Music Guides

Rebel Rebel: A Rock Listener’s Guide to 
Early Modern Classical Music

If you’re curious about classical music but new to the genre it can seem overwhelming at first with so many periods, styles, composers and performances to choose from. At Jive Time we’re still learning, but it’s been a fun and rewarding journey. With this guide, we’ll share some of our experience with the classical-curious among our adventurous rock-oriented readers. We began our quest by looking for the similarities to rock music instead of the differences.

Many important composers, including all of the artists featured in this guide, were considered musical rebels in their day. Their controversial ideas, ahead of there time, continue to influence classical, jazz and popular music decades later. Rock began borrowing liberally from classical in the late-60’s, which was a period of intense innovation. The Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground are just three well-known examples of many rock musicians incorporating orchestral interludes, dissonance, and other symphonic elements into their sound. As the sixties grew into the seventies, taste-makers such as David Bowie, Brian Eno, John Cale and Frank Zappa brought classical to the forefront of their work, even dedicating entire albums to the genre. Classical was also a prominent factor in the progressive rock movement and continued to meld in genres as diverse as heavy metal, post-punk, electronic music and in today’s ambient music and post-rock.

Even to the uninitiated there are already many familiar names and music in classical: Everyone will recognize pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev from film, television and commercials, and countless rock musicians have named electronic pioneers Varèse, Cage and Stockhausen as major influences. While all of these composers demand exploration, this guide will start instead with composers of the early and mid-Modern eras (loosely 1880-1940). Because of these composers’ experimental nature and ability to push boundaries, the five compositions below create a good starting place for those of us weaned on the defiant sounds of rock and punk.

1. Igor Stravinsky (Russia; b.1882, d.1971) Petrushka (1913): Stravinsky’s music is relentless and pulsating, dramatically unyielding, with subject matters that were years ahead socially. Petrushka is a ballet that tells the story of a puppet that comes to life and develops and experiences human emotions. His 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring about a woman who literally dances herself to death was so eccentric and morose that it sparked a riot on its premier. Petrushka is not as dark but is just as potent and driving both rhythmically and melodically, alternating between explosive crashes of cymbals and brass, flawlessly blending into melancholic flute sections with fluttering dissonant passages of reeds and strings in between. Stravinsky was a true musical rebel and his music reflected his nature.

2. Claude-Achille Debussy (France; b.1862, d.1918) Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894): Debussy, along with his compatriot composer, Ravel, are considered top figures of the French impressionistic movement (Debussy despised the term). Debussy’s music was not as aggressive as Stravinsky’s but equally defiant. Rather than being intense and explosive, Debussy’s music seemed to flow, creating lines that would fluctuate; almost drone like, sprinkled with gentle percussion. Prelude to the Afternoon Faun was based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarme, on describing it Debussy wrote: “The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it.” Debussy snubbed the conventional structures of the symphony and was not afraid to let his work lay open to the audience’s interpretation. There is plenty to interpret here – in fact it just might change with every listen.

3. Gustav Mahler (Bohemia/Germany; b.1860 d.1911) Symphony #1 (1884-1888): Mahler’s work can take you from heartbreaking melancholy to impending doom only to end up with an uplifting feeling of euphoria-all in one measure. He was a master at creating tension by abruptly switching from quiet to loud passages and intertwining moods too create his visions from these soundscapes. He was also completely unabashed (and critiqued) about bringing his influence by fellow composers and styles from other regions into his work, resulting in pieces that would have sudden tempo changes and harmonies with eclectic instrument combinations. When Symphony #1 was first performed in 1889, it was largely unsuccessful, probably due to its experimental nature, critics and audiences simply did not know how to listen to it, which is exactly what keeps it relevant and vibrant over a century later.

4. Heitor Villa-Lobos (Brazil; b.1887, d.1959) Bachianas Brasileiras (1930-1945): These are more contemporary works from this prolific Brazilian composer, a nine piece series in numerous settings incorporating an array of instrument combinations and vocals. This could be called one of the earliest forms of “fusion,” marrying traditional Brazilian folk music with European classical forms; notably the Baroque styling of Bach. One of the many highlights of Bachianas Brasileiras is during the second suite which depicts a train chugging through the forests of Brazil with thumping cellos and guttural sounds of bows bouncing off of a cluster of contrabasses along with the thunder of a grand piano-it almost sounds like the blues! This is highly innovative music culled from a collage of muses. One critic described Villa-lobos as, “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music.”

5. Erik Satie (France; b.1866 d.1925) Gymnopediés: The Parisian Avant-Garde composer/Piano maestro Erik Satie practically invented minimalism and ambient music in 1888 when he wrote Gymnopediés, a series of tone poems on piano creating notes that were placed rather than played. The melodies of these pieces are at times fractured, yet with an accessibility that was years ahead of anything being played at the time. Satie looked at the counterparts of music not just as harmonies and melodies but as tools – he was a sound constructer, it wasn’t so much about the piece as a whole but about the resonance and timbre of his phrasing. He is quoted as describing himself as a “phonometrician” or “someone who measures sounds.” His influence today is immeasurable and can be heard in numerous artists from Brian Eno to Radiohead.

For further exploration: Another Jive Time favorite is Sergei Prokofiev’s score to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Written in 1935, the score was originally rejected for it’s experimental nature but has since become one of his most performed compositions. True to its Shakespearian origin, the piece is at once light and comedic, and dark and tragic. Also check out Dimitri Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra (famously used in the ballroom scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), early “chamber jazz” that actually swings a bit. Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin was inspired by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Petrushka; and it does, indeed, share many similar traits. Last but not least, check out  Charles Ives; his fourth symphony, is stunning!

