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Big Star – #1 Record (1972)

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Friend type #3: After meeting and talking for all of a few minutes you just know, to borrow the White Stripes song, We’re going to be friends.

Cited as an influence by Teenage Fanclub & R.E.M.?

An early ‘power pop’ artist?

Songwriting duo comparisons to Lennon/McCartney?

Is there any chance I wouldn’t like Big Star?  Well, maybe a Dumb & Dumber-esque probability:

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This wasn’t that one time out of a million: unsurprisingly, I’m a fan.

The opening track, Feel, swiftly reeled me in, sounding at first like The Who Sell Out and then a bit like George Harrison.

Later on in the record, there were hints of T.Rex and The Beach Boys.

More than any other artist, I heard the Lemonheads when listening to #1 Record.  That delicious blend of acoustic + electric, seemingly effortless vocals and songwriting, and instantly likeable tunes that don’t wear thin after repeated listens.

Although amateur guitarists complain about their tedious nature, the pros know why practicing scales is essential: so you can play nice, quick, clean phrase-ending walk-ups like those heard in The Ballad of El Goodo.

I did a double take upon hearing In The Street: I hadn’t realized the theme song for That 70′s Show was a pre-existing tune!

A #1 Record, it was not at the time, at least in terms of commercial success.  It’s another one of those albums whose importance was appreciated years later, when the aforementioned groups from the 80s & 90s began praising Big Star’s sound.

This Big Star debut also lends credence to my theory that 1972 is one of the Top 3 calendar years in music history.

That’s all for the B’s.

Your homework for the Easter weekend: choosing the Top 5 C’s, they’re on deck for next week.

Enjoy!

Beck – Odelay (1996)

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Friend type #2: One you didn’t necessarily hit it off with right away but have since done a 180.

I did not like Loser.  Not even a smidge.  “I’m a loser baby so why don’t you kill me.”  What the?

Granted it was ’94 and if it wasn’t a band playing guitars I generally didn’t get it.

Eventually, I realized slide guitar + sitar = spectacular and I think Odelay was a turning point.

It’s albums like this that remind me to not instinctively come out swinging against an album or artist; chances are, after multiple listens, my foot might feel awfully deep in my mouth.

Where it’s At is a classic, and surprisingly educational.  Thanks to the line, “I got 2 turntables and I microphone,” I learned about basic DJ equipment requirements.

Also gleaned from the tune?  The term my family uses to describe the liquor store: the “bottles and cans” store.

I’m struggling to highlight other individual tunes as the record works so well as a complete entity.  Occasionally the distorted vocals can veer into irritating territory but for the most part, it’s a stellar set.

After re-exploring, this is likely back on the podium as my third favourite Beck record, behind Mutations and Guero.

I was shocked to learn Odelay is Beck’s 5th studio album.  I had always assumed it was a sophomore follow-up to Mellow Gold (actually studio album #3).

Which I suppose proves the point that even fans will never know what to expect from Beck.

He’s a brilliant artist in that upon hearing any Beck song, you instantly know it’s Beck but at the same time, no two records (or songs for that matter) are at all alike.

I can’t think of too many artists that have accomplished the same feat.

Belle & Sebastien – If You’re Feeling Sinister (1997)

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A few days ago, my wife & I were discussing how lucky we are to have such good friends.

As a happy coincidence, the three ‘B’ artists to be featured this week each remind me of certain types of friends.  So it’s become a 2 for 1 theme week I suppose!

Friend type #1:  It seems as if you’ve known each other for ages, even if it’s only been a few years.

That’s the vibe I get from listening to Belle & Sebastien (B&S): it feels like a group I’ve been enjoying forever, even though I heard Tigermilk for the first time less than 365 days ago.

Compared to Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister has more in the way of standout tracks.  As a track & field coach, I was pleased to hear the sport get a shout out on the opening track, even with the accompanying sarcasm about its ‘beautiful people.’  Like Dylan in the Movies is another gem, along with Me and the Major, but you can’t go wrong with any of the ten tracks.

