Record #389: Johnny Cash – Greatest Hits, Volume 3 (1978)

What is the measure of a great artist? Is it the enduring power of their songs? Check. Is it their notoriety? Check. Is it the size of their catalog? Big ol’ check…
Or is it the number of songs you can recognize on an album labeled “Greatest Hits?” In this case, one.
And it bears repeating: I am a Johnny Cash fan. I am pretty familiar with his work, and have been for over a decade. And yet, I recognize only one song on this compilation of “greatest hits” (One Piece at a Time).
And sure, it’s worth mentioning that Cash’s career was dominated by the shadow of his early works (Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk the Line, Cry Cry Cry, etc). But his career was solid through much of his life. So much so that’s it’s easy to fill a record with forgotten hit singles.

Record #388: Johnny Cash – Man in Black (1971)

Johnny Cash is an interesting figure. For his infamous trouble with the law and addictions to drugs and alcohol, John had a devout faith that guided him through his turmoil…
Man in Black is not the first religious album Cash made—he released several albums of hymns and spirituals before this. But it is probably his most personal. Six of the ten tracks are original. Including “The Preacher said, ‘Jesus Said,’”  (his most overtly religious song) “The Man in Black” (maybe his most personally spiritual tune), and “Singin’ in Vietnam Talkin’ Blues” (perhaps his most political). 

As such, Man in Black carries a different mood than the rest of his albums. There’s a sincerity here that escapes most of his other discs. It’s a heavier disc, and he plays it with all the gravity it deserves. 

Even if “I Talk to Jesus Every Day” gets a little preachy.

Record #387: Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two – Original Golden Hits, Volume 1 (1969)

As well as releasing 96 studio albums in his lifetime, Johnny Cash’s record labels (and he had deals with dozens) released hundreds of compilations…
Especially these early tunes. This compilation includes every megahit but Ring of Fire. Folsom Prison Blues, Cry Cry Cry, Get Rhythm, I Walk the Line, and Hey Porter are all accounted for. Which makes sense, because I’m pretty sure every Johnny Cash compilation is legally required to feature at least one of those four tunes. 

And for any lesser musician, even the forgotten gems on this disc would be career standouts. But thanks to Cash’s boundless output, even these great tracks got buried under bonafide hits.

Record #386: Johnny Cash – The Sound of Johnny Cash (1962)

It took me two years to get through the first run of Johnny Cash albums in my collection (out of laziness, not quantity). Then, just when I thought I was out, a friend gave me four that he picked up at a garage sale.
​ 
So let’s knock these out.
While Johnny Cash is an undeniably iconic figure in American popular music, part of that is purely thanks to his prolificity. He released ninety-six studio records in his forty-nine-year career. Not every one of those is going to be as memorable as, say, Live at Folsom Prison.

This is his twelfth studio album, and it comes just six years into his career. There are only two songs on here with much notoriety, and even those are famous for other recordings (Delia’s Gone, I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now). 

​Which isn’t to say it’s bad–it’s very difficult for Cash to release a bad song. He has a format, and that format works. He sticks to the script here, and the results are just as devilishly charming as ever. 

Record #385: If These Trees Could Talk – The Bones of a Dying World (2016)

Every year, no matter how closely I follow the music blogs, there’s always some record I miss until the following year, which inevitably becomes my favorite. In 2010, it was Beach House’s Teen Dream. In 2014 it was La Dispute’s The Rooms of the House. In 2015, it was a tie between Revisionist by Sannhet and Caspian’s Dust and Disquiet

​And last year, it was this.

I never even heard of If These Trees Could Talk until this album showed up in my recommendations on Amazon Prime. And while their algorithm sometimes misses more than it hits, this one was an atomic bomb. Since my first listen, I’ve been desperate to add it to my collection.

The Bones of a Dying World is the exact sort of post metal I yearn for. It’s punishingly heavy, but without ever sacrificing melody. The guitars are soaked in proglike delay and countered with a punishingly heavy rhythm section. It’s an evocative juxtaposition, and creates some incredibly moving moments. 

The album opens with “Solstice,” which almost sounds like a metal rewrite of “Sirius” by Alan Parsons Project (note: this is a great thing). The group then creates an album that serves up all the best archetypes of post metal without ever sounding formulaic. There’s plenty of soft-loud dynamic changes, as comes with the territory, but ITTCT adopts the format more thoughtfully than many of their contemporaries, shifting dynamics with purpose rather than out of necessity.

