The following list of musicians is by no means meant to be exhaustive. Of anything. Simply, this covers music I like, and, if we were sitting around having a drink and listening to some tunes, I’d probably be going on about these players. I’ve linked recommended albums to Amazon simply as a courtesy, not as any kind of endorsement of that mega-marketplace. Granted, I have nothing against them (and I’ve found some stuff there that I couldn’t get elsewhere), but, in fact, if you want to buy this music over the Internet, I encourage you to go to Music Millennium, simply so Portlanders can continue to enjoy one of the best independent music stores in the country.
Glittery, woozy New York dream pop: shoegaze for a summer’s day. Start with Citrus.
The blues. Straight up, but with a certain natural sweetness. His guitar extends his voice and vise versa. And the best guitar tone I’ve ever heard live. (Sorry, Jeff Beck.) Live at the Regal is the accepted masterpiece.
Almost named The Crackers, but they still would have ended up being called The Band (the name that stuck to them when they backed BobDylan’s first electric shows). How they managed to be raucous and tasteful at the same time will forever be a mystery other musicians try to unpack. Eric Clapton credits them with changing his whole sound from psychedelia to roots. They’re almost all gone, with Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson still with us. The music, of course, lives forever. All their albums bear listening, but their second, self-titled The Band seems to go the deepest.
Inventive sampling/roots/poetry/whatever. For being labeled a slacker, Beck’s certainly produced a swath of varied music. And he doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Odelay is a good place to start, though Sea Change is also great.
Killer, loopy Brit…what were they? Alt-something something? Good. They were really good. Basically irresistible. Going for a long summer drive? Take The Three EPs.
Blondie kind of got slagged in the punk/new wave days because they flew too high, too fast, and then some life twists and turns batted them around. But they’re back, and, listening now to those songs from the 70s, it’s amazing how much they kicked. And how weird they could be. Parallel Lines. Still fading, still radiating.
This is what Jandek might sound like if he played in a known key. Which isn’t really fair to Haunted House or Jandek, they both sound like themselves: music to be played late, late on still, edgy nights. Pay no attention if the curtains move or doors shut on their own.
The best Bob Dylan ever. Come on…he’s immortal. And ever so mortal. All you can say to him is: thanks. Classic: Blonde on Blonde. Contemporary: Love & Theft.
A duo who made a wonderful, swirling wash, perfect for headphone surfing. Splendid. Underappreciated. Try 1995’s self-titled Bowery Electric. If I ever completely lose my mind and start a band, I’d want it to sound something like this.
It’s no secret that Buddy Guy can play his ass off. And your ass off. And a whole crowd’s ass off. Here’s the thing: his guitar cuts. And leaves you laughing. The joy that comes through is almost better than the music, and the music’s stone amazing. Feels Like Rain is a personal favorite.
So many have asked “What planet did this guy come from?” that it’s become a cliché. But, I mean, isn’t there a possible, outside chance…? Wherever he came from, he left amazing artifacts behind, and many, from Frank Zappa to Tom Waits, have been inspired by his deep sack of Halloween tricks. Trout Mask Replica, of course. (The cover of which would a make a fine, red T-shirt, perfectly suited to any black tie occasions.) Johnny Rotten claimed he put on the album to clear out parties.
At one point, people referred to them as “the only band that mattered.” That got to be a bit much, but they were awfully, awfully good at a time when so much was awfully, awfully bad. And, though it’s not often noted among the talk of politics and authenticity and all, but they sounded like they were having a wonderful time. If you haven’t listened to them for a while, their timing comes through as amazing, from Mick Jones power chords to Joe Strummer’s yawps. And if you’ve never listened to them, get busy. London Calling, stat.
Another band that got bashed about, but they shimmer and swagger and sound beautiful as hell. And “Zombie” will still kick your ass. For that alone, try No Need to Argue.
The Dandy Warhols
A Portland institution. They can rock it, big, do the Stonesy strut, the Seattle sludge. But there’s always a sense that they’re kind of laughing at themselves, which is infectious. Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is almost as beguiling as…Portland. When the sun shines. Whoa.
There’s no way around it: he’s a troubled guy. But he lets you into his house and has marvelous toys to play with. And, sometimes, just when you’re bopping along, feeling all of eight years old, he’ll sting you. Which is probably one reasons why other musicians love him. Fun is well titled…depending on how you like your fun.
