Classic Album of the Week

Posted every other Tuesday evening BEFORE the show.

Only Classic Albums from the most recent three months are included on this page.

Older Classic Albums can be found on the original playlist pages, listed in alphabetical order here.

Click on LP covers for more info and reviews.

   

Earthling Society "Tears Of Andromeda - Black Sails Against The Sky"  2007 (UK) 
This month we'll be featuring all classic albums of the 21st century. Earthling Society, from the city of Fleetwood on the northwestern coast of England, released their debut album in 2005 and were one of the very first records "from the Kosmik Radiation mailbag" to be played on the show (in fact I am pretty sure the title of "The Kosmik Suite" from their second album was inspired by this show!) They released another ten or so albums over the years and broke up in 2018, though the two constant members - singer/guitarist Fred Laird and drummer John Blacow - debuted a fine new psychedelic music project in 2019 called Taras Bulba. Generally classified as a "space rock" band, ES definitely has shades of classic British space rockers like Pink Floyd and especially Hawkwind (with the occasional foray into cosmic British folk music), but they are not copyists and do not sound quite like any other band. My favorite of their albums is their third Tears Of Andromeda, a proper kosmik trip of a double album where half the songs are more than 10 minutes long.
Also on the show this week: the first new tune from Haru Nemuri since 2018 - and she will be doing a short North American tour in the spring, including a Midwestern stop in Chicago! And Poppy released her third album this week (also dying her hair back to its natural brown).
Finally, we must also pay tribute on the passing of one of rock's most iconic drummers.
Oh Sees "Face Stabber"  2019 (USA) 
The Kosmik Radiation top album from my best of the year list gains automatic entry into the classic album hall of fame. The selection for 2019 is a fitting conclusion to the decade just passed, seeing as John Dwyer's various musical outfits - Oh Sees, formerly Thee Oh Sees, sometimes OCS, and also his "solo project" Damaged Bug - have been consistently making my best of the year lists for most of the history of this show. Face Stabber is his 16th album to make one of my lists (easily topping any other artist), but the first time he's had my #1 album. I think it's the best (Thee) Oh Sees album yet: a couple years ago Dwyer revamped the band in a jammier, proggier direction, which included the addition of a second drummer. The evolution from their punkier garage band roots has reached full flower on this album's central jams like the 21-minute "Henchlock" - it's still a little punk/garage and they've always had a touch of krautrock in their grooves, but now they're jazzy and frankly have turned into the 21st century's leading San Francisco jam band.
More highlights of the year: my favorite new bands I discovered in 2019 are Australia's pastel surf-rock hippies The Babe Rainbow, whose album Today created one of the most consistent and pleasant aural soundscapes of the year, and (yes here we go again) the fabulous Japanese nerd girl prog-pop band Dempagumi.inc - here's the baffling music video that introduced me to them (Mirin is wearing a stuffed pig in a bikini as a hat!)
As far as 20th century geezers, Meat Puppets nearly claimed the top spot this year with Dusty Notes, their best album in a quarter century and my favorite record of 2019 in terms of classic songwriting, while Kim Gordon finally released her debut solo album No Home Record eight years after Sonic Youth broke up - it sounds 100% like you'd expect a Kim Gordon album to sound (I mean that as a compliment!)
Frank Zappa "You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore"  (12 CD set) rec. 1966-1988, rel. 1988-1992 (USA) 
Happy Zappa Day! This year marks the 79th anniversary of FZ, and our annual CAOTW for the Z-man is arguably one of his greatest works. Zappa tried several times to create an EPIC WORK, beginning with a 10-album set to be called The History And Collected Improvisations Of The Mothers Of Invention that never got released (record labels be like "FTGB"), then later a 5-album set Lšther which Warner Brothers chopped up into four separate albums (Frank's complete version later came out as a posthumous release). But the one time during his life he was able to release a massive chunk of music was the 6-volume series of double CD's called You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore which literally encapsulates his entire career as a professional performing musician, from 1966 tapes of the original Mothers playing in dive bars to the final "big band" world tour of 1988. One of the interesting facets of Zappa fandom is that I don't think anybody likes everything he did, in fact most fans have Zappa albums or bands that they hate (personally, the 1982-85 tours and albums are at the bottom of my list). So I doubt anyone who has ever lived is going to love everything on this sprawling 14-hour compilation, but there is no better place to sip from the totality of rock's ultimate maximalist.
