Top 20 Summer CDs

Summertime is here! It’s hot, it’s sunny. Now if I could only be on vacation, that’d be great.

As was the case the last time, with winter, I found it harder than expected to figure out what summer actually “sounds” like. And to my surprise, it’s not all about reggay.

About that… funny story : at the beginning, I had two or three ideas at best for this list, and it was pretty much all about reggay, but now I can barely fit all of the albums I thought of in there. The list ended up being a lot more eclectic than expected.

I hope you’ll find some nice musical inspiration here while you’re probably also waiting, at work namely, looking out the window, irritated… waiting for the day when you can say so long y’all, I’m going for a sweet mohito on the terrace of a restaurant right in the middle of this beautiful sunny day.

 

Runners up : ZZ Top, Greatest Hits &  The Dead South, Good Company

These well-known bearded guys from Texas can certainly play some nice blues rock. But come on, forget about ZZ tops!

This folk bluegrass band from the Canadian Prairies, Mumford and Son’s Evil Twins as they call themselves, created the strangest addictive cool summer song.

20. Buena Vista Social Club, Buena Vista Social Club

Named after Havana’s lost mythical night club, this album is a summer classic. I drank so many coffees listening to this music on late Sunday mornings.

19. Ben Harper, Fight for your mind

Enjoy your Summer mornings with Ben Harper’s slide guitar and his classic 1995 album Fight for your mind.

18. Elevator to Hell, Part I to III

Moncton’s indie low-fi psychedelic rock band Elevator chose to illustrate its album with a wintery picture, but paradoxically, it is a great listen in the summer.

17. The XX, The XX

I didn’t know about this London indie electronic pop band until recently, yet I feel this music has been flowing around everywhere since forever (on TV? in the wind?).

16. Ani DiFranco, Dilate

Ani’s critically acclaimed seventh studio album remains a personal favorite, with her signature rapid fingerpicking, crazy guitar tunings, and overall intensity.

15. Lhasa De Sela, La Llorona

Lhasa’s deep voice warms up any atmosphere. Her first album La Llorona is all in Spanish, and it’s such a pleasure to listen to in the summertime.

14. Gotan Project, Lunatico

Argentinean tango blended with electronic music is a strange but cool mix, and Lunatico is certainly a nice atmospheric summer album.

13. Sublime, Sublime

Sublime’s classic 1996 eponymous release may be the sunniest of all punk-ska albums. There is some dub, reggay, and hip hop music in there as well. A joy to rediscover.

12. Mano Negra, Best of

Alternative rock salsa ska punk (really, how can I describe this band?) Paris-based La Mano Negra, “The Black Hand” in Spanish, produced this sunny, energetic and eclectic “best of” after they disbanded. I wish I could have seen them in concert.

11. Zebda, Essence ordinaire

Zebda’s third studio release is a festive yet socially-charged album. These guys (of French and Arab descent, among others), who all grew up together in Toulouse, tell authentic and compelling stories.

10.  Jean Leloup, L’amour est sans pitié

This album tore the place down in Québec in the early 1990s. A young Jean Leloup teamed up with La Sale Affaire and lived, played, and sung at a freaking crazy pace, about urban life, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And summer in Montréal.

9. Janis Joplin, Greatest Hits

Many times, I heard someone say that this person or that person is “the Janis of the 80s”, “of the 90s”, “of the 2000s”, … but in the end, it never stands the test of time. Beautiful soulful Janis… you just rock. And as I listen to your music, I’ll always think of you standing on the stage of the Monterey Festival on that sunny day.

8. Jimmy Hendrix, Are You Experienced?

I don’t know if I’m experienced, but I’ve definitely listened to that album enough times that I know and appreciate the Jimmy Hendrix Experience. Even the colours chosen here for the cover amplify the warmth of his voice and music.

7. Tryo, Grain de sable

Tryo’s signature reggay and folk guitar rythms are a great fit for your summer afternoons. Like their peers Zebda, Tryo knows how to be socially-engaged and festive at the same time.

6. MC Solaar, Prose combat

If you don’t speak French, it’s a dang shame, because MC Solaar is a poet rapper who plays with words like no other. In any case, you’ll still move your head to these suave rythms.

5. Morcheeba, Big Calm

We loved that album right away when it was released. English trip hop electronic band Morcheeba, with its cool beats and jazzy musical exploration, is a nice album to chill out to. Pretty much like the cover implies.

4. Amadou et Mariam, Un dimanche à Bamako

A couple of musicians from Mali, who both became blind in their youth, conveyed their beautiful positive music and immense talent to the world with this classic album. This CD is loved by people of all ages (seriously, my parents have this album, I have it, and my kids love it).

