As soon as I started working on this, it became clear that everyone has had many different experiences, nearly all positive, when they venture out to the grounds of Coachella, the yearly juggernaut that shapes the rest of the music world. To better build this article, I spoke toa few regular attendees of the festival on its impact and the feelings most associated with the fest. During my time talking to Frank, Becca and a reddit user known as COAchillENT, terms like exhaustion, dehydration, sinusitis, and psychedelic bliss are all mentioned. In 1999, the festival scene was little compared to the many enormous festivals typically hosted every year now.
Woodstock had just happened, and well, you know the rest of that story. After the debacle of that festival, Paul Tollett, founder and head booker of Coachella, was rightfully nervous. Regardless though, a festival happened that year, and over the course of the next two decades Tollett and company changed the festival landscape forever, but it all had to start somewhere.
The polo grounds in Indio, California, are a splendid landscape of perfectly maintained grass, mountains in the distance, palm trees lining the grounds, and three weekends a year populated by a crowd of die hard fans and others eager to see what the weekend will bring to them. Once you go(as i did in 2006), it all makes sense. As Jamer Mercer of the Shins said during their Coachella debut, “ the Hype is Real.” Becca Skaparas, a fan from Dallas, Texas puts it like this: “I still remember the experience of showing up nice and early when the fest opened on the first day. I'd take off my shoes and walk on the polo field grass with my bare feet. The best. It's why we were "weekend one or bust" folks once the fest went to two weekends...that grass was just not the same after a weekend of people walking all over it! I wanted virgin grass under my feet on that first day!” But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
Over the course of the festival, many highs, lows, disasters and unexpected surprises dazzle and disappoint, but everyone knows the stakes are high. Yes, there are many other festivals, but only at Coachella is it likely for a career to be made or unmade based on how you perform. That phenomena wasn’t there initially at the beginning, but with the likes of Tool, Rage Against the Machine, and a reunion of Jane's Addiction at the top of their lineup during the early years, the festival was already situated in an enviable spot to compete when the festival battles began years later, with each one trying to outdo each other with a better lineup. Oftentimes, and this is still true somewhat, for alternative fans and people more inclined to underground music, Coachella routinely has the best lineups for people willing to expose themselves to things they wouldn’t normally gravitate to.
In 2001, when Jane's Addiction headlined, the idea of a band reunion was still a very big deal, and Paul Tollett knew it. Having barely scraped by in 1999, and with the festival unable to be put on in 2000, it made sense that Goldevenvoice, the company who produces Coachella, got a big reunion. Perry Farrell agreed to help his friend out and reunite the original lineup, and in a way helped to form the legend of Paul Tollett as a master negotiator. . Early on in the festival, reunions were one of the biggest reasons to attend, with the likes of Janes, Iggy and the Stooges, and many others joining together again for something special in the desert. Since the first year, more than 30 bands have been reunited, with varying degrees of success. Now while Janes was the first, it wasn’t until the Pixies reunion of 2004 that people started to recognize how special the festival could be. Broken up for nearly 20 years, the band joined together and delivered a mesmerizing performance that would in turn propel the band to hit the road again, and to eventually make new music.
But, like I said, some reunions didn’t quite hit in the way they were hoped. For every successful reunion, like the Pixies, there’s a band who had their moment and couldn’t capitalize on their resurgence. Bands like the Verve, Stone Roses and even Sly Stone have been lured back to the stage(whether through a direct coachella reunion or just a tour), but they couldn’t reignite in the way that proved to be so important for other reunions. Sly Stone is especially a source of muck and mire for regular attendees. His 2015 set was widely panned in the media, with the Guardian going so far as to call his set “an abysmal, confused set,” during which he routinely threw shade at former associates, and continuing to ask his band how long he had to be on stage to get paid. I wasn’t there, but there wasn’t a glimmer of excitement or optimism once the set began, based on what I've read and a quick google search.
Now, reunions are big news, but you still have to create a cohesive, interesting lineup. After the 2001 addition, it was yet again another difficult task to get the fest properly put together, but as they mentioned in the recent “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert,” the more they did it the better they became at it. Although the lineup included Oasis, Foo Fighters and the Chemical Brothers( for their third straight Coachella appearance), none of those could contend with the excitement of welcoming Bjork and her icelandic magic to the Polo Fields. Also it's worth pointing out that while other festivals still aren’t, or are just now hosting female headliners, Coachella did it all the way back in the early aughts. Watching the clips and reading about it, you can easily find evidence of her commanding set. It’s noted that she wasn’t expecting the crowd response she did, but in delivering an early legendary Coachella set, she solidified her unique position as an Avant Garde alternative master, as well as upping the ante.
The year is 2004, and it's going to be my first Coachella. After months of planning, and deciding to go alone, a personal issue came up in my life, thus making me miss something that became a real moment in the festival's history. With the likes of Pixies reuniting, not to mention sets from Radiohead, The Cure, and Kraftwerk, it turned out to not only be the first sell out, but the 2004 lineup cemented their place in the world of festivals. Talking to Frank Mojica regarding the 2004 year, he says “I attended my first Coachella solely to see Radiohead, but it was seeing the Pixies reunite as the sun went down in that open desert sky that made me want to return the following year, which obviously turned into many more years.” It's easy to forget now, but that was also the year the Flaming Lips premiered Wayne Coyne’s trademark bubble. Seeing it the first time on tv days after the fest, it became clear to me, that not only did I miss one of the most amazing lineups I’d ever seen in print, but also that I had to get there to experience what all the fuss was about. 2004 ultimately became the year Coachella threw on their giant big boy pants and made a concrete name for themselves.
The years followed, gradually growing bit by bit, and the lineup year after year deliver the kind of groundbreaking, progressive programming the fest had become known for. 2005 saw Nine Inch Nails reunite for a tour and hit the fest, while reunions from Bauhaus in 2005, Massive Attack in 2006, and the surreal Arcade Fire Coachella debut all bolstered the legitimacy of solid foundations of lineups from year to year. Then, the year 2006 comes, and the festival again tops itself, although it wouldn’t be until the completion of the festivals first day on Saturday where the true impact of a performance could be measured and used to pinpoint a moment in time.
What I’m talking about, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, was the performance of Daft Punk in the Sahara tent. All day had been spent meandering the grounds, soaking in my first Coachella experience, but after performances from Eagles of Death Metal, Depeche Mode, Sigur Ros, and a surprise Kanye set, the moment had come. I remember the tent being packed, and the anticipation still lingers in my head, even as I'm typing this. It’s important to note that before this performance, electronic performances weren’t full of the visual spectacle associated with the genre now, but with their performance in 06, the game had changed, and the genre would never be the same.
The show is the stuff of legend, with people like me continuing to feel fortunate enough to see this moment transcend anything the fest had done before. Even with performances from Tool, Massive Attack, not to mention a unique dance set from icon Madonna, no one could talk about anything but the two french robots who dominated the weekend and blew everything else away. As Frank says, “Coachella itself had transcended to another level, and we could all feel it. I wasn’t even a fan at the time of Daft Punk, I was just there out of curiosity, but being in this most epic of dance parties definitely did it.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the big early selling points of the fest was the inclusion of long sought after bands and artists. The ability of Paul Tollett to lure bands back into the light is unparalleled, and when looking back over the lineups, it becomes obvious quickly how important that was. As of this writing, more than 50 bands have been reunited either for coachella, or have included stops on their reunion tours. Some of those, like the Verve, flop, or you get the Cocteau Twins, just for them to burn into the air before they even get to the festival. Some, like Daft transform the festival, while even others like Mazzy Star, Refused, or My Bloody Valentine, leave old fans and new alike being moved by music they may have only known because of the high profile bookings and billing.
Still, there’s been plenty of acts who once given the chance to capitalize, aren’t able to do so. Outkast, and Cee Lo Green, both booked over the years, weren’t able to make the stage work to their advantage. Green, who was so late to his own set he nearly didn’t perform, hasn’t been the same since. Outkast on the other hand, weren’t good during their weekend one performance, but one could argue they didn’t really need to sound as good as possible, simply because they are OutKast.
One of the major foundations has been the graduation of bands, if you will. It happens over and over again, and it helps the experience in a multitude of ways. First it's cool to see a band like the Killers, who were once the very last name on the poster end up headlining years later, knowing the band had put in the to get the higher booking. Acts like the Killers, Phoenix, Tame Impala and especially the Arcade Fire perfectly exemplify that mentality. All of those bands were made bigger by the genuine nature of their music, sure, but it's the unknown factor that makes the jumps in popularity more apparent. You never quite know how a crowd will welcome a new, less tested band, but in the cases mentioned, those initial performances made it possible for them to get the attention they rightfully deserved.
Festivals change and alter over time just like everything else. In this way, Coachella is the same. Until 2007 the fest had been two days, but when the lineup featuring Bjork, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a newly reunited Rage Against the Machine had been announced, it also featured a new day, the Friday, to make it a full weekend party. Added on top of the extra day was a new art installation by Lucent Dossier, which gradually brought the art aspects to the center of the festival planning. The year was a huge success, with a full sellout happening and everyone walking away feeling as though something special had yet again transpired in the April dessert of indio California.
Over the next years,Tollett and company built gradually bigger events than anything done previously. From the years of 2008 to 2010, Coachella was the undisputed king of festivals, which isn’t hard to see why. Roger Waters playing a Pink Floyd set was a game changer for booking legacy acts, not too mention stunning sets from Portishead, Kraftwerk again returning, Gorillaz, Jay Z and Muse in 2010, and the incomparable Paul McCartney, who was at that point the biggest entertainer to ever be booked. But again, none of those came with the type of excitement brought by Prince. While Macca and Waters are huge, they routinely tour, thus the special feeling is diminished slightly. On the other hand, Prince, who made a career of doing whatever he wanted, was on a whole different level. Announced only 3 weeks before the fest, and knocking down original headliner Portishead, there were plenty of reasons to be pumped. Among regular attendees, the Prince set was a milestone in the growth of Coachella, and cemented them at the fest who could get anyone. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has mentioned it in high regards with the other obvious game changing sets.
You might wonder, just how does Tollett do it, year after year? It’s not easy, and it takes more than one conversation to get these big acts to commit. Sometimes, like in 2012, a last minute change throws everything off, and of course the time is ticking away. Back in 2012, it wasn’t ever supposed to be Dre & Snoop. Instead, Black Sabbath had signed on, but as the unveiling date of the lineup inched closer, suddenly they were out. Tony Iommi, legendary Sabbath guitarist, was battling cancer, and thus couldn't commit to playing.
This is where Tollet thrives, with his knowledge of the industry, and the finesse it takes to convince artists to take a chance on what could be a legendary set. It was the same in 06 when Daft Punk was convinced to play, but even the Punk performance didn’t end up matching the star power of the final night of Coachella 2012. Dr. Dre, long sought after and considered a trendsetter for the hip hop he helped create, announced he’d be headlining with none other than Snoop Dogg. What happened during the set stands as a Coachella crowning moment, with not just Dre and Snoop, but also with guests like Eminem, Kendrick, 50 cent and tons more to elevate the twice in a lifetime moment. Even with all of those acts sharing the stage, it ended up being compared to the surprise they had cooked, and for many was overshadowed.
Having a hologram of the late Tupac Shakur was never something anyone expected. Even without the hologram the show was excellent from most of the accounts I’d heard, but that hologram was next level bonkers, and after that, the fest was never the same. From 2012 on, it became how do they top themselves.
