The Who -
- Live At Leeds
- The Who Sell Out
- A Quick One
- Who's Next
After issuing shoddy CD reissues of The Who's catalog for many years, MCA finally decided to do the job right. Last year, the wonderful 4 CD box set, 30 Years Of Maximum R&B was released, setting the stage for these releases, which I'll address one at a time.
The original Live At Leeds was considered a classic, and one of the most influential live albums ever. It had some flaws however. The album was only six songs with none of the on-stage dialogue (or even much of the applause) included. The new reissue cleans up the sound, adds back in the song intros, restores the bootleg feel of the original packaging, and adds nine amazing cuts from the original concert. The result is an almost complete 1970 concert (only "Amazing Journey" and "Sparks" are presented from the Tommy portion of the show). The end result is that MCA has managed to greatly improve an already classic album. If you like (or love) Live At Leeds, you need this reissue. Immediately.
The Who Sell Out is one of the great "concept albums" in rock. The album simulates the format of the 60's British "pirate" radio stations. The songs are broken up by commercials (recorded by The Who for very real products) and segues taken from one of the pirate stations, Radio London. In addition, the styles of each song vary greatly from cut to cut. On the original 1967 album, the concept broke down a bit on side two. The style changes were still there, but the ads were less frequent. On the new reissue, a few previously unreleased ads are dropped into what was side 2 of the LP, plus a slew of outtake songs and ads are added to the end of the CD. The result is a seamless 70 minute CD with the wit and power of the original, but with better sound and more songs. Also essential.
A Quick One was The Who's weakest studio LP, although it has it's moments, notably the Who's classic "mini-opera" ("A Quick One While He's Away") and the goofy "Boris The Spider". The reissue has some non-LP tracks thrown in, including an acoustic take of "Happy Jack". For hardcore Who fans only.
Who's Next was born out of the remains of a failed movie/concept album project called Lifehouse. The reissue adds liner notes written by Pete Townshend discussing the project, but maddeningly do not reveal the running order of the originally proposed double album. The Who's Next reissue has greatly improved sound which makes classics (even if they are overplayed) like "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley" even more powerful. The bonus tracks this time are from earlier Lifehouse sessions, and they are wonderful. Interesting note: Some of the outtakes are taken from a tape of the Lifehouse rehearsals that surfaced on the bootleg market a few years ago. Those tapes were used to make a bootleg album called From Lifehouse To Leeds. In any case, the new reissue is stellar. Only down side: some of the new tracks have been edited slightly. If you're a real hardcore fan, you need From Lifehouse To Leeds as well. Then again, if you're a hardcore fan, you probably already have it.
Robyn Hitchcock (solo, and with The Egyptians) -
- Black Snake Diamond Role
- Gravy Deco
- I Often Dream Of Trains
- Gotta Let This Hen Out!
- Element Of Light
- Invisible Hitchcock
Hitchcock's indie catalog got the reissue treatment from Rhino, and they've done a wonderful job with it. Each of the albums has been remastered and cleaned up, and bonus tracks have been added to all but the live album (Gotta Let This Hen Out!). Fegmania! and Element Of Light are the best of his Egyptians albums, and the stunning acoustic albums I Often Dream Of Trains and Eye are the best of his solo albums. Start there.
Steely Dan - Alive In America
After 14 years of inactivity, and more than 20 years since a live date, Steely Dan returns for a pair of massive tours, highlights of which are presented here. The band (Donald Fagen, Walter Becker & lots of help) still shows the jazzier feel of their later albums (Aja, Gaucho). Great stuff.
King Crimson - B'Boom
After recording last year's "calling card" EP, VROOOM, King Crimson went to Argentina to play some live dates and tighten up the band's sound. This "official bootleg" taken from those Argentine dates, showcases the new, powerfully dense sound of the new "double trio" lineup. Essential for fans of the new lineup.
Grant Hart - Ecce Homo
Grant Hart has had a much lower profile than his former Hüsker Dü colleague Bob Mould. Hart's new band, Nova Mob, seems to keep getting dropped from labels, which may have prompted this solo acoustic live album. Hart sings stripped-down versions of songs written for Hüsker Dü, his solo album Intolerance, and the two Nova Mob albums, plus a few new compositions. Wonderful.
X - Unclogged
The "unplugged" trend is still hot, and X tries to get with that trend with Unclogged, a mostly-acoustic live album. Unfortunately, most of the album is just lifeless. The main highlight is drummer D.J. Bonebrake's use of vibes instead of drums on a few tracks. To be fair, there are a few good tracks here, but overall it lacks the power of X's best work. Oddly enough, this year's debut album from bassist/vocalist John Doe's new band, The John Doe Thing, sounds like X should sound.