Exploring any genre, especially classical, can be a profoundly personal experience. Use our suggestions along with others’ and you’ll soon find yourself on your own path. We encourage anyone who’s read this far to take many chances; experimenting is easy and affordable since classical LP’s and CD’s are plentiful in thrift store and record store budget bins.

One more tip: Unlike rock, you’ll encounter countless performances of key pieces by each composer. After discovering a few favorites you’ll likely want to compare performances. In the beginning though, we suggest simply sticking to reputable labels such as Deutsch Gramophone, EMI, London, Decca, Philips, RCA and Sony.

Are we forgetting your favorite composer or composition? If so, please share them in the comments field below:

Everything Scatter: A Guide to Afrobeat 
and the Music of Modern Nigeria

Nigeria has one of the richest musical histories of any country on the African continent. Considering the competition, that is really saying something. A country wracked with centuries’ worth of war, poverty, and countless other social ills, music has remained a constant unifying force, and it is the lifeblood of its peoples. For Nigerians, music is not a huge part of life—it is life. In fact, it is said that every Nigerian boy is given a drum before he learns to walk.

The evolution of Nigerian music can be traced back thousands of years, but it was its more modern forms that made the country a major player on the world music stage in the second half of the 20th century. It didn’t hurt that by this point the country already had a rich base shaped by a cross-cultural pollination dating back to the early days of colonization. Much of this occurred in the Nigerian capitol and busy port city of Lagos, where the heavily-rhythmic yoruba form dominated. Beginning in the 1900s, a plethora of musical influences, among them ragtime, calypso, meringue, blues, and even some Celtic forms, would join the mix, over time giving birth to a sound that was truly pan-global in every sense of the term.

But perhaps the most significant event in the evolution of modern Nigerian music was the arrival of highlife from neighboring Ghana in the early ’50s. A form with a resemblance to Trinidadian calypso and the American big band sound of the ’30s and ’40s, highlife would evolve and truly come into its own in Nigeria. Heavy on the brass, Nigerian highlife bands slowly began to emphasize the electric guitar, an instrument with widespread availability all over the world by the early ’60s. Vibrant, rhythmic, and extremely danceable, highlife became a major touchstone of Nigeria’s modern cultural identity, which in itself had taken on a whole new meaning following the gaining of the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1960.

Highlife continued to evolve throughout that decade, occasionally even leaving the confines of its national borders to enjoy some niche popularity in some western countries. One of its prime exporters was a young multi-instrumentalist by the name of Fela Anikulapo Ransome Kuti. In the early ’60s, Fela’s gifted musicianship landed him a spot at the prestigious Trinity College of Music in London, a city that at that time was experiencing the rumblings of a musical revolution of its own. Fela returned to Nigeria in the mid-60s and formed the band Koola Lobitos. His growing demand as an international performer would eventually bring him to Los Angeles in 1969. There he would become heavily steeped in the Black Power movement and also become exposed to the work of the soul music giants of the era, most significantly James Brown. When Fela returned to Nigeria at the end of the decade, he did so with his own musical and political agendas. Nigerian music would never be the same.

As monumental as Fela’s impact was, its downside was that it overshadowed the work of his Nigerian musical peers. While some were certainly influenced by Fela, many were innovators in their own rights. Fela might have coined the term “afrobeat” for his own music, but the term has since become synonymous with the immensely rich and diverse sounds that emanated from Nigeria in the 1970s and beyond. It has influenced artists from the Talking Heads to Vampire Weekend, and it can be heard today in the samples and beats of hip-hop and electronica and on the floors of dance clubs the world over. But as pervasive and ubiquitous as it has become, Afrobeat stands alone. It is the sound of modern Africa, but one where also can be heard the heartbeat of a culture whose history can be traced back to the birth of human civilization. Like a visit to Nigeria itself, fully exploring its music is a challenging, but rewarding, endeavor. Here are some places to begin the expedition.

Orlando Julius & His Modern Aces Super Afro Soul (2000) While Fela would become Nigeria’s most recognizable musical icon, Orlando Julius was the country’s first true pop superstar. A major purveyor of hIghlife in the mid-60s, Julius diverted from the rest of the pack by incorporating Stax and Motown influences into his sound, creating an infectious hybrid of highlife and soul. Though revered by many musicians outside of his homeland, Julius never found the massive international audience that he deserved. Fortunately, British label Strut Records sought to remedy this by reissuing this album, which highlights this fertile period of his career.

Fela Ransome Kuti & Ginger Baker Live! (1971) Cream drummer Ginger Baker was rock royalty’s earliest adopter of Nigerian music. Building a state of the art recording studio in Lagos in the early 70s, he is widely credited for introducing the music of Nigeria to western audiences. Baker and Fela met in London in the late 60s, resulting in a lifelong personal and musical friendship that would benefit both of them. This recording, made in a London club in 1970, showcases the two icons joining forces to deliver a killer set. Baker’s drumming not surprisingly sometimes gives it a more rock-like feel, making this a unique entry in Fela’s catalog.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Africa 70 Gentleman (1973) When confronted with the bewildering size of Fela’s catalog, many people often ask the same question: “Where should I start?”. Really, pretty much any of his studio albums released between 1971 and 1978 will make anyone a fan for life. But this album is where the template for Fela and Africa 70’s incendiary brand of afrobeat was truly established. Its title track, with Fela’s blistering sax (an instrument that he allegedly learned and mastered in just a few days following the departure of Africa 70 tenor saxophonist, Igo Chico), is worth the price of admission alone.