In the years following the first double weekend, the bar continued to be raised in a myriad of ways. The grounds became larger, new stages and tents were added, bigger stage presentations became the norm for most acts on the bill, and well, Coachella changed again. For years the fest was rooted in the type of music elitism and heavy rock that old school 90’s kids like myself could thrive in. With reunions and rare appearances by the likes of Portishead, Rage, Prince and many others the festival bridged the gap between the music of our heyday as well as welcoming new, exciting sounds that people normally wouldn’t seek out. Like life and everything else however, things change and motivations change and people go in new directions. This is true even for Tollett and Coachella.
All of that changed in 2018 when the Queen of popular culture arrived, and yet again the fest was never the same. Beyonce as she's known, is the type of act that rarely comes around. She’s able to bring in soul to modern urban music, while still making music vulnerable enough to reach the often unsatisfied masses. Except no one left that set unsatisfied. Bey’s performance isn’t just the most recently lauded performance on a list of staggering performances, it's a watermark for where the fest, and popular culture is at that moment. For nearly two hours she captivated an audience of over one hundred thousand. The reviews were widely glowing, and after a false start the previous year, Beyonce had arrived, and left every other act in the dust. No one in 2018 mattered except for her, and it was obvious.
In recent years, the biggest news surrounding the festival hasn’t been the headliners, or the unique rare sets, or even the beauty of the surroundings. Instead, many people have derided the death of the old Coachella, and in a way it makes sense. When people start going to something, and liking something, a certain kinship and relationship is formed. People like me and others I spoke to for this piece, have one, aged out and began doing more normal things like full time jobs, marriages and family and are less interested in the recent line up. It's understandable, and sad, but naturally the type of fan base who excitedly hurries to a festival to see acts like My Bloody Valentine, Pixies and others aren’t gonna find much to get excited about when those noteworthy acts are replaced by Arianna Grande, Blackpink and others.
It’s not to say those acts aren’t worthwhile or entertaining, but well, you get my point. It didn’t matter though that people like myself, Frank and Becca had outgrown a festival, I had only gone once and while I'm always hopeful that I’ll return, the fest has changed so drastically it continues to be up in the air. Again though, credit where it's due. Tollett and the brains behind Coachella saw a change in the musical landscape happening, and in the same way the rockers made the pilgrimage to Indio, now pop kids were venturing out to see the newest and exciting non rock music around. There was plenty to take in, and the festival for the first time was selling out not just because of the lineup, but because it had become the place to go for people of a certain age, just like it was for myself. You feel like you have to be there, and once you arrive, nothing is the same.
In the end that's the legacy of Coachella. Going to a place with friends, seeing incredible acts, whether its pop royalty, some alt rock reunion, or anything in between. Like tollett has said routinely, the great thing about Coachella, and festivals in general, is that your fest can be different from anyone else’;s fest, just based on what a person likes or doesn't like. So whether the headliner is Beyonce, or Rage, or Tool, or even Bjork, you know you're going to be able to find something that will allow you to live, even briefly in a world where worries are short and the potential for a life changing moment are ever present.
Making this list was wild. What originally began as 30 became 40 when it was all said and done. The 2010’s in terms of music was when rock finally got dethroned by hip hop, electronica and pop music in a tangible way. This list also is the first I’ve done that largely ignores the rock that was so prevalent in the 90’s and early 2000’s. You won’t find any Pearl Jam, Nin, Tool, and various others on here, but what you will find is a thoughtful list, made over the course of the past months, after having listened to hundreds of albums in order to pick the best 40. The list features tons of classic albums, some ones that even surprised me, not to mention multiple genres stretching in various directions. I hope you enjoy the list, as well as the playlist that accompanies this. Enjoy!
40. APHEX TWIN: SYRO (2014)
Richard D. James, as he’s sometimes called, is never one to shy away from the type of music that pushes boundaries, and with his first album in 13 years under the Aphex Twin moniker , he proved he hadn’t lost a step. The album screeteches with synthesizers and weird time loops, but it's nothing he hadn;t shown us before. It’s a dense record with weird, often unpronounceable song titles, yet it's always been his style. It’s not too often a record this long in the making ends up actually being worth it, but in the world of Electronic music, Aphex Twin continues to be a elite artist, able to disappear for years and still have a crowd of people scrambling to see his rare performances, while also producing complex albums that leave much of the rest of the genre in the dust.
39. LADY GAGA: JOANNE (2016)
For all intents and purposes, my main complaint from Gaga up until this point was that she seemingly relied on theatrics and parlor tricks rather than her proven voice. That all changed however with “Joanne,” her sixth record. The record is bare of most of her usual elements, but that’s what makes it such a profoundly good record. Her voice soars throughout the album, and songs like “Perfect Illusion” bring the good from the past into a new more mature light. It’s a rocking song that can pass as a radio hit while still staying true to what she’s trying to accomplish. Backed by Kevin Parker in the producer chair along with Mark Ronson, the album also features great guests like Florence Welch and Joshua Homme from Queens of the Stone Age. It’s a remarkably good record that everyone can get into it, even if you haven’t been hugely in love with her up until this point. I’m sold on this, and you might be too.
38. DEAFHEAVEN: SUNBATHER (2013)
If you look at the album before listening for the first time, you’d have no idea it would end up being one of the defining metal albums of the decade. With it’s bright pink cover, it seems at first like a normal indie band, but beneath its case the album revealed itself, and in the process made the band much more known. “Sunbather” is a classic black metal album, while also being able to integrate elements from dream pop, shoegaze and combine those into an album as personal as it is genre bending. Sure it's nearly an hour long and is filled mostly with the type of intense metal that scare parents, but there’s a lot of meat and vulnerability trickling through the record that make this an album worth revisiting.
37. RUN THE JEWELS 3 (2016)
Well it’s another home run for the supergroup featuring Killer Mike and El-P, and they spare no expense to give us another near perfect record. It tackles quite a few tough lingering issues, including corruption of the highest order, the propensity of white police officers killing black people of various shapes and sizes, and the loss of friends and complacency in this hazardous world and country we’re currently living in. After all that though, this is still a record that allows you to have fun some of the time and dance your conflicted brain away. “Talk to Me,” is a siren for awareness, while “Panther like a Panther” is a filthy song with dirty, highly sexual lyrics (after all it’s still hip hop). It’s a perfect record all around, and as the album closes with the one two punch of guests like Kamasi Washington Zack de la Rocha, it’s hard to brush this collection aside. All hail RTJ, they are the future storm of the rap world. My prediction: we haven’t seen anything yet.
36. THE NATIONAL: HIGH VIOLET (2010)
With every passing record the Ohio stalwarts the National reimagine what they can accomplish as a band. “High Violet” the band’s fifth record shows just how much the band had learned in their formative years. The instrumentation by the brothers Dessner and rhythm section courtesy of the Devendorf siblings all help to create a musical world suitable for downtrodden, often depressing lyrics by the smoky voiced Matt Berninger. The songs are personal, heart wrenching and powerful, but it's not until the mastery of tracks like “Sorrow,” “Terrible Love” and the finale “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” has soaked through your brain that it becomes obvious just how great of a record this is.
35. ST. VINCENT: STRANGE MERCY (2011)
For the record, I still haven’t found an album that proves Annie Clark isn’t perfect and amazing, but with Strange Mercy she came into her own, and was able to blend alt rock, indie and tinges of perfectly layered pop production into a moving, hard to ignore record. The guitar scorches like never before, with tracks like “Cheerleader” and “Champagne Year” demonstrating the difficulties of culture and where to fit in. Clark doesn’t really fit into any genre easily, but it's that type of forward thinking production that makes it easier for fans from all genres to find something to hold onto. She’s able to be ferocious and vulnerable open, but it's in this process that she becomes one of the captivating musicians in modern music, and her elevation over the years wouldn’t have been as fun to watch without the inclusion of “Strange Mercy.”
34. PUP: MORBID STUFF (2019)
The title track, which opens the record is full tilt darkness from the moment you hear Stefan Babcock wax poetic about fist fights, wanting things you gave away, and the reluctance of thinking macabre thoughts. “Kids” is a great example; it speaks to love so deep you could burn the world down, but the music is classic pop punk. Everything from the drum beat and the cheerful guitar chorus works opposite the intensity and openness of the record. There are moments of perilous agony, increased anxiety during segments like the opening of “Free At Last,” which turns up its nose at all the people who think “just ‘cause you’re sad again” that everything has to revolve around themselves, which isn’t how the world works. This has gone way too long, but hopefully you’re enjoying it and will continue on this with me. When I listen to “Morbid Stuff” I’m 23 again, trying to figure out what to say, how to say it, and how I want to be viewed in the world.
33. GORILLAZ: PLASTIC BEACH (2010)
By their third album, no one expected this to be anything more or less than what the first two albums delivered. For many it wasn’t the perfect records they’d gotten before, but it's still vastly better than most of the albums that came out that year. Clocking in at right around an hour, “Plastic Beach” is full of stellar guests, among them Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Little Dragon, and Lou Reed. All of the guests here mix well with the groundwork out forth by the traditional band, but it never feels tired or too long. It’s an easy to listen to album, one where you don’t have to think about the importance of lyrics, and are just able to sit down and enjoy the ride for what it is: a no nonsense record mixed with multiple genres, who’s sounds and instrumental work continue to go where the band hadn’t yet been.
32. ROBYN: BODY TALK (2010)
It's one of those records whose worth and greatness I wasn’t able to see initially, but without a doubt Robyn’s “Body Talk” deserves to be on this list. It's the kind of fierce pop record only Robyn can do, with her tenacity and tenderness flowing through in equal shades. Songs like the classic broken-hearted “Dancing on My Own” make you remember the pain of love, while other tracks “Indestructible” are exactly that, unwilling to budge or step aside. It's a powerful record, and Robyn’s voice is absolutely sweltering during the record, gradually proving her worth in the upper echelons of modern pop music, one high energy song after the other. If you’re a fan of thoughtfully dancing your demons away, “Body Talk” is what you’ve been looking for.
31. CHVRCHES: THE BONES OF WHAT WE BELIEVE (2013)While their most recent records haven’t hit with quite the same punch as their first, excellent record, you could argue the strength of “The Bones of What You Believe” has enabled them to sort of coast on the initial success. Those records aren’t bad by any means, but “Bones” was such a great unknown record that it’s hard to argue with. “The Mother We Share” is an electronic anthem, while other tracks like “Gun” and “Science/Visions” paint a dark, science fiction type of picture that is utterly captivating from start to finish. It is still one of the best records I’ve heard in that genre, and it was so well done that the band has been able to create a solid fan base for this type of experimental synth pop, or whatever else you’d like to call it.
30. ADELE: 21 (2011)
By this point we know the drill. Fall in love, break up, write an album based on the relationship, then lastly, profit. Her albums are still enormous deals when released, but they haven't been met critically with the same type of fervor and hype that accompanied “21.” With the album Adele became a huge star, found fame, got skinny and began gradually reinventing herself. None of that happens if this album doesn’t land big, but with moments from freeing, boisterous numbers like “Rumor Has It,” or the mega hit “Rolling in the Deep,” she captivated the world, made everyone remember the pains of love and heartbreak, and made one of the most emotionally charged albums of the decade. At number thirty, welcome Adele’s “21” to the countdown.
29. RADIOHEAD: A MOON SHAPED POOL (2016)
After five years, the enigmatic kings of alternative rock finally returned in 2016. Plenty of people didn’t fall in love with the previous “King of Limbs,” but “A Moon Shaped Pool,” brings it back to the layered, thoughtful, solemn sound that made the band so interesting in the last decade or so. Song after song finds it grove in ways only Yorke, the Greenwoods and company can. Many of these songs are familiar to hardcore RH fans, but it’s the new ways the band can change styles among the same song that make it sound so fresh. “True Love Waits,” the longtime fan favorite b- side finally shows up on a proper record, but it’s not what we were used to hearing. It’s wonderful all the same, but it’s in those ways that the band is able to spread their experimental tendencies and produce something that sounds way ahead of the curve in areas that would see other bands fall to the ground in defeat.
