Classic Albums: Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

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I purposedly avoided writing about this album before, mostly because I adore it so much and I feel like I can’t really put my love for this record into text. Last week marked the 12th anniversary of its release, and to celebrate it I tried to collect my thoughts. This will probably be my least objective review, but this album truly deserves all the praise I’m gonna give it (and more!)

First let’s talk about the music, because even without the lyrical context it’s a perfect example of how a garage/punk/indie band should sound – energetic, melodic and raw, it’s the sound of four talented young men (they were literally teenagers when the album was recorded) playing brilliantly written songs with all the passion and energy in the world. The songwriting is surprisingly mature and creative – most of the songs don’t really fit the classic verse/chorus scheme, constantly switching moods and tempo.

That’s already a blueprint for a pretty solid album, but the key element that transform it into an era-defining masterpiece are the lyrics. The album is pretty much a concept, with all the songs following a loose theme of nightlife and relationships. Alex Turner’s sarcastic wit and creative use of words make for lots of unforgettable lines and metaphores that are understood by pretty much every young person in the world. Even though some references became outdated after 12 years (the press the star after you press unlock line in the opening track for example) the album is as relatable now as it was right after its release.

There’s no escape from Turner’s vicious sarcasm: bands struggling to be “cool” (Fake Tales of San Francisco), fake friends (Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong, But…) or even asshole taxi drivers (Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured) – everyone gets slammed equally, but with a sense of self-awareness and a large dose of poetic romanticism (the prime example is the stunning closer A Certain Romance). Even when Alex is singing about love, he does it in an unconventional way, avoiding the cliches (Mardy Bum or their first huge hit, I Bet You Look Good on The Dancefloor). The delivery of those lyrics is also quite unique – sometimes the vocals are strangely muffled (Riot Van), sometimes it’s borderline rapping (From The Ritz to the Rubble – possibly the best song on the album). Either way, it’s delivered with a that trademark Yorkshire accent – it made such an impression on me that I tried to speak like that myself – much to the surprise of my English teacher. Anyway, the impact this album made on me as a teenager is beyond comparison. I have never (ever) heard a record so compelling, so simple yet so clever, the amount of personality and talent in these 40 minutes of music is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. Highly recommended, although my opinion is as biased as it possibly can be.

 

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Classic Albums: The Strokes – Is This It

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What’s the coolest album you’ve ever heard? The one record that just oozes with awesomeness, that makes you wish you were the lead singer, that manages to sound like the best thing ever, seemingly without even trying. Well, if you’re familiar with this record the answer is pretty easy. The Strokes had their ups and downs, but their debut remains THE most important record of 21st century rock n’ roll.

When you think about it, Is This It is a pretty simple record. The production is minimal (sometimes it sounds like there’s no production at all), the rhythm section plays some really basic stuff, the lead singer’s voice is strangely muffled and he seems like he doesn’t really care, it all has a truly underground raw, feel. That simplicity that’s pretty common now was like a breath of fresh air in 2001. After britpop died circa 1997, rock n’ roll was crying for another huge movement, and Is This It started it all – Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines, even Vampire Weekend – the roots of all these bands can be traced back to this album.

So that’s the cultural context. But what about the music? What makes it stand out, why is it so special? The songwriting is pretty good, but is it that essential? Sure, Barely Legal is unforgettable right after the first listen, and that sweet, sweet chorus of Hard To Explain makes you feel soooo good, but the impact this album had came from something different: the sound and the attitude. First of all, I would like to make a bold claim: Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr are one of the best guitar duos in music history, matched only by members of The Rolling Stones and Sonic Youth (although that’s a totally different kind of noise). The way they compliment each other on every single song (case in point: Alone, Together) is the stuff of dreams. Their style is not too flashy, but it gets the job done just right. Here’s another bold claim: the best guitar solo ever played is the one from Last Nite: short, yet memorable, fitting and so damn effective.

That’s about the music, now let’s talk about the attitude. Like I said at the start, if you could express adjectives via sounds, this album is the definition of “cool”. Charisma is worth much more than a crystal clear voice with an opera-like range, and Julian Casablancas has more then enough of it. Although it may throw some people off, it’s far from false arrogance or being a pretensious dick – it genuine and compliments the music brilliantly.

Does this album has weak point? Well, the title track kinda drags down, but it’s pretty catchy nonetheless, and that drum snare at the beginning is an iconic moment in its own right. But that song is the first one, so it only gets better after that: the dynamic riff of The Modern Age, the dreamy vibe of Someday, the stomping beat of New York City cops – it’s all here, it’s garage rock 101.

The ironic title is also a perfect fit: this IS it, the album that shaped the beginning of the century and it continues to influence bands to this day. And also, the coolest shit you’ll ever hear.

 

Classic Albums: Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand

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We often talk about genre-defining albums, or even singles, but was there ever a case of a genre-defining moment? I’m talking about one particular second, a sudden change of style or tempo that has shaped music for the following years. With this album, you can pinpoint that moment accurately: the 1:04 mark in Take Me Out, when seemingly typical, post-Strokes indie song suddenly bursts with funky flame, introducing a riff catchier than flu and a simple, yet memorable chorus. From now on, every band labeled “dance punk” was compared to these Glaswegians (and usually failed to reach that level).

