Thursday, August 21, 2008

CSR's Top Albums of 2007

Here’s my better-late list of the top albums of 2007; like I said last year, I like to let them settle a bit, strip away the hype, and see which ones are really worth your cash, or if you have them already, which ones are still fun to pull off the shelf.

[20] The Big Doe Rehab // Ghostface Killah
Far from his best, but pretty good from Pretty Toney is better than 95% of the Hip-Hop out there; “We Celebrate” is a killer.

[19] The Good, The Bad & The Queen // The Good, The Bad & The Queen
Released in January of ’07, and virtually overlooked by the end of the year, this remains a solid collection of languid afro-dub-folk from Damon Albarn’s latest supergroup.

[18] Mirrored // Battles
The inventive techno-math-rock of Battles argues that if technology is going to keep changing the music business, then shouldn’t it change the music too?

[17] Neon Bible // Arcade Fire
Funeral was like a warm blanket in the winter, but the band wisely thawed out, and took to the streets with colossal anthems for the masses.

[16] American Gangster // Jay-Z
After the regrettable Kingdom Come, the world wished he had stayed away, but Jay made us all feel foolish when he dropped this surprisingly great album, one of his best.

[15] Myth Takes // !!!
While most of the rock bands that aimed for the dancefloor and failed move on to their next gimmick, !!! sticks to what they do best, filling floors with fiery, psychedelic punk-rave-disco-funk.

[14] Weird Rippers // No Age
It’s not so much the music, most of which sounds like it was dubbed onto cassette in a Cali garage in 1981, but the myriad possibilities of the do-it-yourself punk duo’s imagination and infectious innocence that slaps a smile on your face.

[13] Living With The Living + Mo’ Living EP // Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
Whether the world wants to give him his propers or not, Ted Leo is one our greatest songwriters and Rock & Roll heroes; and whether you want to give yourself over to his fifth Pharmacists album – 15 songs, fattened with 5 more tracks on the bonus Mo’ Living EP, that covers power-pop, political hardcore, classic soul, arena rock, white-boy reggae and epic balladry – it still manages to be his excellent stab at making a London Calling-style opus.

[12] Kala // M.I.A.
I wasn’t as sold as Rolling Stone, which dubbed this sophomore slump the Album of the Year (granted the slump is mostly due to the brilliance of the debut, Arular), but this globe-trotting collection of fist-raisers has its own bright, colorful, party-igniting moments that stand up nicely.

[11] Below The Heavens // Blu & Exile
The most overlooked album of the year (if only because it’s hard to find in its physical/non-digital form), it’s a refreshing blast of the kind of Hip-Hop people still reminisce about, that summery early 90’s sound of acts like Tribe or Pharcyde; if you’ve ever wished Kanye’s rapping would live up to his beats or ego, or for Nas to stop trying to be so gangsta, then this album is for you.

[10] The Reminder // Feist
A rarity – a great Pop album for people over 18 years old, that is multi-faceted, and all the facets bear multiple listens; Leslie Feist’s ascension, to commercials (for once, marketing rewarding soul instead of sucking it out), to the Billboard charts, and to the Grammy stage, was one of the best things about music last year, all a tribute to the little wonder of this album.

[09] Because Of The Times // Kings Of Leon
Despite offering zero in the way of new ideas – all the classic rock clichés still apply to KOL – this album makes you realize that air guitar or air drumming may be a sort of reflex, like when someone lurches at you just to make you flinch; you want to play hipster police and complain that “Charmer” is a Pixies rip-off, etc, but by “Black Thumbnail”, you feel like windmilling Townshend-style.

[08] † // Justice
Electronic dance music tends to move too fast (faster than fickle Hip-Hop) for classics to be dubbed as such and then enjoyed for their brilliance, a genre shattered into dozens of soon-forgotten subgenres, each likely to have its one representative classic album or single, and little more; French duo Justice, like Daft Punk before them, circumvent this trend by making a straight-forward funky big-beat big-riff housequake of an album, timelessly suitable for all parties, everywhere.

[07] In Rainbows // Radiohead
The greatest band of our generation takes a break from raising the bar musically, and does it with their business model instead; this is the first time in fifteen years that they didn’t totally blow my mind, but it’s still a delicate, guitar-centric four-star affair, highlighted by the long-awaited appearance of the decade-old ballad “Nude”, and the haunting “All I Need”, an almost-R&B lament which turns out to be their best song in years.