Peter King Shango (1974) A classically trained composer and saxophonist, Peter King is yet another criminally overlooked master of afrobeat. In the 70s, he recorded a handful of records containing a winning mix of jazz, funk, soul, blues, salsa, and, of course, rhythms from his own homeland of Nigeria. This can be heard in all its hip-shaking glory on this record, which unfortunately to date remains his only one to be reissued.

The Daktaris Soul Explosion (1998) You would never know it, but this album was actually recorded in the late-90s by a bunch of guys from Brooklyn, many who would go on to form Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra soon after its release. So convincing was its vintage sound and packaging, however, that many collectors were sure that they had stumbled upon a long lost afrobeat classic. (One of the evil geniuses behind this ruse was Gabriel Roth, eventual founder and boss of Daptone Records.) Despite the gimmickry, it’s the music that has to deliver in the end, and it does so in spades. Dedicated to Fela, the album kick-started the afrobeat revival. thereby keeping his torch ablaze while proudly carrying it into the 21st century.

Further listening: With growing interest among DJs, crate-diggers, and world music aficionados, the aughts saw an explosion of Nigerian music compilations. Strut records has done for afrobeat what Trojan Records did for reggae. Its 2000 release, Nigeria 70, provides an outstanding primer to afrobeat and its related forms. (Original pressings contained a standalone disc containing an excellent aural documentary of Nigeria’s musical history, which was unfortunately omitted from the recent reissue.) If you’re looking for highlife, seek out the Vampi Soul label’s Highlife Time, a collection with some of the best examples of the genre. Finally, the Soundway label’s in-progress “Special” series probably digs the deepest into Nigerian music of the ’60s and ’70s of any releases thus far; Nigeria Rock Special, which highlights the more psychedelia-influenced sounds of the period, is a great place to start. The music of modern Nigeria still remains a relatively untapped resource. What’s available now is only the beginning! —Richard P

Glossy Grooves: Selected CTI Recordings

Creed Taylor Incorporated, or CTI Records, is a jazz label fashioned by producer Creed Taylor. Taylor was widely celebrated as the founder of the famed Impulse! label as well as producing classic records for Verve. Impulse! was regarded as being one of the most adventurous labels in jazz during the mid sixties, known for its high quality packaging and eclectic musical styles. When Taylor formed CTI records in 1967, he took these aspects with him. Along with his producing chops, Taylor recruited the great Blue Note legend Rudy Van Gelder, who provided studio time and sound engineering skills. This dream team, alongside some of the top musicians in jazz, created a body of work consisting of high quality, slick (occasionally too slick) recordings of the late sixties and early seventies. Most of the music was a fusion of jazz, funk and R&B, along with Latin themes sprinkled with floating, introspective, surreal interludes. Taylor would frequently provide a string section to the recordings as well. There were also some surprises, with freer more experimental styles integrated into the discography.

CTI remains an important aspect in the evolution of jazz and popular music, especially in hip-hop and neo-soul. Dozens of samples have been lifted from these records; the warm analog production on these records has influenced musicians from all over the spectrum. The presence of Taylor’s craftsmanship (and those tasty beats the DJs all love) can be heard from artists such as LL Cool J and Snoop Dog to Erykah Badu and Prince as well as various electronic free funk groups like Isotope 217. Although several of the records have not aged well (Taylor would often add string sections that tended to water down the music and now sound dated), an abundance of records from CTI still hold relevance today.

Basically, Creed Taylor’s CTI put the “smooth” in jazz before it became a dirty word to purists. In fact, two factors remain pure: the clean beats and the glossy grooves. Here are five records that should be of interest:

1. Freddie Hubbard Red Clay (1970)-A dark, austere album, modern, while at the same time nodding to the great West Coast Cool records of the late fifties. Not only is this essential for any CTI collection but in any jazz collection, period. Electric and acoustic, yet not quite fusion, funky but still swings, this record helped the trumpeter escape the inevitable shadow of Miles Davis.

2. Hubert Laws In the Beginning(1974)-A beautiful record by the flautist Hubert laws. Gentle melodies that standout with steady beats. Soft guitars and vibes along with exotic Latin percussion from Airto that make you want to dance in your dreams.

3. Joe Farrell Joe Farrell Quartet (1970)-An outing led by Joe Farrell on reeds and features the guitar of John McLaughin , Jack DeJohnette on drums, bass extraordinaire Dave Holland and Chick Corea on piano. These cats play a set that smolders but never burns out. There are also some more straight ahead tracks to accompany the avant-garde feel of the record. This is an unusual “outside/inside” record for CTI and a pleasant surprise for fusion, free jazz and straight ahead fans alike.

4: Airto Fingers (1973)-Brazilian percussionist/vocalist Airto was a staple on many recordings for CTI, providing a crucial element to the sound. This is his fist record as a leader for CTI. Here we have a hard hitting Brazilian jazz/rock/funk mixture with Flora Purim bringing some additional vocals to accompany Airto. David Amaro brings an array of guitar styles to the mix from bossa nova comping to fuzzed out rock solos. This is some multifaceted music that can’t be put in any box.

5. George Benson Beyond the Blue Horizon (1971) – A rare, stripped down CTI soul-jazz record from the great guitarist George Benson. Clarence Palmer’s greasy organ licks accentuate the subtle mastery of Jack DeJohnette on drums, bassist Ron Carter plucks the upright bass with much funk. Dig the opening: a hip and fresh rendition of Miles Davis’ ultra cool cut “So What”.

