Of course, Highway to Hell is the final album AC/DC recorded with Bon Scott, the lead singer who provided the group with a fair share of its signature sleaze. Just months after its release, Scott literally partied himself to death (the official cause cited as acute alcohol poisoning) after a night of drinking, a rock & roll fatality that took no imagination to predict. In light of his passing, it’s hard not to see Highway to Hell as a last testament of sorts, being that it was his last work and all, and if Scott was going to go out in a blaze of glory, this certainly was the way to do it. This is a veritable rogue’s gallery of deviance, from cheerfully clumsy sex talk and drinking anthems to general outlandish behavior. It’s tempting to say that Scott might have been prescient about his end — or to see the title track as ominous in the wake of his death — trying to spill it all out on paper, but it’s more accurate to say that the ride had just gotten very fast and very wild for AC/DC, and he was simply flying high. After all, it wasn’t just Scott who reached a new peak on Highway to Hell; so did the Young brothers, crafting their monster riffs into full-fledged, undeniable songs. This is their best set of songs yet, from the incessant, intoxicating boogie of “Girls Got Rhythm” to “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It).” Some of the credit should also go to Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who gives the album a precision and magnitude that the Vanda & Young LPs lacked in their grimy charm. Filtered through Mutt’s mixing board, AC/DC has never sounded so enormous, and they’ve never had such great songs, and they had never delivered an album as singularly bone-crunching or classic as this until now.
While Gish had placed the Smashing Pumpkins on the “most promising artist” list for many, troubles were threatening to break the band apart. Singer/guitarist/leader Billy Corgan was battling a severe case of writer’s block and was in a deep state of depression brought on by a relationship in turmoil; drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was addicted to hard drugs; and bassist D’Arcy and guitarist James Iha severed their romantic relationship. The sessions for their sophomore effort, Siamese Dream, were wrought with friction — Corgan eventually played almost all the instruments himself (except for percussion). Some say strife and tension produces the best music, and it certainly helped make Siamese Dream one of the finest alt-rock albums of all time. Instead of following Nirvana’s punk rock route, Siamese Dream went in the opposite direction — guitar solos galore, layered walls of sound courtesy of the album’s producers (Butch Vig and Corgan), extended compositions that bordered on prog rock, plus often reflective and heartfelt lyrics. The four tracks that were selected as singles became alternative radio standards — the anthems “Cherub Rock,” “Today,” and “Rocket,” plus the symphonic ballad “Disarm” — but as a whole, Siamese Dream proved to be an incredibly consistent album. Such compositions as the red-hot rockers “Quiet” and “Geek U.S.A.” were standouts, as were the epics “Hummer,” “Soma,” and “Silverfuck,” plus the soothing sounds of “Mayonaise,” “Spaceboy,” and “Luna.” After the difficult recording sessions, Corgan stated publicly that if Siamese Dream didn’t achieve breakthrough success, he would end the band. He didn’t have to worry for long — the album debuted in the Billboard Top Ten and sold more than four million copies in three years. Siamese Dream stands alongside Nevermind and Superunknown as one of the decade’s finest (and most influential) rock albums.
Tres Hombres is the record that brought ZZ Top their first Top Ten record, making them stars in the process. It couldn’t have happened to a better record. ZZ Top finally got their low-down, cheerfully sleazy blooze-n-boogie right on this, their third album. As their sound gelled, producer Bill Ham discovered how to record the trio so simply that they sound indestructible, and the group brought the best set of songs they’d ever have to the table. On the surface, there’s nothing really special about the record, since it’s just a driving blues-rock album from a Texas bar band, but that’s what’s special about it. It has a filthy groove and an infectious feel, thanks to Billy Gibbons’ growling guitars and the steady propulsion of Dusty Hill and Frank Beard’s rhythm section. They get the blend of bluesy shuffles, gut-bucket rocking, and off-beat humor just right. ZZ Top’s very identity comes from this earthy sound and songs as utterly infectious as “Waitin’ for the Bus,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” “Move Me on Down the Line,” and the John Lee Hooker boogie “La Grange.” In a sense, they kept trying to remake this record from this point on — what is Eliminator if not Tres Hombres with sequencers and synthesizers? — but they never got it better than they did here.
