Forget Facebook's "10 Albums Challenge." I'm going the distance
Aaron S. Bayley
The current coronavirus quarantine has people feeling both bored and reflective. Maybe that's why the Facebook trend of people nominating others to share their 10 most influential albums has become so popular; it even got coverage in the Toronto Star (Facebook's '10 albums' challenge climbs into steady rotation during quarantine).
In the social media spirit of prioritizing images over context and insight, the challenge goes: "One album per day for 10 consecutive days. No explanations, no reviews, just albums covers." For anyone passionate about music, this is not humanly possible. The nostalgia provided by the music that influences our lives is too magical and profound to be summed up in such a vacuous act. I figured if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right. Here then, are the 10 most influential albums of my life, complete with liner notes.
Bay City Rollers/Greatest Hits (1977), Bay City Rollers
On February 7, 1976—my first birthday--the third album from the Scottish bubblegum boy band Bay City Rollers went to number one in Canada. It was a compilation album, featuring versions of songs from The Four Seasons, The Gentrys, and a pretty respectable cover of "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes. I played that cassette tape religiously, but it was their 1977 Greatest Hits vinyl record that took my love of the "tartan teen sensations" to new heights. My father taught me how to carefully place the record onto our automatic turntable, and I'd wait with giddy anticipation as "I Only Wanna be With You" (an excellent cover of Dusty Springfield's 1963 hit) rang through our small apartment. I would sit and stare at the crudely designed album cover featuring four headshots of the group (singer Les McKeown, bassist and pianist Stuart "Woody" Wood, guitarist Eric Faulkner, and drummer Derek Longmuir), my fascination with the Scottish lads marking my first taste of celebrity.
"Money Honey" gave me my first taste of the electric guitar, and "Yesterday's Hero" (a John Paul Young cover) was an anthem with an attitude. The album closer, "Saturday Night" was their biggest hit long before it was featured on Netflix'sThe Umbrella Academy. Starting with a cheerleader chant spelling out S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y followed by a fuzz guitar and hypnotic drumbeat, the song was upbeat and carnivalesque and captured the fun essence of the group. Inspired by Derek Longmuir, I decided I was going to paint my hair yellow (I didn't know about hair dye) and play the drums, so my parents bought me a toy drum set. My sister would put on a white wedding dress and play a toy guitar, and my cousin Christopher would pretend to sing with a toy microphone, and we would "perform" as a trio along to "Saturday Night" whenever we had visitors. In 1978 the Bay City Rollers Show, a strange variety TV show in which the band acted in corny sketches and lip-synced to their hits, aired on Saturday mornings, further fuelling my obsession. By the start of the 80s the Bay City Rollers fad faded into oblivion. But I would never forget the hooks, melodies, and sing-along choruses that filled their wonderfully innocent bubblegum pop.
Van Halen (1978), Van Halen
If the Bay City Rollers were fluff, Van Halen was fire.
I don't remember who turned me on to the mighty Van Halen. What I do remember is sitting cross-legged on the carpet of my grandparents' home in Danbury, Connecticut, wearing a clumsy pair of black headphones and listening to the first two Van Halen records purchased at the local Caldor or Bradlees department stores. Staring at the album cover and inside sleeve, it was immediately apparent that these guys were not soft-rockers peddling innocence. Whereas the smiling faces of the Bay City Rollers painted a welcoming but bland portrait, David Lee Roth, Edward Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, and Michael Anthony were superheroes shrouded in mystery. They were long-haired, sweaty, mischievous, outrageous. And for the next six years, they were the life of the party.
The party starts at the sound of a reverse car horn, its dramatic rise in volume giving way to the steady heartbeat of Anthony's thumping bass in "Runnin' With the Devil." The band churned out what was then referred to as "heavy metal," as Roth's high-pitched squeals competed with Edward's crunching riffs. It was a recipe I was destined to fall in love with. On the much revered "Eruption," Edward pulls out all the stops, his theatrics climaxing with the now famous two-handed tapped arpeggios which close out the one minute and forty-two second sonic explosion. Equal parts sacred and sacrilege, the last few bars of "Eruption" raised the bar for the proverbial guitar god and revolutionized the electric guitar. For this impressionable adolescent boy, I couldn't comprehend the cascade of notes; I could only be in awe of it. Van Halen's debut was a game-changer that put guitarists on notice.
