Counterbalance No. 106: 'Elvis Presley'

The 106th most acclaimed album of all time saw us standing alone, without a dream in our hearts, without a love of our own. Go, cat, go read about the King’s 1956 debut album.

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

US Release: 1956-03-23
UK Release: 1956-03-23
Label: RCA

Klinger: So it turns out that there's this guy, Elvis Presley, and apparently he had something to do with this whole rock and/or roll thing that we've been writing about for the past two-plus years. And yet, despite the fact that he's somewhat well-regarded within this genre, this is the first time that any of his music has actually turned up on the Great List. Keep in mind, of course, that we've somehow managed to come across two Oasis records and an Eagles album in the time it's taken us to get around to a fellow that some people have occasionally referred to as the King of Rock 'n' Roll. No, of course it makes perfect sense that Elvis freakin' Presley should have to stand in line behind the Strokes. Perfect. Stinking. Sense.

OK, that's out of my system. Sorry about that. Of course you can make the argument that Elvis is best known as a singles artist, and that a lot of his music was recorded before the primacy of the LP took hold in the artistic and critical consciousness. And it is true that Elvis has seen his artistic stock rise and fall repeatedly over the years—topics I'm sure we'll touch upon throughout this discussion—but still, you've got to admit that it's odd that it's taken us this long to get to Elvis Presley. So admit it, Mendelsohn—admit it!

Mendelsohn: You can stop shouting, Klinger. We are going to see eye to eye on this one. I am deeply offended that Elvis Presley, the conservative, pill-popping, peanut butter and bacon sandwich-eating, John Lennon-hating "artist" that he was, is continually disrespected despite to obvious gifts to the world of music and sandwich making. It is a travesty that this great American artist is looked down upon for being a dancing monkey on the leash of arguably one of the greatest con/business men of the 20th century, let alone not getting the proper accolades for recording all of those songs that he didn't write himself. Biggest. Travesty. Ever.

I am actually upset that I had to listen to two Oasis albums before we even got to Mr. Presley, but I could probably say that about almost every record we encounter from here on out. On the one hand, this turn of events is rather shocking, for all the reasons you just mentioned. He is the King, after all, I can't argue that. On the other hand, the Great List is one giant popularity contest and Elvis doesn't exactly spike the needle on the Hipst-O-Matic 3800.

Klinger: OK, I can't tell if you're kidding or not. Obviously views this incendiary can't be altogether serious. Regardless, the popularity contest that is the Great List compiles the opinions of music critics, people who I really think should take a broader view of things. But I suppose that even critics are prone to seeing things through the narrow windows of their own experience, and Presley's career has been known to lapse into the occasional state of disrepair.

None of which should dampen the excitement for Elvis Presley, Elvis' debut LP released in 1956. At that point, Presley was unencumbered by any of that baggage. He's just a 21-year-old kid playing the music he loves, from R&B-flavored C&W to C&W-flavored R&B (not to mention the straight-up crooning that started to become outdated upon Presley's arrival—I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he picked up "Blue Moon" from Mel Torme's 1949 version, pulled the strings off and stripped it way down). And while no, he didn't write any of the songs here, he does to a great deal to reinvent them in his own image. I'll refer you to his cover of "Tutti Frutti". I'm not saying it's better or worse than Little Richard's version, but it's unmistakably Elvis.

Mendelsohn: Hey, Klinger, check out this mouse trap I just reinvented. It's exactly like every other mouse trap except my mouse trap has a loud alarm on it to let you know that there is headless mouse waiting for you. Is that the type of reinvention we are talking about? Because that just seems annoying.

Look, I like this record. In fact, I enjoy the hell out of it. But I don't have a problem with the ranking. If we didn't hit an Elvis record until sometime in the 200s, I wouldn't care. This is a place holder for the genre that is Elvis, a nod to the King in recognition for the work he did to "break" rock 'n' roll. The sad truth is, as great as he was at reinventing songs (and later reinventing himself), he still wasn't much of an artist. By the middle of the next decade he had become an anachronism in the world of music. Falling behind the likes of the Beatles and the Beach Boys and every other group or musician who could write their own material.

