Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

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Part I: The Background

Jefferson Airplane’s second album is a significant departure from their first. The album introduced a brand new line up. Singer Signe Toly Anderson was replaced by Grace Slick from The Great Society. Drummer Skip Spence, who would later join Moby Grape, also left the band, although one of his song writing contributions still wound up on the album. Grace Slick brought with her a new and exciting sound, and thus the band transformed from a folk rock outfit into one of the leading psychedelic acts of the era. There’s a bit of contention as to whether or not Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead was involved in the recording of the album (the album cover credits him as “musical and spiritual advisor”), but what does seem to be agreed upon is that the album name was derived from a comment of his, wherein he described the music as “surrealistic as a pillow”. The album reportedly doesn’t quite capture the energy of the band’s live performances, which were even wilder and more out there, and many of the songs were reined in so that they’d fit the traditional 3-minute pop song template. This isn’t necessarily to the album’s detriment. After all, psychedelia is known for its excesses. And while the polished nature of this album flies in the face of all that, it does make for a more consistent listen.

Part II: The Music

She Has Funny Cars: Marty Balin’s the first to take the lead, his vocals reminiscent of The Byrds (after all, the band was still a folk band to an extent). Right from the get-go, it’s evident that this isn’t going to be just another folk album: the grooving drum evokes a tribal dance while a descending guitar riff has a distinct edge to it. After a few bars, the song simmers down as Grace and Marty engage in a call-and-response vocal that gradually crescendos until both voices explode forth in psychedelic harmony: “And I know / Your mind’s guaranteed / It’s all you’ll ever need.” Oh, and in case you’re wondering (I was), a funny car is a drag racing car. But while the title may evoke early 60s hot rod rock, the lyrics are decidedly psychedelic, and the chaotic whir of a guitar solo that concludes the track really drives it home that this is a new band for a new era. RATING: 9/10

Somebody to Love: This song’s technically a cover—emphasis on the technically. It was written by Darby Slick, Grace’s brother-in-law, and she originally recorded it with her former band, The Great Society (don’t bother checking out the original—Grace’s vocal is nowhere near as powerful and the song’s got this lazy, laid-back vibe to it; it just pales in comparison to the better-known version). There’s a daunting edge to Grace’s thunderous vocals here—this is the dark side of psychedelia rearing its head. It’s shocking how fierce this song is—there’s a reason psychedelic rock was one of the precursors to heavy metal. The guitar solo here is more lucid than on the previous track, though the effects and tone evoke a state of delirium. I’d say this is the ultimate psychedelic song, but that’s still to come. RATING: 10/10

My Best Friend: The first single off the album delivers on the other extreme: cheery, flowery psychedelia. This is the aforementioned Skip Spence contribution. While it starts out as a bubbly, sentimental pop tune, after the chorus it breaks down into a rocking jam. With its gentle harmonies and strong melody, it’s definitely one of the album’s stand-out tracks. RATING: 9/10

Today: This Balin-Kantner composition treads closer into Byrds territory with its delicate and dreamy acoustic sound. It’s a beautiful song that lingers on the border between folk and psychedelia. The ballad’s display of vulnerability starkly contrasts the aggressive psychedelic anthems, but its every bit as great a song. RATING: 8/10

Comin’ Back to Me: Another dreamy acoustic ballad. The fingerpicked guitar is breathtakingly sombre. According to the liner notes, the song was marijuana-inspired. The singer describes a fleeting vision of his lover returning to him which turns out to be an illusion—“a transparent dream beneath an occasional sigh”. This realization leaves the singer disillusioned as he questions “Whatever happened to wishes wished on a star? / Was it just something that I made up for fun?” It’s a heartbreaking ballad that, along with the song preceding it, is a marked (yet not a jarring) departure from the sound of the rest of the album. RATING: 9/10

3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds: The persistent drum beat and dual-voiced guitar riff bring us back into the realm of psychedelia. This hard-rocking tune denounces the rigidity of society (“Do away with people wasting my precious time”) and embraces a free-spirited lifestyle (“Take me to a circus tent / Where I can easily pay my rent / And all the other freaks can share my care”). It’s the type of song that’s probably more fun live than on an album. RATING: 6/10

D.C.B.A.–25: Well-crafted melodies over a folksy backdrop. Once again, there’s interplay between Marty’s and Grace’s vocals. By the way, the chords are right there in the title in case you want to play along (and if you’re wondering what the “25” is, it’s an LCD reference). Just goes to show you how well-crafted this album is—the song’s unusually strong for an album track. RATING: 7/10

How Do You Feel: A recorder adds a renaissance feel to this acoustic number, sung in harmony. Like most of the album’s compositions, it features two distinct sections in favour of a verse-chorus structure, the second of which has a Lennon-esque melody. RATING: 6/10

Embryonic Journey: Shaking things up again, we get an acoustic instrumental with some nice guitar work. There’s a bit of a looseness to the composition that saves it from feeling too stiff for the rest of the album—it serves as a nice interlude before the album’s centerpiece. RATING: 6.5/10

White Rabbit: A contender for the title of all-time greatest psychedelic song. This Alice In Wonderland–inspired piece captures the aesthetic of psychedelia: it’s childish imagination with the sinister undertone of a bad hallucination. The song starts off quiet and then embarks on a steady crescendo which reaches a thundering climax at the end of the song as Grace shouts: “Feed your head!” The twisted, imaginative nature of the classic tale perfectly lends itself to this psychedelic anthem. The drug references are very thinly veiled, if it all; the times were changing, after all. RATING: 10/10

Plastic Fantastic Lover: Probably the album’s only misstep. Not the song—it’s great. Marty rhythmically rattles off the vocals over a steady, bopping beat. I get a real Simon & Garfunkel vibe from this one. But it’s not as strong an album closer as White Rabbit would have been, is it? RATING: 8/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: I get that the psychedelic era was just beginning, but come on. One of the defining albums of the genre… and that’s the cover? I’m just going to go ahead and say it: the cover is awful. It features a nice black-and-white photo of the band, but this is overlaid with a pink banner featuring a stylized album title—this looks like it was thrown together in two seconds. The back is a little more interesting, featuring torn up images of the band. The title, however, is perfect. Not much to say about the production. This is a late-sixties album; it doesn’t really get any better than this. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: All of the songs are well-crafted with a keen sense of melody. The band pushes the envelope here, helping to pioneer that psychedelic sound. This is, after all, one of the defining albums of the era. SCORE: 5/5

Flow: Am I going to be petty and deduct points because White Rabbit isn’t the album closer? Yeah—I have to keep the scores in check somehow. But this album is a solid listen start to finish. It might’ve been nice for the ballads to be more spread out, but that’s about it as far as my criticism goes. SCORE: 8/10

CLOSING REMARKS: Jefferson Airplane isn’t one of the most iconic bands of the sixties when we look back at them today—if you’re familiar with them, it’s most likely for “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”. But the rest of this classic album is just as worthy of your attention; don’t pass it up. Feed your head.

FINAL SCORE: 81

Laura Nyro – More Than A New Discovery

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Part I: The Background

Laura Nyro got her start as a songwriter rather than a performer—her first big break came when she wrote the song “And When I Die” for folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Around the same time, she managed to land a recording contract, resulting in her debut album. She had a bit of a Bob Dylan thing going on at the time: a handful of songs from the album became better known for their cover versions. Aside from the aforementioned Peter, Paul and Mary cover, other artists to cover her compositions included The 5th Dimension and Barbra Streisand. The album was rereleased with a resequenced track order in 1973 under the title “The First Songs” to capitalize on Nyro’s newfound fame. Nyro herself wasn’t too fond of the album—as she had little creative control at the time, she had little say in the arrangements. This resulted in a very straightforward, pop-oriented sound, though it’s evident from Nyro’s performances on the album that she would be better suited to more adventurous, complex song structures and musical ideas.

 

Part II: The Music

Goodbye Joe: The album opens with one of its best tracks: a mellow yet cheery parting song. A soulful organ and enthusiastic horns bring a brightness to the sound, as they do on the majority of the album’s tracks. The song’s a straightforward pop number with a great melody and accessible lyrics. It ends with a bit of tension as Nyro’s refrain of “goodbye Joe” repeats until the fadeout, leaving the chord progression unresolved. RATING: 9/10

Billy’s Blues: A moody jazz song with a great vocal and a dreary atmosphere. We’re starting to see a bit of versatility here; Nyro sounds just as authentic in a jazz setting as she does in a pop setting. Again, the lyrics aren’t deep—did we really need to be told that “Some folks have it good / And some folks have it no good.” Rather, this song is a sketch—it evokes a glum, wistful mood and it does so very convincingly. RATING: 7/10

And When I Die: And here’s one of the happiest songs about dying I’ve ever heard. The singer confronts their own mortality with an optimistic outlook: “When I die, and when I’m gone / There’ll be one child born in the world to carry on.” It’s also a song about freedom, both in life and in death: “I can swear there ain’t no heaven / But I pray there ain’t no hell.” The song’s so upbeat and hopeful that it’s contagious. You’ll find considerably more attitude here than you will on the Peter, Paul and Mary version. RATING: 8/10

Stoney End: This one’s a bit of a tossup—I think Barbra Streisand’s rendition has the edge here. There’s also a 1968 recording by a singer named Peggy Lipton—it’s not quite as good, but is worth checking out nevertheless. Anyway, Nyro’s vocals here are the highlight—particularly when she dips into head voice to sing “Cradle me / Momma cradle me again.” There’s a vulnerability that really shines through. The song’s a bit of a downer if you pay attention the lyrics: the first verse is about disillusionment, the second about heartbreak, and the third about stormy weather (a bit of an anti-climax). “Stoney End” clearly means rock bottom (duh), and the disheartened singer begs for a second chance at life. While I prefer the arrangement on the Streisand version, Nyro’s vocals are more emotionally potent. RATING: 10/10