He’s made his name as a wizard in the studio, with some kind of mysterious talent for bringing out the best in other musicians, but he’s a hell of a songwriter and a player on his own. And he’s continually taking chances. Late summer evenings live in his ears. Recommended: For the Beauty of Wynona. There’s a play lurking in “The Collection of Marie Claire” but I haven’t found it. Yet.
To paraphrase Warren Zevon: he’s so many people. And they’re all fascinating. I don’t know what’s more remarkable: how many times he’s successfully reinvented himself, or how long he’s simply been making consistently excellent music that sounds new. Sound + Vision, just because there’s so much great material to cover.
They were of a time and a place, and, no matter how much they’ve influenced others, it doesn’t seem like anyone can pick up where their trail faded out. Sure Morrison was tragic: a goof, a jerk, a bad drunk, maybe little bit more than emotionally disturbed. But he also appeared…fearless. For which he deserves applause. And repeated listening. With three other individualistic musicians that could make for the sky. They did it great with The Doors, but never did it better with Strange Days.
A terrific, underrated band, with a big heart, a smart head, and a gift for atmosphere. You can’t call them prog, you can’t call them psyche, you can’t call them shoegaze, and you can’t call them straight rock. Which, I think, means you can call them original. I keep coming back to Kingdom of Rust. They’re on hiatus, but the members stay active with various projects. Here’s hoping they get the itch to go back in the studio together.
U2 became one of the biggest bands on the planet, and you have to give credit to every one of them. But, to me, The Edge is the guy who cuts a path through the brush. David Gilmour owned the delay pedal until The Edge came along. Now they jostle each other for posterity. There’s a little Juan Miro in The Edge: he knows exactly how much to do, and holds back when more takes away from the whole. Where else: The Joshua Tree. Tim Darling has written an extensive breakdown on The Edge’s use of delay, which, once you get the hang of it, can become so intoxicating to play that evenings pass in the blink.
Costello continues to be excellent, exploratory musician; he’s a lifetime artist. But it’s hard to explain how utterly weird and fresh he seemed when he appeared to leap out of nowhere, and how utterly compelling and savage his music sounded at the time. He’s certainly transcended those first three albums many times (“I Want You” is one of the scariest pieces of music ever written), but, man, that was a debut. He could have hung it up after “Watching the Detectives.” Fortunately for us, he keeps going. If I had to choose, make it: Armed Forces.
Oh, shaggy dog stoner band. How wonderfully sludgy and ramshackle thou wert. Let summer turn to snow and then to static on the television. DeanWareham’s still out there, making much different but very good music. Which is as it should be. On Fire, if only for “Snowstorm.”
Gary Clark Jr
The guitar magazines love him, and he’s got a little bit of that Hendrix magic sizzling, but he’s also his own guy. Here’s hoping his chops and his smart, laid-back manner will take him (and us) far. The debut album’s Blak and Blu.
They’ve been around for a while, but I personally just stumbled onto them; so I can’t say much, except I like what I’m hearing, and they seem to come from a fresh direction. That’s worthwhile right there. Under the Western Freeway seems a good place to start.
The Handsome Family
Johnny Cash plays the best of Edgar Allen Poe. Marvelous songs about ghosts and death and dead leaves and exploding lightbulbs. Having briefly met them and heard them live, they seem to be smart, genuine people, and their music deserves a listen. With the lights low (but maybe not all the way off). Singing Bones, especially for “24-Hour Store.”
The High Violets
It’s a drag to pigeonhole anyone, but: Portland shoegaze. More of the Slowdive school than My Bloody Valentine, they have a knack for taking to flight and lifting you with them. After a break, they’re going back in the studio, which is excellent news. I’d give To Where You Are a shot. The title cut’s a pure thrill.
Jandek. Damn. He doesn’t play like anyone else. For the longest time, no one knew who he was (questions still remain). He plays a gig now and then, kind of appearing and disappearing. And he’s been making wonderfully terrifying music for a very long time. He’s that guy you start a casual conversation with on the bus, and suddenly you realize you’re really talking with somebody extremely serious, and they’re taking you places that both fascinate you and make you very, very nervous. Not for everybody, but you’ll know it if it clicks. Jandek, I suspect, chooses you. Try Ready for the House. It seems odd that Jandek’s on Amazon now, but you can still do it old-school and write to “Corwood Industries.”
