Friday, December 19, 2008

VH-1's 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs

Compilation (various artist)

A couple of months ago, VH-1 did another one of their Top 100 lists. While I usually think these things are a waste of time, the topic of this one was something very near and dear to my heart-- hip hop music! Yes folks, your tour guide is not just another pop music geek after all, although many of the songs on this countdown are just as pop as any Monkees song you'd care to mention. And then there are the songs that transcend any sort of definition whatsoever, like this one...

Pretty much all the big names are represented: Biggie, P.E., Pac, NWA, Eminem, Wu-Tang, 50 Cent, Kanye and Snoop all appear within the Top 20, for example. You can find a complete list of all the songs here. Like I said, it ain't nothin' but wall to wall classic hip-hop anthems, with many old skool joints I hadn't heard since I was a young g riding my BMX bike around the suburbs with my Sony cassette Walkman going full stop. Anyway, the whole package fits really nicely on six discs, and barring an official release (which, with the myriad of labels involved, will most likely never happen) the Crystal Sphere is the only place you're gonna get this joint. Discs: 1| 2| 3| 4| 5| 6

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Brian Wilson - Brian (2 CD)

Compliation (single artist)

I've decided in the interest of keeping this blog updated that I'm going to cut back on the essays. I seriously have no idea if anyone is reading this stuff anyway, and God knows the time I can spend doing this is limited, so unless anyone objects, it'll be just the basics from here on out.

Okay, here goes. Brian Wilson is my favorite composer, and he is rightfully celebrated throughout the world as one of the all-time greats. However, most of the admiration goes towards the music he created throughout the early and mid-sixties, up to and including SMiLE. The albums after that (basically Smiley Smile through Sunflower) still feature a good deal of Brian involvement and are cherished at least by fans if not the general public. Following this era, the Beach Boys released three albums that contained little involvement from Brian (Surf's Up, So Tough and Holland) but the other members of the group were at a songwriting peak, and so these albums are revered as well.

This leads us to the "wilderness era", aka "Brian Is Back". This era (roughly 1975 til Dennis Wilson's death in 1983) is one that is generally abhorred even by fans of the Beach Boys. The general exception is an album called the Beach Boys Love You that was hailed by many as a "return to form" for Brian. And certainly this is a fantastic (if unfinished sounding) record by the band that really showed Brian hadn't lost "it".

But as always, there's more to the story when it comes to the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson. If we examine Brian's ENTIRE output from the "wilderness era", we can see that Love You really wasn't a fluke. In fact, the guy was writing amazing material throughout this entire period! It was just sandwiched between the increasingly mediocre output of Carl, Mike and Al.

The spark for this compilation was the acquisition of two rare, long-form radio interviews Brian did in 1976 (Crawdaddy Radio) and 1977 (King Biscuit Flower Hour). In these interviews, Brian is lucid, conversational, happy and optimistic and talks openly about the band, drugs, his shrink and the rest of his life.

I chopped up the best bits of both interviews and interspersed them with Brian's "wilderness era" songs, so as to approximate a radio special that showcases nothing less than a secret artistic renaissance for Brian Wilson. This is really Pet Sounds for adults. Gone are the wistful teen angst ballads, as Brian tackles more mature themes that any dude in his thirties can relate to. Of course, there's some silly stuff too, but the overall vibe is that of an older, wiser individual coming to grips with adulthood.

Even if you're a longtime fan, you should appreciate both disc one and two

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dennis Wilson - Dennis Wilson Forever

Compliation (single artist)

2008's Archival Release of the Year must SURELY be the reissue of Dennis Wilson's 1977 masterwork Pacific Ocean Blue, which couples a mint remastered version of that fantastic album with a generous helping of cuts from his aborted follow-up Bambu. The reviews for this double CD have been uniformly excellent, as a new generation of music lovers are now exposed to Dennis's sensitive, soulful music for the first time. But as great as it is, the POB re-issue only tells half the story. As most of his longtime fans already know, Denny had been cutting his own music within the confines of the Beach Boys since the band's SMiLE sessions were underway back in 1967. While some of this material still has yet to come to light, what has emerged via various Beach Boys albums, a one-off solo single and the *ahem* "underground trader's circuit" shows the portrait of an artist who was already rapidly maturing beyond his years nearly a decade before POB's release.