It isn't "Eruption," however, but "I'm the One," that stands as the definitive Van Halen track. It is a swinging, rollicking roller-coaster that kicks off with one of Edward's catchiest riffs and is propelled by Alex's double bass shuffle. "We came here to entertain you/Leaving here we aggravate you/Don't you know it means the same to me, honey," Roth croons, as Edward improvises all over the fretboard with fluid virtuosity. The song lets up only to allow a surprise "shoo-be-do-wah" barbershop quartet-style a capella by the band. Hands down, "I'm The One" is the song that made me want to play the guitar, but the album is packed with six-string treats. There's the flanged intro to "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," the spacey, futuristic aggression of "Atomic Punk," the unbridled improvisation of "Ice Cream Man," and the meaty, muscular closer, "On Fire." Front to back, the first Van Halen record was tailor-made to recruit an army of future copycats. Thanks to Edward's unreliable narrative concerning his equipment (did he really crank a modified Marshall amp to 10 and dampen the voltage with a Variac transformer?), nobody ever came close to mimicking his sound, nor his melodic playing. Every record Van Halen put out with David Lee Roth was a milestone. But their debut album is timeless.
Built For Speed (1982), Stray Cats
By the time I first heard the Stray Cats' "Rock This Town" on AM radio, I had already gravitated toward the guitar. But these cats sounded different, like the rock 'n' roll my parents grew up with. They looked different too: Lead vocalist Brian Setzer had a blonde pompadour and played a big orange Gretsch guitar (which, to a kid whose favourite colour was orange, was no small thing), Lee Rocker slapped a stand up bass, and "Slim" Jim Phantom's drum kit consisted of a bass drum, snare, hi-hat, and crash cymbal. And he played standing up too! These guys were minimalist in a decade defined by excess.
My grandfather bought me Built for Speed at a records store in Bridgefield, Connecticut. The store no longer exists, but if I close my eyes, I can still see the store's layout, the rows and rows of vinyl records facing the cash counter. I searched under 'S' and pulled the record up like a kid in a candy store. The cover featured the band dressed like Teddy Boys and posing in front of hot rods at an auto body shop. I would adopt the stylized retro design used for the Stray Cats logo, along with its pink, purple, and teal colours, as my own personal aesthetic, drawing 50s-era shapes and pastel colours on my school notebooks over the next ten years.
I played the album when we got back to my grandparents' home in Danbury and quickly fell in love with it. As a kid, I didn't know or care about musical categories (were they punk? New Wave? Rockabilly?) but I knew good music when I heard it. "Rock This Town" was an obvious ode to the '50s (my favourite TV show was Happy Days, and Setzer dressed like the Fonz, so I was all in). "Built for Speed,"and "Rev It Up & Go" were cool songs about cars, and "Stray Cat Strut"—which features one of the greatest guitar solos of all time—is a crooner's delight and the band's biggest hit. My favourite track on the album is "Little Miss Prissy," which begins with a dirty, gritty guitar tone that got my adrenaline pumping. Side one closes with "Rumble in Brighton," an ominous surf rock song about greasers and skinheads getting ready to fight. The standout track on side two is "Double Talkin' Baby" (which I didn't realize until 2018 was a Gene Vincent cover). "DTB" is quintessential Stray Cats: up-tempo swing, with '50s-style vocals and killer guitar solos. These guys wrote catchy songs you could sing along to, and I did, word for word.
In 1982, I didn't know anyone who loved the Stray Cats as much as I did, and I still don't. My dad didn't think much of them back then, and neither did my friends. This, of course, made me love them more. The trio from Long Island, New York were only mildly successful in Canada and the U.S., having most of their success in the U.K., Germany, and Switzerland. In August of 2016, I ordered Brian Setzer's custom Gretsch guitar (in orange, of course) from Steve's Music Store in Toronto. The next month I learned that my grandfather had died. My father and I drove down to Danbury for the funeral, and as my grandfather's casket was lowered into the earth, I felt my phone vibrate in my jacket. It was Steve's calling, telling me that the guitar, inspired by the band whose record my grandfather bought me, had arrived.
