Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols

On the eve of Queen Elizabeth II's funeral it seems like the right time to do Britain's one hit punk wonder, and, well, 45 years later it's still a pretty good album. No matter Malcolm McLaren's manufactured pretentions at the time you can never tell how much they're kidding ("we mean it, man!"), and whether it's playful, puerile or parody the grinning verve never quits, so if its sole enduring legacy is only ever to smash good manners I'm sure they're still proud. Where it's strongest is the music and the snarling (dig the contempt in "Pretty Vacant"), and they get credit for gleefully daring to touch the third rail over and over (abortions, German concentration camps, record companies) in a way no one else was willing to even when sometimes the lyrics let them down. I mean, "Anarchy In The U.K." doesn't even rhyme half the time as you scream along to it anyhow. But of course then there's "God Save The Queen," an smirking, caustic anthem of little-r republicanism no reputable republican will play, such that even Johnny "Rotten" Lydon himself bade her Godspeed and said any attempt to cash in on the song would be — wait for it — tasteless. Sorry, Charlie, you'll never get that honour as King! Current reissues throw in a couple B-sides, and they're worth picking up, because that's all the music you're getting out of this band. (Content: F-bombs in "Bodies," S-bomb and epithets in "New York," violent imagery.)

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Cat Stevens, Izitso

Cat Stevens becoming Yusuf Islam wasn't the most surprising thing he did in 1977, surprisingly, when he whipped out the synthesizers for what's my favourite album of his because it's so odd and yet sounds so good. Heck, you have actual proto-trip on a Cat album ("Was Dog a Doughnut?") back when people thought that was just something Peter Sellers did before he fell over. The best part of the album is not that it's inventive for inventiveness' sake but that it understands when not to be: intro track "(Remember the Days of the) Old Schoolyard"'s Moogy fanfare brings them in solid, but gentler tracks like "(I Never Wanted) To Be a Star" and "Child For a Day" know when to say when. Particularly underappreciated is "Life," with a welcome touch of prog in the bridge, and of the instrumentals while "Was Dog a Doughnut?" gets all the retrospective bemusement "Kypros" has a throwback beguilement all its own. The tracks in the middle kind of blur together and he was probably bit too stingy with the schmaltz overall, but wow, what a record. It cries out for the modern re-release it so richly deserves, in particular the legendary Ringo Starr sessions which to date only exist as bootlegs. (Content: no concerns.)

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DJ Khaled, God Did

Can you really call this gospel rap when the man at the helm's a devout Muslim? Well, why not? And he makes good use of his vocal talent squad: having Kanye sing the Lord's praises in "Use This Gospel" might not have been all that inventive given his recent output, but having Eminem rapping over it certainly was. Some of the, uh, "secular" tracks work fairly well too, especially the R&B-smooth "Beautiful," even if Drake's "Staying Alive" feels more like auto-tuned Rick James than the Bee Gees. But the title track is more about the glory of Jay-Z and Lil Wayne than God's (ditto for Quavo and Roddy Ricch later on), I didn't know tats and b*tches got you closer to heaven, and an unoriginal mix with 58 minutes of copypasted beats definitely doesn't. So I guess that's why not. (Content: F-, S- and N-bombs, adult themes, violent imagery.)

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Alice Cooper '80, Flush The Fashion

I suppose a new wave take on Alice Cooper wasn't the worst idea in the world — but then maybe it was since it wasn't ever repeated, even though producer Roy Thomas Baker basically used the same template for the Cars. To balance out the sudden shift in style and his soporific snarl on the back cover neither Baker nor Cooper stray far from his usual topics (drugs and social contempt) nor his usual instrumentation, and wisely just let the synths be ornaments. I like lead-in cover "Talk Talk" and the zippy single "Clones (We're All)" takes only the musical liberties it can get away with; the old verve is back in the almost anthemic "Pain," and I laughed out loud at the sly self-referential wordplay in "Aspirin Damage" ("I've got a Bayer/on my back"). Plus, "Nuclear Infected" could practically be "No More Mr. Nice Guy" for a Three Mile Island generation. Unfortunately the novelty starts leaking out of the music around that point, and while none of the remaining tracks (except the out-of-place "Leather Boots" in the first half) are incompetent they're also not very compelling. That's actually the real problem with this album: at 28 minutes and change he can't afford any clinkers, and since this was one of the few albums he does remember recording, he's simply got no excuse. (Content: drug references, mild adult themes.)