28. PJ HARVEY: LET ENGLAND SHAKE (2011)
Polly Jean has always been a tough act to classify, with her background clasing often with tools and approaches typically not seen in the male dominated world of rock music, but it hasn’t stopped her from doing what she wants, often with great results. “Let England Shake” builds on her history. From the opening moments of the title track” the record has this biting, antagonistic approach that enables Polly to shy away from self introspective while offering up dark lyrics, surrounded by visions and tales of the impact of our world's various wars. It’s political in a way she hadn’t been before, and it proved to be another great eye opening record from the hard to pin down PJ Harvey.
27. FRANK OCEAN: CHANNEL. ORANGE (2012)
Before he became the closest thing this era will know to Marvin Gaye, Ocean was quietly building his brand in the background. Coming from the dust of Odd Future, his R&B approach put him in a different class all together. It also happens to be a great record, with the type of personal details flowing mysteriously that leave you wanting to learn everything about the subject at hand. A nine minute song like “Pyramids” shouldn’t work in a world where the average mainstream song rarely passes five minutes, yet it takes you on a ride full of spirit, longing, and bitterness. With “Channel Orange,” Frank Ocean delivered an album everyone can relate to, and it lifted him up and enabled him to eventually become one of the most interesting music stories of the decade.
26. LANA DEL REY: BORN TO DIE (2012)
When you first hear the opening moments of “Born to Die” it’s quickly apparent how different LDR is compared to her modern pop comrades. The album is full of old Hollywood imagery that goes perfectly with her sultry thick voice. The orchestral sections harkon back to a simpler time, but her vocals are dangerous and risque, which helps to push the envelope. She’s been called fake, phony and a product throughout the years, but she's consistently made thoughtful, vintage infused music with a twist. The odds are in her favor that her popularity will continue to grow, but it's hard to say where she would have been had the record not been as good as it was. Also having “Summertime Sadness” as part of the record couldn’t have hurt.
25. M83: HURRY UP WE’RE DREAMING (2011)
Before “Hurry Up” the band was mostly known in smaller indie circles, but with this release Anthony Gonzales shot up the ranks and made one of the best alternative electronic albums of the decade. It swells and explodes with vibrant sounds, with songs like the unmistakable “Midnight City” able to grow on their own while also fitting perfectly with every other track. It’s a longer record, but well worth your attention. They even mix it up with less obvious tracks like “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” which lovingly tells the story of a magical frog, as told by a little child. It's a remarkable album that finds its place in the country opening the top 25 of the best albums of the 2010’s.
24. BON IVER: BON IVER (2011)
After the remarkable vulnerability cascading through his first album, Justin Vernon changed it up for the second official Bon Iver record. With more of a band feeling and less personal, the self titled still has much emotional weight behind it. I recently got the vinyl for this, and it even opens up notes and arrangements I'm hearing for the first time. Songwriting takes still and practice, yet the band never seems to be stuck. This is especially true for stand outs like “Holocene” and definitely “Calgary” with its soaring vocal arrangement and musical exposition towards the end of the track. If you want something easy to digest but hard to pin down musically, Bon Iver has something for everyone, especially on this record.
23. FKA TWIGS: LP1 (2014)
To call Tahliah Debrett Barnett a straight R&B sensation would be doing her art a huge disservice, yet she fits well in that world, still branching out to create thought provoking music mostly clear of typically genre taglines. More futuristic than her contemporaries, LP1 is full of the type of ahead of the curve brilliance that rarely breaks through, and with help from producers like Arca, Blood Orange and others she made her mark on her debut, opening the door for even more experimentation and growth. It's the type of record that's great for parties but also quiet introspection, but in its 40 minute duration FKA Twigs says everything she needs to say, continually leaving her audience wanting more.
22. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE: ...LIKE CLOCKWORK (2013)
Best rock band in the world, bar none. It’s not often a band comes back from the brink of literal death and gives us an album that surpasses anything they’ve made before. They replace the balls to the wall attitude of the earlier records with a more subdued, sexier, but equally dense album full of nothing but awesome songs. Lastly, how can an album featuring Elton John, Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor, Joshua Homme, Mark Lanegan, James Lavelle, and Troy Van Leeuwen not be a vital album for this list? Made after Homme’s near death following surgery and then drug addiction, this is Queens at their most resilient, able to bounce back with rocking tracks that also make you think about your own mortality. One of the best rock albums of recent memories, it takes the number 22 spot.
21.CHILDISH GAMBINO: AWAKEN! MY LOVE (2016)
Donald Glover has gradually been veering away from his indie sampled beats since his early records, but what he does on “Awaken! My Love” is truly remarkable. Glover as Gambino manages to make a record that keeps the spirit of Prince and Outkast in the forefront while still being an album that very much sounds like a Gambino record. Glover sings and croons with the best of them, while injecting this soulful record with the attitude and gloss of a powerful avant garde funk record from the heydays of funk jams. Song after song on “Awaken!” makes me miss the old days where it was just Gambino and his beats, but that’s not the whole story. Sure the old shit is great, but on this record he breaks out in big ways and conquers everything he touches. It’s joyous, uplifting and a drastic about face that makes me excited for what he may have in store for us in the years and albums to come.
20. BEACH HOUSE: TEEN DREAM, (2010)
Victoria and Alex had spent the precious two years touring, so by the time a new record began to take shape, the band had more than enough material to draw from and be inspired by. The album itself, while more expensive to produce, eventually became worth it when the success of the album was apparent. It's a slow, dreamy indie record, with Legrande’s patented voice mixing darkness with Scally’s voluminous instrumentation to get the product we now have. Perfect for a sunny day at the park while also being a great lowkey evening album, “Teen Dream” cemented the band's place as one of the best known and best overall bands in the burgeoning indie scene of the time. Beach House still hasn’t made a bad record, but “Teen Dream” is undoubtedly their best.
19. DEERHUNTER: HALCYON DIGEST (2010)
Bradford Cox is a weird bird, as anyone following his Deerhunter career should be well aware of, yet he’s also one of the most interesting and enduring personalities in the world of indie rock. With “Halcyon Digest” the band eschewed much of the weird unbelly of sound flowing through their first records in favor of more heartfelt, weighty lyrics. Tracks like “Desire Lines” glow with shimmering uncertainty of the future, while closer “He Would Have Laughed” is a novel send-off to Cox’s good friend Jay Retard who passed before the album would be completed. Indie rock has mostly been pushed out of the spotlight in recent years, but Deerhunter and Cox solidified their position as indie rock purveyors of lush soundscapes with the mesmerizing, real world emotions of “Halcyon Digest.”
18. LORDE: MELODRAMA (2017)
It’s rare for a major breakout star to have two albums as authentic and awesome as Lorde’s first two records have been. From the dimly light but gradually brightening opening of “Green Light,” you accept that not only has she grown as person, but her art has turned a corner to an intersection of brave honesty and smarts, and someone with a good enough x-factor that she’s somehow as big in circles ranging from indie to electronic fans as she is to teenie boppers. A song like “Writer in the Dark” has all the brutal honesty to tackle a subject that we’ve all struggled with. It’s a song about life’s challenges and the difficulty of family. But it’s in that song that her true potential is burning to come out even more. Dave Grohl is right I think, when he mentioned Lorde as the future of alternative music. “Melodrama” has everything you’ll love, and more you'll grow to love with repeated listens.
17. BEYONCE: LEMONADE, (2016)
With her second “visual” album, Beyonce once again proved why she's on another level when it comes to entertainers. With her team of writers, producers, and handlers all working together, she exemplified what it is to a major pop star in the year 2016. And to think, if Jay hadnt cheated we maybe wouldn't have gotten to see the venomous, angry side of Mrs. Carter. It’s sassy, satisfying and ultimately Bey’ comes out victorious. It's more dangerous than we were used to seeing her, which made her more relatable and human to the masses. An album about an illicit affair could have gone a lot of different ways, but the message is clear throughout that this is her record for herself, and if you didn’t like it, then “Boy bye.” Lastly, be grateful for this album coining the term “ Call Becky with the good hair,” whcih further helped to concrete the idea of not fucking with Beyonce.
16. MITSKI: BE THE COWBOY (2018)
The first thing you hear sung in the mesmerizing “Be the Cowboy” is the line “You’re my number one,” and while Mitski is talking about a romantic entanglement, that statement is true also in regards to her placement on this list. A track like opener “Geyser” has an ominous background instrumentation that works well while Mitski and her silky, seductively open voice reign you in for a ride that’s as enjoyable as it is mature and direct about emotional states. Many of the songs here simply work, like “Washing Machine Heart,” and “Remember My Name” with its pure vocals and walloping drum section, but as the minutes close on the sadly beautiful ending track “Two Slow Dancers,” you’re left with a void. As she says in it’s gorgeous, somber conclusion, “To think that we could stay the same” is a beautiful, yet heartbreaking sentiment, but it’s fleeting all the same. Still, Mitski tries to stay in that perfect place, and the album is better for it.
15. ST. VINCENT: MASSSEDUCTION (2017)
From the early moments of this record, you get the distinct impression that Annie Clark is defying space and time. it’s seductive in a “I won’t be ignored” way, but it’s provocative in its delivery, which only helps to put even more ideas and music and concept in the brain of the listener. It’s a difficult listen at first, mostly due to how different it is compared to previous albums, but on listen after lister it installs itself as a powerful, evocative listen. Once you get to “Masseduction” the song, you’re already well aware of how different and energizing this neo-pop renaissance is. It’s a dangerous record for a world that needs to have different experiences shoved in its face, but it never worries you that it might go off the rails. She periodically changes her persona and adds another shimmering example of what a challenging artist pushing different views of morality, secuality, power, and the hunger to succeed.
14. JAY-Z & KANYE WEST: WATCH THE THRONE (2011)
What happens when the two biggest hip hop stars of the last 20 years get together to make an album? Well, not surprisingly it ended up being brilliant but also massively popular. It's been nearly a decade and people still hope they come back, but we’ll see. The record is a tutorial on how to do mainstream hip hop correctly, with the beats by West doing as much damage as the rapping over the notes. “Otis” is a party jam come to life, while the irresistible and decadent “Niggas in Paris” blows everything else away. Seeing them on this tour play “Paris” something like 12 times in a row never got old, but while it might be a modern classic, no sections of the record are dull or feel forced, which makes this likely one time pairing even more important and special.
13. FIONA APPLE: THE IDLER WHEEL… (2012)
Anyone else remember Fiona Apple? I’ll be honest here, I was never a diehard fan and had not listened to this album in years, but when I finally did I got why it was still so highly revered. Recorded in private with Apple and produced by Charley Drayton, the album is full blown Fiona doing what she does best. It's weird, off the wall, emotional and utilizes so many different sounds and instruments it's hard to keep track of. At forty-five minutes it's not a long record, but the messages and emotions she emotes throughout stay with you long after your listening has ended. Fiona Apple is able to bounce around in a manner that only suits her, but it's her quirkiness and ambition that shine through when she releases an album. She’s been criticized for the amount of time between records, but when they're this good, why rush it?
12. TAME IMPALA: LONERISM (2012)
With “Innerspeaker” Kevin Parker carved out a niche in the world of indie music. With Parker's next release, “Lonerism” he perfected the craft with a dense, lush, psychedelically tinged album that changed the game and got everyone wondering what KP was capable of. Parker's voice at times seems buried and yearning to break free and take center stage, but the way the music contorts, distorts and ultimately captures everything in a beautiful array of colors and instruments. Songs like “Elephant” thump in a powerful momentum, yet it heartbreaking songs like “Feels Like We Only go Backwards” where the heart and soul come through. Parker is known these days for being a genius control freak when it comes to his music, but with “Lonerism” he proved he was already one of the most exciting musicians to break into the scene in a very long time.
