Several years ago a co-worker of mine was looking to clear some space in one of his closets when he came across a crate of records someone had forced upon him. The titles this friend of his had insisted he listen to had not appealed to this co-worker of mine in the least, so he put them in storage and basically forgot about them. When he came across this crate years later, he offered them to me, knowing that I am a big music fan. I was expecting a lot of crappy titles that I couldn't even sell at the local record shop, but was absolutely delighted to find that it was a small collection of punk and new wave in reasonable condition. Fear's The Record, Germs' GI, Minutemen's Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat, a few Lene Lovich 12" singles, and a number of other great stuff was suddenly mine!
Among these titles was a record by a band called The Residents with some very odd artwork and the enigmatic title Not Available. My knowledge of this band included the fact that they were covered by Primus on their Miscellaneous Debris E.P., and . . . well, that's about it. I put the LP in a protective sleeve, filed it on my shelf, and basically forgot about it for several years. Until this morning.
While doing some cleaning around the house, I decided to work on a project that I chip away at from time to time: taking my vinyl and ripping it to CD so I can file it in my iTunes where I can listen to the songs whenever I want without damaging the records. Today's choices included Madness' debut One Step Beyond . . ., and that strange looking album by that band that I didn't know much about. While One Step (which is a phenomenal ska record, by the way) was recording, I took to the internet to find out more about Not Available, and The Residents in general. It turns out that I have been missing out on a beautiful and challenging record with a great story around it.
The Residents are an art rock outfit from (possibly) Louisiana that have had a staggeringly prolific career since the mid-1970's. They firmly believe that the best art is created when the audience doesn't focus on things like the artists' appearance, race, gender, or basically anything that isn't the art itself. For this reason, The Residents have kept their identities absolutely confidential, performing on stage in eyeball masks and only communicating to the media through spokespeople (who may or may not actually be members of the band, though they deny it).
In keeping with this Theory Of Obscurity (as they refer to it), the band followed this line of thought to its logical end for what was their 2nd recorded album: what better way to create art that is free of the constraints of commercialism than by recording an album that the band has no intention of ever releasing to the public? Or, at the very least, as long as the members of the band remember what is actually on the recording. So they headed into the studio, recorded an album, and placed it in a vault never to be touched until such a time arose that even the members of the band couldn't remember what they had done. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the band's record label became impatient with them when they were behind schedule on a record just a few years later, and they pulled the masters for this album that was never meant to be available (hence the title), and released it without the band's consent. Which, strangely, keeps the Theory of Obscurity intact, as the band didn't intend for the music to be released, and yet it was.
The great back story aside, Not Available is a dense, haunting recording that vacillates between semi-tonal wailing, minimalistic chanting, and eerie ballad-like moments. It is presented as a rock-opera of sorts, though the story line is so obscure it makes Joe's Garage seem positively fluid in its narrative. The story is more or less the tale of a young woman named Edweena who heads to college with a porcupine named Knowledge, where she meets the Enigmatic Foe and a character named Catbird. Frankly, the plot (or, in this case, lack of one) isn't really important, since the music itself paints a vivid picture of confusion, uncertainty, and potentially impending doom while attempting to determine one's own identity (which is a fantastically accurate portrait of what many people experience when heading to college).
Not Available is an album that simply demands the listeners undivided attention (with a copy of the lyrics in front of them), and is absolutely unlike any other recording one is likely to ever hear.
Not Available - 8 out of 10
- Current Music:The Residents - The Making Of A Soul
Featuring alumni of the first grunge band ever (Green River), Mudhoney's first E.P. slated them as progenitors of that grimy, slow, metal-punk hybrid that their city would become famous for in a few years. Named for the distortion pedals guitarists Mark Arm and Steve Turner were using, Superfuzz Bigmuff has a boozy swagger and a defiant sneer permeating its six tracks which leaves the listener's ears ringing and desperate for more.
The cover art is a photo of the aforementioned guitar players on stage, and it perfectly embodies the wild, drunken antics the band was famous for in concert in those days. This is easily one of my favorite live shots of any band.
- Current Music:Mudhoney - In 'N Out Of Grace
Beginning with (roughly) Help!, and culminating with (roughly) Revolver, The Beatles' middle era is my favorite. These recordings still exude the air of camaraderie and light-hearted playfulness of their early recordings, but it is balanced with the musical sophistication of their later works, and some hints of the psychedelic influences that would eventually come to fruition. It is really the era where all of their strongest aspects are at work at the same time. While I enjoy all of the music from this period, Revolver is unquestionably the pinnacle of not only their career, but one of the best albums ever laid to tape.
