10 Essential Baltimore Albums

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Animal Collective 2017 tour

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 itinerary? Charm City, hon. Of the locales we’ve surveyed so far, and probably all others to come, Baltimore, Maryland has likely the longest connection to popular music in the USA: It’s the birthplace of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” America’s national anthem penned by Francis Scott Key upon witnessing the defense of Baltimore against the British at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. That work is just the first major instance of Baltimore’s trend of finding and housing brilliant art in dark times and places. In more modern days we see it manifested in the Barry Levinson/David Simon television universe (Homicide, Oz, The Wire), John Waters’ cult film legacy, and an extensive history of musical weirdness embracing everything from independent riffs on jazz, beats, and noise to the Wham City art collective. Modern portrayals and opinions of the city find it edgy and seedy yet bravely creative, almost in spite of itself. We’re here to discuss the best of those, so kick back with a Natty Boh and consider our list of Essential Baltimore Albums.

Billie Holiday Lady sings the bluesBillie HolidayLady Sings the Blues
(1956; Clef)

When an artist leaves behind a career as prolific as Billie Holiday did, it’s no surprise when multiple cities attempt to step in to take the credit. But, even though Holiday’s career broke out via Harlem nightclubs, her often-dark childhood in Baltimore most certainly had a drastic influence on the innovative jazz singer’s world view and musical output. And Lady Sings the Blues, released in conjunction with an autobiography of the same title, is the album that most pointedly focuses on Holiday’s past via its themes of longing and desperation. By 1956 Holiday’s voice was raspy and worn. But rather than sounding washed up, she uses this characterization to her advantage, casting a smoky air over tracks like the lonely-yet-playful “I Must Have That Man” and the stunning “Strange Fruit.” Holiday’s story is at-times charming, but boasts its fair share of misfortune and despair; Lady Sings the Blues touches on both aspects with ample sincerity. – ATB

Frank Zappa Hot RatsFrank ZappaHot Rats
(1969; Reprise)

Frank Zappa, like a long list of notable musicians in the 1960s and ’70s, actually operated largely out of Los Angeles, where he started up his band the Mothers of Invention. Yet the prolific, eccentric weirdo of art-, jazz-, prog- and comedy rock was a native son of Balitmore; it was just a few days ago, actually. And he has a lot of albums; well over 50 released in his lifetime, a lot of which we’d never go so far as to call “essential” (Joe’s Garage is, we’ll say, an acquired taste). And yet, there’s no denying the man unearthed his share of brilliant pieces of music, perhaps the strongest of which is 1969’s Hot Rats. Primarily instrumental, save for the Captain Beefheart-fronted “Willie the Pimp,” Hot Rats is Zappa at his most euphonious. “Peaches en Regalia” is one of his greatest compositions, somewhere between a Third Stream composition and a TV cop theme. Closer “It Must Be A Camel” is a more complex, albeit accessible work of jazz fusion. And “The Gumbo Variations” is sixteen minutes of saxophone and groove. This is Zappa’s artistry at its strongest, filtered into one excellent LP. Surely a singular work such as this deserves its day. – JT

Philip Glass Einstein on the BeachPhilip GlassEinstein on the Beach
(1976; Sony)

If there’s a common thread to be found among the 10 unique, and quite different artists on this list, it’s one of eccentrism. Artists like Dan Deacon, Frank Zappa, Lungfish and Spank Rock are all prime examples of how to follow your own muse without giving two shits about what your neighbor’s looks like. But Philip Glass might be just that much farther outside the center than any other artist featured here. In 1976, the minimalist composer — born in Charm City — staged his experimental opera, written for four actors, 12 singers/dancers, a solo violinist and an ensemble of keyboards and winds. It’s long, complex, non-linear in its narrative and about as abstract as musical theater gets. In other words, it’s not that accessible if pop music is as far as you’ll walk. But braver souls will reap the rewards easily; it’s a beautiful, poetic sensorial experience that does something boldly stunning with the idea of opera — if that’s even what this is. – JT

