10 Essential Boston Albums

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Boston albums - The Lemonheads

Welcome back to the Treble World Tour, a series of Top 10s covering albums that best represent certain locations—cities, states, territories, even entire nations. We consider representative releases on three levels: they were made by artists from a place, they contain music about or inspired by the place, and/or they were made in that place. The next stop on our musical journey is The Cradle of Liberty: Boston, Massachusetts. A city with a rich history dating back to the very founding of the United States. It was the birthplace of Paul Revere, site of the Boston Tea Party, and the city that gave us Aerosmith. We’ll let you determine the significance of these events for yourself, but the musical history of Boston has at least four or five solid decades of important developments in pop music. Not counting the sea shanties that sailors used to bellow back in its early days, Boston became the launching pad for some of the most prominent radio-rock outfits of the ’70s, including Aerosmith, The Cars and, of course, Boston. It also launched the careers of some notable proto- and post-punk bands, like The Modern Lovers (featuring soon-to-be Talking Head Jerry Harrison) and Mission of Burma. And then, of course, there’s The Pixies. This week, in honor of this year’s Super Bowl victors, we tip our hat to the music of Beantown with 10 Essential Boston Albums. It’s a wicked pissah.

essential Boston AerosmithAerosmithRocks
(1976; Columbia)

It’s not really a Boston albums list without Aerosmith — which is sometimes hard to square with just how far past self-parody the band has gone in the last couple of decades. In the late ’70s, though, the band was at their peak, or make that twin peaks: artistic peak and peak drug use. After having made their name on the strength of power ballad “Dream On” and the groovers “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion,” the band ran headfirst into some of their rawest, dirtiest rock songs to date. It’s called Rocks for a reason — this is fist-pumping, lighter-hoisting, barroom-brawl rock ‘n’ roll that pretty much always sounds best after a few shots. Not that you need them — “Back in the Saddle” features some of Joe Perry’s most badass riffs, while “Nobody’s Fault” finds the band essentially going heavy metal. Only album closer “Home Tonight” slows the pace or drops the volume, so there’s no sap getting in the way of this roaring beast. – JT

essential Boston albums Modern LoversThe Modern LoversThe Modern Lovers
(1976; Berserkley)

Jonathan Richman is rock’s eternal naif. Infatuated with a band, The Velvet Underground, whose personal experiences must have been about 180 degrees away from Richman’s, he and the Modern Lovers distilled their simple, raw attack into songs of innocence. Yet The Modern Lovers isn’t doe-eyed extensions of childhood fantasies: Part of its bite comes from witnessing adult conflicts and attitudes, and wondering how the participants managed to drift so far away from the obvious answers. Richman deals with a stand-offish partner in “Astral Plane” by willing himself into an imagined shared headspace. “Pablo Picasso” suggests art therapy for lumbering dolts who keep getting called assholes. Whatever’s going on in “Hospital” is clearly over the singer’s head, but his will to help is touching. Most of all the Modern Lovers put forth a new spin on rock and roll’s redemptive properties with freshness and optimism of the heart. In fact “Roadrunner” is so curative, strong and embracing, who knows? Your issue might be solved by the time you hit the Stop-N-Shop. – PP

essential Boston albums The CarsThe CarsThe Cars
(1979; Elektra)

No one expected that punk/new wave would be crossed with hard rock back in the late ’70s. That is, until The Cars did it in 1978 with their self-titled debut album The Cars. The result was something so catchy and listenable that at least four tracks off the debut album are regularly played on radio and often pop up in contemporary films, including “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Let the Good Times Roll.” Founding member Ric Ocasek was some kind of musical King Midas, with several tracks breaking the Billboard Hot 100. Ocasek and founding member Benjamin Orr got together in Columbus, Ohio, but it wasn’t until the two moved to Beantown that The Cars coalesced as a fully-formed band whose music eventually hit Boston’s radio waves and from there, the rest of America. Listening to The Cars, one thing is still clear: thank god they moved to Boston. – NG

