The 20 Guitarists List

Lists can be such a pain in the arse sometimes… and yet I’m seemingly addicted to making them. Take the whittling down – this one has taken an AGE to get together since seeing Jim over at Music Enthusiast’s some time ago now along with that of Aphoristic Album Reviews‘ slightly shorter list, especially when combined with my procrastination.

Then there’s the ordering – how do you get around that? Simple – this list isn’t in any order what so ever.

What about the title – well this isn’t a ‘Greatest’ list, there’s no way I’d ever attempt to claim that, so the less snappy title for this is actually ’20 Guitarists That I’ve Dug for Years and Will Always Tune In For’. Which is what it is, it’s 20 of my favourite players – not always the most technically proficient or even considered as a virtuoso types but those that nonetheless make the music I enjoy consistently great through their playing. That would make an even less snappy title though.

As is always the way there are plenty that don’t make the list but continually skirt the outside like non-ticket holders hanging around an outdoor show’s fence trying to grab a sonic snatch of their favourite song. Players like Mike Campbell inject a gorgeous sound into some of my favourite songs while the fluidity and wash of sound from the likes of The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel and his pal Kurt Vile are happy mainstays in my ears lately and if I could make this longer they’d be on the long list for sure as would Wilco’s Nels Cline or even Joe Perry or John McLaughlin… you get the point. But I needed to pick an arbitrary number and stick to it or this would never leave the notebook where I make these lists let alone spend the wrist power typing this thing up….

So, with that in mind, let’s get going so that I can think about that ‘Drummers list thing’:

Nils Lofgren

A list has to start somewhere even one that’s not in any particular order. So I’ll start off with sideman extraordinaire, a warm and extremely talented dude: Nils Lofgren.

Nils came to attention as a teenage prodigy having played on Neil Young’s After the Goldrush at just 17 and while the emergence of punk and the shift in musical tastes may have put pay to his burgeoning solo stab at stardom, he continued to put out high quality albums before joining Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band for the ‘Born In The USA’ tour. He’s worked with the Boss solidly since the E Street Band’s reunion (as well as the Greatest Hits reunion of sorts) as well as regular stints in Neil Young’s band Crazy Horse and continuing to record and tour as a solo player.

He’s a ridiculously gifted player – capable of pulling out searing leads and picking out tender acoustic work, whether he’s setting fire to other people’s songs (see his reading Springsteen’s ‘Youngstown’) or his own.

He caught my attention as a solo artist when I heard the acoustic take on ‘Black Books’ on the Sopranos way back in 2000, I could hear his solo on that (from about two and a half minutes thru to the end) daily and still love it.

Mike McCready

Mike McCready may not be on a lot of lists but the dude should get more credit for sure… he toned down his theatrics and finger-tapping to bring a blues-influenced tone and ability to the Seattle scene in a subtle but important way that no other ‘grunge’ band did.

Often referred to as Pearl Jam’s ‘secret weapon’, McCready had just begun moving away from the 80’s metal sound having gotten into Stevie Ray Vaughan just as the band got going and it’s his beautiful tone and leads that set Pearl Jam apart for me and got my ear immediately.

His songwriting contributions to the group are always worth tuning in for as his ability to take another member’s song ‘Nothing As It Seems’ and take it to a whole new level with his guitar work while live he absolutely let’s rip whether it’s absolutely rinsing the arse off ‘Even Flow’ or tearing through a perfect take on ‘Eruption’ into ‘Yellow Ledbetter’.

David Gilmour

So I have this memory… must be before my teens, before I got a CD player even so I’d put that to when I was 11… it gets foggy in the timeline.. anyway this much is concrete: I’d got one of those old midi-systems of the 80’s, you know a black plastic Aiwa thing with a twin tape deck and radio and turntable up top all in one block as opposed to the hi-fi separates of old (which, fittingly, I’m now back to). At some point I decided to get the turntable working – even buying a new cartridge for £1.50 – that’s how vividly I remember it, if only they were that cheap now.

Once I’d got it working – fuck knows why I’d done so or what I tested it on – my Dad used the opportunity to blow the dust off a couple of LPs to get me to listen to – Led Zeppelin’s IV (don’t worry, we’ll get to Jimmy) and The Dark Side of the Moon. Hearing that and David Gilmour’s guitar work was pretty mind blowing. Then, a few years later, I heard ‘Comfortably Numb’ and that second solo… fuck, I still have to stop what I’m doing and listen to it intently – what Gilmour can do with just a subtle bend. Floyd a heavy mainstay in my ears ever since.

Gilmour’s playing elevated Pink Floyd and drove their direction after the departure of Syd Barrett as much as Waters’ songwriting – without Gilmour’s playing the Pink Floyd sound we now all know wouldn’t exist. His own songs may veer toward the floatier stuff (see ‘If’ or ‘Fat old Sun’) but his playing is transportive – hugely melodic and often sprawling solos with perfect tone that I can never can get enough off.

Mark Knopfler

Imagine the brass balls on Mark Knopfler; laying down your band’s first album full of guitar-hero moves at a time that punk was ascendant and adored by the music press, and then laying down its last at a time when alt-rock and grunge was taking over. A foolish move that would’ve failed spectacularly but for one thing: Knopfler’s unassuming and quiet confidence in his guitar playing prowess.