Lazy Susan: The reversion to jazz style might not be as welcome here were it not for Nyro’s keen sense of melody. This song is downright mesmerizing. It’s also lyrically dense, with vivid images like the following: “Courted and cradled by heaven and hillside / Sun-fried black-eyed Sue.” There’s a neat little twist at the end, where Johnny—presumably the guy the singer has “lost and loved” as stated in the first line—seems to have moved on with Lazy Susan. It introduces an interesting tonal shift to the piece; what appears to be sympathy towards the lonely figure of Lazy Susan is actually veiled bitterness. RATING: 9/10

Hands Off The Man: Also known as “Flim Flam Man”, as it was titled on the reissue. It’s the most memorable track on the album, thanks in part to the satisfying harmonies during the chorus. It warns of a sketchy character—the titular Flim Flam man—who’s a bit of a con artist, even though he’s got so much charm he can pay his rent with it. You have to wonder if there’s a real life basis for this character, though the song is more playful than it is bitter. Melody, harmony, the whole package really. Great song. RATING: 10/10

Wedding Bell Blues: Another standout track—so much so that this was bumped up to album opener on the reissue. Reportedly, Nyro’s original vision for the song was much more ambitious; she wanted the song to consist of several rhythmically distinct sections, but this idea was vetoed by her arranger. And while it’s fun to imagine what might have been, “Wedding Bell Blues”—in which the singer laments the fact that their beloved just will not pop the question—is nevertheless a great song. RATING: 9/10

Buy And Sell: The album kind of tapers off from here on out. This is another jazzy number, but it lacks the raw emotionality and melodic sensibility of the previous offerings. The atmosphere is very noir, and the evocative lyrics, which seem to suggest that just about everything in life is a commodity, are the song’s saving grace. RATING: 4/10

He’s A Runner: This one’s a bit of a slog. As always, Nyro delivers a stellar vocal performance. But there’s not much substance to this song—the arrangement is stiff and the melodies understated. It’s about a man who just can’t commit, but it lacks the usual sense of wit and vivid poetry that breathes life into these slower songs. RATING: 2/10

Blowing Away: This album’s major flaw is that the arrangements become stale after a while. I can see why Nyro was frustrated with the album’s direction—there are basically two clusters of songs here: the slow, jazzy ones, and the upbeat pop ones. This is the latter, and were Nyro not such a great songwriter, there would be very little to sustain the album by this point. Still, this ode to a lover feels like a lesser effort compared to some of the earlier tracks. RATING: 6/10

I Never Meant to Hurt You: An apologetic track, though we never do find out what it is the singer did to hurt her lover. We only get vague hints: “Why did I do things I never meant to do? / Why did I speak so carelessly?” This track is buried at the end of the album here, and rightly so. That said, there is a regretful sense of sorrow to the vocal, and the slow-down at the end of the song mimics the singer breaking down into tears. RATING: 5/10

California Shoeshine Boys: The album ends on a light-hearted note—a song about fickle boys and the heartbreak they leave in their wake. They actually went for something a little different with the arrangement this time; you’ll notice a folk influence in the arrangement and playing. It’s a welcome change of pace, even if it isn’t one of the stronger compositions. RATING: 6/10

 

Part III: The Album

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Aesthetic: Neither of the album covers strike me as memorable, though the original does encapsulate the singer-songwriter aura much better than the reissue. While the pop-oriented production does have a level of polish, it gets to be a bit of a drag towards the end of the album. The original title, “More Than A New Discovery”, is probably the best of the bunch, but even that is a bit of a mouthful. SCORE: 2/5

Artistic Merit: Laura Nyro’s songwriting and vocal performances here hint at a much greater talent than is allowed to be on display. This is very much a pop album, though the songs here were worthy of much more than the very safe, commercial arrangements they wound up with. SCORE: 2/5

Flow: I said before that there are two types of songs on this album: the jazzy ones and the poppy ones. The problem is they don’t fit together very well, nor are the songs sequenced in a way that eases the listener from one emotional state to the next. Some of the transitions can be quite jarring, actually. While the album’s sound isn’t sustainable, since the album clocks in at about 35 minutes it doesn’t really feel like it overstays its welcome either. SCORE: 3/10

CLOSING REMARKS: I haven’t gotten around to listening to the album using the reissue’s sequencing—perhaps that makes for a better listen. Regardless, the album’s a suitable introduction to a great artistic talent. So think of this one as a promise of good things yet to come, yeah?

FINAL SCORE: 64

The Supremes – The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland

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Part I: The Background

The Motown songwriting trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland were responsible for the majority of the Supremes’ biggest hits (“Baby Love”, “Where Did Our Love Go”, “Come See About Me”, and “Stop! In The Name of Love”, just to name a few). Following the success of their previous album, The Supremes A-Go-Go, the group recorded an album with all of the songs composed by HDH, some of those being originals and some of those being covers of songs originally recorded by other artists. The resulting album marked the end of an era: following this album, Florence Ballard would depart from the group and the relationships between the members would grow strained as Diana Ross moved further and further into the spotlight (with the group changing its name to Diana Ross and the Supremes). The album is composed both of new compositions and of older recordings, with the oldest dating back as far as three years prior. So this is one last hoorah for the classic Supremes, though of course their sound had already begun to evolve by this point, and the influences of mid-sixties musical experimentation are evident on a select number of the album’s tracks.

 

Part II: The Music

You Keep Me Hangin’ On: A single-note guitar lick pans back and forth, evoking the sound of Morse code (an effect which would be revisited by the group with the song “Reflections”). The organ is decidedly psychedelic, and though the punchy drums have that typical Motown feel (it is still the Funk Brothers—Motown’s arsenal of session musicians—performing, after all), the beat is a little more laid back than usual, welcoming the listener into a new era of inhibition. The two sections of the song contrast more than is usual for a Supremes song, and the verses are much more adventurous as far as the chord progression is concerned (while there aren’t any unexpected turns, the song travels from chord to chord quite a bit before returning to the chorus, adding a level of complexity to the song writing). Diana’s vocals definitely sound double-tracked, adding a bit of punch to the floatier moments of the song. My favourite moment comes one minute and sixteen seconds into the song, where Florence’s vocals come to the forefront (I’m predictable like that). Overall, a very worthy addition to the parade of HDH-penned Supremes hits. RATING: 9/10

You’re Gone (But Always In My Heart): As far as slower, melancholy Supremes songs go, this is run of the mill. You can feel the sense of longing both in Diana’s delicate sentimentality and in the sulking brass section (the playing really has this deflated, disheartened quality to it). The musical style here verges on traditional pop. It’s not a memorable song though; you’ll probably forget all about it as soon as it ends. RATING: 5.5/10

Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone: Speaking of predictability—harpsichord! You know this one’s getting a high score. The arrangement also a vibrant string section, with the overall sound falling halfway between baroque pop and bubblegum pop. The backing vocals are vaguely psychedelic. Another nice touch is the emphatic spoken word sections—it’s nice to see a bit of attitude to contrast Diana’s usual honeyed vocal tone. And while it’s the arrangement that does the trick for me, that’s not to say this isn’t an impressive composition. Not that we didn’t already know Dozier and the Holland brothers had an incredible sense of melody. RATING: 9.5/10

Mother You, Smother You: This feels like a retread—it attempts to recall the magic of “Baby Love,” albeit this song’s a bit more sappy. But this song sees the Supremes doing what they do best; it’s a fun, catchy pop song with a swinging rhythm and an instantly memorable melody. This is one of the older tracks, isn’t it? RATING: 6.5/10

I Guess I’ll Always Love You: One of the more recent recordings, this song was originally recorded by the Isley Brothers. The song occupies a middle ground between more orchestral-influenced instrumentation and the trademark Motown sound. It’s probably one of the most upbeat songs on the album. And since it was written by the usual trio anyway, it’s not like it’s any more of a cover than the other songs are. Or at least I didn’t think so until I heard the original. This is literally just Diana, Florence, and Mary singing over the same backing track that the Isley Brothers used. So on the one hand, it’s a lazy effort with an unengaging lead vocal. One the other hand, it’s a catchy tune, so who cares? RATING: 6/10

I’ll Turn To Stone: This could’ve easily been a single if it had been released a couple years earlier; it demonstrates HDH’s top-notch pop sensibilities. There’s nothing arrangement-wise to distinguish this track from the previous two. But with a killer melody and some decent vocals, you don’t really miss the experimentation that the album opening track deceived us into thinking we’d be getting. RATING: 7/10

It’s The Same Old Song: A Four Tops cover. Well… we get a different backing track this time. But it seriously lacks the punch and vibrancy of the original: the instrumental has been whittled down to a bopping bubblegum style. The tempo has been increased considerably from the original version in an effort to give the cover some distinctiveness. Unfortunately, the sax solo winds up being laughable as a result. But yeah, attuning the instrumental to suit the voices of the Supremes was a commendable effort. RATING: 5/10

Going Down For The Third Time: Diana seems to have woken up: she delivers a fiercer vocal lead this time around. The lyrics equate love with drowning, perhaps unoriginally, but there are a few standout images scattered here and there: “I’m like a ship all alone on a raging sea.” The horns during the pre-chorus section feel much more insistent as the singer makes her plea: “Bring back that love we knew / Darling let me live again.” “Going Down For The Third Time” isn’t as exciting as the singles, but it’s a quality album track composed in a similar vein. RATING: 8/10

Love Is In Our Hearts: And then this disappointment. I’m willing to bet this is another one of the older cuts—the melody feels very early-sixties. This bright-eyed, optimistic lovebirds song doesn’t hold a candle lyrically or musically to the stronger offerings on this album. Easily identifiable filler. RATING: 2.5/10

Remove This Doubt: With its sweeping string section, trickling piano arpeggios, and gloomy atmosphere, this song is completely and utterly out of place here. Don’t get me wrong—this is an amazing song. But it would’ve been more at home on I Hear A Symphony. I thought we’d established that the bulk of this album was going to hearken back to that classic Supremes sound? The backing vocals, which echo Diana’s emotive lead, are downright eerie—this is clearly the hidden gem of the album. RATING: 9/10

