organ, mandolin, pedal steel, and acoustic guitar. The sound is very reminiscent of the alt-country sound that Wilco was first known for at the time. A very enjoyable listen. Essentials: Shooting Star, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Dignity, With God On Our Side 8.5/10

Time Out of Mind (1997) – From the opening notes, it’s apparent Dylan is going for something a little more ambitious this time around. This album has a unique vibe that is gritty and deep with the feel and themes but also nostalgic as he brings to life some of the roadhouse blues tendencies he has dabbled with in the past. My only concern is that, at 75 minutes, the record tends to drag on a little. He could have done with a little editing with the length to make his songs more concise and punchy. But all and all, it’s great to hear Dylan’s sound brought to life again. Essentials: Love Sick, Not Dark Yet, Make You Feel My Love, Can’t Wait 7.8/10


The 2000s to Present

From the 2000s to present, Dylan put out a string of high quality (and mostly self-produced) albums, showing he still had depth as a songwriter and could create a fresh, interesting blend of styles as a producer/arranger. It’s great to see someone at his age and long years of experience (50 years since his debut!) continuing to perfect his craft and create meaningful music.

Love and Theft (2001) - Building on the momentum of Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft continues to explores past genres like rockabilly, folk, jazz and blues but in ways that sound fresh and current. There is warmth and a sense of humor this time that give the record an upbeat and relaxing vibe. With his raspy voice and the maturity of his latter day sound, Dylan sounds somewhere between Tom Waits and Randy Newman, which fits where is at as an artist. A very enjoyable listen and one of his best albums in years.Essentials: Mississippi, Summer Days, Moonlight, Po’ Boy. 8.9/10

Modern Times (2006) - Dylan’s sound has now approached a maturity, going along with his age. The songs are nostalgic, recalling old timey jazz standards and Johnny Cash style country. It’s a very well done record and a pleasant listen. However, it is missing some of the edginess of his earlier work but can one really expect that out of Dylan at this point. Although the overall length of the album isn’t as long as Time Out of Mind, every song is at least past the 5 minute mark (expect one, which is just barely under). It would have helped to flow a bit to shorten things up. Still, it’s a great listening experience.Essentials: Rollin and Tumblin, Beyond the Horizon, Thunder Mountain. 8.2/10

Together Through Life (2009) - This time around, Dylan adds a little more variety into his latter-day formula. The trademark sound of this record is the accordion, which gives the album an outdoor party feel. He also includes upright bass, banjo, mandolin and some other instruments (in addition to the usual blues guitars) to round out the sound. His voice is sounding grittier with age, which puts him further in the direction of Tom Waits. He sounds like he’s got a little bit of his edge back. In addition to mixing up the styles, he also varies the song lengths; some as short 3 minutes, others past the 5 minute mark, which overcomes the biggest flaw in Modern Times and makes for a great listen, putting this album among his best works. Essentials: Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, Forgetful Heart, I Feel A Change Comin’ On. 9.1/10

Christmas In The Heart (2009) - Dylan took this opportunity to go deeper into the nostalgic and create his first Christmas album which, as it’s cover artwork suggests, sounds like it’s from the 1950s. The results are mixed. On the one hand, his raspy voice is comparable to Louis Armstrong and gives a certain authenticity to the approach. The twangy guitars and background singers sound great. Other songs just can’t seem to pull it off and come across as campy. There are some real gems in here but it’s hard to imagine your average household throwing this one on around Christmas time. It’s seems like something more for Dylan fans or fans of the vintage. Still, you have to admire the concept and ambition. Essentials: Hark The Herald Angels Sing, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, It Must Be Santa, The Christmas Song. 6.7/10

Tempest (2012) - It’s been 50 years since Dylan released his debut. Unfortunately, Dylan lost some of the artistic moment he built in the last decade and put out a mediocre album. The main flaw is that the songs are too long. It would be forgivable but he doesn’t have as nearly as interesting arrangements as on Together Through Life. He sounds raspy and tired. Lyrically, he returns to gospel themes, songs about murder and the 13-minute long title track talks about the sinking of the Titantic. The words are alright but don’t compare to best parts of on other albums. There are some good moments on this record but all and all a disappoint compared to his later day string of high quality albums.Essentials: Pay In Blood, Scarlet Town, Tin Angel. 6.3/10

125 song Spotify Playlist: Bob Dylan Essentials Mix 

Start to Finish: Beastie Boys

With the recent passing of Mike Yauch (MCA), I was drawn to revisiting the Beastie Boys discography. I’ve heard their radio hits over the years and have always respected them but never really dug into their albums. Also, I’ve been jogging a lot recently and needed music with some beats to get me going, so they were a natural fit. I decided to skip their early hardcore release and other rarities and just stick to the main albums. Let me know what you think of the commentary and if I should have addressed other things that I missed. With the link below, you can listen through what I think are the 25 essential Beastie Boys songs spanning their entire career. I purposely left out some big hits to leave more room for some of their deeper cuts. What are your favorite Beastie Boys songs?