Surely everyone by now knows ‘Sultans of Swing’ – that solo and that tone are unmistakeable and no matter how good that street performer you’ve seen doing it on YouTube is, nobody can play it in the same way and with the same feel. I read that Knopfler arrived at the famous tone by mistake – his pickup getting stuck between settings -but there’s no getting away from his sheer skill as both a songwriter and player. That tone changed in later Dire Straits records – probably as he switched to using PRS and Les Pauls as much as his red Strat – and evolved into a much warmer, enveloping tone that I could just bathe in.

I grew up with those first four Dire Straits records on heavy rotation and I’ll still pick em up and play em regularly now (Love Over Gold is easily their finest) but then I’ll also just as happily put on one of his solo records because while – some nine studio albums in – they’re no-longer as ‘all gold’ as they used to be, through those Dire Straits albums, the soundtracks, the side bands, guest spots on Bob Dylan albums and solo records the common thread is a guitar tone and fluidity that’s always worth tuning in for.

Eddie Van Halen

Oh man… Eddie Van Halen is surely on so many of these lists it’s insane. I’m not a Van Halen fan by any stretch (I’d stick my flag in the Van Hagar camp, mind, as I can’t stand ‘Diamond’ Dave) but Eddie’s playing is something else… as I’ve said before, a real ‘light the touch paper and stand back’ player who could dazzle like no other.

VH’s brand of riff-heavy stuff isn’t my cup of coffee but EVH’s playing… what he could do in terms of harmonics, building textures and then pulling out a solo with so many ‘how the fuck?’ moments stood both his band and him apart and always worth listening to especially later when it became more song-oriented than blowing open a bag of tricks and would never fail to through in a staggering solo even if the song was less than stellar (see ‘Humans Being’ below). That I’m writing about the dude in past-tense now still seems shit.

Bruce Springsteen

Given how Springsteen seems permanently associated with his butterscotch telecaster, his first album didn’t hint at a solid guitar player at the helm. But while he may well have been signed as a thesaurus-swallowing ‘new Dylan’ acoustic singer / songwriter, but before Clive Davis signed him to Columbia, Bruce Springsteen had been honing his guitar chops for years with hours upon hours of daily practice and playing “loud guitars and a Southern-influenced rock sound” in Steel Mill. Since the emergence of those chops on record – ‘Kitty’s Back’ kicking in on The Wild The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle – Springsteen’s guitar playing has been at the centre of some of his best songs. Which seems like an idea for another Springsteen post…

He might not be the most technically proficient of players but he’s all about soul and feel and his guitar lines on songs like ‘Born To Run’ are as iconic as the guitar on that album’s cover. Whether he’s picking out an acoustic melody line on ‘Blood Brothers’, chiming teak-like tone on his later ‘other band work’ or those gorgeous twangy lines of ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ or pretty much all of the guitar work’s bite and crunch throughout Darkness of the Edge of Town, Springsteen’s guitar work always gives his songs – and live performances – the edge.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

You know how sometimes you can hear something and, for reasons unknown, it’s just the wrong time, wrong place for you to get into it? Like your receptors are tuned in to the wrong frequency or something? Happened to me with Stevie Ray Vaughan: I’d heard about the dude being a guitar player of excellence, bought The Essential and just… it didn’t click there and then. BUT a few years later, holy fuck did it click. Can’t remember when but I was sitting chowing down a burger and I heard ‘Empty Arms’ and I just saw there not chewing for four minutes, how had I not paid that cd any attention… I picked that Essential album up as soon as I got home and I’ve been getting as much SRV as possible since. That monster tone and skill; sit up, shut up, pay attention and pick your mouth up off the floor.

Jimmy Page

I mean, fuck: Jimmy Page… do you even need to explain? I remember hearing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in that same sitting as Dark Side of the Moon as being revelatory… John Bonham sitting around for the best part o five minutes and as soon as he begins to get going Jimmy switches to solo mode and unleashes and absolute fucking beast. He’s gotta be the master of dynamics – ‘Ramble On’ is a benchmark – and can swing from great acoustic rhythms to monstrous riffs and scorching solos, not just on the same album but often on the same song.

Jeff Beck

And it’s hi-ho silver lining, and away you go now baby…

How Jeff Beck ever released that is beyond me but I’m sure he gets plenty fed up with it now… as Jim over at Music Enthusiast pointed out – it’s impossible to think of a rock player ‘that’s dabbled in so many genres’. Whatever genre he goes for though, one thing that’s constant is that Jeff Beck is an astoundingly great guitar player.

Prince

Back when I was starting to pay attention more to music the radio was doing a massive disservice to Prince – wasn’t helped by the whole T-A-F-K-A-P / Squiggle thing, sure – and my only real exposure was to songs like ‘Kiss’, ‘Gold’ or ‘1999’ ‘Little Red Corvette’. I mean good songs all (except for ‘Kiss’) but nothing that made me go ‘holy fuck that guy can play’ and not just because using language like that would get my mouth washed out with soap. BUT, man when I heard Purple Rain…. sure it’s his most guitar-heavy album but holy fuck that guy can play! Rock balladry can be a mixed bag but the solo on ‘Purple Rain’ is easily the benchmark by which all others are judged and can’t hit.