Plenty of other records could have easily been included here. For further exploration, there’s Freddy Hubbard’s Straight Life (1970), a raw jam session that has relentless, immediate grooves and features Herbie Hancock’s electric piano. Vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s Sunflower (1972) is considered a classic by many, a breezy floating record that never gets too light. Drummer Billy Cobham keeps it just rigid enough (even with the string section); I hear the luminous sounds of Sunflower on Zero 7 and Pink Martini records. Hubert Laws Crying Song (1969) Is an early recording from CTI, an introspective piece to the point of almost meditative; highlights include two Pink Floyd covers “Cymbaline” and “Crying Song”. Finally, guitarist Alan Holdsworth’s Velvet Darkness (1976) is an all out fusion affair that could easily be filed in the progressive rock section, another surprise from CTI. —ECM Tim

Are we forgetting your favorite CTI recording? We’d love to hear your comments:

Dead Wrong: A Non-Deadhead’s Guide 
to the Grateful Dead’s Studio Albums

There are very few bands as polarizing as the Grateful Dead, but even their most rabid fans and harshest detractors can agree on one point: The band personified a type of relationship a band can have with its audience. It’s now a model that many bands — especially those of the “jam band” variety — emulate and strive for, and one that is almost taken for granted in today’s fragmented music-consumer culture. It’s easy to forget just how pervasive the Deadhead phenomenon was, especially when it peaked during the final years of the Dead’s active existence. But all parties must come to an end, and when the Grateful Dead (wisely) decided to call it quits after Jerry Garcia’s sad but unsurprising death in 1995, the coliseum and stadium parking lots emptied out, and many Deadheads moved on.

Looking back on this era, it’s clear now that the Dead’s cultural impact often eclipsed their actual music. But as the shows become fading memories for those who experienced them and as a new generation of listeners discover the Grateful Dead, the focus is returning to the band’s rich musical history — where it belongs. Often brilliant, usually at least interesting, and only rarely unlistenable, the Grateful Dead weren’t afraid to take chances, and they adapted to changing times and environments while compromising very little for either. It’s a well-worn cliche that the Dead’s strength was as a live-performance unit. Indeed, a hardcore Deadhead can likely recite the set-list, verbatim, from the second set of a 1987 Alpine Valley show, but if you ask him if the original “Fire on the Mountain” is on Terrapin Station or Shakedown Street, you’re likely to be met with a blank stare.

In many ways, this preference for the live Dead is warranted, but it’s not always justified. The Dead’s natural habitat was onstage, for sure, but even during their best years (late ’60s and early ’70s), their exploratory jams did not always take flight, and they could be sloppy and meandering just as easily as they could be virtuosic and transcendental. Sometimes the controlled environment of the recording studio helped the Dead reign in some of their more excessive tendencies and focus their creative energies into making more cohesive musical statements. The end results of these endeavors varied widely in quality, especially during their later years. And there is certainly no avoiding the fact that the band suffered a critical blow in 1972 with the loss of lead vocalist/organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who brought and took with him an irreplaceable rawness and blues authenticity. Still, most of the Dead’s studio output from all stages of their storied career is at least worth a listen. And now, revisiting their catalog, it’s clear that some of it can even be called essential. So here, for newcomers to the band (or old-timers wishing to explore the more neglected areas of their work), is a short list of some of the Dead’s more notable attempts at conquering the studio LP format, warts and all.

1. Anthem of the Sun (1967) Many fans of ’60s garage rock (this writer included) love the Dead’s raw and hyperactive debut LP (read our review), but devotees of hardcore 60’s psych will take to this follow-up even more. Melding snippets of live performances to effects-heavy studio-recorded material, the band weaves a sonic tapestry that is at once puzzling and mystical. While some slow bits occasionally threaten to bog things down, this early artistic triumph shows the studio Dead at their most adventurous.

2. Aoxomoxoa (1969) Originally to be titled, “Earthquake Country”, this is the Dead’s most atmospheric record. Folksy, quiet, and dark, its songs are subtle and sometimes don’t even seem like songs at all, more like stream-of-consciousness sound poems. On shaky ground with the rest of the band during the recording sessions, Pigpen and Bob Weir’s presence is minimal, making this mostly Garcia’s show. Still, his creaky vocals, coupled with Robert Hunter’s surrealistic lyrics, make for a record that is wonderfully creepy and bizarre.

3. Workingman’s Dead (1970) This is the first release in a pair of career and genre-defining country rock albums. For many, its follow-up, American Beauty, is the best studio album the Dead ever recorded. But most of these folks would agree that Workingman’s Dead comes in a very close second. Possessing a slightly grittier sound than the more polished American Beauty, every track here is a winner. Some of the band’s most popular songs such as “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones” are here, but it’s the less overplayed tracks that make it one of the greats. Among these fine moments are “New Speedway Boogie”, a commentary on the fateful Altamont music festival (where the band shared billing with the Rolling Stones) and “Easy Wind,” a showcase for Pigpen, who seizes the opportunity to make the most soulful five minutes to be heard on any Grateful Dead studio album.