There’s No Stopping Us Now: Yeah, so here’s the thing. After that last song, I’m really not in the mood to go back to the standard Supremes fanfare. At least until the second time we get to the chorus, when I get sucked into that magic all over again. This song definitely suffers as a result of the album sequencing—I’d have made this the second track, or at least put it somewhere on Side A. Hell, literally anywhere other than where it actually got placed. The singer declares to her lover that together they can take on the world (that’s not literally in the lyrics, but that’s the gist of them), and the instrumental is appropriately confident and optimistic. The melody isn’t as memorable the melodies of the hits the song attempts to emulate, but if you can’t get enough of classic-era Supremes, you’ll like this one. RATING: 7/10

Love Is Like A Heat Wave: One of my biggest musical pet peeves is when an album ends with a cover song. The album closer is the last thing the listener hears; it should leave them mesmerized by what they just heard and eager to go back and listen again. When you throw someone else’s song at the end of your album, unless you’ve done a hell of a lot to make it your own, you’re squandering that opportunity. Consider this opportunity squandered. RATING: 3/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The monotone album cover completely fails to capture the essence of this album (I think they were going for a goldish hue—the Supremes themselves look like statuettes). It might’ve worked for a greatest hits collection, but for a full-fledged (er… one-third-fledged) studio album, it just doesn’t cut it. I’m conflicted about the title. Sure, the album is exactly what it says on the tin. But two other albums in the Supremes’ discography use the same title format: The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop and The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart. When you see an album title like that, you infer that the group is going to be interpreting songs from, well, somebody else’s songbook. And while that’s technically what this is, the Holland-Dozier-Holland song writing team were just as much a part of the Supremes as the girls themselves. So you end up with what sounds like a cover album but is really the most self-contained album the group ever put out. SCORE: 2/5

Artistic Merit: The newer tracks on the album do have a bit of an experimental edge to them, pushing the boundaries ever so slightly for this particular flavour of pop music. But the compilers of the album had to go and undo all of that by tossing a bunch of old throwaway tracks into the mix. Ultimately, this comes across as more of a compilation than an album. SCORE: 1/5

Flow: I say this album’s a compilation because it sounds like one. While there is a consistency to the core Supremes sound, the album’s really all over the place in terms of the arrangements and song writing techniques. And whose awful idea was it to hide one of the more impressive pop-oriented tracks after the most emotionally moving song on the album? And whose awful idea was it to end with a cover? SCORE: 2/10

CLOSING REMARKS:

You could make an argument for this being the last real Supremes album. The Holland-Dozier-Holland song writing team stuck around for one more album (Reflections) before packing it up and departing from Motown records, sure. But subsequent albums abandoned that classic Supremes sound in favour of a more current sound. And of course, this was the last album of original material to feature Florence Ballard as a member. And she was arguably the heart of the group. So enjoy this album for what it is: the end of an era.

FINAL SCORE: 58

 

 

The Rolling Stones – Between the Buttons

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Part I: The Background

Between the Buttons sees the Rolling Stones at perhaps their most experimental, barring their subsequent effort, Their Satanic Majesties Request. The album is easily the stronger of the two projects. It was recorded at the height of mid-sixties experimentation, and the complex backing tracks employed the use of many overdubs and mix-downs. Brian Jones was still heavily involved with the band during this period, and he drove them to explore new sounds through varied textures and instrumentation. This album sees the Stones embracing both psychedelia and their British roots. The American version of the album differed from the UK version in that it included the singles “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday” in favour of “Back Street Girl” and “Please Go Home”.

 

Part II: The Music

Yesterday’s Papers: This album’s such an oddity in that it’s very un-Stones-like. Just look at this album opener for example. The steady backbeat, heavy bass guitar, and graceful vibraphone give the song a Motown sort of feel, while the harpsichord, played by frequent Phil Spector collaborator Jack Nitzche, and the falsetto backing vocals add a mid-sixties trippy vibe to the song. Atypical of the Stones, many of the songs on this album aren’t very riff driven. “Yesterday’s Papers” is no exception—Keith Richards’ guitar is just another element that adds texture to the composition rather than calling attention to itself. Lyrically, the song portrays romantic relationships as a transient, fickle thing thing—yesterday’s girl is old news, and the singer moves on to the next girl just as people move on to the latest trends. After all, the sixties were a time of constant evolution and of exploring new and exciting things: “I’m living a life of constant change / Every day means the turn of a page.” RATING: 8.5/10

My Obsession: This one’s a bit more of a straightforward rocker, though Richards’ guitar still isn’t as prominent as it usually is; rather, the song revolves around Charlie Watts’ drumming. The song features some exquisite, drawn-out, psychedelic harmonies. Otherwise, the songwriting here isn’t all that distinguishable from the typical mid-sixties Stones fanfare; the song wouldn’t be all that out of place on their previous effort, Aftermath. I should also probably mention that Brian Wilson claims this is his favourite Stones song. Not a bad choice, but I wouldn’t say it’s one of the highlights of the album. RATING: 8/10

Back Street Girl: This baroque pop waltz, however, is. An accordion adds a little romantic flair to the song, distinguishing it from its gloomier predecessor, “Lady Jane”. Contrasting the beauty of the arrangement are some pretty stuck-up lyrics: now matter how sweetly Jagger sings the song, it’s still a singer addressing a mistress who’s below his station (“You’re rather common and course anyway”) and putting her in her place. There’s a very strong eighteenth-century feel both lyrically and sonically, though the illusion is sort of broken when Jagger sings, “Please never ring on the phone.” Regardless, it’s one of the better songs on the album. It doesn’t feature on the American version, and that’s a real shame. RATING: 9/10

Connection: Connection is danceable rocker with a steady Motown beat. Although the song isn’t very adventurous musically, the melody takes a few unexpected turns, keeping the listener engaged. This song not only has the same energy as “My Obsession”, but it also succeeds in all the places that that song doesn’t. Sonically, there’s not very much that’s psychedelic about this song. There’s a bit of drug-related subject matter when we get to the line “My bags, they get a very close inspection / I wonder why it is that they suspect them,” but that’s about it. Lyrically, the song isn’t that impressive—it prioritizes maintaining its central rhyme scheme over evocative imagery. It’s a good thing, then, that the rhythm is so infectious. RATING: 9/10

She Smiled Sweetly: Jagger employs a more sentimental tone here. Altogether, his vocals come across as a little forced and unnatural. Actually, he sounds congested—perhaps he had a cold during the recording of this song. A solemn church organ rings out in the background (I wouldn’t quite say it’s matrimonial), with the rhythm section filling out the bulk of the instrumental. It’s a pensive tune with a soulful element to it that just further goes to show how varied this album is stylistically. RATING: 7.5/10

Cool, Calm and Collected: A jaunty—and very British—music hall–inspired romp with an Eastern influence during the chorus. Like a handful of songs on the album, it’s bitter towards its female subject; this one’s about a manipulative woman who puts on a façade in order to get what she wants. The third verse, however, provides a hint of redemption: the woman does seem to be a little insecure, but she is determined not to let it show: “But behind she is not without care / But she sweeps it right under her hair.” Oh, and there’s a kazoo solo. It’s songs like these that prove that the Stones were just as capable of expressing British eccentricity as Paul McCartney and Ray Davies. RATING: 10/10

All Sold Out: This is a nice little fusion of old and new. At its core, this song is par for the course for the early Stones, but the psychedelic harmonies and out of tune woodwind (a bit of research seems to suggest it was a recorder) at least attempt to update the rock and roll sound for the psychedelic era. Unfortunately, the stereo mix for this song is absolutely dreadful—it’s congested and imbalanced to the point that it becomes uncomfortable to listen to. Actually, the mono version doesn’t sound much better to me. RATING: 7/10

Please Go Home: A bit of experimental feedback at the beginning of this song doesn’t do much to save it from being a cacophonous mess. Very oddly, the Stones contrast a Buddy Holly inspired rocker with some pretty psychedelic delay effects and guitar tones—and is that a theremin I hear? Still, no amount of studio trickery can make this song anything more than average. RATING: 5.5/10

Who’s Been Sleeping Here?: This is totally a Bob Dylan impersonation (and not a bad one at that). The singer’s under the impression that his girl has been unfaithful to him, and in his attempt to find out with whom, he runs through an extensive (and ridiculous) list of possible suspects, including “the noseless old newsboy” and “the old British brigadier”. It’s a humorous, harmonica-heavy tune with allusions to Goldilocks. RATING: 6/10

Complicated: Now we’re talking. Psychedelic organ, raunchy beat, sinister melody—this really is my favourite era for the Stones. And a little fuzz guitar never hurts. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this song with “Cool, Calm and Collected”; the two songs are quite similar lyrically, though the aggression manifests more so in the music here rather than in the lyrics, I’d say. RATING: 9/10

Miss Amanda Jones: This song begins as a pretty straightforward rocker (albeit with a bit of parlor piano brightening up the sound) before diving into one of my favourite hooks on a Rolling Stones album: “Hey girl, don’t you realize the money invested in you? / Hey girl, you just got to find someone who’ll really pull your family through.” This song’s a much more fleshed-out character sketch—the titular Amanda Jones is supposedly a young lady of nobility who seems to just want to party. She hasn’t yet had her “coming out” (i.e. she hasn’t made her public debut yet), so we can imagine the character as a rowdy youth who isn’t living up to the expectations of her well-to-do family. I’m no usually big on straightforward rockers, but that chorus is just so damn catchy! RATING: 10/10

Something Happened to Me Yesterday: The Stones go full-on music hall for the album closer (recall what I was saying earlier about British eccentricity). There’s not really any way to deny that this one’s a drug song: “It’s really rather drippy / But something also trippy / Something happened to me yesterday.” Brian Jones provides a delightful brass band interlude, while Richards gets his first ever lead vocal during the chorus. Jagger signs off at the end of the song via a brief spoken passage reminiscent of that of a radio broadcast. For a band that spent so much time imitating Americans, the Stones sure were a riot when they embraced their Britishness. This is the most fully-conceptualized song on the album and a perfect closer to one of the most underrated entries in the Stones’ discography. RATING: 10/10

American Version: As I mentioned earlier, the American version of the album swapped out two of the tracks for the concurrent singles. I’m not going to count these songs towards the album’s final score, but since I won’t get to talk about them anywhere else, I may as well take the opportunity.

