I know, I know – list posts. They suck. Or they rock. It really depends.
I was firmly in the ‘they suck’ camp. In fact, I was in that camp for the bulk of my life. I had many arguments with an ex who was deeply committed to the Rolling Stones top 500 albums of all time. I hated that list. For a start it had way too much Beach Boys for my liking (im in a very controversial space about the Beach Boys) and I didn’t want Rolling stone (whose opinion I was only marginally interested in) telling me what to like. I knew my collection was ok. I had a lot of jazz as the result of committed jazz parents (Albert Ayler, Herbie Hancock – heaps of the best stuff), and at the time I was working for a small Indie record label so I was really into Indie. The jazz was the savior.
Inevitably the Rolling Stone fan boyfriend and the Indie record label and I all parted ways. It was then I met my current boyfriend. And he introduced me to … THE LIST.
This list literally changed my listening experience and therefore my life, forever. Once I discovered this music, I couldn’t understand why it had been hidden from me for so long. Why hadn’t I chased great music at some point in my life? I’m easier with that now. I simply didn’t know this music was out there. I was aware of some of it in the margins, but ultimately, I had no idea avant guard and alternative (I mean REAL alternative) music even existed.
I further let myself off the hook when I discovered how few women are into avant guard music. It’s disturbing. Ladies, something in us leaves these jewels to the men, and it is no longer ok.
So, in honour of my hard-won passion and the fact that I shall never ever go back to shit-house music, I thought (over a series of weeks) I will share the list with you all. I’ve since moved on to other lists, and found other labels and professionals to worship. However, I go back to this list all the time. It’s so good, and it’s so exciting to discover it. To the uninitiated – have a wonderful wonderful time. To the well versed, enjoy the trip down memory lane.
A few things to tell you about the list. It is in chronological order by age, so we are starting in the early years and moving forward through time. Therefore it doesn’t matter if I start with #1. These are all incredible albums crafted by astonishing talents. Each as good as the one before it and the one after it. The Wire is a brilliant music magazine that you can find here. You can see the full list here.
Wire’s 100 Albums that Changed the World while no one was Watching – 1 through to 10.
Symphony No. 4 (American Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski) (1965)
“Charles Ives (1874-1954) is now regarded as the father of American music, though during his lifetime his work was rarely played and usually misunderstood. His magnificent Fourth Symphony (1910-16) involves polytonality, polyrhythms, quarter-tones, aleatoric music, and the simultaneous playing of different idioms, achieving a stunning complexity in a work that is by turns nightmarish, phantasmagoric, nostalgic and triumphant.” That is what The Wire have to say. Being a well-behaved ex-Christian (you can take the girl out of the rules but you can’t take the rules out of the girl) I obediently started at the beginning of the list with this incredible track. To me it sounded like the Church mixed with Jerry Goldsmiths The Omen without the clumsiness. The subtlety struck me between the eyes, and I felt I’d found a home, an understanding immediately. Teh trick to music like this is to let it inform you. Don’t superimposes judgement. When I lay back and let it get inside and fuck with my entrails, my brain followed with its meandering explanations and the result was an out-of-body experience. There is a magnificent mini documentary on this album here if you want to learn a little more about how incredible this album is.
Blind Willie Johnson
Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground / It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine (1928) [Single]
No lyrics, expect those of course that the music and the sound implant in your brain. I feel I know exactly what this song is about. It’s a lamentation, he’s asking the Lord why it has to be so hard and he’s; pledging he’ll go through what he needs to go through anyway, but he may have to whine just a little through song. It’s Gospel country improv. Blind Willie recorded nothing else like it (we’re just talking about one song here) and therefore there never was anything like it. Ry Cooder has given us similar sounding effects, but this was the first and this was the only and that is how it is. This is one of those singles (like all the albums on this list) you need to take some time to sink into. Run a bath in the dark with nothing but the hot water and the music – let your mind go and your body will follow as they say in LA Story. I wasn’t a stranger to blues, having been raised on a strict diet of trad Blues styles, or even to Blind Willie, but this blew me away. Enjoy it. Enjoy it with every piece of you.