4. Blues for Allah (1975) The Dead released three studio albums on their short-lived record label in the mid-70s: Wake of the Flood, From the Mars Hotel, and this one. All entries in this “Grateful Dead Records Trilogy” show the band’s growing jazz and fusion influences, and Blues for Allah represents the culmination of this productive experimentation. The Dead had been on hiatus a year before the LP’s recording sessions began, and this seems to have done them a world of good. Pigpen is long gone at this point, but keyboardist Keith Godcheaux is on fire and contributes some of the best work he’s done since joining the band. (And thankfully, the presence of his wife/backing-vocalist, the much maligned Donna, is kept to a minimum.) Featuring the “Help on the Way-Slipknot-Franklin’s Tower” song cycle, a live staple for the rest of the Dead’s career, this is the closest the Dead ever came to bottling their onstage lightning.

5. Terrapin Station (1977) In the late ’70s, the Dead signed with Arista Records, and the label would release the remainder of the band’s studio output during the band’s active existence. Many of these records are riddled with half-baked ideas, unsuccessful attempts at then in-vogue musical styles, and dated production values. Terrapin Station is certainly not immune to these pitfalls, but there’s something very interesting about watching a band, one who for many years avoided the usual machinations of the music industry, try to reinvent themselves as an FM-friendly arena rock act. Even more interesting is the fact that here the Dead sometimes threaten to pull this off! Though dated and overproduced, Terrapin Station is probably the band’s strongest later studio effort, and it still retains a certain charm. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the two records that came after it, Shakedown Street and Go to Heaven.

Further listening: Ironically, the Dead had their biggest commercial success with 1987’s In the Dark, long after their creative peak. Though its hit single, “Touch of Grey”, made the band more popular than ever, many early adopters despised the album. To be fair, it did represent a return to form as far as songwriting was concerned, but its production values keep it eternally trapped in the ’80s. If you must hear the Dead’s studio work of this era, it might be worth a listen. But a better route to take is one that stops by the many wonderful solo efforts of the Dead’s individual members. Jerry Garcia’s first LP, 1972’s Garcia (read our review), easily holds its own alongside the Dead’s best work. Percussionist Mickey Hart also recorded some great stuff, and his first album, Rolling Thunder, featuring a star-studded lineup of musicians and vocalists, is a must hear! —Richard P

Did we leave out your favorite Grateful Dead or Dead-related solo LP? We’d love to hear your comments:

Funky From Now On: 
A Guide to Funk, Part I “Proto-Funk”

Funk’s advent was the result of a convergence of many musical events, a “perfect storm” precipitated by the coalescing of all the major postwar African-American musical forms, among them jazz, blues, r&b, and gospel. Like many other innovations in American popular music, it came into its own in the ’60s. Its evolution can be heard in the output of musicians from just about every major US city, but Detroit, Philadelphia, Memphis, and New Orleans (see below) were the real hotbeds of activity. But if there is one individual who can be seen as the form’s prime architect, it’s a man from Macon, Georgia by the name of James Brown. Accentuating rhythm above all else, and essentially making his backing band, the Famous Flames, a massive percussion instrument, the Godfather laid the groundwork for The Groove. This proto-Funk sound exists in some shape or form on just about all of his King Records releases from Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag onwards. But many of his peers were also throwing down. Here’s a short list.

1. The Bar-Kays Soul Finger (1967) Though there are other great tunes in this assortment of instrumentals, its title track, with its thumping bass and blasting horns, is deservedly the standout. Even the record’s unavoidable association with one of the greatest tragedies in Soul music history—it’s the only one the original lineup recorded before  three of its members perished with Otis Redding in a plane crash—can’t  detract from its joyous groove.

2. Sly and the Family Stone Dance to the Music (1968) This sophomore effort by the Bay Area psychedelic soulsters is where they really find their footing. Much more of a group effort than Sly’s later work, its melding of fuzzed-out guitar, stinging brass, life-affirming vocals, and the stellar basswork of one of funk’s greatest innovators, Larry Graham, ushered in a new era.

3. The Meters (1969) – No other city is as deserving of the title “The Cradle of Funk” as New Orleans. In the late ’60s, literally hundreds of artists in that city cooked up potent stews of tight grooves and fat beats, and the Meters were the undisputed head chefs. Their Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn-produced debut features a smoking collection of instrumentals, including the original version of “Cissy Strut”, now a Funk standard.

4. Eddie Bo and the Soul Finders The Hook and Sling (1997) Elsewhere  in the Crescent City, this prolific national treasure, whose output spanned  from the early 50s to just a few months before his death in 2009, unleashed one of early Funk’s catchiest numbers, “The Hook and Sling”—a sizable  hit on the R&B charts in 1969. Every bit as much of an innovator as his peers, Bo unfortunately remained in their shadows for most of his career.  Even stranger, he never managed to cut a full-length LP during this, his most important, period. This 1997 compilation serves as the next best thing.

5. Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band Express Yourself (1970) Seminal release by Charles Wright and the best incarnation of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. [Read full review here!]