Dempagumi.inc "GOGO DEMPA"  2016 (Japan) 
At the beginning of this year I featured a series of "weird girls from the Internet" classic albums that were all recorded in the last 5 years and mostly from Japan. Well, here's another to bring this year to a close, with not just one weird girl but six of them. Since there is much to unpack here, I present a list of findings for what is surely the most epic CAOTW essay of all time (and don't call me Shirley).
Idols: Dempagumi.inc is an IDOL ("aidoru") group, which in Japan means a group of singers and dancers (almost always of the same gender) who wear matching outfits and perform tightly-choreographed dance routines while singing pop songs. This is a structure for organizing musical performance and doesn't necessarily imply much about the style of music a group performs, and most professional idol groups seem to differentiate themselves based on gimmicks and fashion rather than musical identity (for example, one of the most famous idol groups AKB48 is well-known for having 48 members!) But there are literally thousands of idol bands in Japan today, most of them amateur groups assembled the same way "guys who start a band together" are, and only a lucky few make their way up the showbiz ladder to becoming professional entertainers. On the top end, the most globally popular Japanese idol band today is of course BABYMETAL, whose musical style is rooted in heavy metal - though they are not the most popular idols in Japan. (The secret of BABYMETAL's great success has been not playing by the rules for Japanese idols, which only has a national fanbase compared to the global popularity of metal music.) Another key feature of idols is that they exemplify a Japanese cultural trend of "characters as products": the best example of this is the Sanrio toy company's Hello Kitty which sells billions-worth of products every year but doesn't "do anything" other than be a well known character (Hello Kitty is not a tie in to a movie or TV show, it's really just a logo you put on products.) Thus a portion of the appeal of idol groups is the audience's investment in the personalities in the group. On that score, the offbeat charm of the Dempa girls has arguably been the main factor in their revolutionary success on the idol scene. Most idol groups have members who seem to have the same interchangeable personality (cute, young and innocent), and indeed many professional idol groups replace their members constantly (AKB48 has supposedly had about 200 different members pass through their ranks of 48). Dempagumi.inc is the exception where the band's image is defined by the unique girls in the group, rather than the girls in the group being defined by the image of the band (which the performers probably had nothing to do with creating in the first place). Personality has always been a big part of great pop music: The Beatles would not have been nearly as popular and influential if those four guys didn't have such distinctive and likable personalities.
Otaku Culture: The most important thing about Dempagumi.inc's identity is that they are OTAKU: a key term in current Japanese pop culture which could be translated into English as "nerd" or "geek" (it literally means "house", as in a person with no social life who stays at home all the time indulging their geeky hobbies.) Until the 2010's decade, it was strictly a prejorative term in Japan, with a connotation much like "kids in black trenchcoats" had in America in the days after Columbine. However, in recent years there has been something of an "otaku pride" movement as nerd culture has become more mainstream. The cuddlier slang term WOTA seems to be replacing "otaku" among insiders. The genius of an "idol band for otaku" is that wotas are the most obsessive and loyal fans imaginable: the subculture is literally defined by its members' obsessive devotion to their pop culture hobbies and passtimes. But fandoms like that can't be created through marketing; only a group of wotas who "talk the talk and walk the walk" can generate genuine wota-devotion. Though DG has been scoring top 10 hit songs in Japan several times a year ever since 2013, they seem like the most popular cult band in the country rather than a mainstream group (the most popular idol group in Japan are examplars of "cute, young, innocent" and are not otaku.)