Such was the power of Licensed to Ill that everybody, from fans to critics, thought that not only could the Beastie Boys not top the record, but that they were destined to be a one-shot wonder. These feelings were only amplified by their messy, litigious departure from Def Jam and their flight from their beloved New York to Los Angeles, since it appeared that the Beasties had completely lost the plot. Many critics in fact thought that Paul’s Boutique was a muddled mess upon its summer release in 1989, but that’s the nature of the record — it’s so dense, it’s bewildering at first, revealing its considerable charms with each play. To put it mildly, it’s a considerable change from the hard rock of Licensed to Ill, shifting to layers of samples and beats so intertwined they move beyond psychedelic; it’s a painting with sound. Paul’s Boutique is a record that only could have been made in a specific time and place. Like the Rolling Stones in 1972, the Beastie Boys were in exile and pining for their home, so they made a love letter to downtown New York — which they could not have done without the Dust Brothers, a Los Angeles-based production duo who helped redefine what sampling could be with this record. Sadly, after Paul’s Boutique sampling on the level of what’s heard here would disappear; due to a series of lawsuits, most notably Gilbert O’Sullivan’s suit against Biz Markie, the entire enterprise too cost-prohibitive and risky to perform on such a grand scale. Which is really a shame, because if ever a record could be used as incontrovertible proof that sampling is its own art form, it’s Paul’s Boutique. Snatches of familiar music are scattered throughout the record — anything from Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” and Sly Stone’s “Loose Booty” to Loggins & Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance” and the Ramones’ “Suzy Is a Headbanger” — but never once are they presented in lazy, predictable ways. the Dust Brothers and Beasties weave a crazy-quilt of samples, beats, loops, and tricks, which creates a hyper-surreal alternate reality — a romanticized, funhouse reflection of New York where all pop music and culture exist on the same strata, feeding off each other, mocking each other, evolving into a wholly unique record, unlike anything that came before or after. It very well could be that its density is what alienated listeners and critics at the time; there is so much information in the music and words that it can seem impenetrable at first, but upon repeated spins it opens up slowly, assuredly, revealing more every listen. Musically, few hip-hop records have ever been so rich; it’s not just the recontextulations of familiar music via samples, it’s the flow of each song and the album as a whole, culminating in the widescreen suite that closes the record. Lyrically, the Beasties have never been better — not just because their jokes are razor-sharp, but because they construct full-bodied narratives and evocative portraits of characters and places. Few pop records offer this much to savor, and if Paul’s Boutique only made a modest impact upon its initial release, over time its influence could be heard through pop and rap, yet no matter how its influence was felt, it stands alone as a record of stunning vision, maturity, and accomplishment. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, no matter how many times you’ve heard it.
The first sound on Back in Black is the deep, ominous drone of church bells — or “Hell’s Bells,” as it were, opening the album and AC/DC’s next era with a fanfare while ringing a fond farewell to Bon Scott, their late lead singer who partied himself straight to hell. But this implies that Back in Black is some kind of tribute to Scott, which may be true on a superficial level — black is a funeral cover, hell’s bells certainly signify death — but this isn’t filled with mournful songs about the departed. It’s a more fitting tribute, actually, since AC/DC not only carried on without him, but they delivered a record that to the casual ear sounds like the seamless successor to Highway to Hell, right down to how Brian Johnson’s screech is a dead ringer for Scott’s growl. Most listeners could be forgiven for thinking that Johnson was Scott, but Johnson is different than Bon. He’s driven by the same obsessions — sex and drink and rock & roll, basically — but there isn’t nearly as much malevolence in his words or attitude as there was with Scott. Bon sounded like a criminal, Brian sounds like a rowdy scamp throughout Back in Black, which helps give it a real party atmosphere. Of course, Johnson shouldn’t be given all the credit for Back in Black, since Angus and Malcolm carry on with the song-oriented riffing that made Highway to Hell close to divine. Song for song, they deliver not just mammoth riffs but songs that are anthems, from the greasy “Shoot to Thrill” to the pummeling “Back in Black,” which pales only next to “You Shook Me All Night Long,” the greatest one-night-stand anthem in rock history. That tawdry celebration of sex is what made AC/DC different from all other metal bands — there was no sword & sorcery, no darkness, just a rowdy party, and they never held a bigger, better party than they did on Back in Black.
Boston is one of the best-selling albums of all time, and deservedly so. Because of the rise of disco and punk, FM rock radio seemed all but dead until the rise of acts like Boston, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. Nearly every song on Boston’s debut album could still be heard on classic rock radio decades later due to the strong vocals of Brad Delp and unique guitar sound of Tom Scholz. Tom Scholz, who wrote most of the songs, was a studio wizard and used self-designed equipment such as 12-track recording devices to come up with an anthemic “arena rock” sound before the term was even coined. The sound was hard rock, but the layered melodies and harmonics reveal the work of a master craftsman. While much has been written about the sound of the album, the lyrics are often overlooked. There are songs about their rise from a bar band (“Rock and Roll Band”) as well as fond remembrances of summers gone by (“More Than a Feeling”). Boston is essential for any fan of classic rock, and the album marks the re-emergence of the genre in the 1970s.
With Amorica, the Black Crowes began developing a distinctive sound, shading their Stonesy Southern boogie with a variety of rootsy and psychedelic overtones. But where Amorica was rich with kaleidescopic colors, Three Snakes and One Charm is stripped-down and direct. Sure, it has a punchy, muscular sound that is, if anything, more eclectic than its predecessor, but the production is distressingly monotonous and the songs lack strong hooks. Even with its faults, Three Snakes and One Charm is a winning album, mainly because the Black Crowes’ musicianship continues to deepen — the musical fusions and eclecticism are seamless, particularly from lead guitarist Rich Robinson. Their musicianship would be even more impressive if the songs were equal in quality.