I’m not a huge Prince fan – not all his music blows my mind but when he strapped on his guitar it was because he knew not only could he break out in the middle of a song and play the arse off of it, but he could integrate it into a song like few others even when it’s not the strongest thing in the mix. His playing was not only versatile and inventive in style but he could go from from 0-100 in seconds flat – take how he turned the usual circle-jerk Rock n Roll Hall of Fame jam of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and blew it into the stratosphere with no rehearsal!

Johnny Greenwood

Imagine trying to wreck a song and having your guitar’s ‘eh-eh. eh-eh’ stuttering sabotage attempt sounding so good it not only makes the mix but makes the song? That’d be Johnny Greenwood and ‘Creep’. A hugely talented player – equally adept at picking up the bass, piano, viola or drums – it’s Greenwood’s versatility and skill that’s helped push Radiohead from their early days skirting the very edges of Britpop to pushing the definition of alt.rock with OK Computer and then pushing further still with each subsequent album with Greenwood always weaving something brilliant around a song’s parts.

Peter Green

No discredit to Lindsey Buckingham, he’s a fine player for sure, but for me Fleetwood Mac and their ultimate guitar sound is the glorious Peter Green and Danny Kirwan era. Green, specifically (or ‘The Green God’ as he was briefly referred to having replaced Clapton in John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers) had something special, from creating and tearing through blues-based tunes like ‘Oh Well (Part One)’ to those gorgeous instrumentals like ‘Albatross’, I can listen to *that* Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green’s playing until the cows come home.

J Mascis

There are some artists and bands that I’ll be jumping on that ‘pre-order’ link the second a new album is announced and Dinosaur Jr and Mascis’ own solo work is top of that pile and it’s all down to J Mascis’ guitar playing. Having burst onto that noise-rock scene with Dinosaur Jr’s take on ‘ear-bleeding country music’ with melodies buried in fuzz-tone up to their arse, Dinosaur Jr’s sound shifted slightly as they signed to a major in time to capitalise (well, to a limited extent) on the praise being heaped on them by the era’s alt-rock champions.

Mascis’ playing has continued to evolve and swing from epic riffs to soft melodic tunes but all with one thing in common: it’s only ever a matter of time before Mascis detonates them with a scorcher of a solo, and I’ll never get tired of that.

Chuck Berry

I can’t lay any claim to being schooled on rock and blues history from a young age, I was born in 1980 – most music on the radio while my hearing was developing was tosh. My first exposure to a Chuck Berry riff was probably the same as so many others of my generation – “Chuck, Chuck! It’s MarvinYour cousinMarvin Berry! You know that new sound you were looking for? Well, listen to THIS!”

But then you go back and hear the original and find out what Chuck was doing with Chess… man, it was like finding the skeleton of the missing link. I’ll put on a comp his first ten years and hear the blueprints for everything I dig now right there: he took the soul and tone of blues licks, sped em up and strapped em to the burgeoning rock n roll sound and seemingly invented rock guitar. More than being able to come up with a wicked lick, Chuck’s songs and lyrics can be fucking spot on too and the fact that live he’d play with pick-up bands and still bring the heat… there’s a reason he’s the legend he is.

Thurston Moore

Thurston Moore rubbing shoulders with Chuck Berry… such is the joy of these lists. What Thurston (in combination with Lee Ranaldo) bought to the front with their playing is a pretty unique sound that I dig on so many levels – experimentation with tunings, prepared and altered guitars, jams that cascade into feedback before pulling back the threads into the melody and thrash-like strumming to build hypnotic rhythms. This isn’t guitar playing of the ‘guitar hero’ style but it never pretends to be either. Standing up front with Thurston’s stack next to me probably cost me a percentage of hearing in my right ear but I’d give it again.

George Harrison

Yes, I know, George didn’t play the solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, but he did write the damned thing and write and play on those gorgeous tunes like ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Not to mention his multitude of contributions to the Fab Four’s songs and a plethora of amazing solo tunes too. Deceptively uncluttered in it’s beauty and always hitting the sweet spot in tone.

Stuart Braithwaite / Barry Burns (Mogwai)

It wouldn’t be my list if there wasn’t a nod to post-rock in here somewhere and the guitar work of Stuart Braithwaite and Barry Burns has always been what sets Mogwai apart for me in a genre that’s stuffed with great players.

Perhaps down to their influences in early genre pioneers like Slint or Kevin Shields’ My Bloody Valentine, developed a sound of their own built on towering, repeating riffs that were deceptively simple while weaving intricate melodies to build this massive sonic space that they could either explode and pick up again or find a hidden gear somewhere and blow your speakers out.

As the band have evolved to incorporate an increasing away of sounds and influences over their 25 years the guitar work has remained the powerful heart.

Doug Martsch (Built to Spill)

Bringing guitar-hero moves and freakouts into alt. rock style with Built to Spill, Doug Martsch creates these brilliantly arranged guitar-centric songs that I just fucking lap up – there’s always something new I discover on repeating listens from those odd timing signature changes, odd structures and mid-song breakdowns that dissolve into unashamed guitar heroics before bouncing back in. And he does it all with the same guitar he’s used for the last couple of decades (a Fender Super Strat with wiring modded to a single pick-up for those that are curious) and without any theatrics – Built To Spill went from being indie-rock down the middle with their first couple of albums to Martsch’s inspired move to bring jam-band style workouts into the genre and made it seem an effortless combination, becoming one of indie-rock’s essential guitarists in the process.