3. Manu Chao, Clandestino

After La Mano Negra and other musical experiments, Manu Chao produced the stripped down Clandestino. With this, he intended to smoothly end his musical career. Ironically, this album, blending traditional latin music, reggay, rock, bresilian rythms, with a hint of chanson française, was a whopping success.

2. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Catch a Fire & Bob Marley, Uprising

It’s not cheating (too much) to have two Bob Marley albums on a Top Summer CDs list. I still listen to Catch a Fire often, but I had forgotten the sunny, upbeat and very catchy Uprising. I’m glad I rediscovered it.

1. Billy Stewart, Summertime

Janis’ version of Summertime is magical, but Billy Stewart’s is… just… mindblowing. Forget about Despacito (seriously, forget it)! THIS is the ultimate Summer song!

 

Summery fun fact : there are three (awesome) versions of Summertime in this list.

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Here! Now What’s Your All Time Top 20 Album Covers?

One could wonder why make a top twenty list about album covers now that people are buying less and less records, and prefer to listen to an unlimited variety of songs on the Internet. Or, one could stay that, for this exact reason, it is the perfect time to talk about albums.

More often than not, I find myself listening to albums rather than playlists. Albums have overarching themes, a distinct style, and an atmosphere that give direction to the music and tie everything together. The order of the songs is carefully planned so they flow perfectly from one to the other. Listening to an album means getting the whole artistic experience, every vibe, every symbol, every feeling the band wanted to convey. And the cover is the final touch, the icing on the cake. Translating an entire musical experience into an image, a single image, can not be the easy task.

I want to do my part and salute artists who care enough to produce beautiful and memorable covers. So what do you say, let’s bring albums back to the forefront, and the front of albums at the forefront of discussions : the album cover, a forgotten piece of art.

Once again, don’t expect the usual top 20 list… although it’s not completely out there either. And don’t hesitate to comment and share your own choices! Mine keep changing anyway.

#20. Frank Zappa, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch

Now there’s a good combination! This brilliant and hilarious droodle (doodle + riddle) by Roger Price is the perfect cover for Zappa’s 1982 release. Listening to Zappa’s intricate wacky cool song at the same time is just perfect, and completely trippy. Once again, here’s proof that you don’t need big production, just a really clever and fitting concept.

#19. London Howlin’ Wolf Session

Looking at that cover, I feel suddently immersed in the 70s. I’m walking by in my funky elephant pants, and I see these guys hanging out on a sunny day in London. Perhaps Howlin’ Wolf or Clapton starts stroking his guitar, and a nice vibe starts to flow around. Yeah… I really miss the “organic” feel of pencil drawings, now that images are always generated by computers. These “real” drawings feel warmer somehow.

#18. The Ramones, The Ramones

A simple concept that fit this debut album perfectly : The Ramones, in black and white, standing against a brick wall. Four guys in their leather coats and blue jeans, standing around unimpressed. So… what makes it special? It’s all in the attitude.

#17. The Wailers, Burnin’

Burnin’ is the last album by the original Wailers, and on the cover, there’s an illustration of their faces “burned” into wooden planks. All six of them, in a bouquet, like the six sides of the Wailers. The result is splendid, and once again, there’s an “organic” feel here that I appreciate a lot.

#16. Weezer, Pinkerton

What a superb 19th century japanese print by Hiroshige, taken out of the illustrious series Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido. As pretty as this scenery is, with its nice contrast between the black night and the white snow, it’s still a cold and lonely landscape… Indeed, things don’t turn out too well for the unpleasant Pinkerton, or for the Weezer guys as far as I can tell from the unfortunate encounters depicted in these songs.

#15. Eric’s Trip, Love Tara

A young couple in the corner behind the stage, lost in a heartfelt hug, unrecognizable from their 90’s style long hair mixing together. This lovely black and white cover by indie alternative band Eric’s Trip looks just like the album sounds : genuine, relatable, moving… with lots of distortion! Ah, the energetic and uncompromising feelings of youth…

#14. Led Zeppelin, Four Symbols

This artwork is actually an oil painting, affixed on a degraded wall. I read it’s supposed to reflect the contrast between country and city. So the country is represented by a picturesque landscape, while the city is represented by a wall with peeling paint… But is it really a painting, or is it a window?…

#13. Janis Joplin, 18 Essential Songs

This is one of the best pictures of Janis that I know of, a spectacular image, and a great choice for an “Essentials” compilation. This cover captures both the intensity and authenticity of Janis’ performance, the singular movements of her body, and the nice lighting effect.

