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Throat cancer claimed a true musical icon last week. Levon Helm was one of the last of a kind, a multi-faceted musical talent who was also was generally present for the founding of rock and roll. Before achieving fame as part of the Band, Helm grew up in rural Arkansas, where he absorbed many of the southern, cultural idiosyncrasies that would influence both his songwriting and musical maturation. He was there to witness the genre’s forefathers: Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. He took up the drums, then guitar and mandolin, and soon was off traveling the globe as part of rockabilly rebel Ronnie Hawkins’s band. It was there he met Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel, solidifying a musical partnership that would lead them to back Bob Dylan during his most controversial period as a performer (though the constant booing sent Helm home early), but that would also allow them to further explore the rustic histories of past musical traditions, constantly fiddling with the formula until a unique sound of their own was honed and perfected.

The Band made seven albums in its heyday, ranging from spectacular knockouts to tolerable mixed bags. When the classic lineup went its separate ways after The Last Waltz concert in 1976, Helm dabbled in acting and played with reunion lineups, but continued to make magic from a musical perspective, starting a series of Midnight Rambles at his Woodstock home that played host to some of the better known names of the rock community while also cementing Helm’s legacy as a musical patriarch and also one heck of a nice guy.

As the heartfelt tributes to Helm continue to pour in—with everyone from old collaborators Dylan, Robertson, Hudson, and Larry Campbell to the keepers of the flame he inspired like Patterson Hood, Jeff Tweedy, and Taylor Goldsmith offering their memories, condolences, and tributes—here is a tribute of our own:  the impossibly hard-to-pin down ten most essential tracks by Helm’s own, the Band.

I hate to be the voice of dissent—especially when it comes to one of my personal heroes—but this year’s Wrecking Ball is far from Bruce Springsteen’s best album. The excitement built around his stark, Occupy-driven album was lost upon listening through Bruce’s repetitive lyrics and reissued compilations (Hello! We’ve already heard “Wrecking Ball”, “Land of Hope and Dreams”, and the bonus track “American Land”). Yes, it’s musically diverse and should produce some arena-rocking power when heard live, but these lyrics can’t be written by the same man whose first few albums were as poetically beautiful as anything ever put to music.

When Earl Scruggs died a couple weeks ago, the music world lost one of its most innovative and indispensable figures. Rarely has any one individual influenced the way musicians play a particular instrument as Scruggs has with the banjo. His three-finger picking style has become so ubiquitous that it’s what most people automatically hear in their heads when the instrument’s name is uttered. In the shadow of Scruggs’ death, it’s worth taking a look at the role the banjo has played in American popular culture. While some only associate the instrument with backwoods hillbillies and bluegrass music, its history and usage is far more diverse.

Following are ten culturally significant banjo moments. This list is not intended to include the best banjo songs or encompass all the important masters of every genre, but rather to present ten instances in which the banjo, an often misunderstood and unjustly maligned instrument, came to the fore of popular culture, for better or worse. Enjoy!

At the end of January this year, Catskills Records (in conjunction with Asthmatic Kitty) released Queen of the Wave, the fourth album from Finnish-Swedish anomaly Pepe Deluxé, a group centered around sonic scientists Paul Malmström and James Spectrum. Without much of a promotion budget or plans for a North American tour, the album did not storm the Billboard charts. Yet, the idiosyncratic LP, with its grandiose themes and occult-ish, scientific obsessions, is beginning to resonate with a diverse global audience. Indie bigwigs Pitchfork called it “a visionary work”, while one of the world’s most respected music recording technology magazines Sound on Sound called it an “immaculately produced and a really compelling listen!” By design, it’s a contemporary and exciting album, but here are five reasons why Queen of the Wave is destined to become a cult classic whose fame will no doubt grow and influence generations to come.

Madonna is known for her singles. Throughout the duration of the 1980s and into the early ‘90s, it was these releases that defined her career. Her albums were weighed based solely on the success of the singles that came from them, and who could blame her for doing this? Madonna, in the 80s, was on FIRE! Have a look at Sound Affects’ “Top 15 Madonna Singles of All Time” list and you’ll see that eight of the entries are from the ‘80s. Ironically, album-cuts from this era in the pop star’s illustrious career were very clearly never released for a reason. Just have a listen to “Think of Me” from her debut album, “Jimmy Jimmy” from True Blue, or “Pray for Spanish Eyes” from Like a Prayer, and you’ll know what I mean. Madonna placed all her effort on hit songs, which by coincidence produced some bad LP-only material.

However, in the turn of the century, this pattern of throwaway tracks from a jam-packed singles album became less and less true. Madonna’s albums from 1994’s Bedtime Stories to 2008’s Hard Candy have been more consistent in quality. Subsequently, her singles have had less of an impact on popular music, with the odd exception.  One could argue that 2005’s “Hung Up” from Confessions on a Dancefloor was Madonna’s last great single. You could blame the change of the musical landscape for Madonna’s fizzled impact, or her inability to truly distinguish which tracks on her LPs pack the biggest punch. Either way, some have gladly accepted that Madonna’s strength no longer lies in massive hit singles, but rather in consistently good full-lengths.


The Best and Worst Films of Spring 2015

// Short Ends and Leader

"January through April is a time typically made up of award season leftovers, pre-summer spectacle, and more than a few throwaways. Here are PopMatters' choices for the best and worst of the last four months.

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