Jack Rose

I came to Jack Rose’s music by pure chance and too late. Hearing Rose’s guitar pieces was like being hypnotised and I’m still gobbling up as much of it as I can.

He took the experiments and sound of players like John Fahey as his base and created these brilliant acoustic pieces on 6 and 12 strings that took that finger-picking style, blended it with dissonance and Eastern elements that just blew my mind and opened me up to a whole new genre and way of playing that I’ll often get lost in.

Thurston Moore was a big fan – when Rose died of a heart attack in 2009 at 38 years old, Moore recorded and released an album 12 String Mediations for Jack Rose as a tribute.

Jimi Hendrix

I mean, come on, it’s a no-brainer, right? If Chuck Berry invented modern rock guitar then Jimi, literally, set fire to it and kicked it into a whole new game.

And, should those videos not load and the list is preferred in digestible Spotify-flavoured chunks:

Albums of my years – 2020

First off – yes, I’m jumping ahead by a fair leap from the last of this series. Why? Well, the original premise was to go through each of those years leading up to my 40th. Problem is I didn’t account for my own lapse in prompt posting, the restraints such an ambitious series has on getting out other posts (I’ve still a couple more Bruce posts in the tank and countless others that were in the works) and that target drifted past last October. 2020 was a bloody weird one for me, for all of us I’m sure, and while I had more time on my hands as a result of spending the majority of it on furlough (and a small part job hunting) and coming to terms with release from a toxic work environment for some years and its impact, I simply wasn’t in the mental state needed to keep a schedule and get that target home. Plus – given that it’s now still just about January – it feels more fitting now to blast out a 2020 wrap up and fill in the gaps on an ad-hoc basis.

2020 was, understandably, a real weird one in music from February onwards. Most music news focused on the cancellation of tours, delays in releases and – most sadly – those who had died after contracting Covid-19. As we got used to the new state of things artists both decided to release albums anyway or, often, had so much time off-cycle that they were able to turn around entire albums in the lockdowns that most of the world were under (and still are, here, as I type). Music news and the presentation of new music shifted into a different phase as ‘guest spots’ on TV shows came via webcams and concerts were streamed from artists’ homes and rehearsal spaces right into those of the audience. While this served a welcome relief and distraction for music lovers including myself, I cannot overstate how damaging an impact this pandemic has had and is having on the events industry.

With the news cycle this year being one of the strangest, it’s easy to forget some of the events that took place in 2020. Hell, March 2020 seems like a decade ago so the fact that, say, Pearl Jam released their first album in seven years is almost forgotten. That they too had the anticipated rollout and tour cancelled no doubt threw a spanner in the works. While we’re still on the subject of the news cycle I think we can, all of us around the right-thinking world that is, agree that the best news to come out of 2020 was the defeat of that contemptible sack of shit and a potential end to the plain insanity and ‘alternative-fact’ delirium. Well done America and thanks.

The start of the year saw reunions and reunion tours announced for bands like Genesis and Rage Against the Machine only for them to be promptly postponed, leaving them in the odd position of being together again but not really. It would be hard for a band to be together long enough to decide to break up in 2020 – a few did but nobody that you’d call any great shakes with the exception, for me, of Milk Teeth – but we lost a lot of great musicians in 2020. Thanks to Coronavirus we said goodbye to John Prine and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Country singer and fried chicken connoisseur Kenny Rogers died at age 81 as did Bill Withers and Spencer Davis. Neil Peart, long held in high regard as one of the greatest drummers to sit on the stool, died in January, Little Richard passed away in May. We also said farewell to Peter Green, blues guitarist of choice and founder of Fleetwood Mac, Justin Townes Earle and Ennio Morricone – one of the most emotive film composers to score a film – left us in July at the ripe old age of 91. And perhaps most surprisingly, after increasing rumours of ill health, Eddie Van Halen lost his battle with cancer in October. A guitar player like no other, he was a real ‘light the fuse and watch the fireworks’ player who seemed unable to pick up an instrument without riffs and melodies falling out of him.

So what albums made it through? It was a great year for post-rock releases. Caspian’s In Circles, Toundra’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (a re-imagined soundtrack for a silent German horror film), Audiolepsia’s Waves & Particles and I Hear Sirens’ Stella Mori all got a lot of ear time in 2020.

Stone Temple Pilots released their second album with singer Jeff Gutt (I always have to double check that’s actually his name) – Perdida is ‘ok’ but it’s a long way from Core. Nada Surf’s Never Not Together is pleasant enough but nothing to really stick in the mind like Lucky and Bob Dylan emerged from years of cover albums to release his first album of original songs in eight years: Rough and Rowdy Ways. If not being able to tour is affecting anyone it’s gotta be bothering Bob – not that he’s likely to be at a loss having sold the rights to his entire back catalogue to Universal for a rumoured $350 million. I don’t think I’ve listened to the album more than once though. One I have listened to a lot and took almost as long to release is My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall II. Back in 2015 when The Waterfall was let loose on us, the band said they’d recorded two album’s worth of material and the second would soon follow…. since then nothing. Until Jim James took a walk during lockdown with his iPod and heard the songs again, prompting its release shortly after. It was worth the wait but I’m itching for some ‘new’ MMJ…

I started getting into Courtney Marie Matthews in 2019 and was pretty chuffed when she released Old Flowers in 2020 – a gorgeous album with lots of brooding and burning guitar leads buried in a lush atmosphere supporting her great vocals. ‘If I Told’, in particular received many a repeated listen:

In a ‘back from the past’ file you’ll find Bush – known for finding more success in the States on the back of the post-Grunge boom than in the UK – but they’ve been back together for a while and putting out music that’s pretty bloody strong considering, their 2020 album The Kingdom got a good few streams my end as did Alanis Morissette’s Such Pretty Forks which is a surprisingly strong and consistently good album given I’d almost completely tuned out of new music from Alanis for over a decade. Somewhere in there I also discovered the music of Rose City Band in 2020 – via a real vibe of an album Summerlong that you could just put on loop and drift away to somewhere else in your mind.

Milk Teeth released their second album, following a series of EPs,  a self-titled effort brimming with their mix of 90’s inspired punk and rock before calling it a day. Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was found Bright Eyes returning nine years after their last effort with a much strong effort that I was expecting though I’ve yet to part with coin for it. One I happily did part with coin for was Thurston Moore’s By The Fire – a great album that’s probably the strongest of his post-Sonic Youth and, with Steve Shelley handling a lot of the drum duty, is as close to that band’s sound as you’re gonna find on a new release. Big Thief were a big discovery for me in 2019, in the space of a year I went from not having heard of them to grabbing each of their four albums (two of which were released in 2019 alone) and getting very quickly addicted. For some reason I was a little late, then, in listening to Adrianne Lenker’s 2020 release Songs and Instrumentals but I’m glad I did – it’s my favourite of her solo work to date and very much worth a listen.

Billy Corgan decided to stop being a moaning dickhead long enough to make another Smashing Pumpkins album – Cyr is a double album in which I doubt there’s even a single good album. Someone really, really needs to tell him ‘nah’ more often.

For all that, when it comes to new music (as opposed to the discovery of new-to-me bands and older music that seemed to dominate 2020 for me listening wise), there were two albums that got the most ear time with me and it’s unlikely to be any surprise which. Both had been the subject of rumours swirling ahead of their actual drop and both proved a very welcome relief in terms of both quality and distraction from the world’s troubles.

So let’s do this:

Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 album Western Stars, his first since his residency on Braodway, was a a real outlier in his catalogue. A ‘solo’ album in the sense that it wasn’t an E Street Band affair but nonetheless bathed in sound. There was to be no tour. A ‘live’ film and soundtrack quickly followed and then the rumours started as Bruce mentioned he’d started writing for ‘the band’. And then, when we needed it most after half a year thwarted by lockdowns and pandemic, the announcement came: the new Bruce Springsteen album, backed by the E Street Band, Letter To You was coming. Not only that, but it was recorded in a matter of days, live in the studio, minimal overdubs! Could it be? Could the sound of the E Street Band in its prime – Bruce hadn’t recorded live with the band without at least demoing the material since the early 80s – without the interference of extra layers and gimmicks that had afflicted his last three albums (even Western Stars couldn’t escape it) all produced by Ron Aniello? The answer was very much ‘yes, yes and YES!’

Letter To You is Springsteen’s finest album since Magic and the sound of the E Street Band (with the Charles Giordano and Jake Clemons filling in for the faithful departed) at its glorious best in a way it hasn’t been captured on ‘tape’ in a long-ass time. The album moves with a confidence and power that I honestly didn’t expect was there anymore. There’s something both comforting and exciting about hearing that sound on new songs that just makes you want to head straight back to the start after finishing the album.

It’s a joy to hear those older (‘Janey Needs a Shooter’, ‘If I Was The Priest’ and ‘Song for Orphans’ date back to ’72) songs songs dusted off and, at last, given life. The newer songs – which all came quickly to Bruce once he started playing a guitar given to him by a fan – sit amongst his best. There’s at once a sense of ‘this is who were then and this is who we are now’ as there’s no getting around the fact that time marches on (hell, it’s there in his voice) while at the same time letting you know that there’s still gas in the tank to go.

While Western Stars was an album that wouldn’t really transfer to the world’s stadiums and arenas, Letter To You brims with songs that need to be heard live – let’s hope that tour can happen soon.

And that just leaves…

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

Once upon a time you could set your clock by Pearl Jam releases. Every 18 months or so you’d get another slab of the great stuff. But that schedule, sadly, is close to 20 years ago… gaps between albums started to get longer: nearly four years separated Riot Act and Pearl Jam, another three until Backspacer, then four again before we got Lightning Bolt and then…. the longest wait to date came to end this year with Gigaton, their first album in seven long years and their first since 2006 with a new producer; sessions and work with Brendan O’Brien not hitting the mark for the band (or fans, see ‘Can’t Deny Me’).

As a long time fan, I was growing tired of the rumours – the fake supposed track lists and titles (some better than others, most featuring ‘Of The Earth’ and ‘Can’t Deny Me’ as attempts at validity), the ‘massive tour featuring both small venues and stadiums in each city’ and claims of ‘two new albums and an Ed solo’. It would come when it would come. And then, early in 2020, there were some very real hints, snippets of a strange new sound doing the rounds, an app and map to hunt down images around the world, an album cover and, finally, the email from Ten Club arrived ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ – it was time!