City of Glass: Stan Kenton Plays Bob Graettinger (1995) [Compilation]
OK – Now we get into the start of the life changing stuff. I am not really technical enough to adore Charles Ives and I had heard Blind Willie before. But Stan Kenton was an absolute revelation. Being an ex lounge / torch singer, i was blown away by these tracks. I play this album all the time. Even in a world where I discover a new band every day that deserves deep devoted listening, for me there was nothing like this. This is a series of songs commissioned from Graettinger by Kenton. They were written from 1947 to 1953. There isn’t a lot but it was potent enough to make a huge impression on the big band era jazz bands at the time. I recognised the Bartok in it right away (being a big Bartok fan) but I didn’t pick up on the Stravinsky and Varese till I was told to look for them. I was like Jazz – Bartok and Jazz? Surely I’m making a mistake. And yet they go together like Jazz and Bach. This is a huge unorthodox bursting album that gut wrenches and spins your insides with its intensity. It still holds all the mystery and power it did back when it was first heard. It was the album on the list that made me inhale sharp, then “oh my god – what is THIS?” One of the most exciting things I’ve ever heard.
Louis & Bebe Barron
Forbidden Planet  (1978)
By the time MGM got around to asking Louis and Bebe Barron to compose an electronic soundtrack for their prestige sci-fi presentation, Forbidden Planet, the husband and wife team had already worked with John Cage, Anais Nin, Aldous Huxley and Maya Deren. Mimicking Norbert Weiner’s experiments involving negative and positive feedback in stressed animals, the Barrons had learned to make electrical circuits literally ‘shriek’, reprocessing the results through careful tape manipulation into extremely rich and varied electroacoustic soundscapes. The wire list suggests they were never credited properly for their pioneering work, and that may explain why this sound track has fallen into virtual obscurity. The thing about this album is the way it was made. We are used to these sounds now, but remember this isn’t made with contemporary computerised access. This is real, solid hand crafted sounds, meticulously put together. Plus, it’s the first time a chick appears on this list (yay) and you can see a cool interview with her here.
Other Worlds, Other Sounds (1958)
In January 1958 Juan Garcia Esquivel was commissioned to do a certain piece starring American musicians. As soon as he arrived he suggested he put his own stamp on the project. The ensuing session, however, included reworkings of Cole Porter, Sammy Kahn and Kurt Weill of such stark exuberance and scintillating orchestral muscle that, 40 years on, they still have the power to amaze. Esquivel’s passion for drawing new sounds from conventional instruments shines through in the taut dynamics of Other Worlds Other Sounds, a tribute to the arranger as an unacknowledged force in 20th century music. And there ends the formal part of the lesson. I just LOVE this. Ok – confession time – I shamelessly use this album to rescue me from banality. It saves me from bathroom cleaning depression and provides stimulating immersion for the transition between day job and writing at night so I don’t get lost in post-real-world death trap. I know I’m not supposed to masturbate my boring feelings over work this brilliant, but what can I say. It’s so filled with passion and life it just ROCKS me. I DARE you to be down while listening to this.
Joe Meek & the Blue Men
I Hear a New World (1991)
I can’t say this as well as The Wire can, so I will let them speak for this amazing album.
A profound influence on artists as diverse as Steven Stapleton and Saint Etienne, Joe Meek’s magnum opus was destined to languish in obscurity for several decades. Aside from a couple of highly collectible EPs of the material, and a few white label copies, it didn’t get an official release in Meek’s lifetime. Having developed an obsession with transmundane sounds when working as a radar operator during his National Service, Meek had his passion further inflamed by the Russian and American satellite programmes Consequently, he resolved to create a record which would explore life on the Moon. Aware that this was going to be “a strange record”, Meek brought his entire gamut of unorthodox recording techniques to the fore. Speeded-up tapes, rattling washers, combs dragged across ashtrays, etc, were thrown into the mix, along with the clavioline and all manner of home-built effects. The results are at times an adumbration of techniques used in later electronic music; at other times the record is undeniably quirky with its risible speeded-up voices. But undoubtedly, it was a significant work, suffused with exquisitely simple melodies and genuinely strange intros that still sound way ahead of their time.
