If you break on through to the other side, you’ll have to explain yourself to the neighbors

Posted: December 11, 2011 in music, Record reviews
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In our last, very exciting episode, I watched The Doors, listened to The Doors, and was floored. I then set out on a quest to find the Best Debut Albums of the 20th Century By Newcomers Who Aren’t Somebody Stupid Like Foreigner. I restricted the contestants to albums named for the band (as in The Doors by The Doors). This squeezed out some worthy discs. Here are my favorites.

The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
There are two amazing things about this record. One, The Beatles recorded Please Please Me in, like, a day, even though Paul was dead, John was a walrus, and Yoko had already broken them up. Two, rock ’n’ roll went from holding your hand to sleeping in your soul kitchen in about three years. Shake it up baby now.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
I have two connections with Jimi Hendrix. According to Wikipedia, “Hendrix’s first gig was with an unnamed band in the basement of a synagogue, Seattle’s Temple De Hirsch. After too much wild playing and showing off, he was fired between sets.” In 1981, I played in Seattle’s Jewish softball league for Congregation Beth Shalom. Playing Temple De Hirsch was like playing the New York Yankees. They had the money and the manpower – their congregation was five times the size of ours. One of their rabbis searched their roster until he found half a dozen men who had played minor-league ball and then persuaded them to join the temple’s team. You could not hit anything past that infield. And all of those guys had visited that basement.

My other connection comes from the 1997 marriage of my friends Liz and Mitch. While speaking to the bandleader between sets, he confided in me that he had known Hendrix as a kid and had taught him “everything he knew.” I wanted to ask him why the man who taught Hendrix everything he knew was playing weddings 30 years later, but then the bride and groom handed out bubble blowers and I got distracted. Anyway, I shook the hand of the man who taught Hendrix everything he knew.

If Jimi Hendrix were alive today, he’d be cutting discs with Wynton Marsalis, Danny Elfman, and Yo-Yo Ma, but not, I hope, with Coldplay.

Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True (1977)
This jet-propelled collection of songs gives you absolutely no clue to the musical continents Costello would explore over his career. Even so, he’d still be remembered today even if he had just recorded this disc and his follow-up, This Year’s Model.

The Cure, Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
The normally dour Robert Smith must’ve been on antidepressants when he made this zippy little record. The cover of “Foxey Lady,” once it finally gets going, is hilarious.

Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle (1979)
When I was 24 I wanted to be an android and I’m sure you did too. Numan isn’t as frightening as he used to be – he’s on The Muppets’ soundtrack. (If you’re curious, The Muppets is Prairie Home Companion with better jokes.)

Echo & The Bunnymen, Crocodiles (1980)
Crocodiles is haunting and dreamlike, which makes it the closest thing on this list to The Doors, emotionally. Echo and all those bunnies don’t rock as hard as The Doors, but they do pretty well with “Read It in Books” and “All That Jazz.” Their lyrics are fun to sing but mean just about nothing. The first few notes of “Rescue” somehow tell the story of my life.

The Dream Syndicate, The Days of Wine and Roses (1982)
In the 1960s, the Philadelphia Phillies had a double-play combination of Bobby Wine and Cookie Rojas. No headline writer of that era could resist the headline “Days of Wine and Rojas.”

The Dream Syndicate was a major influence on what is today called “alternative.” Don’t ask me to tell you what “alternative” means. But I can tell you that this is a terrific rock record, especially the title track. Steve Wynne sounds just like Lou Reed, who initially tried to sound just like Bob Dylan. No one wants to meet the guy Dylan has been imitating.

Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
One of the best records of the ’80s, with a title that will always describe my first dog, Emma. Trent Reznor, who recorded almost everything on this album by himself and then formed a band, is not a happy man:

Hey God
Why are you doing this to me?
Am I not living up to what I’m supposed to be?
Why am I seething with this animosity?
Hey God
I think you owe me a great big apology.
(“Terrible Lie”)

If you’re feeling euphoric and you want to tone that down a little, Pretty Hate Machine is the album for you.

Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)
Ms. Phair can’t sing, and when she tries she’s consistently flat, maybe because her mouth is shaped funny. But she has an interesting voice, and she writes piercing songs in the manner of Chrissie Hynde, though she’s more vulnerable:

And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead
But if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am
(“Divorce Song”)

Liz Phair emerged from the lo-fi indie world. (“Lo-fi” and “indie” are code for “We are so not Steely Dan.”) Exile in Guyville reflects her origins – it sounds as if it had been put together in her living room. It’s one of the landmarks of the ’90s, even though it doesn’t include her big hit, “Supernova,” which is about me. Many of these songs throw structural tricks at you, such as “Johnny Sunshine” – the first minute of that song is the best minute on the album. Like The Doors, Phair has never hit this personal standard again.

Beck, Mellow Gold (1994)
Jim Morrison may have acted like he was a shaman, but Beck actually is. The ubiquitous “Loser” leads off this monster, but it’s nowhere near the best song – just listen to “Beercan.”

Veruca Salt, American Thighs (1994)
You read it here first: Veruca Salt and Soundgarden are actually the same band. Chris Cornell was the voice of Soundgarden; Louise Post and Nina Gordon were the voices of Veruca Salt. You could swap them and the music would be almost the same. I’d love to hear Louis and Nina sing “Fell on Black Days,” with Chris singing “Seether.” Soundgarden released Superunknown, their fourth album, in the same year, which just proves that these are people who get a lot done in a day.

Postscript: No way am I choosing two obvious debuts, R.E.M.’s Murmur (1983) and Pearl Jam’s Ten (1990). These bands are way overrated, plus look how boring the album titles are. And now Eddie Vedder is giving ukulele concerts! The B-52s warned us about what could happen if parties got out of hand. R.E.M. and Pearl Jam are Exhibits A and B. Puny humans.

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