Use Your Illusion I (1991), Guns N' Roses
When Guns N' Roses' debut album Appetite for Destruction was released in 1987, I was too preoccupied with Mötley Crüe to pay it any attention. Besides, my 12-year-old self could not cope with the intimacy of "Sweet Child O' Mine." That changed in 1991, the year I started playing the guitar. My friend George showed me the ropes and urged me to listen to Appetite, in particular "Nightrain" and "Rocket Queen." With Slash and Izzy Stradlin as my teachers, I set out to learn the album not for note, and learned to love it.
So by the time GNR put out Use Your Illusion I and II in late September, I was on board. The release of the albums was a major pop culture event; media coverage was rampant and kids skipped school and joined lineups at mall record stores. One of those kids was my friend Mauro, who I gave money to for one cassette of each album. The album cover artwork featured a detail from Raphael's The School of Athens for the Vatican; Illusion I used an orange and yellow colour scheme, while Illusion II used blue and purple.
When I popped the cassette into my Walkman and took in the nearly 76-minute onslaught of sound, I was disappointed. I loved the Stradlin-penned "Double Talkin' Jive" and "Back Off Bitch" but found most of the songs too alien for my liking. Repeated listens changed nothing. I kept going back to Use Your Illusion II, which featured the familiar "Civil War," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and "You Could Be Mine." But then one night, something clicked. The songs I liked least became my favourites on the album. Axl Rose's breathless, abrasive delivery grew on me. I got bored of the radio-friendly "Civil War," "Knockin'," and "Don't Cry" (which appeared on both albums, but with alternate lyrics on II), and embraced the more progressive songs like "The Garden," "Don't Damn Me,"and "Coma." I spent countless hours trying to learn the chord changes, cool riffs, and killer solos that filled the record. When my sister invited her friends over to celebrate her 19th birthday, I set up my amp in the living room in an effort to impress them, playing for 12 consecutive hours and trying to nail the furious intro to "Don't Damn Me." By the end of the night, I did. I was transfixed by the dramatic turning point in the outro to "November Rain," where drummer Matt Sorum's military cadence ushers in a downpour by way of Slash's melodic, desperate solo, accompanied by Axl on piano, who repeats the existential question: 'Don't ya think that you need somebody?/Don't ya think that you need someone?' I studied Axl's complex lyrics and pondered the meaning of 'I'll take a nicotine, caffeine, sugar fix/Jesus, don't you get tired of turning tricks?' in "Right Next Door to Hell." I identified with the theme of depression in "Coma," where Axl sings on top of a flanged guitar: 'Suspended deep in a sea of black/I got the light at the end/I got the bones on the mast/Well I've gone sailing/I've gone sailing.'
Use Your Illusion I marked the first time in my life where I had to dig a little deeper to appreciate a work of art. The repeated listens helped me develop my critical listening skills, which would serve me well several months later when Faith No More released Angel Dust. Both Illusion records are far superior to Appetite in both scope and substance; as a package they are remarkable in their ambition and grandiosity. In truth, either album could have made this list. But Use Your Illusion I is a little more special, if only because I had to work for it. It dawned on me that the sunshine and rainbows that filled the musical palette of my optimistic youth was going to include some dark clouds from now on. It was a coming-of-age moment.
Achtung Baby (1991), U2
Before Toronto FM radio station Q107 switched to a classic rock format, it played modern rock. At night, I would lie in bed and listen to the Top 9 at 9 on my headphones. This is where I first heard U2's "The Fly." I was a fan of the band, but now that I was learning to play the guitar, I began to deconstruct songs and analyze their individual parts. As I lay listening to The Edge's guitar solo, I was deeply moved; it spoke to me. His notes rang out in a swirl of echo and delay, moving from a cold and threatening four-note pattern before descending into more neutral ground. His guitar lingers and yearns, then crescendos toward a melodic release that wraps you in a warm, welcoming embrace as if to say, "Don't be afraid; it's going to be okay." I get chills whenever I hear it.