Let’s Spend the Night Together: Probably one of the best rockers the Stones put out during Brian Jones’ tenure in the band. As a song about sex, it was controversial at the time (when the band performed it on the Ed Sullivan show, they were forced to change the lyrics to “let’s spend some time together”). It’s pretty straightforward in terms of instrumentation, though as usual, Brian Jones’ droning organ really fills out the sound in the back half of the song, improving an already impressive tune (let’s not downplay the talents of Jagger and Richards as songwriters). RATING: 9/10

Ruby Tuesday: This psychedelic/baroque pop piece not only boasts one of the most memorable melodies in the Stones’ catalogue, but also some of the best instrumentation. Brian Jones contributes a fluttering recorder part as while Bill Wyman and Keith Richards play a solemn double bass line. The lyrics are an evocative piece of semi-psychedelic poetry that still manage to convey a clear narrative (the song is about a free spirit that the singer is enamoured with—there are contrasting reports about the real-life inspiration for the song, one of which being Richards’ girlfriend Linda, who had become involved with none other than Jimi Hendrix). It’s the timeless melody and the stunning arrangement that make this song such an emotional trip. RATING: 10/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The songs were incredibly produced, though occasionally they become a bit muddled, as the band really only had 4-track recorders at their disposal. The new textures and sounds that they tried to capture really make this album stand out from the rest of their discography; I’d say never was Brian Jones’ presence more felt than in this album’s aesthetic. I’ve always liked the album cover; the band appears in a blurry haze, created by a camera filter. I’m not really sure what “Between the Buttons” is supposed to mean, but it winds up being pretty appropriate, as the album lies somewhere in between the more R&B-inspired rock and roll of the band’s previous albums and the chaotic, drug-addled mess that was to follow. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: Despite being a few years removed from their classic period, this album is surprisingly solid. It demonstrates a versatility that would never again be seen throughout the career. The experimentation here never becomes excessive or indulgent. You might say that this is their answer to Revolver. Even so, there are an abundance of moments where the band slips back into their comfort zone, churning out straightforward rock and roll numbers. SCORE: 4/5

Flow: While the stylistic variation makes for an album that isn’t flawlessly cohesive, I’ve never considered that to be much of a fault. The frequent shifts in tone and atmosphere keep you engaged with the album from start to finish; there isn’t an excess of dull moments on this record, nor do the songs ever really start to feel repetitive (a symptom that would plague many a later day Rolling Stones album). SCORE: 6/10

CLOSING REMARKS: I’m one of the rare Stones fans who prefers their 60s output to their 70s output, and this is the best of the bunch. In combination with singles like “Ruby Tuesday” and “She’s A Rainbow”, this album proves that the Stones were more than capable of playing the experimental/psychedelic game, they just happened to go a little overboard. Between the Buttons is pretty overlooked compared to the band’s more well-known output (of course it is: the UK version of the album doesn’t even have any singles on it!). But it’s definitely an album that’s deserving of your attention, especially if you’re into mid-sixties baroque pop and psychedelia.

FINAL SCORE: 80

 

 

 

 

 

The Monkees – More of the Monkees

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Part I: The Background

The Monkees released their sophomore effort (or rather, their sophomore effort was released) while their TV show was at the height of its popularity. Musically, the album doesn’t differ all that much from their debut—the ripple effect of 1967 had yet to begin during the album’s recording sessions, and so the album isn’t really all that tinged in psychedelia and out-there soundscapes. That said, it is a decent pop album, even though the group wouldn’t begin to (or be given permission to) realise their artistic potential until their next album (and much like on their debut, the instrumentation here is primarily handled by studio musicians). Boyce and Hart once again make contributions in the way of songwriting (though they don’t dominate this album like they did the last one), and so do a few other big names: Sandy Linzer (known for his work with The Four Seasons), songwriting duo Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and of course Neil Diamond, who penned the band’s most well-known hit, “I’m a Believer”.

Around the time of the album’s release, the Monkees were beginning to fight back against their management to be allowed to perform as an actual band. Up until then, they’d been refused any sort of artistic freedom and were obliged to merely fill their contractual roles. This album is no exception—it was culled from a series of studio recordings without any intervention from the band themselves. Apparently, they didn’t even know about the album until they saw it in a record shop. Mike Nesmith, the budding songwriter of the group, was the most vocal in his displeasure with the album, calling it “the worst album in the history of the world”. Fortunately, it’s not as bad as that.

 

Part II: The Album

She: I said that the album isn’t steeped in psychedelia, but the harmonies, sonic textures, and melodies on this album are nevertheless fitting for the year they were released. “She” kicks off the album full of promise. It’s a groovy pop song with bright, emotive vocals from Dolenz. Steady electric guitar chords give the verses a linear, regimented sort of feel, while the middle eight gives way into a looser, more relaxed rhythm, followed by a melodic yet tonally lackluster organ solo. It’s a great album opener, but far from one of the most interesting tracks in the band’s oeuvre. RATING: 7/10

When Love Comes Knocking (At Your Door): Sappy, sentimental Davy Jones. But the chord progression takes a number of unexpected and refreshing turns, and therein lies the beauty of the song (there’s even a chromatic descent—you know how much I love those!). The twinkling in the background adds an almost dreamlike quality to the bouncy, starry-eyed tune. Oh, and here’s a tip: if you hear Davy Jones singing in a saccharine sort of way, don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics—doing so will only hamper your enjoyment. RATING: 7.5/10

Mary Mary: The first of Nesmith’s contributions to the album. Oddly, this is more of a straightforward rock and roller (Nesmith’s songs usually have more of a country-influence to them). Dolenz provides a laid-back lead vocal here on this altogether uninspired track—the song lacks the adventurous chord shifts of some of the other songs, and it feels rather sluggish. Rockers should not feel sluggish. RATING: 5/10

Hold On Girl: Now this is more like it—and I’m not just saying that because of the baroque-influenced keyboard part. But these hazy, somewhat ominous arpeggios are exactly what I associate with this era of music. The chorus provides a sense of relief, as we transition into something more dreamy and gentle. The music perfectly fits the lyrical content too: the tension during the verses emphasizes the sense of disorientation and glumness of the girl who’s had her heart broken while the reassuring tone of the chorus is reassuring and offers a sense of hope: “Now that we are together / Things are gonna be better.” RATING: 9/10

Your Auntie Grizelda: Structurally, this is a blues song, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing; it’s so boisterous and colourful. A fuzz guitar mimics the bassline here, adding a bit of a psychedelic edge to the song. The lyrics are about the titular self-righteous, overbearing aunt of the singer’s paramour—it’s played for laughs, of course, though the song is simultaneously a desperate plea and a solemn warning to the girl, who, much to the singer’s dismay, seems to be taking after her aunt. Peter Tork was the perfect choice for vocalist here; I’ve always thought there was something comical about his conversational singing voice (and that’s not meant to be a slight). The silly, over-the-top vocal improvisations during the instrumental breakdown, however, I could do without. RATING: 8/10

(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone: We’re getting a bit more psychedelic now. One of the heavier cuts on the album, “Steppin’ Stone” remains pretty static musically, effecting a sort of drone. The instrumentation and vocals are full of attitude—there’s a real edge to this song. The singer demands to be acknowledged—this is the youth protesting the establishment in attempt to gain their rightful place in the world. Some studio experimentation would’ve improved this one though—potent though it is, it does ultimately fall a little flat. RATING: 6.5/10

Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow): Yeah, this is unimpressive album filler. This Neil Diamond–penned track features a dynamic shift during the chorus, but offers little much else of interest. The steady beat, accentuated by handclaps, is the most appealing aspect of the song. Davy’s breathy I love you’s at the end, however, are cringeworth enough to derail the track entirely. RATING: 3/10

The Kind Of Girl I Could Love: Okay, this is trademark Nesmith. Country twang, infectious Peggy Sue–like rhythm, and a whole lot of melody. An underwhelming guitar solo is one apparent flaw, but it doesn’t really detract from the song much. More than anything, this song’s a promise of great things to come from a developing songwriter. The “You do something to my soul that no one’s ever done” section is easily the highlight of the song. RATING: 8/10

The Day We Fall In Love: Don’t let the modulated opening to this song fool you; this is not a good song. This is the antithesis of a good song. Who on earth thought it would be a good idea to get Davy to speak the lyrics in an overly-intimate, breathy tone? (That’s a rhetorical question; I know exactly what they were trying to do with this song.) The tragedy here is that the instrumental, sappy though it is, isn’t actually all that bad. Shame about those vocals. I wouldn’t even go so far as to call this a spoken word piece. Absolutely awful. RATING: 1/10

Sometime In The Morning: This is a bit of an odd one out—lyrically, this song’s much more mature than the rest of the album. The singer’s reflecting on how being in love with this person has opened their eyes to all the beauty of the world; it’s a really pretty song, penned by Goffin and King. The guitar arpeggios have a weightless, serene feel to them here—the smitten sense of wonder really comes through in the music. Dolenz’ vocals here are delicate and sensitive to fully convey the potency of the lyrics. RATING: 8/10

Laugh: The penultimate song on the album has a very Monkees sort of feel to it, from the playful instrumental to the seemingly innocuous lyrics that are actually critical in nature when you break them down (the song’s basically saying that everything kind of sucks, but no one’s really paying attention because they’re too absorbed in the music, which serves as a form of escapism). There’s even a bit of Beatlesque snark here: “Laugh when you go to a party / And you can’t tell the boys from the girls”. But, if you’ll notice, I don’t really have much else to say about this one. RATING: 6/10

I’m A Believer: Is it blasphemy to say that I don’t really like this song? Like most people my age, my first exposure to this song was through the awful Smashmouth cover. Then I learned it was a Monkees song. Then I learned it was actually a Neil Diamond song. Okay, I can see why this was such a big hit. But it’s just so lacking in energy: Dolenz’s vocals are downright lazy and the beat just sort of bops along. It’s danceable, sure, but it’s hardly exciting. The melody is timeless, I suppose. All in all, it’s not a bad song to be known for, but it’s hardly the pinnacle of the Monkees’ discography. RATING: 7/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: Let’s be honest, there wasn’t much thought put into this, was there? The album sells because of the Monkees brand, and that’s that. The cover is bland an unappealing with an ugly photo of the band set against a pukey green. “More of the Monkees” is a lazy title. It is apt though—there’s really nothing musically that distinguishes the songs here from those on the first album. The two are completely interchangeable. SCORE: 1/5