And while most post metal/post rock guitarists rely heavy on the reverb to create atmosphere, these riffs are decidedly more rhythmic. Palm muted delay lines (think more Phoenix than Explosions in the Sky) run through the bulk of the tracks (”Solstice” and “The Giving Tree” most effectively). As a result, there is a groove here that is rare in post metal. 

Record #383: Julia Holter – Ekstasis (2012)

I absolutely love 1980s 4AD stuff. So when a record cops that exact aesthetic (right to the cover. See any This Mortal Coil album), there’s a pretty good chance I’m going to like it anyway. But when that record is as immaculately crafted as this, it’s pretty likely to find a spot on my record shelf…
Apparently, Julia Holter has a pretty well-respected catalog outside of this album, but I’ve somehow missed all of it. Her other albums are song cycles built around Ancient Greek literature. While Ekstasis isn’t nearly as heady, there’s a seriousness here that betrays Holter’s derision towards the laziness that so often pervades “bedroom pop.”

There are heavy reverbs and electronic drums all over this disc, but it’d be foolish to compare it to the flood of synth-leaning dream pop bands that have cropped up on Bandcamp over the last several years. This so carefully composed that it might be chamber pop if it were played on acoustic instruments. 

What’s also telling is the flow of the tracks. When I first heard this digitally, I was amazed at how naturally the tracks ran between eachother. So I was aghast when I got the vinyl to see that the track list has been completely redone. But somehow, the record’s cohesive narrative has remained intact.  

Record #384: The Juliana Theory – Emotion is Dead (2000)

The year is 2001. 

​It’s the summer between eighth grade and freshman year. My hair is spiked, my shoes are Etnies, and you can bet I’m wearing a ball chain choker. The Ataris, Blink 182, and Five Iron Frenzy are stuck in my Discman. I spend most days at my friend Boo’s house “practicing” with our pop punk band Superhero. Our older friend Kelly, on whom we all had crushes, drives us around in her Toyota Tercel, popping in whatever CDs we all love.

​One day, she pops in Tooth and Nail’s Song From the Penalty Box, Vol. 4 (a classic, to be sure). Nestled between pretty standard punk tracks was “To the Tune of 5,000 Screaming Children” by The Juliana Theory. It was as revolutionary as the riot described in the lyrics. We would listen to it over and over again.

December 18, 2001. It’s my fifteenth birthday. The first semester of high school has completely undone all of the carefree days of the summer. I was stuck between pretty heavy feelings for a couple girls, one of whom couldn’t stand me, the other lived a state away. Also there was the whole 9/11thing that seriously messed with my teenaged view of the world. Suddenly, Blink 182 wasn’t talking to me as much. 

My family is on vacation in Florida. My parents take me to a record store to find a present. As I search through the CDs (nobody cared about vinyl in 2001, remember), I look through all the old familiar names uninspired. 

Then, I see it. The Juliana Theory. 

I look on the back–5,000 Screaming Children is on there (as well as “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop,” which was on another great comp)

I buy Emotion is Dead (along with Understand This is a Dream and The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most by Dashboard Confessional). Over the next few days, I cycle through the three pretty quickly, but Emotion is Dead grabs me the hardest. Its blend of emotive rock and roll, hardcore screams, and dancehall-ready electronics up-end my musical pallet.

I stopped gelling my hair on that trip. For the next three years of high school, I would wear it long. I traded my Etnies for Converse All Stars. My cargo shorts (worn below the knee with knee-high socks underneath) were replaced by slim fitting jeans. I developed an affinity for sweaters. 

Over the next few years, my tastes would expand to bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Fugazi, Further Seems Forever, Taking Back Sunday, Thursday…

No exaggeration at all: I once found a magazine spread outlining the “emo” look, and it was literally what I was wearing. I was the walking, talking version of the Prehistoric Emo Kid on YourSceneSucks.com.

And that is literally thanks to this album.

(but it sucks that they added a fade to Emotion is Dead pt. 2 before the funk bass comes in for the vinyl version)

Record #382: Joy Division – Closer (1980)

It’s always difficult to divorce an artist’s personal life from their work, but music presents perhaps the biggest challenge. And no album may be so tied to the artist as this one… 
Two months before the release of Closer, Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis hung himself in his kitchen at the age of twenty-three. He had been struggling with epilepsy and his marriage for years, and confided in his wife that he had no desire to live past his twenties. 

