Sometimes changing the course of modern music can be surprisingly easy. All it takes is a good satirist (Frank Zappa) or an R&B loverman with a sharp message (Marvin Gaye) to turn heads and buck conventions. Though their names may not be laced in the stars right next to Sinatra and Dylan, these mavericks will always be remembered for breaking boundaries, stretching the definitions of genres, and rewriting what the very notion of a “pop song” is.
Yet with great power comes great improbability, because just when you fell in love with The Only Band That Mattered (The Clash), they stump you with a three-disc set of songs heavily effected by the reggae stylings of the day. Perhaps your favorite country superstar wants to reinvent himself as a rocker, your favorite jazz guitarist decides to release an album of white noise, and your favorite blues artist is forced to record a psych-rock album entirely against his wishes. Sometimes you break barriers only to find new ones in their place, but when the history books get re-written again, you’ll still find your name in there, your astonishing accomplishments placed right next to your regrettable ones, but nary a person in sight to deny your stature, your influence, or your presence among the greats. These are the albums that may not define these mavericks, but they give us a valuable glimpse into the makeup of their character, and for that, we’re eternally grateful. Evan Sawdey
No artist has ever been as deliberately rebellious towards a record label as Neil Young during his infamous early ‘80s tenure at Geffen. Though pinning down his exact intentions is somewhat tricky, Young still managed to deliver some of the weirdest albums ever put forth on a major, starting with Trans and continuing with his retro rockabilly album Everybody’s Rockin’ a few months later (followed then by Geffen filing suit against Young for making such deliberately uncommercial albums). Yet Trans still takes the cake for unabashed weirdness: long, eight- and nine-minute suites of techno-rock sung almost entirely in “Mr. Roboto”-styled vocoder ... throughout the entire album. For this reason, Young’s lyrics are almost entirely indecipherable, focusing attention back onto the tinny, bare-bones synth patterns that dominate the disc (and why he’d reinvent his own “Mr. Soul” on this disc still cries for an explanation). With that said, however, “Computer Cowboy (AKA Skycrusher)” still rocks with a swagger, and the red-herring (see: vocoder-free) of an opener “Little Thing Called Love” still shows Young at his cocky, barn-burning best. Of course, Trans has gone on to achieve a legendary status as a cult classic, even gaining fans in the likes of Sonic Youth, who have since gone on to cover “Computer Age” for a Young tribute album. Few albums have ever been so polarizing, but, really, that’s exactly the reaction that Young was going for in the first place. Evan Sawdey
“Sample and Hold [Fan-made Video]”
No jazz musician, not even Miles Davis, has shattered his image quite as abruptly and insufferably as Pat Metheny did with this solo guitar record. Long known for his wistful, Wes-Montgomery-on-Zoloft tone and not-quite-smooth jazz tunes, Metheny raised eyebrows with this five-track set of overdubbed distorted guitars that do little more than make an unholy racket of noise and scales for nearly 40 minutes. In a way, it’s like the Metal Machine Music of the jazz set: abrasive, uncompromised, and quite possibly a cosmic joke played on Metheny’s label, fans, and/or the contemporary jazz community. Though it boasts one of the all-time great album titles, Zero Tolerance for Silence remains an unlistenable mess, one that isn’t even necessarily redeemed by its outrageous concept. (The album has been out of print now for about a decade.) Artistic cojones? Absolutely. But the rest is just noise. Zeth Lundy
Following up a massive double album that many have hailed to be the greatest rock album in recorded history is a daunting task in and of itself. But to follow it with a three-record set can be perceived as sheer insanity. Yet it didn’t stop the Clash from doing that exact same thing when they succeeded their 1979 masterpiece London Calling with Sandinista!, a packed-to-the-gills triple-set that took the punk stalwarts’ highly-publicized love for dub-reggae and early hip-hop and ran the distance with it. Not everything on this album is a gem. With the exception of the driving “Police on My Back”, the Mick Jones stuff on here sounds completely tossed-off (what was he thinking with “Hitsville UK” anyway?). Especially in comparison to the Strummer-led material, which drenches itself in the band’s Jamaican influences with several excellent dub-based workouts, including three stellar collaborations with the late, great reggae DJ Mikey Dread, a most overlooked avenue of the Clash catalog which totally deserves its own focused compilation someday. In fact, if you’re like me, you might have already created your own “Clash in Dub” anthology by now because, as I always say, for a reggae band, the Clash really did play some mean punk rock. Ron Hart
“Somebody Got Murdered [Live]”
By 1983, Tom Waits had already created a distinct persona for himself. He was the drunk beat-poet/hard-boiled crime novelist. Across eight albums he had built a world of dark alleys, battered men and women, secrets and dark romance. A musical Edward Hopper painting, with Waits as the narrator/lead actor. He was the grizzled piano man, sitting at the keys when the city had shut down, either singing a lonely love song or, on a rougher night, pounding away at the wrong keys and blaming the piano for his drunkenness. And he was the surprisingly good singer-songwriter, the one who the more established acts (the Eagles, Rod Stewart) still love to cover. And, maybe as surprising, he was almost a composer, writing suites with dramatic Hollywood strings.