[06] Totally Flossed Out // The Cool Kids
If Clipse were into rare sneakers, geek culture and BMX bikes instead of slinging crackrock, they might sound like The Cool Kids, the most refreshing Hip-Hop group to emerge in the last handful of years. Never officially released as far as I know, but traded all over the net and posted track-by-track on every hipster blog imaginable (and now partially re-recorded, re-sequenced, and released as The Bake Sale EP), this 8-song EP updates Too $hort, EPMD and Licensed To Ill-era Beasties for a post-Pharrell world, making 808’s, stonewash, and fat gold ropes fresh again.

[05] Icky Thump // The White Stripes
If I was friends with Jack White, after 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan I would’ve grabbed him by the shoulders and shook the marimba out of him. This is what we want – plug the guitar in, turn it up, and have some fuckin’ fun…actually, the success of this album makes it seem like Brendan Benson did just that.

[04] Untrue // Burial
Immersed in the miasma of the album, surrounded by disembodied voices getting bumped around by skittering beats, maybe this hazy “Dubstep” sound is the laptop equivalent of Shoegazing; MBV used one word – Loveless – to convey the entire idea behind their masterpiece, and Burial has done this with Untrue, every song soaked in tears and dipped in shards of broken hearts.

[03] Boxer // The National
For me, The National conjure that eternal American Post-WWII cool of the late 50’s and early 60’s, the time of Sal Paradise hopping trains all over the countryside, the romantic ideals, like when first kisses sparked fireworks, breakups were like stage-plays, and a picnic was a pretty picture, with “bluebirds on our shoulders”; they update that world as subdued, literate, pastoral, brokenhearted, post-punk noir, equal parts Scott Walker, Springsteen, Joy Division and Morrissey.

[02] Sound Of Silver // LCD Soundsystem
Years from now when music enthusiasts are looking back at 2007, this is likely to be the mostly fondly remembered album, that default classic that will represent the entire year – mostly because ’07 was very much about getting your groove on, dancing away the war and the gas prices, and here the twitchy, encyclopedic brain of James Murphy imagines a lost 1982 collaboration between David Bowie, Prince, The B-52’s and Giorgio Moroder, with the goal to resurrect disco and make it cool. It’s completely fathomable to imagine this album slowly spreading over the coming years, popping up in the collection of any discerning music lover, especially ones who like their dance music to be a bit more than a four-on-the-floor kick drum and a synth riff; Murphy has a less exclusive, more populist outlook though: “All the little people wanna dance, it’s true!!”

[01] Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga // Spoon
For me, it’s no contest. I admit complete bias – they are my favorite band at the present time, but after all these years of trying to think as a critic, how could I not personally love something that I regard as superb? Spoon hold two truly rare attributes in today’s musical landscape: they are great artists, and they are remarkably consistent. Those two things together put them in a sparsely populated V.I.P. that few bands have ever reached. Everything they’ve released in the last decade has been worth your hard-earned dollars, worth having those pieces of plastic on your shelf that so many are ready to put out to pasture. It doesn’t matter though if you have vinyl, CDs or MP3s, what matters is the music, and on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon has wrangled their best collection of songs. Though I may occasionally gripe over the odd choice to place “The Ghost of You Lingers” as track two, or that “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case” is merely very good compared to the rest of the album’s excellence, the album remains crammed with classics, from the genius Motown pastiche of “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” to the house party starter “Finer Feelings”; from the dancefloor thumper “Rhthm & Soul” to the glorious single “The Underdog” to the cinematic Pop of “Black Like Me”, there’s something here for everyone. It would be a shame if you didn’t find a place for this on your shelf.

Monday, August 4, 2008

[002] Appetite For Destruction

Album: Appetite For Destruction
Artist: Guns N’ Roses
Release Date: July 1987
Label: Geffen
Producers: Mike Clink & Guns N’ Roses

“Welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here everyday
You learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play
If you hunger for what you see you’ll take it eventually
You can have anything you want but you better not take it from me”
- from “Welcome To The Jungle”

“Well I’m-a west coast struttin’ / One bad mother
Got a rattlesnake suitcase under my arm
Said I’m a mean machine / Been drinking gasoline
And honey, you can make my motor hum

Wake up late, honey, put on your clothes
And take your credit card to the liquor store
That’s one for you and two for me by tonight”
- from “Nightrain”

