When breathy organ and twinkling percussion open up Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” from their landmark LP Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it is pure magic. Instruments balanced perfectly together, with just enough substance to keep me hypnotically entranced and enough open space in the music for the song to breath like a living human being. When Jeff Tweedy steps up to the mic to deliver abstractly compelling lyrics through his warm, nicotine scarred tenor, I get chills. I cannot recount how many times I have heard the song but it seems to have the same effect on me every time I push play. And that’s just one of Wilco’s songs. Similar affects occur throughout the rest of the band’s discography, from the backporch swagger of A.M.‘s “Casino Queen” to the crushing noise of Being There‘s “Misunderstood”, to the fine-tuned krautrock of A Ghost is Born‘s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, to the tender fragility of Summerteeth‘s “She’s A Jar”. Throughout lineup changes and label drama, Wilco has been able to consistently release music that pushes the boundaries of art rock, country/folk, and experimental noise and is all held together by Tweedy’s always stellar lyrics that have been mentioned in the same breath as legendary songwriters like Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Wilco’s line up since 2004 has likely been their most formidable live performance set up with experimental jazz god Nels Cline slinging lead guitar, Mikael Jorgensen defining a clear keyboard voice, and Multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone doing a little bit of everything in between. Drummer Glenn Kotche remains a thunderous force in the band whether he is bashing away in frantic polyrhythms or simply keeping the beat with a single kick drum. Having had the opportunity to see the band live twice in my young life, I can clearly say that there is no live show that can best Wilco’s, as their studio material is often kicked up a notch to make for a raucous good time for everyone. As of now, Wilco holds the top slot for my favorite band of all time as I’m sure they do for many of you as well.
The Talking Heads
There are few bands as important and influential on modern music today than The Talking Heads. The band released hit after hit without ever sacrificing their belovedly quirky artiness. Borrowing influences from African tribal music, funk, rock and roll, ambient, disco, and electronica, The Talking Heads developed a style of American Afro-beat music that influenced some of today’s biggest names like Vampire Weekend and LCD Soundsytem. Off-beat superstar David Byrne came into the public eye through The Talking Heads as the voice and lyricist behind the band, penning immortal hits like “Psycho killer”, “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House”. Coming on the scene in 1977 with their appropriately titled debut Talking Heads: 77, the band made a major splash by going against the macho blues rock that was all the rage at the time and virtually invented new wave in the process. With thing, jittery guitars, funky bass, and keyboards, The Talking Heads were playing rock and roll that sounded like it belonged in a future era, but luckily, the 1980s were right around the corner when the band hit their stride putting out albums like Little Creatures, Speaking in Tongues, and my personal favorite Talking Heads album Remain in Light. Remain in Light was the product of the band’s collaboration with Brian Eno in which many songs were based on a single chord and lasted for lengthy periods of time. Byrne’s vocal fury in “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is exhilarating, the hypnotic groove of “Houses in Motion” offers up zen-like force of will, and “Once in a Lifetime” simply remains one of the greatest pop art songs to have ever been written. The Talking Heads are a band that will live on into today’s music as the music they made themselves can easily stand up alongside the best of today.
I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced a rush quite as intense as the feeling I get when Titus Andronicus hits the stage. Screaming along to all of Patrick Stickles’ equally profane and literate lyrics about suburban ennui, relationships, and the American Civil War as I bounced around like a ping pong ball in a mosh pit, likely causing permanent damage to my bone structure, brings on the endorphin rush every time. The certifiably epic New Jersey punk band has been destroying the notion of what a punk band can be considered with song lengths that usually last upwards of seven minutes and citing influences as diverse as The Butthole Surfers and Husker Du to Albert Camus and Ken Burns. But no matter what you really care to call them, Titus Andronicus plays music that is loud, usually fast, usually angry, usually long, but oh so satisfying. The band is not all speed and screaming though, Stickles writes lyrics and melodies that venture towards pop territory, making Titus Andronicus into a kind of appealing, progressive hardcore style. The band’s most recent album The Monitor was a monstrous affair of an album taking on the loose concept of the American Civil War as a backdrop, bringing songs that were some of the band’s most musically experimental and ambitious. Their debut The Airing of Grievances was a sweaty punk rock opus that broke open a can of youthful emotion and energy that simply could not be ignored. And the live show, oh the live show. The band has a penchant for playing smaller intimate venues which makes the experience all the more impactful when Stickles jumps into to the crowd to mosh alongside the audience members and leads everyone in group sing-a-longs. Titus Andronicus brings the perfect mix of speed, anger, and brains to form into one of the best hardcore bands working today.
Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to. Although its a mantra for a band that is provocative at the least, Spacemen 3 did their best to live up to it, creating mind expanding drone and space rock that paid homage to legends like Captain Beefheart, The Beach Boys, and Love. Based on the Partnership of Jason “Spaceman” Pierce and Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember, Spacemen 3 set out in the late 1980s to make druggy music that challenged their listener’s conceptions of rock music and the limits of their eardrums, sometimes playing music that could be as painful as it is engrossing. With heavy distortion and thick drones, the band created a supremely trippy experience with their debut album Playing With Fire and playing live “anti-shows” in which the band members would all be seated as lights and images slowly moved around them. The band made sure they didn’t remain stagnant though as they toned down the noise on incredible albums like the beautiful The Perfect Prescription which was a concept album that traced a drug trip from purchasing the contraband, to shooting up, to overdose. With an arc that begins as grimy and dangerous and ends as creeping and soothing, The Perfect Prescription is an album of extreme beauty and shocking gravity. However, there was a gradually growing rift between Kember and Pierce as the two wanted to take different directions with their music. Kember was becoming more interested in electronica and Pierce with Gospel and hymn like drones. The band’s final album together, Recurring was split directly down the middle with Kember contributing the albums elctro side and Pierce recording a batch of exalting psychedelic gospel. The two went on to break up the band and form Spiritualized on the front of Pierce and Spectrum from Kember, two bands that are also big favorites of mine. Spacemen 3 remain a one of a kind band however making drug rock that would prove to be highly influential.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave is perhaps the singular coolest human being who has ever graced this planet. After fronting scuzzy jazz punk rockers The Birthday Party in the late eighties with a manic hairdo and an amphetamine addled bark, Nick Cave settled down to form The Bad Seeds after his first band broke up. Since then Nick Cave and the ever revolving lineup of the Bad Seeds have taken on a number of styles and personas that show a wide range of musical talent and willingness to experiment. The band has played everything from proto-caveman punk, to somber piano ballads, to thunderous rock and roll, to groovy noise experimentalism, shedding skins effortlessly and constantly evolving. Cave’s lyrics have of course always been a main focus of his art as he has become known as one of music’s greatest songwriters with lyrics that shine a poignant light on topics like life and death, love, human emotion, and spirituality all delivered in Cave’s darkly scarred baritone. The lyrics make the listener think about philosophy and the line between reality and fantasy against songs that can be as menacing and aggressive as they are calm, cool, and collected. Cave himself is simply a cool guy. Always dressed to the nines in fine suits and recently sporting a handlebar mustache straight out of a drug deal in 1976, Cave is an imposing force and when he gets up to sing, its hard not to melt like putty in his hands. Now fronting his noise punk side project Grinderman, Cave is making a return to scarier music alongside his frequent collaborator violinist/multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis and other members of The Bad Seeds. No matter what form his and his bands music takes, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds will always deliver songs and albums that are weighty, poignant, and simply an all around good time.