People make music for various reasons, but whether they're playing synth-pop, Delta blues, heavy metal, or polka, there's a good chance that those musicians are engaging in some form of catharsis. That release of feeling through music is an amazing thing; it can start parties and lift spirits or, alternatively, it can stomp listeners down into the earth and instill great loads of sadness. John Lennon's solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, succeeds at the latter. I believe that there are different stages of understanding John Lennon. First, you may simply see him as one of the four Beatles, the world's greatest rock band. Next, you start to appreciate him as an individual, maybe adopting "Imagine" as a personal favorite, unaware of its weary irony and strong socialist posturing. You think he's a genius, a demigod, a champion of peace, a "dreamer", an expander of minds, a veritable saint. Then, as more facts are revealed to you, you're view is soured; he was an asshole, he was a hypocrite, he broke up the Beatles. Finally, you understand him as well as you, a stranger to a dead man, can. He was a realist, not an idealist. He was anti-bullshit but he sometimes partook in bullshit (like most of us). He was anti-class. He wasn't entirely peaceful, but rather quite angry and anxious. He was also a brilliant singer, songwriter, and musician. He was funny and very clever, and he loved his wife vehemently, and he was an utterly interesting guy. The real John Lennon--not the hippie icon, not the heartless prick, not the saint-- is this album. The devastated, painfully sober ex-Beatle begins the album with "Mother", which introduces us to the record's minimal instrumentation and sees Lennon confronting the dark side of his childhood, particularly the death of his, you guessed it, mother. In a stroke of genius, Lennon included primal screaming at the song's close, which he had practiced after the breakup of the Beatles as a form of therapy. The following track is "Hold On", my favorite on the album. Perfect, dreamlike, bittersweet guitar parallels the vocal melody, in which the singer rhymes "Hold on" with the third-person "John", later asking the world to do the same. He also rasps, "COOKIE", which is hilarious. In "Working Class Hero", Lennon pisses all over England's crushing class and educational systems, saying, "They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool" and later, "you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see." This was some bold shit 40 years ago. Really it's the singing and the lyrics that pack the emotional punch on this record, but I wouldn't overlook the melancholic piano on "Isolation" or Klaus Voorman's fantastic bass playing during "Remember"'s "Don't feel sooooorry" line. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band isn't all screaming and cursing and wallowing; "Love", in as simple a lyric as possible, quietly celebrates man's greatest gift and most powerful emotion. The album's penultimate track, "God", is its greatest (although my personal favorite remains "Hold On"). It is a man stripping away deities, falsities, nations, ideologies, superstitions, saviors, and even what was for a long time his own religion--rock & roll ("I don't believe in Elvis. I don't believe in Zimmerman. I don't believe in Beatles..."), until all that's left is a man and his wife, standing stark naked, hand in hand. "I was the Walrus, but now I'm John" is one of the saddest fucking things I've ever heard. The record ends with the aching "My Mummy's Dead", just to make sure there's no chance of you coming away from it all without at least a couple pints of blood pouring out of your heart. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is a landmark in confessional singing and songwriting, and one of the most brutally sincere tear-jerkers ever put to wax.
Some records are great, plain and simple. Some aren't just great, but haunted. Possessed. Deeply moved by The Diary of a Young Girl, singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum and his scruffy troupe of maverick musicians put together a collection of musings, rants, riddles, and love letters, the ghost of Anne Frank hovering just above all the while (If you aren't convinced, may I point you to "Ghost"?). An indie classic, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea's bold, brassy composition has inspired countless college radio bands in the years since its 1998 release. Seeking (in both its famous cover art and its music) to capture an old-timey, almost carnival-like World War aesthetic, the raw trumpets, horns, and accordion on "The Fool" resemble those of a funeral marching band. The album begins with "King of Carrot Flowers Part 1," a wistful introduction to "that secret place where no one dares to go," the land of magic and regret which holds In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in its bosom. The song ends with one of my favorite lines: "And dad would dream of all the different ways to die, each one a little more than he could dare to try." It may sound morbid, and I suppose it is, but Mangum sings the lyric with so much joy that a smile can't help but form on my face. The title track is a standout, spilling over with melancholic ruminations on the brevity of youth and life. "Two-Headed Boy" and "Holland, 1945" imagine Anne Frank reincarnated as, well, a two-headed boy, "playing pianos filled with flames." It's surreal almost to the point of being nonsensical, but somehow it works, as poetry (something nearly every lyricist since Dylan has chased but which few have truly captured). Another beautiful line is found in "Holland, 1945" (my favorite track on the album): "And it's so sad to see the world agree that they'd rather see their faces filled with flies, oh, when I'd want to keep white roses in their eyes." The lyrics may be mournful, but the music is unquestionably, furiously alive. The closer, "Two-Headed Boy Part 2", begins by dragging us into a wintry wilderness of discordant flutes, and ends with the heartbreaking final line, "But don't hate her when she gets up to leave." Afterwards, Jeff Mangum can be heard rising from his chair, putting down his guitar, and walking out of the room. His voice is wiry and weird, oftentimes too loud for the microphone he was using to properly handle. His band is raw and scraggly. His world is strange and sometimes frightening. Nevertheless, Neutral Milk Hotel have produced something lovely, poetic, sad, and bursting at the seams with ferocious vivacity.
