Listening booth – Iron Maiden, “The Trooper”

Wait, haven’t we seen this already?  Well, sort of.   I featured this Iron Maiden classic in the summer of 2009, but today I give you a fresh take.  It’s “The Trooper” done bossa nova style by Andy Rehfeldt, who has a series of remakes on YouTube that are as hilarious as they are damn clever.

It seems a little fast to be a bossa nova, but maybe that’s just me.  Regardless, when the chorus kicks in it really goes to a whole new level of win.

Platters that matter: 20 albums that changed my life (#20-#11)

Music is – or at least used to be – at once a very shared and a very personal thing.  And truth be told the only thing I’ve spent more time doing in my life than listening to music is sleeping.  Music has informed my life since I was a kid and continues to do so, although to a lesser degree now that I’m a family man.  So it’s time for me to give credit where credit is due, and list the 20 albums that had a bigger impact on me than any others.

Some of these records opened my eyes to a new style of music.  Some of them resonated on a deep, emotional level.  Some were just too good to be ignored.  Some are wrapped in nostalgia now and nothing more.  But they are all critical to my development as a music lover in one way or another.

#20 – Queen, The Game

Memory is a tricky thing, especially when you try to recall stuff from early childhood.  But I swear I remember lugging a tape player to nursery school and listening to this album nonstop.  It’s a good thing I got into them when I did too, as in a few short years Queen became painfully uncool in the States (thanks a lot, Hot Space) until their post-Wayne’s World resurgence.  But dammit, I was already a fan!

And what’s not to love about The Game?  It marks the first use of synthesizers on a Queen record, and they’re used to great effect on the opening title track.  It’s also the last Queen album with no real weak points (“Don’t Try Suicide” comes close, though).  Freddie Mercury’s cigarettes hadn’t caught up with him yet and he’s still in fine voice, and the rest of the band is also at the top of their, um, game.  “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” introduced a whole new generation to rockabilly, but for my money the best songs (other than the title one) are the funky “Dragon Attack” and the excellent Brian May ballad “Sail Away Sweet Sister”.

#19 – Seals & Crofts, Summer Breeze

That’s right my friends, I wasn’t afraid to explore my mellow side even as a kid.  This was part of my family’s record collection, and I fell in love with it instantly.  Most people are familiar with the title song, but there is a lot else to love about this collection.  The songwriting and playing is top notch, and the arrangements are deceptively complex.  But what really sells this is the powerful vocal harmonizing of Jim Seals and Dash Crofts.  You needn’t go any further than the first song, “Hummingbird”, for proof of all of this.

Incidentally, it wasn’t until some time in the ’90s that this classic record finally made it to CD.  Let’s just say I was pretty jazzed when I stumbled across it. You know, back when I still bothered with CDs.

#18 – Kiss, Creatures of the Night

One fine day in 1982 (maybe 1983), my late grandfather favored me with a trip to the local record store.  He told me to pick out whatever album I wanted, and he’d buy it.  As I didn’t have a roster of favorites to choose from I kept looking until something caught my eye.  Before long I happened upon a cassette with four painted, darkly lit faces staring back at me.  I picked it up, and an obsession was born.

I was fortunately oblivious to the fact that Kiss was in the midst of a commercial dead period, and that many of their longtime fans had deserted them.  I didn’t know about all the albums that came before, and I knew nothing of the Kiss mystique.  I also had no way of knowing that many Kiss fans, as well as the group itself, was ready to move on from the makeup that attracted me in the first place.  All I knew was that an album with a cover that cool had to contain something worthwhile.

Without writing an in-depth review, let’s just say that this album kicked my ass.  And it continues to do so, almost 30 years later.

#17 – Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast

Speaking of musical obsessions…

My Iron Maiden phase began thanks to my older brother, who introduced me to them right around the same time I was getting into Kiss.  While I would grow to love other Maiden albums more (the first one and Somewhere in Time to name a few), this megaton metal masterpiece was the true beginning of my headbanging phase; a phase which lasted well into high school, incidentally.

In a way this album spoiled me for a lot of heavy metal, because it forever impressed upon me the need for good melody and strong vocals in addition to killer riffs.  That means a lot of modern metal, while musically strong, loses me with those damn Cookie Monster vocals.

Anyway, by late 1983 I had the first two slots in my holy trinity of music filled – Kiss and Iron Maiden.  And albums #18 and #17 are huge reasons why.

#16 – Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell

Is it even possible to overstate the importance of Run-D.M.C. in rap/hip-hop?  Not even a headbanging preteen from suburban New Jersey was immune from the greatness of this album, and it was the only rap album in my collection for years to come.  Hell, this album even helped make Aerosmith cool again (whether that was a good thing is up for debate).