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Art of Noise, Below the Waste

From the inexplicable gatefold doubling as a speaker advertisement to the bizarre tracklist, this album just confuses me at every turn. AoN could be weird, and could be good at being weird, as long as they gave the long ones a beat and cut the rest when they'd overstayed their welcome. This explains the shorter tracks on Who's Afraid, for example, because they're only just enough to be interesting. But here they drag on ("Yebo!", "Back To Back"), trip over their own cleverness ("Dan Dare") and make you wonder what they're even doing on the disc ("Finale"). Their better tracks recall their earlier days: "James Bond Theme," no "Peter Gunn," is basically Monte Norman mugged by "Close (To The Edit)" but still has its spartan charms, and "Catwalk" takes a while to get going but gets there. Still, even the otherwise beguiling "Island" and "Robinson Crusoe" are practically remixes of each other, and with the partial exception of "Spit" guest vocalists Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens don't add enough to their three tracks to make much difference. More proof that scum always floats to the top. (Content: no concerns.)

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Tower of Power, East Bay Grease

Out of print for many years, Tower of Power's début finally got a reissue on Rhino. And it's certainly an unusual gem: six long-form tracks, a different vocalist (Rufus Miller on most, his only recorded appearance), and some very high quality funk riffs with superb brass leads. For all those reasons I think I love every single one of the tracks ... about halfway, that is, because by then there's nothing new to hear, no scatting the lyrics can do to punch it up, no jam they can hit to get your attention back. If they'd cut the songs down and turned this into an EP, I think it might have stood the test of time; instead, we have an earnest but indulgent LP that'll test you instead. There's a lot of raw talent, but raw is the chief impression, and even fans will probably hit the skip button regularly. (Content: no concerns.)

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They Might Be Giants, BOOK

The TMBG formula still holds in 2021 — an inexplicable cover, an opaque title — but for a late-career record it's a relief this one's not purely by the numbers. Reflective of quarantine sensibilities the tracks are longer and (at least for this band) more meditative, especially my favourite track "I Can't Remember the Dream," the backwards echo of "I Broke My Own Rule" and the mesmerizing "Wait Actually Yeah No," though their tilted college rock feel is alive and well in tracks like "Moonbeam Rays," closer "Less Than One" and "Brontosaurus" ("It had been going so well/and then I broke my eggshell") with even a bit of dance music in "I Lost Thursday." Longtime fans may decry the lowered weirdness quotient, with the possible exception of that farty foghorn thing in "If Day for Winnipeg" and the album's best lyrics "Put on the cuffs/I've broken Godwin's law," maybe the subtle sly snark of "Super Cool," and in a like fashion some of the songs are uncharacteristically downright conventional (even with the lyrics "Darling, The Dose" could practically be a lost Beach Boys session; the boring "Lord Snowden" comes off like Al Stewart in a bad way). But other than the unnecessary lead-in "Synopsis for Latecomers" which absolutely fails to set the proper tone at all, there's really only two serious things wrong with this disc: first, dammit, why are there no track names in the CD gatefold, and second, why do we have to pay so much to get your baffling too-big-for-liner notes companion book? Don't tease me with that title if there's not gonna be one. (Content: no concerns.)

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Portugal. The Man, Woodstock

What happened to this band? How much did they get to sell out? In the Mountain in the Cloud was a singular vision, a couple solid singles, more sophisticated than the other hipster pop around that time, but it went to hell in Evil Friends (literally?) and this one isn't any better. The major problem is the revolving door of producers, yielding a kitchen junk drawer of tracks cynically intended to be chopped up as singles. The best are the two Asa Taccone came in on ("Feel It Still," the album's best track, and secondarily "Keep On"), which both play to the band's strengths with a sparer, simpler mix plus just enough sweetening and just enough bounce; of a similar, if more gauche, ilk Stint-cow-orked "Tidal Wave" gets an honourable mention, maybe "Easy Tiger" too. Then it goes downhill quick: Danger Mouse didn't learn anything from their last album and keeps trying to make his tracks into the next Gnarls Barkley ("Number One" is a bad way to start, but Fat Lip on vocals for "Mr. Lonely"? Say what?), and the other John Hill ones are the worst, overweight pop bilge tarted up in the studio like an aging drunken teenybopper trying to balance on stilettos. I mean, "Live in the Moment" isn't irredeemable, but "Rich Friends" isn't as clever as it thinks it is, and the rest seem like they came from some other band entirely. I guess we should be glad the cover's not a dumpster on fire. (Content: S-bombs in "Mr. Lonely" [and F-bombs] and "Noise Pollution.")

