The Calm Before the Storm

There’s no discernable pattern to people’s preferences of favorite albums. Sure, pretty much everyone can agree that most every Beatles album is great and that there are a handful of albums which need to be in everyone’s collections, but why those particular albums? Is there any defining thread throughout other than amazing talent? Not usually, but I found a trend in some of my favorite albums, a trend that is probably shared between myself and some major label A&R guys. I find that some of my favorite albums are those made as the last ones on an independent or small label, right before a jump to the bigger pond of a large production major label.

I started looking at this once news of Death Cab for Cutie’s Atlantic Records deal went through. `Of course,’ I thought to myself, `I would have signed Death Cab after Transatlanticism too!’ But then again, I would have signed them after The Photo Album. I go back and forth most of the time on which of the two is my favorite, but the one-two punch of “Tiny Vessels” and the title track keep me coming back again and again to the major label predecessor. The news of the signing got my grey cells working. When have their been other times I’ve had a favorite album by a band, if I’ve followed their career, that my favorite has been the one before they switched labels and cashed in?

The majority of my favorite bands have either been on majors only, indies only, or have gone from one major to another, or one indie to another. But amongst the bands that I listen to who have gone from an indie to a major, almost to the last one, my theory was proven sound. There are a few exceptions such as Liz Phair, but bear with me. Take probably the most famous indie to major jump, Nirvana. Bleach is Sub Pop’s bestselling album for a reason. Not only because rabid Nevermind fans had to complete a collection, but more because Bleach is just a damn good post-punk record. “About a Girl”, “Love Buzz”, “Negative Creep”, and “Big Cheese” are great aggressive straightforward songs. Yes, Nevermind is a classic and will always be treated as a classic, but Bleach is a pure and simply produced masterwork of a record that is more than just a historical document in the history of a legendary band.

Need more examples? Sure, how about Nirvana’s neighbor on the CD rack, Nine Inch Nails. TVT’s Pretty Hate Machine was a breakthrough album. Again, most fans will probably cite The Downward Spiral as their favorite, but mine is the former. Kicking off with “Head Like a Hole” and ending with the quiet manic build-up of “Ringfinger,” the album made me an instant fan of Trent Reznor’s. But those were both first albums, so can they really count? Wouldn’t those be considered a whole other category instead of just `the album before’? When there’s only one album before major label interest, does it disqualify that record?

Well, how about some other instances. Let’s go into the wayback machine and visit a group from Minneapolis, the Replacements. Let it Be, the band’s third record, and final one with Twin / Tone was brilliant. Never mind the audacity of naming the album after a Beatles album, the Stinsons, Mr. Mars, and Paul Westerberg created enough of an unique album to make people forget all about the plagiarism. An argument can be made throughout this article and has been made throughout others, that major label debuts are the best, and in this case it might work with the equally great Tim, but I’m sticking to my guns. Besides, it would be a pretty crappy article if I were to give up on my thesis halfway through.

What about the Smashing Pumpkins? Yet again, an instance where a case can be made for both, but for my money, Gish on Caroline Records is just pure unrefined beauty. Billy Corgan can’t hide his jones for My Bloody Valentine, but he pulls it off to great success. Siamese Dream was a great MTV type breakthrough, but is a little too drippy with angst. I read some poetry I used to write under the influence of Siamese Dream and I just cringe. Besides, Jimmy Chamberlain’s drumming at the intro of “I Am One” is spine chilling.

They Might Be Giants’ Lincoln is probably the best album the duo ever created. The second full length from the two Johns was the last for Restless / Bar/None, right before Flood was released on Elektra. For a more extended look at this great album just ( Click Here ). It’s the band at their weirdest, quirkiest and catchiest and has not been surpassed since.

Modest Mouse is one the best examples, but not the best, that comes later. The Lonesome Crowded West is the indie album that could. “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” with its ever changing gears, crowd favorite “Doin’ the Cockroach”, “Cowboy Dan” among many others make for one of the best indie albums ever created. A bidding war took place for the privilege of signing Isaac Brock and company with Sony / Epic coming out the winner. And although The Moon & Antarctica and Good News for People Who Love Bad News quickly became fan favorites, even mine, they wouldn’t have been possible without the genius of The Lonesome Crowded West. The guitars were bendy and screechy long before they became the norm, the lisp was pronounced, and they finally distanced themselves from being called a Built to Spill cover band.

The best example that I can think of to make my case is Elliott Smith’s Either / Or. It is Smith at his poetic and confessional best, finding just the right balance of guitar and breathy whispers to both ease the mind and break the heart. You don’t have to take my word for it, just ask my bro and ( Click Here ). Smith went from his debut on Cavity Search to a bigger indie in Kill Rock Stars, with which he recorded Either / Or, and then was signed to Dreamworks, a major that can’t get much more major. I mean, really, Geffen was big enough, but Katzenberg and Spielberg? And the ensuing albums were great, but which one was best? It’s early, but a case can be made for a return to indiedom with From a Basement on a Hill. But when major label artists go to an indie, or back to an indie is a whole other article.

The second best example I can think of is R.E.M.’s Document. Although I might give the ‘favorite’ edge to the album I am consistently championing, Life’s Rich Pageant, Document is pretty far up there. Their swan song for Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. label (you know, the one with the logo of the guy with the fedora), Document is truly a grand exit if I’ve ever heard one with not only great radio hits like the misunderstood “The One I Love” and the hard to recite or cover “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, but also great album tracks such as “Finest Worksong”, “Welcome to the Occupation”, “Fireplace”, “Lightnin Hopkins” and “Oddfellows Local 151”. Then R.E.M. went on to big brother Waner Bros. and put out one good album in every three it released. Oh well.

Of course I could find examples of where my favorites were actually major label debuts, or first albums, or even last albums. Heck, a friend of mine in high school actually had a theory that the seventh song on every album is always the best. Try it, it might surprise you. But for now I’m sticking to my guns and saying that the calm before the storm, the filth before the fury, the last indie release prior to a major label jump, will always yield the sweetest fruit. That is until I wake up tomorrow and change my mind.

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