Throughout the past fifty years or so, styles, genres, and attitudes towards music have come and gone. Waxing and waning with the social, political, and technological facets of each respective decade has been imperative on how musicians and groups approach and shape their music. Music – however pieced together – is created to send a message.
Whether a band is the frontrunner or pioneer of a certain musical clique or an expansive perpetuation of something that’s already around, particular albums – in this case, esoteric value – have remained fresh. From the twisted, psychedelic sounds that came from garages in the 1960’s, to the electronically synthesized beats of the modern day, it’s hard to pigeon-hole music to specific genres. But from the 1960’s onward, each decade has produced gems that outlast the years they were made in.
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Although not necessarily of pop importance, these albums have helped shape underground scenes, left-field-leaning sensibilities and communities of music. They’re worth a listen.
1966 – THE PSYCHEDELIC SOUNDS OF THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS
BY THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS
Right off the bat, the Austin, TX band, the 13th Floor Elevators, offers their eerie presence by band name alone. The number thirteen is commonly considered unlucky – for some reason or another – and often times elevators in high-rise buildings omit the number thirteen from the list of floors.
These mysteriously “triskaidekaphobic” fears seem perfect for a band like the 13th Floor Elevators, given their introspective, ego-exploring music and lyrics.
The tunes off The Psychedelic Sounds are all cut from a similar psychedelic cloth: jangly, surf guitars drenched in reverb with riding, spaced out drumming. Pioneer of psychedelic rock and founding member of the Elevators, Roky Erikson, sings “Instilling the values the sick define, that keeps the fabric that keeps you blind, and ties your hands and cloaks your mind,” on the track “Thru The Rhythm.”
It’s truly heavy material, and rightfully so; the album came out in the heavy time of Vietnam and civil rights struggles. The band’s only remotely popular song – appearing on the compilation of 1960’s psych-rock songs Nuggets – “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” utilizes the quirky sounds of an electric jug before breaking into a brief surfy intermission mid-song. It’s psychedelia – as the album title suggests – through and through.
United by the aphorism “Keep Austin Weird,” Austin, TX, has always been a community with a penchant for the strange, bugged out and deviant. What better home-base for a band that kicked open the doors of normalcy. But unlike a lot of psychedelic bands who flood albums with abrasive and unabashed idiosyncrasy, the Elevators never get too cluttered; they’re rock and roll with a wildly colorful tint.
1972 – EGE BAMYASI
It was 1972, and after three previous LPs and various personnel changes, the krautrock band, Can, posted up along the Rhine River in Cologne, Germany, to write their most accessible album, Ege Bamyasi. Both their band name and the album title are peculiarly arcane, and that’s part of their appeal.
Can’s influence is all across the board, from Radiohead, to Pavement, to Sonic Youth. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth said of Ege Bamyasi in Roni Sarig’s 1998 book The Secret History of Rock: The Most Influential Bands You’ve Never Heard, “I found Ege Bamyası in the 49-cent bin at Woolworth’s.
I didn’t see anything written about Can, I didn’t know anything about them except this okra can on the cover, which seemed completely bizarre. I finally picked that record up, and I completely wore it out.
On the track “Vitamin C,” drummer Jaki Liebezeit uses foot-heavy kicks and crisp snare strikes to create its intricate and interesting progression. Although the rhythm is atypical, it’s never forced and always flowing and worthy of a head-bob.
The opening 30 seconds of “Sing Swan Song,” is a sample of flowing water, prepping the listener and setting the scene for the serene, waltz-driven tune.
Vocalist Damo Suzuki sings lyrics in quasi-mantra form that act as a cryptic texture to complete the atmosphere. Kanye West sampled the entire framework of the song with “Drunk and Hot Girls.” West didn’t strip the dignity of the original though, choosing to keep the same flow and even some of Suzuki’s vocals intact. What’s fascinating about Can on Ege Bamyasi is their democratic format, instrumentally speaking. Too often in rock music the guitar takes an overwhelming role and grabs the spotlight.
This isn’t necessarily an abomination, after all, the guitar is what made rock and roll revolutionary.
1984 – DOUBLE NICKELS ON THE DIME
If there’s a magnum opus for the expansion of punk rock, it’s Double Nickels on the Dime. After the punk explosion in 1977, far too many bands perpetuated the punk rock sound, lifestyle and image, with too few bands comfortable or talented enough to augment the genre. Indeed, much of punk was based off a do-it-yourself paradigm.