“Just a’ urchin livin’ under the street
I’m a hard case that’s tough to beat
I’m your charity case so buy me somethin’ to eat
I’ll pay you at another time
Take it to the end of the line

Captain America’s been torn apart
Now he’s a court jester with a broken heart
He said: Turn me around and take me back to the start
I must be losin’ my mind – ‘Are you blind?’
I’ve seen it all a million times”
Take me down to the paradise city
Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty
Take me home”
-from “Paradise City”

“Rock & Roll in general has sucked a big dick since the Pistols”
- guitarist Izzy Stradlin, from a 1988 Rolling Stone magazine interview

Looking back at the list so far, one might find the album choices to be of the mind of an arty little fucker, someone Indie-minded, but not quite hipster-than-thou, and certainly not touching Daughtry, etc, with a mile-long pole. Now though, you’re scratching your head. You see that classic gold banner and purple cross-on-black, skulls staring back at you with empty minds, and maybe you think I’ve lost my own marbles. But I haven’t; my stance on which albums would make this list was forged over years of reacting to popular music, the changing tides of Rock & Roll and its struggles for attention with surging Hip-Hop and Alternative and Pop one-hit-wonders. Rock & Roll was wounded once upon a time, and never fully recovered. To anyone who has talked to me about this list, and begged to know what Number One is, I’ve always said forget that – what’s Number Two? It’s not a mind-bender by a long shot. It gets included in these kinds of lists all the time. But I think this is my boldest choice; my point is that no one ever thinks of it because Rock & Roll isn’t around much anymore. It’s one of the biggest selling albums of all time, and it’s mostly forgotten about unless it’s wagged in your face. Only one person asked where and when it was gonna show up - Joel gets a gold star for, in that same moment, guessing the top 3 unintentionally. The reason why it’s here is simple, my friends: Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction is the perfect embodiment of the kind of albums I was looking for to make up this list, and maybe even more than that.

Appetite For Destruction is classic from both a genre standpoint (Rock & Roll, or even Hard Rock), and a subgenre standpoint (80’s Hair Metal). It’s a fascinating psychological and sociological album, offering vivid examples of the rebelliousness and frustration that created Rock & Roll in the first place, not to mention where that predominantly male psyche went from there and how it got twisted by drug and drink. It didn’t necessarily knock down walls as put cracks in them, cracks that would lead to crumbling at a later date – if GNR didn’t swing the wrecking ball, Seattle could’ve never knocked down the building (bassist Duff McKagan was the original drummer for The Fastbacks, and brought his punk experience to L.A. from Seattle). It introduced icons of modern music – Axl Rose & Slash – who even at the start of their careers were masters of their respective instruments, and presented that mastery in ways no one had ever heard; both are front and center in one of the classic album openings of all time, the first 40 seconds of “Welcome To The Jungle” about as perfect as Rock & Roll can be. It is a beloved album by musicians and fans alike, the 20-year old hits still routinely greeted with excitement and smiles. And finally, it’s the album’s widespread appeal, the repeat plays from all walks of life, on radio stations and jukeboxes, car stereos and iPods, that makes it special - it’s not only how much people love it, it’s how many.

First: what is Rock & Roll? says that it’s “a style of popular music that derives in part from blues and folk music and is marked by a heavily accented beat and a simple, repetitive phrase structure”. Hmmm, yeah I guess – I definitely think that there is a difference between “Rock & Roll” and “Rock music” though. The former does represent the music’s heritage, the fusing of Blues and Country and Folk, while the latter has come to describe the music’s scientific composition in relation to music that is not it. ‘Rock’ says that something is music played (usually) with electric guitar and a bass & drums rhythm section. When I say ‘Rock & Roll’, you probably think The Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley because they fit the heritage. But you wouldn’t necessarily say that “Roundabout” by Yes is a Rock & Roll song – though it is a Rock song, played on guitar-bass-drums (also: the video game is called Rock Band, not Rock & Roll Band). With all that being said, the borderlines for Rock music are now fuzzier than just looking at the instruments that the music is played on – The Roots have had a guitar-bass-drums make-up in the last handful of years, and they’re playing Hip-Hop. Ditto for Charlie Hunter and his trio playing Jazz. And so we sit and think and realize that that definition leaves out what I think is the most important part of all of Rock music, and Rock & Roll specifically: its inherent bold, often defiant attitude. Rock & Roll music couples the heritage with the attitude. That’s what the music is, an art of the once insecure finding a way to be confident; that’s why it was so naturally the music of adolescence at one of the most socially turbulent times in America’s history, and has continued in the following generations. Rock & Roll wants nothing to do with your establishment, or in these unfortunate waning years, it shouldn’t; after all these years, Rock & Roll as a term or label has been thrown around far too liberally. There is a vast chasm between Billy Joel and Iggy & The Stooges, and if there’s a rule of thumb, Rock & Roll is better loud.