He was never really a straight-shooter, he told tall tales. You could never quite tell what was true and what wasn’t. But in 1983 he took a deep dive into his own fantasy world with Swordfishtrombones and hasn’t returned since. He went further down those dark alleys, down the rabbit hole, and came up inside of a carnival. The tales got bigger. The first song sets the scene: “There’s a world going on underground,” he growls, his voice more ragged than ever. That world was just as ominous, more colorful, and altogether stranger. The piano gave way, mostly, to B-3 organ, tubas, and odd percussion: bell plate, metal aunglongs, dabuki drum. Guitars snaked distinctively. Importantly, though, his lyric-writing became even more evocative while his melodies stayed just as strong, but less reined in by convention. His organ-playing on “Dave the Butcher” was one-part circus calliope, one part banging on random keys. The title track used marimbas as a weird melodic backdrop for a weirder tale, where the returning soldier takes up with a “Salvation Amry Band girl who played dirty water on a swordfishtrombone”. The veteran becomes more a legend than a man (“Perhaps this yarn’s the only thing that holds this man together / Some say he was never here at all”), and tall tales are cemented as part of Waits’ essence. Swordfishtrombones is filled with yarns, exaggerations, urban fairy tales, and myths. But there’s an emotional side, too, for even with this sharp left turn Waits was still a romantic at heart. In the middle of this fantasyland was the love letter “‘Johnsburg, Illinois” and the melancholy “Soldier’s Things”. Songs like those continued the songwriting legacy of someone who had already written so many great broken-hearted ballads, even when Waits was reinventing himself at the same time, becoming the brilliant eccentric everyone knows him as today. Dave Heaton
“In the Neighborhood”
I don’t have to tell you that Zappa was a weird guy—just look at his kids’ names. His first album was a double LP which parodied the psychedelic L.A. freak scene with political and Dadaist overtones so insightful that many were not sure how to take it. He also mocked the Beatles with the cover of We’re Only in It for the Money, an album that viciously debased the very flower power hippies who haplessly bought his records, all the while experimenting with orchestral composition, tape collage, and eventually acid jazz and mutant classical. Yet, despite the highly lysergic, absurd, and disturbing bent of the majority of his work, Frank despised recreational drug use. Odd and often uncomfortable humor may have been a constant in his work, but he took his job very, very seriously.
Hence, when he released Ruben and the Jets in 1968, critics were unsure whether it was a satire or an honest tribute to doo-wop. Many DJs spun the record believing it to be a brand new band. Though he applied various orchestral signatures to the ‘50s rock style, marked by its banal teenage love lyrics, the album still stands apart from the rest of his 30-odd album catalog. It remains his most bizarrely normal and honest recording, which makes it all the more unusual in context. Upon hearing it, Sha-Na-Na formed to give their take on the older genre, and the Beatles re-discovered their roots for the “Get Back” sessions (later Let It Be). Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry also subsequently re-launched their careers. As such, Zappa’s most normal record turned out to have some of the most profound effects on the world around him. People still aren’t sure exactly how to take it, and yet it stands out as not only a unique record by a possibly insane artist, but a truly great doo-wop album. Give it to your hipster and they will give you cred, but give it to your grandmother, and she will adore you for it. It’s a rare album that does both of those things. Filmore Mescalito Holmes
There is something about Joni Mitchell that the jazz community seems to love. After all, she captured the hearts of two of jazz’s greatest giants—Herbie Hancock, and the late Charlie Mingus. Joni Mitchell’s 1979 recording Mingus was originally scheduled to have the giant himself step in on the sessions, but unfortunately Mingus’s ill-fated health and passing in 1979 prevented this from happening.