Closer was read like a suicide note, a man’s one last baritone yowl into a cruel world that wouldn’t mourn him. He laments betrayal, isolation, mockery, and more, wringing his deep voice into painful contortions. “No wonder he did what he did,” the listeners said. “He was clearly tortured.”

But this isn’t Curtis’s album alone. We would be remiss if we didn’t note the growth of the players behind him since the previous album. Unknown Pleasures might be the more iconic album, but Closer is, by every measure, better written and better played. Bernard Sumner throws himself fully into his noisy riffing on a few songs (especially on “Atrocity Exhibition,” which I don’t think has a single coherent note on the guitar), but he also spends a few tracks completely on the synthesizer. Drummer Stephen Morris and bassist Peter Hook (who famously couldn’t hear Bernard or Ian over himself until he heard the first album) carry this album on their backs with far more surefootedness. They are unmistakably the same band that created the first album, but they cast a shadow that looks an awful lot like New Order, which would form after Ian’s death.

There’s also the dark atmosphere, once more supplied by producer Martin Hannet (which was, again, a sour point with the band). While Unknown Pleasures was written as a punk album and produced as something else, Closer knows exactly what it’s trying to be. It lacks some of the rough edges of the previous album, but with ballads like “The Eternal” and absolute rippers like “Twenty Four Hours,” it’s hard to mourn that change.

In all, Closer is a massively important statement from one of the most important and tragic groups in rock and roll history. It’s telling that New Order’s discography took a very poppy trajectory, because after creating this, they were going to need a whole lot of pop therapy.

Record #381: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Ella and Louis (1956)

Name a more iconic duo. I’ll wait…
But seriously, the pairing of Ella Fitzgerald’s velveteen alto with Louis Armstrong’s trumpet/voice hybrid (he somehow manages to sound the same whether he’s playing or singing) is so perfect that it’s amazing that it took so long to happen.

At this point, Miles Davis had already taken jazz from Charlie Parker, who had taken the mantle from Louis Armstrong before him. Satchmo had been doing this for thirty years. Ella for twenty. Both were undisputed icons. This duet series was a massive collision of supergiants.

But you’d never guess at its importance based on the absolute preciousness of the album cover. Nor is its gravity betrayed anywhere in the music. Ella and Louis croon and gravel and play their way through the most popular standards of the day with giddy playfulness. 

And these tunes have endured–Gershwins and Irving Berlin have a fair amount of representation here, so that’s no surprise. There’s also the absolute classic April in Paris, which is correctly remembered as one of this era’s pinnacle tracks. Also included is a charming rendition of They Can’t Take That Away From Me, which is a personal favorite.

But overall, this album is perhaps the most charming thing ever recorded. It certainly doesn’t show either’s technical chops, nor does it have to. It’s merely a perfect example of what these two megastars do better than anyone.

Record #380: Joy Division – Unkown Pleasures (1979)

Here it is: the album cover you’ve seen all over Tumblr. All the trendy kids are wearing it on their t-shirts (myself included). Just such a hip album, right?

​But yo, dig it. This album is legendary. It birthed the entire post-punk scene. But it’s not exactly like they were trying to do much different. They were just some Manks trying to play punk rock. They just had a couple hiccups there…

Notably, Bernard Sumner’s poor equipment. His only amp was this small thing that he could barely hear over the din of the pounding drums and driving bass lines. To make himself heard, he would play higher riffs, often scraping his strings into noise rather than proper melodies (it’s worth nothing that bassist Peter Hook first heard Sumner’s guitar parts on the record, as he played too loud live).

Then there’s the atmosphere. There’s an unusual amount of echo on the drums and vocals for a punk record (which Hook famously hated). This is essentially because producer Martin Hannet thought punk rock was boring, and Joy Division didn’t have enough studio experience to argue with him.

The result is a weird, wonderfully dark record that served as the perfect atmosphere for the morose baritone of Ian Curtis, one of rock and roll’s most celebrated and tragic frontmen. While their next album would be much more shaded by Curtis’s suicide, Unknown Pleasures does little to offer contrarian narrative, and would go one to be embraced by weird sad kids everywhere across every generation (that I missed it until after college astounds me.

​Looking at its humble beginnings, it’s amazing that Unknown Pleasures became the monolithic icon it is. More than just a weird underground hit, it has been lauded by every music publication from NME to Rolling Stone. I sometimes wonder if it owes its legacy more to its cover and aesthetic than its songs. But when I revisit it, I am quickly corrected.