Well, he’s the Guv’nor to the Brits. A guitar wizard with a soul, a sense of humor, and a mix of cockiness and humility that’s entrancing. He’s playing guitar at a level somewhere so far out there, where human beings aren’t meant to go, and he still brings it home and sounds fresh. We have many, many technically superb guitarists playing. They’re great in their varied ways. Some I dig; others don’t speak to me, but I appreciate their talent. There is, however, only one Jeff Beck. And that’s entirely enough. Live at RonnieScott’s serves as a great introduction, and the DVD of the concert feels like you’re right in the club, with a table next to the band (along with a few dodgy characters in the audience, like Jimmy Page and Brian May).
It’s hard to even talk about Jimi: so much that could have been. It’s like saying, hey, Bobby Kennedy might have made a good president, eh? Then you’re depressed. Still a drag he left so early, but, man, he left so much while he was here, and he changed so much. One has to recognize the contributions of so many other guitarists, but Hendrix remade the way we hear electric guitar. And did it so beautifully. So soulfully. You can listen to him your whole life. That said, a note for the miners trying to scrape what’s left from the Hendrix bag: we’ve heard his train a-coming. There’s no reason not to pick up all three of his studio albums with the Experience, but, if you’re new to his music, try The Ultimate Experience, still one of best Hendrix compilations and beautifully remastered.
Unabashed country, with a taste of rockabilly, delivered with a sort of speak-sing, in a voice that comes from somewhere so deep and so American that it’ll scare the hell out of you. He sang from the grave long before he passed over. Genius. At Folsom Prison remains the classic.
Daft psychedelic surf shoegaze (that’s correct), with streak of …joy. When they sing “psilocybin every day,” it’s hard to tell whether they’re goofing of putting forth their manifesto. Try American Whip.
Well, he’s Keef, innit he? Heart beats to a shuffle. Mr. Open G, one string off the Telecaster, cause five’s all you really need. Got a pretty good band going—they might make something of themselves one day. And he knows how to let his hair down, now and again. And again. What the hell: Exile on Main Street, if for no other reason than the Stones, in a summer of living dangerously, went for it.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd
A little Hendrix, a little Stevie Ray Vaughn, and a whole lotta attitude. Plus the chops to back it up. And a deep love for the blues, without which, the preceding would mean nothing. Live! In Chicago is one of those live albums that catches a little lightning in a bottle.
Cohen’s a poet. First and foremost. He just happens to sing…very, very distinctively. Somewhere from deep within the universe. Songs of late-night love and lust and longing. Start with Songs of Leonard Cohen. He did. “The Stranger Song” is a favorite. Thanks to Robert Altman for introducing me to Cohen’s work by using it in the soundtrack of McCabe and Mrs.Miller (a film I highly recommend).
What if you reinvented The Band as alt-rock? It’d sound pretty good, wouldn’t it? And it does. Try Deserter’s Songs. You’re doing something right with Garth Hudson sits in.
Zen meets shoegaze? Why not? Marvelous Japanese, instrumental, ambient rock. Try Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain.
My Bloody Valentine
One of the great bizarro stores in rock. Releasing Isn’t Anything, a young band finds a new sound—monstrous distortion softened with massive reverb, and etherial vocals buried in the mix. They go into the studio to work on their second album, days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and so on. Rumors spread that they’re bankrupting Creation, their label. Finally, the album—Loveless—gets released, and basically floors fans and critics. (Here’s assuming Creation made its money back.) And then…nothing. For 20 years. Oh, songwriting/guitar wizard Kevin Shields turns up now and then, sorta kinda playing something, and then disappears again. They’re back in the studio. They’re not back in the studio. The bassist drives a taxi to stay alive. Flash forward to 2013, noises begin (again) about a new album. After several protracted weeks (or months) of false starts and generally flagging expectations, MBV suddenly makes a new album available for download. For real. The demand immediately crashes their website. Entitled MBV, it’s…marvelous. See you in 2033. What do they sound like? Being pummeled into submission with feather pillows. Go first to Loveless. You’ll either turn if off after five minutes or be hooked for life.
Neil does what Neil wants. Fortunately, that includes writing songs and playing guitar. I love most of his stuff, but I’m particularly fond of the electric work: an old black Les Paul (named Old Black) plugged into a Fender Deluxe with the volume dimed. Somehow, the notes just seem to swim into each other. I like that his official link goes not to a storefront but to his blog. I guess he figures, if you want his music, you’ll find it. For me, the album is Rust Never Sleeps. When asked how he got the title cut’s monstrously huge distortion, Neil claims an amp got dropped down a stairwell. I’m not sure I buy that, but, on the other hand, it’s not out of the realm of possibility with Mr. Young.