I bought the cassette and fell in love with it instantly. The first side, from "Zoo Station" to "So Cruel" is virtually flawless. Bono seduces with his lyrics, writing poetry, writing riddles, but always with a penchant for the melodramatic. On "Even Better Than the Real Thing" he sings, 'You're honey child to a swarm of bees/Gonna blow right through you like a breeze.' "Until the End of the World" recounts the betrayal of Jesus Christ from the perspective of Judas: 'In the garden I was playing the tart/I kissed your lips and broke your heart/You, you were acting like it was the end of the world.' On "One," Bono explores the pain of failed relationships: "Well it's too late, tonight/To drag the past out into the light." The second side of the album is just as strong, highlighted by the hauntingly beautiful "Acrobat," in which Bono pleads with a sense of urgency: 'You can build/And I can will/And you can call/I can't wait until.' The album closes with the melancholy "Love is Blindness," where Bono laments metaphorically, 'Love is clockworks/And cold steel/Fingers too numb to feel.' Achtung Baby and the subsequent Zoo TV tour turned U2 into a pop culture juggernaut and Bono into a celebrity who, critics say, got lost in his own narcissism and megalomania. I thought he was bloody brilliant.
As far as I was concerned, U2 had created the perfect album. Achtung Baby was on par with their massive 1987 release, The Joshua Tree. It was moody, seductive, atmospheric, philosophical; an artistic masterpiece. I would never listen to music the same way again.
Rage Against the Machine (1992), Rage Against the Machine
"Who is that guy on Tom Morello's amp?" I asked my friend Rob one day after seeing Rage Against the Machine's video for "Guerrilla Radio" in 1999. "I see that image everywhere." The next time I saw Rob he handed me a graphic novel called Che for Beginners. "Here," he said, "read this."
When Rage Against the Machine's debut album came out, all the rebellious rocker kids at school were talking about it. My friend Mauro thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. If it wasn't clear by the album cover, which depicts the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức's self-immolation, this band was intense. I was intrigued by the militant aggression of Zack de la Rocha's rapped lyrics, Morello's uncanny and innovative guitar work, and the synchronized, brick wall of a rhythm section provided by Tim Commerford and Brad Wilks. It was different, but I wasn't ready for different yet.
It wasn't until 1999 and my discovery of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary from Argentina, that I began to delve deep into the Rage catalogue. To say that it was an awakening would be a gross understatement: my political leanings, social conscience, and values were indelibly shaped by the first Rage record. I devoured books from the band's suggested reading list provided on their sophomore album (how many rock bands have suggested reading lists?), including Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, Basta! by George A. Collier, and works by Noam Chomsky and Friedrich Nietzsche. After my mother died of cancer in October 1999, I quit my retail job and soon started working the graveyard shift at an A&P warehouse. I had already finished Jon Lee Anderson's definitive and moving biography of Che, and as I maneuvered a 1,000-pound machine up and down the aisles, loading product onto skits to ship to grocery stores, I became acutely aware of the worker's class struggle. I busted my ass just to meet quota and felt like a disposable cog in the wheel of a machine that neither noticed nor cared about my well-being. Then one day I decided to quit and travel to Cuba to learn more about the Revolution. It was an empowering moment, and I never looked back. In 2003 I walked into a boxing gym to get my body in shape, and by 2005 I was studying Shakespeare at the University of Toronto. I left in 2010 with degrees in English, history, and political science and went straight into teachers' college.
