Earlier this year, I briefly had to get back into shape to play drums and make noise for two different charity events. In preparation, I revisited some of the artists who I often took from while I was still making music, which is something I have little interest in now.
I often get mailed full-length albums by people and sometimes they are so aesthetically unimaginative that I want to send them a small list of films, books, or records to explore that might help liven up their future endeavors. I know that’s incredibly pompous, but sometimes you sit through an entire album and think, “There’s simply no way they could have made this if they had heard that.” I could be wrong, but I’m trying to be optimistic here.
This is not necessarily the most obscure music ever made and these aren’t the “best songs” of all time or something equally arbitrary. This is instead a helpful reminder, mostly to myself, of the inconsolable agitators who have made life worth living, in those fleeting moments where the needle is spinning or you’re tucked unseen in some lucky crowd.
Savage Republic—”Suckerpunch”: The vocals on this track were so direct and literal, and they made me reevaluate what was possible in a singing performance. It’s so clearly enunciated and its implications so uncomfortable.
Urinals—”Hologram”: This is actually a beautiful chord progression (two chords total), and melody. This could be turned into some fanciful chamber pop piece, but thank heavens it isn’t. Instead, it’s a very alien sounding piece of melancholy art punk:
Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock” UPDATE: “Don’t Talk to Sociologists” (Original track was deleted): There are too many great things happening here to summarize easily. Wild disco rhythms, pin-pricking guitars, and basically the combination of the Raincoats, Essential Logic/X-Ray Spex, Swell Maps, and Pere Ubu—all in the same band. Oh, and the anti-bougey, extremist lyrics of the conceptual Art & Language Collective.
This is basically a sloppy marriage between conceptual art and the greatest minds of the post-punk underground at the time. It’s endlessly inspiring and I return to this when I start losing hope in the world.
The Ex (Featuring cellist Tom Cora)—”State of Shock”: Speaking of endless inspiration, The Ex are Dutch anarchists who have been performing together for about 35 years. I once saw them perform in a high school cafeteria in inner-city Houston. There were activists with pamphlets at tables surrounding the cafeteria. There was a moment when the upright bassist stopped playing her instrument and the guitarist held it in place for her, while she rhythmically punched it with her fists. That remains my favorite performance that I’ve witnessed.
The Ex toured Ethiopia and the story goes that at first they were playing to nobody,. Word of mouth was the best method, the group was told, so they would come back to the same venue the next night and the place would be packed. By the end of the tour, “State of Shock” was blasting out of bars and boom-boxes everywhere. They are completely humble and fearless and I wish I viewed the world with as little ego and as much compassion as they do. “State of Shock” is featured in the opening to this documentary on the group, entitled, Beautiful Frenzy.
Paul Kalkbrenner—”Aaron”: I have always felt that guitarists should be seen and not heard, or at least play as little as possible. Though this is a techno track that is led by a guitar, it sounds perfectly minimal and less obnoxious than the instrument often sounds. Guitars are usually about as charming as drunken party guests, and not nearly as “cool” as the offending artist imagines they are.
Die tödliche Doris—Stümmel Mir: What starts off as an ugly and violent-sounding piece of work, full of grunting and shouting, ends up oddly hopeful, as this absurd organ melody appears out of nowhere toward the end.
Wu-Tang Clan—”Careful (Click, Click)”: I have always felt that The W was an underrated piece of work. It’s Ol’ Dirty’s final recording with the group so it will always be the last real album by the Wu. This beat is incredibly simple, in a time when beats were getting increasingly complex. I think I ripped off this accented rhythm on a live kit more times than I count. This album also had pretty gross production, when everyone was getting glossier for the 2000s., including vocals that were literally phoned-in. “The box cutter went click, click/Something in the slum went rum-pum-pum-pum.” Try to forget that after you hear it.
Die Doraus und die Marinas—”Tulpen und Narzissen”: I said recently that this album opener (to 1981’s Blumen und Narzissen) is one of the few songs that really puts me in a good mood almost instantly. Doraus is probably my most beloved German singer, and he is probably up there with Morrissey or Piaf or Nina Simone etc. In that he is a personality beyond his vocals, but with almost complete charm and little of the darkness that marks most larger-than-life singing icons. You can pluck a track from almost anywhere in his career, from the 80s, the 90s, or today, and it’s almost always quality.
When I traveled to Germany a few years ago, I went to this club in Hamburg and there was a middle-aged man in a track suit, rapping over a Doraus sample. I couldn’t believe it. I had practically just landed and here was this scene out of a dream I might have about my favorite music. They were passing out thimbles of eggnog with bourbon in it for free. It didn’t make any sense. It was summer time.
Delta 5—”Anticipation”: I have little to say about this other than Delta 5 make music seem so enjoyable in both recording and live performance. This was a nice contrast to related act Gang of Four’s incredibly uptight image—bitching about condoms and discos or beating up televisions onstage. Delta 5 tackled racism and feminism with seeming relish, but ultimately their revolutionary zeal was barbed enough to still penetrate long after they ceased.
Nikki Sudden—”Chelsea Embankment”: It’s hard to choose a single song from the late Nikki Sudden, and it’s almost blasphemy to choose a song he didn’t sing on himself. But this track has always been a perfect outlier, in that it almost sounds like Fleetwood Mac and the rest of the record is wonderfully out-of-tune vocalizing from Sudden. This is a good example of someone forfeiting responsibility with desirable results.
Art Ensemble of Chicago—”Theme De Yoyo”: You don’t always get so many extremes in the same track, but this gets so bananas right before bringing it all back together in a way that is phenomenally addictive. A Fontella Bass soul performance with free jazz spiked throughout. As someone once sang, “You don’t have to be weird, to be … weird.”
Rosa Yemen (Featuring Lizzy Mercier Descloux)—”Herpes Simplex”: Though Lizzy Mercier Descloux had a very small output in her brief life, she is probably the singer I adore more than any other 20th Century vocalist. Her work spans reckless no wave and even some imperfect world music. This track sounds outraged and mournful all at once, and is incredibly ahead of its time:
Her label ZE, is a strange story in that it was co-founded by Michael Zilkha, a pioneer in renewable energy who sold his company to Goldman Sachs in the mid-aughts. He is now in Houston and is incredibly active (and generous) in the art scene there, supporting the Menil, the Contemporary, and other cherished entities of which Texas is extremely proud. I’ve long wished that Dallas had a figure like this. Lizzy gets two videos:
Moev—”Cracked Mirror”: Okay, I lied. This single by the Canadian synth-pop group, Moev, might be the best song of all time. I wouldn’t argue with you if you said that anyway:
Image: Art-Language, Vol.3 No.4, 1974, published in the UK and New York: Draft for an Anti-Textbook. Editors/Artists: Ian Burn, Mel Ramsdon, Terry Smith. Credit: Dr. John Abbate.