Artistic Merit: The bare minimum, in this case brought to the table by the various collaborators rather than the band themselves. At this point, the Monkees were still very much a manufactured band, and this was a manufactured pop album. It’s not a bad one, but there’s not much to impress here beyond a handful of catchy tunes. SCORE: 1/5

Flow: The album’s listenable in the sense that the songs all have a similar aesthetic, but as I’ve already mentioned, so did the ones on the last album. This isn’t so much an album as it is a collection of songs to be released as singles and featured on the TV show. I mean, I say that like it’s some sort of revelation but it’s not—that’s just a fact. The songs were recorded for the show, the album was compiled for a quick buck (seriously, look it up). SCORE: 3/10

CLOSING REMARKS: I’ve criticized this album for not being all that forward-looking, but that’s really a bit of unfair; it’s not like there wasn’t pop music in 1967. There was plenty of it, and as far as 1967 pop goes, I’m not sure it gets much better than the Monkees. And while the later albums are a lot better, the first two albums are really what the whole Monkees mythos is built upon. At any rate, don’t pass this one up just because it isn’t an artistic masterpiece—as I hope I’ve made clear, there’s plenty here to merit a listen.

FINAL SCORE: 55

 

 

 

 

 

The Doors – The Doors

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Part I: The Background

The Doors’ self-titled debut album officially marked the beginning of one of the greatest years in the history of popular music. The majority of the album consisted of songs culled from their then-current live set. While a number of albums released the previous year laid the groundwork for psychedelic experimentation, The Doors were really one of the first major groups to take psychedelia and turn it into a full-fledged musical genre. While the album did employ the use of overdubbing, the instrumentation is contained primarily to the four-piece band themselves—unlike some of the wildly experimental works of the time, the songs on this album could be performed live. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to have been much lead-up to the album, with its biggest single “Light My Fire” not having been released until months after the album was already out. What The Doors brought to the table was not only their fresh new sound, but also a healthy dose of attitude and charisma, thanks largely to lead vocalist and frontman, Jim Morrison.

 

Part II: The Music

Break On Through (To The Other Side): Their debut single opens the album. The song’s appeal comes from the dynamic contrast between the swinging, bossa nova–style verses that gradually crescendo into a boisterous, raucous roar—Morrison shouts out the chorus, breaking free from his restraints and tapping into something primal. The real key to The Doors’ sound, however, was Ray Manzarek’s organ, and I find his solo here a little underwhelming—only towards the end of the track does he really let loose, but as his organ is buried low in the mix at this point, he doesn’t exactly break on through. RATING: 8/10

Soul Kitchen: Morrison employs the same technique here, reserving his vocal outbursts for the chorus to create dynamic contrast but also emphasizing his lyrics—Morrison, after all, was a great poet. We get a sequence of confused images as Morrison navigates through a hazy, late-night landscape (but of course, you can read into the lyrics much deeper than their surface-level interpretations): “The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes / Street lights shed their hollow glow.” A lot of The Doors’ output is best appreciated as poetry set to music; the band settles into a steady groove here, allowing Morrison’s vocals to take the spotlight. RATING: 6/10

The Crystal Ship: Manzarek’s organ takes on a funereal quality in this eerie song. The creepy verses give way to an ethereal instrumental interlude—one of the most breathtaking moments on the album. The song carries a heavy emotional weight, with Morrison’s lyrics reflecting on a lost love, though what the titular crystal ship signifies is anyone’s guess—perhaps it hints at a life of indulgence (“a thousand girls / a thousand thrills”) which may seem appealing at first (we are attracted to the shimmer of the crystal) but is, ultimately hollow (a crystal, at the end of the day, is transparent). Or perhaps the singer would rather escape his reality (“I’d rather fly”) than deal with the emotional turmoil of everyday existence, which the subject of the song seems to favour (“You’d rather cry”). I’ve always felt that psychedelic music is at its best when it’s simultaneously sinister and beautiful, and this song definitely pulls off that juxtaposition. RATING: 9/10

Twentieth Century Fox: This one’s a little less abstract—it’s a caustic portrait of the shallowness of the eponymous twentieth century fox, the modern gal. Her obsession with superficiality leads to a sort of bliss, as she is oblivious to the harsh realities of the world around her: “No tears, no fears / No ruined years, no clocks.” But Morrison twists the image around here—rather than portraying the character as sheltered within a little bubble, she remains liberated while keeping the world itself “locked up inside a plastic box.” Musically, the song treads the same ground as the song preceding it, that is until the “No tears, no fears” section, in which Manzarek amps up the psychedelia with an arpeggiated organ lick. Kreiger’s guitar solo, which follows, returns the track to its more traditional rock and roll roots. RATING: 7/10

Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar): One of the two cover songs on the album (the song dates back to the 1920s) also happens to be arguably its best—this is The Doors at their trippiest. Alabama Song has all the trappings of a cabaret-style romp while Manzarek adds a carnivalesque psychedelic texture to the song with the pitter patter of his marxophone (look it up—it’s a really neat sounding instrument). Really, the song sounds exactly like the kind of thing you’d expect to hear while riding a carousel, and it’s just as fun. The Doors successfully make the song their own, and it’d blend in perfectly with the rest of the album if it weren’t such a standout track. RATING: 10/10

Light My Fire: The Doors’ biggest song perfectly captures their essence: it’s psychedelic, but Morrison’s stylized, reverb-drenched vocals also have a crooning quality reminiscent of Elvis. The extended organ solo here hints at the excesses of psychedelia, while the double entendre of the lyrics blend sexuality with drug culture: “You know we couldn’t get much higher / Come on baby light my fire.” As such, “Light My Fire” is one of the defining songs of the 1960s and one of the prototypical psychedelic masterpieces. RATING: 10/10

Back Door Man: This hard-rocking bluesy number marks a bit of a departure from the rest of the album—Manzarek and Morrison rein in their performances here, allowing guitarist Robby Kreiger and drummer John Densmore to dominate the soundstage. It’s a decent cover, chocked full of attitude, but ultimately this wouldn’t be out of place on any early- to mid-60s album. RATING: 6/10

I Looked At You: Speaking of which, swap out Morrison for your favourite 1960s British vocalist and subtract Manzarek’s keyboards and you’d have what could easily be a Merseybeat-era rock song. Okay, the “too late” section does have that unexpected, chromatic sense of dissonance that wouldn’t come into prominence until the mid-60s. At the very least, the song sounds more 1966 than 1967. “I Looked At You” is one of the catchier tunes on the album melodically, however, and probably could have passed for a single. RATING: 7/10

End of the Night: Here’s that sinister aspect of psychedelia rearing its head again—the delay on the organ and the music box–like twinkling create a suspenseful, phantasmagorical atmosphere. Even the guitar solo here seems like a distant dream—a hazy, haunting vision from afar. The song begins to hint at some of the more experimental sounds and textures the band would dabble in on their next album. RATING 8/10

Take It As It Comes: Here’s one last psychedelic romp. “Take It As It Comes” has a swagger that not even the Stones could pull off at this point in time and a keen sense of melody to boot. But the highlight of the song is the organ—the song arguably features Manzarek’s most energetic, engaging performance on the album. The lyrics are once again steeped in double entendre, conflating the philosophical and the metaphysical with the sexual. RATING: 8/10

The End: This nearly 12-minute-long epic that closes out the album takes the listener on a transcendent, psychedelic journey. It begins innocuously enough, with Morrison delivering some introspective lyrics in a smooth, musical tone over a subdued instrumental. The funereal piece—with the organ droning on in the background—repeatedly swells and settles, leaving the listener in suspense. The lyrics become more and more abstract: “Ride the snake / He’s old and his skin is cold.” The song then transitions into a spoken-word section, featuring Morrison’s interpretation of Oedipus in which his vocals rise into an unintelligible growl, which is followed by dissonant guitar plucking before the piece settles back into a steady groove. But the song then quickly descends into chaos, with Morrison repeating the word “fuck” over and over again rhythmically while the music becomes increasingly frantic before the song finally ends back where it began: “This is the end / My only friend, the end.” This dramatic, evolving piece serves as the perfect end to an amazing album. RATING: 10/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: Simple though it may be, the album cover is iconic. I love how it captures the sinister, psychedelic mood of the album without having to rely on any sort of lens flare or distortion gimmick. And The Doors didn’t really get more Doors-esque than on their debut album, so the name is fitting here. This isn’t a heavily-produced album, at least not in the excessive over-the-top sort of way as would become the norm for the late 60s. But the production serves the album well. SCORE: 5/5

Artistic Merit: The Doors weren’t compromising in their artistic merit, but despite being one of the progenitors of the psychedelic rock sound, this album isn’t as out there some of their later work—as I’ve already mentioned, a handful of the album’s songs wouldn’t have been out of place a year or two prior to its release. SCORE: 4/5

Flow: The album does have a cohesive sound that remains constant for its duration. There aren’t really any moments where the album seems to drag either—certain songs outshine others, but even at its weakest moments the album remains above average. The sequencing for the most part saves the heavier songs for the end of the album, though there’s always enough variation between the tunes to keep the listener interested. SCORE: 8/10

CLOSING REMARKS: This is one of the all-time great psychedelic albums and is a must-listen for any fan of the genre. Even if some of the songs aren’t all that mind-blowing structurally and melodically, the sound of the band alone is enough to make this one hell of a listen. And the album also boasts a fair number of classics.