The artwork was created by Klaus Voorman, an old friend of the band. The blending of ink drawings and photographs of the band was incredibly groundbreaking in its time, and this unique piece of pop art on the cover must have drawn quite a few eyes in record stores and helped add to the already significant sales of the album.
- Current Music:The Beatles - Dr. Robert
Although nearly every song recorded by the Minutemen was a brief burst of inspired genius, few would argue that Double Nickels on the Dime is the crowning achievement of (singer / guitarist) D. Boon's short, yet prolific career.
After cutting their teeth on the underground music circuit in and around their hometown of San Pedro, California, and releasing a surprising number of singles and short albums in a brief time period, Boon, Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley set down to record Double Nickels, an album named as a typically Boon-esque stab at Sammy Hagar's infamous song about his inability to drive the newly instated federal speed limit. They found speeding to be a trite form of rebellion, and Mike Watt was quoted as saying, "The big rebellion thing was writing your own fuckin' songs and trying to come up with your own story, your own picture, your own book, whatever. So he can't drive 55, because that was the national speed limit? Okay, we'll drive 55, but we'll make crazy music."
Originally conceived as a single LP, upon hearing Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, a sprawling, double LP punk masterpiece, the Minutemen decided to expand their most artistic recording to compete with their contemporary's broad scope. Comprised of a staggering 45 songs, Double Nickels isn't just an album, it is an in-depth manifesto, and the fact that it was all mixed in a single evening and cost $1,100 to make is further evidence of the Minutmen's philosophy of "jamming econo" (economically).
For the cover art, Mike Watt drove down the local highway in his VW Beetle with a photographer in the backseat, and when they got to a sign marking the exit for San Pedro while Watt was driving exactly 55 M.P.H., the photo was taken and history was made. The usage of this image on the cover along with the title of the album help to define the unifying concept of the album, which is the Minutemen's cars. (There are even several tracks included on the record titled "car jams" which are nothing more than the sound of the guys starting up their respective vehicles).
- Current Music:Minutemen - History Lesson Pt. II
Despite being a bit of a disappointment for the band in terms of sales and critical accolades (at least when compared to the adoration fans and critics alike heaped on their first two albums), Wowee Zowee holds a special place in my heart, in part because it was my introduction to the band, and partly because many of my favorite Pavement songs are found on this album. And I honestly might never have heard any of them if the artwork hadn't drawn me to it.
Pavement's reputation as the most innovative, quirky, and downright fun indie band had reached my circle of awareness by 1995 when Zowee hit the shelves, but I had never actually heard any of their music. Spending $15 on a CD by a band I had never heard a song by was not a practice I made a habit of in those days, but three factors made the decision for me. 1) The buzz around this band was incredible, 2) several people whose opinion I trusted absolutely adored them, and 3) the artwork for their latest release was just the kind of bizarre stuff that my 15 year old tastes went for. This third element was really what ended up pushing me over the edge and purchasing the album, and 18 years later Pavement is still one of my favorite bands, and Wowee Zowee is one of the most important records in my collection.
The art is by Steve Keene and it is a stylized take on a photograph from a 1970's issue of LIFE magazine which depicted two women sitting in dark robes near a goat. (lead singer) Stephen Malkmus chose this particular piece out of over 50 paintings that Keene produced at a live painting session.
- Current Music:Pavement - Flux = Rad
The simple image of (Minor Threat vocalist) Ian MacKaye's brother Alec sleeping on the steps of Dischord House (the place where many of the D.C. punks were living at the time, and where Dischord Records was founded) is fantastically powerful, and has gone on to be one of the most recognizable images in rock history. Alec's shaved head, the tattered clothes, the scuffed boots, the presence of refuse (located directly below the descending script of the band's name), and the contrast the bright color adds to the black and white image all work together in such a way to portray the no frills, all business attitude that Minor Threat brought to their music.
This cover art has gone on to be so much more than the cover for a 7". Minor Threat has used it themselves again on the compilation The First Two 7"s on a 12" and then again on their career retrospective Complete Discography. Other bands have paid tribute to it, most notably an album that made this list. Even corporate America couldn't resist attempting to snag the image.