When I was talking about Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, I wondered aloud that in some way it might be the culmination of the first forty years of Rock & Roll, and interestingly enough, you could make the same claim for Appetite For Destruction. But while Sonic Youth played on the spirit of Rock & Roll’s history without its musical guidelines, Guns N’ Roses were coloring mostly inside the lines, more linked to the music’s unfurling history. These bands represent both sides of the Rock & Roll divide of the late 1970’s, mirror images of the post-punk world. Sonic Youth adhered to the Punk ethos while paying tribute to the music they grew up on, while Guns N’ Roses stole the venom-spewing approach of Punk and applied it to Classic Rock & Roll. If you’re looking for a simple one-shot key to Appetite For Destruction, it’s this: This is the greatest Rock & Roll album made for a world that had no more use for Rock & Roll albums, and that’s why it remains so important – it’s an end only because no one has topped it yet. Even the way it was made was classic: In the Rolling Stone cover story last August celebrating the 20th anniversary of the album, writer Brian Hiatt, producer & engineer Mike Clink and engineer Victor Deyglio speak about Appetite being one of the last albums to be made “with vinyl in mind”, using classic instruments and amps, manually edited on two-inch tape, mixed by hand, without new automated technology. Since Punk broke in 1976, Rock has been everything but rolling. It’s been punky, alternative, hard, new wave, hardcore, grungy, retro, emo, metallic, and represented arenas, colleges and big hair, but GNR didn’t care about gimmicks. On the other hand, it’s funny how, even though they never really sounded alike, GNR constantly got compared to the at-their-peak ‘71/’72 edition of The Rolling Stones, who have come to be seen as the quintessential Rock & Roll band. The reason for that is the attitude + heritage equation again.

In the old Rolling Stone Album Guide from 1992, it’s noted that one of the reasons The Rolling Stones were the greatest Rock & Roll band of all-time was that their success was a tribute to the roots of the music, equal parts Blues and Country. On the other hand, GNR start the next age of Rock & Roll, where the musicians would not have grown up on Blues or Country, or even Rock & Roll’s formative years led by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. The bands of GNR’s generation, emerging after the punk and arena rock of the late 1970’s, grew up through Rock music when it was at its apex – Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, etc. – and formed their frames of reference from there forward. While Axl Rose may have later tried to convince everyone that Elton John was his retroactive primary influence, on Appetite, he comes off as the misanthropic bastard teenage orphan of Steven Tyler and Johnny Rotten, and Appetite follows suit, testing positive for the DNA of stone-cold Rock & Roll classics like Exile On Main St., New York Dolls, Rocks, and Never Mind The Bollocks.

The rest of the band wasn’t exempt either – only Steven Adler looked the part of an 80’s Sunset Strip rocker; Izzy bridged Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders, Slash was Joe Perry if he was into The Misfits, and Duff was Tom Petersson dipped in Sid Vicious’ leather. The image, like the music, was a confirmation of Rock & Roll – the misogynistic “Anything Goes” is a throwaway on paper, but the band’s energetic playing makes it sound like a gem off Side Two of Toys In The Attic before revving up to be a 60’s garage-style rave up – but at the same time they were thumbing their noses at their heroes that had gotten old and crotchety and too concerned with their bank accounts. As noted on their “Rules of Rock” 7years ago, take a look at how low Slash and Duff were slinging their axes – even their posture was a representation of what their music sounded like, and the Buddyhead guys were among the young masses under that GNR spell – Penance Soirée, the 2004 album by BH-affiliated rock urchins The Icarus Line and one of that year’s best albums, was a new millennium update of Appetite’s L.A. decadence.