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Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy

Although Edwin Meese would probably arrest you for the cover (it's a wonder the RUC didn't at the time), for my questionably informed money this is some of the band's best work. The range is more sophisticated and the production is better, and instead of just blues and rock there's ballads ("The Rain Song" — take that, George Harrison), wacky riffing ("The Crunge"), and even reggae ("D'yer Mak'er"). But yes, some blues and rock too: "Dancing Days" and Robert Plant's ode to his daughter in "The Ocean," plus a mashup of everything in "Over The Hills And Far Away" and the raucous, rollicking lead "The Song Remains the Same" (with a touch of prog to punch it up). One song fails to fire on most cylinders (the lugubrious "No Quarter"), the lyrics rarely match their tracks' melodic complexities and newer fans will wonder where the title track went (it's actually on Physical Graffiti even though it was recorded around the same time), but outside of their compilations I still think this album delivers more consistently than nearly all their other studio work. The 2014 reissue adds a second disc of rough mixes, though I submit that kind of thing was exactly why Coda flopped. (Content: no concerns.)

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Sister Sledge, We Are Family

As disco landmarks go, of course "He's The Greatest Dancer" and "We Are Family" (even at 8 minutes plus!) stand the test of time, as much because of Kathy Sledge's earnest vocals as Bernie Edwards and Nile Rodgers' carefully controlled production which prevents them from spiraling into self-parody. But at the same time the other semi-dance tracks like "Lost In Music" and "Easier To Love" seem suffocated by that restraint, as rich as their backing might be, and "You're A Friend To Me" is positively choked by the leash. The R&B influences play off stronger — "Thinking Of You" is a sultry delight — but there's not enough of it on the other tracks for them to benefit. Higher quality than most others around this time, it's hard to deny all the things that made it good, but if the production had let loose a little more it could have been great. The 1995 remaster has two absolutely potty B-side remixes of "We Are Family," destroying everything that made it enjoyable, and the first redo of "Lost In Music" is likewise a HiNRG dud. But its second 1984 remix, by Edwards and Rodgers themselves, while the overdubs are densely dumb does punch the bpm up just enough to really make it jam. Wonder if they'd just do that for the rest of it. (Content: no concerns.)

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The Who, Face Dances

Kenney Jones never deserved half the crap he got. Unlike Keith Moon, he could hold a beat and his liquor, and he was already on the band's recorded output anyway from the refits of Tommy and Quadrophenia to no one's complaint. The problem was really Pete Townshend, who reserved most of his best output for his contemporaneous Empty Glass — but yet this album still manages to pull it off despite that. The lyrics are typically inscrutable and the song titles don't make sense, but Roger Daltrey sings them straight anyway to their benefit ("Cache Cache" the particular exemplar), and rockers like "You Better You Bet," "Another Tricky Day" and "Daily Records" (and John Entwistle's contribution with "The Quiet One") are as good as any of their older singles. Entwistle doesn't hit pay dirt with "You," though, which is a bit too tart for the other tracks, and "Did You Steal My Money" and "How Can You Do It Alone" are kind of dorky, but Moon's most lasting contribution to the band was attitude rather than drumming and a true pro like Jones easily proves it. The 1997 remaster adds three unreleased tracks, all pretty good but especially an early take of "Somebody Saved Me" — obvious tape warble intact — which is far superior to Townshend's reworking on Chinese Eyes (the two live tracks are best not mentioned). The 2021 remaster has four different live cuts to waste your time, but adds those three gems plus a fourth "Dance It Away" and an alternate take of "Don't Let Go The Coat" with different vocals. Either is worth it. (Content: adult themes, mild language.)

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Eric Johnson, Ah Via Musicom

A slight effort from a man whose skill should imply a better result. When he rocks he really does: not just "Cliffs of Dover," an incomparable virtuoso artifact worth all the airplay it's ever got, but also its junior reprise "Righteous" (apropos) and the undulating sparkle of "Trademark." Unfortunately the slower instrumentals have a little trouble taking off ("East Wes"), "Steve's Boogie" is way too short, and his ill-advised four vocal tracks are inoffensive at best. It's not a total writeoff, but I just wish the lows on this album weren't as low as the highs were high. (Content: no concerns.)

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