Sugar - Besides
Due to internal band conflicts, Sugar's days seem to be over, which is a real shame. Besides is a collection of B-sides (get it?) that ties up the band's career neatly. The B-sides are not on a par with the original album tracks, but a few cuts, notably "Needle Hits E" and the acoustic version of "If I Can't Change Your Mind" stand out. There's also a special edition of Besides, issued as a double CD. The second CD in this package is a blistering live performace from the band's final tour, in support of File Under: Easy Listening. The live CD is a must. Neat aside: Besides was one of the first "CD-plus" issues. If you load Besides in a CD-ROM player, you'll find that there is a QuickTime for Windows player ready to install, plus a QuickTime movie of the video for "Gee Angel".
The Velvet Underground - Peel Slowly And See
I haven't heard this 5 CD box yet, but it looks extremely promising. The first CD in the set is made up of tapes pre-dating the Velvets debut album. The remaining four cover the four major studio albums (the classic debut The Velvet Underground & Nico, the abrasive White Light/White Heat, the serene The Velvet Underground and the band's swan song, Loaded). Each of the four CDs adds bonus cuts (outtakes and the like), plus one of the band's standards, "Sweet Jane", appears in it's unedited form for the first time. I'm dying to hear this one.
Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers - Playback
Playback is a six CD set that covers Petty's career from recordings made prior to the Heartbreakers' debut album through his final MCA album, Greatest Hits. The first three CD's cover the hits (and there are a lot of them), some outstanding album tracks, and three rarities, Petty's Christmas single, a live recording from very early in the Heartbreakers' career, and a demo. CD number 4 is all B-sides. They've all been released before, but they're all fairly rare. CDs 5 and 6 are made up of unreleased tracks, including 6 songs from Petty's first band, Mudcrutch (including both sides of Mudcrutch's one and only 45), two tracks from an aborted solo album recorded with future Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and session heavyweights Al Kooper and "Duck" Dunn. Apart from the hits, the highlights are the Mudcrutch A-side "Depot Street", a Heartbreakers-only (no Stevie Nicks) version of "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around", and the studio outtakes, which hold up surprisingly well against Petty's released material. On the whole, Playback is one of the best (if not THE best) box sets on the market.
Frank Zappa - Strictly Commercial: The Best Of Frank Zappa
How do you select 1 CD (an hour and change) worth of highlights from a 20-year career that includes roughly 60 albums, many of them double and triple sets? You don't. However, Ryko has taken a valiant stab at compiling a CD's worth of Zappa's more "commerical" songs, the ones in the rock, jazz-rock and blues-rock veins. The songs range from the lovely "Peaches En Regalia" to the searing guitar instrumental "Sexual Harassment In The Workplace", from the satire of "I'm The Slime" and "Be In My Video" to the silly "Muffin Man" (which ends the CD with a dazzling guitar solo) to the classic "Trouble Every Day", which was written during the 1965 Watts Riots, but still hits home if applied to more recent LA riots. Zappa's "novelty songs" like "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow", "Valley Girl", "Dancin' Fool" and "Montana" are here, and for collectors, rare versions of "Yellow Snow", "Joe's Garage" and "Montana" are included. A superb starting point to a wonderful catalog.
(Hey buddy. Over here. Bootlegs. Shhhhh):
Television - July 25, 1975: Piccadilly Inn
A very limited (15 copies) CD of Television's first performance outside of New York, recorded on a postable cassette deck by the late Pere Ubu founder (and huge Television fan) Peter Laughner. The band sounds red hot, ripping through 10 songs, including 3 songs that would be released on their classic 1977 debut album, Marquee Moon. Absolutely incredible.
The Who - Maximum BBC
A bootleg compilation of The Who's appearances on the BBC, playing "live in the studio" renditions of both Who tracks and covers that were never officially released. Basically, this is a Who version of the Beatles' Live At The BBC album. For a Who fan, this is a must.
XTC - Demos, Volumes 1-7
Seven separate CD releases containing demos for Drums And Wires, The Big Express, Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons, and Nonsuch, along with tracks from the late 70's glam band that evolved into XTC, The Helium Kidz. The sound quality leaves a bit to be desired, but a great set of releases none the less.
OTHER NOTEWORTHY RELEASES
The Beatles - Anthology 1
One of the most important and easily one of the most misunderstood releases of the year, Anthology 1 is NOT a "best of", instead it's a fascinating walk through the vaults at Abbey Road, providing a glimpse into the Beatles' career that was previously only available on bootleg albums. The highlights include the two songs recorded by John & Paul's pre-Beatles group, The Quarry Men (a cover and a McCartney/Harrison original), an early version of "One After 909", a great alternate take of "Eight Days A Week", the famous "Decca Tapes" (the audition tape given to Decca that was turned down), and a slew of early live performances. Despite the hype (including the nauseating "A Beatles C"), this is really NOT an album for the casual Beatles fan. The casual listener listener will probably be put off by the occasionally poor sound quality (though good overall), and some of the poor performances. This isn't the Beatles' best moments. The best moments have already been released. Anthology 1 is a bit like looking at a rough drafts for a novel or early blueprints for a building. Fascinating, but not for everyone.