It was the band’s willing display of their punk-ish edge, in a sea of Poisons and Warrants, that got them noticed. Their understanding of Rock & Roll’s rebellion, and putting it at the forefront of the band’s image, is another of the most important aspects of Guns N’ Roses, at least up until the release of the Use Your Illusions – much like Kurt Cobain’s later promotion of his favorite obscure bands, GNR had no problem upsetting the mainstream-friendly image that the Sunset Strip bands had collectively groomed for themselves by namedropping influences from Johnny Thunders to the Dead Boys to the Misfits (later revisited on 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident?); similarly, Slash & Duff had no problem cursing on live TV while staggering shitfaced up to the American Music Awards podium, something Jon Bon Jovi would’ve never even fathomed doing. It seems like something so insignificant now, but this kind of personal expression put the band outside the lines of the Glam Metal mold that was MTV-approved, but it also revealed them as following, or possibly as the last embodiment of, the Rock & Roll archetype, where rebellion attracts impressionable teenage fans ensconced in their adolescent battles with parental authority. Those other 80’s bands were dealing in a two-faced scheme, attaching a kind of surface wholesomeness to their not-too-thinly veiled misogyny and rampant alcohol abuse in order to move more units, all the while having drunken orgies backstage. GNR gleefully reveled in the fact they were the dangerous ones. Somehow they pushed what Rock & Roll attitude and rebellion means, expanding its decency limits as their drug and alcohol usage went past reckless to addictive and abusive, packing the songs with references to it as blatant as the heroin ode “Mr. Brownstone” (they probably would’ve called it simply “Heroin” if Lou Reed didn’t nab the title 20 years prior), or “Nightrain” (on which rock-crit-dean Robert Christgau proposes, “[Axl] doesn’t love Night Train, he loves alcoholism”.)

This is the heart of the commercial and public paradox of Guns N’ Roses at their Appetite and GNR Lies peak – they ride the line of social pariahs and music megastars so perfectly that it boggles the mind how they could have been allowed to be so fuckin’ popular. Yes, I’m aware that Guns N’ Roses were not the most dangerous band of the era, because this was the same time that young males were flocking to Metallica and Slayer for the same answers, but the Guns N’ Roses approach was different enough to give the band long-standing respect from the fans. Just in recent years, readers of UK Hard Rock magazines Kerrang! and Metal Hammer both named Appetite as the greatest album ever - that’s remarkable considering the likely contenders from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Metallica, and on and on. GNR fostered the Rock & Roll myth, the band as gods, but then they shit on the industry structure that helped put bands in that position. If I’m gonna tell you that Appetite For Destruction is important because it’s the last truly great Rock & Roll album, then Guns N’ Roses has to be equally crucial for being the last great model of the Rock & Roll Band, at the very least because they detonated the rulebook, taking the various notions of what it means to be acceptably (and legally) rebellious in normal society, and figuratively pushing the guidelines back 20 feet, or whatever, therefore enlarging the imaginary filing cabinet for Rock & Roll bands to be filed away in (and in their case, gloriously lowering the standards for a Rock & Roll band’s expected decorum). These boys perfected “shocking” from a marketing standpoint while having music that more than matched up. They are tailor-made for your parents to forbid the broadcasting of their songs out of your stereo and the display of their posters on the walls above your bed. They are the kind of guys that teenage boys want to hang out with and that teenage girls swoon over for just one reason: their parents tell them no.

And while there have been plenty of other Rock bands that got parents all riled up since then, we return to the fact that no one artist balanced their ability to incite a backlash with increasing their fanbase exponentially better than Guns N’ Roses. For instance, look at the longtime adversarial relationship between Guns and Mötley Crüe, and what they represent to 80’s Hard Rock – through the entire decade, The Crüe were the big dogs, but in the couple decades since, they’ve been holding on as a retro act, now more famous for Tommy Lee’s third leg than for their music. Meanwhile, GNR have done pretty much nothing in the last 15 years, and yet they’re name-checked by everyone from The Strokes to Avenged Sevenfold to Sheryl Crow. Going back to GNR’s assertion of a punk-gutter realism, we can kinda see the influential similarities, the New York Dolls as an influence on Nikki Sixx as well just like he claims, but at the time he was talking more “Detroit Rock City” than “Looking For A Kiss” because it fell in line with the scene; GNR also talked Kiss – and Zeppelin and Aerosmith (who they opened for in 1988) too – but they also rejected Paul Stanley as an Appetite producer by nodding off on smack and spreading rumors he was gay. Mötley Crüe have repeatedly described themselves more as a gang than a band in their early days, but Guns N’ Roses came along and pumped up the nastiness to levels that would be more in line with squatters in London in 1977. You could smell Slash’s filthy pleather pants through the pictures. Really – look at Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses in 1987, and tell me who you’re running away from in a dark alley. There’s nothing scary about Vince Neil in makeup… actually, fear is another way to look at it – Guns N’ Roses is to Rock like b-movie horror is to film, giving teenagers chills & thrills; Appetite is literally thrilling.