Further listening: Let’s face it: Funk is really a singles medium. It’s an unfortunate fact that many records from its golden era were hastily thrown together affairs. A typical LP might contain one or two amazing tracks scattered amongst some lackluster mid-tempo numbers and cheesy ballads. (Yes, we’re talking about you, James Brown!) This is where one can be thankful for the modern miracle called the compilation. The music industry initially was slow to recognize it as a genre fit for this type of (re)packaging, but by the mid-90s stylishly packaged funk compilations were a common sight in even mainstream record stores. Many of these are riddled with overplayed hits, so one is advised to dig deep. The Brits seem to do them the best. The London-based Soul Jazz Records sets the gold standard for comps and reissues. Their three volume New Orleans Funk series is an essential intro to some of the best music from Funk’s early days. Similarly, BGP’s Superfunk series is uniformly great. –Richard P

Quiet Chaos: 
An Introduction to ECM Records

ECM Records is a jazz label founded in 1969 in Munich, Germany by producer/bassist Manfred Eicher. ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) became known as a label that created a musical environment all its own. The recordings were sparse, minimalistic and relying on space as an accent to create what is now widely known as the “ECM sound”. Most of the recordings were rooted in jazz but combined with other genres. As well as blues, funk and rock, various forms of European folk, world music and contemporary classical music frequently found its way into the landscape. From the packaging, to the pristine production style, Eicher’s releases all are linked with a certain aesthetic that ties them together; he has definitely had a vision in mind. One reviewer from Coda Magazine described the music as “The most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence.” But not all critics shared the same opinion.

The music was, and still is, ostracized for being self-absorbed, cold, and lacking soul. Depending on the listeners taste, the label has also been credited (or accused) of ushering in the New Age era. A number of releases do indeed have these qualities that can drag down and can get a bit arid. But there are many recordings that hit the mark, where space fills the gaps and silence gains a voice, resulting in exciting and innovative art.

Manfred Eicher’s ECM has had a significant impact on the evolution of jazz and improvised music and how it is produced, performed and recorded. By using subtlety as a tool, and combining different styles, his musical stamp has managed to produce some exploratory, modern sounds that could easily suit a broad range of musical tastes. The label is still active and going strong today and Eicher is still applying his “less is more” approach to dozens of recordings each year.

Listed here are some releases that will hopefully dispel some of the negativity surrounding the label:

1. Gateway Gateway (1975) Guitar trio set featuring John Abercrombie on guitar, the great Jack DeJohnette behind the drums, and Dave Holland on bass. This record covers everything from post-bop swing to abstract, sonic explorations. This is a criminally underrated guitar trio record, if not one of the best releases from ECM.

2. Chick Corea , Dave Holland, Barry Altschul ARC (1971) Chick Corea on piano with Dave Holland on bass and Barry Altschul on percussion – Any fans of the classic piano trio should study this record, both lyrical and dissonant; it bridges the gap between free improv and structure.

3. Julian Priester Love, Love (1973) An “electrocoustic” jazz/ funk session with tight horn arrangements, wah guitars, low-fi bass lines and eerie synth swells mingled with Latin flavored piano runs. This is a modern sounding, progressive record that still sounds fresh today-a Jive Time favorite.

4. Nils Petter Molvær Solid Ether (2000) This is trumpet player Nils Petter Molvær’s second release by this project ; a stew of trumpet swirls, loops, guitars, and various electronics with programmed beats intertwined with live drums, along with gentle female vocal interludes. There’s also some sampling from DJ Strangefruit .

5. John Abercrombie Timeless (1975) Another trio record featuring John Abercrombie and Jack DeJohnette, only this time Jan Hammer on keyboards joins the fold. I had to include this spaced out fusion masterpiece. Frenetic drumming and fuzzed out guitar and organ washes create psychedelic soundscapes with funky breaks alongside tender acoustic guitar/piano duets. No Miami Vice theme here.

For further listening check out Ebhard Weber’s Colours of Chloë (1973); think Tortoise, Talk Talk and Him (not to be confused with the metal group of the same name). Fans of progressive rock and fusion such as early King Crimson and Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew should give guitarist Terje Rypdal’s first four ECM records a spin: Terje Rypdal (1971), What Comes After (1973), Whenever I seem to be Far Away (1974) and Odyssey (1975). More recent releases include Fender Rhodes/pianist Nik Bärtch’s quartet Ronin (2006) that focuses on groove and repetitive motifs creating tension as the music evolves. Drummer Thomas StrØnen and Saxophonist Ian Ballamy’s group Food’s Quiet Inlet (2010) craft a starkly beautiful, atmospheric blend of electronic and acoustic sounds, if you like live electronics and down tempo check this out. – ECM Tim

Are we forgetting your favorite ECM recording? We’d love to hear your comments:

Beyond the Gilded Palace: 
A Guide to Country Rock’s Golden Age

Even though early rock and roll was deeply rooted in country music, the two were ideologically at odds from the start. This rift became more pronounced as the ’50s gave way to the ’60s, and by 1965 Nashville was more provincial than ever, seemingly impervious to the supernovas of musical activity in cities like London and LA. Nevertheless, rumblings of a sea change can be heard during this time period even in the music of Rock’s prime movers, the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” on Rubber Soul just one example.

In 1966, less than a year after he had almost been booed offstage for playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan would travel to Nashville to cut a little record called Blonde On Blonde. Similarly, even on their early albums the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield wore their country influences on their sleeves, this mark of distinction becoming even more pronounced with each release. Something needed to give, and give it eventually did in the summer of 1968. Embracing traditional country & western (some argue to a fault), the Byrd’s landmark LP Sweetheart of the Rodeo announced the arrival of a new aesthetic. Released the following spring, Bob Dylan’s downhome Nashville Skyline upped the ante even more.