The first Rage record was revolutionary. But it was still a rock album at heart, with blues- and funk-based guitar riffs and a hip-hop vocal delivery. But it's the subject matter where Rage distinguish themselves from the pack. Instead of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, Rage raged against racial inequality, police brutality, cultural imperialism, and capitalism. De la Rocha's delivery is unapologetically defiant and on point. On "Take the Power Back" he raps, 'Bam! Here's the plan/Motherfuck Uncle Sam, step back I know who I am' and later, 'The present curriculum/I put my fist in 'em/Eurocentric, every last one of 'em' as the band holds down a heavy funk groove. In "Wake Up" he preaches, "Networks at work, keeping people calm/You know they went after King, when he spoke out on Vietnam.' On "Township Rebellion" he asks, "Why stand on a silent platform?/Fight the war/Fuck the norm." And on the mid-tempo album closer "Freedom," de la Rocha poeticizes about the myth of personal freedom propagated by the U.S. government and media: 'What does the billboard say?/"Come and play, come and play"/Forget about the movement.' You might call it indoctrination, but even if you don't buy into the leftist ideology, you cannot deny the power and intensity of the first Rage record. Every song is a bulldozer. If RATM doesn't pump your adrenaline and make you want to mobilize against the status quo, you haven't been paying attention.
Tidal (1996), Fiona Apple
A grainy black-and-white photo of a young artist named Fiona Apple was surrounded by a sea of words in the Toronto Star's review of her debut album, Tidal. I don't remember much about the review, but I was intrigued enough to go out and buy the CD without having heard a single track. I wasn't disappointed. I've often described Tidal as one of the greatest albums I have ever heard.
It is apparent from the start of the first track, "Sleep to Dream," that Apple has a delicious way with words:
I tell you how I feel but you don't care
I say tell me the truth but you don't dare
You say love is a hell you cannot bear
And I say give me mine back and then go there, for all I care
On the beautifully melancholy "Sullen Girl," Apple sings with a wistfulness and wisdom that belies her 19 years: 'But it's calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion.' The song is about a painful experience that changed her: she was raped by a stranger outside her Harlem apartment when she was 12-years-old. On the catchy "Criminal," Apple sings flirtatiously, 'I've been a bad, bad girl/I've been careless with a delicate man.' "Slow Like Honey" is a meandering and hypnotic number that recalls a smokey jazz lounge; Apple's voice is both mellow and sultry as she croons, 'You'll remember me like a melody/But I'll haunt the world inside you.'
Apple's music has been described as alternative, jazz, art pop, and baroque pop. On the Sade-esque "The First Taste," she sings over a merengue rhythm with jazz overtones:
I lie in an early bed, thinking late thoughts
Waiting for the black to replace my blue
I do not struggle in your web
Because it was my aim to get caught
Perhaps the album's most heart-wrenching song is "Never is a Promise." It's about a broken relationship, misunderstanding, and self-growth. I was listening to the song the moment I found out that my mother's cancer had become terminal. From that point on, I projected the song's lyrics onto my mother's illness. For me, the lyrics spoke to the struggle she must have felt with how helpless we were to understand her suffering. It took me over a decade to be able to listen to the song in its entirety again, and I still rarely do. The sombre piano and haunting melodies bring forth waves of regret and sadness. It was and is just too much to bear. To me, it is the most beautiful song ever written:
You'll never see the courage I know
Its colour's richness won't appear within your view
You'll say don't fear your dreams
It's easier than it seems
You'll say you'd never let me fall from hopes so high
But never is a promise
And you can't afford to lie
Fiona Apple has been compared—fairly or unfairly—to Tori Amos (who, like Apple, plays the piano and was a victim of rape), Alanis Morissette, and Sarah McLachlan. What distinguishes her from those artists, and what attracted me to her music, is her eccentricity and her refusal to be categorized or bow to the industry. Her latest album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is further evidence of those traits. It was released last month during the global lockdown and is regarded as a masterpiece. I could never understand why Tidal ranks so low in most critic's lists of her best albums; Apple herself once likened it to a demo tape that got leaked. Tidal may have been the album the record label wanted her to make, but I'm grateful that she did.
Antichrist Superstar (1996), Marilyn Manson
The first time I saw Marilyn Manson was in a partially burned down church.
