This week was a bit of yin and yang--think unimpeachable fun vs brooding post-modernism.
68: Michael Jackson -- Off The Wall (1979)
"You know I was...I was wonderin', you know...if you could keep on...because the force--it's got a lot of power. It makes me feel like...you make me feel like..."
Don't Stop Til You Get Enough... How is it that this record holds up so well? Even after all we saw of Michael, up to his tragic end...there's a magic here that is infectious.
As with several of the records thus far, I knew some of the tracks here--but had never listened to the entire album. The (Quincy Jones) production is nothing short of amazing. The first five tracks would be enough to make this a classic album: after DSTYGE, there's Rock With You, Workin' Day And Night (that breathy percussion at the beginning of the track--the horns), Get On The Floor (works well alongside these other monster tracks), and then finally Off The Wall (who else would get away with that weirdness at the beginning of the track--who else could pull off those crazy thick background harmonies)...
And then Girlfriend (written by Paul McCartney) comes in...even from Spotify I could swear I heard a record scratch...followed by a quick, muttered "What the..."
Michael loved the Beatles, having bought the publishing company ATV Music Publishing for $47.5M because it contained the publishing rights for most of their music. You can hear the original version, as recorded by McCartney's band Wings here.
After that one misstep, the album gets back on the classic track with She's Out Of My Life...an amazing vocal performance. While some of the keyboard lines have been used to death in the years since, it's a beautiful track.
On the cusp of his 21st birthday, this was Michael's album to redefine who he was as an adult artist--to differentiate himself from the music he had be doing as a younger man. This is something that Stevie had done several years before...so it makes perfect sense that a wonderful Stevie song I Can't Help It appears next.
This album is an example of a perfectly sequenced record--sequenced, almost, for the purpose of putting it on repeat. High energy perfectly ebbing to the vulnerable She's Out Of My Life, and picking back up to Burn This Disco Out just in time to flip the record and drop the needle again on Don't Stop...
67: Radiohead -- Kid A (2000)
If Off The Wall is contagious in its positivity, it has met its shadow self with Kid A.
I love Radiohead. I fell in love with Creep (even though I never really liked Pablo Honey), and The Bends. OK Computer came out at the perfect time for me, becoming one of the most influential albums of my life.
And then Kid A came out...and like many, I didn't really get it. I liked it. But it wasn't in the same league as their two previous records. And yet, as history is revealing, Kid A is the album that is heralded as their best output. It is also the ONLY album on this list from the 21st century.
I remember the song Everything In Its Right Place from the opening sequence of the movie Vanilla Sky.
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That keyboard sound and all of the studio trickery is still fresh and amazing. I read that, lyrically, this song (and the album) was Thom Yorke's response to their sudden rise to fame, the pressures, the imitators--which resulted in his mental breakdown.
This album definitely takes you to a dark place, and keeps you there. There are some messages of hope, but they're embedded and shrouded.
The title track, Kid A, is beautiful, with amazing beat programming--and, yes, more incomprehensible lyrics.
That driving bass line, and beat of The National Anthem (with all of the DJ techniques and psychedelia). "Everyone is so near, so alone"--OK, words any city dweller can relate to. The production is so dense that you could treasure hunt for years and still find new elements. One favorite is the out-of-tune, distorted da-da-da-da at 1:58. The song then works itself into a free-jazz tizzy...before spinning of the rails.
How To Disappear Completely is another response to fame--inspired by advice given to Thom by Michael Stipe. "I'm not here...this isn't happening." This is the most song-like song on the record, and beautifully orchestrated.
Optimistic sounds anything but..."the big fish eat the little ones...You can try the best you can...the best you can is good enough." Thom is one of the best singers ever--and it's all in this track.
In Limbo takes us into Radiohead's time-signature shenanigans. "You're living in a fantasy world." I know, Thom, I know. The ending of this song is epic...those elastic vocal lines, are so disturbing but perfect.
Idioteque is also perfectly programmed. It's interesting to think of the band in the studio, having to play different instruments, or play theirs differently...and sometimes not play at all. All in the name of progress, and artistic expression--a challenge to the imitators. Try this.
"Who's in bunker...women and children first...ice age coming...we're not scaremongering...this is really happening".
It's interesting to think that this all came out within a year of 9/11. Listening through that lens definitely deepens the stark messages and music here.
Morning Bell...more apocalyptic lyrics..."cut the kids in half"...and, while expertly crafted, the music goes darker still.
And then we come to Motion Picture Soundtrack...perhaps the most beautiful track here...but also, lyrically, rock bottom:
Red wine and sleeping pills Help me get back to your arms Cheap sex and sad films Help me get back where I belong
I think you’re crazy, maybe
I will see you in the next life
Put in your earbuds and listen to this for a week (probably 5 or 6 times through)...and tell me how you feel.
I'm interested when I look at the kind of media I'm drawn to. The television shows and movies--each darker than the last. The shock of one dampening the blow of the next--so that the ante has to be raised. I do sometimes wonder what that is doing to us as a society--or to my own psyche. How far are we going to take this thing before someone comes along and says, "All right. That's enough. We must all watch only musicals for a decade to just...reset."
Or, put another way, we must all listen to Off The Wall. Listen to a perfect gem like this for a week. You feel good, right? You like that?
And yet...Kid A, and its ilk, take us to places we might not otherwise be brave enough to venture to--revealing something of ourselves. Something sad. Beautiful. Anxious.
In the end, I'm glad we have both camps...I just hope I get the balance right.
66: Van Morrison -- Moondance (1970) 65: Phil Spector -- Back To Mono (1991)