Radiohead may just be the greatest rock band of our time. 1997's OK Computer just about confirmed that. But wait... does that make Kid A rock music? It certainly sounds little like Chuck Berry or Led Zeppelin's call-and-response riffing. Here, in Kid A's cold and frightening post-Y2K world, the guitar is replaced with the Ondes Martenot, the drum kit with the drum machine, the string with the synth, the vocal with the vocoder. There are admittedly some similarities to 70's art rock and Brian Eno, and it's not like a rock band has never "gone electric" before or otherwise reinvented themselves. Rarely, however, have the fruits of experimentation been so rich as on Kid A, the weirdest Billboard #1 album of all time. Intended partly as a reflection of the music Radiohead had been listening to at the time, Kid A amalgamates an eclectic variety of influences, from jazz to electronica, and its success spurred many listeners to seek out underground music much in the same way Nevermind did a decade earlier. Simply put, this album is a masterpiece and possibly the decade's greatest achievement in popular music. "Everything In Its Right Place" starts the affair on a chilling note, with Thom Yorke's severely chopped-up voice spewing non-sequiturs like "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon" over soulless keyboards. Next comes the title track, my favorite on the album, which begins with a UFO landing and ends with a newborn baby's cry. This creepy sci-fi enigma segues into "The National Anthem," a barrage of twisted jazz and funk. "How To Disappear Completely"'s acoustic guitar strumming might have offered respite were it not for the eerie string section that hangs uncomfortably above. After an exhausting sonic nightmare of millennial dread, the album closes with a beautiful explosion of harps, followed by silence and then the final strains of electronic abstraction. Some find Kid A to be impenetrable, but I would venture that it's the band's most accessible album, simply because it's their best. This is some of the most immersive (and impressive) music ever made.
After the surprising critical and commercial success that was Weezer's debut, singer-songwriter Rivers Cuomo became disillusioned with the rock lifestyle and, after an operation intended to lengthen one of his legs, decided to take a break and study at Harvard. There, under the influence of painkillers and surrounded by cute young lasses, Rivers penned a good deal of his band's sophomore album. Based loosely on Madama Butterfly and named after the character of B.F. Pinkerton, the album (including its cover artwork) embraces a similar fascination with Japan, treating it as a place of fragile, delicate beauty. Pinkerton was originally derided for its abrasive sound, which was seen as an unwanted departure from the debut's clean power-pop. Rivers himself compared it unfavorably to a drunkard spilling his guts in public; the catharsis feels good at first, but embarrassment soon follows. Everyone would later retract what they said, with Rolling Stone awarding the album five stars in a retrospective review, two more than it had initially been granted. Yes, Pinkerton is a little harsher-sounding than The Blue Album, but it's just as full of glorious fist-pumping pop hooks and choruses, from "Why Bother?" to "The Good Life" to "El Scorcho". On top of its sing-alongability lies a metric ton of delicious heartache, detailing the hollow truth of groupie frolicking in opener "Tired of Sex" and the disappointment of loving a lesbian in "Pink Triangle". The real standout here, Weezer's very best song, is "Across The Sea," which relays the tale of Cuomo's obsession with and yearning for an anonymous Japanese girl, whose only connection to him was a fan letter innocent enough to ask what his favorite food is. It's emotional stuff, and the very pinnacle of Emo, the otherwise awful rock genre which was seemingly named after the contents of this specific album.