As I recall, it was a Wednesday afternoon when a sinister-looking man with greasy black hair, a macabre smile, and messed up eyeball writhed in front of the camera's kaleidoscope lens. Tall, tattooed, and pale-skinned, he twisted and contorted his body as he mouthed the words to Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." He also descended a hellish staircase wearing a white wedding dress with a veil over his visage, staggered down an alley in a blue tutu, and rode a pig with his body painted black. Who the fuck is this? For a very brief moment I thought it was Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but no, too scrawny and too scary. The video was an apocalyptic horror show, and I loved it. I waited for it to end and learned the name of the band: Marilyn Manson. The video promoted their 1995 EP, Smells Like Children, which featured mostly goth-industrial remixes of songs from their debut album, Portrait of an American Family. I picked up both and was won over.
Marilyn Manson released Antichrist Superstar the following year to both critical acclaim and criticism from Christian conservatives and Republican senators which, of course, endeared me even more to the band. As someone who grew up Catholic and was forced to attend church every Sunday for 20 years, I found the album title amusing and audacious. The fashion and fascist iconography that went into his album artwork and image were meticulously planned out. Like Alice Cooper before him, Manson's appeal relied on shock value. But it was done intellectually. (I have a fond memory of my mother and I watching him debate a Christian conservative on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. My mother got a kick out of both Manson's sense of humour and the chemistry between him and Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch.) Manson was a master at holding a mirror up to American society and showing it its hypocrisy and brutality.
Antichrist Superstar is conceptual and addresses themes ranging from nihilism, existentialism, atheism, and rebirth. It is divided into three cycles. Cycle I: The Heirophant begins with "Irresponsible Hate Anthem," where Manson screams, 'Hey victim! Should I blacken your eyes again? Hey victim! You were the one who put the stick in my hand.' 'With its heavy staccato drum beat and syncopated, down-tuned guitars, "The Beautiful People," Manson's most popular song, critiques capitalism's treatment of society's outcasts. On the sexy, dirge-like "Dried up, Tied and Dead to the World," Manson sings, 'Pinch this tiny heart of mine/Wrap it up in soil twine/You never read what you've written.' Finally, "Tourniquet" borrows heavily from Cooper's "Billion Dollar Babies":
She's made of hair and bone and little teeth
Things that cannot speak
She comes on like a crippled play thing
Spine is just a string
Cycle II: Inauguration of the Worm begins with "Little Horn," a driving industrial-punk song in which Manson screams in the chorus, 'The world spreads its legs for another star/World shows its face for another scar.' The hauntingly beautiful, frost-bitten "Cryptorchid" begins with Manson singing in monotone: 'Each time I make my mother cry an angel dies and falls from heaven.' The mood changes in the song's second half, where a heavily filtered voice sings nursery-like over a Mellotron, marking the album's turning point:
Prick your finger it is done
The moon has now eclipsed the sun
The angel has spread its wings
The time has come for bitter things
In "Mister Superstar," Manson warns of the pitfalls of fame: 'I know that I can turn you on/l wish I could just turn you off/I never wanted this.' Propelled by a looping, ascending guitar riff and tribal drum beat, "Angel with the Scabbed Wings" is a powerful testament to the rise of Manson's antichrist, who both horrifies and fascinates his critics and audience. When I saw the band for the first time on October 22, 1996 at the Warehouse in Toronto, they opened with "Scabbed Wings"; grainy footage of the whole concert can be seen on YouTube. As guitarist Zim Zum divines demonic wails from his guitar, Manson appears on stage as a black silhouette, bathed in an orange glow, arms raised like the risen Christ. His disciples delight in the inferno, screaming and offering devil horns with their fingers. It is a scene out of hell. Manson grabs the mic stand and begins in a whimpering, witchy tone, punctuating every syllable like a knife stab, the spotlight eerily illuminating his ghastly white face:
He is the angel with the scabbed wings
Hard-drug face, want to powder his nose
He will deflower the freshest crop
