An album is usually considered to be an artist’s beautiful baby; but sometimes it can also be their ugly stepchild. Deformity, after all, is a part of nature, and the contrast only helps to accentuate the instances of unabashed beauty. Here are 10 artists who vied for some ugliness to really make their albums shine:
10. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Tinderbox (1986)
While this album may be Siouxsie and the Banshees’ catchiest and most refined album, it also contains some of the most morbidly experimental atmospheric-work in the band’s repertoire. This is very much to the credit of newly recruited guitarist John Valentine Carruthers. It is very much the guitar that, when not pulling-off polished propulsive hooks, makes this album bleed and twitch. The song “An Execution” features screaming and moaning guitar fits and all sorts of other disjointed sonic interruptions that make the track sound like it was cut up and reassembled at random.
Siouxsie said in a 1986 interview with NME, “It’s very well seamed; it’s all sewn up. That’s what we aimed for.”
And that’s certainly what they achieved: a patchwork of bloodstains and bleached cotton squares.
9. Radiohead’s Amnesiac (2001)
It’s easy to see where Radiohead could be identified as “abstract rock,” as their shape-shifting sound surely defies any concrete structure or logic. While they are capable of conventional hyper-pretty melodies (i.e. In Rainbows and OK Computer), they can fall off the deep end when they want to explore the very possibilities of sound. Amnesiac is the best example of unfamiliar sounds and noises (less than what one might consider “music”). Replete with clicks, beeps, and myriads forms of white noise, the album is often just a sound collage, collecting a variety of obscure noises into an unearthly atmosphere of interesting.
Take the songs “Push/Pull Revolving Door” and “Like Spinning Plates”: the former sputters, skips, and incorporates barely audible vocals to where the song sounds like utter brain damage, while the latter contains counter-clockwise whirring sounds and inverted vocals that sound like the song is in fact being played backwards (which in no way inhibits Thom Yorke’s impassioned falsetto).
Guitarist Ed O’ Brien said, in an interview with the Chicago tribune, that their sound on the record is a product of a new approach to creating a record (which also applied to the album Kid A which they recorded right around the same time):
“We had to come to grips with starting a song from scratch in the studio and making it into something, rather than playing it live, rehearsing it and then getting a good take of a live performance. None of us played that much guitar on these records. Suddenly we were presented with the opportunity and the freedom to approach the music the way Massive Attack does: as a collective, working on sounds, rather than with each person in the band playing a prescribed role. It was quite hard work for us to adjust to the fact that some of us might not necessarily be playing our usual instrument on a track, or even playing any instrument at all. Once you get over your insecurities, then it’s great.”
For those who like Radiohead for their straightforwardness, this one takes a little getting used to (and an appreciation for all that comes from left field).
8. Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)
(Starts at 1:55)
Spoon albums tend to be very lo-fi friendly. Their most recent album, 2010’s Transference, was assembled from a concoction of 8-track recordings and demos which sounded more organic then their studio sessions (which they ultimately scrapped). All over Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, you can hear little imperfections left in (voice-overs, background noise, etc) but the song “Ghost of You Lingers” in particularly sounds like the tape was acid-washed in select places (starting at the 1:55 mark), which adds a third wraith-like dimension to themes of a “lingering ghost.”
In an interview with A.V. Club, bandleader Britt Daniel said about his purposeful inclusion of tics and frayed edges on the album, “I just think that’s more exciting. When people used to cut records live, there were mistakes all the time that stayed in. It was part of the charm. You’re kind of missing something if everything is all doctored-up and clinical. So when we hear a mistake that sounds interesting, we make a point to keep it.”
7. Broadcast’s Ha Ha Sound (2003)
The technology is completely modern but set to “vintage,” a la Phil Spector’s 60’s girl groups. Listen to “Winter Now,” and hear warped string sections like some classic 45 played for the thousandth time.
In an interview with Gimmebadvibes.com singer Trish Keenan said on her experimental tendencies, “Avant-garde is no good without popular and popular is rubbish without a bit of avant-garde. Two of them are dynamite together and we are always trying to aim for a combination of both. I don’t know how pure avant-garde people do it, it must be a thankless task, pushing back the boundaries to the really weird and extreme yet the dichotomy of it is that they are usually amazing musicians.”
What makes Broadcast’s music especially eery is the fact that Keenan died last year, which just imbues, upon revisiting, their sound with more ghostly overtones, to where you wonder if lurking beneath all those layers of reverb is Keenan herself, contained as some form of intangible energy.
6. Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs (2008)
(Very end of song.)
The song “Pity and Fear” exemplifies the spirit of the album, which is one of spontaneity and “liveness.” The song carries on with a surging momentum straight until the end, with no carefully-conceived conclusion. The result sounds like a tape literally cut with scissors too early; before that, the volume spikes a few decibels for no apparent reason. If you were to download this album (rather than purchase a legal digital or vinyl copy), you might think it was a poor pirating job.
Producer and guitarist Christopher Walla said about the album in an interview with The Vine, “The master plan for Narrow Stairs was to be as invisible and hands-off as a producer as I possibly could. I was really interested in seeing what would happen. When we started that record, we had been on tour for the better part of two years. All we could remember was being on stage and playing. So the whole idea was: what happens if we’re just on stage and we play, except we’re in the studio and we’re recording?”
What happens is a much more organic sound- something that could’ve been plastic and flawless instead becomes something more human and prone to error, something real. And with an album like Narrow Stairs, which breathes and sighs and feels (pain), such a production strategy only enhances its resonance.