American post punk Mission of Burma VsMission of BurmaVs.
(1982; Ace of Hearts)

Of all the bands written about in Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, the level of internal chaos and strife that Mission of Burma experienced ranked somewhere near the bottom, and really, it would be damn near impossible to compete with Black Flag or The Replacements’ drama. And that’s fine — Mission of Burma saved all their abrasiveness for the actual music. After the Signals, Calls and Marches EP, the Boston trio channeled their energy into creating a record that not only hit hard, fast and loud, but actively fucked with the conventions of rock music. Employing tape manipulator Martin Swope, the band turned dreamy post-punk numbers like “Dead Pool” into heady sound collages. Not that they didn’t burn through some visceral and rancorous punk tunes as well, like the stomping “The Ballad of Johnny Burma” or the white-knuckle intense “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate.” The band broke up shortly after this album came out, and splintered off into a series of other great bands (Volcano Sons, Consonant), but we all know that’s not the end of the story; after reuniting in 2002, they’ve been on an extended second act that’s proven far more prolific than the first one. – JT

essential boston albums galaxie 500Galaxie 500On Fire
(1989; Rough Trade)

Back in 1992, sophomore year in high school, my friend Dan, who thought I would like it, taped his copy of On Fire off his record player for me. The fidelity wasn’t so great. Everything, the guitars, the low end and the drums sounded squashed and mushy. And I had no idea of what the singer with the high-pitched voice, Dean Wareham, was warbling about. But, as the good weird records often do, there’s something about that keeps you from finding dust-gathering spot for them on the shelf. If you’re paying attention, there’s a secret about to be whispered to you, if you stay a little longer. For me, and perhaps in retrospect this an obvious point to people who know and love On Fire, it was the album’s catchiest song, “Blue Thunder,” that I kept rewinding and praying the tape wouldn’t tangle. I couldn’t at first make out what it was about — it’s a car song, and a great one too — but it was and Wareham singing, “I’ll drive so far away” that captured me. If you’re a teenager in nowheresville, you subconsciously are attracted to songs about leaving. Drive away, and far away. Of course I’d do that if I had the wheels. Later, I got my own vinyl copy of On Fire, the band’s second album, which I still have. The album, produced by the band’s collaborator Kramer, sounds anything but squashed and mushy. It’s damn near perfect. Even now, 26 years later, there are parts of On Fire that come around the corner to startle you. The slow-jangle of “Tell Me,” wraps around Wareham’s stinging guitar solo like a cotton bandage. On “Strange,” drummer Damon Krukowski’s drums pound away then retreat into the mix, only to return, recharged, later in the song. Bass player Namoi Yang, who would get more chances to sing her post-Galaxie duo with Krukowski (also her husband), haunts “Another Day,” like cold wind in a churchyard. Galaxie 500 only had one more album in them before they split up, with Wareham going on to find a greater cult following in his New York City band Luna. On Fire, though, smolders still. – SC

pixies doolittle essential 4ad tracksPixiesDoolittle
(1989; 4AD)

Ask any self-respecting weirdo who they believe to be the definitive rock group from Boston, and they’ll say Pixies. Ask them what that band’s most essential record is and I’d be surprised if the next morsel uttered from their lips ain’t Doolittle. Born, bred and recorded in Beantown, Doolittle builds off the strength of Surfer Rosa, but boasts a strange, palpable tension as Francis Black & Co. moved from working with oddball producer Steve Albini to the more traditional Gil Norton. Whereas Albini was a comrade of the band when it came to experimenting in the studio, Norton pushed for longer songs and a more commercial sound, which only led Pixies to pump up the noise. The result is a bizarre, almost operatic affair which frequently finds itself shuffling between minimalist noise and groove-inducing, stadium friendly guitar riffs. I mean, I dare you to write a better, more delicately twisted pop anthem than “Wave of Mutilation.” – ATB

essential Boston albums ComeComeEleven : Eleven
(1992; Matador)

