Category Archives: Essential Albums

Looking back on albums that need to be remembered

Essential Albums: The Unicorns- Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?


Alternative music usually just receives the label because the songs are aimed at to narrow of an audience for the mainstream radio to play. This isn’t meant as a slight towards the genre, which is basically the only thing I listen to, but the casual listener really just wants something to be immediate and catchy along with a chorus that they know. This is where a lot of the best alternative music emerges, when a band does provide the immediacy of pop/rock cravings but they decide to intentionally fuck it up a bit for their own brand of unique experimentation. This is the best way I can describe what The Unicorns do, and it’s why they’ve become such a wildly popular band for alternative music fans who can appreciate these aspects; the broken voices, the perfectly out of place flute/recorder(?) solo, and the randomness which ultimately morphs it’s way into the songs’ rhythm. These qualities define The Unicorns just as much as the catchy choruses, and Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone is undoubtedly the album that captured the band’s gigantic potential the best.
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Essential Albums: The Magnetic Fields- 69 Love Songs


Quick Band Bio: The Magnetic Fields are a Boston band that formed in 1988 and released their first album Distant Plastic Trees in 1991. They became known for their use of unusual instrumentation in pop songs, frequent inclusion of synthesizers, and Stephen Merritt’s songwriting style (short and clever). 69 Love Songs was the sixth album released by the group, and the one that served as their breakthrough as the triple album excels despite asking it’s audience to give them your patience for the nearly three hours of music. A three hour concept album sounds a bit scary, but this concept doesn’t end up limiting the band nearly as much as you’d expect given the title, in fact Merritt clarified upon the release that 69 Love Songs is not remotely an album about love. It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love”.

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Essential Albums: The Flaming Lips- Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Quick Band Bio: The Flaming Lips are a psychedelic rock and pop group from Oklahoma. When the group originally formed in 1983 it consisted of Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins and Mark Coyne, the original lead vocalist before he left the band in 1985. This left Wayne, Mark’s brother and the lead guitarist, to assume lead vocals as well. This is where the Flaming Lips of today truly started: The band began to form their reputation through the combination of a breakthrough single in “She Don’t Use Jelly”, great albums and the bizarre antics that the band performs. Within the last 2 years, the Flaming Lips have a role in the following news stories: They’ve released music in an anatomically correct chocolate heart, vinyls containing samples of the artists’ blood, a USB in gummy shaped like a fetus and a 24 hour long song shipped in real human skulls; while also mistakenly taking a grenade into an airport, posting a music video of Erykah Badu’s sister naked which lead to a feud between the artists as permission wasn’t received, and setting the Guinness World Record for most concerts played in different cities in a 24 hour period. These are good examples of why the Flaming Lips are absolutely insane, and Wayne Coyne is the most interesting musician today who’s still releasing music.

These stories could scare someone away from listening to The Flaming Lips, but the truth is that the band actually makes very accessible music. A lot of thought goes into their releases, and they deserve a lot of credit for creating albums around completely developed ideas. Oddly though, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots isn’t the best example to use for this as Coyne has stated that this album really just seemed to come together as a story after they started creating the songs. How they got tied together into the story is still wildly entertaining though, as Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots presents the listener with a Japanese girl who is the only hope of saving her people by defeating the evil robots that have arrived, and this ends up being a terrific setting for the Flaming Lips’ bouncing guitars and philosophical lyrics to capture your imagination.
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Essential Albums: Daniel Johnston- 1990

Quick Artist Bio: Daniel Johnston is one of the premier singer-songwriters you can listen to, but this comes at the expense of being one of the most unstable artists to have ever released music. Johnston’s music isn’t particularly complex, it’s usually either unaccompanied or with an acoustic guitar he can’t play very well, but he creates a lo-fi folk sound that’s helped define the indie folk genre. This sound can be heard especially in his homemade cassette releases that he used to begin his career in the Austin music scene. A defining aspect of Johnston’s life has been his struggle with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia which have lead him into mental institutions and arrests multiple times while he avoided medication for live shows or song writing.

