Writing about music on a regular basis, obsessively buying records and being on the search for new music can be both fun and burdensome. The more you hear, the more you want to hear. It’s an endless spiral of discovery and absorption, replays and shuffles. But at the end of the day, there’s always going to be something that you don’t get around to, or at least take longer to seek out. And, despite our attempts to compile lists of our favorite albums from decade after decade, that just barely scratches the surface.
Somewhere in the middle of listening to new albums by Canadian supergroups and Brooklyn sad-sacks, we had an epiphany, or rather a thirst. While we’re all too content to get back to the new LCD Soundsystem or Hold Steady records, we took a break to visit five classic, iconic, legendary albums…that we’ve never actually listened to all the way through. Would they meet our expectations, exceed them, change our perspective or reinforce our beliefs? Only a thorough absorption of the music would allow us to reach that conclusion, whatever it may be. But more importantly, it allows us to simply sit back and enjoy listening to albums, something that even professional critics don’t always get around to doing, just for the fun of it (okay, there is writing involved, so not just for the fun of it).
This is just the first in what will become a regular feature on Treble, in which a panel of editors and contributors each give a listen to that elusive classic, then report back with the results of their test drive. We’ve already got a good list of albums that we’re planning on visiting, but here’s where it gets interesting: we want your recommendations. Send us your suggestions for classic, highly regarded, critically acclaimed or cult classic albums that you think we might not have given our full attention to, and we’ll give them a listen. (E-mail us, or leave us a note on Facebook or Twitter.)
And now, on to the first round!
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970, Warner Bros.)
Ernest: Ozzy Osbourne has become a cartoon of himself. The shuffling, mumbling aging rocker has become the butt of jokes on SNL. It’s too bad, really, because Sabbath rules. Call their early albums the birth of heavy metal, or call the band the godfathers of stoner rock, there’s no denying what an impact they’ve made on the musical landscape. Tony Iommi alone is often put alongside Jimmy Page as one of the two forefathers of the future of lead metal guitar. Amazingly recorded in one day, Black Sabbath has had many pale imitations, but none have measured up to the Birmingham powerhouse foursome. Songs on the album are mired in a beautiful sludge. They plod along, and I don’t mean that negatively, in a loping, yet intense fashion. Later, they would go on to become icons with songs such as “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and “Iron Man,” but there was a gorgeous psychedelic innocence and purity to Black Sabbath on their first album. The genius is in the simplicity. There’s nothing flashy about Black Sabbath, which is far unlike the band’s later heirs. It wasn’t so much about crazy solos or cookie monster voices. Instead, songs consisted of simple notes and chords, generously spaced apart, giving them an almost relaxed, tripped out feel. Considering their name, their reputation, and their imagery, I think I was expecting something more sinister. I was expecting the devil to appear in my breakfast nook as I hit the play button. I was expecting the walls to begin dripping with blood. I was expecting to hear the moans and wails of the newly deceased, responding to the evil tones of Ozzy. Instead, what I heard was rock and roll. Yes, it was murky, gauzy, stoner rock, but it wasn’t frightening, by any means. It was simply effing awesome.
Jeff: Of the five albums we selected for this inaugural round, this was the one I was most expecting to love. Turns out I wasn’t wrong. I was well aware of how badass early Black Sabbath was, based on the strength of songs like “Iron Man” and “Paranoid.” And yet, I had never opened my ears to their first album, which is considered, rightly so, the first heavy metal album. It’s heavy, it’s bluesy, it’s loud and uncompromising. However, it’s also quite eerie at parts, most notably in the first track, “Black Sabbath.” Still, if I’m in a hurry I have no qualms about going straight to “The Wizard,” which is as awesome a rock song as the 1970s ever produced. Then again, this whole set is amazing. Henry Rollins once suggested that the “El Nino” weather phenomenon should be referred to as “The first four Black Sabbath records,” and I think he’s on to something. This album alone could pretty much scorch an entire ecosystem.
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Cosmo’s Factory (1970, Fantasy)
Ernest: Swamp boogie exists in Northern California. When asked about his favorite Creedence track, a friend of mine replied, “The one about the bayou….wait, aren’t they all about the bayou?” I knew from his demeanor that he was being facetious, that he wasn’t actually referencing “Born on the Bayou,” but every song in their perceived catalog. Most modern listeners are only familiar with CCR through greatest hits comps and classic rock radio. What is truly amazing about CCR is their consistency of greatness. That’s probably why people can tend to confuse their songs, get them mixed up with each other. Every one of CCR’s first five platinum albums contains a handful of hits and oft-heard tunes. John Fogerty is a songwriting master, and Cosmo’s Factory is his magnum opus. I inherited a vinyl copy of Green River from my dad when I was little. That album cover is how I always picture CCR, amongst nature, wearing jeans and looking incredibly rootsy. So, it was natural that the cartoony font and primary colors on the cover of Cosmo’s always threw me off. What was inside was unmistakable, however, as pure CCR goodness. There are the traditional covers in “Before You Accuse Me” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” (though in Fogerty-speak, it’s really “I Hoid It Through the Grapevine”). But it’s the wealth of originals that speak volumes. There are so many of them on this album that we, or should I say I, tend to forget that they came from the same collection aside from a greatest hits comp. Listening to Cosmo’s Factory, the way it was meant to be presented, was an eye-opener for me. It was an album that I was familiar with, and yet not at the same time. I’ve been a fan of CCR, but there are many that would say I couldn’t be without having heard Cosmo’s in its entirety. The great thing about this is, now I have. It hasn’t exactly changed my life, or been a major bucket list coup, but, as a compulsive list maker, I do feel more complete.