But this record isn’t just about Take Me Out, make no mistake. It’s a collection of 11 extremely well written songs, full of youthful energy and bursting with ideas. Some tracks put more emphasis on the “dance” element (Tell Her Tonight, Matinee), others are clearly more punky (Cheating on You, This Fire) and some are quite surprising, like the closing 40′, a rhythmic, dreamy wonder (Franz have a knack for closers like that, see Outsiders from their sophomore effort for further evidence) or the melancholic Auf Achse.

What makes this album so good is also the sound: the guitars are crystal clear and perfectly balanced, the bass, while sometimes hidden in the mix, is absolutely essential and provides some very tasty licks. The tracklist is great, maybe the only weak point is Cheating on You, where the lack of melody is somewhat masked by the ferocious tempo, but that really is the only flaw you can find here.

FF are one of the most consistent bands in the indie scene, basically every one of their four albums has been great, but the debut sticks out as the one that’s the most groundbreaking, mostly because of THAT 1:04. It will be interesting to see how they will be after the lineup change (Nick McCarthy was so essential he had to be replaced by two people), but we have to wait until February to find out.

 

Classic Albums: The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses

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This record manages to do the impossible: it fuses groovy music heavily inspired by 80s club scene with guitar work that would make Hendrix himself jealous. It manages to be a catchy pop album while at the same time combining it with great, multi-layered instrumentation.

Yeah, the key to this album greatness is without a doubt the incredible skills of all the people involved. John Squire’s style of playing the guitar matches the style of his painting (he created the iconic artwork) – it’s psychedelic, flashy and colorful. At times he can create delicate, jangly soundscapes and then right after he hits us with a mindblowing solo deeply rooted in 60s hard rock and psychedelia (Made of Stone being the best example).

The rhythm section in on another level too. Mani is an extremely crafty bassist who can sense really well how to blend in and cooperate with the drummer. And the drummer is absolutely batshit crazy. Reni has the sense of rhythm very few can match, and he just effortlessly manages to pull off the craziest sequences. He makes it sound easy too, and you can genuinely hear that he’s having fun.

Ian Brown as a vocalist may not be the finest, but his dreamy and hazy voice compliments the music perfectly, and his songwriting skills provide for some great melodies. She Bangs the Drums or Bye Bye Badman sound like lost songs from The Beatles’ heyday, sweet and innocent at first listen, but showing much more nuances later. I Wanna Be Adored and Waterfall have a sense of mystery to them, very spacious and creative.

It’s perfect from the beginning to finish, even the miniature Elizabeth My Dear fits really well. But they saved the true masterpiece for the end – I Am the Resurrection is not only one of the catchiest songs on the album, but around the four minute mark it transforms into a hypnotic instrumental, with guitar and drums dominating the sound (the bass quietly keeps it all together). It puts you into a sort of trance, a wonderful, unique experience.

Apart from being a great album on its own, the Roses’ debut also set the foundations for all the British rock of the 90s, with bands like Oasis crediting them as a major influence. This record is one of the finest pieces of music to ever come out of the UK, excellent from start to finish.

Classic Albums: Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

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This is the album that quite possibly defined most alternative bands in the 90s and later. From Nirvana to King Gizz, has been, consciously or not, ripping off this marvellous doble album. Seventy minutes of noisy, chaotic and energetic rock n’ roll that is simply the finest (without any question) piece of music released in that awful era that was the 1980s.

Teenage Riot, the opening track starts off quite dreamy, with Kim Gordon mumbling something in the backgroud for over a minute, and then a riff kicks in. THAT RIFF. No one managed to sound so cool ever since. Moore and Ranaldo compliment each other perfectly, with the latter’s more melodic style sort of neutralising Thurston’s fierce agression.

What’s even more impressive are the melodies – memorable and catchy, but without damaging the rebellious nature of the songs. Silver Rocket or Total Trash are just so well written that even the middle parts of these songs, dissonant and instrumental, can’t destroy the accessibilty.

The album is over an hour long, but it doesn’t really feel that long – well written tunes, great skills, three vocalists with radically different singing styles – not a single song feels boring or forced – even Providence seems like it’s supposed to be there. While Sonic Youth’s career has many highlights, this is the go-to album if you want to start listening to them. An impressive record, true masterpiece, whose impact can still be felt in modern music.

Classic Albums: My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

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“Don’t judge a book by its cover” they say. Well, in case of this legendary Irish band’s sophomore release, the cover really tells you everything you need to know about this record. The image of a blurry guitar drenched in sweet neon pink has become iconic over the years and it perfectly captures the essence of the album: it’s noisy, distorted but also incredibly melodic and warm.

It kicks off with a bang: Only Shallow starts with a quick drum beat followed by a MASSIVE riff accompanied by another guitar making a noise that sounds like something between a vacuum cleaner and an elephant. This part acts like a chorus on this song, while the verses are much more delicate, with Bilinda Butcher’s distant, ethereal vocals.

I could go on and describe all the songs here, but it’s hard to really capture what this is about – it’s an album you have to experience on your own. Multiple layers of guitars, incredibly complex production, dreamy, hazy vocals by both Butcher and Kevin Shields, the main man behind this masterpiece – it all adds to how dense and atmospheric this album is.

From the beginning to the closing track Soon (which echoes a bit of Stone Roses in the rhythm) it’s a wonderful, spiritual experience of an album. It only takes one listen to completely fall in love.