Lungfish Unanimous HourLungfishThe Unanimous Hour
(1999; Dischord)

Often associated with the Washington, D.C. post-hardcore scene, largely due to releasing almost all of their recorded output on Dischord Records, Lungfish is a unique — and bizarrely formed — gem in Baltimore’s crown. Not that it isn’t worn with pride; onetime Rockville resident Joan Jett has even covered the group’s 1993 track “Friend to Friend in the End Time,” which was a mutual reputation boost if there ever was one. But to pinpoint the definitive Lungfish document, one need not go any further than The Unanimous Hour, the band’s 1999 restatement of searing intensity following some time in post-rock’s ethereal limbo. It’s a ferocious thing to behold, with leadoff track “Space Orgy” showcasing both the band’s taut instrumentation and frontman Daniel Higgs’ intensely eerie and cryptic visions. It largely adheres to the group’s M.O. of juxtaposing intricate, yet repetitious arrangements against Higgs’ fiery delivery, but here the songs seem all the more dynamic, powerful, even pretty. If Baltimore can produce a band this inimitable, of this caliber, then — for a time at least — there was something mysterious and special happening there that the rest of the country had yet to tap into. – JT

spank-rock-yoSpank Rock – YoYoYoYoYo
(2006; Big Dada)

I’m not quite sure why Naeem Juwan and his namesake crew get labeled as a Philadelphia act. Sure, he and Alex “XXXChange” Epton made their first few bones in and around that city, and are affiliated with native daughter Amanda Blank and adopted son Diplo. But the breakbeats they helped popularize were an extension of their hometown “Baltimore club” genre, their version twisting hip-hop, house, funk, and world music into bouncy sounds stretching up and down the East Coast and across the pond. It’s no accident that this debut album is on the British label Big Dada, already home to a host of talent-rich rhyme spitters and bleeding-edge producers. Juwan’s speedy and triggered vocals recall Busdriver (“Top Billin’ from Far Left,” “IMC”), or maybe The Prodigy’s samples performed live (“Touch Me,” “Sweet Talk”), while XXXChange’s backgrounds flit from straight-up bangers (“Rick Rubin,” “Chilly Will”) to shifty headphone-trip pastiches (“Backyard Betty,” “What It Look Like”) in much the same way Death Grips could manage. YoYoYoYoYo is full of filthy/sexy content and holds the DNA of trap, Miami bass, and other brotastic beats, but is a far smarter release than most critics might care to admit. – AB

Dan Deacon Spiderman of the RingsDan DeaconSpiderman of the Rings
(2007; Carpark)

There ain’t no party quite like a Dan Deacon party. Whether he’s performing as a one-piece, conducting a full band or bumping in your headphones, Deacon’s artsy, noisy brand of electronica is a distinct affair. While Deacon studied composition in New York, he was quick to settle into his newfound home of Baltimore in 2004, starting the art collective Wham City! And although Spiderman of the Rings is not the first album he released from this post, it’s certainly the most distinguished. The title should be warning enough that this is one wacky album. But, with Deacon’s sophisticated, neo-classical approach to composition, his quirky sense of humor serves to lighten the load rather than making a farce out of the entire escapade. It’s a balance beam that a lesser artist might fall from, but Deacon strikes the perfect mix of goofy, bizarre, and complex to land one classic album. – ATB

Animal Collective Merriweather Post PavilionAnimal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavilion
(2009; Domino)

