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Thursday, January 17, 2013

FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2012


Van Halen: Van Halen II (Warner Bros., 1979)

Growing up I had an inherent distaste for bands like Van Halen, as their music seemed to be the soundtrack to every unpleasant encounter I had with the jockos and trendoids in the halls of my high school.  I do remember kind of liking the video for "Hot for Teacher," because, after all,  there's nothing wrong with Sexy Teachers.

It wasn't till after college, when I was working in a warehouse in DeKalb, that I realized there may be more to Van Halen than I'd previously imagined.  A co-worker brought in a cassette of Van Halen I, and that sucker played in an endless loop while we ran the glass cleaning machine.  At first it was kind of an ironic affection I had for the cornier or more theatrical tunes on the album, but at some point I realized: "I, too, have been to the edge; and I, too, have stood and looked down."

It wasn't enough to get me to buy any of their records, but I did begin listening more closely to their songs when they appeared on the Classic Rock station.  And once I did it didn't take long to recognize: "These songs are good songs."

Flash forward twenty years.  I'm living in the gritted-out villa of South Beloit, Illinois.  One of my prime sources of entertainment is digging through the $5 CD bin at Wal-Mart.  LO, there is Van Halen I;  there is Van Halen II.  I'd been eyeing their various Greatest Hits CDs in the Wal-Mart racks for some time, but I just couldn't bring myself to purchase an album with Sammy Hagar on it.  I knew Van Halen I was primo from start to finish, and when I looked at the track listing for II, I recognized "Dance the Night Away," and "Beautiful Girls" as hits, so I thought, "Why Not?"

I came home and put the CD in my boombox.  Snaky lines of phased bass drifted out, followed by volume knob swells of electric guitar... then...  the whole band erupts, and -- Wait -- "You're No Good" is THAT "You're No Good"?  The old tune made famous by Linda Ronstadt?   I guess I never listened to the lyrics.  "I broke her heart, simple and true -- I broke her heart over someone like you..."  Oh, I see.

Then "Dance the Night Away."  In a more angry phase of my life I'd cynically consider this a pander to the radio.  But when you can simultaneously get skinny guys with half-formed mustaches to go to your shows AND get their hot girlfriends to sit on their shoulders there, you're doing something right.  This is an absolute pop gem.

"Somebody Get Me a Doctor" is the song that made me really consider exploring the Van Halen oeuvre   Worried that post-I records would be filled with... filler, I checked out some album tracks on YouTube.  Nope, the album tracks rocked too-- Case in point this balls-out rocker about how difficult it is to maneuver through a crowded bar when you have a hard-on in your pants.

"Light Up the Sky" is some kind of hysterical, brilliant warning about TV Sets that brings the energy of punk to whatever this is... Metal?  Not really.  Hard Rock?  I guess.  But hard rock with all kinds of subtleties, tricked out chording, and songcraft.  Then "Spanish Fly," a nylon stringed solo by Eddie that fades into the raunchy puke of "D.O.A."

"D.O.A."  This is the prime cut for me.  This is what makes Van Halen so fascinating to me.  A lot of hard rock bands posture about toughness, both their own, and the toughness they face in the world as outsiders.  You don't get the sense from these songs, though, that Van Halen thinks they're tough.  If anything, they're more self-deprecating and sly.  They escape hairy situations with their wits, not their fists.  But here's the thing-- sometimes they don't escape hairy situations.  Sometimes they have to face up to them and just simply survive somehow.  Hence, "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love."  Hence, "D.O.A.," with its admission of being "broken down, dirty, dressed in rags / since the day my mama told me boy you pack your bags."  And perhaps the most haunting line in any hard rock song of the era-- "They found a dirty-faced kid in a garbage can."  That dirty-faced kid isn't kicking ass on the world, he's getting his ass kicked by the world.  And that, I think, is why Van Halen is so appealing to me.  It seems more real, more honest, than most hard rock bands.