When I was 11 years old, and first saw the video for “Welcome To The Jungle”, it scared the shit out of me, and yet I got the point; adults don’t want to admit to themselves that kids are smart, but they are, and I knew watching the narrative of this farmboy off the bus in big bad L.A., flashing images of police riots and fights, Axl bound in that Clockwork Orange chair, that they were telling you that the city is dangerous. It is a scary place. At first, the video was also confusing to young rock fans like me, because these five guys kinda looked like all the other poodle-haired arena-ready hard rock bands that were filling up our TV screens (though a lot dirtier), so we bought into the image, but the song is obviously more ferocious than the image, with Slash & Izzy Stradlin’s guitars barking like slobbering pitbulls and serpentine Axl wanting to watch us bleed; it was akin to, say, the Bay City Rollers singing the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK” or “Bodies”. More so than pretty much every other album opener in history, this song sets the tone for its album. Every Appetite track comes on like a predatory animal chasing you downhill, and when the riff kicks in, it’s that animal’s jaws clamping down on you, razor-sharp teeth tearing your flesh.

As that classic opening begins, Slash’s guitar falls over itself as Axl whispers “Oh my God”, and you get the same feeling when you find yourself in a part of the city where you know you’re not supposed to be. Then that infamous siren-howl rises in the background, with Izzy’s bluesy licks and Duff’s bass soundtracking the impending chase, Steven Adler’s high-hats like your feet hitting the pavement – John Lennon once sang “run for your life if you can, little girl”, but he never conjured this kind of dread. Axl’s narrative is perfect – the notion that where you live could get worse everyday is not something familiar to suburban teens – creating a world you want to see because they got the ‘fun-n-games’ and you might ‘taste the bright lights’, but you don’t really want to visit because you’re not crazy about bleeding or screaming. For the opposite reason, that’s what many lower class or urban teens deal with on a daily basis, and so they identify with Appetite; I’ve met at least a dozen African-Americans living in urban areas that don’t listen to Rock music, but they have this album on their shelf, and they love it for the same reasons they love N.W.A. or Wu-Tang… Meanwhile, Slash & Izzy lay out their M.O.: interlocking guitar lines in each stereo channel, Izzy’s guttural yet clean rhythms on the left, Slash’s smeared and ragged leads splattered on the right – this is the clearest testament to Mike Clink’s timeless production; guitars have simply never sounded like this, Slash in particular possessing such a singular sound that you can tell his playing within two seconds. I encourage listening to this album a few times through only one channel, and then switching. The songs morph into new creatures when you can only hear Slash or Izzy, and it awards a new appreciation for their cosmic guitar slop.

Not only did the ferocity of “Welcome To The Jungle” set the band apart, but it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. The funky “Mr. Brownstone” is probably the most radio-friendly groove on the album, so it’s too bad for station programmers it’s a song about heroin addiction and has a well placed “motherfucker” in the third verse. Slash’s wah-wah pedal is in overdrive, approximating Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” as best he can submerged in a smack high, while Izzy, Duff & Steve do donuts around him. This is one of the songs where Axl is staying mostly in his low register – no screeching to be heard, and it’s on these songs that you can hear the unique quality of his voice, as well as his unpredictable temper. Here he’s laissez-faire as much as he’s menacing on the live favorite “It’s So Easy”, home to the often-quoted couplet “See me hit you; you fall down”, possibly an early sign of Axl the abusive boyfriend/husband (if you assume he’s singing to a girl through the whole song). I think it’s easier to see that Axl’s social skills as displayed in the song are more worrisome because he can’t focus his frustrations; he’s got a sort of aggression A.D.D. where he just lashes out, and indeed he does suffer from manic depression. He’s singing respectively about hitting up your hot sister, drinking and driving, not getting no satisfaction (of course), blackouts (“fade into the night”?), unchecked violence towards random strangers (“See me hit you…Why don’t you just fuck off!”), and specifically towards women (“Turn around bitch, I got a use for you; besides you ain’t got nothin’ better to do, and I’m bored”). And then to finish it all off, he throws a curveball that you might miss unless you were scouring the lyrics: he’s spent the entire song being selfish, singing about everybody trying to please him, and yet when he’s scurrying off with his Miss Right Now, he’s the one who’s saying he’ll try to please her, a glimpse of his soft side which he was trying to play close to the vest.