FINAL SCORE: 82

 

Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

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Part I: The Background

So apparently Kacey Musgraves has been making music for quite some time. She’s released a number of independent albums over the years, which I’m going to have to see if I can get my hands on at some point since, frankly, I’m a big fan. This is her first album released on a major label, so it’s a debut in some regards. Anyway, Kacey’s a country artist, but she’s known for her very progressive lyrics that have caused a bit of controversy (only because of her genre—her lyrics are actually really tame by normal standards). So I’m going to admit that Kacey was someone I didn’t discover until it was announced that she was going to guest on Brian Wilson’s No Pier Pressure album (this is incidentally also how I became a fan of Lana Del Rey—who didn’t end up making the final cut—and to a lesser extent, She and Him). I expected Kacey to be my least favourite of the three, considering their respective genres and my musical preferences. I was sorely mistaken.

Part II: The Music

Silver Lining: What better way to make a new lifelong fan than to start off right away with something that hits close to home? The brilliance of this song is that it’s not even really about anything specific; the message is that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. The song has instant appeal to anyone who’s going through… anything, really. Lyrically, the song isn’t all that impressive; Kacey rattles off more clichés than would be stomach-able in a single sitting were it not for the music. I usually let an album run all the way through during the first listen in order to soak it all in. But I wound up repeating this song over and over; just by listening to this song, somehow, everything seemed to start looking a lot brighter. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so moved by such a simple song. It mainly revolves around some acoustic picking backed by this melancholic, spacey note bend that sounds almost reminiscent of Dark Side of the Moon era Pink Floyd. Kacey then starts singing a melody that’s both gloomy and soothing at the same time. And when the chorus kicks in, you don’t just see that silver lining; you’re right up there in the clouds with it. RATING: 10/10

My House: Well, let’s be honest: anything was bound to disappoint after an opener like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with this tune. This ode to mobile homes features lyrics like: “If I can’t bring you to my house, I’ll bring my house to you.” It’s a cute little inoffensive song with a bouncy feel and an accessible melody. The arrangement is a little on the simpler side, but that serves the song well. RATING: 5.5/10

Merry Go Round: Then the album takes a bit of an unexpected turn. Kacey suddenly becomes quite critical. She’s disillusioned with her own way of life here, pointing out all the unpleasantness that lurks beneath the surface in contemporary, rural America: infidelity, drug abuse, and the rigidity of tradition. The heavy subject matter is juxtaposed with the children’s nursery rhyme interpolated during the chorus, only it’s twisted into something much more dark and depressing. Kacey’s at her best lyrically here, with “And just like dust we settle in this town,” being one of the song’s more potent lines. And there’s something sarcastic about the banjo plucking going on in the background. RATING: 10/10

Dandelion: Ah, the descending bass line. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: any song with a chord progression that revolves around a descending bass line is an instant win in my book. But what’s so great about the song writing here is that the song doesn’t just center on that moody musical pattern; it blossoms into something beautiful when we get to the chorus. This is probably one of the best compositions on the album, even if it is just a song about a failed relationship. It’s got this nice ethereal quality to it. RATING: 9/10

Blowin’ Smoke: This one’s got a bit more of a rock edge to it, but it’s the first real miss for me on the album. The music takes a bit of a backseat here as Kacey focuses on her storytelling instead, using a sequence of narratives about individuals who aspire to get themselves out of their respective slumps to call out anyone who has ever declared that they were going to achieve something and then never followed up on it. So while it might be interesting to pay attention to the lyrics here, musically, the song plods along, barely managing to retain interest. RATING: 4/10

I Miss You: The first thing that stood out to me about this song is that it follows a very similar chord progression to Radiohead’s Creep (and by extension, The Hollies’ The Air That I Breathe). And that’s one hell of a chord progression, as far as 4-chord songs go. It’s another heartbreak song, but you might see a trend here of the music overpowering the subject matter. This song would be a pleasure to listen to no matter what it was about. Arrangement-wise, it’s very simple, and very country, but it still manages to have this alternative feel. There’s also a really nice surf-rock-sounding guitar interlude that follows the chorus. RATING: 7.5/10

Step Off: I’ve never really enjoyed these confrontational songs where the singer tries to elevate themselves by touting positivity and all that. Luckily, Kacey doesn’t go too far down the rabbit hole—it’s her scathing wordplay that really makes this one. The titular phrase means something like just back off and leave me alone, that is, until you get to the last line of the chorus and, well, just have a look: “Just keep climbing that mountain of dirty tricks / And when you finally get to the top, step off.” SCORE: 6/10

Back On The Map: So here, Kacey’s looking for a new love to help her get over her past heartbreaks. But the music’s a bit of a drag. The verses build up to the choruses, only for an anti-climax; the choruses are as mellow and laid-back as the verses. That makes the song gloomy and melancholic, when really it should be about hope. Though I guess that does play into the whole idea of being lost and wandering around aimlessly. But basically, it’s a self-pity song, both lyrically and sonically. RATING: 3/10

Keep It To Yourself: All right, this is an interesting take on the same old subject matter. This time, rather than the singer pining over their lost love, the singer is assuming that the lost love still has feelings for them and is advising them not to act on it. Because they’ve already moved on. It’s refreshing in the context of this album. And we also get back on track here musically—the song still floats around the same melancholic bubble, but it’s an aesthetically pleasing bubble. RATING: 6/10

Stupid: Another song with more of a rock vibe too it, only it’s really good this time. Almost anthemic (she’s even got the harmonized “whoa”). It’s also got the stomp-clap rhythm, which it manages to pull off without actually having any stomping or clapping. After reflecting on the pains of love and loss for the majority of the album, Kacey finally comes to the conclusion that love is, well, stupid. But we fall for it every time, because we’re just as stupid. And what did I tell you about descending bass lines? RATING: 7/10

Follow Your Arrow: This should really be the anthem for the 2010s. It’s all about just doing you, no matter what that means. The song points out the paradoxes of modern society, coming to the conclusion that no matter what you do, somebody is going to take issue with it. So the solution? Do whatever the hell you want. And there’s something awesome about a country song that supports homosexuality (and marijuana!). She’s at her most country here musically, juxtaposing the musical style with her progressive lyrics. And when I say she’s at her most country here, I mean that in the best way possible; this also happens to be one of the most solid pieces of song writing on the album. RATING: 10/10

It Is What It Is: I mean, it’s another song about relationships, but the theme of acceptance can be extrapolated here to just life in general. Things are going to get really dark sometimes. Love isn’t going to last. You might think you can make a change, but it’s all just talk. And people are going to judge you, no matter what you choose to do. So all you can really do is accept it all: the good and the bad. But uh, I think I talked way too much about lyrics for this review. Let’s get back to the music. So the album closes with a slower, downbeat, acoustic number. It kind of comes full circle; we’re back to the tentative optimism of the opening track. The same gentle, dreamy atmosphere pervades this last track, making it a great send-off for the album, even if it’s not one of the stronger tracks. RATING: 5.5/10

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The production is actually quite stellar, as are the arrangements; each track gets exactly what it needs to let it shine. The title fits in with Kacey’s whole theme of putting a twist on old clichés. The album cover isn’t very interesting, nor is the booklet that comes with it. Are all the cactuses supposed to be symbolic of her rebelliousness (she’s a thorny plant rather than a flower), or is it just an odd design choice that I’m reading too much into? Seriously, there are even cactuses on the CD label. SCORE: 3/5

Artistic Merit: I won’t say that this album is flawless. As I’ve pointed out, a handful of songs seem to cover the same tired ground and lack a certain level of polish and craft. But the rest of the songs reflect the mind of an incredibly talented songwriter putting self-expression before anything else. This is an artist who isn’t afraid to take risks, and that’s kind of what I tend to look for in an artist. SCORE: 3/5

Flow: I wouldn’t say there’s a singular sound here. The album kind of explores the various ranges of musical expression that are possible while working within the confines of such a traditional genre. But that serves to keep things interesting. And the songs blend together well anyway—the only jarring moment on the album is Blowin’ Smoke. And whoever sequenced this album had the foresight not to bog down the listener with more than one moody heartbreak song in a row. SCORE: 6/10

CLOSING REMARKS: Kacey’s a very promising artist. I was hooked from the very first note of track one. The rest of the album may not have lived up to that, but that’s just because the bar was really set that high. Again, there are earlier albums that I haven’t heard, but for an album that is for all intents and purposes a debut album, this is really good. This album would probably be one of my go-to’s if I had to argue the case that people are still making good music these days.

FINAL SCORE: 68

 

 

Eminem – Encore

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Part I: The Album

Okay people. I’m going to say this once. Stop hating on Encore. Sure, this album (along with Relapse) sees Eminem at the peak of his drug addiction. But I think we can all agree that when he got clean, he got boring. This album is just downright weird, and that’s what makes it so awesome. It’s also one of his most musical albums—apparently after testing out his chops on Halie’s Song, he decided he could sing after all. The only valid complaint about this album is that it is responsible for the birth of the accent. If you’re an Eminem fan, you know exactly what accent I’m talking about.