Denpa Music: One of the many weird things to come out of the otaku subculture is a style of music called DENPA SONG, music which is deliberately "awkward and strange" in an attempt to catch your ear by any means necessary. (Here's a short documentary on origins of the denpa scene 10 years ago before the arrival of DG.inc.) Which is where we finally get to the "psychedelic progressive underground" part: Dempagumi.inc songs tend to be complex multi-sectioned theatrical works with dramatic changes in tempo and dynamics, key modulations, time signature changes, and every section of every song crammed full of as many catchy earworms as possible. Their version of denpa is basically a maximalist "prog rock" approach to making pop music. The closest Western example I can think of is Frank Zappa's densely layered records that were "basically rock" (and did not lack for pop hooks) but were crammed full of motiffs and ideas from jazz, classical, and every other type of music known on earth. Though you could never mistake Dempagumi.inc for a Western rock band: if there is a signature sound of J-Pop, it is the high-pitched singing voices of Japanese women (and in the denpa style, the more extreme the better: Dempagumi do sound like "chipmunks" sometimes.) Footnote: the group name is spelled "dempa" not "denpa" because their early performances were held in the DEMPA building in Tokyo - thus the name is a pun on their musical style and the location of their origin. In English, the most literal translation of Dempagumi.inc would be something like "radio wave team incorporated."
Band History: Coinciding with the trends above, in 2008 video gamer nerd Mirin Furukawa began to perform denpa songs with a duo called "Dempagumi" at the Dear Stage bar in Akhibara, Tokyo (the center of wota culture). There were a bunch of personnel changes in the early years that we can skip over (the important thing is Risa Aizawa, Nemu Yumemi and Eimi Naruse joined during this period), and a 2011 indie-label debut album that didn't get much notice aside from it's crazy title (in English: Say What? It's Not Sushi That Will Save The Universe...It's Dempagumi.inc!) After struggling in the idol underground, their breakout came in 2012 with the formation of the iconic six-girl line-up that lasted until 2017; the last to join were the blonde Moga Mogami and 17-year old high school student Ayane Fujisaki a.k.a. "Pinky!" (discovered from dance videos she uploaded to YouTube; she would have been 15 when that video was uploaded.) At this time they also signed a major label record deal which brought their music, costumes, staging and image to a whole new level. This classic lineup recorded three classic albums: World Wide Dempa (2013) was a complex, theatrical, hyperkinetic record unlike anything the Japanese pop scene had produced before, and WWDD (2015) was more of the same with even catchier songs. Next up was GOGO DEMPA (2016), which generally received a lukewarm reception from critics because they were seen as straying "too far" from their roots as a wacky denpa band. However, I would argue this makes GOGO their high-water mark to date, as they maintained the distinctive elements of their original style while expanding their range of material in new directions. It's also their most "live" sounding record: they are the only idol group that tours with a live band rather than exclusively dancing to prerecorded tracks. Here's the music video from the album with two songs (both heard on the show this week); the first combines bluegrass(!), jazz and techno music and shows their wacky comedic side, the second is more of a rockin' Broadway showtune. However, this album also marked the end of the group's rise and the years 2017-2019 were a challenging period beginning with the unexpected departure of Moga. This led to a pause of nearly three years before their 5th album Wareware Wa Demagumi.inc Da (2019) was released: a decidedly transitional record that recapitulated their earlier sounds but was also thematically a feature for departing member Nemu (thus had a more mature and nostalgic tone than previous records). The group recently announced that album #6 is due for release in early 2020, which will be the first featuring the current six-girl lineup. The new recruits in place of Moga and Nemu are Nagi "Nemo" Nemoto and Rin "Perorin" Kaname who both share the wota superpower of illustration (also Nagi is a bikini model, you can google that one yourself!)
