Album: All Things Must Pass
A childhood memory, probably from when I was 11 years old: it’s before dawn, and we are driving from Fresno up to a soccer tournament in the Bay Area. We’re somewhere deep in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, having just turned onto the 152, heading west towards the 5.
At that point, we were getting out of the range my beloved 1300 KYNO — because of course, I’d already commandeered the car radio — but just as the station is fading into a choppy signal, “What is Life” comes on as the first rays of the morning sun come in through the back window of our station wagon.
Album: Generation X
Oi. There is so much to unpack here, so let’s start with the phenomenon of the punk rock name. Obviously, adopting an onstage psuedonym is as old as the performing arts themselves, but I would argue that it reached its popular music peak during punk rock: Johnny Rotten, Billy Zoom, Elvis Costello, Poly Styrene, the list goes on.
The weird thing, of course, is that stage names would seem to be antithetical to a music that prided itself on authenticity, but a well-chosen moniker instead actually contributed to the ethos surrounding an artist. And this is key: it also allowed them to reinvent themselves and fake it so real that they became beyond fake.
We will get to Gary Louris’s work with The Jayhawks — and my no-doubt controversial choice for their best album — in due time, but I have to confess that I love this title track from his solo debut probably as much as I love any song he’s ever written.
A big, slow, folk-rock anthem full of wailing harmonica, shimmering organ, plaintive pedal-steel and massive harmonies, “Vagabonds” fully reflects the sound and tradition of the Laurel Canyon recording studio where it was birthed.
Man, did that first Garbage album age well. In the mid-90s, the idea of melding sampled beats, grunge guitar and impossibly cool basslines with an even impossibly cooler female lead singer felt like a whole new thing.
The fact that the mastermind was super-producer Butch Vig, who had helmed a couple of little records called Siamese Dream and Nevermind meant that the project was always going to be high-profile enough to fail miserably.
One of the most influential of all of the post-punk bands, Gang of Four were somehow album to weld funk music with punk rock in a way that felt both revolutionary and inevitable.
On their classic debut album, Entertainment!, song after song combined Andy Gill’s slashing guitars, Dave Allen’s lead bass, Hugo Burnham’s danceable beats, and Jon King’s rants against capitalism and love.