Now, I’ll be honest, at first I was a little ‘do what?’ But by the end I was hooked and going back for another spin – a lot more than can be said for ‘Can’t Deny Me’. It’s definitely Pearl Jam but it’s Pearl Jam sounding more focused and engaged than they have on record for a while, working with Josh Evans had clearly allowed them to take a freer approach to their experimental side in the same way as working with Tchad Blake and Adam Kasper had. If this was a sign of what was to come on Gigaton a) sign me up and b) what’s next? Well, ‘Superblood Wolfmoon’ showed that ‘DOTC’ was a deliberate left-field choice, it was a more straight-ahead song but, again, the band sounding tighter and more ‘on’. From the conversations online I saw, it did the job of shutting up those bemoaning DOTC’s ‘weird’ sound. And then came ‘Quick Escape’ and I new that Gigaton was going to be great:

It’s a belter of a song, guitars to the forefront and a scathing lyric  – “crossed the border to Morocco, Kashmir to Marrakesh, the lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet”. What was I expecting – an album with the experimental textures of Riot Act with the power and engaged lyrics of Pearl Jam. What I got was exactly that and it’s fucking great – even though ‘Buckle Up’ took a lot of listens to not skip.

Since Binaural I’d started to consider Pearl Jam a band of second halves on their albums – from the mid point on things got tastier. ‘Light Years’ through to ‘Parting Ways’, ‘Nothing As It Seems’ through ‘All Or None’, ‘Just Breath’ onwards etc is where you found the juicier cuts of meat. But Gigaton is not only front-loaded, the mid section is dazzling – ‘Seven O’Clock’ is easily Vedder’s wordiest lyric and is powered along by a melody that has the rare distinction of being a ‘Ament, Gossard, McCready, Vedder’ composition, and ‘Take The Long Way’ is one of those great Matt Cameron composition – and closes strong with ‘Comes Then Goes’, ‘Retrograde’ and ‘River Cross’, Vedder’s touching lament on fear and the nature of doubt in life underscored by an antique pump organ (the take used retained from a 2015 demo for the song).

I’ve played this album through so many times this year I’ve lost count – I even picked up the CD too (as Pearl Jam don’t seem to grasp download codes with their vinyl) so I could spin it in the car on my new commute – and am still not tired of it. Pearl Jam haven’t sounded so consistently engaged and willing to ‘go for it’ in pushing their sound for years and it’s a joyous listen that, in a year of turmoil, managed to provide an uplifting soundtrack. It’s an easy choice for me to highlight this as my album of 2020 on so many personal levels.

Over and Out

It’s not the easiest thing to go out on a high note, just ask George Constanza. Seinfeld managed it. So did the Sopranos, come to think of it. Some just drag it out too long. The lifestyle and money too good to turn down after syndication kicks in perhaps. Joseph Heller was once told by a reported that he hadn’t written anything since that was as good as Catch-22, to which he responded “who has?”

It’s even trickier for musicians to do so – very few go into sessions with a definitive “this will be the last time” approach, some call it a day following poor reception to a bad album and others leave this mortal coil with their last recorded output barley touching their former dizzying heights.

Were Dylan to meet Elvis tomorrow, for example, I doubt it could be said that he’d left a great final record in Triplicate. At The Drive In and Refused almost managed it – but then they got back together and managed to slap their legacy in the face with a bloody great fish.

I go these lengths to point out that a good final album isn’t all that common as a build up, of course, to sharing my list of Ten Great Final Albums. Displayed below in no particular order but with two qualifying criteria: ‘only’ albums (Jeff Buckley’s Grace for example) don’t count and nothing posthumously released is eligible.

Nirvana – In Utero

Originally it was going to be called I Hate Myself and I Want To Die as a joke. Cobain’s piss take of how he was so often portrayed as “this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time.” In an attempt to distance themselves from the overwhelming popularity of Nevermind and sheer off the sound of Vig’s production that – despite loving it at the time – Cobain would slate publicly as too commercial, Nirvana recorded In Utero with Steve Albini.

As raw and uncompromising an album as a major like Geffen would allow. There’s a lot of talk and mumbling about how the label insisted on having it remixed and polished by Scott Litt (known at the time for work with REM and The Replacements) but the band had already approached Albini to remix it but the producer refused – claiming he’d recorded exactly the ‘fuck you’ ablum Kurt had asked for and wouldn’t released the master tapes to be remixed by someone else. After much back and forth he relented and Scott Litt and Andy Wallace were allowed to work on some of the songs.

In Utero ranks as my favourite Nirvana album and would certainly feature high on my all-time list. ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Dumb’…. it’s not only stuffed full of killer tunes but the whole album feels so intense and powerful. The only thing that bugs me about it is that it still showed so much more potential for what was to never come. As a final album, though, it takes some beating.

Chances of a follow-up: None. Well, the surviving members of Nirvana could cut some new material with a different vocalist but then they’d probably chose someone crap like a former Beatle and call it something else entirely.

Sonic Youth – The Eternal

Boy does it pain me to talk about Sonic Youth having a final album. However, The Eternal, released in 2009 and their 15th studio album – is Sonic Youth’s final studio album. To quote from a previous post about them, Sonic Youth were one of the greatest things to blow my ears apart, literally; I’m convinced that the hearing in my right ear has never been the same since I was close to front row and very close to intimate with Thurston Moore’s amps as they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at Camden’s Round House.