Performance: Don't let my description of the Gumi girls as "geeks" confuse you, they are more graceful and talented than the majority of Japanese idol groups. The importance of dance in J-pop cannot be understated: the best J-pop choreography is really a modern form of KABUKI, with exaggerated gestures and movements that accentuate the meanings of the song lyrics. (Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is another contemporary Japanese weird girl who has made the kabuki connection explicit in her recent work.) Dempa choreography is so dramatic it often feels more like musical theatre than a rock concert and they are also more high-energy and athletic than other idols (most idols dress very fashionably and wear platform heels for their demure dances - Dempagumi's uniform is sneakers and tennis skirts over bike shorts because of all the kicking, twirling and jumping they do; they are the sweatiest idol group in Japan). The complexity of their dance also reinforces the complexity of their music and vocal arrangements: though Mirin and Risa are "first among equals," all six are lead singers who trade lines at a rapid pace rather than following a "lead and backup" vocalist structure.
Audience Participation: The importance of dance is not limited to the performers on the stage. Wotas have developed their own traditions as this subculture has flowered. The most striking of these is called WOTAGEI ("art of the otaku") which is sort of a dance which looks like doing rhythmic karate poses (though not necessarily skillfully!) and is often performed with glowsticks, but also involves a lot of chanting at concerts (which reminds me of audiences interacting with the screen at The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Behold, the dorkiest mosh pit since the Grateful Dead! But wotagei is mostly for dudes; lady wotas show their appreciation by dressing up as the band (cosplay) and learning their choreography, or if you are a true music nerd you could also try to learn how to play their songs (they're not easy!)
The Future: One of the iron laws of Japanese idols has been that they must be romantically unattached (at least publicly) because supposedly fans won't follow them if they are "unavailable" (The Beatles followed this exact logic when they first came to American and kept John and Ringo's marriages secret from the public). This rule is also meant to create a perception of reciprocity between performer and audience: the idol doesn't have time for romance because they are too busy working to earn the devotion of their loyal fans (if an idol starts dating they are breaking this covenant with their fans and no longer worthy of their devotion). Over the years there have been several high-profile examples of girls in idol groups being fired after a paparazzi caught them out on a date. Obviously, the longevity of idols is limited for this reason (particularly for women): if you want to start a family, you need to retire from showbiz. Dempagumi blew through that barrier in late 2019 when Mirin announced at one of their concerts that she had gotten married (to another high profile otaku, the author of a popular comic book) - BUT she has no intention of quitting her career as an idol. This was a national news story in Japan, and perhaps just as shocking the news also came out that Mirin is an ancient crone of 33 years' age, which makes her twice the age of typical idols who are usually teenagers that "retire" by their mid-twenties (it also means Mirin was already 22 when she started the band and 27 when they had their first hit; Risa and Eimi's ages have never been made public but they must also be well past 30 by now). Thus the journey of the idol band Dempagumi.inc has already entered uncharted territory. Can a 40 year old woman still be an idol? Only if she is a wota, because you'd have to be some kind of nerd to still be doing that in middle age! 
Kevin Ayers "Joy Of A Toy"  1969 (UK) 
The original bass player of The Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers only made one album with that group before moving on to a solo career of legendary obscurity. Joy Of A Toy was his debut after leaving The Soft Machine, and features all the members of that band playing in supporting roles. I first heard his name attached to a notoriously hip live album in collaboration with those popular mainstream artists Nico, Eno & John Cale. I kid; actually Ayers was pretty popular in his native England, often compared to Syd Barrett (whom he also collaborated with). Ayers was actually the headliner at that aforementioned cult-supergroup concert, though he is probably not as known as those other three outside of England. A writer of weird but catchy songs who played several instruments and had a unique deep, mumbly singing voice, Ayers passed away in 2013.