There is a pity to this, that you could say “It’s So Easy” is the quintessential Guns N’ Roses song because of the abhorrent “character” that Axl is playing in it, fittingly too politically incorrect to ever be a successful single or radio favorite. After all these years, we can look back and see the pattern, and know it’s sad that we would expect him to be this guy. In fact, this was the band’s first single, a failure in the days of Slippery When Wet prior to Appetite’s release, with a video so X-rated it never officially saw the light of day, featuring among other things Axl’s future wife Erin Everly in bondage gear. Musically, it’s what you’d expect coming from McKagan, a muscular take on early 70’s proto-punk, but the lyrics are by far the focus. “Nightrain” is the opposite; save for an opening verse that can be boiled down to ‘mooching off stripper-groupies is fun’, it’s all chorus, with plenty of room for Izzy and especially Slash to light up some six-string pyrotechnics. The chorus is more of the same however, with Axl waffling between his meanings; is it Night Train, the cheap wine, to get him “loaded like a freight train”, or is it a night train to help him escape the “slum”, never to return?

Rock & Roll has always been exploring the shadows, devilish imagery from Robert Johnson to Mick Jagger to Ozzy, et al, but Appetite was deviating from this by dealing with the band’s reality, closer to AC/DC’s taste for women or Judas Priest breaking the law. Guns N’ Roses has become eternally linked to their proving grounds like so many bands before and since because their point of view is unique to that city, reporting from street level; the dark, chilling tale of “My Michelle”, about a fucked-up friend of the band’s spiraling out of control, illustrates that Axl’s storytelling (for L.A.) is sometimes closer to Lou Reed (for NYC) than David Lee Roth (actually, the girl told Axl she wished someone would write a song about her like Elton John’s “Your Song”; Axl decided that telling the truth about her lifestyle worked better than a sweet ballad). I’ve always heard the song as Axl’s ominous, bizarro-world version of Roy Orbison or Buddy Holly, the smoky slowdancing intro destined for the amphetamine-charged sock-hop chorus and the “Everyone needs love…” breakdown, all serrated riffs spurred on by Duff’s pogo-ing bassline. The verses drool acidic indictment, immediately calling out the porno daddy and smack OD’d mommy, the title character spoiled on cocaine bought with someone else’s credit card, the same card that she’s going to chop up the blow on the glass hotel coffee table with. Axl’s supposed to be this girl’s friend, but he’s airing her dirty laundry, and doing it in a threatening growl – huh, some friend.

But that’s Axl and Guns N’ Roses at this point in their career – too paranoid and anti-social for their own good, sticking to their own personal self-preservation routine that allowed them to survive on the backstabbing streets of Hollywood in the 1980’s. The tough “Out Ta Get Me” puts up a fight, a classic metal fist pumper that aspires to saddle up next to countless Keith Richards outlaw-on-the-run rockers, except that it too easily shows its hand, and instead comes off way too defensive against the faceless authority, the Rock & Roll oppressor. In some way though, it’s that much more empathetic to the pip-squeak metalhead in the corner of the lunchroom, a song he or she can call their own. I bought Appetite, like most kids my age, for the three big singles, but I had come up on Def Leppard and Van Halen and Bon Jovi – much lighter stuff. I hated Appetite when I got it; I would just listen to “Paradise City” over and over, rewinding it back, because “My Michelle” and “You’re Crazy” were fuckin’ scary. I braved lunchroom stigma and ended up returning it and exchanging it for some safe piece of shit (probably Europe or White Lion). It wasn’t until I got the 45 single for “Patience” – the purchase of which was a leftover reaction to Appetite, not wanting to be disappointed by Lies, so I just bought the single – and fell in love with “Rocket Queen” on the b-side that I felt like I might’ve made a mistake.

