Hey, welcome to my "guide" to a few of my favorite rock and pop records. This isn't a definitive list, by any means, just some random comments about a few records that have stood out over the years, or that I've found the time to review.
This page covers the letter "S"
The Saints "I'm Stranded" (Sire/EMI, 1976)
Apparently one of those weird quirks of spontaneous invention -- like where the wheel or the hot-air popcorn popper are invented on separate continents at the same time -- in 1976, Australia's greatest punk band, the Saints, came out with a blistering salvo of snotty, kickass guitar rock that was as notable or as gnarly as anything Joey Ramone or Steve Cook were thinking up that year. They also conjured up a major-label record deal, which helped get their foot in the door pretty early in the annals of punk history. This whole album doesn't floor me, but the single - "I'm Stranded" is an unconquerable blast of edgy, snarly, pure punk heaven.
The Saints "Eternally Yours" (Sire/EMI, 1978)
So, uh, if you thought their first album was cool, then check your pacemaker at the door before you put this one on the stereo. Ace bunny killer. An absolute classic of relentless and unceasingly catchy guitar rock. While the lyrics are comparatively highbrow, Chris Bailey's vocals are practically feral -- combined with Ed Kuepper's crushingly powerful guitars and a set of LOUD, LOUD speakers, and you've got a record to reckon with. At this point Bailey and Kuepper seem almost telepathically entwined; when they later had an inevitable falling out over artistic differences (or whatever...), the band went soft and postpunk in a folkie kinda way, and while that stuff ain't bad, this record is amazing. One of the few seminal punk albums that still holds up when you're all grown up.
Scrawl - see artist profile
Sex Pistols "Never Mind The Bollocks" (Virgin, 1977)
Speaking of "seminal punk albums..." Do I really need to get into it with this one? Probably not. Someday I'll tell you all the story of how my Mom turned me onto punk rock one afternoon, when she played this record REALLY LOUD for me in the summer of '77... but maybe not today. For now, I'll just settle for pointing out that all the anti-hype about how the Pistols couldn't play their instruments is a bunch of hooey. Just listen to the record. I'll also briefly warn you about the lame, cleaned-up double-CD remix they did around the time of their late '90s reunion tour... it seems that the band was intent on proving to the world that they really were competent players, so they remastered the album, removing the ugliness and abrasive force that made it so significant to begin with. So they got to sound as slick as Styx or Journey... oh, joy. Stick with the original record and you'll have one of the wittiest, most important and culturally powerful albums ever made.
Ron Sexsmith "Retriever" (Nettwerk, 2004)
Over the years, Ron Sexsmith has wafted forth a wonderful album or two... but this one is something special. I've had this mellow, dreamy disc floating around in the CD carousel for weeks on end, as well as in the car stereo, where it has become a standby and was an integral part of my little baby's introduction to the wonderful world of indiepop.. It's that kind of record, one you can live with for years and still love completely every time you hear it. Highly recommended.
Michael Shelley "I Blame You" (Bar/None, 2001)
Impish, earnest, catchy... like the character in his song, "Dear Mr. Webster," who is searching for the means to describe his true love's charm, NYC freeform radio DJ Michael Shelley eludes the proper adjective. Not quite singer-songwriter, not quite power-pop, Shelley is in turns clever, capable and craftsmanlike... His romances often seem like schoolboy crushes, the kind that require songs like "Mix Tape" to describe their inception, and "I Blame You" to outline their demise. In between, he enlists the help of fellow WFMU programmer Laura Cantrell to duet on the country-ish "Let's Fall In Hate..." and draws us in with one winsome melody after another... Nice, unpretentious pop, with jangly little undertones... check it out!