This is another favourite of mine. (oh – what the hey, I adore every album on this list) and it is another that taught me how to listen. Again, you have to suspend judgement. Take away all your suburban influences of what noise and music are supposed to be and let this infuse you. This is another album (as really every one is) that asks for total focus. But why not? God – its gotta be better than listening to the endless chatter implanted there during my mirror phase right?
JOe Harriot was a Jamaican Jazz musician and composer, who primarily played the alto sax. While initially a bebopper, he initiated free form jazz. He moved to the UK in 1951 and remained there for the rest of his life. tragically, I can’t give you a sample from Abstract here (the one above is from Free Form, the album before Abstract) because his records are out of print and sounds tracks are even difficult t get on the net. There are pirate copies of this, but ultimately the inaccessibility is a disaster. Harriott’s free form music is often compared to Ornette Coleman’s roughly contemporary breakthrough in the US, but even cursory listening reveals deep divisions between their conceptions of ‘free jazz’. Harriott’s model demanded constant dialogue between musicians which created an ever shifting soundscape. Tempo, key and meter always free to alter in this music, and often did so. Harriott’s own playing style underwent some changes during this period, dispensing with orthodox bebop lines in favour of more angular, cut up phrasing. What remained however, was his lyricism, searing tone and sense of attack. The Wire List calls for a box set of Harriots work. I’d buy it.
Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions (1992)
Like many bluesmen, he was rediscovered in 1965 after decades of obscurity, but unusually, got a session for a major label, through Columbia’s David Hammond. Then in his 60s, House summoned up his old power and an even greater intensity for some of the most haunting and anguished blues on record. I adore this album. its so dark you can get lost – again, pure black room headphones stuff. The young guitarist Alan Wilson (Canned Heat) was one of Son House’s biggest fans. The producer John Hammond Sr. asked Alan Wilson, who was just 22 years old, to teach “Son House how to play like Son House,” because Alan Wilson had such a good knowledge of the blues styles. The album The Father of Delta Blues – The Complete 1965 Sessions was the result. Son House played with Alan Wilson live. It can be heard on the album John the Revelator: The 1970 London Sessions. Ill health plagued his later years and in 1974 he retired once again, and later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx. He was buried at the Mt. Hazel Cemetery. Members of the Detroit Blues Society raised money through benefit concerts to put a monument on his grave. Like a true blues man, he had been married five times.
I was no stranger to Son House, and was very excited to know that I was aware of at least 1 of the important albums on this list.
William S. Burroughs
Call Me Burroughs (1966)
Burroughs gets a little ‘over love’ these days as every disgruntled male white teen goes through his ‘Burroughs’ phase. It gets a little irritating – especially in light of who he was. This album was a first – like the man himself. Here he is Reading excerpts from his books, including Naked lunch. One man and a microphone. The minimalist style is chilling compared with the iron clad punch of those words and that lifestyle and all it represents. Despite the laid back reduction, this is a man with passion who adores what he is doing. this is the key isn’t it? Not running away and becoming Burroughs. Perhaps this is why the man is so incredible and his worshippers so appalling. There is a chilling darkness to this record, and it paves the say for talking text that has rarely been equalled. I have the jazz fusion Kerouac’s Jazz of the beat generation and I have a Capote reading and a few others, but nothing beats this. This darkness, this abstract, this powerful.
Early Works (1987)
The importance of Steve Reich can’t be underplayed. In 1965, under the influence of Terry Reiley, Reich plays around with two identical tape loops he has of one phrase from a black Pentecostal Preacher. He lets the loops go out of phase and according the The Wire “became mesmerized by the complex sub-rhythms set up by the interference, the voice morphing into a pulsing Minimalist music.” Soon he moves forward to experiment with other vocals and sounds, then in the 1980′s he moves toward darker sounds gleaning from his Jewish heritage and other historical themes. He wins a Grammy for his Different trains. It was my introduction to Reich and John cage that had me open up to experimental music and move forward into a new kind of listening experience. Reich’s style of composition influenced many other composers and musical groups. Reich has been described, in The Guardian by music critic Andrew Clements, as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”. Simply spoken – you have to hear this.
And there you have it. The first 10. Take your time. I wont post another like this for a little while, so sink your teeth in and groove to the newness or revisit the oldness of these works of pure genius.
So much fun. So much love.
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