11. KANYE WEST: YEEZUS (2013)
Rumors swirled for months that the production of the record was a mess, but after getting much needed guidance from the wise Rick Rubin and slimming the album down drastically to the ten songs that formed the album, it’s hard to say it wasn’t worth it. From the early moments of tracks like “Black Skinhead,” which finds West again working with Daft Punk and putting white people on notice for practices that we as a people might not even know is wrong. “Yeezus” also shows that he can carry an album with minimal guests as he circumvents his critiques of culture with unrelenting songs like “New Slaves” and the eye opening sincerity and pain behind “Blood on the Leaves.” It was one of the last moments of brilliance in the music of West, but as he continues down this illogical hole of the last few years, fans like myself are hoping someday he returns, more dangerous and groundbreaking than ever.
10. TAYLOR SWIFT: 1989 (2014)
Fresh off the heels of “Red,” Swift had risen to become one of the biggest country pop crossover artists, well, ever. She wasn’t done yet though. With “1989” she created a perfect, well constructed and layered purely pop record. You can tell when listening she learned much from her first foray into modern pop music, but with this she perfected it. It's not quite as classic as “Red” but it's still a phenomenal album full of bangers. I listened to this a lot during my divorce, and while I'm not too proud to say the album helped me through that rough time, I know i’m not alone. Tracks like “Blank Spaces” are landmarks of this era in pop music, while others like “Wildest Dream” draw from more theatrical elements that work perfectly in the world Swift is building for us. One of the rare pop albums able to transcend genres, Swifts “1989” opens up the top ten.
9. LORDE: PURE HEROINE (2013)
Seven years ago, like a bomb, the world was exposed to New Zealander Lorde, with her excellent game changing debut “Pure Heroine.” It's rare for a musician who sounds like your standard pop star to break big in multiple music circles, but it's exactly what happened. It's refreshing to hear real world stories during songs like “Tennis Court,” or to throw shade at the big names bragging about their bling in “Royals,”with its tongue in cheek response to how famous people view the world. Lorde capitalized on that normal feeling in life in a way that people responded to, over and over examining her place in the world as millions do daily. It was eye opening in the best way possible, and it brought her to heights she never expected.
8. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: THIS IS HAPPENING (2010)
Deemed their last album and tour by James Murphy, the stakes were huge. With two very well received, genre bending records before them, now wasn’t the time to phone it in. The album starts innocently enough, with soft little drums and Murphy softly singing. By three minutes in the album had broken through, with high energy synths rocking from Nancy and everyone else filling in to make a full, house party sound. The band is at this point what I’d consider the Tool of indie synth rock, with long winding songs that change pace frequently but also provide the lyrical depth you want in a band. The sound is so intact and high quality throughout its sixty five minutes, you forgot just how long these songs are, but you love it so listening is a joy and a pleasure.
7. BEYONCE: BEYONCE (2014)
By this point in her career, Beyonce Knowles Carter was untouchable from most of the normal criticisms flowing through the world of entertainment. As an artist though you still want to deliver a valuable project people can eat up, and with her surprise release of “Beyonce” on December 13 of 2013, the world exploded with excitement. Recorded in secret and unleashed unexpectedly, the album delivers on everything her fans want. The beats are great, her vocals soar like never before, and she began to show a more mature, less careful side of herself. That's probably the best feature of the whole record, how honest she is, and how vulnerable she is. But it's not all sad, in fact it's rarely sad but far more empowering in the face of disappointment. When you get songs like “Drunk in Love” featuring Jay, you feel the tension and seduction prevalent in Bey’s music, but the track itself is a revelation like we hadn’t seen before. It's in your face, unapologetic, and one of her best.
6. TAYLOR SWIFT: RED (2012)
Simply put, “Red” was the moment Swift set her sites on the biggest stages imaginable. She had for years dodged and ignored the criticisms of her tendency to write breakup songs, and instead turned her anger and frustration with her public perception to a victory. All the songs are powerful, with her expert musicianship and songwriting skills shining through in a way most “pop” music can’t. Up until recently I hadn't dug in on this record, but upon listening all the accolades the album received were well deserved. It's an album that's able to mix all these different styles of popular music into a tangible product everyone can get behind. Even the hits that you think you might be tired like “I Knew You Were Trouble” as well as “We Are Never Getting Back Together” pull you in and make you want to sing and smile and dance the day away. She's still one of the biggest musicians in the world, but a large reason for that is the brilliance she exuded during the “Red” years.
5. TAME IMPALA: CURRENTS (2015)
Able to grow and deepen with each subsequent release, Kevin Parker managed to get more and more awesome with each record. On his third record under the Tame Impala moniker, Parker arguably outdoes the limits he set with his first two releases and makes not only a record that is more focused and personal, but one that also manages to make an R&B record better than most rhythm and blues artists could manage to make. It’s a mover and a shaker of a breakup record(even if Parkers intentions weren’t to make a breakup album) and songs like “Yes I’m Changing” and “Eventually” pull at your heart chords, even more so if you were actually dealing with the fallout of a failed relationship as you digested the record. There’s so much good to this record it’s hard to only mention a few songs, but with standouts like the aforementioned tracks, not to mention the perfection displayed on “The Less I know the Better,” it had become official: Tame Impala has arrived.
4. FRANK OCEAN: BLONDE (2016)
Ocean has always been a hit or miss type of entertainer in regards to how often he shows up for scheduled dates, but when it comes to the art of album making it's not hard to give him a pass when his output (when he does release a new record) is this engaging and vulnerable. Blonde, coming out the same week as a different, visual record by Ocean, is a natural progression from his work on Orange, yet he’s able to pull in the same gauntlet of emotions pouring through his earlier works. Opening track “Nikes'' is a glimmering volcano of emotions, while “Solo” shows the crooner winding around and painting a brilliant picture of an artist not satisfied with his work or his outside the studio life. The whole album is well measured and thoughtful, and it stands as another easy high water mark for the modern day R&B phenomenon. It’s a slow, relaxing album musically, but the more you dig the more you feel like you know what makes Ocean tick.
3. KENDRICK LAMAR: TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY (2015)
There was a moment for me where I wasn’t sure if I would ever “get” the message Lamar was trying to put forth. All of that was quickly forgotten the first time I heard “To Pimp a Butterfly” for the first time. From the early moments joined in collaboration with the likes of Geogre Clinton, Thundercat and others the album rises with tension and meaningful dialogues documenting social injustices and the need for togetherness in the fight for equality. Song after song is crafted with a level of detail that blows past most other hip hop around, and it leaves you wanting more from Lamar. “King Kunta” stands in defiance, while now the classic “Alright” brussels with the type of civil rights awareness and support Lamar has become known for. The record hit me so hard because it reminds me at least in spirit of the type of Hip Hop Outkast was making early on. It’s progressive in the best ways, blurs the lines between what hip hop is and what it can be, but is also socially conscious enough to have you shaking your ass and flexing your brain muscles at the same time.
2. ARCADE FIRE: THE SUBURBS (2010)
Few albums this decade touched a nerve in the world of indie rock quite like “The Suburbs'' did. By this point, the band had arrived with a huge Grammy win, multiple legendary sets at Coachella, and an album that in many ways rivaled the bands first. Some folks preferred “Funeral,” but there was no question “Suburbs'' staked out an essential place in the world of indie music. The narration of the albums pulls you back to when you were a kid, still figuring it out while trying to find our spot in the world. Tracks like “Rococo'' show the naivety in teenagers, who are perpetually more interested in themselves than something else that might not be “cool.” That period in one's life is depicted with perfection here. You feel freedom during the raucous “Month of May,” while also finding your safe space, like many other teenagers, in your room. “Empty Room” sung by Regine is a monument to all the precious moments we spend discovering ourselves and our quirks. “When I’m by myself I can be my safe'' rings true because it is true. The descriptions of travels as they “built the road then they built the town,” feel so familiar to so many people lost in the travel of life. By the time you get to “Sprawls II'' with its soaring vocals and incredible beat and energy, the album has moved you in a way rarely done.
1.KANYE WEST: MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY (2010)
This album is so strong from start to finish that it's damn near impossible to truncate it into a post that’s not an in depth look at every song. Let’s start with the multitude of guests on this record. It’s staggering and the various voices force West not only to bring his A game, but it also sets the tone of unpredictably that finds the listener at every song. Guests like Jay-Z, Rihanna, Raekwon from the 36 Chambers respectfully shows up, as do Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, Nicki Minaj, John Legend, and dark horses like Chris Rock( who’s monologue at the end Blame Game is hilarious and dirty) and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon all show up and give their best in function of West’s vision. An early cut like “All of the Lights” is a triumph of hip hop history, and while I rarely like solo Rihanna, this is another example of how great she is as a guest star. But then you have a song like “Runaway,” which is a nine minute monolith of artistic growth that blows away anything he’s done before or since. The way the track uses the minimal beats early on and grows and builds from there is quite simply brilliant musicianship. I recommend listening to this record all the way to fully immerse yourself in the darkness West has composed for us, because it works best as one singular piece as opposed to different tracks for different days. It runs the gamut of musical imagination, and it’s for that reason this stands as the best work of Mr. West's career, so far at least.
It’s Sunday night, June 26, 2016, and a bundle of people are cushioned together in a room in my house. This has become standard for close friends in the last few years. Soon enough, the screen darkens, and we buckle in for the season finale of Game of Thrones. The episode, “Winds of Winter” starts earnestly enough. A quiet, sullen piano enters nearly at the start of the episode, and you get this feeling of uncertainty sweeping over. Now this might be because of the obvious history of GoT and the violence commonly seen throughout its run, but something else is helping the anxiety, perhaps without the viewer even realizing it.
“Light of the Seven” creeps through the scenes, slowly tangling the dread and setting us up for something. We see all the usual characters of Kings Landing. Cersei, silently, patiently waiting for the event she planned to be carried out, Margaery and the High Sparrow, at odds with each other as they unknowingly face their demise, surrounded by everyone else who’s going to be devastated by this. Five minutes in, and the piano’s gradually being pushed out and overshadowed by the beautiful voices of a choir, you know shits about to go down. It does, and while Cersei is smiling at her “victory” the audience is left reeling at the outcome. This is where it all comes together. Yes entertainment is amazing and worth your time, but often the scores are what makes the moment even more real, with the anxiety of hearing a soaring orchestral piece during a pivotal moment in a movie or television show.
Throughout the years on Game of Thrones, Ramin Djawadi not only created a gorgeously laid musical backdrop, but with skill and attention to detail, he and his collaborators were able to make a musical section just as interesting and intricate as the show the music was being created for. This is the gift of a great composer, which is our topic for this month.
Scoring goes back over 100 years, since Camille de Saint-Saëns created the first purely original work for “The Assasination of the Duke de Guise,” but oh how far it has come. What once was an entirely separate thing, now films and music could be combined in a new unique way to enhance the plot of whatever it is you're watching. Ramin, throughout his career has been lucky to find outlets that perfectly hit his epic, grandiose style. Even after the release of Game of Thrones, Djawadi struck gold again when he became the musical lead on Westworld. This ended up not being exactly the same as the works in Game, but the difficulty in bringing a show like this to life also enabled the creators to do something truly different in how we recognize and embrace music.