These records confused both the squares and the hippies when they came out, but not as much as when Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman defected from the Byrds to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons, most largely responsible for the Byrd’s dramatic switch to Country purism on “Sweetheart…”, needed a broader sonic canvas to explore his “Cosmic American Music”, and he would do just that on 1969′s The Gilded Palace of Sin. Its cover, depicting the long-haired Parsons in a marijuana leaf-patterned rhinestone suit, conveyed its mission statement almost as much as the music within. Unlike the Byrds’ and Dylan’s albums, The Gilded Palace of Sin took pieces from country and rock and reassembled them into something truly unique. Of the three releases in this “Country Rock Holy Trinity”, the Burrito’s album sold the most poorly, but its long-term impact exceeded that of its counterparts. Immediately after its release, musicians of all stripes took notice, and decades later the alt. country movement would be born when bands such as Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks returned to this well with a similar M.O. But the few years between the late ’60s and early ’70s represent what can only be called Country Rock’s Golden Age. Below are some more highlights:

1. Bradley’s Barn Beau Brummels (1968) This release by undervalued San Francisco folk rockers, which arrived in stores just a few short weeks after Sweetheart of the Rodeo, is in some ways more successful than its competition. Much of this can be attributed to Sal Valentino’s gritty vocals and the impeccable picking of some ace Nashville sessioneers.

2. Goose Creek Symphony Established 1970 (1970) On their debut album, this Arizona outfit conveys a laid-back and goofy stoner vibe, which somewhat belies its virtuosic musicianship. Its side two opener, “Talk About Goose Creek and Other Important Places”, is one of country rock’s great psychedelic rave-ups.

3. Grateful Dead American Beauty (1970) Which Grateful Dead album most typifies country rock is open to debate; clearly, it’s a toss-up between Workingman’s Dead and their next album, American Beauty. But in the end the latter achieves this distinction, if only by a slim margin. Featuring Jerry Garcia’s sparkling pedal steel guitar and some of the band’s best ever harmonies, the Dead would never sound this great in the studio again.

4. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen Lost in the Ozone (1971) Looking back almost as much as it looked forward, this raucous album introduced elements of rockabilly and boogie-woogie into the country rock mix. Commander Cody would record some more great albums, but this remains his definitive statement.

5. Michael Nesmith And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’ (1972) The Monkees’ hippest member recorded some of the best music in the country rock canon. But this minimalist outing, which features a rendition of “Different Drum” that’s superior to Linda Ronstadt’s version, is a true standout.

Further listening: Across the pond, Americana made its mark in 60′s Britain as well. For an idea of what what Country sounds like when it’s melded with Yardbirdsy blues, check out The Country Sect by The Downliners Sect; its 1965 release date makes it a record that was truly ahead of its time. Ray Davies was also taking notes when it came to Country, and his obsessions with it are most successfully explored on the Kinks’ last great album, 1971′s Muswell Hillbillies. Brinsley Schwarz, a band that counted Nick Lowe as an original member, were major underachievers in their day, but their take on country would come to define another genre, pub rock. Their second LP, Despite it All, is a small masterpiece. – Richard P

Are we forgetting anyone? We’d love to hear your comments:

Ska and Reggae’s Missing Link: 
A Guide to Rocksteady

Aside from reggae, ska was arguably Jamaica’s most important musical form, at least in terms of long-term cultural impact. Becoming ubiquitous all over the island at an astonishing speed in the early ’60s, ska grabbed hold of Jamaica’s musical consciousness like nothing had before. What’s more, despite its strange rhythms and heavily-Jamaican-accented vocals (when it wasn’t entirely instrumental), it crossed cultural boundaries almost effortlessly, making it catch on like mad in Britain and—to a lesser degree—the states.

Many Jamaican artists who eventually became international household names, among them Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, cut their teeth as performers during ska’s reign. In 1964, Millie Small scored an international smash hit with her skanked-up cover of “My Boy Lollipop”, and soon ska was everywhere. But by 1966, it was mysteriously vanishing in one place: Jamaica. A visit to a typical Kingston dance hall around that time would reveal that things were changing. Ska was becoming more melodic, more centered on the vocalist(s), and slower. Nobody knows for sure why this happened, but there are some theories. One suggests that during the summer of ’66, a brutal heatwave gripped Jamaica, forcing the musicians to slow things down on the dance floor so revelers wouldn’t collapse from heat exhaustion. Another postulates that the increasingly widespread availability of American soul records might have been a factor. (This would certainly make sense, as Stax and Motown influences can be heard all over the place on many Jamaican sides that were cut around this time.)

Whatever the cause, ska was metamorphosing into something completely different, so much so that it needed a new name; rocksteady seems to be the one that stuck. Rocksteady’s heyday was even more short-lived than its predecessor—-really only about two years-—and by the end of 1968, things were changing again. Recording technologies on the island were improving. Rastafarianism’s influence continued to spread, prompting a more socially conscious and politically-charged aesthetic. By the end of the decade, rocksteady was no longer, and reggae prevailed. But for many connoisseurs of modern Jamaican music, rocksteady represents its high point. It’s a form that’s rich and complex, yet raw, pure, and deeply soulful. It’s a truly unique product of its place and time, but one that transcends geography and culture, and which remains timeless. Here are five shining examples.

1. Prince Buster: Fabulous Greatest Hits (1980) – Though acquiring a popularity in the UK that at its peak rivaled the Beatles’s, Prince Buster never really established a large following in the US. Tracking down his one uneven RCA release from 1967 is a worthwhile endeavor, but this 1980 British comp is where all newcomers should start. All songs here were recorded in the mid to late ’60s, and many of them would serve as the blueprint for the 2 Tone movement that swept the UK a decade or so later.

2. Desmond Dekker and the Aces Israelites (1969) “The Jamaican Smokey Robinson’s” single “Israelites” represents the only time when rocksteady cracked the US top 100. When it did, MCA rushed to cobble together this collection of songs, some of which by then were almost two years old. It’s still a fantastic showcase for some of Dekker’s best work. He’s at the top of his game here, and so is his backing band.

