Modern Classic Albums Part 7: 40-31
Opeth – Blackwater Park
Genre: Progressive Metal, Death Metal
Description: Breaking into the top 40 is possibly the heaviest metal album on this list. Sweden’s Opeth (Is it just me or does every death metal band come from Scandinavia?), could lay a serious claim to the greatest progressive death metal band of all time. They produced some of the most outstanding albums of the genre through the nineties and thousands. 2001’s Blackwater Park is their crowning glory though. Incredibly complex, varying and crushingly heavy, the album takes cues from the great early death metal bands like ‘Death’ but also incorporates many more progressive aspects. The use of clean vocals and acoustic elements juxtaposed against the throaty growls and stunning electric guitar riffing is something to behold. It is the band’s acute sense of song structure and the willingness to experiment that sets them apart from other bands of the genre.
Key Track: With all 8 tracks, apart from the short linking track (“Patterns In the Ivy”), coming in at over six minutes and many at over 10 minutes in length, it is a difficult task to pick the standout track as all the songs have so much variation. As a whole though, “Drapery Falls” and particularly the sprawling title track, “Blackwater Park”, are the two most outstanding songs. “Blackwater Park” is an absolute masterpiece of progressive metal, showcasing all the aspects that make Opeth such a great band.
Pearl Jam - Ten
Genre: Grunge, Alternative Rock, Hard Rock
Description: “Nevermind” may have been the album that threw grunge into the faces of millions but it was Pearl Jam’s “Ten” that ensured that it would stay there. More polished than Nirvana’s rough and ready approach and less metal than bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, the Seattle rockers instead let influences from classic rock acts like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix shine through. Eddie Vedder announced himself on “Ten” as one of the foremost frontmen in rock and one of its most underrated lyricists, spanning themes as wide-ranging as gun violence, abortion and childhood trauma. The album’s main detraction is the dearth of outstanding songs in the second half; however this is more than made up for by the first half, which is primarily made up of some of grunge’s most classic songs (i.e. “Alive”, “Even Flow”, “Black” and “Jeremy”). The fact that Pearl Jam headlined Big Day Out in 2014 shows the timelessness of their music and its continued appeal to so many people.
Key Track: “Alive”, “Even Flow” and “Black” are amongst some of the finest songs Pearl Jam have to offer, but it is the darkly themed but hugely memorable “Jeremy” that is Pearl Jam’s greatest singular achievement. The song, which tells the story of a boy who shoots himself in front of his classmates, was accompanied by an equally haunting video clip and is a large reason why Pearl Jam are the massively successful band they are today.
The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Genre: Alternative Rock, Grunge, Hard Rock, Dream Pop
Description: Ahh Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness; one of the nineties truly great double albums! When people mention double albums, this is the first album that pops into my head. Billy Corgan never really did things by halves. Unsatisfied with the alterative rock masterpiece that was 1993’s “Siamese Dream”, he and the band produced a super ambitious 28-song double album which exuded grandeur and more than a tinge of alternative-pompousness. The dream pop of songs like “Tonight, Tonight” and the glorious “1979” is pitted against the über-angsty grunge of songs like “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and “Zero”. As great as the opus is, it does still fall into the double-record trap of having a few too many forgettable filler songs. However, when the ‘Pumpkins’ hit the right notes on Mellon Collie they sound every bit like the most essential alternative rock band of the 1990s.
Key Track: Alright I’m going to cheat here and go for a tie between two songs but only because there’s so many damn songs to choose from! “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and “1979” display the two sides of The Smashing Pumpkins of the Mellon Collie era; the no holds barred, snarly, in your face, anti-establishment anthems, versus the tender, soothing and celestial dream pop. It’s the contradicting styles that made Mellon Collie such an engaging listen.
