475 : Bruce Springsteen : “Tunnel of Love” (1987)

mUDLzKhrvDiYSYAZOEGK-5wDespite being born and raised in New Jersey, I’ve never been a huge Springsteen fan. Maybe part of it is that I was always “supposed to” like his music because he’s the Jersey poster boy. Who knows. Regardless, “Tunnel of Love” did nothing to change my mind.

Released in 1987, this album finds “The Boss” near the unhappy end of his first marriage, and it shows. Almost every song ruminates on the dark side of relationships, from cheating (“Cautious Man”) to hidden motivations (hit single “Brilliant Disguise”). I found these songs very emotional and was very affected by the sentiments expressed, unlike most of the other albums I’ve heard so far. Far from the anthems of the working class that I associate with Springsteen’s oeuvre, these lyrics are much more personal and at the same time universal.

The music is unlike Springsteen’s earlier work as well. The album alternates between the sparsely arranged folk of “Ain’t Got You” and “Cautious Man,” and the synth-heavy pop of “Walk Like a Man” and “Tunnel of Love.” Only the guitar rock of “Spare Parts” echoes earlier hits like “Glory Days” and “Born in the USA.” While the more typically “’80s-sounding” songs seem more catchy and poppy, they also have aged the worst; the synths and over-reverbed drums sound cheesy to my 2014 ears.

I’m probably never going to listen to this album again. I know this is probably shortsighted of me, but it’s such a heartfelt serious album and then there’s all these cheesy synths and overblown ’80s production. It just ruins it for me. But it was certainly an interesting and rewarding listen.

 

497 : Public Enemy : “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” (1987)

mBrafDugKwHvarQXhyRupIwWay before Chuck D’s career as an anti-music-industry talking head, and Flavor Flav’s bizarre reality TV fame, there was “Yo! Bum Rush the Show.” The album that started Public Enemy’s rise to fame. Anyway, let’s get to the music.

First thing I noticed is that the lyrics were less politically charged than what I typically associate with the group. Yes, there are songs about the treatment of black men in society¬† (“M.P.E.,” “Public Enemy Number 1”) and an anti-drug protest (“Megablast”). But there is also B-boy boasting (“You’re Gonna Get Yours”), slight glorification of gang violence (“Too Much Posse,” “Miuzi Weights a Ton”), and early L L Cool J-style criticism of a “Sophisticated Bitch.”

Music-wise, I loved the production here. PE producers The Bomb Squad combine bombastic sampled guitars with funk samples and sparse drum machine beats to create a very powerful and effective style. Especially notable are the vocal samples on “M.P.E.” and guest guitar from Living Colour’s Vernon Reid on “Sophisticated Bitch.” However, the songs get really dull on the choruses, which almost uniformly lacked anything catchy and had me praying for them to end.

Both Chuck D and Flavor Flav are effective rappers, and their flows keep everything going smoothly despite some issues. However, Chuck especially had not yet perfected his style, and the raps suffer from the very even cadence that I often hear on hip-hop from this era. Which is not to say it’s not enjoyable; I did like the album overall. But it really just makes me want to listen to different albums by Public Enemy.

(note: Yes, I know this post is out of order. I get my music from the Rhapsody service, and when I’d originally gotten to #497 they didn’t yet have this album available. So I’m taking this moment, after a break from the blog, to fill in a couple of the blanks.)

461 : Los Lobos : “How Will the Wolf Survive” (1984)

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I’ll say one thing about this album. “How Will the Wolf Survive” is certainly like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Literally. Los Lobos mix traditional Mexican music with Eagles-esque country rock and Billy Joel-esque saxophone rock. Very original-sounding; I don’t even know what genre this band fits into.

Unfortunately, all of those styles are ones I hate. So it was hard for me to give this album a fair listen. Some songs, like “A Matter of Time” and “The Breakdown,” start out as passable country-rock, and then are completely ruined by cheesy-sounding saxophone. Others, like “Serenata Nortena” and “Corrido #1,” sound to me like I’m sitting in a Mexican restaurant and it’s someone’s birthday. I feel a bit racist saying that, but unfortunately that’s what that music evokes for me (and probably most Americans).

The fairest thing I can say is that the songs are generally catchy and it’s all well-performed. Just not for me AT ALL.

462 : Marvin Gaye: “Here, My Dear” (1978)

Rhapsody’s Nick Dedina calls it a “career highlight” and a “masterwork.” AMG’s Rob Theakston calls it “brilliantly unsettling.” I call it “fucking terrible.” Let’s see why!