Shins "Oh, Inverted World" (SubPop, 2001)
If you've ever counted yourself among those who wished that Guided By Voices would just cool out on the ever-so-cleverness and make a straightforward power-pop album, then this might be the disc for you. A thoroughly enjoyable, tuneful indiepop album that combines the inscrutiable lyrical dadaism of bands such as Quasi with the catchy winning, whining style of '70s bands like Todd Rundgren or the Raspberries, this turned out to be one of the big indiepop "hits" of Y2K+1. A notch or two above their spotty, solipsistic contemporaries, in that the Shins are consistently listenable and engaging, not just a patchy, hit-or-miss affair. Recommended!
Slumber Party "Slumber Party" (Kill Rock Stars, 2000)
It's difficult to put my finger on all the things that make this record so appealling, but I can say this is one of the most seductive albums I've heard in a long, long time. First off, even though this all-gal outfit is from Detroit, they could just as easily be from Duneidin, New Zealand -- Slumber Party's soft, insistently rhythmic approach to melody reminds me quite a bit of great kiwi pop bands such as the Bats, the Chills and the Clean. Cloaked in a deceptively amatuerish sound, Slumber Party's lyrics are more elusive than their music; taken together this is one of the most alluring, comforting, records I've heard in a while... Gentle, subtly hypnotic and dreamy, like many of their kiwipop forbearers this group has carved out a stillness in the musical landscape that allows their a personal presence to come through with surprising strength. Everything just clicks into place, and this is an album that holds up well to repeated listening... Recommended!
Slumber Party "Psychedelicate" (Kill Rock Stars, 2001)
A brilliant followup, perhaps a little too controlled and precise, but still gloriously noodly and loose, yet with a hardness at its core that makes this music last. These gals are the deal deal: no posing, no posturing, just a lot of good, intense music, stuff that seems to come striaght from the heart. And, oh...!! That drone!
Elliott Smith "Either/Or" (Kill Rock Stars, 1997)
I admit it... I came to the Elliott Smith fan club rather late in the game... I knew this record was getting tons of airplay on my radio station, but for some reason I had never checked it out... Then one day in the fall of '97 I was visiting a friend in New York who was in the same boat, and we decided to go see Smith play at a Kill Rock Stars showcase show down in the Bowery. We were both completely floored, and left the club babbling about how the guy was the future of rocknroll... Then I went back home, got a copy of the album, devoured it for a few months, and decided that it was one of the most perfectly-conceived albums ever recorded. It's a 37-minute treat that really demands to be listened to from end to end, and not just in bite-sized chunks. Smith's technique is amazing, particularly what he's able to acomplish with a limited budget and an imaginative grasp of how to refashion the navel-gazing traditions of the 4-track "lo-fi" scene into a more coherent artistic vision. Besides songwriting skills that are almost unmatched in the wilds of Indieland, Smith has a few choice tricks up his sleeve, particularly his skillful multi-tracking of voice and guitar... It's not exactly self-harmonization, but more like masking the original melodies with a near-duplicate performance; the variation only becomes apparent on a closer listening (like with headphones on...) and the subtlety it creates is impressive. Plus... what a great album! Smith's sense of melody, his lyrical skill, his balance of rawness and grace, seething anger and tranquil calm... it all makes for an impressive piece of art. Like I said, this is one of the best albums I've ever heard. You probably didn't need me to point this out, but I figure, what the heck? Why not join in the chorus.
Elliott Smith "XO" (Geffen, 1998)
What he did with his first big studio budget is also pretty interesting. Here Smith maintains his graceful artistic economy, while indulging his Beatles-y sweet-tooth to its fullest, bashing a few Neil Young square pegs into the smooth edges, and even pauses to pay backhanded tribute to the Everly Brothers. It's a gloriously concieved and skillfully executed pop album, although the auto-mythologizing self-scrutiny regarding his substance abuse (smack and liquor, apparently...) is as much of a distraction as it is a mark of artistic power. Someday when I'm feeling a bit more pretentious, I'll get into the whole Smith-As-Songwriter and dissect his motifs and such... but for now, just let me chime in and say that this record rocks.