Modest Mouse – The Moon and Antarctica
Genre: Indie Rock
Description: On their first major label release, Modest Mouse took the unusual step of making an album that was more subdued and introspective than most of their previous material. It was a bold move but one that paid off; “The Moon and Antarctica” is now probably considered their finest work (along with 1997’s “The Lonesome Crowded West”). The indie rockers delve deeply into the themes of life and death, with a set of songs that are highly thought-provoking and emotionally charged. The album is a triumph lyrically; frontman Isaac Brock makes the songs engaging by constructing quirky but entirely enthralling lyrics. Needless to say, the instrumentation matches his musings on life perfectly. The entire record is a lesson in how to construct a great concept album and a great album to boot.
Key Track: “Dark Centre of the Universe” is classic Modest Mouse: biting lyrics and memorable indie instrumentation. The chorus is purely sensational (“Well, it took a lot of work to be the ass that I am / And I'm real damn sure that anyone can, equally, easily fuck you over”).
The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin
Genre: Neo-Psychedelia, Psychedelic Pop
Description: Is there a stranger or more experimental pop band than The Flaming Lips in the world today? Who could forget the absurd/genius experimental album “Zaireeka”? An album you listen to by playing four different discs at the same time? Come on man! Ain’t nobody got time for dat! Thankfully then, Wayne Coyne and Co. followed up that oddity with “The Soft Bulletin”, undoubtedly their most lush and melodic record to date. However, it is far from a straight-forward listen, the sighing, shimmering instrumentation is interjected with strange but often entrancing experimental nuances. Lyrically, Coyne has never been better; creating phrases and lines that are memorable and characteristically quirky. The overall experience of the album is one of ethereal but eerie beauty; just the way The Flaming Lips like it.
Key Track: The track that grabs me entirely when listening to “The Soft Bulletin” is “The Gash”. It begins with a vague reminiscence to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” before spiralling into a soaring sing-a-long that is more stage musical-like than Plant and Page-like.
Fugazi - Repeater
Description: The punk and hardcore landscape would be a very different place today without the input of this iconic post-hardcore outfit. Formed by members of some of the most important hardcore bands of the 80s, including Minor Threat, Rites of Spring and Embrace, the band would go on to release 6 studio albums up until their on-going hiatus in the early 2000s. Almost all of the records are seen as classics in their own right, but their debut full-length, “Repeater”, is arguably the greatest of the lot. It is certainly the most influential. Just three months into the decade the band had laid down the blueprint for hardcore in the 1990s. The album is raucous but also varied and intelligently constructed. It is a clear link between the underground hardcore of the eighties and the direction that bands such as Refused, At the Drive-In, Unwound and mewithoutYou would take post-hardcore in the coming decades. Ian MacKaye’s distinctive vocals, biting lyrics and underrated guitar skills are backed up perfectly by the powerhouse rhythm section of Joe Lally and Brendan Canty and the iconic lead guitar of Guy Picciotto.
Key Track: If you’re looking for a single song example as to why Fugazi were such a groundbreaking hardcore outfit, then look no further than the title track off Repeater. The dissonant and experimental “Repeater” is almost a perfect snapshot of Fugazi’s style. The track’s screechy guitars and incendiary vocals collapse into a pounding staccato section that closes out the song in a truly fist-thrusting manner.
Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise
Genre: Chamber Pop, Indie Pop, Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
Description: Perhaps only the number 38 on this list could hold a candle to the ambition of this incredibly indulgent piece of song-writing and composition from genius folkster Sufjan Stevens. For an entire band of songwriters this album would have been a massive undertaking but for a single man to dream this big was bordering on creative suicide. The record’s 22-tracks span from straight-forward folk to spectacular orchestrally and chorally backed chamber pop. What makes “Illinoise” truly special is the way in which Stevens was able to execute the project. Not a single song feels out of place. Hell - not a single note for that matter! Of all his records, “Illinoise” is easily the most staggering. It is a honestly ageless piece of work. Let its colour and beauty consume you!