Kicking off with the gorgeous "Little Bird" from the 1968 Beach Boys album
Friends, and winding its way through collaborate efforts with such notables as Steve Kalinich, Charles Manson, Greg Jakobson, Darryl Dragon, Blondie Chaplin, Billy Preston and fellow Beach Boys Carl and Mike, Dennis Wilson Forever stands as the perfect companion release to the magical reissue. This CD (a full 80 minutes) contains every available non-POB/ Bambu song that Dennis both wrote and sang, as well as a handful of tantalizing instrumentals that amply demonstrate he had learned a thing or two from his big brother Brian.

Ideally, a set of these songs needs to be released as the natural follow-up to
Pacific Ocean Blue, and it should be at least 2 CDs and heavy with unreleased bonus material. Until that dream emerges though, enjoy my tribute to a musical legend and underground hero. Fans will enjoy having all this material on a single disc, while neophytes will realize why us hardcores will continue to sing the praises of Dennis Wilson Forever.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The UNi Records Story - Parts 1 and 2

Compilation (various artist)

The term "flower power" brings to mind images of beautiful hippie girls in mod skirts and go-go boots, gyrating wildly to a groovy backbeat as psychedelic lights flash and TV cameras zoom in and out. (Well it does for me, anyway!) But where did that groovy backbeat generally emanate from? Why Hollywood, of course! L.A. in '67 was undergoing a psychedelic revolution, and it needed a record label of its own solely devoted to ushering in the swingin' new sounds of the sixties. Thankfully, two young visionary record execs named Ned Tanen and Russ Regan took the bull by the horns and established UNi Records, a subsidiary of MCA.

UNi wasn't in the business of signing sappy lounge singers or Nashville bumpkins like Columbia, Capitol and their ilk. No, they were after the "hot" sounds. The sounds of "now". Groups were signed fast and furiously as the label scoured the countryside (or at least the Sunset Strip) in search of anything that would put them over the top and get them that hit. Naturally, bands that didn't produce were dropped just as fast.

The label's first mid-sized hit was provided by a Colorado outfit called the Rainy Daze. "That Acapulco Gold" rode its old-timey sound up the KHJ Boss 30 until the deejays got hip that the song's lyrics concerned smuggling bricks of hash across the border from Mexico. The powerful industry tip sheet the Gavin Report blacklisted the song and the band, and that was pretty much the end of the Rainy Daze. (The group did put out two more singles and an LP for UNi before leaving the label, all quite good. I will eventually get around to discussing these.)

After another charting single with Marcia Strassman's "The Flower People", the label finally hit paydirt with a group of teenagers from Glendale named Thee Sixpence. The young band provided plenty of their own material, but one song-- an instrumental called "the Happy Whistler"-- caught producer Frank Slay's ear. Tim Gilbert and John Carter of the Rainy Daze were brought in to write lyrics, and the lead vocal was cut by sixteen year old Greg Munford, who was simply a friend of the band brought in to do harmonies. The song was released as the b-side to a throwaway titled "Birdman of Alkatrash". The band changed their name to the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and when the record hit radio stations many DJs began to favor the now re-titled flip side, as it was obviously the superior track. It's often out of such unlikely scenarios that #1 records are born, and "Incense and Peppermints" would go on to achieve just that position. The Strawberry Alarm Clock, with an aggregate age of 17, were now the flagship artist of UNi Records.

The label would continue on for the rest of the decade, but their commercial fortunes mirrored that of the SAC to some degree. The Alarm Clock never again hit the Billboard Top 20, and despite a second #1 hit from the prestigious South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masakela titled "Grazing in the Grass", UNi would not find another rock band that could match the commercial success of the SAC. Thankfully they had better luck on the singer-songwriter circuit, signing Neil Diamond and later Elton John who would both go on to score numerous hits for the label. Their international division also did okay, producing a couple of big hits with the Foundations' "Build Me Up Buttercup" and Desmond Dekker's "The Israelites".

