6. Minor Threat - Out of Step - Dischord, 1983
Why I Bought It: I needed to know exactly what I’ve been doing wrong. Wait, I needed to know what other people have been doing wrong. No, I needed to learn my lesson, that’s it.
Har har, those Minor Threat guys will sure have a laugh over that paragraph. As I’ve admitted about a thousand times before, I never went through a punk phase in my teens, so I’ve been catching up on most of the seminal acts in the last few years. After all, married guys in their mid twenties comprise hardcore’s key demographic. To further the delay, Fugazi was one of the last key DC bands that I got into, in large part because Jawbox, Shudder to Think, and Girls Against Boys (technically a New York City band, but…) had videos on 120 Minutes and that was how I found out about bands when I was fifteen. If I’d found out about Fugazi first (i.e. if any of my friends had remotely similar taste to mine and could actually introduce me to bands outside of Metallica and the Dead Milkmen), I likely would have used my completist vigor to track down Rites of Spring and Minor Threat instead of New Wet Kojak and Edsel.
Verdict: I’ve heard a few Minor Threat songs before, but mostly I’m familiar with them from Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. I didn’t put a whole lot of effort into checking them out the first time I read the book, since the didactic lyrical approach wasn’t too tempting. Having just re-read that chapter, however, I found myself far more intrigued by the musical side of the band. I’ve seen enough hardcore bands—mostly at the Prairie House in Bloomington, Illinois—to know a good one, and Minor Threat tempers their furious forward momentum with enough catch-your-breath breakdowns, solid riffs, and spoken/sung sections to counter the blur of shouting over breakneck tempos. While Out of Step only lasts for nine songs, I didn’t find myself losing focus on the music. The true highlights of the LP, however, come when Ian MacKaye brings some much-needed humor into the equation, like ending “Sob Story” with “Boo fucking hoo” or the majority of the scathing “Cashing In” (“Then we’ll make a million when we go on tour”). The title track, however, tries too hard to distance the rest of the band from Ian’s straightedge philosophy: “Listen, this is no set of rules / I’m not tellin’ you what to do.” How ironic it is that I’m less deterred by capitalized lines and finger-pointing at a fill-in-the-blank “you” than by a meager attempt to cushion the blow of such staunch edicts. Thankfully, Azerrard’s book helped me anticipate the lyrical content—both the finger-pointing and finger-retracting—so I was still able to enjoy the music on its own accord.
7. Neil Young - Trans - Geffen, 1982
Why I Bought It: Its reputation as Neil Young’s nadir made the dollar price tag a mere pittance. Neil Young and vocoder? Sign me up!
Verdict: I expected an LP full of Kraftwerk rip-offs, so hearing the tepid, but opening track “Little Thing Called Love” threw me for a loop. Turns out that a third of Trans is comprised of songs I’d consider “stock Neil Young”—“Little Thing Called Love,” Hold on to Your Love,” and “Like an Inca.” They’re inoffensive enough, but I’d rather listen to Zuma or On the Beach. As for the rest of the LP, my perception that fans and critics alike loathe it was a bit off, since many of the Amazon reviews are remarkably positive, Mark Prindle gave it an eight out of ten, and Rolling Stone gave it four stars, citing the struggle between the electronic and traditional songs. Furthermore, the vocoder tracks were inspired by Young’s attempts to talk with his son, who has cerebral palsy. Oh hell. I buy a dollar record expecting to enjoy its pitiful attempt to appropriate a burgeoning musical trend and look what happens: it’s about Neil Young’s suffering child. I’ll remove my empathy from the situation, since it would be far too easy to confuse good intentions with a good product.
The electronic songs on Trans simply aren’t effective. Even when there’s a heavily vocoded line that carries some weight beyond its novelty (“I need you / To let me know that there’s a heartbeat”), the impossibility of understanding its message without the lyric sheet removes its emotional impact. Whereas Kraftwerk emphasizes matching the lyrical content to the cold, repetitive beats (“Trans… Europe… Express…”), Young’s attempt to recreate the sound but remove the connection between form and function falls decidedly flat. Why appropriate sound designed for trance-like European robo-discos if your intent is to connect emotionally with your audience? Having traditional songs to counter the forays into synthesizers and vocoders comes off as a poor attempt to pacify the audience’s demand for more of the same, not as a key to understanding those electronic songs. I would be far more interested in this LP exemplifying this divide within the songs. I can understand Young’s rationale behind every decision on this album, but it simply doesn’t work as a whole. The actual product is conflicted enough to have supporters, but I’m not one of them.