Boston quartet Come was grunge music’s best kept little secret. With the support of Matador, Sub Pop and Placebo Records, as well as a touring gig opening for none other than Nirvana, it’s an absolute shame that Thalia Zadek, Chris Brokaw, Sean O’Brien and Arthur Johnson never became household names. Theirs was a tangled, blues-heavy take on that Seattle sound; the aggression was a bit more subtle, but sank an extra layer deeper with each chord. On their 1994 debut Eleven:Eleven, they tackled it all: The slow-brewing progression of “Submerge,” the more haphazard stomp of “Dead Molly” or “Fast Piss Blues,” the anthemic bruising of “Off To One Side.” Hell, Come even managed to make a Stones cover even more tormented and powerful than the original. So why didn’t it stick? I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess it was the way Come were both ahead of their time, yet strongly footed in the history of blues. But, regardless of how the future treats this band, they are a goddamn legend in my book. – ATB

essential Boston albums LemonheadsThe LemonheadsIt’s a Shame About Ray
(1992; Atlantic)

Formed after the break-up of another Boston-based cult band, The Blake Babies, The Lemonheads earned almost as much attention for their dreamboat frontman Evan Dando as they did for their music. And it’s cool — indie rockers need pin-ups too. But the jangly, upbeat pop the band released in their nearly three-decade career hit its peak in the mid-’90s, thanks largely to their breakthrough 1992 album It’s a Shame About Ray. Best known for a bonus track — the band’s cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” — the road to that throwback nugget is paved with some spectacular moments in pop, chief among them the breezily melancholy title track, which was another alt-rock radio hit for the band. The album also features Dando’s former bandmate in Blake Babies, Juliana Hatfield, playing bass and singing backup — just before she launched her own solo career. While the rest of the country was going grunge, this Boston group was writing peppy, pretty pop songs about being inelegantly wasted. – JT

essential Boston albums MorphineMorphineCure for Pain
(1993; Rykodisc)

Despite having the cool sheen of West Coast lounges and a jazzy feel from somewhere between Chicago and New Orleans, the breakthrough second album from Morphine was Massachusetts through and through. Bandleader Mark Sandman was born in Newton and graduated from UMass Boston, and his unique band set up shop out of Cambridge. Cure for Pain was their first move out of small-label anonymity, recorded for Rykodisc at then-local Fort Apache Studios. The band specialized in paeans to a succession of women—some called out by name (“Buena,” “Candy,” “Sheila”), some anonymized to protect the not-so-innocent (“In Spite of Me,” the tryst-havin’ classic “Thursday”)—with hallucinogenic diversions like “A Head with Wings” and “Miles Davis’ Funeral.” A power trio getting its power from Dana Colley’s deep saxophone and Sandman’s singular two-string bass, Morphine created a braying, rumbling masterpiece that was an alternative even to the day’s newly ascendant alt-rock. – AB

essential Boston albums Hard to EarnGang StarrHard to Earn
(1994; Chrysalis)

Gang Starr operated mostly out of Brooklyn during their two decades performing together, but Ground Zero for the famed hip-hop duo was Boston, Massachusetts. Guru, the emcee, was born in Roxbury and started Gang Starr in Boston in the mid-’80s, joined in 1987 by DJ Premier — a Houston native. In that sense, Gang Starr is the product of a pair of famous transplants, but their roots in Boston are important; east coast hip-hop extends beyond the Five Boroughs, and one of the Golden Age’s best emcees hailed directly from the Bay State. That being said, their best album — Hard to Earn — arrived well into residency in New York City. It’s a fluid mixture of boom-bap beats and laid-back rhymes, standing tall as one of the greatest emcee/DJ duos of all time thanks to standout tracks like “DWYCK,” “Blowin’ Up the Spot” and the unstoppable single, “Mass Appeal.” Yeah yeah, Gang Starr represented Brooklyn, but I’ll just leave you with this thought: Don’t forget your roots. – JT

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