Neutral Milk Hotel
If not a band name, what a great title it’d make for a book. And that’s kind of what you sort of get: demented folk/alt-rock short stories. Jeff Mangum, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist, apparently went a bit off the deep end and disappeared for a while, but it’s pretty clear he was operating close to the edge to begin with. But Neutral Milk Hotel isn’t a songwriter’s platform; it’s a collective of strong musicians who strive for inventive sounds. Really, they only put out two albums, but they’re both great. In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is considered definitive. “Areoplane.” I mean…really. Perfect.
Best Dadaist rock band ever. Try Terminal Tower for an overview. “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” serves as one of the strangest and best debut singles ever.
Oh, the Floyd…. You know, when they were actively a group and making new albums, it seemed, for a stretch, that they couldn’t get more plodding and overblown. Now, with time and distance, one can appreciate the big music they made and the influence they had on bands to come. Just because the same six or seven songs get played over and over on classic rock stations doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give the other songs a listen. And, because it goes unsaid, Pink Floyd proved masterful at incorporating spoken words and stray sounds into their work. Animals stands out as one of the oddest records ever made by a top band. Right down the cover.
By all indications, Polly Jean means it. A strong rhythm guitar player, somewhere between punk and the Stones, a belter’s voice, and stunningly open, honest lyrics, Harvey is, simply, a force of nature. Stories from the City Stories from the Sea features a hair-raising duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Which, somehow, makes perfect sense.
Rock’n’roll’s a boys world, blah blah blah, and Chrissie Hynde takes no prisoners. She can put her fist through your steel front door, steal your heart, play killer rhythm, write smart lyrics, purr on cue. And she has one of the best vocal vibratos in pop music. She’s made so much great music that it’s hard to say where to start, but you might go all the way back to the debut album: The Pretenders, partially for the great guitar work from the late James Honeyman-Scott. When Hynde sings “I’m special” on “Brass in Pocket,” she wasn’t kidding. (Well…maybe a little bit.)
I love that, when the time came, they quit. That might sound odd, but it felt so right and true to the band—that, when they’d said their piece, they’d move on. What they said, for many years, was terrific, especially in the Eighties, when they and a few other bands were saying it, but you could only hear it on the spaces between the radio dial, the college and pirate stations. Eventually, when the world caught up with them, they accepted it and let their art follow. Many, many fine albums, but the one that, at a certain point in my life became my life, was Life’s Rich Pageant.
No apologies: currently my favorite band. So much so that people have probably tired of hearing me talk about them. “At last, Steve,” said a friend, “you’ve found a band as depressed as you are.” That’s kind of selling Radiohead short, but they are…thoughtful. Besides that Thom Yorke writes great songs, and the band plays very, very well, I like that they follow their own North Star. You simply can’t predict what the next Radiohead album will sound like, other than it’ll likely challenge your ear, but it’ll still sound like Radiohead. Which, to me, is what being an artist is about: pushing yourself and trusting that your audience will find you. If you haven’t listened to them, go with OK Computer. If you have, you probably already own Kid A. And, if you’re already a Radiohead freak, you might want to check out The King of Gear, an absolutely amazing site that details the instruments Radiohead uses to mix its brew.
Honestly, when they first came out, we couldn’t tell whether or not they were a joke. Not in the sense of being bad, but in the sense of being a prank. Whichever, they took Iggy Pop’s thunder and added Fifties rock’n’roll, and it worked. The English called it punk; the Ramones just did it. Start at the beginning, with The Ramones. Seriously though, kids, lay off the glue sniffing.
Whatever “shoegazing” was (and the term started as a snide tag by music journalists, commenting on many of the late-80s neo-psychedelic bands that greatly relied on guitar effects pedals, and hence spent more time turning on and off their stompboxes than looking at the audience), in some ways, these guys did it best. They took the distorted guitars, added the holy trinity of reverb, delay, and chorus, and made it pop, with more conventional song structures than My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive, but still with a sense of adventure. And it sounded marvelous, like a melodic jet aircraft taking off, while you’re standing on the tarmac. (Turn the volume up for Ride.) Try Nowhere. The cover image alone sums up shoegaze.
