What better way to get our listeners in the mood for new music than sharing with you some of the things that started us writing music in the first place? While we get along back to our own tunes, I’ve decided to share with you a few of the bands and albums that shaped me as a songwriter and musician, and maybe remind you of some well-loved albums that have fallen to the bottom of your playlist.
Thorough examining albums (as opposed to songs), I also want to point out how much our experience of music has changed. An album might be an artist’s attempt to tell a fuller story than one song might present, or it may just be a collage of where an artist was at a particular point. Regardless, by listening to a 30-60 minute collection, we as fans got the chance to immerse ourselves in a voice and approach in a way that is far less common today. We would have friends over to listen to the latest Rush album, or hear the incredible new sounds coming out from Seattle. Albums brought us a deeper appreciation of the music and the songwriting and even, sometimes, the artist’s emotional voyage.
Single songs are great of course, but they can only say so much on their own. Through the efforts to curate an album, the artist is forced to say something broader, or at the very least to hold the listener’s attention for more than 3 minutes at a time. This is the musical experience of losing oneself in a movie or a play, rather than a 7-minute cartoon.
So here we go – I’ll give you my own notes on the albums (and this author’s memories of them) as we go along. And I promise I’ll also drop the new Steeling Time/Tunnel 18 tunes in here as they are ready.
#10 – Superunknown (Soundgarden, 1994)
Soundgarden were already well established at this point, acting as a driving force in the Seattle grunge movement. Their mix of heavy grooves, deep guitar, and Chris Cornell’s incredible vocal range made for the kind of music that could be played loud, but could also be listened to for the lyrics. (Granted, “Spoonman” – the first single off the album – was more than a little odd to traditional hard rock ears). Songs like “Fell on Black Days” and “Black Hole Sun” set a higher standard for what could be done with a rock lyric. And other songs – particularly the opener “Let Me Drown” – would simply kick your ass. On top of this, Kim Thayil’s guitar playing was deceptively simple. For one, it was impossible to replicate on a standard-tuned guitar! Kim did drop D, drop D/G, and drop full-step in ways that forced new songs to come out of the standard instrument. From a songwriting perspective, Superunknown was a pinnacle of riff-based hard rock, showing how to do things that were melodic, complex, and hard all at the same time.
I first heard this album in a pool hall in Chapel Hill, NC (Zog’s) in 1994 and instantly fell in love. I’d been listening to a lot of Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and the like before this came on. Suddenly there was this voice, and then the wail at the chorus. I played this over and over again on long drives, long runs, and while studying – and of course while shooting pool.
Soundgarden’s next album Down on the Upside was also well worth listening to, but it felt a little forced. As it turns out, the band was feeling forced as well; they disbanded in 1997.
Stay tuned – I promise that installment 9 won’t take months to write….