But much beyond a middle finger to conformity, Minutemen unraveled the scene with Double Nickels by incorporating elements of jazz, funk, and country – a truly punk rock move. But a risky move if they cared what people thought, which they didn’t.
The Minutemen documentary “We Jam Econo” shows crowd members spitting on them during live performances. Perhaps the audiences were feeling shocked, confused, or abandoned. “This isn’t our punk,” some might have felt. But that didn’t stop Minutemen from expanding off the foundations of punk. The Southern California trio operated under the philosophy of “we jam econo,” which is a testament to their short song format.
On Double Nickels, only 12 of the 45 tracks extend past the two-minute mark. At times their lyrical content can be political, but not overwhelmingly so. On “Vietnam,” guitarist D. Boon shouts “Executive order, congressional decision, the working masses and manipulated.”
“Vietnam” is punk at its most danceable. Most people have probably heard their track “Corona” without knowing the original source. The show “Jackass” used the tune as their theme song, possibly to reflect their excited reckless abandon antics.
This Minutemen classic uses a polka-esque country swing as the rhythmic framework while Boon chugs along with treble-y guitar singing, “The dirt, scarcity, and the emptiness of our South.” The end result brings up images of some sort of weird, twisted punk hoedown. Double Nickels is punk at its very finest.
1995 – ALL SCREWED UP
BY DJ SCREW
DJ Screw’s catalog runs deep with well over 200 mix tapes. His style was tenacious, his approach was ingenious and his sound syrupy.
Born Robert Earl Davis, Screw is blatant in disclosing one of the primary influences on his type of hip-hop, codeine syrup. The Houston DJ created the genre known as chopped and screwed, a style founded by slowing down hip-hop songs to a lethargic crawl as a sort of call-and-response mimicking of the effects of codeine. After slowing down the tempo of a song drastically, Screw weaved in and out of densely bass heavy tunes by intercutting tracks, scratching and adding his own raps.
The end result is a smooth and mellow vibe. Ultimately, the beauty behind Screw’s influential technique of chopping and screwing is it slows down hip-hop so it’s easier to dissect and appreciate the individual qualities and aspects of the songs.
On “After I Die,” Screw remixes rapper Point Blanks song until its highly repetitive, aesthetically hypnotic and the perfect example of chopped and screwed. While his schtick was never about being able to scratch a record to kingdom come – as DJ Qbert or Mix Master Mike would–his ear for mixing was his dominating asset all along. At around 3:10, the climax of the song rolls around as Screw completely cuts out the sound for half a second, as if to shake listeners out of the syrupy stupor he subjected them to in the first place.
The aesthetic qualities juxtapose the lyrics in a sinister way, as Point Blank raps about street-hardened content.
2002 – GEOGADDI
BY BOARDS OF CANADA
Boards of Canada is one of those often-imitated-never-duplicated kinds of electronic operations. The down-tempo duo from Scotland generates their tunes exclusively from vintage and analog recording equipment, synthesizers and drum machines. Their washy, head-nodding beats are complimented by dense auras of delusionary soundscapes. Aesthetically psychedelic, the sounds drift in and out of the songs on Geogaddi, but never to a glitch or jumpy effect.
Perhaps their greatest asset as electronic musicians is their ability to keep their sound relatively pure. Over processing songs is the plight of many electronic musicians, a downfall Boards of Canada always manage to avoid. On the track “1969,” which is suspiciously four minutes and twenty seconds in length, the indolent feel that has become their watermark sits behind catchy drumming. Without sparing the flow or downright catchy aspects of the song, they throw in waxing and waning exhibits of cleverly syncopated rhythms. But behind the mix lies something more ominous than the blissful sounds might hint at.
Vocal samples read, “Although not a follower of David Koresh, she’s a devoted Branch Davidian,” throughout the track. Their fascination with cults and Satanism runs rampant through the 23-track album and it’s all a part of their textual framework.
They use these dark motifs as mood setting devices and, arguably, as instruments. “Julie and Candy,” however, takes on a more innocent and childlike role, if not by the title alone than certainly by the whimsical synthesized sounds. It perfectly sums up their ability to effectively manipulate sounds to resonate nostalgia.
Their music is visual by nature and – Geogaddi especially – spawns heavy imagery and mindsets. Under the wrong frame of mind, the album can be a bona fide bummer, but with the proper attitude, Geogaddi can be the vehicle to places other types of music only dream of visiting.
Aaron Mitta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org