Much of the works in Westworld are based on well known songs from the past. Bar room ballad versions of classics like “Paint it Black” by the Stones, or even “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead are routinely thrown into the mix of traditional original orchestration, but it's this balance and wherewithal that makes Djawadi’s work so valuable and worthwhile. On GoT this type of work would have felt out of place, but in Westworld, with their androids and illusions, the idea of reworked modern classics fits in all too well to ignore. Beyond Radiohead and the Stones, Westworld features further haunting takes on music from Amy Winehouse, Nine inch Nails, Soundgarden and more. The choices of the songs aren’t happenstance though. They all feed into the idea coveted by the Westworld creators, and further distort the world they created in an effort to bring in the audience in a real, vulnerable way.
As a child growing up, obviously music was important, but once you start to develop your own thoughts and ideas, you find yourself being moved by a multitude of different things. I bring this up because when I was in my late teens, I went to see Gladiator with my father, and while the action is amazing, the music adds so much more weight to whatever scene is taking place. For me, seeing “Gladiator” was a big moment. The scenes were delivered with precision and authenticity, but each major scene is made all the more compelling by the score, which brings us to one of the living legends of film scores, Hans Zimmer. Over his career, Zimmer has composed hundreds of film scores, often at the expense of other lesser composers. His skill is unmatched (to me) in the world of modern composing, and frankly there's little Zimmer can do wrong when entrusted with the responsibility of scoring. Like, maybe you hadn’t thought about it, and this goes for all the composers we’re discussing today, but think about how pivotal a certain film, or scene would be without the magic of the composer working quietly in the background. Take a scene like the van drop from “Inception.”
The drama is full blown by that point in the film, but as the crew performing Inception struggle to find their way, and as the van is dropping into the lake, you hear it. The roaring of “La Vie En Rose” grows stronger as the film and the drop both swell with pressure. It's a captivating scene, but think for a second what that would have been like if not for the musical direction of Zimmer. The scene, as well as the climatic ending, is all propelled and made better by the orchestra's work. Zimmer has done this countless times, but this type of attention to detail and emotion are invaluable to a film production, and it makes the end result all the better.
Everything from Gladiator, to Inception and even comic book films like the Dark Knight trilogy and the ill fated Batman V Superman film (that time working with Dutch composer Junkie XL) all show a composer willing to take chances, usually to the benefit of the aforementioned film. XL is an interesting case by himself, with the producer essentially leaving the world of electronic music to devote time to a myriad of film scoring projects. In this new age, more known musicians outside of the world of composing are looking to capitalize on something different, which only helps the
Around 2007- 2010, the entertainment world started to see more alternative, less conventional musicians bracing to give this a try. Junkie XL was among the first, but was soon overshadowed by the likes of Johnny Greenwood and others. Greenwood first showed his chops by helping to compose the score for the brilliant “There Will Be Blood.” The film, as well as the accompanying score is slow, menacing and builds tension even in the most cautious scenes. Much of this nuance had to be helped by his role in Radiohead, but it speaks to the true musician in him that he was able to latch onto something vastly different and find success. Adeptly self-trained, although he skipped a degree in music, Greenwood has since gone on to score more than a few Paul Thomas Anderson films, among them “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” while also working on compelling thrillers like “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which is one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever seen. There’s this scene towards the end of the movie where Kevin, played by Ezra Miller to psychotic perfection is interacting with his mother, after the events of the film have unfolded, and the music is low key, but also very subtle in the way it intensifies the scene. That's the sign of a great composer. One that's able to take the gravity of the scene or film, and make it palpable in a way it wouldn’t be without music.
Even composers like Johann Johannsson from Iceland have been elevating the art form. The film “Mandy,” which was composed by Johannsson is on another level, in every way possible. It's a dark, twisted horror revenge saga that sees Cage brutalizing a cult who took everything from him, but the music in itself is balls to the wall. It's ominous and terrifying when it needs to be, but he’s able to change the musical tone when it needs to. Some early, peaceful narratives showcase lush, thick arrangements that are quite etherall in tone and ultimately make the scenes in question more beautiful, especially when confronted with the carnage we see later in the movie. Other works by Johann are equally powerful, such as “Arrival,” with its future warnings abound for the scientists to untangle.
For much of the movie the music only adds weight to the scenes, never fully stealing the show, that is until the closing, final moments. We learn the truth about the aliens, and we see Amy Adams struggling to explain the events she knows will take place. The reveal musically is astounding and beautiful, and I'm not too proud to say that it struck a nerve in me, leaving me satisfied and sad, as the music brings the tone and pain to the surface.
Now while artists like Johann, Greenwood, and even M83’s Anthony Gonzales have all entered the fray, there's one act that has been most surprising to see behind the composer’s table, no matter how different the work is from the others just mentioned. This is where Trent Reznor and Attitus Ross come into play. Right around the time of “There Will Be Blood,” Reznor was also getting to work in his way. Accompanied by right hand man Attitus Ross, the pair have in the last ten years focused more on scoring than the day job of Nine inch Nails. But it paid in dividends and further broadened Reznor and Ross’ range of depth.
While it started with Fincher’s “Social Network,” you can tell early on they’re just figuring it out as they go. By the second project “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” the duo had sorted it out. That project was also more suited to their previous works than the Social Network was. It was meaner, colder, more rampant with violence and dark undertones. It was right up their alley. The pair also won an Oscar for Film Score, which was a huge accomplishment.
The pair's third effort behind a Fincher film, “Gone Girl,” was probably the best handled, most effective work they’ve done as composers. Much of the score bleeds into the background, the one exception being the riveting, cathartic “Technically, Missing.” The moment is pivotal in the film, as we see Rosamund Pike’s charcter unfoil her undauntingly cruel plan to bring her stupid lackluster husband down for her minimal slights (compared to what he’s put through). The song itself starts off slow enough, but the explosion at the two minute mark thrust you into a wall of disbelief and shock, which is what it was meant to do.
For decades, composers and musicians have been building upon each other to make the best backing music for films and television, and while many have tried, few have truly exceeded in changing the nature of the film score, or how it's prepared. In my opinion everyone mentioned today is a game changer and should be valued. Once again, watch something and try to imagine how different a scene or a film would feel without poignant, thought provoking music guiding our emotions in a primal, but profound way. I guarantee it won’t leave the same effect. Thanks for reading, yall be safe out there! I’ll see you next month with another long ass piece.
In the late 80's, no one knew what “Industrial” Music was. Depeche Mode was still just in an infancy, and at the time the biggest purveyors of the sound consisted of underground bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy. Both are great, but it lacked that more contemporary sound than would get them major airplay. In Mercer earlier in his life, and Cleveland after that, Trent Reznor had an idea to bridge the gap. Reznor's approach was more in the form of mixing the world of Industrial as well as bringing more pop sensibilities to the environment.
The result was 1989's “Pretty Hate Machine.” Its release is still one of the best examples of a divisive sound being refined and altered into something pars cold, pars catchy aesthetic The first track on the album, and one of the band's most popular songs even today, “Head Like a Hole,” found a interesting and wanting crowd of underground music fans who were willing enough to give the band a chance. Much of the album is subdued compared to what would come later, but it sets the stage, albeit it in a more cautious way, but with anger and frustration spilling gradually over. Songs like “Terrible Lie,” “Sin” and “Kinda I Want to '' have beats that are so common now in theme that the record still holds up truer, and better than before.
The album also gives us a brief glimpse into how well rounded he is as an instrumentalist. The best example of this is the hauntingly dark “Something I Can Never Have.” Having been a piano player from a very early age, Reznor was very proficient at the instrument. This is glaringly obvious here. He builds the tension quietly and deliberately at first with soft but ominous undertones, but the sound gradually progresses to a textural palette that is vibrant in ways that most dark music rarely reaches. One of the best uses of his voice is his ability to convey a certain pain. This is done expertly on “SICNH,” but it won't be the last,
Like many musicians who are getting into the industry for the first time, Reznor felt unfulfilled by what his current label, TVT was willing to do to get the record out and heard. If you watched the amazing docuseries “The Defiant Ones,” Reznors recalls being told the debut record was “an abortion,” so you can see what he was dealing with. To get away from that awful aura, the band launched touring as part of the inaugural Lollapalooza tour, and alongside Jane's Addiction, the Rollins Band, and Living Colour, the band finally got to know a much deserved bigger audience.
During this period, feeling as though stuck and obviously pissed off, Reznor put together a short, violent EP called “Broken.” Recorded in secret and enraged, it wasn’t until Jimmy Iovine of Interscope records fame was able to get Reznor, and by definition nin, out from under TVT that the existence of the record became known. It’s a simple and thorough fuck you to Reznors former label and chief Steve Gottlieb. The album is insanely intense and very unlike PHM, but tracks like “Last,” “Gave Up” are stand out classics. “Broken” is also where the violent, oftens sexually exploited content in videos start to arrive.. “Wish” essentially takes place in a chaotic, strobe lit, prison, and “Pinion” depicts a toilet being flushed into a man's mouth while he wears a lovely BDSM outfit. Even those don't top the list of intensity though. The two biggest examples of the change in tone are “Happiness in Slavery” and an underground video never officially released called “Broken.” “Happiness” sees a man who begins by getting pleasured by a machine, but quickly it turns sadistic as the man is tortured, killed, and eventually put through a meat grinder. You can imagine the curiosity of a 16 year old boy watching this.
The worst though, the “Broken” video is so insane it's only been known to circulate in unofficial states. What we see here is simple. A man convinces a younger man to come home with him, and various methods of torture ensue. The footage in intercut with the other proper music videos, but the damage is done slowly as you see the killer take his anger out on this poor, poor soul. It's so bad and realistic it was rumored to be investigated by the FBI. During this time the band decided to relocate to Los Angeles and record in the house where the Manson family killed Sharon Tate. It's almost as if you can hear the effect it had on the music.
That album, “The Downward Spiral,” is not only a crowning achievement for forward thinking rock music, but also for Reznor himself. The instrumental aspects on this record are beyond anything you had ever heard from this genre before, not just in scope but in the array of sounds and textures conjured up in the studio. The album opens with a sample from “THX 1138,” and “Mr. Self Destruct” tears through in a vicious wave.
To put it mildly, this album was a severe game changer for the every member, but now Reznor was front of center, the parents' new modern nightmare. In a matter of months, and on the back of a legendary performance at Woodstock 94, Nin found themselves filling arena's instead of halls and theaters, and were the ire of concerned good people everywhere. They became the “edgy” bands lame television shows like the “Nanny” name dropped to make the kids seem rebellious.
The album itself, which tells the story of a man slowly descending into utter madness, is full of amazingly intricate beats, soundscapes and sheer madness for the duration. Unorthodox beats perfectly build the tension during songs like “Piggy” and “Ruiner,” while also managing to make beautiful and eye opening creations in a track like “A Warm Place.” Technically speaking, there really isn't a bad song on the album. “March of the Pigs” is still a brute force track, and one of the best to see in a live performance setting. Literally I remember seeing the band in Shreveport where the crowd got so intense during the track that I realized my feet were off the ground and I was just going with the flow of bodies for a good 15 seconds. When you hear Reznor scream “March!” there's this undeniable urge to be apart of a frenzy, and it's one of the best experiences during a concert I can ever recall. Like I said, intense.
If you had to pick out one song that played the biggest role in NIN’s transformation to giant band though, the song you mention more than likely is “Closer,” The chorus of “I wanna fuck you like an animal” is a little bit played out these days, but that's only because the song is so absurdly well known. In truth though, it's a great song, and the overwhelming beat throughout is classic. Even the video itself is a masterpiece. The way the images are able to stay with you and haunt you is a great ploy by Mark Romanek to create a video creepy enough to compliment the song. If you live under a rock and haven't seen it, check it out. One of the classic videos from the decade. The song was at the right place at the right time, and for better and worse, it changed the whole trajectory of Reznor's career.