License to Ill (1986) - This album had many hits and is usually thought of as a party record but the songs that stood out to me listening this time around were the fictional robbery tales. This record also has lots of classic rock samples all over the place (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, the Clash, AC DC, Aerosmith, Steve Miller Band, etc.), which helped solidify their place as the pioneering group to blend rap and rock together. While it gets a little slapstick at times, I think it’s a real iconic album that came to define the era.Essentials: Rhymin & Stealin, Paul Revere.

Paul’s Boutique (1989) - The Beastie Boys teamed up with the Dust Brothers for their dense sophomore album. Beck’s Odelay was one of my favorite album growing up so I can easily recognize the Dust Brothers’ fingerprint on this record. They still sampled all over the place like in License to Ill but the samples became more obscure and leaned more heavily on 60s and 70s soul/funk. Although this album didn’t make a huge splash when it was released, it has since gone on to be considered their masterpiece.Essentials: Shadrach, Shake Your Rump, Hey Ladies.  

Check Your Head (1992) - This is the Beastie Boys getting back to their punk/hardcore roots. They played their own instruments this time around and many of songs feature distorted vocals. At times you can hear similarities between this record and the sound Rage Against the Machine were going for. This record is probably my favorite because it rocks the most. Essentials: So What’cha Want, Gratitude, Pass The Mic, Finger Lickin’ Good.

Ill Communication (1994) - This album found the band mixing up all the styles they had done to that point. They started to throw in some instrumentals and found inspiration from more of the 70s soul/funk style. As one of their longest albums at 20 songs, it tends to drag on and has a fair amount of filler, but Sabotage remains the quintessential tune from the era, complete with iconic music video. Essentials: Root Down, Sabotage, Sure Shot, The Update.

Hello Nasty (1998) - For this record they teamed up with Mixmaster Mike, adding some fresh new sounds with a space/cosmic flair. Unfortunately, the rapping is starting to sound a little tired. It feels like they’ve run of out things say and are recycling some of the same patterns and phrases. Like Ill Communication, it is a long record and drags on at the end. Still, their are a handful of gems in here. Essentials: Intergalactic, Body Movin’, Three MCs and One DJ.

To the 5 Boroughs (2004) - This is Boys most political record, referencing the war in Iraq, racism, the economy, etc. The beats sound tighter, slicker, streamlined and modern. In Triple Trouble, they even sample the Sugerhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, which is fun but comes across a little desperate. Although it’s a good, fresh sound and on the whole a solid record, it lacks the hooks and eclectic sounds that gave character to their earlier releases. Essentials: Right Right Now Now, Ch-Check It Out, We Got The.

The Mix Up (2007) - At this point, the Boys had pretty much done it all; so they made an instrumental record. It bears little resemblance to what you the typical think of when you hear the  Beastie Boys: No rapping and no drum machines! It does, however, use as a starting point many of the 70s inspired, lounge/funk/soul sounds they explored on previous records but had previously relegated to filler or interlude status in the context of an album. At times, it sounds like they were shooting to be included on the soundtrack of the next Ocean’s Eleven movie. Still, it’s obvious they had fun time jamming in the studio, putting this together. A great album to jog to but I’m not certain it holds my attention without having rapping/vocal hooks. Essentials: Suco De Tangerina, Electric Worm, The Cousin of Death.

Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011) - Having gone 7 years since their last album of rapping, the Boys had high expectations to meet. Much of the album goes back to an old school sound. There are plenty of reverb and vocal effects as well as more reliance on real drums instead of drum machines. The collaboration with Nas is a fresh, welcome sound, borrowing a fatboy slim electronica style from the 90s. The record also dabbles in funk, reggae, and some interesting production work where some of the beats seem to fall apart and sounds like they are dissolving. With the fate of band uncertain, these could very well be their last record, although there is the possibility that Part 1 will still be released. If it is their last, it would be a fitting ending to an eclectic and musically well accomplished 30+ year career. Essentials: To Many Rappers, Long Burn the Fire, Here’s a Little Something for Ya.