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Seminal Rock Albums

It is oft repeated but really rock music is well and truly dead these days. It can be argued that most of the truly great rock music was made between the 1950s and 70s. I’ve always wondered how it would have been to have lived through the 60s when there was a palpable excitement in the music that was being made. It was perhaps the feeling of hope. Perhaps it was the knowledge that this was something new and great. Or perhaps it was the feeling of living in a time where you felt you could truly change the world with a guitar slung over your shoulder. It was all of that and more but what is indubitable is that it was the golden age of rock music with so many bands making such glorious music. I doubt if I’ll ever get to see such a thing happen in my lifetime.

The other day I was wondering about how indifferent I had become about contemporary music. Mainstream hip hop with its talk of money, bling and women makes me want to rip out someone’s heart while the mindless pap that is churned out in the name of pop bores me to tears. Alternative rock has mostly lost its soul while indie rock spends too much time navel gazing. Of course, I’m not a loyal follower of the current music scene. In fact, I’m usually at least five years behind the current music scene so I might be missing a lot of great music. But the few times I’ve listened to music on the radio or on the net has only reinforced my opinion.

That is not to say that great music isn’t being made anymore. There are still artists/bands out there that are still carrying on often against the odds to make the music they believe in. But somehow that fire and excitement is not there in my opinion that was there in rock music’s heyday. Now it is all about sleek studio over-production and marketing to the right demographic.

Maybe I’ve become too old and cranky but there was a time during my undergraduate years when music meant so much. It was part of your soul and the songs literally formed the soundtrack of your life. There was a thrill, a thrill which was equal parts envy and enthusiasm, in watching someone play the song you would give your left hand to play but would never be able to even if you could do that. And every time you attended a rock concert, even with a bad band playing, you earned to be on stage singing those lines and playing those searing solos. Not because you could look cool and attract women (well maybe for that too) but because there was something cathartic about singing your heart out in front of thousands of strangers. It was a perfect medium to let out all that you were feeling into the open through song. It is a pity that that unique pleasure of discovering great music and sharing it with your friends seems to have been lost, perhaps forever.

During that time (and later) I discovered some truly great rock music. Music that has stood the test of time and manages to speak to you with clarity and passion even after so many years. And so even if I have never lived during the golden age of rock here is a list of rock albums that have had a palpable influence and at one point or the other transformed themselves into religious texts for me. Not all of these albums are from the 60s or 70s, there are some from recent times too, but all of them have a touch of greatness in them. These are albums that you should listen to at least once in your lifetime.

Dark Side

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Pink Floyd – Eclipse

Pink Floyd-The Dark Side of the Moon: I’ve this inexplicable, almost mystical connection with the music and songs of Pink Floyd. I actually did not like them when I first heard them. I still remember vividly when I first ‘got’ their music. I was sitting under the shed in Nizam’s one afternoon alone and listening to the live version of ‘Wish You Were Here’ from their otherwise bland ‘Delicate Sound of Thunder’ album on a walkman. And there was this moment which I’ll never forget when something clicked and a whole new world opened in front of me. It was magical. After that there was no turning back.

They have made such great music backed by some of the greatest lyrics ever written that it is hard to select the best. In fact, I’m tempted to include at least half their discography in this list!

It took me an insanely long time to really like Dark Side. Even now I don’t think it is my favorite Floyd album but this is the record where everything came together in the correct amount for the band. Water’s profound lyrics, Gilmour’s beautiful guitar playing, Wright’s melodic keyboards and Mason’s tight drumming. Add to this an almost flawless and intricate production and you have one of the greatest rock albums ever made. With its themes of madness, depression, loneliness and greed it is definitely not an easy album to listen to. In fact, it is rather depressing when you really listen to the songs. But that still should not deter you from enjoying ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’s yearning melody or ‘Us and Them’s soulful theme of separation or the epic finality of ‘Eclipse’. However, for me the greatest thing about the album (apart from the iconic cover art) is the lyrics of ‘Time’. Here are the lyrics from the last half of the song:

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.

It is breathtakingly sad but beautiful poetry. Please, go get the album.

Astral Weeks

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Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

Van Morrison-Astral Weeks: Someone once said that Van Morrison could sing the phone book and make it sound good. And that is quite true. This album is a testament to that. It is hard to explain the almost mystical quality this album has. Perhaps it comes from Morrison’s Irish Catholic background and Celtic influence. Whatever the reasons it is one of the strangest rock albums. The jazz inflected music perfectly complements the often incomprehensible lyrics.

If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop
Could you find me?
Would you kiss-a my eyes?
To lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again
To be born again

But it is all brought to life by Morrison’s singing. There is a certain pain and yearning in his voice. It is not the pain of anger; it is the pain of loss. You cannot help but get affected by his singing; by the way he brings the dense lyrics to life. It is a 47 minute trip into a different land. A journey you will want to repeat every time the smile around your lips begins to fade under the weight of circumstances.

Ok Computer

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Radiohead – Climbing Up The Walls

Radiohead-Ok Computer: In many ways I prefer their earlier The Bends album for its simple, more mainstream melodic music that is instantly accessible. But the sheer scope and depth of this album has to be appreciated. It is perhaps the best rock album out of the 90s, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and R.E.M. notwithstanding. Dense production and the droning drawl of Thom Yorke are the signature elements of this record. The guitars swirl in layers, the electronic drums are sonorous, the bass throbs with a certain quiet intensity and all of this is tied together by the almost incomprehensible singing of Yorke. The album is quintessentially post-modern in feel with its vague but cool art work and themes of pre-millennial alienation and the coldness caused by technology. There are no instantly hummable tunes here or catchy choruses. The songs have a certain moodiness to them. The moodiness of modern melancholia. But there is melody beneath all that fuzzy distortion and the album grows on you. It is truly an album in which you will discover something new every time you listen to it.