#12. U2, War

This is a remarkable cover. A back and white photo of a naked child, hurt, who’s looking straight into the camera, or straight at us the viewers, with an intense, accusing look. War brings pain, resentment, and loss of innocence.

#11. Nirvana, Nevermind

Here’s another memorable image. Do you remember the impact of that cover in the early 90s? The complete picture shows a naked baby in a shark tank. Someone dangles a one dollar bill in front of him as motivation. After the wild flaky money-crazy 80’s period, Nirvana tore the place down with that cover, which launched the “grunge” period.

#10. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief

Ten years later, Radiohead chose to expose another type of societal peril : over advertising, and the use of fear to control people and increase consumption. Advertisements are indeed attractive, colourful, and this image is very beautiful. But one cannot help but feel discomfort when looking at this carefully. That discomfort is accentuated by the fact that the words are taken out of context, and stacked together like floors of city buildings that eventually fade away and disintegrate like darkish smoke.

#9. Nina Simone, Fodder on my Wings

What a beautiful and somewhat unsettling painting by Gabriel Jarnier, meant for a truly unique artist.  The level of detail, the choice of colours, and the elegance of it all, it’s quite impressive. Jazz legend Nina Simone is a tragic queen, but an undeniable queen nevertheless.

#8. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions

This album cover is a piece of art by Efram Wolff, which brilliantly shows Stevie Wonder, who became blind shortly after birth, as someone who can perhaps see better than most people. This is of course in connection with this album’s socially charged lyrics. This artwork has a special warm sunny aura about it too.

#7. Jethro Tull, Aqualung

This famous Burton Silverman painting on the cover of the no less famous (and rather epic) Aqualung album is amazing for several reasons. The realism of the scene, the precise and haunting look in the man’s eyes, his body shape and arm position leaving the spectator to wonder… Silverman and Jethro Tull managed to created a character, a very intriguing character, to illustrate the story being told in the Aqualung song. That’s quite an added value for an album.

#6. The Beatles, Abbey Road

Legend has it that photographer Ian Macmillan had just a few minutes to take this picture, while a cop was stalling trafic… How nice it is to be stars. This image is wicked cool. But it inspired the wildest of theories and drove people completely mad (notably one interpretation that the real MacCartney had died and been replaced by an impostor… What? can’t you see the clues on the cover?). That’s quite an achievement for a cover!

#5.The Clash, London Calling

This photograph is a punk classic. Raw and pure intensity, live from a punk show! The Clash’s bassist is caught right before everything goes flying. Time is standing still, and we hold our breath. Apparently, Simonon smashed his bass because bouncers wouldn’t let people stand up out of their seats. I wouldn’t have expected people to sit still either, but I think I would have kept my bass. 😉

#4. Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine

Forceful. Troubling. Unforgettable. This Pulitzer-winning picture of a Vietnamese buddist monk self-immolating to protest oppression can be found on a debut album, Rage Against the Machine’s debut. What a fierce, daring, and loud debut. Yes, Rage’s arrival on the american musical scene was anything but quiet, and the band clearly let us know, with this cover, how it was gonna be with them starting right now.

#3. The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground and Nico

This is the classic amongst classics. Andy Warhol’s image of a simple yellow banana, on the cover of the enigmatic and atmospheric Velvet Underground’s debut album, has fascinated fans for generations. “Peel slowly and see”, it said, as people uncovered a skin-coloured banana underneath… Once again, a great fit between the songs and the cover artwork.

#2. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Ziggy Stardust, beamed down from another planet at 3 AM, straight into an american back alley. Standing there over a pile of cardboard boxes, in a dominating pose, debonair, yet ready to show us his monstrous alien power with a powerful powerchord… Utter genius.

#1. Pink Floyd, for their cumulative body of works!

And there’s plenty more where that came from! Thank you, Pink Floyd, for your obvious interest in visual arts, for the time and effort you put in your musical and visual arrangements, and for your complex and sometimes quite disconcerting images!

A Captivating Janis Joplin at the 1967 Monterey Festival

If you’ve become numb from hearing computer generated voices, listening to Janis Joplin’ performance of “Ball n’ Chain” with the Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Monterey International Pop Festival will slap you right out of your trance.

With all the generic music acts out there, let’s remember a truly unique artist who could never be emulated. About every female rock singer references Janis Joplin as an influence because of her overwhelming talent, but also because of her stage presence, and the way she manages to enchant the public with her own style.

Janis Joplin’s voice is undescribable, really. That soulful, husky, and insanely powerful voice breaks through everything and goes straight for your heart strings. Have we heard anything like it since? I wonder what kind of music she would have made later on.

But for now, let’s just watch this mind blowing 1967 performance (check out Mama Cass’ reaction at 3:29 and 5:25).