Also, let me go out on a critical limb for a moment. I like the "reunion" single included on Anthology 1 ("Free As A Bird"). So, it's not another "A Day In The Life", it's not John's best lyrics, the sound is iffy at points, especially John's voice, which is weak throughout. But it's also got some wonderfully sad piano from John, strong vocals from Paul, great slide guitar from George, solid drumming from Ringo, and yes, it sounds like The Beatles. Whether they should have tried to create this is a separate discussion, but given that Paul, George & Ringo wanted to make a new Beatles song, using John's demo was obviously the only option. And given the problems inherent, I think the "Threetles" and producer Jeff Lynne do an admirable job.
The Dandy Warhols - Dandys Rule OK?
The Velvet Underground have a big influence on lots and lots of bands, but The Dandy Warhols have actually captured a large part of the sound of the post-Cale Velvets. The most obvious case is "(Tony, This Song Is Called) Lou Weed", which has its guitar sound taken straight from Velvets songs like "What Goes On" and "Beginning To See The Light". The songs are a mixed bag (some better than others), but they've got an impressive sound. Fun stuff. (BTW, that isn't a typo, the song is called "Lou Weed")
The Bonzo Dog Band - Unpeeled
Similar to the last year's Beatles release Live At The BBC, Unpeeled is a collection of songs recorded live in the studio for the BBC. The band's talent (and extremely weird sense of humor) come shining through, especially on "Give Booze A Chance", and the long sketch "The Craig Torso Show". Bizarre and wonderful.
Robyn Hitchcock - You & Oblivion
You & Oblivion is a "new" collection of acoustic tracks, most of which are left-overs and outtakes from previous albums. However, Hitchcock's leftovers are as good as many acts released tracks. Not as compelling as his last acoustic album, Eye, but well worth the listen.
ALSO WORTH A LISTEN
- Warren Zevon - Mutineer
- Dread Zeppelin - No Quarter Pounder
- Graham Parker - 12 Haunted Episodes
- The Caulfields - Whirligig
As of January 1, '96, Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, the band that "put the 'strum' back in 'instrumental'" (but better known as the house band on The Kids In The Hall's TV series) called it a day after 10 years. They released three albums (Savvy Show Stoppers, Dim The Lights, Chill The Ham and Sport Fishin') and loads of inventive, catchy and occasionally funny singles, all of them worth a listen. Highly recommended.
THE TOP TEN FOR 1995
(in my marginally humble opinion)
10) Big Country - Why The Long Face
Why The Long Face is another fine Big Country album. Drummer Mark Brzezicki has returned to the fold, and his superb, subtle drumming is a big plus. Stuart Adamson has written another fine batch of songs: "You Dreamer", "Post Nuclear Talking Blues", and the anthemic "Blue On A Green Planet" are the highlights. Recommended.
9) Randy Newman - Randy Newman's Faust
Randy Newman's Faust is a version of his new musical based on the Goethe play, however, Newman has updated it and added in his own sense of humor. In Newman's version, Faust is a dim-bulb Notre Dame freshman, God is a pleasant "Father Knows Best"-type but with a nasty sense of humor, and the Devil is smart, snide, cynical, falls in love and gets dumped. The story deals with a bet between God and the Devil to see if the Devil can corrupt a pure soul (Faust). Taylor's crystal-clear voice is perfectly cast as God and Newman's cynical, sneering voice is perfect for the Devil. The highlights on the CD are the songs featuring those two, especially the opening "Glory Train" and "Can't Keep A Good Man Down" and the closing "Happy Ending", in which the defeated Devil takes great glee in his newest idea: Las Vegas. The down side is that the other parts, some well cast (Bonnie Raitt) and some terribly cast (Don Henley as Faust and Elton John in a throwaway song) slow down the album. The songs are great, I just wish Randy had sung 'em all.
8) The John Doe Thing - Kissingsohard
John Doe's second album apart from X sounds more like X that X does nowadays. His new band, The John Doe Thing, pulls together rock, punk, folk & roots rock. Oddly enough, the weakest song here is a remake of X's "My Goodness". The new tracks are terrific though. Doe's best album since X's More Fun In The New World.
7) Cast - All Change
All Change is the debut album from Cast, led by John Power, former bassist for The La's (remember "There She Goes"?). The sound is similar to The La's (classic pop with airy harmonies) with a bit more power thrown in the mix. Great songs. All Change is currently available only as an import. The scheduled US release is sometime in the spring.