Jeff: With all due respect to Grand Funk Railroad, Creedence Clearwater Revival is the quintessential American band. You don’t grow up in the United States without soaking up this band, whose hits are both numerous and ubiquitous, and for that matter, some of the catchiest classic rock tunes ever written. And yet, in spite of this fact, I’ve never listened to Cosmo’s Factory. I have no good reason as to why that is, and I have heard a handful of songs—namely the stellar riff-rock of “Up Around the Bend” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” which was featured in a particularly hilarious scene in The Big Lebowski. Nonetheless, playing this for the first time was a refreshing and joyous experience, a wade through some classic American rock music with solid musicianship, stellar songwriting and one of the most recognizable voices in musical history. John Fogerty’s wail should be in the Smithsonian; there’s no mistaking it once you hear it. But the band as a whole sounds impeccable as a unit, not to mention streamlined and economical. Half the songs are less than three minutes long, some barely longer than two, though the most notable exception, their legendary cover of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” is 11 minutes long (and all of them awesome). Considering just how many great songs there are here, from the opening swamp jam of “Ramble Tamble,” to the dirty grooves of “Run Through the Jungle” and the folk rock of “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” I began to wonder, how, exactly, I had never listened to this album. But now I’ve heard just how good it is, I’m fairly confident in saying that I’ll be returning to it regularly.
King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King (1969, Atlantic)
Ernest: There were a ton of great songs in the film, Children of Men. Jarvis Cocker, John Lennon, Deep Purple and the Libertines all shared some soundtrack time to great effect, but the song that I will always remember is “The Court of the Crimson King.” It plays as Theo is driven to his cousin’s “The Ark of the Arts,” his own personal government funded horde of anti-fascist art, made inert by its isolation. The lyrics, “The keeper of the city keys / puts shutters on the dreams” neatly reflects the content of the scene, just as the Libertines’ “Arbeit Macht Frei” mirrors the bus tunnel / camp scene. I was amazed by the King Crimson track and vowed to listen to more of the band. Alas, I am only getting to it now, but the fact that I showed up at all should count for something. I have several thoughts upon my first listen, the most pertinent being this is my favorite of the five albums we’re surveying. I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with prog in the past. It’s been love / hate but weighed particularly heavily towards hate. I used to love Pink Floyd, now I can barely bring myself to listen to scattered songs of theirs. As Muse drifted from accessible to proggy, I drifted from them. I cringe whenever I hear prog used as a classification for Radiohead. But, after hearing In the Court of the Crimson King, and especially its title track, I start to understand. There are moments on The Bends (“Street Spirit,” “Nice Dream,” “Black Star”) and OK Computer (“Paranoid Android,” “Exit Music (for a Film),” “No Surprises”) that share many aspects and sensibilities with songs by some of the progenitors of prog. Ok, sure, there are some lyrical “Ren Faire / I’ll smite thee with my plus 12 vorpal sword” moments on the album, but the music is so grandiose, dramatic, and accomplished that it easily makes believers out of its listeners.
Jeff: King Crimson isn’t typically radio fodder (you try and fit these songs into a commercial playlist), but when 1999 transitioned into 2000, I distinctly remember hearing “21st Century Schizoid Man.” That was weird. But wow, what a song! My 18-year-old ears weren’t really sure what to make of it, but my interest at that point was officially captured. And yet, somehow, the remaining four tracks on In the Court of the Crimson King evaded me until now. The source of my reluctance to embrace King Crimson probably has something to do with the fact that I never cared much for Pink Floyd, but I readily admit the silliness of that assumption. Apples and oranges, these two, at least in some respect. The five tracks on Crimson King are certainly lengthy and sprawling, but they’re also incredible. “I Talk to the Wind” is a gorgeous and understated ballad, while “Epitaph” and “The Court of the Crimson King” are powerfully cinematic. Still, “21st Century Schizoid Man” is just flat-out one of the most kickass songs ever.
