Van Halen, s/t: Like so many, the global pandemic has left me with enormous pools and pockets of unaddressed rage and sadness. Rather than post hateful memes or celebrate America’s racist achievements, I have been finding aggressive music to be a pretty vital antidote. Thus, Van Halen’s freshman entry into the hard rock canon. What strikes me at this time is how much Dave carried the band — his wry persona and volcanic charisma really leave the listener with no choice but to laugh or get steamrolled. Also, Alex Van Halen: never gave him much thought other than that he was the scary guy in the band, with those reptilian sunglasses and Freeway Killer aura. Now I’m thinking that the ride cymbal is really his signature — he does a lot of solid work over there, in a place where showier drummers might not waste screen time. And his snare drum is pretty fucking iconic — that hollow, airplane hangar thwap that still retains some mysterious bottom end. Finally, Michael Anthony. Totally under-appreciated. The bass on this record is so dry it sounds like it was just put directly into the board. There are moments where it punches through the mix in a really nasty way, like a garage band, and it delivers the savagery of a Pasadena basement band pummeling their way to momentary freedom.
Nine Inch Nails, With Teeth: I’ve seen hardcore fans trash talk this record as being soft or not experimental enough, but that fails to take the record on its own terms. For my money, this is Trent and his associates delivering a really high quality hard rock album, a little more focused on songwriting than on deep noise tangents. This is an album in the classic sense: beginning, middle, end — an emotional journey with a series of crescendos and denouements. Two songs that were never singles rank among NIN’s finest: “You Know What You Are?” and “Right Where It Belongs.” These are representative of the width of this album’s vision: the first just feral and ecstatically hateful, the second distant and morally wary. Trent, despite his earlier heyday in 90s despair, is a pretty formidable thinker and wan reflector of social and civilizational decay. There is a deep moral compass that often gets overlooked in the broader commercial assessment of his catalog.
Powderfinger, Odyssey Number Five: Look, I love a big rock and roll record — a Superunknown, a Vitalogy, a Powerage — and I’d put this album in that category. It’s also got a beautiful psychedelic through-line that hearkens to The Posies Frosting on the Beater and the like. This is the kind of album where you welcome the lush production, the massive compressions and thoughtful reverbs sprinkled throughout. But mainly, it’s a showcase for Bernard Fanning’s beautiful voice and often surprising lyrics. Surprising for being smarter than you would expect on a big record like this, but also totally basic in the way that radio lyrics can be in a good way. The other thing is the drums. The drums! These are meat and potato, I’m-gonna-give-you-every-inch-of-my-love drums. Not afraid of the big power fills and wet cymbals. I love it and you will too.
Comsat Angels, Sleep No More (YouTube): Lest we forget that everyone is needlessly dying and the industrial giants are profiting from the charnel house of the poor and disenfranchised, Sheffield’s finest, Comsat Angels, bring the urban estrangement and bleak English skies. This album is on a par with Unknown Pleasures as a wholly consummated vision of despair and civic failure. This is a mood as much as it is an album — kind of one long meditation on existing outside of myriad failed systems, looking in glumly from the dole line or beside a poisoned river. It sounds like they ran a final master through another hall reverb, but in the best possible way, evoking a vast wasteland pinned down by leaden skies. In the early days of the pandemic I would walk beside the cemetery in Kensington and find my mortal equanimity with this album. A life saver!
Bob Marley and The Wailers, Exodus: The title track alone makes this record immortal. Its a faster song than you realize at first, with the rhythm section really laying down the urgency of the exodus, of displacement and return, a truly righteous track of a dispossessed people trekking with unity and purpose. There’s something deeply confident about putting all the politically committed tracks on Side A and holding the hits for Side B. “The Heathen” is another standout track for me — a harsh and pithy rumination on survival. The breadth of Marley’s vision really comes together on this record with every member playing at the top of their game. If Sleep No More is about undead perseverance, Exodus is about armed hope and the triumph of revolutionary love.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Chasing Yesterday: This album unexpectedly became my MVLP of the summer. Like most good records it wasn’t until the fifth or sixth spin that I began to respond to the music, at which point it became my reflexive choice for soundtrack to walking through the COVID ruins of NYC. The playing is above and beyond, particularly the drum and bass arrangements, which always serve the overall jam with restraint but tons of nuance and english (by which I mean, attitude or spin on the ball). You know a record is good when it holds it’s most obvious single (“You Know We Can’t Go Back”) until second to last, after the listener has done the heavy lifting of wading through the deep pyschedelic bog of the album’s main body. To me this feels like the band that Noel Gallagher has always dreamed of being in, probably closer to “Standing On The Shoulders of Giants” in spirit and musicality, more about a band playing as one than a hit-machine churning out pub bangers