- Current Music:Minor Threat - Screaming At A Wall
Raymond Pettibon is possibly the most recognizable artist of the hardcore punk scene of the 1980's. His drawings were used as cover art and other promotional material for several artists, most notably his brother Greg Ginn's band, Black Flag.
It is because of this association with respected underground music that Sonic Youth reached out to Pettibon to design the artwork for their major label debut, Goo. In the early 1990's, a band that had established themselves in the underground music scene making the move to a major label was completely unthinkable. Corporate rock was seen as the antithesis of the artistic, integrity-laden music that bands like Sonic Youth were making, so by choosing Pettibon to design their cover, it is an unspoken way of assuring their fans that they were not eschewing their ideals by moving to a major, but rather seeking a wider audience for their particular brand of noisey art rock.
- Current Music:Sonic Youth - Tunic (Song For Karen)
Following the success of his album Harvest, Neil Young's career took a decidedly unexpected turn for the obscure. A live album of unreleased songs that went unnoticed, followed by a recorded album that his label refused to release at the time because it was too raw and unrefined (Tonight's The Night), Young offered On The Beach as his first studio recording since his breakout record. If one were simply presented with the title, the immediate thought would likely be that this is a sunshiny, shallow record of pop songs. The cover art, thankfully, reveals that this record isn't a sunny day on the shore, but rather a gray, lonely day standing in a thin, misty rain, staring at something much bigger than you will ever be. This is an absolute case where the artwork is clearly needed to express the intent of the musician when naming the album.
- Current Music:Neil Young - Ambulance Blues
At a time when bands were either embracing electronic sounds or trying to play as hard and fast as possible, Wisconsin's Violent Femmes strapped on acoustic guitars and, in the case of their drummer, a snare drum with brushes (and that's all) and cranked out some quirky, endearingly awkward songs influenced by folk and punk simultaneously, resulting in some of the best alternative music ever made.
The cover of their self-titled debut has gone on to be one of the most iconic covers not only in alternative rock history, but of any album released in the last 30 or so years. Personally I think it is the innocence implied by the young girl peering through the window that is tainted with just a little bit of dirt and grime and is slightly weathered by age that represents perfectly the musical and lyrical content of the album.
- Current Music:Violent Femmes - Ugly
Following two outstanding (though largely monotone) records, Rancid's third offering is a smorgasbord of styles, tones, and moods. It is the first record that Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman had included ska styles on since their days in Operation Ivy, and it is also the first album where guitarist Lars Fredriksen seems to feel at home within the band. These are four guys that clearly love playing music with one another, and sincerely adore what they are doing. The sheer enthusiasm is infectious, and it makes this not only one of the best records of Rancid's career, but one of the best punk rock records of the 1990's.
The cover art is clearly paying homage to the legendary cover of the first Minor Threat E.P., on which Ian MacKaye's brother Alec is sitting on a set of concrete steps with his head down. In this case it is Fredriksen, and his mohawk and tattoos mark the difference between the scenes and generations in which both of these bands came from. This album cover became so instantly iconic, that many people might not have even known the fact that it was a tip of the hat to an older record cover.
- Current Music:Rancid - Old Friend
For better or worse, Rage's self-titled debut is one of the most influential records of the last two decades. Although the rap/metal genre is largely saturated with music that is mildly annoying at best and unlistenable at worst, this early example of this blend of genres is incredibly successful and still sounds great today.
The cover art features a picture of Thich Quang Duc's legendary protest in a busy intersection in Saigon. His protest against the Roman Catholic oppression of Buddhists in South Vietnam consisted of dousing himself in gasoline and setting himself ablaze, during which he remained completely motionless. Photographs of this act (especially Malcom Brown's, the one included on the cover of this album and for which he won a Pulitzer Prize) circulated around the world, raising awareness of the struggles of Buddhists in that region of the world, and ultimately led to the assassination of the head of government in South Vietnam. This powerful image immediately portrays to the potential listener what they can expect from this record.
- Current Music:Rage Against The Machine - Killing In The Name
Around the time Pearl Jam was recording the follow up to their hugely successful debut, Ten, the members were involved in a number of struggles with the powers that be, most famously singer Eddie Vedder taking on Ticketmaster. In addition to these real conflicts, the media was painting a contest between Pearl Jam and fellow Seattle-ites Nirvana, which Pearl Jam has vocally said was a complete fabrication. It is for these reasons that they titled their sophomore effort Vs. (initially Five Against One for similar reasons).