Now, these shows weren’t as technical as some of the future tours, but the gothic sheeting, battered drum and keyboard stands, and dirty outfits of the band, all made for one of the most memorable tours of the early 90’s, but the chaotic, almost juvenile behavior represented by the band and their tour mates made it difficult to go back to normal life. By the time Downward Spiral's two year tour was over, Reznor was a mess. There has been drama between Courtney Love and various others, not to mention drugs and alcohol had taken over his life, and one top of that, people were greatly anticipating his return to the studio to create new music. Usually in the music industry, you strike while the iron is hot, but for Reznor, and his bandmates like Loehner, Finck, and Clouser and things would never be the same. Five years passed before we would hear anything new.
“The Fragile” years proved to be both amazing and horrible for Reznor. His grandmother, who had raised him, passed away, and on top of all that, his long time dog also passed away. Now I've dealt with my grandparents all dying, but I can't imagine the difficulty of losing both a grandparent and my animal in a small amount of time. As you can imagine, this didn't help the addiction situation much, and it just got worse.
Thankfully, after years of waiting, and years of Reznor working on the project, word slowly got out that the album was actually completed, and would be arriving very soon. While “The Downward Spiral” is the best known album, “The Fragile” remains the best record of his career. It's a monument to sadness, difficulties, and the emotional core of the record touches on things that still strike a chord. Most of the hardcore fans I know instantly recognize the album as a masterpiece, and it's been mentioned by Reznor more than once that it's his favorite album in the NIN cannon. To listen to it it isn't hard to understand why. At over twenty songs, and two hours of music, song after song delivers in ways that the previous song didn't. “The Day the World Went Away” bellows with an ethereal chamber quality, while others like the catchy “Into the Void” make you wonder what's coming next.
From the opening moments of “Somewhat Damaged,” the level of production, detail and songwriting skill are abundantly well done, but just as it was with TDS, the sadness and reflecting nature of the lyrics take the main attention. It reeks of isolation, fear, contempt for the world, and most importantly, the continuation of exacting beats and thoughtfully concise movements that evolve at times over multiple songs.
The album's diversity is pretty astounding, even today. During his career, Reznor had been known to toss in instrumental tracks on releases, and “The Fragile” is no exception. Some of these are among the best songs on the whole record. “Pilgrimage” hits you toward the end of the Left Disc, and the imagery painted makes you instantly think of a Nazi march. The best though, comes in the way of “Just Like You Imagined.” To put it bluntly, it's a killer intense song, and it's probably the best instrumental track ever made under the nin moniker. It was used brilliantly in a trailer for 300, but it’s rarely played live, unfortunately.
When we discuss these tracks, sometimes the term “instrumental” is used loosely. Some of the songs do contain voice work, but in these moments the vocals are used more ethereally, and not meant to be crucial to the finished product. It just helps with the overall tone of what he was trying to convey. Above all else, Reznor is an amazing producer and composer, and in the pursuit of his ultimate vision, he never missteps.it may take time, but the finished product is almost always worth the wait.
A big aspect of the album, obviously has to do with the loss of grandmother Clara. The song, “I'm Looking Forward to Joining you, Finally” always rang a chord within me, even long before the death of my own grandparents. This song is one of the most darkly honest on the whole album, and also gives a peek into the type of mindset he was in during that album.
It's rare that a piece of music containing so much can at the same time be so effective and enjoyable, with little to no filler. Certain songs clearly aren't the strongest, but more or less the songs do an excellent job of showcasing various aspects of Reznor's unique sound. You have tracks like “The Wretched” or “Somewhat Damaged” that have the vibes from other records, filled with negativity, great beats, and some of the best usages of imagery on the entire album. As a composer, TR has always been able to make you feel part of the world, and on tracks like the two mentioned, you're instantly pulled into the world.
But the listener also gets hints of positivity and beauty. “Were in This Together” is an instant classic, and while it's been hugely ignored during live shows since its release, every listen makes it worth the wait. Between the gradual buildup of electronic components and the awe inspiring vocal work, it still holds up even twenty years after its release.
The next thing that stands out about this album is the thought process that went into it. By this point the man behind the Nine Inch Nails brand was heavily into assorted substances, and that's part of the reason the completion of the album took so long. Having said that though, to hear the finished product and to be aware of the giant mountain he was climbing during this makes “The Fragile” even more of a once in a lifetime, landmark album. The sounds emanating from the speakers when you press play are light years ahead of the previous albums, and the way it was produced by the great Alan Moulder really lays a underscored tension to the overall feel of the record.
In the end though, the album and the tour were big successes, although it nearly drove Reznor over the edge. He sank all of his money into the tour, and had been pushed to the edge of sanity. Much like the character he had portrayed for two albums, he had become a man who was on the verge of becoming “Ripe, With Decay.” In the end though, the album gave fans a goldmine of material, and years on, and with the subsequent release of the “Definitive Edition” vinyl, fans get to hear classics like “We’re in This Together,” “The Great Below,” and many others in a different yet highly worthy way.
Again, a significant amount of time(five years), passed. What emerged was a completely different person. News began to trickle out regarding the newly “reunited” and energized Nine Inch Nails, and as that news became known, we found out a few things. One, he had been hiding the whole time, getting sober and getting his head right to make sure he still felt as though he had something to contribute to the world of music. Secondly, we found out that indeed, he did have something to give to us, and third, that album “With Teeth,” would be out soon. The album itself, while good, is often cited as one of their weaker records to date. Certain parts feel like NIN, but it's more rooted in rock then the industrial tinged, electronic effects of the past. Since the release of the album, Reznor has stated that the album was a little bit more forced, and also the result of him trying to make sure he could still write music.
Some of the songs though, are quintessential nin. “The Hand that Feeds,” has a certain ability to be steeped in rock, but also embraces slight twinges of their beat driven past. Honestly, it's one of the better singles they've ever released, and one of the best songs on “With Teeth.”
Another among the other great tracks on the album, for my money, is “The Line Begins to Blur.” The thump driven quality of the beat works well, and the lyrics are utterly reminiscent of something you might have heard on earlier records. Again, this is a winner among some good but not great songs.
One thing that Reznor has always been great at, for lack of a better word, would be slower songs, or “Ballads.” The term itself makes me think of horrible 80's rockers from Poison, or Bon Jovi, but the types of slow pieces TR composes are in a league of themselves, and demonstrate his high ability to compose thought provoking music. Often times it's these songs that are the most honest, self aware, and poignant on the albums. This is very much true in the case of album closer “Right Where it Belongs.” It follows in the footsteps of awesome but slow album closers like “Hurt,” and “The Great Below,” and is haunting to both see and hear displayed in a live setting. The imagery he sets up with the line “You keep looking but you can't find the woods, While you're hiding in the trees” shows a world where the person is trying to fight for what he believes is right, but he's so engrossed in the bullshit that change is impossible. Major, major changes must be made, and with this record, Reznor took the first step in changing many of the things that troubled him over the years.
As a brief aside, one of the things that has always stood out about Reznor's output has been his multiple re-mix albums, soundtrack selections, and b-sides. “Burn” off the Natural Born Killers soundtrack (which Reznor oversaw, and produced) is one of the best tracks in the whole canon, while the “Things Falling Apart” album is just as good as anything that he's released as a proper solo album. He's released four remix albums, contributed to at least three soundtracks, and even completed an album of slower versions of many previously released songs titled “Still.” And then there's the live albums, live concert DVD's, remixed albums where other bands take their shot at NIN tracks, and last but not least, various B- Sides that have never been officially released on a record. One of the best of those, “Non-Entity” was only released at part of the second disc of the live concert DVD “ Beside You in Time.” The song, along with the “With Teeth” b-side “Home” are two of the best tracks not easily available on proper albums or streaming services. After the success and tour of “With Teeth.” I was among the people that expected Reznor to take years to release a new album. Thankfully, I was very mistaken.
This part of the story begins with hidden portable hard-drives being discovered at various venues over the lands of Europe. A new world was being unraveled piece by piece, and this new world, this “Year Zero” was eventually announced. Among all the years I've been a fan of this band, this time period was easily the most refreshing, and exciting time to be a NIN fan. The websites, part of a brilliant and wide sweeping ARG campaign depicted a country ruled with an iron fist, where a mythological hand known as the “Presence” “came down from the sky” and horrified citizens of this country. Trying to find the sites was super fun too. Every time a new billboard, or website was unearthed, I'd run to it, finding new clues, and wondering what it all meant.
The resulting album, “Year Zero” is one of their best albums, period. It tells the story from various viewpoints of the resistance and of the state of those in power. Songs like “Survivalism” are both oppressive and inventive, and have the trademark sound not entirely heard in quite a long time from the band. The opposing forces in this universe unveil themselves in many songs, across many lives and perspectives. Songs like “Capital G” come from the perspective of a corrupt yet still hungry for power politician, while the uprising takes form in early track “The Beginning of the End.”
The album as a whole though, re-establishes Reznor's proclivity for stories and cohesiveness in albums, and it's one of the best, yet unappreciated concept albums of the last fifteen years. Many of the songs here are simply amazing. The whole album is very much made to make the listener contemplate the world we're living in and what we're allowing our “leaders” to get away with. Sadly, seeing as what we’re currently dealing with in terms of our nation's politics, the lesson and darkness surrounding the albums seems to have been a message many of us missed. It’s sad but true that in our current landscape, where politicians run spirits into the ground, while factioning sides are debating the pros and cons of slights.
In short, We simply care too much about the next iPhone launch, or what a reality TV star might be doing. The closing track of the album, the underscored and honest “Zero- Sum” finds us vulnerable, having been through a battle and having potentially lost it. The song is the defeated battle cry as both sides realized they were being made to fight against the other side by an enemy so intelligent, large and diligent, that we didn't find out if it was for nothing until it was all too late. Like the track says, “All we ever were, just zero's and one's”
From there, it was a crazy time to be a fan. In the year following “Year Zero,” not one, but two albums came straight out of nowhere. The first, “Ghost I-IV,” is by far the most interesting and left of center album(s) Reznor ever released under the Nine Inch Nails banner. Consisting of over thirty purely instrumental pieces, it's really impressive and eye-opening. Every song more or less, has elements that really hadn't been done by TR up until that point.
While not a huge seller and an album whos tracks are rarely featured live anymore, it has its merits. For one it forces the listener to see a different, more patient side of the band. Vocals are nowhere to be found, but its perfect for a great many settings. One of the reasons it's so well put together, for me, is because I think this was the stepping stone for Reznor starting to branch out into film. Seriously, those scores are probably better than anything on the “Ghosts” records, and they may have not been possible if he hadn't attempted it.
Following that, “The Slip” arrived with only a little bit more warning. More in line with the rest of his discography, “The Slip” has really amazing tracks. From the moment of the second track, “1,000,000” you feel right back inserted into the world the band fans have grown to love. It's not the best regarded album per se, but the tour that came with it was one of the best productions I've ever seen. Multi- layered screens filled the “Lights in the Sky Tour,” along with two full hours of chaos, and tracks from every album. It encompassed all of what Reznor wanted the band to be on the road. Honestly, seeing it the three times I was fortunate to was something I'll never forget, and I'm willing to bet a lot of other people feel the same way about that stage production.
Following the tour, it was announced that the band would be putting up their touring boots, and a very brief final run was announced. Over a few weeks of shows the band hit New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The performances were among the longest, and most historical in the bands history. On two separate occasions, the band played the breakout album, “The Downward Spiral” in full.
