Hello, I’m back. It’s been awhile since I wrote my last entry, since then, I have continued listening to lots of music and varied my tastes more. Today, I’m going to continue talking about the music I like. This time we’ll be going with the letter B.
For B, the band I’m going to talk about is Big Star. They’re a formative early 70s power pop band from Memphis. Their style of music wasn’t very popular until the late 70s and early 80s and they troubles with record label Ardent, so they had limited popularity in areas outside of Memphis for decades. However, the right people heard them, and they became big influences to bands who became popular a decade later, like The Replacements (my all-time favorite band, who named one of their songs after Big Star’s lead singer) and R.E.M.
Big Star started off with 4 members. Alex Chilton was the lead singer, main songwriter, and the main force behind the band. In the 60s, he was in a band called The Box Tops, who had a number one hit with “The Letter” while he was 16. After his experiences in this band, he became dissatisfied with the music industry and returned to his home in Memphis. Around this time, he met Chris Bell, who shared lead singing and songwriting with Chilton. Basically, they shared equal power in the band, but many people gave more credit to Chilton, so Bell left after their first album. He recorded a single, amazing solo album, which was left unreleased until the 90s, and died at the age of 27 in 1978. Big Star’s rhythm section was made up of Andy Hummel, who played bass, and Jody Stephens who played drums.
In the four years they were together, Big Star recorded and released three classic, but very different, albums. Their first album, #1 Record, was a masterpiece of power pop. It was a mixing pot of the pop of The Beatles, the power of The Who and the muscle of the strong soul scene of Memphis. The songwriting and production came about as a balancing act between the strong pop sense of Bell and the more alternative leanings of Chilton. It features “Thirteen,” which has found some fame through covers by Elliott Smith and Wilco and used in shows like How I Met Your Mother, Gilmore Girls, and That 70’s Show. Speaking of That 70’s Show, the show’s theme song is “In the Street,” a song from the album, although re-recorded by Cheap Trick.
Their second album was Radio City, another classic. Since Bell left after their debut, Chilton was the sole captain of the ship at this point. This caused the album to have a rougher sound compared to the pristine pop of their first album, but there are still many bright pop moments sprinkled throughout the tracks. “September Gurls” (Fun fact: the spelling of gurls was referenced in Katy Perry’s song “California Gurls,”) is probably Big Stars most well-known song, with good reason. It is simply a perfect song. “I’m in Love With a Girl,” my other favorite song on the album, is an acoustic track that combines a beautiful melody with some straight-forward but relatable lyrics.
After this, Alex Chilton gave into the madness of his own genius, and Big Star’s final album Third/Sister Lovers reflects this. The band was hardly a band at this point, with Chilton and Stephens being the only original members left and everything else being handled by session musicians. The sound of this album is the most drastically different of their three albums, being a mostly acoustic affair with ramshackle performances and lots of nearly unlistenable noise. The only precedent to this sound was The Velvet Underground’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (with “Femme Fatale,” which is covered on this album). However, this sound (or noise, as some people may call it) still connects with Chilton’s great melodic sense. For example, listen to “Kangaroo.” It has a beautiful, haunting melody, which is backed by an acoustic guitar, strains of guitar feedback, some orchestral flourishes and all-over-the-place drumming. These all combine to make something that is both antagonistic and inviting. There are still some power pop songs on this album though, like the great “Thank You Friends.” The only problem with this album is a pretty major one: there is not a solid tracklisting. It was released in 1978, four years after the band broke up, due to being shelved for it’s uncommercial sound. Because of this, Chilton had lost all interest with the album, so he left tracklisting up to the label. In the 3 times it has been released and reissued, it has had 3 different track listings, leaving it up to the listener to choose their favorite or make their own. The CD version has been taken off of Spotify, for reasons I’m not aware of, but the album is in its entirety on the Keep an Eye on the Sky compilation, which features all of Big Star’s albums.
Since Big Star formed and broke up decades before I was born, I was not able to ever see them live. However, my dad personally knows Jody Stephens because he tried to get my dad’s band, Outhouse, to sign to the Ardent label. He said he may try and call Stephens and have us go down to Memphis and see the studio Big Star recorded in, which would be tight. I largely discovered Big Star through their placement in Rolling Stone magazine’s greatest albums and greatest songs lists, and their praises from The Replacements and other alternative bands. And I’m glad I did. If you are a fan of British Invasion pop like The Beatles, a fan of poppy classic rock bands like Cheap Trick, a fan of early alternative bands like R.E.M., a fan of acoustic pop like Belle & Sebastian, you should definitely check out Big Star. There is a documentary about them on Netflix called Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, so if you are interested in the band, their story, or their music, you should watch that as well.
Now I’m going to talk about a couple of rad albums I really like that start with the letter B:
- Back Stabbers – The O’Jays: This right here is some real soul. The O’Jays are a vocal group from Philadelphia, and were big names in the Philly soul sound. This album is the reason why. It’s got some rock-hard funk grooves (“When the World’s at Peace,” “Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind of People”) and some really beautiful harmonies and laid back grooves (“(They Call Me) Mr. Lucky,” “Sunshine”). When these two aspects come together, some of The O’Jays’ biggest hits come out (the title track, “Love Train”). There really aren’t any bad songs on this album, and that’s largely because of the lush production and the strong vocals. Check this one out if you’re a fan of all sorts of different R&B, whether it’s the more vocal stuff or the more groovy stuff.
