Fresh expands and brightens the slow grooves of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, turning them, for the most part, into friendly, welcoming rhythms. There are still traces of the narcotic haze of Riot, particularly on the brilliant, crawling inversion of “Que Sera, Sera,” yet this never feels like an invitation into a junkie’s lair. Still, this isn’t necessarily lighter than Riot — in fact, his social commentary is more explicit, and while the music doesn’t telegraph his resignation the way Riot did, it comes from the same source. So, Fresh winds up more varied, musically and lyrically, which may not make it as unified, but it does result in more traditional funk that certainly is appealing in its own right. Besides, this isn’t conventional funk — it’s eccentric, where even concise catchy tunes like “If You Want Me to Stay” seem as elastic as the opener, “In Time.” That’s the album’s ultimate charm — it finds Sly precisely at the point where he’s balancing funk and pop, about to fall into the brink, but creating an utterly individual album that wound up being his last masterwork and one of the great funk albums of its era.
Always looking backward to the sunny sounds of the ’60s, She & Him often feel like a band out of time, a pair of pop dreamers born too late to be a part of the musical scene they’ve painstakingly crafted a pastiche of with their third album, Volume 3. Like the previous two volumes, the album finds collaborators Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward diving headfirst into the sunny, lovestruck sounds of Brill Building pop with a splash of country twang for good measure. While this means the album doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself from the pair’s early efforts, it certainly doesn’t diminish its effortlessly enjoyable sound. In a way, this kind of anonymity seems like a part of the bands M.O. Sure, both of the players here are famous in their own right, but rather than slap their names on the album, they gave the project a perfectly pleasant, albeit generic name. And rather than giving the albums a cute title, they’re given the archival title of “Volume.” All this speaks to a desire to simply let the music exist on its own, classically pop, terms, allowing listeners to get swept up in a song like “I Could’ve Been Your Girl” not because it has that lady from the movies in it, but because it’s the kind of breezy, melancholy pop that’s really easy to fall in love with. Three albums (plus a Christmas record) in, you’re either on board with what She & Him are doing or you aren’t, and if you’re stone-hearted enough to not be into the band by now, Volume 3 isn’t likely to sway you. However, for those of you already caught in the band’s spider web of eternal summer, this album delivers the goods.
Love Gun was Kiss’ fifth studio album in three years (and seventh release overall, peaking at number four on Billboard), and proved to be the last release that the original lineup played on. By 1977, Kiss merchandise was flooding the marketplace (lunch boxes, makeup kits, comic books, etc.), and it would ultimately lead to a Kiss backlash in the ’80s. But the band was still focused on their music for Love Gun, similar in sound and approach to Rock and Roll Over, their previous straight-ahead rock release. It included Ace Frehley’s lead vocals on “Shock Me,” as well as one of Kiss’ best and most renowned hard rockers in the thunderous title track. The album’s opener, “I Stole Your Love,” also served as the opening number on Kiss’ ensuing tour, while “Christine Sixteen” is one of the few Kiss tracks to contain piano prominently. “Almost Human” is an underrated rocker and features a great Jimi Hendrix-esque guitar solo from Frehley (no doubt due to ex-Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer manning the boards again), while “Plaster Caster” is a tribute to the famous groupies of the same name. The only weak spots on an otherwise stellar album are an obvious “Rock and Roll All Nite” ripoff titled “Tomorrow and Tonight,” and a pointless remake of the Phil Spector-penned classic “Then He Kissed Me” (reworked as “Then She Kissed Me”).
One of the most ambitious debuts in rock history, Freak Out! was a seminal concept album that somehow foreshadowed both art rock and punk at the same time. Its four LP sides deconstruct rock conventions right and left, eventually pushing into territory inspired by avant-garde classical composers. Yet the album is sequenced in an accessibly logical progression; the first half is dedicated to catchy, satirical pop/rock songs that question assumptions about pop music, setting the tone for the radical new directions of the second half. Opening with the nonconformist call to arms “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” Freak Out! quickly posits the Mothers of Invention as the antithesis of teen-idol bands, often with sneering mockeries of the teen-romance songs that had long been rock’s commercial stock-in-trade. Despite his genuine emotional alienation and dissatisfaction with pop conventions, though, Frank Zappa was actually a skilled pop composer; even with the raw performances and his stinging guitar work, there’s a subtle sophistication apparent in his unorthodox arrangements and tight, unpredictable melodicism. After returning to social criticism on the first song of the second half, the perceptive Watts riot protest “Trouble Every Day,” Zappa exchanges pop song structure for experiments with musique concrète, amelodic dissonance, shifting time signatures, and studio effects. It’s the first salvo in his career-long project of synthesizing popular and art music, high and low culture; while these pieces can meander, they virtually explode the limits of what can appear on a rock album, and effectively illustrate Freak Out!’s underlying principles: acceptance of differences and free individual expression. Zappa would spend much of his career developing and exploring ideas — both musical and conceptual — first put forth here; while his myriad directions often produced more sophisticated work, Freak Out! contains at least the rudiments of almost everything that followed, and few of Zappa’s records can match its excitement over its own sense of possibility.