Part II: The Music

Curtains Up: So the album’s got a bit of a concept, even if that concept only really figures into a handful of tracks. Supposedly, Eminem is performing a live show. Insert obligatory Sgt. Pepper’s reference here. So we literally begin with Eminem getting ready to walk on stage while the fans are chanting his name. RATING: 1/3

Evil Deeds: Picking up where we left off, the beginning of the song is accompanied by a screaming crowd and squeaking ropes as the curtain is pulled up. Right off the bat, Eminem comes out swinging with his melodic hooks on this Dr. Dre–produced track. We also get a taste of his unorthodox delivery on this album—during his first verse, Eminem repeats the ends of his lines over and over as if there were delay on his vocals. Eminem uses his favourite technique here of singing a melody in two different octaves at once to hide any inadequacies in his vocals, and it works quite well. Had this album come out a few years later, it would’ve been littered with autotune. Then again, maybe not; as far as I know, Eminem has yet to use autotune on any of his songs to date. I’ve also neglected to mention that this is one of the stronger tracks lyrically on the album, with those dark, autobiographical lyrics Eminem is known for best. RATING: 6/10

Never Enough: Another Dre track, and this one’s a bit more of a banger. Here, Eminem opines the fact that no matter how successful he is, he’s never really satisfied. It’s not a self-pitying track though; it’s all about the fact that he keeps on striving to reach new highs. The song’s highlight is the hook, sung by Nate Dogg. I mean, did a Nate Dogg hook ever not make a song awesome? There’s also a pretty decent 50 Cent guest verse. 50’s still in his prime here, so he actual delivers in terms of his lyrics and flow. RATING: 5.5/10

Yellow Brick Road: The first Eminem-produced track (with the help of Luis Resto, as is the case throughout the album) on the album, and it’s… psychedelic? Is that the best way to describe this track? Oddly, Eminem raps rather than sings the hook on this one. This song isn’t as excessively weird as it sounds—once again, the lyrics are autobiographical. Eminem sings about first meeting fellow D-12 member Proof, for example. Anyway, as much of an oddity as this song is, it never really stood out much to me. RATING: 6/10

Like Toy Soldiers: This is perhaps one of Eminem’s best songs (and one of his best beats!). Marching drums lay the foundation for this sombre reflection on the negative consequences of hip hop beefs (Eminem brings up his feuds with Benzino and his involvement in 50 Cent’s feud with Ja Rule). The song is full of Eminem’s trademark complex rhyme schemes, and his vocal delivery really helps him come across as a war-weary soldier. Sadly, this song will probably be best remembered for its music video, which hauntingly foreshadowed the death of Proof, who was shot and killed two years after the release of the album. RATING: 9/10

Mosh: Ah, this song. This is an anti–George Bush song. But unlike, say, Lily Allen’s Fuck You, this song is very up-front about its subject matter (he literally says “Fuck Bush”). This song also seems to continue the militaristic theme of the previous one, only this song is more geared towards revolution and political upheaval. The beat is one of Dre’s lazier efforts on the album. This was a really odd choice for a song to release as a single, and it really doesn’t work that well outside of its political context. RATING: 2/10

Puke: Eminem first graced us with his pop singing voice on the incredible Hailie’s Song. Here he does it again, only this time it’s a little more tongue-in-cheek. At its core, this is just another Kim (Eminem’s ex-wife, for the uninitiated) diss, isn’t it? But it’s so damn catchy! What I wouldn’t give for Eminem to put out a whole album’s worth of songs like this. I suppose I could do without the vomiting sound-effects that the track starts off with, but it’s worth sitting through it for one of Eminem’s most melodically pleasing tracks. Really fun to sing along to this one as long as the excessive foul language doesn’t put you off (but really, if you’re an Eminem fan, there’s nothing here that should surprise you). RATING: 8.5/10

My 1st Single: This feels like a filler track. The whole idea behind the song is that it was supposed to be the first single off the album, but Eminem’s offensive, inappropriate, and just downright lazy lyrics botched it. But it’s all just a joke—there’s no way a song this inceompetent was ever a contender for a single, let alone the lead single. It’s Encore-era Eminem by the numbers, as much of a contradiction as that seems. RATING: 3/10

Paul: Every Eminem album needs a Paul skit (and a Ken Kaniff skit, which we didn’t get on this album). This time, Paul’s not too happy about the lyrical jabs at the King of Pop. This placement of this skit on the album is pretty strange—it basically requires the listener to have already been familiar with the single Just Lose It, since that song doesn’t appear until after this skit. Also, what happened to the live show? I guess Eminem is taking this call while on an intermission? RATING: 2/3

Rain Man: The hidden gem of the album. Rain Man is a song about nothing, though Eminem touches on a wide number of subjects including Christopher Reeves, homosexuality, and once again, George Bush. It’s a stream-of-consciousness rap from one of hip hop’s most demented minds. What isn’t to love? The highlight of the song comes in verse three, where Eminem starts rapping the first verse over again only to realize he’s reading from the wrong lyric sheet (it’s intentional, of course, but it’s hilarious all the same)! RATING: 10/10

Big Weenie: Now that I’ve taken the time to do this review, I can totally understand why a large number of Eminem fans hate this album. Most of these songs are really, really stupid. But that’s also what makes this album so fun to listen to. That, and Eminem’s sing-song hooks. And Dr. Dre’s catchy beats. Eminem gets meta on this song again (he does that a lot during this album), with lyrics like this: “All right now I / I just flubbed a line / I was going to say something important but I forgot who or what it was.” Psyche! This time he admits that he did it all on purpose, bragging that he could “bust one tape without looking at no paper.” It’s that self-referential sense of humour that makes this album so fun to listen to. RATING: 5/10

Em Calls Paul: A sequel to the last skit. Eminem gives Paul a call back, only he’s got this weird robotic vocoder on his voice. It’s full of Michael Jackson puns, and that alone makes it worthwhile. But there’s also a hilarious twist: Eminem is making this call while on the toilet. Oh, and there’s foreshadowing. Foreshadowing? On an album? Yep. Eminem tells Paul that he has an idea about how he wants to end the show (remember how this album’s supposed to be a live performance?). More on that later. RATING: 2/3

Just Lose It: The actual first single from the album. Eminem has (or at least had before Recovery) a tradition of releasing a comedy song as the lead single off of each album. This song’s known for one of two things: Eminem’s ballistic scream that he performs throughout the track, or the music video, which mocks Michael Jackson and his allegedly fake nose. Apparently this is a Dr. Dre beat—I would’ve thought Eminem self produced this one. Just goes to show that the doc has a sense of humour too. Perhaps his protégé wound up rubbing off on him a little—this beat is silly and infectious in the way that only Eminem can be. RATING: 8.5/10

Ass Like That: This is another one of those really stupid songs that only works because of Eminem’s twisted sense of humour. This song is pretty much Eminem’s whole take on the big booty rap song. Only Em doesn’t just like big butts, he uh, disturbingly, likes all butts. Even Hilary Duff’s, though at least he comments on the fact that she isn’t quite old enough yet (she would’ve been around 16 at the time). And he’s not afraid (pun not intended) to tell you why he likes butts either: they “make [his] pee-pee go da-doing-doing-doing.” Anyway, this song probably gets a lot of ire because it’s the first song where Eminem uses his comedic accent, which is inspired by the puppet Triumph the Insult Dog, who he is impersonating on this track. When I get around to reviewing Relapse, you’ll see why this was the birth of a monster. RATING: 6/10

Spend Some Time: Whoa. Am I still listening to the same album? Talk about a major tonal shift. Spend Some Time is another one of this album’s standout tracks. Obie Trice, Eminem, Stat Quo, and 50 Cent all take their turn reminiscing about failed love affairs over one of Eminem’s more haunting beats. Tracks like this really highlight why this album is so great. Both Eminem and Dre bring their A-game to the production. The album is abundant with accessible melodies, and Eminem delivers them in a convincing manner that compensates for his lack of technical ability when it comes to singing (when he gets around to rapping, he of course steals the show with his legendary technique). It’s a lot easier to notice these things when the songs don’t revolve around irreverent humour. When Eminem gets serious, it’s really powerful. RATING: 9/10

Mockingbird: Speaking of which… Mockingbird. I’m not sure I can even put into words how touching this song is. Like Hailie’s Song, this is an ode to his daughter Hailie (and his niece Alaina). Eminem raps about his failures as a father and about how his life as a rap star has prevented him from having a normal family life. He also touches on Kim’s inadequacy as a mother, though he’s actually quite sensitive here, as opposed to his usual scathing criticisms of her. A sensitive, piano melody serves as the backdrop for this sentimental track. It’s hard not to tear up while listening to this one. RATING: 10/10

Crazy In Love: We get not one but TWO tracks on this album where Eminem sings instead of raps. This one isn’t as comical as Puke, because we’ve reached the serious part of the album now. Eminem reflects on his unhealthy relationships to the tune of Heart’s Crazy On You. The song’s major shortcoming is that it essentially covers the same ground as Spend Some Time, only less effectively. It’s a great tune nonetheless, really painting a vivid picture of how self-destructive these on-again, off-again relationships are. RATING: 7/10

One Shot 2 Shot: After the release of D-12 World earlier that year, it wouldn’t have been right for Eminem not to include a D-12 song on the album. This song presents a weird narrative about a gunfight breaking out in a club. We get to see how each of the members reacts to the situation. The highlight is, of course, Bizarre’s verse, where he sacrifices his wife to save his own skin. Again, this song is downright eerie to listen to given the circumstances surrounding Proof’s death (Proof, oddly enough, doesn’t appear on this track). But all that aside, this is a pretty average track as far as D-12 goes. RATING: 4/10

Final Thought: So remember that foreshadowing from earlier? It’s almost time for the payoff. But not quite yet. In this haunting skit, Eminem is completely silent as he approaches the stage for his Encore. His final thought is… absolutely nothing. RATING: 2/3

Encore: I grew up a huge 50 Cent and Eminem fan (and by extension, I had to love Dr. Dre, who supplied all of their hottest beats). So this song was like a dream come true: the Aftermath trio all together on a single track. And damn if it didn’t deliver! This song isn’t just the encore to the album, it’s the encore to the careers of the three men who shaped the sound of hip hop in the early 2000s. They get together and wow us one last time. The song’s even more potent because of how prescient it was. All three of their careers pretty much went downhill after this. Dr. Dre failed to put out his long-awaited Detox, choosing to focus on his Beats headphones instead, and wouldn’t make a musical comeback until 2015’s Compton. Eminem’s drug addiction got out of control, the result of which was the widely-panned Relapse. And then he got clean again, and he’s been incredibly dull ever since. 50 Cent managed to squeeze out one more classic album with The Massacre, but his career took a nosedive after his beef with the Game and after Kanye West basically stole the throne. Anyway, back on topic, the song ends with the long awaited finale to the fictional performance. So, how did Eminem decide to end the show? By shooting everyone in the audience before finally turning the gun on himself, that’s how. The song’s only flaw is that 50 Cent’s verse on this song is absolute trash! But I’m willing to overlook that because of how well his voice blends with Eminem’s on the hook. And of course, Dr. Dre delivers with a banging beat that revolves around some chanting and sparse piano. RATING: 10/10