It would be another few years before Reznor showed his face as the creator of the band. Having done some great score work on a few David Fincher films, it had been four years since the world has witnessed Nine Inch Nails. Around that time, new music started to be recorded, under the pretense that would be part of a greatest hits collection, but eventually the songs morphed into a full length album. The result, “Hesitation Marks, would come out just in time for a round after summer festivals, and a full fall tour was planned. Everything’s from the idea of it as a sequel to the “Spiral” and the design work of Russel Millsreflect on that time.
The album itself is another exercise in TR pushing his limits and and the limitless potential of the band and the sound they helped to shape. Quite a few of the tracks are instant classics and among the bands best songs. “Copy of A” opens the album and is purely electronically driven, while “Came Back Haunted” and the subsequent David Lynch directed video is literally a sight for sore eyes.
Two of the best songs on the album though, are the full on funky and out of character “All Time Low,” which at once seems distant and familiar to fans of the previous works, and the slow, methodical “Various Methods of Escape.” “VMOE” especially is a stand out track, and upon hearing it was instantly thrust into the list of some of my favorite works ever created by Reznor.
The album's music, and even the artwork, were thought of largely as a companion piece to Spiral. In interviews, Reznor mentions that he came to view the album as a kind of witnessing what the character from that album might have been like if he went back to him. Long time fans were very much able to see the connections.
The band, of course, set out to tour for over a year, and saw many great stages and shared them with some awesome bands. Perhaps the best portion of the tour was the Soundgarden tour from the summer of 2014. That was without a question one of the single best shows I've ever seen in my life. I wished more shows like that happened. Just the chance to see two of your favorite bands from their era, both playing headlining sets(both played around 90 minutes) made it just a once in a lifetime day.
Again though, silence approached. This natural silence didn’t exclude any but official nin material though. In recent years, Reznor and now official band member Atticus Ross has begun to be known for the masterful score work. In the last few years alone, we’ve received blisteringly intricate scores for “ The Vietnam War” series, “ A Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and many others. But much like a sleeping beast, the time has come for new nine inch nails to enter the world.
And then of course the announcement comes. A new 6 song Ep titled “Not the Actual Events,” comes out on Christmas eve. it's typically intense in chunks, but it finds Reznor and Ross stretching in ways they haven’t in awhile. “Branches/Bones” is a short rocket into the atmosphere, while other songs like. The foreboding nature of tracks like “She’s Gone,” paints a picture of a smoky forest, then the final song “Burning Bright (Fields on Fire)” sets the musical landscape ablaze with thick swatch’s of sound and thickness. No the question is, could the next installment be better? What exactly were they going for?”
With “Add Violence,” we got a very firm,”most of the time.” “Less Than” is a political anthem that’s not completely meant to be, and one of the better of nins late stage career. Honestly the only not amazing song is “Not Anymore,” and still it’s pretty good. The record is nothing short of a brighter moment in Reznor and Ross’ career. “This Isn’t the Place,” is slow and deliberate, and nothing if not ominous. Then we glimpsed into “The Background World. This song is an instance classic to me, and it tors in much of what nin excelled at. The bea, vocals and finale are some of the best he’s cooked up recently.
Sadly, with all the fuss of the last section of the trilogy, it ended up not being quite on par with the other two, although it has its moments for sure. “Shit Mirror” is a decent opener for the band, but the best part for me is the experimentation. The visibility of the saxophone usage is great in itself, because it shows then still going and trying new things, which more bands should do.
After that though, a unique styled theater tour was announced, and with it fame much excitement, and a little bit of confusion. These exclusive multi night stops in cities were the first if style of these nin had done in a tour format, but the added surprise of fans having to actually go to the venue to buy tickets in person was something that simply isn’t done these days. It proves to be a decent hit, with fans being able to mingle and share in the excitement of actually getting tickets. I myself got a pair for the first and third night stand in New Orleans, and with the first show happening tomorrow, I couldn’t be more pumped.
The setlists for this tour has been remarkable, to say the least. Many deep cuts and b sides have been appearing, starting with never before played songs like “The Perfect Drug,” and the somber build of “And All That Could Have Been.” Last but certainly not least, the band opened the tour with a full performance of the brutal Ep “Broken,” which has so far appeared a few times throughout. These shows are bound to hold special places for nin fans and the band themselves, and they still aren’t done. It’ll be interesting to see where they go after this, but I’d be being selfish if I said I didn’t think the band didn’t deserve a nice restful sleep after all of this.
During Thanksgiving week, 16 months ago, I was fortunate enough to attend two of the three New Orleans Saengar shows, and they weren’t without plenty of special moments. Because both shows were so different and great though. Each show delivered plenty of tracks that aren’t in the normal rotation, but standouts like night 1’s “All the Love in the World,” “And All That Could Have Been” And the in your face “Last” from day #3 all helped to showcase that these middle age men can still blow away the younger bands in terms of sheer intensity. It’s not every day you get to see Reznor, Ross, Fink, Cortini and Rubin mix it up in an intimate venue, which makes it even more awesome and memorable.
It’s a sticky July night in Dallas, three years ago, and one time member of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters is playing a sold out show at the American Airlines Arena. It’s part of his “Us & Them” tour, and as usual, he’s brought a huge, monumental stage show for a packed house to enjoy. Humans old and young alike fill the floor and balcony, a quiet excitement simmering around the house lights.
Those same lights starts to dim, and before long the large, over ten member band strolls casually onto the stage under cover of darkness. For the nearly three hours that followed, myself and everyone else witnessed a stage show highly political, fiery, perfectly executed with a stage production and surround sound speaker system that puts most others to shame. All this is possible because of the story you’re about to read.
It starts nearly fifty years earlier, in Cambridge to be exact, during the experimental sixties when anything was possible. It’s here that Syd Barret links up with fellow classmates Waters and David Gilmour, although not exactly at the same time. At first it was Barrerts brainchild, with early albums like 1967’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” bringing a distinct contrast to the more free spirit earthly tones of their local and international compatriots. It’s experimentation and eventual effect on popular culture is a huge reason for the upkeep in the so called psychedelic genre, with everyone from Tool to Tame Impala, Animal Collective and Radiohead and countless more having admitted being influenced by the sound of the band. Now this only starts with Barret, but it’s his wild leanings that partially pave the road Floyd will essentially go down. Pink Floyd may have added and changed members a few times, but those five people who helped to shape the sound are some of the most important to ever make music.. Well get there though, in due time.
“Piper” was a fantastic introduction to the work, and with relative success, the band began to be more known. During those early years, tracks like “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine” struck a chord with the younger people gladly expanding their mind when the mood and time permitted. Which basically means it happened often during that era. It feels like you’re traveling down a wormhole in space, unsure of what you’re going to find. Listening to these songs you get the sense that the band was unsure of where it was heading just as much as the people who ultimately listened and found some sort of kinship with the sound of this band.
For the next seven years, the band released an album a year, culminating with their first landmark. Before that though, came “Atom Heart Mother,” with its symphonic and powerful title track. It resembles a championship song a person would have played for them after getting the gold, and it’s a clean contrast to the proggy elements of earlier works.
It’s during these early years that the band began to really dig into experimentation in terms of song lengths. “Echoes,” clocking in at over twenty-three minutes is a meandering exploration of what is capable when you step into the darkness looking for something exciting. The bass line during the six minute mark is pompous and unafraid, and it adds a slow groove to it, even though the song is more or less sonically heavy. This is where the benefit of school becomes useful. Because of the history, the band, even early on was above and beyond when it came to the attention of details.
By this point Syd Barrett was long gone. What began as mostly a Barret project, over the years Syd slipped further into the seedy drug world of the 60’s. His love and deep obsession with LSD in an effort to help his mental issues had taken a toll. Instead of folding up shop, the members decided to forge on. It's within a few short years that the band started to lean in a different direction, most of which was starting to unfold under the watchful eye of Roger Waters.
The year is 1973 and Waters, Mason, Gilmour and Wright release something whose impact will be felt far and wide and will eventually become one of the most treasured records of all time. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for forty years, you know the record was the seminal, groundbreaking, chart topping album “Dark Side of the Moon.” This album not only was the first mega album for the band, but it was also probably the thing that got so many teenagers into experimenting with drugs.
Everyone I knew loved the album back then, but not because of the music. By this point the record is almost a rite of passage for children discovering all sorts of things, whether it be a completely timeless album, or other things that they might like. If you have forgotten, this is the album that stayed on the Billboard charts for over 14 years. That’s not a typo. It really was 14 years. Hearing it now, though it’s not hard to see why it’s one of the most popular albums of all time.
The album is cyclical in nature, ending with the same tones and elements that open up the journey. This is purposeful and plays with the idea of time as a circle. And that eventually we all get back to where we started. Life is ever changing, but things happen in waves and you end up having similar experiences over and doer again. For instance, “Time” is just an exercise in perfection. The opening drums, that kick into Gilmour singing and leading us into the netherworld, free of obligation and full of awareness and deeply lush textures are nothing if not mesmerizing. Beyond that, “Time” is a masterpiece. The song, while soaring in instrumental arrangers, juxtaposes that element with a lyrically grounded world of mundane everyday routine. It speaks to feeling stuck in a world where you aren’t sure where the right opportunity is and how to find it. It’s a common theme throughout the bands work, that unsure feeling of not knowing where you belong.
All in all, “Dark Side” contains some of the best guitar playing ever featured in the band's recording, with Gilmours expert work laying into the mix in ways that are both forceful and subtle, both swaying and presenting themselves when the time is appropriate. It reaches heights, and layers of sound that you never hear today, and then it switches effortlessly to an equally dense, but much slower, more gentle vibe. The song that best fits this is “Us and Them.” The saxophone in the background leads the song through a forest so gorgeous it’s hard to imagine. As you reach the top of a hill, the background vocals come creeping in, and you’re presented with a beautiful blue sky and a sun that only wants to warm you. Even with Gilmours brilliant work, the album isn’t carried by him solely. The level at which Mason, Wright and Waters are playing on this record is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
In a slight caveat, you may also know this album by the theory that it syncs perfectly with a viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.” As someone who’s seen it done a few times, it is quite interesting, and some parts are dead on (The clocks ringing when the witch shows up in Kansas to buy Toto), while some aren’t as in tune as you would like. Either way, it’s something fun to try at least once. “Dark Side of the Moon” stands as a monument for nearly everyone who is still discovering music that’s left of center, and there’s an extremely valid reason for it.
It’s not uncommon for musicians and bands to burn out and lose some of their creative edge as the existence of the project extend in time. During this period, the opposite happened. This is when things for the band started to get personally difficult, while also being highly inspirational for their art. After “Dark Side,” they weren’t sure where to go, and generally the band was in a foul mood. Waters had begun to miss his old friend Barret, his co-leader during the early years, and that emotion bled into the record, but it took one chance encounter for the path to become clear. Thus, the seeds of what would eventually become “Wish You Were Here” were planted and began to grow.
While in the studio making this excellent album, Barret showed up unannounced. Things weren’t going well for Syd. Ravaged by drugs, he was a shell of the man and genius he once was, and the result of that meeting, at least in my opinion, gave us the truly mesmerizing song that is the title track. Everyone can relate to the events of losing someone you are so close to you can’t imagine life without them, and once that happens, you try your best to pick up the pieces. On top of that, the push and pull of emotions throughout is tangible.
Much of this album is a tribute to Syd Barret. Not only in the names of the songs(“Wish You Were Here,” “Shine on you Crazy Diamond”) but it’s scope and style also deviates often, letting the catalogue and textures of Floyd grow even deeper. “Have a Cigar” is a tongue in cheek pseudo attack on the record industry they felt misunderstood them. Through the lyrics the listener can envision a smooth talking yet loud businessman guaranteeing success based on “his experience.” It’s a picture of everything wrong in the fight for power between executives and artists who makes them rich, and Floyd lambaste it. The band would continue with another smaller album, at least in terms of number of songs, with the 1977 album “Animals.” By then the band has been filling stadiums with ease, and although the songs were still powerful, the toll of playing to giant, faceless crowds had begun to take effect on Waters.