5. Beach House’s Teen Dream (2010)
(Verse, starting at 0:40.)
The members of Beach House love reverb. Their early material sounds like vinyl left out too long in the sun. While they sought to clean up their act in their latest album Teen Dream, they didn’t drop their affections for that rough-around-the-edges sound.
In an interview with Pitchfork, bandmember (duo-counterpart) Alex Scally said,
“The feeling that reverb gives you is all over the record. Which is expansion of sound. You know, reverb does that thing where you make one sound and it grows to 20 times its original size and fills everything up. Whereas with this record, I think we were trying to get that same sensation with arrangement and actual sounds.”
Victoria Legrand, other half of the duo, said, “Reverb is this mask. It’s a style. It’s like a lace curtain or something. But it works. It worked on the first record and it worked on Devotion, and it’s still there on Teen Dream to some degree.”
Legrand also gave her impression of how first time listeners reacted to their sound, when one of their songs was an iTunes Single of the Week:
“They were like, ‘I hate this! My stereo’s broken!’”
4. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy (1985)
Unwitting purchasers of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s first album, 1985’s Psychocandy, must have gone straight back to the store for a refund, giving its incredibly jarring sound. Just listen to the song “Never Understand” (if you can stand it) and see if you aren’t absolutely certain that either a) your stereo speakers have somehow short-circuited, or b) the recording is simply 3-straight-minutes of nails scratching a chalkboard.
Band member Jim Reid said in an interview with Pennyblackmusic, “A lot of people couldn’t believe that we had the nerve to get on the stage and do that because we couldn’t play.”
He added, “What kind of pulled us through I think was that the songs were pretty strong. Maybe people couldn’t hear them because we were playing them so badly, but we knew that there was a basic song underneath.”
Being so heavily influenced by the Ramones as they were, who also lacked a proper mastering of their instruments, it’s not hard to see where their penchant for corrupted melodies may have been born. But more than just playing sloppily, they seemed bent on giving the listener tinnitus.
3. Echo and the Bunnymen (self-titled, 1987)
Echo and the Bunnymen have a distinct sound, a balance between tight grooves and warbly guitar atmospherics. But even with inflected “warpedness” all over their breakthrough self-titled album (to where the vinyl listener does double-takes at the condition of the disc itself), the sound is not that which the band best identifies with.
Front man Ian McCullough left the band after this album. In a 1992 interview he told Q magazine, “We just got sucked into a new mentality on that last album, the sound of Radio America. It did great here, but by then I just thought we weren’t good enough any more. It was pretty happening, the States was building and building but it didn’t feel good on stage. We weren’t really communicating as mates and stuff. I mean, I was used to believing that we were the best group going.”
Sometimes too much purity can be devastating for a band that thrives on angularity. But even so, there’s no denying the essential Echo sound which appears all over this album. Perhaps the problem lies in becoming too complacent, too familiar with such unfamiliar-sounding musical territory.
2. The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat (1968)
(Starts disintegrating at 2:00.)
This album is as decisively sloppy as a can of Campbell’s Chunky Beef Stew. And that’s not to the credit of Andy Warhol, banana-fanatical producer of their gorgeous debut.
In fact, after their lack of commercial success with the plantain-prominant predecessor, they fired Warhol, and with him, his idea of art.
Much of the album is jarring and dissonant (a straight 17-minutes worth in the album closer “Sister Ray”), but the title track (which is supposed to imitate the experience of an amphetamine high) best depicts the band’s devolution into voluntary chaos. After two minutes of what would be punk rock’s essential blueprints, the song disintegrates as if Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker’s instruments imploded mid-performance. If another song didn’t kick in immediately thereafter like a defibrillator of sorts (i.e. “The Gift”), you might’ve thought your stereo just died.
Rest assured, what’s caught on tape isn’t completely aimless, even if the scope is left slightly out-of-focus:
Describing the 17 minutes of pure chaos that comprises “Sister Ray” Lou Reed said, “We were just trying to drown each other out on that one. Someone said ‘Who’s playing bass?’ There is no bass. ‘When is the song over?’ It’ll be over when it’s over.”
Blame it on the drugs, or the understandably dampened spirits, WL/WH is a dish best served blindingly hot (or with a ramekin full of speed).
1. David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974)
The album plays like a giant sonic homage to George Orwell’s 1984, and, as such, a dystopian spirit is distinctly present. Take the album closer, “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.” The song devolves into a maddening loop, which is meant to sound like a broken record, where the sound repeated is “Br, Br, Br, Br, Br…”
The sound is the result of a tape loop, but as the story goes, Bowie intended to have the phrase “Big Brother” looped (i.e. the title of the preceding song), but when it accidentally was reduced to a simple “Br,” he went with that instead. The sound, after enough listens, eventually starts to sound like “run,” which is as vague as it is fittingly ominous.
Bowie is said to have been influenced, lyrically anyway, by William S. Burroughs’ use of the “cut-up technique” of writing, which is where you take a piece of writing and literally cut the lines up and rearrange them in a different sequence, thereby creating a completely different meaning/effect.
In a Rolling Stone interview where Bowie and Burroughs discuss dreams as a source of creative influence, Bowie said, “I find it easier to write in these little vignettes; if I try to get any more heavy, I find myself out of my league. I couldn’t contain myself in what I say. Besides, if you are really heavier there isn’t much more time to read that much, or listen to that much. There’s not much point in getting any heavier…. there’s too many things to read and look at.”