Key Track: “Illinois” is filled with incredible pieces of music but possibly its two most perfect songs sit back-to-back in the middle of the album. The joyous chamber pop of “Chicago” is followed up by the absolutely gorgeous “Casimir Pulaski Day”. Check out both tracks if you haven’t heard them, they’re a big reason why “Illinois” is so stunning.
At The Drive-In – Relationship of Command
Description: Refused’s 1998 post-hardcore classic “The Shape of Punk to Come” should have signalled the rise of a new flag-bearer band that all other punk bands could follow. Instead the band disbanded soon after the release of the album. So you can imagine the hype when “At The Drive-In” released “Relationship of Command” in 2000. A second truly great post-hardcore album within two years of the previous one? The album is a ferocious assault on the eardrums. The instrumentation is razor sharp, unpredictable and deceptively complex, especially for hardcore music. The vocals are passionate beyond belief; ricocheting around like popcorn in a microwave. The band had managed to produce an album that had the ability to lead the hardcore movement towards greater, more creative heights. And then, like Refused before them, the band disbanded. Granted, we were given The Mars Volta in their place, but even in all their experimental glory, they never did produce anything as undeniably brilliant as “Relationship of Command”. Maybe “At the Drive-In” just thought it would be too difficult to follow it up with another album. Can’t blame them really…
Key Track: “One Armed Scissor” may have been the song that caused “At The Drive-In” to explode into the mainstream but “Invalid Litter Dept.” is about as experimental and captivating as hardcore got in the 2000s. Everything from the piano intro, to that jolted guitar riff and then the thunderous climax is pure genius.
Madvillain - Madvillainy
Genre: Abstract Hip Hop, Experimental Hip Hop
Description: In 2004, mysterious, masked MC “MF Doom” and genius producer “Madlib” teamed up to collaborate on an album. As of the moment, it is the only collaboration between the pair. What is truly remarkable is that they managed to produce possibly the greatest abstract hip hop album of all time. The project, known as Madvillain, is characterized by experimental and edgy production and beats and Doom’s distinctive flow and lyrical abilities. The album is funny, weird and highly varied but all in ways that make it an exciting and extremely enjoyable listen. Coming up to the 10 year anniversary of its release, the record still sounds cutting edge, even against today’s music. A multitude of contemporary artists have taken ingredients and inspiration from the album and it is without a doubt a landmark within the abstract and experimental hip hop genres and within hip hop in general.
Key Track: “Accordion”; the first proper song after the introduction track, deserves special mention for using one of sickest samples in any hip hop track ever, but to me, the catchiness of “Strange Ways” paired with Doom’s sensational anti-establishment lyrics makes it an absolutely outstanding hip-hop track.
Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights
Genre: Post-Punk, Indie Rock
Description: Rarely, if ever, has a band been so irrepressibly compared to one of their influences. Interpol’s “Turn on the Bright Lights” is constantly referred to as a Joy Division rip-off, which on some levels is understandable, however it is also tragic that so many people write off the band by calling copyright foul. Yes, Paul Banks sounds eerily similar to Ian Curtis and the band obviously adheres to the dark, post-punk aesthetic that Joy Division pioneered so well, but the boys from New York have so much more to offer to the listener on “Turn on the Bright Lights”. For one, the instrumentation and production is absolutely sublime. The band perfectly captures the loneliness and despair that can come from living in big cities. Bank’s lyrics may be laughably bad at times (“Her stories are boring and stuff” on “Obstacle 1”) but they are weirdly endearing and often contrast with the melancholic instrumentation. The record is also impeccably cohesive, with all the songs fitting together like jigsaw pieces. The bigger picture they form is an unashamedly gloomy record but one that is memorable and entrancing in an almost unexplainable way. It’s a shame this album is basically a one-hit wonder for the group.
Key Track: Despite its often mocked lyrics, “Obstacle 1” still manages to be the most immediate and enjoyable track to listen to on the whole record. The guitars are particularly spellbinding.