It’s frankly a blessing in disguise that Mitchell was left with the songs that Mingus wrote for her, because it took her career into an exploration of the music she so adored that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. With the help of the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Don Alias, Peter Erskine, and Emil Wolves, she was able to create not only an aural painting of the man, with her lyrical dexterity unparalleled since the conception of Blue, but also a proper memorial to Mingus and his career.
At the time of its release, there were complaints about the small intersections of tape on the record that expose conversations of Mingus and his friends, given to her by Sue-Graham Mingus. Nearly 30 years down the line, though, the album structure plays out as if this is the way Mingus and Mitchell communicated: through challenging song structures, joyous and insightful dialogue, and a sense of camaraderie expressed between two people that had a sincere admiration for each other’s passion and work. This is the type of record that may not hit you during the listening process, but it’s sure to stay with you long after—just like an earnest conversation with a respected friend. John Bohannon
To some, 1997 will go down as the year the Flaming Lips, then of “She Don’t Use Jelly” fame, truly and completely lost it; to others, it represents the tragically unappreciated pinnacle of their warped genius. It’s easy to deride Zaireeka as being too absurdly inaccessible for popular consumption—it is, after all, perhaps the most unusual record to find release on a major label—yet such dismissal (*cough* Pitchfork’s infamous 0.0 rating) suggests that the listener has not actually heard the album in its eight-speaker glory, and probably doesn’t realize that Wayne Coyne originally wanted it to be a ten-disc set. Four discs was the compromise, designed to be played simultaneously, and if you put in the effort (gather four boomboxes and three open-minded friends), the effect is breathtakingly intense pop music hovering on the brink of chaos. And amidst the lyrics of angry vegetables (“March of the Rotten Vegetables”), suicidal pilots (“Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair”), and otherworldly menstrual cycles (“A Machine in India”), Wayne’s liner notes act as a sort of guide, seeking method in pure madness.
Ultimately, those who listen to defeat-the-purpose single-disc mixes of Zaireeka will still enjoy an absolutely brilliant record. But the ambitious listeners who go the extra mile (or three) will never hear the same album twice. Essentially, these infinite possibilities render the listener an active participant in the album’s mix. Before “Do You Realize??” car commercials and dancing animal costumes invaded our collective consciousness, Zaireeka was the ultimate left turn in a career seemingly filled with them. It is the true convergence of chaos and music, anarchy and inspiration, Zaire and Eureka. Okay, I’ll admit that I really don’t understand. Zach Schonfeld
“Wayne Coyne explaining the concept of Zaireeka”
After the great commercial success of Electric Mud, Muddy Waters’s 1968 foray into psychedelic-rock, Chess Records decided to try a similar makeover on their other big blues artist, Howlin’ Wolf. While Waters would later deride Electric Mud as “dog shit”, Wolf was incredibly resistant to the idea during the recording of The Howlin’ Wolf Album—he reportedly told one of the sessions’ guitarists to “take them wah-wahs and all that other shit and go throw it in the lake—on your way to the barber shop”. Wowza. Wolf had a point, of course; this is far from “authentic” blues music, illustrated by Chess’s use of acid-rock session musicians (the same from Electric Mud) whose goal was to pull the songs of an American icon kicking and screaming into what was essentially an ephemeral context. (Chess even poured salt on the wound by printing on the LP’s plain white cover, “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.”) Still, despite its awkward genesis and critical panning, The Howlin’ Wolf Album delivers some swampy, deliriously far-out renditions of Wolf favorites like “Spoonful”, “Evil”, and “Smokestack Lightning”. This music may not have received Wolf’s blessing, but the sum of his growling dissent and unacquainted band is something persuasively contrived indeed. Zeth Lundy
Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear is a record that has caused much confusion and controversy over the years. Even as you look at the front cover, you see a statue of a couple being intimate behind the back of a statue of Marvin Gaye. Due to the fact that originally all the royalties made from the album were to go to his recently divorced wife at the time—Anna Gordy—his efforts for the album were initially set to be substantially below par. But soon after, he knew that putting no effort into his art was unacceptable—and the best way to get revenge was make a so-called “divorce” album directed straight towards Anna.