In the comments section of my last post, I was pleased to see a few people choose B&S as one of their top 5 B artists.  Based on those recommendations and the strength of these first two records, I’m definitely interested in hearing more.

I continually found myself singing three songs by three other artists after listening to B&S:

- Nick Drake, Hazy Jane II. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch has a similar delivery and that couldn’t be further from a complaint

- The Smiths, Half a Person. If B&S are half as good as The Smiths, I suppose The Smiths would still be twice as good, but being mentioned in the same sentence is flattery all the same!

- Airborne Toxic Event (ATE), Girls in Their Summer Dresses. A pleasant tune by one of my favourite groups from the 21st Century wouldn’t sound out of place here.

So if Nick Drake-Smiths-B&S-ATE is the 70s-80s-90s-00s lineage, that’s pretty good company.

If You’re Feeling Sinister
is pretty darn good as well.

Top 5 “B” Artists

The second letter of the alphabet series might also be the strongest.  Therefore, also among the most difficult to narrow down to a measly 5.

As at the time of clicking ‘publish,’ here are my Top 5 Artist names that begin with the letter B.

Please feel free to submit your own top 5s in the comments section.

Formal, written apologies for overlooked groups may also be requested below!

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5. Blind Melon
No Rain is a great song, no doubt.  Even though their career was tragically short, there is so much more to explore than ‘that video from the 90s with the dancing bee.’  If Shannon Hoon’s voice sounds familiar, he provided some backup vocals on the Use Your Illusions, notably on Don’t Cry.

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4. Beck
Supporting evidence for Beck coming up in album review #305.

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3. Bowie, David
How is Bowie only #3?!  Blame it on the letter B.  If I’d categorized him under ‘Z’ for Ziggy, he would have been a shoe-in for the top spot!

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2. Blur
A group I appreciate more every year.  Better songs than The Universal may exist but there can’t be many of them.

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1. Beatles, The
They wrote 2 of my top 5 records.  Tough to top those credentials!

To celebrate the “B”s, reviews of Belle & Sebastien, Beck, and Big Star are on the calendar for this week, enjoy!

AC/DC – Highway to Hell (1979)

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Dylan was branded Judas when he went electric.

Can you imagine the backlash if:

- Angus Young had ditched the schoolboy uniform in the early 80s and donned a Flock of Seagulls coif instead?

or

- AC/DC had released an electronica album in the 90s or better yet, got caught up in the swing dance revival of ’98?

There are no words for such a betrayal!

Diversity is demanded of certain groups; with some beloved bands, the last thing loyal fans want to hear is the sound of a group repeating itself.

With an artist like Beck, you never know what the next album will be: a subdued affair like Mutations? Upbeat like Midnite Vultures? Or merely sheet music like Song Reader where fans are left to determine how the songs should sound?

On the other side of the spectrum, you have AC (lightning bolt) DC.

The Aussies are the ultimate What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) band. For the last several decades, the formula has been rock solid:
- 4/4 Time signature, kick drum on beats 1 & 3, Snare on 2 & 4, hi-hat & bass guitar providing steady quarter notes or eighth notes
- Simple, driving riff, guitar solo after a couple verses & choruses. Played on a Gibson SG.
- Growling vocals
- Finish strong, no fade outs!

An oversimplification perhaps but the pattern has been remarkably consistent.

And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

“Mutt” Lange’s production complements the band’s straightforward sound perfectly. The title track is the most renowned of the bunch but all ten tracks lend themselves nicely to live performances.

If there are 1001 albums you must hear before you die, AC/DC would undoubtedly be on a much shorter list of bands that must be seen before leaving earth.

They absolutely stole the show at Toronto’s ‘SARS-stock’ back in 2003. There were about 450,000 people in the audience and I was likely 450 feet away from the stage but even from that distance, AC/DC’s energy was absolutely electric.