Dry up all the wombs with his rock and roll sores
In Cycle III: Disintegrator Rising, the stakes are raised. "Antichrist Superstar" is a parody of fascist totalitarianism and is driven by a massive wall of guitars (32 overdubs) and repeated chants of 'Heil!' In the bridge, Manson warns his detractors: 'Cut the head off/Grows back hard/I am the Hydra/Now you'll see your star.' The album's highlight is "The Reflecting God," a powerful assertion of the satanist doctrine of enlightenment and the realization that man made god, and not vice versa:
I went to god just to see
And he was looking at me
Saw heaven and hell were lies
When I'm god everyone dies
The album's last track is the emotional, grotesque ballad "Man That You Fear," which ambles to a decaying drum beat and a haunting piano melody. Manson has arrived at his destiny, completing the metamorphosis from worm to scab-winged messiah:
Pinch the head off
Collapse me like a weed
Someone had to go this far
I was born into this
Everything turns to shit
The boy that you loved
Is the man that you fear
Antichrist Superstar used aesthetics and iconography to satisfy Marshall McLuhan's assertion that the media is the message. The album is a sonic and visual experience that forces us to gaze at the underbelly of society and wrestle with its hard truths. It inspired me to read more subversive material, like Nietzsche, and explore new haunts. I started going to Sanctuary Vampire Sex Club in Toronto with my friend Mark, the only friend of mine who was as obsessed with Marilyn Manson as I was. We hung out in the all-ages Catacombs lounge, drinking whiskey and Coke and listening to goth and metal. On one memorable night, we challenged two cute goth girls to a game of pool. I suck at billiards, and Mark was even worse than me, but that night I played the best pool of my life. It came down to the last ball; the girls won.
Antichrist Superstar opened my eyes and mind, showing me that there were others who saw and felt as I did. It set me on a journey of self-reflection, leading me to purge the superfluous from my life and become my own man.
Mourning Widows (1998), Mourning Widows
In 1997, Nuno Bettencourt, former guitarist for the band Extreme, released a solo album called Schizophonic. Never a big Extreme fan, I was blown away by his solo effort, on which he sang and played all the instruments. The next year he formed Mourning Widows and put out an album of the same name. Nobody outside of his hardcore fanbase noticed.
But I did. Eventually. My friend George ordered the CDs from Japan (after we heard a few tracks on Napster), and I was once again humbled by Bettencourt's talents. In the late '90s I stopped playing guitar for 11 months after getting discouraged over not being able to learn a particularly difficult solo (ironically, it was Bettencourt's solo for Extreme's "Warheads"). I was so dejected I stopped listening to rock music and listened only to R&B. But Mourning Widows reignited my love for the guitar. Bettencourt plays the guitar the way he plays the drums; that is to say, he is a percussive player. This is evident in the first track, "All Automatic," which begins with a funky drum pattern and a tight guitar riff. The sing-along lyrics—'Here goes my life again/It's pretty plain, what a shame'—make it one of the best songs on the album.
On "Paint the Town Red" Bettencourt uses an almost identical drum pattern, but the song is distinguished by the flanged, string-skipping, ascending riff he plays in the intro and throughout the song. The verses on "The Temp" are ordinary, but if you stick around you are rewarded with a beautiful, harmonized chorus:
Suicided are fed
Modern love rises like bread
Playing catch with living skulls
Hurry up, somebody's dead
We're still alive
On "The Air That You Breathe," Bettencourt shows he can write witty lyrics, like, 'I got me a tattoo/It makes me feel so tough/If someone would fight me please/God, I need to be touched.' "Over & Out" is a painful ballad about the onset of heartbreak once it becomes apparent that the relationship is unsalvageable: 'And all that was abstract turns to concrete/Suddenly love is an empty house/Over and out I got your message/Over and out I get the message.' "Love Is a Cigarette" is six-plus minutes of in-the-pocket-groove, as Bettencourt shreds a tasty solo as outrageous as any he performed with Extreme. The Smashing Pumpkins-sounding "True Love in the Galaxy" is perhaps the most gorgeous song on the album, with celestial, otherworldly sounds that evoke outer space: 'Come aboard the rocketship/We're blasting through the Milky Way/Where love is a billion meteors/Crash-landing into you.'