Although not a commercial success, Here, My Dear stands out today as a landmark recording in Gaye’s career—not only because of its daring and controversial lyrical qualities, but for its sonic explorations as well. There is not one track throughout the double album that stands out as a single, yet this seems to have been Gaye’s intention. The record stripped Gaye down to an extremely urbane and personal level that most fans weren’t ready to handle. Although his previous controversial effort, What’s Going On, touched on political subjects, it was never as directly oriented towards his own life as much it was a message to others.
As for sonic characteristics, there is an ambient presence on Here, My Dear caused by Gaye’s new obsession with synthesizers. With sustained synth layers with jazz guitar lines, slow, funky bass riffs, and the call-and-response saxophone on tracks such as “When Did You Stop Loving Me”, this album showcases a Gaye with patience never found before. His previous records were based on filling the time and space, but this record provides time for reflection and space for improvisation—echoing the very feelings he was going through at the time of creation. John Bohannon
Devo were always a strange band, but they were never the Residents. After a brief tenure at the pinnacle of experimentalism, the band eventually settled into a comfortable, customized synthpop stance (that’s not to say songs like “Triumph of the Will” made anyone comfortable). So when, late in their career, the band decided to drop two cassettes worth of “easy listening” renditions of their devolutionary manifestoes, first onto their fans and then the general public, it left both groups of listeners scratching their Jocko Homo little monkey heads.
Actually, some of the hardcore fans may have recognized the warped manifestations from the Devo live shows where they were often played to warm the crowd between sets. Luckily, for those who actually own a copy of the now out-of-print material, Devo’s muzak translations are wide-ranging, from the Optigan-sounding bluegrass of “It’s a Beautiful World” to the insipid waiting room lounge of “Come Back Jonee”. Though often insistent and tedious, there’s plenty of intriguing electro-instrumentals worthy of forecasting Devo bandleader Mark Mothersbaugh’s eventual foray into TV, film, videogame, and commercial soundtracking. The version of “Gates of Steel”, for instance, which opens the CD edition, takes a “Switched on Devo” approach, but its whimsical MIDI-stringed pomp is a close cousin to Mothersbaugh’s “The Lad With the Silver Button” from the Rushmore Soundtrack. The E-Z take on “Shout” lays down warm keypad dew like it’s a sine wave cream puff on its way to beating the last level of Bubble Bobble. “Girl U Want”, on the other hand, could have been concocted at either the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, or in Raymond Scott’s Manhattan Research studios.
Take away all the cantankerous political statements and half-winking kowtows to sociopathology from Devo, and add the bonus quirks made on the cheapest, cheesiest synths you can find, and you’ve got something most of us have heard before: They Might Be Giants. Still, you’ve got to give the band credit for making an E-Z Listening Disc that’s one of the band’s most difficult albums to listen to. Timothy Gabriele
“Gates of Steel”
You can’t fault Garth Brooks for lack of ambition. After all, the man practically invented the pop-country radio format that is still imitated by every Nash Vegas star on the charts today. So when Brooks says he wants to try something new, who’s to stop him? Well, under the guise of “Chris Gaines” (who looks suspiciously like Trent Reznor), Brooks reinvented himself as a rock star. In the Life ... was billed as Gaines’s “greatest hits” album, while also doubling over as the “pre-soundtrack” to the movie The Lamb, an actual film project based around the Gaines character that was shortly abandoned after sales of In the Life ... proved to be disastrous. Why were they so bad? Because no one—and I mean no one—was willing to indulge Brooks’s Top 40 fantasia as the Gaines persona dished out Lynyrd Skynyrd-styled Southern rock (“Digging for Gold”), Beatles-styled pop ballads (“My Love Tells Me So” & “Maybe”), and “political” pop songs that featured terrible, unabashed rip-offs of other, better tunes (“Right Now”), the whole affair bolstered by Don Was’s thick and meaty overproduction. Yet, that wasn’t to say the disc was without its occasional gold nugget: the touching, simple single “Lost in You” proved to be one of Brooks’s most fragile acoustic ballads ever, and the most country-sounding track on the record (“It Don’t Matter to the Sun”) also proved to be one of the best. Garth’s detour into pop may have been ill-advised, but it at least proved to be one of the most endlessly fascinating discs to come out in the ‘90s, a genuine gem of indulgence still ripe for dissection (and why, pray tell, hasn’t Ryan Adams covered “Main Street” yet?). Evan Sawdey