Considering the quality of the original material on With the Beatles, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Lennon & McCartney decided to devote their third album to all-original material. Nevertheless, that decision still impresses, not only because the album is so strong, but because it was written and recorded at a time when the Beatles were constantly touring, giving regular BBC concerts, appearing on television and releasing non-LP singles and EPs, as well as filming their first motion picture. In that context, the achievement of A Hard Day’s Night is all the more astounding. Not only was the record the de facto soundtrack for their movie, not only was it filled with nothing but Lennon-McCartney originals, but it found the Beatles truly coming into their own as a band by performing a uniformly excellent set of songs. All of the disparate influences on their first two albums had coalesced into a bright, joyous, original sound filled with ringing guitars and irresistible melodies. They had certainly found their musical voice before, but A Hard Day’s Night is where it became mythical. In just a few years, they made more adventurous and accomplished albums, but this is the sound of Beatlemania in all of its giddy glory — for better and for worse, this is the definitive Beatles album, the one every group throughout the ages has used as a blueprint. Listening to the album, it’s easy to see why. Decades after its original release, A Hard Day’s Night’s punchy blend of propulsive rhythms, jangly guitars, and infectious, singalong melodies is remarkably fresh. There’s something intrinsically exciting in the sound of the album itself, something to keep the record vital years after it was recorded. Even more impressive are the songs themselves. Not only are the melodies forceful and memorable, but Lennon and McCartney have found a number of variations to their basic Merseybeat style, from the brash “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Any Time at All,” through the gentle “If I Fell,” to the tough folk-rock of “I’ll Cry Instead.” It’s possible to hear both songwriters develop their own distinctive voices on the album, but overall, A Hard Day’s Night stands as a testament to their collaborative powers — never again did they write together so well or so easily, choosing to pursue their own routes. John and Paul must have known how strong the material is — they threw the pleasant trifle “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” to George and didn’t give anything to Ringo to sing. That may have been a little selfish, but it hardly hurts the album, since everything on the record is performed with genuine glee and excitement. It’s the pinnacle of their early years.
Flowers was dismissed as a rip-off of sorts by some critics, since it took the patchwork bastardization of British releases for the American audience to extremes, gathering stray tracks from the U.K. versions of Aftermath and Between the Buttons, 1966-1967 singles (some of which had already been used on the U.S. editions of Aftermath and Between the Buttons), and a few outtakes. Judged solely by the music, though, it’s rather great. “Lady Jane,” “Ruby Tuesday,” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” are all classics (although they had all been on an LP before); the 1966 single “Mother’s Little Helper,” a Top Ten hit, is also terrific; and “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow?,” making its first album appearance, is the early Stones at their most surrealistic and angst-ridden. A lot of the rest of the cuts rate among their most outstanding 1966-1967 work. “Out of Time” is hit-worthy in its own right (and in fact topped the British charts in an inferior cover by Chris Farlowe); “Backstreet Girl,” with its European waltz flavor, is one of the great underrated Stones songs. The same goes for the psychedelic Bo Diddley of “Please Go Home,” and the acoustic, pensively sardonic “Sittin’ on a Fence,” with its strong Appalachian flavor. Almost every track is strong, so if you’re serious about your Stones, don’t pass this by just because a bunch of people slag it as an exploitative marketing trick (which it is). There’s some outstanding material you can’t get anywhere else, and the album as a whole plays very well from end to end.
Let There Be Rock, the fourth AC/DC album — and first to see simultaneous international release — is as lean and mean as the original lineup ever got. Shaved down to the bone — there are only eight tracks, giving this a lethal efficiency even with a couple of meandering jams — this is a high-voltage, brutal record, filled with “Bad Boy Boogie.” It has a bit of a bluesier edge than other AC/DC records, but this is truly the sound of the band reaching its peak. There’s the near majesty of “Let There Be Rock,” there’s Bon Scott acknowledging with a wink that “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be,” and then there’s the monumental “Whole Lotta Rosie.” Which gets down to a key thing about AC/DC. If Led Zeppelin were celebrating a “Whole Lotta Love,” AC/DC got down to the grimy details in their leering tribute to the joys of sex with a plus-sized woman. And that’s AC/DC’s allure in a nutshell — it’s sweaty, dirty, nasty rock, music that is played to the last call and beyond, and they’ve rarely done that kind of rock better than they did here.