While this album couldn’t make me stray from my chosen metal path, for one moment it broadened my horizons considerably.  And even if the lyrics seem rather quaint by today’s standards (not many hip hip acts would dare record an homage to their sneakers), back in the day I almost believed it when D.M.C. yelled “I’m the kiiiiing of rock!”  And it would be over a decade before another hip hop act (The Roots) captured my imagination like Run-D.M.C. did on Raising Hell.

#15 – Kiss, Alive!

If Creatures of the Night made me a Kiss fan, then the group’s seminal 1975 double live album made me a Kiss Army recruit.  A decade or so after it made stars of Kiss, I played the cassette in a seemingly endless loop on my Walkman.  The energy, the crowd noise, the crunch of the guitars, even Paul Stanley’s well-rehearsed and corny stage raps all captivated me but the pinnacle of the Alive! experience for me was and always will be the extended version of “100,000 Years”, featuring a Peter Criss drum solo that I’m sure thousands of Kiss fans have memorized to this day.

Even finding out years later that Alive! wasn’t the untouched, complete concert experience I thought it was hasn’t diminished my love of this album.  It’s still the standard by which I judge all live rock records.

#14 – Rush, A Farewell to Kings

I tried, I really did.  I tried to not like Rush and for a long time I succeeded.  That dude’s screeching voice, those weird lyrics, the decidedly un-catchy songs.  Who would bother with such garbage?

But I was a fair man in junior high, if nothing else, and so I kept on listening in the hopes that I would find some evidence to support my older brother’s love of Rush.  One evening I put on a cassette of A Farewell to Kings – recorded from the vinyl no less – and it happened.  I had decided that I very much liked this band by the end of the opening song (the title track), and by about halfway through the second (“Xanadu”) I had a new love.

Before long the Canadian power trio had earned their loftiest achievement – a place in my personal pantheon of Bestest Bands Ever – right next to Kiss and Iron Maiden.  The trinity was complete, and I was on my way.  But more importantly Rush marked the beginning of a new phase in my musical life, my introduction to progressive rock.

#13 – Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Yeah, I know, what a bold choice.  The thing is, this album really did help to shape my view of jazz more than almost any other.  It was not just a bunch of notes in search of a melody, it could actually be just as evocative, structured, and emotional as pop/rock.  Who knew?!  Rarely does an album heaped with such praise earn every bit of it, but Kind of Blue does.  This is the ultimate late night jazz record, and it actually spoiled me for other jazz albums for quite a long time.  I searched high and low for another recording that could match the mood, effortless grace, and overall sound of this one and failed.

This was another gateway album for me, as it introduced me to piano legend Bill Evans.  If you listen to no other jazz tune this year, check out his work on “Blue in Green”.  It is the sound of a heart breaking, and it needs to be heard.

#12 – Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pictures At An Exhibition

This is an important album for me for two reasons.  One, it got me hooked on ELP and two, it served as my gateway into classical music.  Oddly enough, when I purchased this album it was really a mistake.  I was looking for another ELP song altogether but I didn’t know the name (this was pre-internet, mind you).  So I picked this up and my initial reaction was, “crap, a lousy live album.”  When I had finished listening to their interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece my reaction was, “holy crap, I need to listen to this again.”

In many ways this suite was the perfect choice for ELP, as it allowed the group to showcase some of their best traits – it’s bombastic and loud in parts, intricate and subtle in others.  Greg Lake even upped the ante by adding a wholly new piece to the suite, a beautiful acoustic piece called “The Sage”.

If you’re convinced you don’t like classical music, listen to the “Pictures” suite or ELP’s adaptation and you may think differently.

#11 – various artists, Jazz Master Files

Score one for budget compilations.  Back in the dark ages before the internet became a ready reference tool for music, I needed a quick and cost-effective way to explore as much jazz as possible.  So when I stumbled across this three-disc set for 10 bucks I snatched it up.  And while many budget compilations contain crap, this was a goldmine of vintage jazz that I used as the foundation for further exploration.

Although this set focuses more heavily on pre-War material, it’s still chock full of tunes that no jazz fan should be without.  There’s a particularly hot version of “St. Louis Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and a rendition of “Love for Sale” by Stan Kenton’s orchestra that boils over with excitement.  But there is some great bop stuff too, like “Charity Rag” from the oft-overlooked Bud Shank and a great version of the Charlie Parker classic “Bird Feathers” (also known as “Crazeology”).

While the sound quality on these songs isn’t uniformly great, many of the performances are and this album was invaluable to me as a jazz touchstone for a few years.

Listening Booth – Dio, “Mystery”

Ronnie James DioIt was a sad weekend in music my friends.  Heavy metal icon and all-around decent guy Ronnie James Dio passed away from stomach cancer at age 67.  Dio carved out a damn good career for himself and his powerful voice, fronting Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and then his own band.  Here’s one of his solo tracks that I’ve always been fond of – from 1984’s The Last in Line, it’s “Mystery”.

RIP Ronnie, you will be missed.  Let us all throw the devil horns in his honor.


Listening Booth – Iron Maiden, “The Prophecy”

Most longtime Iron Maiden fans would agree that 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son marked the end of the band’s golden era.  They’ve certainly had worthy releases since then, but this album capped off a nearly decade-long as one of the preeminent metal bands on the planet.  My favorite cut from Seventh Son is one that was not released as a single, which is a shame.  It’s “The Prophecy”, and it stands in stark contrast to most of the band’s material to date.  My favorite part is the acoustic guitar outro, something Maiden had never done before.  It’s something they would do well to try more often.

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Listening Booth – Iron Maiden, “The Trooper”

What better way to end the week than with some classic metal?  I played the hell out of this album (yes, on vinyl) when it came out and it’s still one of my favorites.  Not so sure about the spandex, but it was the ’80s.

The inspiration for this song is a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson called “The Charge of the Light Brigade“.  The vintage movie footage you’ll see in the video comes from the 1936 movie of the same name, starring Errol Flynn.  Both describe a famous battle during the Crimean War, during which the British managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against the Russian Empire.

Anyway, enough talk.  Let’s headbang!  It’s “The Trooper”, from Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind album (1983).

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Album review: Spinal Tap – Back From the Dead

I don’t think I could ever get tired of watching the 1984 mockumentary classic, This Is Spinal Tap, or listening to the accompanying soundtrack.  That movie and, more importantly, its music perfectly straddled the fine line between brutal satire and straight-laced performance.  It’s this quality that spawned not only legions of fans for a fictitious band but more awesomely the legendary tale about the Scorpions storming out of a screening of the movie because the parody hit a little too close to home.

It’s as if Spinal Tap (Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean) and director/co-writer Rob Reiner gazed into a crystal ball and saw just what a joke the heavy metal genre would become by the end of the decade, which makes the movie and songs even better after the fact.  But what I really love about it is that while the songs (“Sex Farm”, “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight”, etc.) are of course goofy, they actually do rock and thus can be enjoyed on multiple levels.

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2008 – The Year in Recorded Musical Performances

A few months into this year I couldn’t shake the feeling that 2008 just wasn’t going to be the great year for new music that 2007 was.  And so here I am, about a week away from 2009, and I still feel the same way.  It wasn’t a total wash mind you, as there was definitely some quality to be enjoyed.  So here’s my take on the 2008 music year – good, bad, and ugly.

The Best of the Best (Albums)

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)

Yeah, this seems like an obvious choice, but it’s also a damn good one.  I’m always up for listening to good vocal harmonies, and this band has them in spades.  The music is gorgeous to boot, and is a highly engaging blend of folk titans like CSNY, America, and early ’70s Fleetwood Mac.  The vocal round of “White Winter Hymnal” is worth the price of admission by itself.  And as a bonus, I’ve seen enough live clips of material from this album to witness that its beauty is not just the result of studio trickery.

Metallica – Death Magnetic (Warner Bros.)

You can accuse me of falling for the hype if you want, but this is an excellent album.  While it’s not enough to make me throw away my copy of Master of Puppets, it’s certainly strong enough to make me forget the group’s creatively dry Load era.  There’s a touch of filler present, but tracks like “All Nightmare Long” and “My Apocalypse” stack up against the best material Metallica has ever produced.  And most importantly of all, the group is once again relevant to the world of metal.

The only bummer regarding Death Magnetic is the craptastic mixing/mastering job, which like far too many modern albums is compressed to the point of being physically uncomfortable to listen to.  Fortunately there is relief in the form of an alternate mix produced for the Guitar Hero video game, which was widely distributed over torrent sites.  I’m not advocating that sort of downloading of course, but let’s just say it’s far superior to the officially released version.

School of Language – Sea From Shore (Thrill Jockey)

Whether or not Field Music ever reconvenes under that name is sort of irrelevant since Peter and David Brewis, the creative energy behind Field Music, seem to be carrying the torch of top-notch English pop/rock as if nothing had changed.  Witness David’s first release as School of Language, a slightly more understated but still masterfully executed piece of pop bliss.

The Week That Was – The Week That Was (Memphis Industries)

Speaking of the brothers Brewis, August was Peter’s turn to knock one out of the park and he did with the self-titled debut from The Week That Was.  It’s a denser and darker journey than Sea From Shore, but no less rewarding.  Taking musical cues from early ’80s Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, Brewis has delivered one of the most satisfying and sadly overlooked releases of the year.

Russian Circles – Station (Suicide Squeeze)

You’d think that an album of metal instrumentals, averaging seven minutes in length, would not be particularly interesting or rewarding.  You would be wrong.  There is a craftsmanhip evident on Station that belies the fact that it’s only the band’s second album.  It sounds like thoroughly modern metal, but it feels vintage.

Randy Newman – Harps and Angels (Nonesuch)

2008 was the year I finally hopped on the Randy Newman bandwagon, and Harps and Angels played a large part in that change.  No longer is he just the guy from those Family Guy bits or the man I blame for a bunch of schlocky Pixar music.  Well, he still is a little.  But I’ve connected with his top-notch lyricism and easy-going, modernized New Orleans-style blues piano, which are in full flower on this record.  Newman thrives when he has nice, big targets for his cynicism, and he has plenty of material to work with here (from the Supreme Court to the Bush administration to their hypocritical pop music critics).  But the tender moments are just as effective, and songs like “Losing You” and “Feels LIke Home” will undoubtedly stand the test of time.

Dengue Fever – Venus on Earth (M80)

I predicted back in April that this would make my year-end list, and I called it (funny how that works).  This off-kilter blend of Cambodian lounge pop and psychedelia is one of the oddest albums to win my heart.  It was also good enough to get the attention of Peter Gabriel, who decided to distribute it on his Real World imprint.  It would be easy to focus your attention on the spellbinding vocals of Cambodia’s own Chhom Nimol, but the catchy musical arrangements are the real star of this effort.  Venus on Earth swings, it grooves, and it captivates.

Danilo Pérez – Across the Crystal Sea (Verve)

I was turned on to this release by the JazzPortraits blog (not updated nearly enough for my liking), and it’s a winner.  Pérez ‘s piano is backed this time by a string section led by the renowned arranger and conductor Claus Ogerman, known to many jazz fans for his work with Bill Evans, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Diana Krall among others.  It’s a subtle and gossamer work that never slides into the dreaded “easy listening” realm.  Guest vocalist Cassandra Wilson shines on a pair of tracks, “Lazy Afternoon” and “(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings”.

Goldfrapp – Seventh Tree (Mute)

Seventh Tree is one of those albums that I suspect will only get better with age.  Everything is slightly muted here, from Alison Goldfrapp’s vocals to the arrangements themselves.  But in trading sex appeal and danceability for nuance and delicacy, Goldfrapp has produced their most rewarding album since Felt Mountain.

Build (2008)
Build – Build (New Amsterdam)

Recalling at times both the structured and subdued approach of Philip Glass and the sheer musical joy of Penguin Cafe Orchestra, the self-titled debut from Brooklyn’s Build can best be described as classical music for people who hate classical music.  It’s exuberant and poppy but never gimmicky, and I highly recommend it.

Jim Noir – Jim Noir (Barsuk)

The eponymous followup to Noir’s 2006 debut, Tower of Love, finds him mining the same sound as the first time – namely the ’60s salad days of ’60s British pop, Mod, and psychedelia.  The formula worked for Noir (real name Alan Roberts) the first go-around and it certainly works now.  The melodies are not awe-inspiring but the DIY charm still holds; don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming parts of “Don’t You Worry” and “Happy Day Today.”

Next: The best of the rest…

Six songs from Death Magnetic now available for streaming

The buzz behind Metallica’s new album, Death Magnetic, continues to build prior to its September 12 worldwide release.  This is easily the most hyped Metallica released since, well, St. Anger.  The stream represents 60% of the final 10-song product, an unexpected amount of accessibility for the band.  Here’s what you’ll hear when you visit their site:

  • “The Day That Never Comes” – Decent for the first 4 minutes, then it gets much better.  And hey, a Kirk Hammett solo!
  • “My Apocalypse” – Pretty kickass I must say.  Reminds me a lot of “Dyers Eve”.
  • “Cyanide” – I’ve heard this one the most, and it’s growing on me.  Love that drum/bass bit at the beginning and the end.  Very reminiscent of the Black Album era.
  • “Broken, Beat & Scarred” – Not totally feeling this one.  Feels a little unfocused to me.
  • “The Judas Kiss” – It’s pretty complex and doesn’t hit me immediately, but will probably be a grower.  Excellent soloing though.

It sounds to me like an interesting mix of past styles.  You’ve got some of the classic songwriting style, some Black Album stuff, and even some Load-era sounds.  It actually sounds pretty good to me.  It’s really interesting to hear the older style recorded in such a direct, up-front mix (which is a hallmark of Rick Rubin).  I can only imagine what this material would sound like were it produced by Flemming Rasmussen.

Of course, some of you more enterprising intertube users already have a full copy of the album thanks to a leak that originated in France.  I won’t say whether or not I have a copy myself, as the wrath of Lars Ulrich is nasty indeed (although he was surprisingly cavalier when asked about the leak).

Oh yeah, and this picture is hilarious.  Who knew James Hetfield and Robert Trujillo were so damn trendy?

James Hetfield and Robert Trujillo (Metallica) shopping

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