6) King Crimson - THRAK
Last year's VROOOM was a teaser for this album, which shows of the new "double trio formation" of King Crimson. The band's sound combines the improvisational heavy rock of the Larks' Tongues In Aspic era, the precision with tricky time signatures, quirky guitar interplay and poppy songs of the Discipline era, plus something else entirely that makes the new King Crimson more than a sum of it's influences. The tracks repeated from VROOOM ("VROOOM", "Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream", "One Time", "THRAK") are tighter, better played and more powerful than before. The newer tracks like "Dinosaur" and "People" are wonderful as well, coupling Belew's pop tendencies with the dense sound of the new lineup.
5) Paul Weller - Stanley Road
Stanley Road picks up where last year's Wild Wood left off, but adds more R&B influence into the mix. Weller is again in fine form, especially on "The Changingman", "Stanley Road" (a vaguely autobiographical track), "Porcelain Gods" (about his own image), and the rocking "Out Of The Sinking". Weller also gambles a bit and tries a Dr. John cover ("I Walk On Guilded Splinters"), which gets more points for effort than actual execution. Overall, Stanley Road is not the gem that Wild Wood was, but it's a worthy successor, and a great album in it's own right.
4) Neil Young - Mirror Ball
At the 1994 Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies, Young was introduced by Eddie Vedder whose band, Pearl Jam, was heavily influenced by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. At the "jam session" following the awards, Young & Pearl Jam played together and found real chemistry. The idea for a joint project was followed up on very quickly. Sessions were pulled together in Seattle, using Pearl Jam (along with their regular producer, Brendan O'Brien) as Young's backing band. The result is an overwhelming new Young album, with the raw power of his Crazy Horse albums, but with Pearl Jam's tighter, more modern sound. Highlights include the catchy single "Downtown" (about a mythical place where hippies all go), "Act Of Love" (about the seriousness of abortion, without preaching either side of the issue), "I'm The Ocean", and the majestic "Peace And Love". Absolutely amazing.
Side note: The album was originally to be credited to "Neil Young & Pearl Jam", with an "NYPJ" logo on the cover. However, Pearl Jam's label, Epic, objected (presumably because the album was released on Young's label, Reprise), and Pearl Jam's name was removed from everywhere in the packaging. In the liner notes, they're just listed as "the band".
3) Mike Scott - Bring 'Em All In
The final Waterboys album, Dream Harder (from '93), was a Scott solo album in all but name, but it attempted to recapture the band's early "big music" sound. After ending the band, Scott left New York (and the music biz), worked at a retreat for a while, visited Dublin (where The Waterboys' most successful albums were recorded), and returned to his native Scotland. The powerful, personal songs on Bring 'Em All In deal with those last two years. Scott abandons the band's sound and goes the true solo route, playing all the instruments on the album. However "all the instruments" means just guitar, piano and spare percussion (no drums), leaving a stark, powerful sound, vaguely reminiscent of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Highlights include the gripping "Edinburgh Castle", "I Know She's In The Building" (about a lost love), "City Full Of Ghosts (Dublin)" (about living and working in Dublin), and the closing "Building The City Of Light". Powerful and moving music.
2) Teenage Fanclub - Grand Prix
On Teenage Fanclub's breakthrough album, Bandwagonesque, they coupled grungy guitar rock with a love for Big Star-style pop. On the next album, Thirteen, the pop moved a bit closer to the surface. On Grand Prix, the conversion is complete. Grand Prix is a wonderful album of modern Big Star-influenced guitar pop with perfect harmonies. The band's grungy past still shows through on tracks like "Neil Jung", but the future is definitely in songs like the lovely, string-laden "Tears", the poppy "Discolite", and the irresistable "Sparky's Dream" - which is the best song the band has recorded, and the best new song I've heard all year, hands down. Essential.
1) Oasis - (What's The Story) Morning Glory?
Currently one of the hottest bands in England, Oasis combines Beatlesque pop (topped by Liam Gallagher's nasal, Lennon-ish voice) with a bit of modern guitar power. The band wears it's influences (The Beatles, The Jam, T. Rex & others) on their sleeves, but Noel Gallagher's songs are just so damn catchy they're impossible to resist. The lyrics aren't particularly special (though Noel does get off a good line now and then), but Oasis just has that perfect SOUND. Highlights include "Wonderwall" (a Beatles-like ballad, complete with strings), "Morning Glory" (a blasting rocker about cocaine use), "Don't Look Back In Anger" (about groupies) and the epic closer "Champagne Supernova", featuring a guitar solo from Paul Weller. On the whole, there just isn't a weak song on here. A masterpiece.