In 2000 Mourning Widows released a respectable follow-up, Furnished Souls for Rent, before Bettencourt disbanded the project. It always amazed me how their debut album went virtually unnoticed. You don't have to play the guitar to appreciate its splendour; the album is filled with killer hooks and melodies, harmonies, and sing-along choruses. Bettencourt was young, attractive, and talented, and he had a number one hit in "More Than Words" under his belt. Maybe that was the problem. In April of 2000 I flew to Boston and took a cab to a drab club in Worcester to watch the band perform songs from both albums. A week later I took a road trip to Hartford with three friends to watch the show at Webster Theater. By the time Mourning Widows took the stage, there were less than 100 people in the audience.
Mourning Widows had a cult following for sure, but it cannot be said that the album didn't live up to expectations, because there were none. It is a fantastic record made by an artist who had the freedom to write and play whatever he wanted, and that's what he did. If no one else knows about it, that's their problem.
Choir of the Mind (2017), Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton
No adjectives do justice in describing the music on Metric singer Emily Haines' second solo record, Choir of the Mind. The 13 tracks are better described as visceral soundscapes than as songs. Each track is a carefully constructed, melancholic masterpiece. And they are profoundly sad. This is not the album you want on your pool party playlist.
I first heard this record after I broke up with my fiancé. I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself, and this was the soundtrack to my trauma. I bought the orange vinyl record and, upon hearing the album in its entirety, decided I needed to listen to it in my car. So I picked up the CD and drove around the city, listening while feeling empty, trying to understand how something so perfect could become so broken.
The first track, "Planets," opens with a lonely, haunting piano melody and a chorus of angelic voices, with Haines singing in the second verse:
Watching it end
Watching it burn
Out of habit
Now the patterns broken
The fragments float in space
People drift away
People drift away
The feelings of desolation continues with "Fatal Gift." 'Haven't we made enough for a living wage?' Haines asks rhetorically over a tragic piano, before drums and bass kick in and Haines, her voice dripping with echo and reverb, warns, 'The things you own they own you.' On "Wounded," Haines' vocals are accompanied by ghosts; 'Every time I wear this dress/I'm back to the way I was when we met,' she sings with a hint of nostalgia. Then the verse (chorus?) transitions beautifully to the bridge:
All abandoned hopes I have
With a best case escape plan
I remember your descent
And the only way to land
Is to crash and burn
"Nihilist Abyss" is delicate and ethereal, and like all the tracks on the album, it is painfully introspective. 'When I walk alone I'm walking with you/When I sleep alone I'm sleeping with you,' Haines sings, before pouring her heart out in the chorus:
Set me free
Let me never feel, let me never feel, let me never fear anything
Choir of the Mind is an embarrassment of riches, as each ambient track is a precious jewel, but if one must choose a highlight, "Minefield of Memory" would be a smart choice. The track begins with a spooky, off-kilter piano with Haines repeating the line: 'So unstable when you were born.' The lyrics are elusive but seem to wrestle with how to cope with regret:
I've been living in a hole
Everybody has to know
All the ways I didn't deal with everything right
By the time the chorus arrives, we are set adrift on a sea of sorrow and remorse, with Haines embracing her trauma: 'I'm going to stay with my memories/Even though it's a minefield of memory.' Title track "Choir of the Mind" is the closest Haines comes to writing an explicitly feminist track, with spoken word poetry that is both fragile and empowering:
So she follows her sublime irrational plan
Invents devices of her magic art
But even now herself she knows not what she's done
For all is wrought beneath a baffling mask
A semblance other than its hidden truth
"Siren," another melancholy track, is about longing and desire: 'From the grandstand to the island/To the mainland white sand beach/I only want what I can't reach.' On the album's last track, "RIP," Haines struggles with letting go (but of what?): 'Cringing, I hold out for compromise/Oh but then don't some principles hold like tentacles, oh?'
I often wonder why someone would want to listen to such a depressing record. Beyond its cathartic benefits, Choir of the Mind is filled with gloom. But it is also filled with wisdom and inspiration. In the midst of my despair, I found beauty in Haines' music and lyrics. To put yourself out into the world, cold and vulnerable, so that others can gaze, dissect, and relate, ultimately furthering their own self-development and understanding of the human condition: Isn't that the point of all art?