This is essentially all the information you'll find out there on UNi. The deeper, much more interesting story was revealed to me almost by accident. It started out with me coming across a few 45s and being captivated by the gorgeous psychedelic swirl pattern on the label. To this day it's still the coolest design I've ever seen for a label and sleeve. After buying a few more UNi singles for the collection, it began to occur to me that everything I was hearing from these guys sounded great, thirty some odd years after the original releases. Most of the artists were unknown to anyone aside from a few hardcore record collectors, but it almost didn't matter what the name on the label said, because I knew once I put needle to record that it was going to KICK ASS!

So what you've got here are more than 50 of the best UNi "A" sides (1967-1969) in my collection, sequenced in exact chronological order according to their matrix numbers. There are a few famous names mixed in here, but chances are you've never heard of more than a handful of these artists at best. Ignore that fact for a minute and take my advice: Sit back, put the music on, drink a cocktail or smoke a few bongloads, put away the track listing and just listen. UNi was a label with EXCEPTIONAL QUALITY CONTROL. Though they only scored a small smattering of hits in their pre-Elton John days, the important thing to the sophisticated music fan is that everything here was a POTENTIAL HIT just waiting to happen.

When you're done digging the sounds, you'll probably want to find out more about bands like the Lollipop Shoppe, the Giant Crab, the Fun & Games, the Yellow Payges and the Hook, just to name a few off the top of my head. Of course, all these bands have interesting stories in their own right, that we will get into at another time. But this set here is required listening for all you children of the Crystal Sphere.

Enjoy the UNi Records Story-- disc one and disc two-- and ask yourself the eternal question as posed by the Rainy Daze on track four, "is it better to wear a gray flannel suit or a paisley mind?"

Weezer - Weezer (Green Album) Deluxe

Deluxe Reissue

Green is my favorite =W= album, but it just doesn't seem to get the respect it deserves. This has something to do with the fact that most obsessive Weezer fans are assholes who bag on Rivers for the high crime of playing guitar solos that mimic his vocal melodies. If these douchenozzles bothered to get over themselves, they might actually have to admit that those guitar solos betray Cuomo's flashier tendencies in service to the songs themselves, which are uniformly excellent on this LP. The other criticism Green gets is that it's too short, clocking in at just under 30 minutes. Well that we can do something about. How about I double the album's length with twelve off-the-hook b-sides and outtakes? Did I mention these are nearly as good as the songs on the LP proper? Shit, some of my very favorite =W= moments are from these songs, ranging from the heavi-tude of "Christmas Celebration" and "Teenage Victory Song" to the gentle, almost longing "Always" and "I Do". Oh, and unlike the overpriced two-disc Deluxe Blue Album, these songs will all fit on a single CD. I'm makin' a case for Green as one of the best albums of this decade. Who's with me?

The Mothers - The Underage Mothers (1965-1966)

Rarities Compilation (single artist)

I guess a lot of people think that the Mothers formed around the time of Freak Out!, but the band had actually been together with various line-ups for over a year before that album was recorded. Yet despite the fact that the group had recorded at least three studio demo sessions, a comprehensive collection of the early Mothers has never been made available until right now.

It's quite inspiring to listen back to the formative recordings of this great band and see how much of their sound was already in place by 1965. The group already had songs like "Motherly Love", "I Ain't Got No Heart" and "Anyway the Wind Blows" down cold, as well as a nascent version of "Plastic People", performed to the tune of "Louie Louie"!

Underage Mothers also contains the earliest known live recordings of the band (from the Broadside Club in Pamona where they got their start) as well as the most complete representation yet of their legendary 1966 show at the Fillmore opening for Lenny Bruce. In between the live material that bookends the set are numerous studio outtakes, rehearsals and even some humorous sound bites from the man himself. All in all, this is an essential collection that I really took my time putting together, and it showcases the early Mothers as not only one of the top blues and boogie bands on the L.A. scene, but also strongly hints at the stunning creativity that was to follow. These Underage Mothers are not to be looked down upon!