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: This album’s aesthetic is the twisted wonderland of a drug-addled madman. And while Eminem doesn’t stick with the live performance concept any longer than The Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper’s, he doesn’t really need to—thanks to the frequent sing-song hooks and the consistent production work by Dr. Dre, Luis Resto, and of course Eminem himself, the album has a very unified feel. The album eerie album cover perfectly matches the tone of the album (although the booklet that comes with the CD has some pictures in it that spoil the ending). Even the art on the CD itself matches the theme of the album (it’s made to look like a suicide note). In many ways, this was Eminem’s encore—he was never the same person after this album. Aesthetic is one of the things that a lot of people unfortunately ignore when it comes to an album, and this is an example of an album that does it all perfectly. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: Eminem’s always been more about the controversy than the art. But this album is surprisingly artistic. What with its odd production choices, its recurring concept, its humour, and its melodic content, this is actually quite the departure for Eminem. But at the same time, only he could have produced this album. I firmly believe that, if it hasn’t happened already, this album will undergo a reappraisal at some point in the future and be heralded as Eminem’s masterpiece. SCORE: 3/5

Flow: For all of the reasons listed above, this definitely is a consistent listening experience. It’s not perfect though. The album is a little too long, for one. The transition from comedic tracks to serious tracks isn’t all that smooth—it’s kind of jarring to go from Ass Like That to Spend Some Time. And a couple of the tracks (Mosh and One Shot 2 Shot, for example) make for dull moments that slow down the flow of the album. But the everything else makes for a great listening experience. SCORE: 5/10

CLOSING REMARKS: So is it about time this album underwent a re-evaluation? I think so. Eminem has always had a sick, twisted mind. The only thing that makes this album different from his previous ones is that that sickness is no longer confined to the lyrics; it’s in the music too. But if you’re the type of person who can appreciate a bit of artistic weirdness, this album’s got plenty of replay value. It is by no means the abomination that some people make it out to be.

FINAL SCORE: 66

 

Britney Spears – …Baby One More Time

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Part I: The Background

Britney Spears was one of the biggest pop stars of the early 2000s. I wasn’t really old enough to be following pop music religiously when she was at her peak, but nevertheless, I was well aware of her hit singles. Who wasn’t, at the time? Britney got her start on the TV show The Mickey Mouse Club in the early nineties before dropping her debut album right at the tale-end of the decade. Though she rose to popularity at the turn of the century, she didn’t exactly usher in a new age of pop music; much of the same musical ground had already been covered earlier on in the decade by The Spice Girls. Nevertheless, Britney secured her place in the history of pop music with this album (and its follow-up Oops!… I Did It Again). She didn’t have much creative control over the album—actually, her input is quite minimal. But it’s a hell of a record all the same.

Part II: The Music

…Baby One More Time: The hit single that started it all. It hooks you in right from the opening piano riff. This Max Martin–penned track can only be described as a piece of sheer pop brilliance. Everything about this track catches your attention, from the slick guitar licks to the glorious 90s harmonies (why did pop music ever turn its back on harmonies?). The lyrical content paints a picture of Britney as young, naïve, and innocent; but at the same time, she’s confident and not afraid to speak her mind. The track is packed to the brim with hooks, from the verses, to the prechorus, to the chorus. RATING: 10/10

(You Drive Me) Crazy: We get the same, slick 90s production style here—complete with harmonies—only this song is much more… aggressive. I’ll just go ahead and say it: this song rocks. And that’s not something you can say often for modern pop music (does 90s music count as modern anymore though?). There’s even a short but sweet guitar solo! I would’ve been in elementary school (and, as I said, barely paying attention to the pop music world) when this came out, but I still get nostalgic listening to it. But that’s not to say its only strength is in the nostalgia factor; this is a damn good song. RATING: 9/10

Sometimes: To contrast with the high-energy of (You Drive Me) Crazy, here’s a ballad. It’s got a catchy beat, and doesn’t forego melody for sentimentalism. Her ballads would improve with her sophomore outing, but this song isn’t even remotely offensive in a musical sense. Here, Britney displays her vulnerable side, and that’s reflected in the soft and emotional vocal delivery. The song really does a great job of deconstructing the female object of desire as this elevated being raised up on a pedestal; Britney’s just as human as her admirers. RATING: 7/10

Soda Pop: What the hell happened? This is complete and utter garbage, and it damn near ruins the album. Whoever wrote this was taking the phrase “pop song” much too literally. The song features Mikey Bassie, who I will admit I have never heard of outside of the context of this album. It’s not that he doesn’t fit in well with the song; it’s that the song doesn’t fit in well with the album. It’s just a little too bright and cheery… it’s sickening. That’s the word I’m looking for. Have I given away the fact that I don’t like this song? RATING: 1/10

Born To Make You Happy: Thankfully, the next track returns to the trademark Britney Spears sound. Only the floating pads give the song a much dreamier feel. Lyrically, this song covers the same ground as …Baby One More Time, but it’s not as appealing. Why? Because it’s not anywhere near as bold. In the former song, Britney practically demands that her ex-lover take her back. Here, she’s essentially pleading with them, claiming that she basically only exists for the purpose of pleasing him. Musically, this is still a nice bit of ear candy though. RATING: 7.5/10

From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart: Another ballad, and it’s much sappier this time, as it’s a song about heartache. This one lacks the restraint of Sometimes and indulges in all of the nausea-inducing tropes of the modern ballad. But let’s not forget: this is still a carefully crafted pop album. Quality control must’ve been absent when Soda Pop was being recorded, but that’s not the case here. There’s enough melody here to keep you interested for… 5 minutes? Oh come on. For a song that doesn’t really go anywhere, that’s kind of pushing it, don’t you think? RATING: 6.5/10

I Will Be There: Easily my favourite song on the album. Arrangement-wise, this is the perfect blend between rock and pop instrumentation; the rhythm guitar riff that serves as the song’s centerpiece is downright infectious. This is also probably my favourite vocal performance on the album; Britney shows the kind of restraint that a song like this calls for while still subtly working in her little vocal flourishes. Oh, and it’s no surprise that this song’s also got those lovely 90s harmonies to propel it during the chorus. What really bolsters this song though is its positivity—it’s a song about being there for someone. That pronoun is crucial here; it’s what makes the song universal. The song isn’t explicitly romantic. It could just as well be about friendship, and that’s what gives it such a wide appeal. RATING: 10/10

I Will Still Love You: Really? Has it been too long since the last ballad? Did we really need another one? This one’s another duet, this time with a guy named Don Philip, who—once again—I’ve never heard of. And this one just takes a huge nosedive into sappy sentimentality; it’s an ode to eternal love. This one gets a failing grade in my book, despite having a couple decent melodies. Britney’s vocals actually do manage to get a little soulful here, which somewhat redeems this otherwise bland song. RATING: 4/10

Deep In My Heart: This dance-infused track only appears on the international edition of the album. It’s a bit of a departure stylistically, being more keyboard-driven than the rest of the album. Lyrically, it’s another song about the power of true love, but what really makes it is the disco-influenced arrangement and the keen sense of melody. RATING: 9.5/10

Thinkin’ About You: If there’s one song that scream teen-pop on this album, this is it. The chorus is just so cutesy, and not in a good way. The pre-chorus offers some interesting melodic turns, and Britney once again gets a little more soulful with her vocal delivery. Unimpressive album filler. RATING: 6/10

E-Mail My Heart: Oh, how dated this sounds. Hell, it probably sounded cheesy even back when e-mails were still the primary method of online communication. By the way, did you notice that the ballads on this album just get worse and worse as the album goes on? And it’s another one of those pathetic pleading-for-an-ex-lover-to-take-you-back songs. At least there’s a bit of an interesting melodic fluctuation at the end of the chorus, but considering we’re near the end of the album now, which is usually reserved for more evocative, introspective deep cuts, this song inevitably disappoints. RATING: 4/10

The Beat Goes On: Here’s something odd. A sixties cover? What business does that have on a Britney Spears album? I think that just goes to show how manufactured this album is—I’ll bet you she wasn’t the one who decided to do this cover. I guess it’s a serviceable cover, but it’s just not that interesting, unfortunately. And as an album closer, this fails big-time. RATING: 3/10

Bonus Tracks: There are also (at least) four bonus tracks on this album. There are two remixes of …Baby One More Time, which I’ve don’t really care for—they’re lazy dance mixes that have nowhere near the same edge as the original. I’ll include the other two tracks in my review though. We get another ballad: I’ll Never Stop Loving You (RATING: 5.5/10). There’s a bit of an R&B vibe to this song. I actually like it better than some of the ballads on the actual album. Sometimes the decisions about what to include and what not to include just puzzle me. And that’s especially true for the other bonus track: Autumn Goodbye (RATING: 8/10). This should’ve been the album closer—it’s another dance-influenced track, and is right up there with the best this album has to offer.

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: I don’t think it’s going to come as a shock to you when I say that this album has an excellent aesthetic. It’s perhaps not as polished as some of her later offerings, but this album really does capture that quintessential late 90s/early 2000s sound. The album is named after the smash hit single—go figure. I own both the standard and the international versions of the album, and they’ve got different covers. But both covers depict Britney as this pure, innocent girl next door. I’m not sure which cover I like better—in the standard edition cover (the pink one), the focus is on Britney and her cute little pose. In the international edition cover (the white one pictured below), the focus seems to be on her blonde hair; the colour scheme is very aesthetically pleasing. SCORE: 4/5

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Artistic Merit: Not so much on Britney’s part—she does do a bit of work with her vocals here, but some might argue that her vocals are quite cookie-cutter. I don’t really care to get into any of that. What I will say is that this album boasts excellent craftsmanship and some top-notch pop song writing (even if it does get a little dodgy at times). SCORE: 2/5

Flow: My only complaint here is the oversaturation of ballads. I mean, there aren’t even that many of them, it just feels like it because of the way the album’s sequence and because of how long some of them are. Also, the album kind of tapers off towards the end if you don’t count the bonus tracks. SCORE: 6/10

CLOSING REMARKS: I like this album a lot more than the score I gave it. While the debut isn’t as consistently strong as its follow-up, there is a naive sophistication that some of her later works lack; the fact that it’s not quite as polished as her later efforts is what gives it a lot of its appeal. And for a heavily manufactured album, the songwriting is exceptional.

FINAL SCORE: 64