Listening to SY for the first time was like getting a key to a room full of ‘next-level music’. It was music that didn’t give a fuck – pure punk in that respect yet somehow effortlessly cool. No regard for standard tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Explosive and experimental guitars that powered through songs that always managed to feel both on the brink of collapse yet tight and in control. A three-decades long career stuffed with ground-breaking work based on the guitar work of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore with vocals from both along those of bass player Kim Gordon. And then, suddenly, it was over as the divorce of Gordon and Moore collapsed amidst rumours of mid-life crisis infidelity on the part of Moore. Their latest album The Eternal very quickly became their final album.

In many ways, even down to the title, it’s a fitting final album. It contains some of their finest songs and showed that, more than 25 years on from their debut EP, they were still evolving and making great music. Songs like ‘Sacred Tricksters’, ‘What We Know’ and ‘Anti-Orgasm’ sit among their best and the album, for all it’s sonic experimentation and guitar freak-outs, is one of their most consistent and accessible as though, no-longer on a major label, they were interested in as many people as possible getting into their songs.

Chances of a follow-up: Very very slim. While drummer Steve Shelley has worked on projects with both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the acrimonious dissolution of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage points to Sonic Youth as wrapped up.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

Given the sheer amount of posthumous compilations of ‘previously unreleased’ recordings or ‘intended next albums’ you’d think that Jimi Hendrix spent more time in the studio than he did anything else. However, there were only three studio albums released in his lifetime (all recorded with The Jimi Hendrix experience and released within an 18 month period).

Jimi’s final studio album Elecrtic Ladyland is a stone-cold classic. A double album that contains pure gold. Take Hendrix’ reinvention of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ which was so good it overwhelmed Dylan himself, take ‘Crosstown Traffic’, take ‘House Burning Down’ or take the 15 minute long jam of ‘Voodoo Chile’ with Steve Winwood’s organ whirling away – which itself led into what is easily one of the greatest songs ever put to tape: Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Apparently – the Experience returned to the studio the next day to find cameras rolling for a documentary, rather than try and repeat the magic of the previous night’s jam session, they improvised it on the spot and a monster was born:

Chances of a follow-up: got a shovel?

Band of Susans – Here Comes Success

Band of Susans I got into far too late – some 20 years after they called it a day. Born out of the same New York noise rock scene that gave us Sonic Youth but with a more layered, complex sound that saw them draw comparisons to shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine woven into an experimental mix. The original lineup had three women named Susan and always had just as many guitarists. In their ten year life as a band, with fairly fluid lineups around the three Susans (which eventually became just the one, Susan Stenger) they put out five stonking albums of guitar-centric music that was markedly different to the field in which they were often lumped but never really found as wide an audience as they deserved.

Here Comes Sucess – complete with sarcastic title – is arguably their finest work and one of the best records I’ve discovered in the last year or so. Nine songs that all kick around the seven minute mark. All slow burning, hypnotic worlds that revolve around Stenger’s bass lines with intricate and explosive guitar workouts.

Chances of a follow-up: All members are still active in music in one way or another but given how little attention was paid to the band, their split or – if the low level of monthly listens the band receive on Spotify is any indication – their back catalogue, I’d say none.

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

If I can bring myself to do so there will be a wider-scoping post on Elliott Smith. However…. there was supposed to be a double album. Something to do with record contract obligations with DreamWorks. Smith had graduated to the major label after the success of Either/Or and his exposure via the Goodwill Hunting soundtrack. But he also fell into depression. Following on from Figure 8, Smith went through a troubled period of addiction, paranoia and all kinds of trouble before cleaning up. He had a clearer state of mind, sessions were underway with a good number of tracks recorded and mixed. However, Smith died on October 21, 2003 at the age of 34 from two stab wounds to the chest (which was reported as suicide but officially left open with the question of homicide). As such Figure 8 remains his final recorded statement and it’s a beauty.

Full of lush production,  pop-like song structures that wear their Beatles influence on their sleeve and pretty much every instrument played by Smith, Figure 8 contains some of Elliott’s finest songs from ‘Son of Sam’ to ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’, ‘Easy Way Out’, ‘Pretty Mary K’… A real loss.

 

Chances of a follow-up: soon to be released on St. Peter’s Gates Records.

REM – Collapse Into Now

How do you bow out in style? REM’s the closest any act has gotten to following the Seinfeld route of stopping at the top before things go south. Well, if we ignore Around The Sun that is.  Guitarist Peter Buck has said that, as the band entered the studio to record “We got together, and Michael said, ‘I think you guys will understand. I need to be away from this for a long time.’ And I said, ‘How about forever?’ Michael looked at Mike, and Mike said, ‘Sounds right to me.’ That’s how it was decided.”

Collapse Into Now is a great final album, it’s nothing but strength. Following the all-out single-focus return to form of Accelerate, REM’s final album paints with every brush at their disposal – it has the odd effect of listening to a new album as a greatest hits. All of these songs are new yet there are echoes of their finest work across each. I’ve written a full post on this one before so won’t repeat myself but will point out that I still consistently pull Collapse Into Now off the shelves and don’t skip a single track. ‘Discoverer’, ‘All The Best’, ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’, ‘Oh  My Heart’… all gold. Perhaps, most likely probably, because they knew it was their last, the band put their all into this and created a final body of songs they could be proud of. I’m just glad they didn’t decide to call it a day after Around The Sun.