- Bitches Brew – Miles Davis: Disclaimer – this album is not for the faint of heart. This is some serious sh*t. It’s a lot to get through: two tracks over 20 minutes long, four over 10, adding up to an album that’s nearly two hours long. But if you can do it, listening to this album is unlike anything else. The sound is conceived by Miles Davis, the singular most influential jazz musician of all time. Around this time he was getting into more electric music, like the works of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, and wanted to make the best album of its kind. Which at the time was not hard: there has been nothing like Bitches Brew before or after it’s creation. It has some serious grooves, provided by two drummers, and out-of-this-world improvisation and experimentation. Multiple performances of multiple musical ideas are spliced together to make each track, and somehow it all holds together. Miles uses effects like echo and endless reverb to make his trumpet sound like it’s an S.O.S. signal from outer space. If you like jazz-fusion and other out-there jazz sounds, you should check this album out.
- Black Messiah – D’Angelo and the Vanguard: This was my most anticipated release from 2014/2015. I remember when I got the notification on my phone: D’Angelo — who hadn’t released an album since 2000 and had announced it only a week earlier — had finally released his new album. I was still new to D’Angelo’s work at the time. I had checked out his acclaimed Voodoo album and his only other album before that Brown Sugar, but I was still psyched when Black Messiah finally came out. It expands upon the sound of his prior two albums, and gives it a stronger message. This album, much like To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar (another amazing album) is in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the killings of black people by police across America. These lyrical reflections are not always noticeable, but what is noticeable is it’s celebration of pride in being black. There are some serious grooves going on on here, deepest in “1000 Deaths,” “Sugah Daddy,” and “Betray My Heart.” There are also moments of melodic brilliance all over the place, like “The Charade” and “Really Love.” My personal favorite song is the closing track “Another Life,” it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Throughout the album there is just some stellar production and grooves, but also like To Pimp a Butterfly, there are some difficult moments, but it just further adds to the flow, the message, and the satisfaction of the album as a whole. If you dig TPAB and other R&B, this should be on your To-Listen-To list.
- Bloom – Beach House: Beach House are quickly becoming one of my favorite bands. The Baltimore natives have a distinct sound that expands and grows with each album. This album is my personal favorite of theirs’. It continues the dreamy, laid-back textures of their prior albums, while making it bigger and more encompassing. While their prior album Teen Dream (another fantastic album) has their strongest writing in terms of individual songs, Bloom stretches out the fantastic writing to make the album one, flowing piece. Not to say there aren’t some stand-out tracks (“Myth” and “Lazuli” instantly come to mind), but when it works so well all together, why would you really want to listen to any of the parts individually? If you want something to listen to that’s the ultimate chill, or something that’s really good background music, this album is perfect.
- Breaking Atoms – Main Source: An album like this will never be made again. Main Source are a golden age hip-hop group who made some dope beats that, because of sampling laws that made uncleared samples illegal, can’t be made in this day and age. Every song employs countless samples, adding together to make a dense, layered sound along the same lines as The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High & Rising. There are some tight rhymes going on too, like on “Looking at the Back Door” and “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball”, but today they sound just a little bit dated. The sound of this album was very influential to future of rap, as well as my own production. The album also has the first recorded verse from Nas on “Live at the Barbeque.” This is something to listen to if you’re into old school stuff like A Tribe Called Quest or The Notorious B.I.G.
Closing things up, I’m gonna talk about a couple of “B” tracks.
- “Baby Blue” – Badfinger: Many may know this as the song used in the last scene of the Breaking Bad finale, but this is a very beautiful song on its own. While pretty, it still has a rockin’ feel to it.
- “Be My Baby” – The Ronettes: This is one of the best and most influential pop songs of all time. The sound, crafted by famed producer/murderer Phil Spector, has been copied endlessly by the likes of The Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen. Amazing melody, too.
- “Beast of Burden” – The Rolling Stones: A pleading ballad about Mick Jagger’s favorite subject: sex. Aside from one of the Stones’ finest melodies, the song is a showcase for the intertwining guitars of Keith Richards and then still pretty new member, Ron Wood.
- “Best I Ever Had” – Drake: Drake’s first big hit. Back in 2009 this got to number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, which he’s only been able to match with “Hotline Bling.” A great song with rad beat and many Drake-ish lines.
- “Between the Sheets” – The Isley Brothers/”Big Poppa” – The Notorious B.I.G.: The Isleys’ best getting-it-on jam (add this to your slay vibes playlist), which was then sampled in Biggie’s hit. It’s instantly recognizable from the beginning of each track.
- “Birth in Reverse” – St. Vincent: This song has some serious momentum, and a great melody to boot. Also features some of Annie Clark’s great guitar playing, and a catchy melody. One of her more accessible songs.
- “Bizarre Love Triangle” – New Order: A track whose influence is felt to this day. Think of all the songs you hear on the radio that mix a club beat, synths and other electronic production, heartfelt lyrics and a great melody. It all started here.
- “Blank Generation” – Richard Hell & The Voidoids: Richard Hell made one of the first punk anthems with lyrics describing isolation in numbers. Features some out-there guitar from the fine Richard Quine.
- “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” – Willie Nelson: Nelson’s best ballad, it feels like it’s just you, Willie’s guitar named Trigger, and his words. Simply put, it’s a beautiful song.
- “Brass Buttons” – Gram Parsons: One of the best songs from Parson’s all too short career. Another beautiful country ballad, although it’s sound is more fleshed out than Nelson’s spare arrangement.
There you have it, another entry in my music encyclopedia. Like my first one, there is a playlist with the songs listed above, as well as selections from the albums and Big Star. Click here for that. I hope you enjoyed reading! Hopefully I’ll have my next entry up sooner than this one. But hey, better late than never, am I right?
And R.I.P. David Bowie