Klinger: Oh Mendelsohn, you couldn't be more wrong if you were actively trying to be wrong. (Are you actively trying to be wrong? Because you know that pushes my buttons.) Suggesting that Elvis Presley isn't much of an artist is like saying Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra weren't artists. No, none of these guys were known for their songwriting, but that doesn't negate the fact—the fact—that all three changed popular music forever. (Come to think of it, it's a little like saying that the Beach Boys can be dismissed because by the mid-1970s they were a second-rate nostalgia act.)

Mendelsohn: Louis Armstrong could play the trumpet. I have no idea how that is done and therefore, I have more respect for that man than I do for Elvis. Frank Sinatra was the previous decade's version of Elvis Presley—more of an entertainer than a musician or an actor but he made better movies and somehow get himself named Chairman of the Board. Not nearly as high-falutin’ as the King, but in my mind, the Chairman of the Board demands more respect. I think that's probably why Presley might not get his due—he was an entertainer—not a terrible musician but not a great actor.

Also, just to make things more complicated, "Blue Moon" is by far my favorite track on this record. Presley's interpretation may have taken its cues from Torme, but the old crooner has nothing on the young buck. Presley's version is subdued but it bristles with real sexual energy, something the junior Elvis seemed to exude with an unmatched ease.

Klinger: Well, all right then. I’d also like to point out that Elvis Presley is not only an impressive achievement from a performance standpoint—it's also interesting technically. When RCA purchased Presley's contract from Sam Phillips, they also acquired a handful of tracks that had already been recorded at Sun Studios. RCA staffers were initially concerned that they wouldn't be able to replicate the Sun sound, mainly because their equipment was too good. Somehow they managed to recreate that sound pretty effectively, and today it's hard to detect much difference between, say, "I Love You Because" and "Blue Suede Shoes". It could kind of be seen as a tribute to RCA's integrity, if one were given to praising major labels.

(And while I'm on my soapbox, I'd like to point out that Sam Phillips probably did the right thing in selling Presley's contract. The $35,000 he got may generate chuckles today, but that's more than a quarter of a million of today's dollars. Trying to meet the Elvis demand might well have bankrupted Phillips. Record manufacturers want their money upfront, while distributors may not pay for 30 or 60 days—and still have the option to return product. If you don't believe me, ask Vee Jay Records how the runaway success of Introducing the Beatles worked out for them.)

Mendelsohn: OK, Presley helped break rock 'n' roll, but then he went on to make a string of half-baked movies and half-baked soundtracks to those movies. The promise that the young man showed as he whipped through the world of C&W and R&B standards dissolved into the mediocrity of Hollywood celluloid.

In all fairness, he did spend a couple years in the military but after his service, he didn't exactly beat it back to the studio continue his work at the forefront of a burgeoning genre. But for one, brief, shining moment, Presley was at the vanguard of the rock 'n' roll revolution and it shows in songs like "Blue Suede Shoes", (love the guitar solo), "One-Sided Love Affair", and "Tutti Frutti".

Klinger: None of what you've said there matters at all. His work in the '60s and '70s may not match his early accomplishments (although someone here has clearly never watched the '68 Comeback, where is version of "Tryin' to Get to You" absolutely smokes this one), but what difference should that even make? If we were to only include artists whose work maintained its vitality over two or more decades, we would pretty much only be reviewing Miles Davis albums.

Look, I'm glad you've enjoyed this album in your fashion, even if you've had a difficult time seeing the rockabilly hepcat trees for the peanut-butter-and-sequined-jumpsuit forest. But I guess that all things considered I'm not terribly surprised. After his death, his many excesses and appetites became at first de facto amusements for a younger generation and then a full-fledged cultural touchstone. Entire generations have lost touch with what made him so exciting, and that may be the unkindest cut of all. If Elvis had been granted the same late-career shot at redemption of, say, Johnny Cash, we'd be having a very different discussion today. But whatever. I'm going to crank up "Just Because" and dig the groove that Elvis, D.J., Scotty, and Bill created—a groove that still resonates today.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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