3. The Ethiopians Engine ’54: Let’s Ska and Rocksteady (1968) Rocksteady was the ideal vehicle for the vocal group, and as Jamaican vocal groups went, they didn’t get much better than the Ethiopians. Don’t let the “ska” in the title fool you; most of this is quintessential rocksteady, some of the best ever recorded.

4. The Upsetters The Upsetter (1969) It’s difficult to figure out to whom this album should really be credited. One should know, however, that a young Lee “Scratch” Perry produced it, and whenever this eccentric mastermind is involved, things become, well… complicated. Featuring the work of a cadre of different musicians and vocalists, it’s a surprisingly cohesive late rocksteady record, one where the organ figures more prominently than the work of others at the time. It also hints at the dub revolution, of which Perry would be a prime architect a few years later.

5. Various Artists Tighten Up: Volume 1 (1969) Music from Jamaica continued to capture the hearts and minds of young UK listeners in the late ’60s, but the record industry was slow to profit from its popularity. This Trojan Records “cash-in” comp. spawned a series that would become an institution and number well into the double digits before ending its run. Its first volume defined the musical tastes of the Skinhead movement (before it was co-opted by nationalist and racist thugs). Heavy on soul covers, a few of its tracks denote a distinct progression towards reggae, but most represent some last great moments from Rocksteady’s waning days.

Further listening: Once the digging begins, one will be amazed by how so much great music came from such a small island in such a short period of time. The UK-based Trojan Records label remains the prime importer of rocksteady for a huge portion of the non-Jamaican world. The amount of compilations it has released over the years is overwhelming, but a good place to start is its budget-priced “threefer” box set series that it began churning out at the beginning of the 2000s. The Rocksteady Rarities and Skinhead comps are particular standouts, though there are plenty more (and some are available on vinyl). Also worth mentioning are Soul Jazz Records’ numerous comps that cover this period. Though they touch on other eras, 100% Dynamite and its many sequels and offshoots give a good overview of one of rocksteady’s most important producers, Sir Coxone Dodd. –Richard P

Are we forgetting your favorite rocksteady LP? We’d love to hear your comments:

Beyond Nuggets: 
A Guide to ’60s Ephemera

In 1972 Elektra Records’ Jac Holzman asked future Patti Smith Group guitarist and bassist Lenny Kay to compile what was a essentially a glorified mixed tape, resulting in Nuggets: Original Artyfacts of the First Psychedelic Era. This release became synonymous with the term “Garage Rock”, but this designation is not entirely accurate. Though rough and tumble staples like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Seeds are represented, more poppy-sounding bands like the Mojo Men, Sagittarius (featuring Glenn Campbell on vocals), and a host of other acts—some of whom were nowhere near a suburban garage when they cut these sides — are there too. Nuggets’ legacy is not so much its innovative (re)packaging of near hits, but its role in defining an aesthetic and its establishing of multiple genres and sub-genres: acid rock, power pop, sunshine pop, imitation Merseybeat, Dylan copycats, blue-eyed soul, even early Latino-rock  — they’re all here along with more that send rock critics reaching for their thesauruses and record collectors scrambling for their paypal accounts. Perhaps neither Kaye nor Holzman knew the long-term ramifications of their Frankenstenian experiment. Indeed, the monster they created essentially spawned a whole industry, that of the Esoteric 60’s Music Compilation. It’s an industry that refuses to die, even almost 40 years later. Exploring this brave new world can be a daunting task. Here then is a quick guide to some logical starting points:

1. Pebbles – Conceived and created in Australia only a few years after the original Nuggets, this series focused on more raw and obscure (though not entirely unknown) acts from the US. Numerous volumes and offshoot series of widely varying quality proliferated through the 70’s and 80’s, but volumes 1-6 are pretty darn solid.

2. Back From The Grave – One of the few series worthy of the “60’s Garage Rock” classification, the US bands represented here are young, fast, raw, and sometimes very poorly recorded, which undoubtedly adds to its authenticity.

3. Acid Visions – Regional garage and psych compilations are very common. This one focuses on the Lone Star State, which produced a surprisingly diverse and consistently high quality array of sounds in the ’60s. The third and final volume focuses on female artists, a very underrepresented demographic in this male-dominated realm.

4. English Freakbeat – Since suburban two-car garages are not as common in England, perhaps it was inevitable that a moniker for similar music from the British Isles would be invented, and “Freakbeat” seems just as apt as any. Though the bands on these five LPs share many commonalities with their American garage brethren, a rawer and more purist blues sensibility often dominates.

5. Rubble – While this Anglocentric series covers the Freakbeat sound like the series mentioned above, its emphasis is on the more cerebral and whimsical Psych-Pop of the late ’60s British and European scenes. Though spotty at times, many installments in this twenty volume series have numerous great tracks.

Further listening: One would think that by this point everything worthwhile has been unearthed, but the excavation continues. As unknown sides from the US and British scenes of the 60’s become scarcer, collectors are looking to more unexplored caches. Private pressings, underground Prog Rock, and Global Garage Rock have been the subject of many comps as of late. Cambodian Rocks delves into a thriving Asian scene that was tragically quashed when the Khmer Rouge took power. Love, Peace, and Poetry, a series still in progress, spans the globe to bring listeners impossibly rare pysch from the ’60s and ’70s. —Richard P

Are we forgetting your favorite series? Share your comments here: