The first album I picked up, Superunknown, was their commercial and critical peak. I knew a few songs before I bought it: the superbly melodic Black hole sun, the mellower Fell on black days and the fun rocker Spoonman. I went into the album expecting these songs (in particular Black hole sun) to be the clear standouts. Like Blood sugar sex magik, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of all of the songs on this 73 minute album.
Chris Cornell is an amazingly versatile rock vocalist, and the rhythm section (in particular the drumming of Matt Cameron) is up there with the best. Some standout tracks on this album (other than those mentioned previously) include the swampy rocker Mailman, the eerie and atmospheric Head down, the anthemic The day I tried to live and the catchy single My wave. Despite the "grunge" tag, there's a lot of diverse sounds on the album exemplified by the powerful production; get a load of the middle-eastern elements of the instrumental Half.
I enjoyed Superunknown enough to pick up their previous album Badmotorfinger, which some friends had suggested was a better album; at 57 minutes it is certainly more concise. While it falls a fraction short of Superunknown for me, it's still an excellent record. Opener Rusty cage (later covered by Johnny Cash) kicks off with one of the finest guitar riffs of the 90s, before Chris Cornell enters the stage with a fine vocal performance, singing lyrics of torment and oppression ("I'm gonna break my rust cage and run", "I'm burning diesel burning dinosaur bones", "It's raining icepicks").
Elsewhere, Outshined astounds with its stunning harmonies, Room a thousand years wide is a kick-ass rocker with a stunning rhythm section and Holy water has a chorus that grabs you from the first listen and doesn't let go. Badmotorfinger is overall a much heavier and less diverse album than Superunknown, but it's a solid slab of early 90s rock music.
Van Halen - Van Halen
Despite the fact that many of the songs from this album are regularly played on the radio, I must have been living under a rock for the past 30 years because I wasn't overly familiar with a lot of them. The exception to this was the stunning instrumental Eruption, an absolute highlight of the album and an aspiring guitarist's wet dream.
Elsewhere, Runnin' with the devil and Ain't talkin' about love are great rock songs which have aged remarkably well, combining the passionate vocals of David Lee Roth, guitar prowess of Eddie Van Halen, and the solid rhythmic foundation of bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen (Eddie's brother).
Jamie's cryin' influenced many an 80s power ballad, while Little dreamer slows things down a little bit and allows us to appreciate David Lee Roth's fine vocals. There's a few magic moments throughout, like the doo-wop breakdown of I'm the one and the acoustic intro to the blues standard Ice cream man (one of the two covers on the record alongside the Kinks' You really got me).
All this, and it was their debut album! A highly recommended listen.
Various Artists - "The Blues Brothers" Soundtrack
Many of the musicians on this CD make cameos in the movie. James Brown plays a priest whose rendition of The old landmark convinces Jake to get the band back together. Aretha Franklin plays a waitress/diner owner who sings Think to her husband (guitarist Matt Murphy) when he decides to ditch the apron and join the Blues Brothers band on the road. And who can forget Ray Charles, the owner of the music store, who sings Shake a tail feather to prove that the keyboard still has life in it?
This is simply a perfect soundtrack -- the performances are flawless, the tunes are hummable (Theme from Rawhide, Minnie the Moocher) and bluesy (She caught the Katy, Sweet home Chicago) in equal measure. They remind you of the best parts of the movie, but it also works perfectly as a standalone album.
I have an interesting history with this album, which is technically a soundtrack to the theatre play of the same same; it is one of the few albums that I bought twice. Allow me to elaborate. When I first started getting into Tom Waits, I decided pretty quickly that I had to buy everything the man had ever released. I stumbled upon this album on sale in 2003 and decided to pick it up.
I gave it a few listens and just couldn't get into it. There didn't appear to be anything to grab on to, and I found it too impenetrable. So I decided to return it for something a little more accessible (Jack Johnson's On and on, an album which couldn't be more different if it tried).
Shortly after this I picked up Bone machine, arguably one of his most "difficult" albums. That was an album which took a lot of time for me to get into, but is now in my top 5 Tom Waits albums of all time. In 2010 I picked up The black rider again. It's amazing what a difference 7 years make. Where before it was a mess of disjointed rhythms, cookie monster vocals and no sense of cohesion, now it was a beautiful piece of work.
How did I miss the beauty of songs like November, The briar and the rose and I'll shoot the moon before? Then there's the epic "film noir" atmosphere of songs like Just the right bullets and Crossroads which would sit happily alongside Black wings (from Bone machine) on a western film soundtrack.
There's a few oddities scattered about, from the beatnik William S. Burroughs' vocal performance on T'aint no sin to the chaos of Oily night. And there's also some gorgeous instrumentals like Russian dance which help to break up the album and ironically also provide a sense of cohesion.
Endlessly imaginative, experimental and quirky; file this next to Bone machine in your Tom Waits collection.
And thus we reach the end of my musical discoveries of 2010. Until next time, compadres.