The Beatles

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The Beatles – While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The Beatles a.k.a The White Album: The Beatles made many great albums with their Sgt. Peppers album often touted to be the best rock album ever made. But I like this sprawling and uneven masterpiece the most. This is also the album where the cracks first began to show between the band members with most recording sessions often done individually in separate recording studios. And in that regard this is not the work of a band but more the work of the individuals. It was the beginning of the end for the band. But even with all the friction between them what glorious music they made. Abbey Road might be their swan song but this is the album which truly gave them time and space to experiment individually and also move towards a new clean sound. Most of this album was actually written in India where The Beatles had gone to study transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at Rishikesh. That influence clearly shows in the simple but strong song writing even if the band were ultimately disillusioned by their experience at the ashram.

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The Great Connection

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Prodigy – Smack My Bitch Up

I.

It was Smack My Bitch Up that was playing as I read a particular section towards the beginning of Bank’s Excession where a drone, if I remember correctly, has to escape from a spaceship that is being taken over. And in one of those inexplicable coincidences the music and the action in the book fit each other perfectly. I could imagine a scene of the same on film with the music on the background and the drone running to escape out of the ship. There was a thrill of adrenaline as the music pumped the page into a 6 minute scene of pulse pounding action. And when the song entered the slow meditative section in the middle the action also entered a seemingly slow motion stage on the page where the drone glides through the air. Spielberg couldn’t have done it better on film. Incredible!

II.

Greece was sunny and bright, the very opposite of Auster’s grey and moody New York in City of Glass. As I ran from one end of Greece to another I seemed to mirror Quinn’s random wanderings through the dark side of New York. It was a wonderful contrast to look out of the window of the ferry and lose myself in the endless blue of the Aegean and a moment later lose myself in a world of a different sort between those pages, a world where wrong numbers led to postmodern detective adventures. And on the plane back as Quinn descended into a spiral of pointless obsession I felt the darkness outside the thick window reach in and for a second grip my heart.

III.

The wild rain and wind made me stay indoors in a bunk bed in a hostel near the Princess Street Gardens in the heart of old Edinburgh. There, Safran-Foer held my interest with his young protagonist dealing with post 9/11 trauma and his mute grandfather, witness to the Dresden firebombing. Reliving the firebombing lying on a hostel bed does not seem, at first glance, the most profound or sensitive thing to do. But what did surroundings matter when body and soul you are beside the narrator experiencing the endless horror. The shriek of the wind outside the window became the cries of people burnt and mutilated. As he ran through the smoking ruins of a glorious city, crazed and horrified, the rain outside seemed to fall in tandem to his running footsteps. The strength and precocity of the young boy instilled hope in a dark world taken over by low grey clouds and muted light.

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20,000 Watt R.S.L.

20,000 Watt R.S.L.

The Dead Heart – Midnight Oil

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I’ll go out on a limb and say it; this has to be one of the best greatest hits compilations, ever. There I said it and now you can start throwing whatever it is you throw at people who make one sided statements like that! Wait, there’s more sacrilege coming, apart from this collection I haven’t heard any of their individual albums but I’ll still argue that they are one of the best bands in rock. Do you feel like calling me names like hypocrite and shallow now? I mean shouldn’t a true fan hear each and every one of their songs on every one of their albums and then make such statements? Well, perhaps one day I’ll, but right now I’ll still argue they are great based on this one collection.

Midnight Oil is or rather was an Australian rock band from Sydney who were (and still are) famous for their hard rock sound, strong espousal of left wing causes, incendiary live shows and of course their powerful and hard hitting songs. Led by the charismatic and outspoken Peter Garrett (who actually ran for the Australian Senate on a Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket) the band brought a new sense of left wing activism seldom seen in the mainstream music scene. They were fiercely independent and refused to tone down their commitment to sometimes unpopular causes. Famously, they performed in front of the Exxon headquarters in New York in 1990 in protest of the Exxon Valdez spill carrying a banner that read, “Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick”. They also created a stir with their performance at the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics where they performed wearing shirts that were emblazoned with the word ‘SORRY’, a public apology for the suffering Australian aboriginals went through for more than 200 years under white rule and a direct affront to the Australian PM John Howard sitting in the audience who had refused to apologize to the aboriginals in a gesture of symbolic reconciliation. The band was unfortunately dissolved in 2002 as Garrett left to concentrate on his political career. Apart from Garrett the band consisted of Rob Hirst on drums, Jim Moginie on keyboard/guitar, Martin Rotsey on guitar and a changing line up of bassists.

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Duality

Duality

Song #6 – Freak Power

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Something In The Way

Nirvana MTV Unplugged

There is a lasting value to classic rock records that, even after years of repeated listening, manage to provide a new insight into the artist’s inner thoughts and feelings. A case in point is Nirvana’s live MTV Unplugged album. It is one of the rawest and most nakedly emotional records in rock’s history. An aural testament to all that Nirvana’s front man, Kurt Cobain was going through. The pain exuded through every song is heartfelt and visceral. It was as if the band knew that this would be their last record together. It was Cobain’s open suicide note to the world, in song. It is a record that even now, after all these years, does not lessen its emotional impact, making it one of the few rock records that is difficult to listen to in one sitting. This is not some pleasant background muzak. This is one man’s pain and anguish channeled through songs that retain a grain of infinite beauty at their core. And dare I say it; even celebrate the finer points of life with their lean but not mean melodic tones. It is this essential contradiction that makes this album still as relevant today as it was when it was first released, just after Cobain’s suicide.

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