Around this time period saw the band take their live show to another level, incorporating giant inflatable animals into the nightly performance. My dad actually attended on these shows, and said it was one of the most incredible performances he’d ever seen. He described it as musically perfect, and with a production that was so good that you heard “One second of feedback before the technicians fixed the issue.”
“Animals” isn’t a small unnoticed record, but sandwiched in the middle of the bands most fertile popularity has its own sets of challenges. It’s more rough and adversarial than “Dark Side,” but less personally emotional than “Wish You Were Here,” giving it a different spin on an increasingly groundbreaking style. All of the songs on “Animals” are named after, you guessed it, four legged creatures, but the overarching theme of the record is contempt for the hierarchy of the earth during the 70’s(which has only gotten worse in the decades since), but also for the sheer attitude and repugnance permeating the background.
Now the record is only 40 minutes, but when the theme of your album is loosely based on Orwell’s novel of the same name, it doesn’t have to be that long. That being said, Waters and company fill the gaps brilliantly and perfectly demonstrate the world at large, and also the warning Orwell once again was trying to remind us of. You got the scavenger nature of “Dogs,” the authoritarian nobility of the powerful “Pig,” and of course the blind “Sheep,” eager to please and not make waves. It’s a remarkably blunt record, but the band wasn’t done tearing down barriers. To do that though, the has to build a wall. It resonates so much not just because of the tension, but the thick brooding heavy undertones in the music. “Sheep” especially feels like a rollercoaster, laden with funky basslines and pummeling drums.
By this time in their career, Pink Floyd had become the unanimous kings of psychedelic rock. The whole idea behind this album started with Roger Waters wanting to make something that showcased not only the feelings he had regarding his life, but also his utter contempt for modern concert audiences. Since they have blown up in a gigantic way, he had begun to feel alienated and alone, especially when playing in front of 80,000 people who he felt largely had no idea what was going on when it came to the motivations of the band. The resulting album was dark, angry and full of sadness and frustration.
For Waters, all of those elements that went along with creating art took on a life all its own, and smothered by attention and fame, as well as being misunderstood by his willing audience, he backed himself into a corner. To break free of his demons and of the pressure, “The Wall” had to be built, but even that would take on a life of its own.
Now, this might be a creation of Roger Waters, but that’s not to say that the other members were simply sitting idly by. Nick Mason, Richard Wright, and David Gilmour all bring their best to this fierce record. The guitars are fucking incredible, to say the least. Still today, you’ve never heard a guitarist and rhythm section that good. Gilmour especially excels on this record with incendiary playing. He scorches in a way even most modern drummers can’t.
From the opening, soaring nature of “In the Flesh?” the energy is clear. The roar coming from the sounds of planes crashing, guitars wailing, and, finally, a baby crying put you in the appropriately frail position to understand where the band was at this point. The bombast of the opening, mixed with thick guitar parts and driving drum beats set the stage for the ambitious building of a now classic album.
The album also has a perfect narrative flowing through it that is largely absent from music today. By the third track, the first part of the ambitious and very popular “Another Brick in the Wall” has ascended upon us. This track is a total slow burn and it adds tension in the same way a good film director knows how to. That’s what makes this band so remarkable. These songs, not only just on this album but all of them, have a very cinematic quality to it. This is probably why “The Wall” as a whole works just as well in film form as it did in album form. Repeatedly, the band is able to bridge the gaps between songs with not only similar themes, and lyrics, but also similar guitar parts and time signatures. “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” is an adequate example of this. The song evolves from “Brick in the Wall Part 1” and takes on its own shape, and before the listener knows it, we’re back in the groove for “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2.” its linear in its storytelling, but it's also linear in its orchestration and instrumentation.
The record, while deeply introspective and personal, also has more than a few big hits. “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” is easily one of the most well-known songs in the bands cannon, and you can tell why. There hasn’t been a generation of rock music fans since this was released, who haven’t at least been exposed to this song. “Teacher leave those kids alone” is a staple of rock n’ roll music. There’s no two ways around it. It tells the world we know what we’re doing, and that we refuse to blindly coddle all the rules that were no longer representative of the tone of the world.
“Mother,” followed by “Goodbye Blue Sky” and “Empty Spaces” are the heart and soul of this first half of the record. “Mother” is a pretty but bittersweet letter to the parents whose destroyed us under the pretense of sheltering, while “Blue Sky” is the reality of waking up to realize all those promises weren’t meant to be.
It’s this brilliant use of metaphors that sets this band apart. The gorgeous opening of “Goodbye Blue Sky” gives way to slightly darker vocals and the presence of ever-growing fear and fright. From there, we dive into the ominously, quiet visual presentation of “Empty Spaces.” This album was in some ways inspired by World War 2, and the marching of the feet, and the thumping time beats perfectly reflect that.
“Young Lust” and “One of my Turns” sees a slightly lighter tone, but before we get too comfortable, we’re back with the saddest sections of the album, which just so happens to be the conclusion of the first half of the album. “Don’t Leave me Now.” is very depressing and you get the feeling that the story-teller isn’t really trying to make things better at all. Again, this is the story of a man so crippled by pressure and the outside world that he convinces himself he has to build a wall, even when help is outside trying to reach him. From there, we receive the final “Another Brick in the Wall.” Part three might actually be my favorite, if only because of how in your face it is. “I don’t need those arms around me” is a violent reaction from a man who not only doesn’t want help, but he’s finding bliss in the lack of light in his life. The guitars and drums are nothing if not deliberate, and it gives way to the dark conclusion that is “Goodbye Cruel World.”
“Cruel World” is the admission that the character of Pink is finally letting go of this world. He’s not killing himself, but there are worse things than death. He’s purposely turning his back on the things he once loved because he doesn’t know how to relate to them anymore. It’s a short song, but it gets its message across.
By the end of Part One, the wall is up, and Pink is enveloped in a world of his own making. “Hey You” featuring a dreamy guitar part, isn't just an excellent starter that moves at a gradual pace until the wave of sound envelopes the listener. This is another example of great guitar playing by Gilmour, but there's plenty of that to go around. Waters’ voice here is crying out for someone to bring him relief. Unfortunately though, the character has thrown away everything in his life, and he’s left inside his “Wall” to try to figure out where things went wrong. But that doesn’t happen, at least immediately. When the band toured this record, a giant wall was literally built and torn down every night, and it only added to the theatrical nature of it all.
The first section of the show saw stage crews gradually building in front of the band while the concert was in progress, but by the end of the first act “The Wall” was intact and impregnable. This ties in with the narrative of the album in a brilliant one of a kind way. “Nobody Home,” the third song on the second disc, is perhaps the saddest, yet most poignant song heard in this section of the double album. The visuals used in the show are also amazing. By this time in the live performances of the album, a wall has been constructed in front of the band. Except for the end, this is one of the few times you see a member of the band outside of the wall. A room opens up in the wall, and you get to see Waters sitting destroyed in a hotel room wondering what the fuck caused this kind of destruction in his life. I imagine the state of the band, at this point, also didn’t hurt. Let’s just say they weren’t on good terms with each other. The album, while painful also has beautifully poignant moments. “Vera” is a story of wrecked love, but also of the fondness of remembering a sweet moment in someone's life. The choral arrangement is sheer magic for my ears, and after all these years I’m still left wondering “Vera, what did become of you?”
All those songs are great, but finally we get to the song most associated with the band. For anyone who has ever experimented with substances, you’ve likely had “Comfortably Numb” while under the influence. Again it's sort of a rite of passage for young rock kids to get fucked up listening to Floyd. The song is vastly important, and stands as the full surrender of the character. Pink is finally at the peak of full openness with himself and he doesn't care who is there to watch the end with him. He’s “Comfortably Numb” with how he's let his life spiral out of rationality. This moment is the live show is mesmerizing to say the least. Simply, Gilmour shows up at the top of the wall and sings his parts. Having seen bootleg footage a few times, it's much cooler than it sounds. If you don’t believe me seek it out. You’ll see. The lights coming from behind him are surreal and bright, and it adds an element of awakening to an already powerful song.
As far as the music goes, though, this is a triumph for the band. It might be their best known song, to be honest. The lyrics back and forth between Waters and Gilmour are executed in an exacting manner, and the overall tone of the music is mesmerizing. The album continues on, with similarly great tracks like the appropriately rushed “Run Like Hell” mixing in with operatic accomplishments like “The Trial” breaking down the concept of what can be included in a psych rock record. To say “The Wall” was a success would be a huge understatement. It was massive and changed rock music. But it also spelled the beginning of the end of the band as it was. Frictions had become too much, and it made the next record, “The Final Cut” even more difficult.
This is an interesting album if only because it's not really even a proper Pink Floyd album. All of the songs were written by Waters, and minimal work was given to the rest of the band. It’s essentially a Waters solo album. The three remaining members of the band: Mason, Gilmour and Waters, were all seemingly over it. Tensions were especially high among the two leaders, David Gilmour and Roger Waters. The album does have some good songs though. “The Fletcher Memorial Home” has always been one of my favorite “Pink Floyd” songs, and the guitar playing on it is as good as anything else you hear them play. But you can tell the band had run its course, and people wanted out.
This is where things get tricky. Both sides clearly have their valid arguments, but it kind of just depends on who you favor. I personally think at this point they were all just acting like children. The band broke up, Waters sued for the rights to the name, then Gilmour counter sued, and then Waters lost. After that, Gilmour began playing with the other two original members of the band, Richard Wright and Nick Mason, as Pink Floyd. During this time they made two decent albums, but if you’re a fan of Waters like I am, you always miss that last piece of the puzzle. The best song to come out of these albums in my opinion has to be “Learn to Fly,” off of the album “A Momentary Lapse of Reason.” Released in 1987, it’s a good album, but nowhere near as good as the band was used to. Its lush in arrangements, but, for what it's worth it doesnt ring as true as the material from the band heyday.
The last proper album came in 1994 with “The Division Bell.” Like all the rest, it was a hit, but in my opinion it didn’t really add anything to the legacy of the band, although it didn’t take away anything either. The legacy has been built and stabilized though, and little could knock it over. These five men had managed to not follow any of the traditional rules and had come through as one of the best bands in the history of music.
The effect will never die and the music and brilliance shared by these five initial men will never fade, but as far as Waters seems concerned, he's still providing the world with music as the art of resistance, and he's unwilling to compromise his views. Getting back to that show in July, it was incredible and maybe the best show I’ve ever seen, but the tour itself wasn’t without controversy. He took a hearty amount of flak for his treatment of Trump during the tour, but the only people who cried “Politics don’t belong in art” are the same ones thrilled and excited when other artists criticize the same people they dislike. The cognitive dissoance is real, and Waters is still trying to wake people the fuck up. Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
Wow, what a whirlwind year it’s been. Before we get started, I thank you for reading. Next year is going to be a little different. As some of you know, I’ve been writing more and more articles for other publications, and I’m currently in the process of planning a move West. All that means less time for this space. I appreciate everyone who has stuck around. Next year, my plan as of now is to dedicate more time to bigger articles. That means that while maybe 15 or so blogs will be posted, they will be scattered. But they will also be more in depth. I’m currently deciding what artists to showcase and deep dive, but they will start right after the turn of the decade.
Landon Murray is a New Orleans native, who thrives on painting the world he interprets through the useful forms of all types of art he feels connected to. He's seen over 1000 bands, and had loved mostly every minute of it. He has an amazing 10 year old dog, and is loving life.
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