The cover art, a black and white photograph of a sheep taken by bassist Jeff Ament, is representative of the way the band felt at the time. While they were grappling against things they found unjust with all their might, they still often felt like they were trapped in a cage.
On a personal level, I was 12 when Vs. came out, and the older guys that I hung around with at the time were all huge Pearl Jam fans, and they were among the 1.3 million people that purchased copies the first week the record was out. Seeing copies of this CD going around, I couldn't help but be drawn to this powerful image. It also didn't hurt that some of the best music ever recorded also happened to be included on the bright orange disc.
- Current Music:Pearl Jam - Leash
As I've mentioned in the past, my feelings about Nirvana are atypical, to say the least. Knowing that I would more likely cue up In Utero than Nevermind, it should come as no surprise that my personal favorite of Nirvana's covers is the one for Bleach. Sure, it's not as iconic as the baby swimming after the dollar (which, to be honest, is pretty damn great), nor is it as intangibly disturbing as the cover of Incesticide. But there is something about the negative of the shot of the band all rocking to the point their mop-tops happen to be flopping in their face at the same moment speaks to me about what I like about the early grunge scene, and Nirvana's first record specifically.
- Current Music:Nirvana - Scoff
Betty came on the heels of two fantastic albums and an appearance on a high-profile movie soundtrack (The Crow), successfully putting Helmet into the major leagues. It is their most experimental album, as it blends their crunchy, start-stop post-hardcore sound with elements of jazz, blues, and funk. These seemingly conflicting influences make Betty one of their most exciting listens, and sets it amongst the best post-hardcore records of its time.
The cover art seems immediately to be at odds with the grindy power-rock contained within the album, effectively expressing the unexpected nature of the record.
- Current Music:Helmet - Tic
Bob Dylan's sophomore release, aside from being one of his most important and enduring works, features a cover image of Dylan and his then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo walking down the snow-covered streets of Greenwich Village where they were living.
The casual, "candid" photo was so different from the incredibly staged photos of artists that appeared on records of that time, that it practically screamed out loud. This iconic image went on to re-define what a cover of an album could be, and opened up the door for the possibility of every other entry on this list.
- Current Music:Bob Dylan - Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)
Easily one of the most provocative album covers in the last decade-or-so, the photograph of Justin Sane's niece dressed in U.S. military garb was so controversial at the time of it's release, that some stores simply refused to carry the record with that cover, and a censored edition was created (with a now-dead URL listed to explain the censorship). The image becomes even more powerful when the artwork found on the inside and back of the packaging is seen.
- Current Music:Anti-Flag - Post War Breakout
This particular choice in my list is one that is here not because of the cultural impact it had, nor because of the impressive artwork, this one is here simply because of how it affected me in my adolescence. I clearly remember walking into record stores and seeing posters for this album hanging about and just thinking that the Beastie Boys looked so damned cool. I can't explain exactly what it was about the image that grabbed me so hard, but it did. Turns out there is some pretty damn good music on the record too (it's my favorite of theirs, as it is the middle ground between their punky roots, their funky instrumentals, their old school rap style, and the rapping style they developed in the 1990's).
- Current Music:Beastie Boys - Finger Lickin' Good
Oklahoma's acid-drenched neo-psychedelic Flaming Lips have released an impressive catalog of fantastic music since their formation in 1983. Each and every one of their albums is worth exploring, but the ones that have been offered since the late 1990's are particularly excellent. 2002's Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is possibly their creative pinnacle, as they found the perfect balance between surrealist psychedelia and superb musicianship.
Yoshimi plays like a concept album (even though singer Wayne Coyne has stated emphatically that this was not the intention of the group), and the cover art of our titular heroine taking on one of the pink antagonists is a fantastic interpretation of that idea.
- Current Music:The Flaming Lips - Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell
Descendents' first long player is credited with being one of the first (if not the first) melodic hardcore records. The blending of catchy melodies with speedy tempos topped with goofball lyrics about girls and conformity was a new formula in the early 1980's southern California hardcore scene, but it has gone on to become one of the most copied formulas in the genre.
The cover art was inspired by drawings that were made of (lead singer) Milo Aukerman in his childhood. A classmate would draw pictures of him depicting him as the class nerd, exaggerating his big, thick glasses and goofy hair cut. This caricature of Aukerman would be used as a template for many of the Descendents' subsequent releases, and has become one of the most immediately recognizable images in rock music.
- Current Music:Descendents - Tonyage