Until the next tour, the studio albums will have to suffice.  If you like AC/DC, there’s plenty to enjoy on Highway to Hell. If you don’t like AC/DC…well, at least you know what to expect.

I think Angus himself said it best, “I’m sick and tired of people saying that we put out 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve put out 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”

Here’s to another 12!

Anthrax – Among The Living (1987)

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When exploring the top marketing disasters in recent memory, Oldsmobile’s “It’s Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” campaign often makes an appearance.

With increased competition from overseas car companies, GM decided to rebrand the Oldsmobile. The car model had been a favourite of an aging demographic; in an effort to boost sales, GM went after younger consumers.

Unfortunately, the chosen tagline didn’t appeal to either group: younger customers still thought of it as an ‘old’ person’s car (the model name couldn’t have helped) and the existing customer base felt alienated (who you callin’ old?!).

The car was eventually discontinued.

I’d argue appealing to new fans, while retaining old fans, is also one of the bigger challenges in the music industry.

One way to please both groups: find that perfect balance between aggressive and accessible, keep it heavy but with enough hooks. Easier said than done of course!

As Among The Living is my first full album venture into the Anthrax catalogue, I’m not sure if it’s a radical departure from their first two studio efforts. On album #3 at least, they walk the accessible/aggressive line nicely.

The title track, among my favourites on the record, is like a ‘how-to mix heaviness & hooks’ recipe in action:
- start melodically, with a deceptively slow tempo
- add one killer riff (at 0:16), build with guitarmonies & variations
- cue double kick! (at 1:32)

Thrash Metal’s “Big 4” (Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer) each had big albums in ’86 or ’87, all deemed 1001 list-worthy. So far, I’ve only reviewed Master of Puppets but for me, Among the Living is on par.

After hearing the chant-along call-backs in Efilnikufesin, the acronym NFL now has a whole new meaning. And speaking of call-backs, I struggled not to sing the call & answer vocals from Team America: World Police when singer Joey Belladonna yelled “America!” during One World.

Imitation of Life sounds worlds apart from REM’s tune of the same name but when it comes to longevity, Anthrax has outlasted Michael Stipe & company. Anthrax studio album #11 is expected this summer and though the band lineup and sound has evolved over time, I don’t think many fans are pleading with them to retire.

As mentioned above, I may be a first-time Anthrax album listener, but I’m a long-time fan for two non-musical reasons:

1) This great appearance on the underrated 90s show Newsradio

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2) The response to criticism of their band name during the Anthrax crisis of 2001:

Now there’s a lesson in successful rebranding: how could you not like a band named ‘A Basket Full of Puppies’?!

I was pleased to discover, in addition to a having a good sense of humour, these guys can play.

Air – Moon Safari (1998)

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So what kind of music do you like?

I’m pleased to add two new (at least, new to me) genres to my answer: Downtempo & Space Pop.

Although I typically don’t approve of the term ‘chillax,’ it is probably the most accurate description here. The (chill + relax) compound word may be cringe-inducing but listening to Moon Safari is anything but: it is the chill sound of a relaxed atmosphere.

The terrific bass groove on La Femme D’Argent sets the tone nicely and the unlikely combo of handclaps & futuristic sound effects carry the opening track forward.

Elsewhere, Ce matin là features a warm horn & string arrangement that wouldn’t be out of place on a Burt Bacharach record. Every time it feels like the album is drifting into overly electronic territory (the vocal on Remember), there’s enough melody and atmosphere to maintain an agreeable balance.

With Moon Safari, The French music duo Air has created an album that reminds me of several previous reference points and yet overall sounds unlike anything I’ve heard before.

It is also a nice way to re-immerse in the 1001 project & kick off the weekly alphabet series.

If you like Downtempo & Space Pop (as I’ve learned I do!), check out Moon Safari : it’s a breath of fresh Air.

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