A wandering blues guitarist cuts 30 or so songs in various hotel rooms to make a few bucks, and changes the course of music history. This is why some things have to be written as non-fiction: because no one would buy it as a novel. His time signatures were all over the place. He played rhythm and lead at the same time. And he sang like death was a step behind him. Which it was. He tapped a beautiful well, from which blues and rock musicians still drink. You can get every (known) thing he recorded on a couple of CDs, so why not: The Complete Recordings.
Never heard of him? Neither had I, until I started playing guitar (I credit author Gregory Tozian for turning me onto him). He’s one of those “muscian’s musicans” I suppose: a guy who followed his own path, but not enough people followed. If you haven’t checked out his music, you’ll find, upon a first listen, that it seems somewhat familiar. That’s because everybody got stuff from him. And, like Robert Johnson, he had this aura of doom about him, like he had to get it all out before he ran out of time. Sadly, he did too early. One of the greatest guitar players ever, and he doesn’t have an official site. That pretty much says it. The Best of Roy Buchanan makes a great introduction.
The Sex Pistols
Now these guys were a joke—a prank staged by Malcolm McLaren (for however much they “mean it, man”). But a glorious joke they were, and dropping a needle on their vinyl still feels subversive. There’s really only one album (they burnt up that fast): Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. And the choruses on “Anarchy in the UK” simply soar. Know what I mean?
Big, beautiful, symphonic rock from Iceland. Start with Agaetis Bryjun (which I have no idea how to pronounce). It has an angry, winged, alien fetus on the cover. What’s to explain?
A splendid shoegaze band, of the dreamy school, who caught a breeze, but never seemed to catch a break. Underrated and underappreciated. Still, “Alison” seems to capture “the scene that celebrates itself” the best, in all its euphoric haze. Also, for a musical style that never placed too much weight on lyrics, Slowdive managed to pull off a good line or two. Souvlaki is probably the peak.
The Stone Roses
Glorious voices and sounds, coming out of the shoegaze era, but with a bigger beat and a huge heart. They seemed world-beaters, but couldn’t keep it together. Still, they wrote and recorded some very fine music in a great flash. Given that you can buy The Complete Stone Roses gives you a hint of how fast they came in and how quickly they were gone.
Now they seem like an institution, but, when they first appeared, no one, basically, had seen or heard anything like them. This was punk made by art school students. Odd, angular, head-scratching, straight-up quirk. When they hooked up with Brian Eno and began to introduce polyrhythmic, world beats to their music, magic happened. The shift started with Remain in Light. You can trace multiple musical branches from that album alone.
One foot in the Sixties, one foot in the Eighties new wave scene, Petty has pretty much settled into making American music. A greatly underrated observer of contemporary life, the writer in him comes to the fore in Hard Promises. A little Springsteen, a lot of the Byrds, and an outlook all his own.
One of the most original voices in music, Tom’s been through a number of incarnations, from Beat-influenced piano scuffler to poet of drinkers and The Life to off-kilter musicologist and mythologist of the strange, neglected, and poignant. He tries new stuff. He looks at the world through odd goggles. He’s been known to cross state lines to buy good fireworks. One of the best damn lyricists ever. And he’s unafraid to be funny or heartbreaking, sometimes in the same song. It’s hard to say where to start, but a lot of folks have started their love affair with The Mule Variations.
A new shoegaze/dream pop duo with a great, rich sound. They’re just coming up, so their music can best be had through their website, though you can get a couple singles through Amazon: try Rotation.
The writer’s rocker. Seriously. Warren proved so beloved among writers that a bunch of them (including Hunter S. Thompson and Paul Muldoon) got together and co-wrote songs with for him (for 2008’s My Ride’s Here). Probably just because he was smart, literate, dark, consistently dramatic, and funny as hell. He left us way too soon, and, damn, I miss him. Excitable Boy is the classic.
Of the big three from the Sixties (with the Beatles and the Stones…Dylan was in a class by himself), only the Who seemed to so effectively synch with the era’s restless energy and aggression, and, for a time, they became known as one of the world’s finest (and loudest) live bands. They were also a bunch of funny bastards. Daltrey lay down the template for hard rock singers. Entwistle played with impossible fluidity and grace. Pete Townsend consistently wrote (and writes) smart, innovative music. And Keith Moon…was the best Keith Moon-style drummer in the world. Try the soundtrack album The Kids are Alright for a good introduction to the classic era.