The Isley Brothers "3 + 3"  1973 (USA) 
Today would have been Jimi Hendrix' 77th birthday. Since all four albums he made during his lifetime are already classic albums, here's a showcase for one of Jimi's greatest guitar disciples of the 1970's, Ernie Isley of The Isley Brothers. The Isleys really should be hailed as one of the greatest American musical groups of all time. The original trio (Ronnie, Rudy & O'Kelly) scored their first hit in 1959, which makes them contemporaries of Chuck Berry, Elvis and the other founders of rock & roll. Though their hits were generally not that high-charting, in 1963 an obscure band from Liverpool used the Isleys' song "Twist And Shout" as the climactic finale of their debut album. That same year, The Isley Brothers hired a 21-year old guitar player called "Jimmy James" who made his first recordings with them before moving to England to become "Jimi Hendrix" in 1967. In 1969 the Isleys jumped on the funk wagon and scored the biggest hit of their career with the classic groover "It's Your Thing" which began an interesting transition to a new level of stardom in the 1970's. At the beginning of that decade, they specialized in taking "white rock and pop" hits and turning them into progressive soul ala Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield. By 1973, with the release of this week's CAOTW they formalized their transition from a Motown-style "three slick guys singing and dancing" group into a "rock band" by adding a younger generation of Isley brothers on Hendrixian guitar (Ernie), funky poppin' bass (Marvin) and futuristic synths and keyboards (Chris Jasper, The Isley Brother-in-law). Hence the title "3 + 3" equals six brothers in the new line-up. "Who's That Lady?" from this album was another big hit for the band and featured Ernie's guitar soloing and they also turned Seals & Crofts hit "Summer Breeze" into a gorgeous funky jam with heavy psychedelic guitar (much cooler than you thought that song could ever sound.) From then on, the group focused on original songs and became one of the top bands of the 1970's with a string of platinum albums. They've also had more longevity than most, scoring three more platinum albums in the early 2000's, nearly 50 years after they debuted.
Jane's Addiction "Nothing's Shocking"  1988 (USA) 
The 1980's were a very lame decade for mainstream music, but one of the greatest eras ever for "the underground scene." In particular, by the second half of the eighties Top 40 radio was appalling dreck such as probably had never been heard on the radio since radio was invented (remember those superstars like Paula Abdul, Whistesnake and Bryan Adams? Even earlier 80's stars like Madonna and Flock Of Seagulls were far more interesting.) However, at the same time the DIY punk, metal, and hiphop underground scenes were producing legendary artists and classic albums. By the dawn of the 1990's, rap, "grunge" punk and "real metal" ruled the pop culture zeitgeist and the pop charts. And falling between the cracks, there was Jane's Addiction. A Zepplinesque quartet with a mystical L.A. surfer/hippie vibe, Jane's managed to be edgy during a lame era while also appealing to classic rock traditions. Nothing's Shocking was the their first studio album and it got a lot more notice than their debut, which was a live album released on a small label. Though it was the follow-up Ritual De Lo Habitual (1990) that went platinum, they then broke up just as the "grunge-a-palooza" began in earnest. In fact, JA lead singer Perry Farrel was the guy who started the famous Lollapalooza concert festivals in the 1990's, though he was in a different band by that point (Porno For Pyros, remember them?)
Neil Young "Tonight's The Night"  1975 (Canada) 
Neil Young turned 74 years old this week. Believe it or not, after 600 CAOTWs there are still some incredibly classic albums yet to be inducted and this is one of them! Neil Young has always been famous for being the master of "bummer vibes" - very few in the history of music have been as good at making listeners happy by expressing sadness. Tonight's The Night is Neil's biggest bummer of them all, the final installment of the so-called "ditch trilogy" of cathartically depressing masterpieces he made in reaction to becoming a superstar in the early 70's with CSNY and his big hit album Harvest (1972). The songs here were inspired by specific dreadful events, including the overdose deaths of Crazy Horse member Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry (memorialized in the title track) plus a gruesome drug deal murder that shook the gentle hippiefolk of Laurel Canyon where Neil lived at the time. But "critics say" it all adds up to the ultimate statement about the dissolution of hippie idealism in the increasingly cynical 1970's. Musically, it's probably the greatest "drunk rock" album of all time: Neil and his band (Ralph & Billy from the defunct-at-the-time Crazy Horse plus Ben Keith on pedal steel and Nils Lofgren on lead guitar while Neil mostly plays piano) sound totalllly waaaaysted on every song, which you can think of as brilliant method acting for an album whose main theme is basically drug addiction. I can't think of any other album by anyone that really compares to this one. Like the author himself, Tonight's The Night is unique.