The recording sessions for 1990 actually took place in 1988 and were never able to be completed fully because of Johnston’s mental problems and instability in New York City. The album had to be pieced together by adding in home and live recordings to create a finished product capable of being released while friends tried to force Johnston to return home for his own sake. Once this did happen, Johnston immediately broke into the house of an elderly woman who jumped out of a second story window to escape and broke both of her ankles upon hitting the ground. Johnston would later claim that he was possessed by demons during the incident, and two years later his mental instability would show itself again when he removed the key from a two-person plane his father was piloting mid flight and threw it out the window. This time Johnston believed that he was Casper the friendly ghost, a thought that occurred for him often during his manic episodes, and a thought that nearly killed them. Fortunately Johnston’s father was trained for emergency scenarios like this and was able to successfully crash the plane in a field of trees immediately below them in a way that neither was injured badly, but Johnston was readmitted to a mental hospital because of it. Johnston is a cursed man who’s struggles are sad and worrisome, but the songs that he creates are remarkably relatable for what he’s been through, and 1990 is a collection of some of his finest work from an impressive musical career.
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Essential Albums: Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Quick Band Bio: Wilco was formed upon the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, a band with more of a country influence that had shared vocals from Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. These two had a falling out that led to the group’s demise and Farrar leaving to start a group named Son Volt while Tweedy retained most of Uncle Tupelo and changed the band name to Wilco, an acronym to humorously send the band message of “Will Comply”. Wilco retained some of those Uncle Tupelo sounds, especially in their first two albums of Being There and A.M., but today the band fits better into an alternative rock/country rock category.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was supposed to be Wilco’s 2001 release, but it ended up representing the album that got them kicked off their label and the departure of key band member Jay Bennet. It’s place as an essential album here does represent the collection of some of Wilco’s best work within what is their best album, but also the story about how record companies can be drastically misguided about what the public wants to hear.

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Essential Albums: Boards Of Canada- Music Has the Right to Children

Quick Band Bio: Boards of Canada is the moniker for two Scottish brothers, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, and it serves as a project for them to experiment with electronic music. Their discography is a confusing mix of official and unofficial albums, cassettes, and EPs, with the earliest known release being a cassette recording of Catalog 3 in 1987. Music Has The Right To Children was released 11 years later in 1998, and features samples from numerous sources of inspiration to the band, including The National Film Board of Canada which inspired the band’s name.

Music Has the Right to Children is very different from the other albums mentioned in this topic so far because of the genre difference alone. To classify it as electronic is a bit scary because my target audience for this article will read that and dismiss the album as outside of their tastes, but alternative rock kids will find fascinating experimental sounds with psychedelic and ambient qualities displaying themselves. It’s smooth electronic music that would work perfectly well as background music and even better if you decided to analyze it for every reference the duo creates.
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Essential Albums: American Football- American Football


Quick Band Bio: Mike Kinsella is known today mainly for his work with his solo project Owen, but back in 1999 he was a part of a band named American Football. Kinsella worked with Steve Holmes(guitar) and Steve Lamos(drums/trumpet) to complete the band, but they would ultimately only release a single EP and one album before disbanding to approach other projects.

It’s easy to lose track of American Football’s self titled album because the band called it quits after releasing it and because Kinsella is now more well known for his solo project. American Football does need to be remembered though, even if it forces you to make a conscious effort to do so, because it’s indie folk/folk-rock done fantastically well.
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ESSENTIAL ALBUMS: THE MOUNTAIN GOATS- SWEDEN

Quick Band Bio: The Mountain Goats are an indie folk band that started back in 1991 and are still active today, their most recent release being Transcendental Youth last year. This being said, the only member who’s been in the band for the full time period is singer/songwriter John Darnielle who today is accompanied by bassist Peter Hughes and John Wurster on the drums, but back when Sweden was released was only paired with bassist/vocalist Rachel Ware. Back in 1995 at a festival soon after the release of Sweden, Darnielle stated  “I don’t think a career in music is a way to live, you know, so yeah I want to teach. I want to be a person, and music is..is a different aspect, an important aspect of life..but not, you know, I wouldn’t want to live like musicians live. I just couldn’t do that.”

Sweden was the 2nd Mountain Goats album, and in spite of the quote it would prove to be an early mark of brilliance in a discography that today features fourteen albums and numerous EPs. What makes Sweden the significant album from this group to look back on?

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Essential Albums: Guided By Voices- Bee Thousand

Quick Band Bio: Guided By Voices is a band that originated in Ohio and released their first album Devil Between My Toes back in 1987. The band is mainly known for their signature album style, which includes packing around 20 songs into 40 minutes, and also for the rapid release of new material (there were 3 GBV albums in 2012!). These features are true because of their vocalist Robert Pollard who writes music at a frantic pace, so much so that he can claim responsibility for 19 Guided By Voices albums, 18 solo albums, and numerous other side projects. The band did a farewell tour in 2004, during which it became a common occurrence for the city of the show to dub that date Guided By Voices day from that point forward(December 5th in NYC), but returned in 2010 with the exciting announcement of returning to the “classic lineup”.

What made the band notable enough to get a day dedicated to them and what symbolized the classic GBV lineup? For the sake of simplification in an extensive discography, it was two albums: Alien Lanes which got released in 1995, and the subject of this post in Bee Thousand which got released in 1994.

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