Besides being the title of Animal Collective’s strongest and best-selling album, Merriweather Post Pavilion is an acclaimed outdoor amphitheater in the center of the planned community of Columbia, Maryland — 20 miles southwest of Baltimore. Animal Collective was born out of childhood relationships in Baltimore County, so there’s a good chance that the members of the band experienced shows at the venue; Merriweather Post Pavilion was meant as a tribute. The band was supposed to play a show at the venue for the first time after the album’s release, but did not end up actually playing there until the summer of 2011. Lyrically, the album has nothing to do with the venue or Baltimore, and it was recorded in Mississippi, but the many sounds and interesting rhythms would be perfect for the acoustics of an amphitheater. Opener “In the Flowers” turns an enchanting guitar part into booming bass, a particular feedback sound during “Summertime Clothes” snakes into my brain, and “Lion in a Coma” seems like a song that was filtered through an orb. And the slow drip of “No More Runnin” precedes the hollering siren banger of closer “Brother Sport.” The four members of Animal Collective haven’t lived in Baltimore for years, but naming their greatest album after a local concert venue proves that they haven’t forgotten their roots. Plus, staring at that LP cover gets me every time. – JJM

Beach House Teen DreamBeach HouseTeen Dream
(2010; Sub Pop)

The Baltimore of the last 15 years or so has become a fascinating epicenter of phenomenal indie pop, be it through the earnest and melodic rock of Wye Oak, or through the heroic synth-pop of Future Islands. Chief among this elite group is Beach House — the humble dream-pop duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, who launched their career on the backs of barely-there ballads reminiscent of Mazzy Star, quieter Velvet Underground or any of the sweeter lullabies of the 4AD era. With Teen Dream, they went bigger. The Velvets and Mazzy comparisons were still apt, at least. But the sound was much more fleshed out, more shimmering, richer and full bodied. It might sound like I’m talking about an alcoholic beverage here, but that’s not too far off the mark, really. Teen Dream is intoxicating, from the warm awakening of “Zebra” to the ethereal flight of “Norway” to the shoegaze density of “10 Mile Stereo.” This is where Beach House truly arrived — Baltimore just happened to be their port of departure. – JT

Future Islands On the WaterFuture IslandsOn The Water
(2011; Thrill Jockey)

Future Islands are not originally from Baltimore, but it wasn’t until their move from North Carolina that the band’s sound became the focused, art-pop machine that it is today. 2011’s On The Water is the perfect mid-point between the band’s indie origins and the relative success that this year’s Singles has granted the act. Grounded by lo-fi, drum-machine-driven synth-pop, Sam Herring’s bombastic howl tends to be the driving force behind Future Islands’ sound. The man’s thunderous voice and loud personality could probably convince a brick wall to dance. (DANCE!) But don’t let that distract you from the top-notch songwriting at the center of On The Water. Herring et al reflect on the past in “Before the Bridge,” battle depression on “Close to None,” and tackle each chord and emotion with intent and tact. And don’t forget “Give Us The Wind,” quite possibly the band’s most moving ballad to date. It’s possible that Future Islands moved to Baltimore in pursuit of inspiration from the art-rock elites that call the city home. Whether or not that’s true, On The Water showcased them as perfect candidates as the city’s next big-hit indie-act. – ATB

Wye Oak CivilianWye OakCivilian
(2011; Merge)

Baltimore’s homegrown duo Wye Oak hit their creative stride with the 2011 release of Civilian, a delectable collection of mature, well-crafted tracks that proved this Merge-backed duo was an indie-force to be reckoned with. Featuring vocal heavy-hitter Jenn Wasner on guitar and lead vox and Andy Stack on drums/keys, Civilian would become their breakout album, the one that truly revealed Wye Oak to be as solid as their 460-year-old namesake, with weighty, explorative tracks like “Holy Holy” and the unusual, Modest Mouse-like “Dog Eyes.” Coincidentally, and luckily for our top ten list, this was the last album recorded with the both of them rooted firmly in Baltimore. It was after the success of Civilian and the concurrent tour that Stack picked up and moved to Texas, which is where he remained for Civilian’s follow-up, Shriek. On Civilian, we see Wasner really dig in and channel her lush voice, molding it into an instrument with depth and breadth—dropping into lower registers for folksy shoegaze songs like the rough-hewn “Plains” or the evocative ballad-like “We Were Wealth,” and then fluttering up into some truly startling, almost electronic numbers such as “The Altar” and “Two Small Deaths.”- NG

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