Metallica – Master of Puppets (1986, Elektra)
Ernest: If there is one band in this first installment of album atonement that I knew the most about, purely through reputation, modern pop culture notoriety, and a mass of high school classmates’ t-shirt collections, it’s Metallica. I remember the Master of Puppets album cover being emblazoned on black t-shirts all over my ninth through twelfth grade years. While I was listening to LL Cool J, N.W.A., New Order, the Smiths, and Echo & the Bunnymen, there was a large population of people banging their heads to Hetfield and Hammett, Ulrich and Burton. I only briefly flirted with metal previously, skirting the edges with the pop metal tunes of Def Leppard, Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe. Both of my brothers are more knowledgeable about the genre than I am, or probably ever will be. Blistering high note solos, chugging thrash basslines, machine gun drums and growly vocals have never really appealed to me. So, Master of Puppets was the one out of the five albums that I was least looking forward to. But, that could have also meant that it had the most potential to impress me, it had the farthest to go. What I was most impressed by was the musicianship. Hammett and Hetfield are two big reasons that Guitar Hero is such a popular game. I now see the reason for all the t-shirts. Metallica is a band of adolescent fantasies, aggressive, dark, iconic, rock gods. I wasn’t an aggressive kid in high school, and I’m certainly not one now. So, no matter how impressive the album is, it’s not my bag. Master of Puppets is a site-specific album. Video games, horror movies, action flicks, and keg parties are perfect for Metallica. Hell, maybe even on the headphones while working out. But, Metallica won’t be on iPod for much longer. Sorry Lars, I wouldn’t even download your music for free.
Jeff: I’ll just say it—I’ve never liked Metallica. Granted, the bulk of my exposure to them has been from the Black Album on, which was essentially when they stopped being a metal band and took up being “hard rock” instead. Add to that James Hetfield’s increasingly obnoxious vocals, Lars Ulrich’s increasingly obnoxious soapboxing, and Load, Re-load and Garage Inc. Ugh. But clearly if they’re so frequently heralded as one of the greats, there has to be a reason. While I had plenty of skateboarding hooligan friends in junior high and high school talk up the merits of Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets is largely considered their masterpiece. And yes, this is a hell of a lot better than Load (massive understatement, I know). The album peaks at its fastest and most intense moments, namely “Battery,” the title track, “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “Damage Inc.” Pretty kickass stuff, and Kirk Hammett’s riffs make it that much easier to ignore Hetfield’s inane lyrics (but his singing is far more tolerable than when he sings “Whiskey In a Jar-ooohhh-waahhh”). What’s especially surprising to me is the number of Bowie references that show up here, from the title of “Leper Messiah” to a permutation of the “Andy Warhol” riff in the title track. And “Orion” sounded oddly familiar, and for a good reason: its bassline was the primary sample in DJ Shadow’s “The Number Song.” While I dug some of these songs, a handful proved a bit tedious. And though I’ve perhaps come to appreciate the band a bit more, I’m not sure I’ll ever truly be a Metallica fan. Four or five of these tracks, rather than a complete discography, will serve me just fine.
Frank Zappa – Hot Rats (1969, Reprise)
Ernest: Hot Rats is unlike all of the other albums on this list, and I don’t mean musically. The difference, to me, is more personal. Zappa’s first solo album after the breakup of the Mothers of Invention stands apart in that it’s the first Zappa album I’ve listened to EVER. Yes, I’ve heard songs by Zappa in the past, but I’ve never explored his music any further. I’ve always avoided his work, mostly because I’ve never been all that curious. I’ve never had any friends or acquaintances who were advocates of his. No one ever waved a Zappa album in my face, shouting its genius, the way that has been done with, say, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, or even my nemeses, the Doors. After hearing Hot Rats, I’m surprised it’s taken this long. Although I most likely won’t be going out and purchasing the entire Zappa back catalog, I was impressed by this album. Sure, at times it’s skronky and songs can stretch out longer that can be comfortable, but it was much more accessible, energetic and fun than I had anticipated. Amazing guitar work, scathing sax solos, and genius tracking and editing helped me understand why this album gets ranked so high in popular music polls. As I stated earlier, in full disclosure, I have no comparison barometer for this album in relation to other Zappa albums. What I do know, after finally delving into Zappa’s world, is that I’ll likely make a return trip.
Jeff: Frank Zappa is an artist of whom I’ve never fully been able to gain a complete understanding. I’m sure that was his intent all along. In his lifetime, Zappa released 75 albums, spanning numerous genres from rock to jazz to comedy and avant garde composition. As a friend’s dad said when I was about 13, “he was basically a weirdo.” That’s probably the best way to summarize it, though that barely even scratches the surface. While I had never listened to a full Zappa album before, I had definitely heard snippets of quite a few. Some I liked, some I was indifferent to, and some I absolutely hated. Hot Rats, however, falls more on the positive side of things. Leadoff instrumental “Peaches en Regalia” is a fantastic track, and “Willie the Pimp,” featuring Captain Beefheart on vocals, is likewise one to return to (its nine minutes blow by pretty quickly). The remainder of the album is essentially a series of jazz-rock jams of varying appeal. The exotic “Little Umbrellas” is a fun and relatively short highlight, while “Son of Mr. Green Genes” and “The Gumbo Variations” are much longer tracks, emphasizing solos and improvisation over songcraft. Admittedly, they’re not bad, but my attention span grows pretty short when it comes to extended rock jams. “It Must Be a Camel,” however, is somewhat prettier and closer to traditional jazz, though still not that close. In short: I enjoy the album, though I don’t love it. But after absorbing this one, I feel like I have a slightly better understanding of Zappa. Slightly.