Musings —04.29.2020 02:32 PM—
I keep getting tagged by people – including Emma Kinsella – about this top ten albums thing. To save you and me some time, here are all of them, in one place.
1. RAMONES – Ramones – I bought this at Kelly’s on the Eighth Avenue Mall shortly after it came out, in the Summer of 1976. I had read a little bit about them in Creem magazine, so I knew that Robert Christigau and Lester Bangs were in love with the Ramones, which was good enough for me. On the bus back to our home southeast Calgary, however, I kept the LP hidden away: the black and white cover shot depicted a quartet of circus freaks, not the sort of Zeppelinesque cock rockers favoured by my peers (some of whom did not hesitate to express their preferences with their fists). Safely back in my room, I fired up my tinny little record player. A wave of sonic bliss washed over me: Dee Dee and Tommy’s stripped-down bass and drums, Johnny’s three perfect chords, Joey’s yelping. I knew I had purchased greatness when a parent’s voice hollered down the stairs: “Can you turn that garbage DOWN?” No greater rock’n’roll ever has ever been committed to vinyl, before or since. And in less than 30 minutes, too. Christ, I love these guys.
2. PLASTIC ONO BAND – John Lennon – His assassination, on December 8, 1980, was a terrible tragedy – and so, to me, was the fact that his last album (before the inevitable avalanche of ham-fisted compilations and retrospectives) was a piece of self-indulgent, saccharine shite like Double Fantasy. Generally, he always needed Paul as an editor, and vice-versa. But Plastic Ono Band was the exception: it was stark, and raw, and different, and deeply, deeply personal. Some say the LP was the product of John’s dalliance with Dr. Walter Janov’s primal scream therapy, or his response to the (necessary, and overdue) collapse of the Beatles. To me, it was instead an actual piece of art and great rock’n’roll, improbably found under the same piece of shrink wrap. Like listening to someone’s soul, without having received an invite to do so.
3. NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS – Sex Pistols – Mainly a collection of singles, I know. Steve Jones does all the bass parts, because Glen Matlock was gone and Sid couldn’t play, I know. More like standard pub rock than the punk sounds then sprouting up in the UK and New York, I know. A product of Malcolm MacLaren’s marketing savvy, not nihilism, I know. But try listening to ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – or ‘God Save the Queen,’ or ‘Holidays in the Sun,’ or anything else on Bollocks – and believing anything the cynics have to say (John Lydon among them). This is, truly, one of the greatest rock’n’roll albums ever – and it came along at just the right time. Circa 1977, rock had become a business – an arena-sized, coke-addicted, utterly-disconnected-from-reality corporate game played by millionaires at Studio 54 – and the Pistols, and this album, changed all of that. Loud, loutish, pissed off. Of the streets, and for the streets. I’m glad they didn’t make a second album, because it’s hard to be this great twice.
4. CLOSER – Joy Division – I had been listening to them for only a little while before Ian Curtis hanged himself in May 1980, on the eve of their first North American tour. In July of that same year, on the eve of my move from Calgary to Ottawa to learn about journalism, I heard Closer for the first time. Every note, every groove, every word portends Curtis’ death. But Closer is more than just a testament to Ian Curtis. It chronicles human despair (and hope, too, somehow) better than Bowie did on Low, or Lou Reed did on Berlin – and that’s saying something. I still can’t listen to it without getting upset.
5. MARQUEE MOON – Television – The cliché that you have an entire life to make your first album, and only a few days to make your second. In the case of Tom Verlaine’s Television, the cliché applies. Marquee Moon was, and is, a work of sweeping genius that embodied a pile of (seeming) contradictions – dense and clean at the same time; Dada-ish and punkish; literate and petulant. Verlaine has heard, countless times, that he was never as good as this again. He probably doesn’t care – and shouldn’t. Few of us are this brilliant, ever.
6. PINK FLAG – Wire – Twenty-one tracks in 35 minutes. Art fused to three-chord punk. Twelve tracks running less than 90 seconds. Best cuts: Reuters, 12XU, It’s So Obvious, 106 Beats That. REM covered Strange. Purchased at Opus 69 Records, Calgary, early 1978. Influenced more bands than records sold. Simplicity is a virtue. Still.
7. IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK – Public Enemy – Before rap and hip hop slid into a morass of misogyny, violence and crass materialism, there was PE – and, in 1988, It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back. Awash in samples of everything from Funkadelic to Isaac Hayes, bristling with Chuck D’s (justified) anger, bouncing with Flavour Flav’s humour, ITANOMTHUB just rocks. ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ is the stand-out. Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour) and his pals Flav (William Drayton), Terminator X (Norman Lee Rogers) and Professor Griff (Richard Griff) were like the best of the best punks – the Clash, Sham 69, Stiff Little Fingers – in their collective desire to stir up anger, and then channel same into positive political change. I, and plenty of others, condemned their dalliance with the intolerance of NOI’s Louis Farrakhan, and Griff’s anti-Semitism; in time (too much time) they expressed their disdain for black supremacy, and they fired Griff. Along the way, they revealed themselves to be human, and therefore imperfect. This album remains anything but.
8. LET IT BE – The Replacements – The Eighties sucked almost as much as the Seventies, and these miscreants got me through it all. If you strip away all of the self-destructive behaviour – and if you loved the Mats, you know there was plenty of that, principally in the form of Bob Stinson (R.I.P.) – you were left with the beautiful, vivid, anti-modernist lyrics of Paul Westerberg. Throughout this album, and subsequently, Westerberg struggles mightily with his inner poet, punk and drunk, with no side ever conclusively winning the grudge match. He is the only person who has ever pulled that off. Ever.
9. SEARCHING FOR A FORMER CLARITY – Against Me! – Underlying all of our relative peace, order and good government – underneath all of the apparent prosperity – do you get the sense, sometimes, that things aren’t as swell as they appear? That there is an angst, a palpable feeling of doubt, lurking just below the nation’s skin? Against Me! have that sense. The Florida punk band’s 2005 album, released on Fat Wreck Chords, is dark and haunting. It is extraordinary, in a way that nothing is extraordinary anymore. Led by lyricist Tom Gabel, the foursome – who I met at a NOFX barbecue party in Scarborough in the Summer of 2005 – have put together a powerful, powerful album, one that more closely reflects the angst of our age than anything I have heard in years. Iraq, terror, hatred, vacuous celebrity, even boredom: all of it is found here, holding up a mirror to the modern zeitgeist, and then breaking it. Smashing it. Based on the strength of this record, Against Me! have the ability to change punk, and rock’n’roll itself. They are literally that good. And that’s why they are on the eternal Top Ten (for now).
10. EXILE ON MAIN STREET – Rolling Stones – Back in 1972, they were what rock’n’roll should be – dark and dangerous. Snarling, snarky drinkin’ music. Greatest sample lyric of all time: “Sunlight bores the daylights out of me.” Sure, they were millionaire, loathsome junkies when they made it – at a villa in the south of France, no less – but it was the last, best LP they ever committed to vinyl (Let It Bleed is a close second, natch.). Dunno if they are junkies still, but they certainly are loathsome millionaires, aren’t they?