Chances of a follow-up: I mean…. you can never say never, right. Not while all members are still alive and well and engaged musically in some form… there’s group projects and meetings for the ongoing ‘business’ side of REM’s catalogue but I, sadly, don’t see it happening. I don’t think they have anything to prove and if their hearts aren’t in it…

The Replacements – All Shook Down

The Replacements were already kind of over before All Shook Down. It was supposed to be a Paul Westerberg solo album but before recording could get underway his management talked him into making one last Replacements album from the material.

As such All Shook Down features a few session musicians but not to the point of it not being a Replacements record – there are no additional guitarists or bass players listed so it’s a safe bet to assume that Paul Westerberg and Slim Dunlap handled guitar parts with bass either missing from some songs or handled by Westerberg when Tommy Stinson wasn’t about (Westerberg’s solo albums often did away with bass altogether). Perhaps as a side effect of the material’s original intention, it’s one of the most consistent Replacements albums recorded without a single foray into ‘Lay It Down Clown’ territory.

The album is full of strong songs and I’m sure that if such a solidly great album come sooner in their career they would’ve finally secured the attention / success they deserved. As it is, this collection of tunes such as ‘Merry Go Round’, ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘When it Began’ and ‘Someone Take The Wheel’ makes for a fantastic swansong.

Chances of a follow-up: unlikely. Original guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995, replacement Slim Dunlap suffered a severe stroke in 2012 and could not take part in the reunion shows while drummer Chris Mars has given up on music to focus on his art. The well-deserved lap of honour tours that followed the reunion in 2012 of Westerberg and Stinson yielded an aborted attempt at recording new material with the old ‘just didn’t feel right’ results.

The White Stripes – Icky Thump

Ah the White Stripes… while I’ve got no real time in Jack White these days, there’s no denying that The White Stripes generated a great deal of catchy and solid tunes in their 14 year career together. The tour behind their last album, Icky Thump, was called short in 2007 after Meg began suffering acute anxiety. Quits were called by the duo as a band in 2011 after a period of inactivity.

Oddly, Icky Thump is not only the last White Stripes album but also my favourite. I love the title track, the hook of ‘300 M.P.H Torrential Outpour Blues’, the daftness of ‘Rag and Bone’ and stomp of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told)’. ‘Conquest’ aside, there’s not a song on Icky Thump I don’t enjoy. For my money it’s the strongest entry in their catalogue, a leap on from the already great Get Behind Me Satan and Elephant and I was really hoping they’d continue that trajectory. Ho hum.

Chances of a follow-up: Meh. Jack seems too busy being all kinds of a muppet and Meg… where is Meg?

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Another career and life cut far too short and another on this list with only three albums left behind. Nick Drake died at just 26 – an overdose of antidepressants that was ruled suicide. He disliked both performing live and giving interviews which helped keep him so under the radar that his albums barely registered during his lifetime; not one of them sold more than 5,000 copies while he still drew breath. His three albums are beautiful, minimal yet deeply affecting records of tender melody and soul that I never tire of and ‘River Man’, ‘Time Has Told Me’ and ‘Place To Be’ would certainly be in the long and short lists of my favourite songs.

There’s no video footage of Nick Drake as an adult – only still photographs. It wasn’t until his albums were released in a box set – Fruit Tree – some five years after his death that the music world began to pay attention. To the point that Drake’s final album – Pink Moon – would be included in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: “Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, delivered the tapes to Island Records and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake’s soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking make Moon unfold with supernatural tenderness.”

Chances of a follow-up: I’m running out of pithy comments about resurrection..

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

Two quotes:

“Pink Floyd is a spent force creatively.” Roger Waters
“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” The Dude, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Man it’s a good thing nobody cares what Roger Waters says as much as he thinks they do. Don’t get me wrong, A Momentary Lapse of Concentration isn’t a great album by any measure but it paved the way forward for a Pink Floyd without that knobhead ordering people around and dictating dreary songs about soldiers and Thatcher. 1994’s Division Bell, though, is a fucking awesome album and ranks in my Top 3 Pink Floyd albums on any day of the week.

Without the legal problems that surrounded the recording of its predecessor, The Division Bell sessions were relaxed and songs were born out of lengthy jams and improvisations with music predominantly coming from Gilmour and Richard Wright – the album would feature his first lead vocal since DSOTM. Which is fitting as The Division Bell, for all its then contemporary touches, is the closest the band had come to sounding like ‘classic’ Floyd since before The Wall. Every time I slip this one into the CD player I find something else to love. The opening trio of songs is unimpeachable, ‘Marooned’ is a great tune, ‘Coming Back to Life’, ‘A Great Day for Freedom’, ‘Lost for Words’ are spot on and underpinned by Gilmour at his finest in terms of both voice and the fluidity and beauty of his playing. Oh, and in ‘High Hopes’ they had the perfect final Pink Floyd song.

Chances of a follow-up: Nah…  While Nick Mason doesn’t consider the band broken up David (never Dave) Gilmour seems content with the odd solo album and colossal tour playing the usual Floyd-heavy quota of tunes to keep him in comfortable retirement. Richard Wright left us in 2008 and Roger Waters has yet to raise sufficient moneys to fund the removal of his head from his own rectum where it’s been stuck since the early 80’s.