Elliott Smith "Figure 8" (Dreamworks, 2000)
The backlash against this album was so completely predictable that you could have timed a lunar eclipse by it. Friends of mine who used to worship Smith as some sort of holy indie-rock Jerry Garcia/Bob Dylan/John Lennon composite started walking around in a daze, shaking their heads, muttering about how he'd "lost it" and how he was trying to be a one-man Beatles (etc., etc...) That's how I knew I was gonna like this record. I'll agree that it doesn't have the mindblowingly well-formed pop songcraft of his last two albums... But that's not the point. Elliott's just having fun! He's rocking out and enjoying being let loose in a big studio... Lyrically, the rueful, soul-shuddering bitterness of his older songs has been displaced by simple, jaundiced scorn: here Elliott isn't plagued by demons so much as by rock critics and website know-it-alls... So who can blame him for blowing off a little steam? I wish I could say there was more to the criticisms than a bunch of people who still mythologize the misery of the tortured artist, or indie cred snobbery, but really, what else could it be? This is a fine record, certainly better than most anything else you'll hear in "modern rock"-ville. So why hold back? It's just Elliot; he's not going to bite.
The Smoke "My Friend Jack" (Retroactive, 2000)
Delectable pro-drug Mod kitsch from the Swinging London of the Summer of Love... These Who-derived longhaired lads gained their greatest notoriety from the fact that the BBC banned a reverb-filled 1967 single ("My Friend Jack") on the grounds that it promoted drug use... And did it? Hell, no -- it GLORIFIED drug use... as did most of their songs, which routinely employed the broadest, most gleefully obvious of psychedelic metaphors, recounting the exploits of various legendary acid heads, pot growers and party animals who may or may not have been around at the time. It was heartening, though, to see their thematic obsessions gradually shift from tripping to getting laid, but throughout it all, these lads sounded like they were having lots of fun. NERD NOTE: there are earlier, more bootleggy discs out there which include a lot of this same material. It must be said that some of those collections seemed to have louder, more powerful mixes than this CD; this however also has several live tracks and outtakes that may tilt collectors in its direction. Regardless, this is pretty campy, fun stuff.
The Spinanes "Manos" (SubPop, 1993)
This album may be too much a creature of its times to really hold up over the years... but who knows? I still like it. Minimalist, stripped down rock with a tight guitar-drum duo and a unique, arresting sound. The Spinanes were a cool bridge between the introverted, mellow confessionalism of the lo-fi scene and the world of louder, explosive, more physical rock and roll. In part, they stood out in contrast to their grunge-era Seattle cohorts who were busy recreating early '70s metal. That scene had actually kind of petered out by the time this album was released - Pearl Jam was just another stadium rock band, Cobain was busy wigging out - and along comes this gal, Rebecca Gates, who can rock out, mutter mysteriously, and chew gum at the same time. This is a pretty cleanly crafted, alluring album -- a few of the more raucous numbers might not hold your attention, but the stylistic contrast frames the mellow stuff perfectly. Later albums are good, too, but kind of just repeat the original formula. The Sunday EP that came out the same time as this is also pretty striking.
Stereolab? - yawn. Wake me when it's over.
Sweet Baby "It's A Girl!" (Slash, 1988/Lookout!)
Sweet Baby & Brent's TV "Hello Again!" (Lookout, 1996)
From painful personal experience I know that nothing can get Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day more amped up than putting this record on... Makes sense, since Sweet Baby was the most bouyant of all the East Bay pop-punk bands during its brief existence... And the kids from Green Day were in the front row of every pizza-parlour gig Sweet Baby did, soaking it all in. This is the band's only album, and it's one of the catchiest, most enjoyable records I know of, full of shameless Beatles-isms and one dopey pop song after another, every one is "about a girl." The best of these include "Year After Year," "She's From Salinas," "There's This Girl" and "Prove My Love," but really, there's nothing on here that ain't hella fun. Three big cheers to Lookout Records for getting this disc out of hock after the Slash label went under -- now everyone can enjoy this super-groovy little record. The Brent's TV odds-and-ends rarities disc is probably just for the band's most avid fans.