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Who - Rock Is Dead - Long Live Rock! (1971-1973)

Rarities Compilation (single artist)

I admit to being a HUGE fan of Quadrophenia. While the 1967-68 Who will always be my favorite era, I think Pete really tapped into something great with this album. As a teenager, I completely identified with Jimmy. I was super deep into the Who during High School, and after seeing the movie I wanted to single-handedly bring mod fashion to the U.S. Sadly by that time, most of my friends were either sporting skatewear or drug rugs, and anyway I couldn't even afford a black trench, nevermind the fantastic tailored suits like Jimmy wore. And lets face it, I would have looked stupid going to school rocking a suit. Anyway, this probably doesn't mean much to you, but at the least it should give you some idea that I take my Quad-era Who very seriously. And, as such, what you get here is the quintessential (quad-essential?) companion piece to that very special double album.

I'd have to pull out my copy of "Maximum R&B" to get the exact quote, but sometime around 1972 Pete told a reporter that the new Who album was to be called Rock Is Dead - Long Live Rock. That should give you some idea as to what the single would have been, but in case you want me to beat you over the head with a brick, watch the YouTube video below. At any rate, the album would have consisted of some Who's Next outtakes, some future Quad numbers like "Love Reign O'er Me" and some songs the band most likely never got around to recording, like Pete's fantastic "Riot in the Female Jail".

So tracks 1-11 here are my attempt at lost 1972 Who album. I left off the stuff that would ultimately wind up on Quad, since you probably own that anyway, and replaced it with some awesome outtakes like the crucial, CRUCIAL Entwistle b-side "When I Was a Boy". (By the way, if you haven't checked out John's first two solo albums, you can download them at Amazon. HIGHLY recommended by me!)

This set is filled out with some fantastic performances from one of the all-time best Who gigs: San Francisco Civic Auditorium, 1971, as well as a touch of classic Moonie and two great live performances from the Old Grey Whistle Test.

Jam this one loud and proud while screaming at the top of your lungs Rock Is Dead - Long Live Rock!

** Before you get on my case for the amount of hiss on "Can't You See I'm Easy" and "Riot in the Female Jail", this was the lesser of two evils. The only source for these two songs had the treble rolled off to such a degree as to be UNLISTENABLE, so I had to do some really nifty EQ tricks to restore the lost top end. Yeah, there's some hiss, but what you're getting is the ENTIRE frequency spectrum, and pitch-corrected no less. If you don't dig it, go complain to John Astley.

The Who - Here for More (1968-1970)

Rarities Compilation (single artist)

The Tommy companion-- This one is an absolute corker. The Who are at the top of their game here as both a live act and a studio band. Lots of good rarities-- live at the Fillmore East, definitive PT Rolling Stone interview, Tommy outtakes (including the studio version of "Young Man Blues", finally presented at the correct pitch!), BBC stuff, Roger's best original song, the two lost EPs and early, ultra-rare versions of "Postcard" and "I Don't Even Know Myself".

Cannot describe to you how much I love such "throwaways" as "Now I'm a Farmer" or "Water". Some people might dismiss cuts like these as second-rate. Me? I fucking love 'em. But I'm man enough to admit that they're not Pete Townshend's best. NO, that would be "Naked Eye"-- in my opinion the ultimate song to ever come from the Who. Of course it's included here in all its glory. Take a little dope and walk out in the air and GROOVE to this masterpiece of a song.

Need I even mention the live versions of "Relax" and "Sparks"? Jesus H.... Look; if you're by some reason uninitiated, watch the freakin' YouTube clip. It's been nearly 40 years since that performance, but has anyone really surpassed it? Really?...
Throw this album on your media player, turn on the visualizer and imbibe in the substance of your choice. Hey, it's your life, you're Here for More.

The Who - Who's for Tennis? (1967-1968)

Rarities Compilation (single artist)

This companion to 1967's The Who Sell Out is actually my favorite Who CD of all time. It's the album I WISH Decca US would have released in leiu of the enjoyable but all over the map Magic Bus: The Who on Tour. The title here is taken directly from the words of Pete Townshend (or was it Kit Lambert?) who said in an interview that (paraphrased) "the next Who album will be called 'Who's for Tennis". All we know for sure about this mysterious proposed album was that "Glow Girl" was supposed to be the opener, and what an opening cut indeed!

What you've got here is the double album the Who would have released in 1968 if I had been running the show at their US record label. Utilizing basic math skills, we can determine that 24 total songs/ 4 = 6, which would be the number of songs per side on this fucker. I swear to you that if I ever get my hands on a vinyl pressing factory, the first thing I would do is press up 5,000 of these bad boys and give them away to anyone I knew who gave a crap about good music.