Also, I have to say here, Van Halen were definitely listening to punk, definitely affected by punk.  And bands like Black Flag, who were contemporaries, were no doubt affected by Van Halen.  There are plenty of riffs, moods, and phrases here, in songs like "D.O.A.," that would not be out of place on Loose Nut, or In My Head.

Then "Women in Love...."  Was this song a radio hit?  Because it could/should have been.  If not, that just goes to show you how smokin' hot this record is.  And "Beautiful Girls," another classic.

I'm the kind of guy that's pretty obsessive.  Van Halen II was the only album I listened to for about the first half of 2012.  And I never got sick of it.  Five Stars.


T. Rex: Electric Warrior (Reprise, 1971)

Another Wal-Mart $5 Bin score.

Of course I grew up hearing "Bang a Gong" on the radio, and then in the 80's I had some kind of cheapo British various artists LP with "Jeepster" on it, and "Ride a White Swan."  But it didn't affect me too much.  I never got into the whole "glam rock" thing really, so I felt no real necessity to try to understand Marc Bolan/T. Rex, the father/s of Glam.  If anything, I only knew that he was some kind of UK teenybopper sensation, and didn't he make a movie with Ringo?

Don't know why I bought Electric Warrior at Wal-Mart that day.  I guess in intervening years I'd heard enough tales about how influential Bolan was to figure he warranted a checking out.  I still had never really gotten into the Glam Rock thing, but I did have a sensory affection for that kind of warm, pastoral/electric vibe of early seventies rock, so I thought I'd give it a shot.  Whoa!

I love everything about this album.  The hooey-gooey lyrics that are nonsense sharpened with a hidden knife; the mesmerising production: ringing acoustic guitars layered with fat, warm electrics, that crazy backup singing that is so crazy it fits like a glove; and the tunes-- bare bones rock n roll boogie in a kinetic, and somehow hazy but utterly cutthroat groove.

Then there are the songs like "Cosmic Dancer," which leaven the playful sexuality of the album with an honest and deeply felt sense of loss and decay.  That $5 Electric Warrior sent me off on a Bolan tangent that I'm still joyfully exploring.


T. Rex: The Slider (Fat Possum reissue, 1972)  

Bolan and Company didn't sound unconfident on Electric Warrior, anything but-- but here on the followup, they sound positively ecstatic.  There's not much new ground broken-- the groove of the previous album is only honed to a finer point-- but what a point!  A song like "Telegram Sam," which on its surface seems just like a "Jeepster" retread, is instead a laser-focused word painting that is impossible to resist. (I'm no dancer, but it's impossible to sit still while listening to this music.)

Bolan manages to utilize the tropes of rock n roll, the adolescent sexuality and primitive rhythms of it, but still maintain a kind of wide-eyed innocence and warmth that no doubt contributed to his enshrinement by teenage girls.  Soaring, anthemic tracks like "Metal Guru" coexist perfectly alongside ballads like "Main Man" and "Ballrooms of Mars." And "Buick Mackane" deserves to be #1 on anybody's hit parade.


De La Soul: Buhloone Mindstate (Tommy Boy, 1993)

After their buoyant, dazzlingly inventive, breakthrough debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, rightfully considered one of the all time hip-hop classics, De La Soul countered with De La Soul is Dead, a darker, more conflicted album.  Their third LP, Buhloone Mindstate rekindles the warmth of their debut, but filters it through a more mature, jazz/soul-based sound.  Although filled with humor and playfulness, the overall feel of the record is more contemplative and patient.  Working live with Maceo Parker's group, Mindstate even features an extended all-instrumental jazz interlude among the vocal tracks.

The scene criticism of De La Soul is Dead is still present in "Patti Dooke" and "Ego Trippin'," but the group's anger here is tempered with wisdom and maturity.  They sound rejuvenated, and as dedicated as ever to following their own path.  As the album title references: "It might blow up, but it won't go 'pop'." This is De La Soul at their best.

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