In a 1976 divorce court settlement, Marvin Gaye agreed to give half the royalties of his next album to his ex-wife. That album would be “Here, My Dear,” basically a musical “screw you” to his ex. Every song deals with the falling apart of their relationship or their divorce, with many spoken interludes specifically talking to her and telling her how he feels. The result is an incredibly personal and insular collection of songs.

So, interesting. Fascinating, even. But great? I say no. Lyrics about chocolate mints, attorney fees, and little flying sparrows are unpoetic and ruin the songs’ musicality. Dated late-’70s synthesizers add unintentional humor. Heartfelt spoken-word asides and interludes come across as silly and self-indulgent.

And self-indulgence is all over this one. Most songs are 6-8 minutes in length, and much of that time consists of mediocre saxophone solos and spoken voice-overs. What melody does exist isn’t very catchy, and usually consists of the same lyric being repeated in a myriad of different ways; often it seems like Gaye went into the studio unrehearsed, and improvised as he went along. And several songs end over a minute before the end of the track, at which point a long dull keyboard solo takes over. The album as a whole clocks in at around 75 minutes, at which point my patience had been exhaustively tried.

There are some highlights, like the harder-edged funk of “Anger” and the spacy “A¬† Funky Space Reincarnation.” And Gaye’s vocals are great throughout. But really this album is about Gaye exorcising the demons of his failed marriage; and while he certainly accomplishes that, in my opinion it does not make for great music.

463 : Elton John : “Tumbleweed Connection” (1970)

This one was a little strange, as it’s not the kind of thing I typically associate with Elton John. “Tumbleweed Connection,” John’s third album, is a concept album based around “wild west” themes and imagery. And you know what? It actually works. Of course, there’s plenty of his trademark piano-driven honky-tonk rock; however, there is also country-western (complete with slide guitar), folk, and funk spread throughout.

The only fault I can find with the record is the lack of really catchy standouts; there were no songs I found myself humming after they were done. A few times, I did think that I recognized a song; but in each case it turned out that it just sounded similar to “Benny and the Jets.” But in a way, that just makes the album work better as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to say this is the best album I’ve ever heard. The songs sound good instrumentally, but the melodies are perhaps not as great as a lot of John’s later material. Still, it’s an enjoyable listen from beginning to end, and worth including in a list like this.

(Okay, sorry, that wasn’t my best review. Didn’t really have a lot to say about it. I’ll try better next time.)

464 : Jay-Z : “The Blueprint” (2001)

It’s been a while since there was hip-hop on the list (the last one was the Fugees at #477), so this was a welcome change of pace. And it really is a solid album. The beats, mostly sampled, have an old school feel that fits Jay’s vocal style. The rapping is overwhelmingly Jay’s, which is a rarity in the guest-spot-laden world of hip-hop. And his rapping itself, though not particularly superlative, is good enough to stand up to the quality production.

However, I had mixed feelings about this one, and it was really due to lyrical content more than anything else. Maybe it’s that it’s a ten-plus-year-old album already; but the homophobia all over this disc lowers it in my esteem. I hate that shit; saying “faggot” all over the place just feels juvenile. Additionally, several of the songs are very personal and petty, to the extent where I felt sort of embarrassed for all involved. Especially the Nas-dissing “Takeover,” in which he tells Nas which of his albums he hates and questions his masculinity. It seemed strange from someone who started the album talking about how “the ruler is back”; if you’re the ruler, do you really need to stoop that low?

I’m going to close with a sort of conundrum that I encounter whenever I’m listening to hip-hop. Jay-Z’s name is on the front of the album, so theoretically it’s his album. But when I’m thinking of the hip-hop songs I like the best, it’s always because of the beats. In that sense, I feel like the producers are more responsible for how great an album is than the artist; the producer writes the “music,” whereas the artist generally is just responsible for the rhymes. This is of course a non-hip-hop-fan talking, so feel free to tell me I’m full of shit.

A quick note about the list

Rolling Stone’s original list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time was published in 2003. In the time between then and now, a lot of great albums have either been released or come to be respected. To that end, I just found out that the magazine released a new list earlier this year, which especially in the higher numbers is completely different than the original. So I want to note that, while I’m sure the new list is great, I’m not going to go back and fill in the blanks; instead I’m going to continue to use the original list from 2003.We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.