Charles Mingus "Mingus Ah Um"  1959 (USA) 
Joni Mitchell turns 76 years old this week, and 40 years ago she released an album called Mingus. Joni was a folk music singer-songwriter of the Bob Dylan variety back in the 1960's, but in the 1970's her music turned into jazz-rock fusion and her bands and records included big names from the jazz scene like Jaco Pastorious, Pat Metheny and Wayne Shorter. Somewhere along the way she became pals with Charles Mingus, a legend from the post-bop "modern jazz" scene of the 1950's and early 60's. Joni's Mingus album was released after Charles died, but most of the tunes are written by Mingus with words by Mitchell, including a remake of one of the most famous Mingus tunes "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" with new Joni lyrics. The original Mingus version of that tune is from this week's classic album, which is probably the most acclaimed of Mingus' records, though he made a lot of good ones so check him out if you're interested in groovy old jazz!
In new music news, Ariel Pink has a new video for his latest collection of old tape music and I just found out about a new abum from Aussie heavy psych band ORB (released in the spring).
Slayer "South Of Heaven"  1988 (USA) 
Happy Halloween! Kosmik Radiation likes to play some metal around Halloween, because obviously. When I think of scary Halloweeny metal, there is one band that always rises to the top: the eeeevilll "satanic" thrash metal icons SLAYER. South of Heaven was the first of their albums I ever heard, around the time it was released when the metalhead down the hall bought their latest cassette (80's tech!) Though not a huge fan of metal at the time, I immediately recognized the over-the-top gusto of these legendary metallions. After catching up on the rest of their discography (before seeing them in concert for the first time in 1991), I concluded that this is one of their finest albums for its almost-progressive sense of moods and dynamics. Why, they even have a sort-of ballad song with non-distorted guitar (called "Spill The Blood" because they are still eeeevilll!) They also pay tribute to their great forefathers Judas Priest with a cover of "Dissident Aggressor" which is actually beter than the original.
The Replacements "Let It Be"  1984 (USA) 
The Replacements were a unique and legendary band from the 80's American underground scene, but I think the reason they haven't had a CAOTW yet is that they never really made a "classic" album. The Mats were a notoriously inebriated and unreliable group whose motto was "all for nothing, nothing for all." They made a ton of great songs, but also recorded their share of lazy punk rock bar band tunes: "Gary's Got A Boner" is probably the biggest dud on Let It Be. The other mediocrity "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" at least has funny lyrics and is performed with plenty of drunk rock energy (and their version of KISS's "Black Diamond" is actually awesome!) That's as good a ratio as you'll get from this band, and the "hits" on this record include some of Paul Westerberg's greatest compositions like "Sixteen Blue", "Unsatisfied", and his near-solo performances of "Androgynous" and "Answering Machine". Back in the 1980's Bruce Springsteen was seen as the "people's poet" who portrayed the "realistic" hopes and dreams of the Working Man in America, but really his songs are second-rate Woody Guthrie wannabe BS (the working class romanticized from a distance by a multimillionaire). Westerberg sounds more like the real deal: a lonely drunk on a barstool wondering where the hell it all went wrong, and with a voice that sounds like that's all he would have ever been if he didn't have a knack for classic songwriting.
     
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