Anyway, this is pretty much the greatest Who album ever if you ask me. The familiar points of entry are "Pictures of Lily", "Magic Bus" and "Call Me Lightning", but after that it's a mind-blowing trip through obscure but beautiful b-sides, demos, alternate takes and RARITIES, baby. Download it, dig it. This is the Who at the top of their game. Anyway I'm getting restless writing this-- Who's for Tennis?

The Who - The Price of Pop Art (1966-67)

Rarities Compilation (single artist)

This is the companion to 1966's A Quick One/ Happy Jack. Apart from the classic singles "Substitute" and "I'm a Boy", I've included some great John Entwistle b-sides, some more PT demos, the Ready, Steady, Who! EP and the requisite amp-smashing, cymbal bashing live stuff, including some songs that never made it to the recording studio. More BBC performances, too, and I'll even throw in the Graham Parker Organization's "Waltz for a Pig", originally released as the official b-side of "Substitute" in the UK during contract disputes between the Who and Decca Records.

Also includes the super rare "Instant Party Mixture"... an entirely different version than the alternate version of "Circles" that originally appeared under the title "Instant Party". This one has to be heard to be believed, folks!

This is the Who at their Mod best: a band willing to pay The Price of Pop Art!

The Who - The Savage Young Who (1964-65)

Rarities Compilation (single artist)

And so we begin with a series of five compilations of Who singles and rarities that cover the band's peak era from 1964-1972. The logic behind the assembly of these comps was to permanently replace such scattershot (if excellent) collections as Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, Odds and Sods, Magic Bus: The Who on Tour, Who's Missing, Two's Missing and Rarities I and II with a superior 5-disc set that would cover every essential Who outtake, 45 and EP cut not present on their early albums, along with a generous smattering of live rarities, and all presented in strict chronological order.

As such, each of the five discs I'm going on about are, individually, the definitive companions to the studio albums My Generation, A Quick One, The Who Sell Out, Tommy and Quadrophenia. (I skipped Who's Next because all the vital stuff from those sessions not available here is already on the 2-CD deluxe edition-- available at a store near you!)

We start with the companion piece to the first Who album, My Generation. In short order, you will be hearing the group's very first studio recording sessions as the High Numbers, four ultra-rare live performances from 1964 when they were still working under that moniker, both sides of their first two 45s as the Who, all the known songs off their unreleased first album, three previously unreleased Pete Townshend demos and, of course, a generous sampling of performances from the BBC, Ready Steady Go! and Shindig. Ladies and gentlemen, this is The Savage Young Who in all their glory!

And... We're Back!

Well after a significant hiatus, I have decided that to re-open this blog in a major way. Over the next who knows how long I am going to be discussing my views on all things music with you fools, and of course I've got some goodies to back it up. Most of what I'm going to share here are some sucka-free compilations put together by yours truly. None of these are available in stores, and in many cases, the only place you will ever be able to hear this stuff is right here at the Crystal Sphere.

I've come up with a color code to distinguish the types of recordings to be found on my blog. This is mainly for my own sordid purposes!

Rarities Compilation (single artist) - Generally a mix of unreleased material, non-LP tracks from 45s/ EPs and hard to find CD-only bonus cuts.

Compilation (various artist) - These are almost always genre- or label-specific anthology-type sets.

Deluxe Reissue - A previously released LP, rounded out with additional bonus material.

Compliation (single artist) -
A collection of previously released material covering one band or artist, presented in a new or different way. Some compilations may spotlight one musician from a particular band.

Jason's Edit - Music assembled by me using digital editing software, as opposed to just a playlist of tracks. These are one of a kind projects that you're guaranteed to find nowhere else!

Game Soundtrack - The soundtrack to a video game. I'll only post these if they're not already available for sale elsewhere.

Out-Of-Print (OOP) Re-issue - Digital version of an album that is currently out of print or never previously issued on CD.

Live Performance - A live concert recording.

In addition to the tuneage, you can expect plenty of YouTube vids as well as the occasional rant from yours truly. Thanks for stopping by to check out this labor of love-- and if you like what you hear, please support the artists by buying some of their music and merchandise, preferably directly from them!