8. Wire - Snakedrill EP - Enigma, 1986
Why I Bought It:The first Wire release that I picked up was The Drill EP as a used CD at one of the Rhino Records locations in the Hudson Valley. This was a critical mistake. An entire CD of remixes? For my first purchase from a seminal band? Remixes of a fairly annoying song? I messed up. It took me far, far too long to check out the group’s early, superior output, perhaps in fear that they’d chant “Dugga dugga dugga” over every song. (They don’t.) As such, I’d put off buying the Snakedrill EP, despite its appearance in the Wire LP section of nearly every record store I’ve frequented in the last two years (along with the “live” album It’s Beginning to and Back Again). I finally caved today, picked up a sealed, cut-out bin copy from In Your Ear on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston for three bucks. Four bucks? No thank you. Three bucks? Well, I suppose.
Verdict: I wonder how I would have responded to Snakedrill if I’d been a big fan of their first three LPs and eagerly anticipating their reunion. It’s a tough call. Wire’s transition into electronic-backed new wave would have made sense in 1986, since even the fiery Killing Joke utilized that aesthetic for Brighter than a Thousand Suns. Yet Snakedrill departs from what makes me love early Wire: their unflinching forward progress. Despite attempts to rationalize their new wave output by explaining their “beat combo” approach, Wire’s mid-to-late 1980s output, regardless of its songwriting quality, is too content to mirror what surrounds it. “A Serious of Snakes,” “Advantage in Height,” and even “Drill” are fine songs for the era (“Up to the Sun” is more Graham Lewis drama, snooze), matching the highlights of The Ideal Copy and A Bell Is a Cup… Until It Is Struck, but they lack the spirit of Chairs Missing and 154. Would I have accepted this logic in 1986 or would I have been happy to hear three good new Wire songs? If my fondness for 2007’s solid-but-unspectacular Read & Burn 03 EP weighs in on the matter, I’d probably just be happy to hear three good new Wire songs.
9. The Incredible Jimmy Smith - Organ Grinder Swing - Verve, 1965
Why I Bought It: First paragraph of the liner notes, penned by Holmes Daddy-O Daylie of WAAF in Chicago: “O.K., since you’re reading these notes, you are either an ‘Old Aware One,’ hip to Jimmy Smith, or a neophyte-come-lately trying to get acquainted; if so, congratulations!” I am a neophyte-come-lately who’ll check out almost any jazz record on Verve when costs me a dollar to do so.
Verdict: Organ Grinder Swing doesn’t have any competition in my collection for organ-led jazz, so it’s hard to contrast it to any other albums. I enjoyed the short, energetic title track and his rendition of “Greensleeves,” but by the end of the album I had a savage headache from the tone of the organ. It’s an interesting sidestep in my crash course in jazz, but I doubt that I’ll go searching for more organ-led jazz in the near future unless it comes highly recommended.
10. Rifle Sport - Voice of Reason - Reflex, 1983
Why I Bought It: I recognized the band name as a former project of current Shellac drummer Todd Trainer, although Jimmy Petroski drums on this particular LP. When I flipped the sleeve over and saw that it was on Reflex Records, Hüsker Dü’s early 1980s label, I figured I was on the right track and snapped it up.
Verdict: Rifle Sport is more indebted to British post-punk than I anticipated, reminding me of a high-speed Gang of Four in spots. Gerard Boissy switches between Andy Gill–informed strafing and straight-ahead riffs, avoiding the razor-wire tone of early of Hüsker Dü. Bassist Pete Flower Conway steals the show, however, letting his busy but effective lines pop up through the mix. While the music is up to the task, the vocals often veer toward tuneless hollering and the lyrics aren’t much to write home about. Voice of Reason is Rifle Sport’s debut album, so this lack of cohesion isn’t surprising, but there are some truly effective moments like “Words of Reason,” “Danger Street,” and “Hollow Men,” which is a reworking/cover of the T. S. Eliot poem. (I eagerly await a doom-metal cover of “The Waste Land.”) According to Trouser Press their later material is better, so I’ll keep a look out for their other LPs.