You see, there was a little of my 12-year old hesitancy in Axl, that part of him that drew him to make the Elton John-worshipping about-face later (shh…he was already privately working on “November Rain” in 1986). His love for Pop balladry led him to keeping the world of Appetite from being completely without hope. Hope was secretly important to Axl. “Think About You”, written by Izzy, is a tribute to Monique Lewis, the raven-haired beauty tattooed on Axl’s right arm; Rose sings the words differently than any other track here, with a soothing calmness but still in the Axl screech, that odd middle ground that he would eventually sing almost exclusively in on the Use Your Illusion twins, even while the band is barreling like a locomotive. Likewise, “You’re Crazy”, the most aggressive, punk-style track on the album, actually has a soft core. Axl is yearning for love, “lookin’ for a lover in a world that’s much too dark”; for once, he’s the responsible one, removing himself from a destructive situation in which his unsatisfied lover is, you guessed it, “fuckin’ crazy”. Sandwiched between these two tracks is the beloved “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, where Axl lays out right away that this beautiful relationship that he’s in is working in the present and backwards into the past – her smile reminds him of “childhood memories”, that “warm safe place where as a child [he]’d hide” – but with no hint of a future. Hope is about the future. That’s how it works. So, this relationship is teetering on uncertainty, and of course, after Slash rips his classic solo, one of the best of all time (I get chills at 4:04 every time), Axl is frantically asking “Where do we go now?”

Well, we go to the final two-and-a-half minutes of the album, the second part of the incredible “Rocket Queen”, and to Axl’s gift of hope. He insisted on ending the album on a bright note because he realized the journey through Appetite was a dark one. This is Axl balancing the all-pistons-firing assault of the band with the most positive outlook on the album: “If you need a shoulder / Or if you need a friend / I’ll be here standing / Until the bitter end / No one needs the sorrow / No one needs the pain / I hate to see you walking out there / Out in the rain”. It’s a euphoric Pop high, no drugs needed, and it points directly to some of the forgotten melodic genius of the future double albums – like say “Yesterdays”, a great overlooked single. Returning to the band’s generational influences, within their frame of reference, there’s a dichotomy of inspiration just as there is in Axl’s personality-on-record: The grit and attitude and swagger of The Stones is weighed against the pop craft of The Beatles (likewise, but not as important to this particular album, the words of Dylan are weighed against the musicianship of Hendrix, the former often called the greatest lyricist, the latter the greatest guitarist).

The first half of “Rocket Queen” is all bite, slithering funk-metal blessed by one of the greatest riffs of all time. However, this is where the rhythm section shines, revealing their gift for funk and the unsung power of the uncomplicated playing of Adler (Duff and Izzy hid his extra drums); if they didn’t fire him, he could’ve been the Metal Charlie Watts (though it bears noting his hero was Queen’s Roger Taylor, an informative and relatively obscure choice in a land of Pearts and Wards and Bonhams). This is also where I tell you that Duff McKagan is the most underrated rock bassist ever, his lead-lines quietly filling whatever space there is between the monstrous John Entwistle and the sly Paul Simonon. I used to play bass for about two seconds of my life, and someone had given me a bass book for Appetite For Destruction; I immediately shelved it though when I got a look at how complicated Duff’s parts were. They blew my mind, and I can’t listen to the album now without hearing them. The lyrics for this part of the song are a point of contention with me. There are other moments in the lyric book that are incorrect, typos, etc, but I feel that the context of “Rocket Queen”’s chorus was presented wrong. The booklet reads “Here I am / And you’re a Rocket Queen”, when to me it sounds as if it should read “Here I am / I’m your Rocket Queen”. This changes the narrator’s view – I’ve always felt that this is a character song for Axl, where he is singing as a teenage prostitute asserting her expertise, the kind of girl the band would’ve encountered against the backdrop of this seedy urban underbelly (The girl the character was based on was 18 at the time, and eventually became a madam). When the song breaks in half, and the lighter coda launches, Axl reverts back, and is now offering the prostitute his hopeful reassurances.

The Rocket Queen describes her L.A. as a “burned out paradise”, a contradiction that sums up the verse-chorus split at work in the epic “Paradise City”. The song epitomizes both the band’s signature Rock & Roll spirit and Axl’s conscious need to inject hope into his Pop by getting filthy in the gutter on the verses, and then pining for the green grass on the other side of the fence during the chorus. The entire concept and structure and lyric of the song are the culmination of the rest of the album, light and dark, as well as all their influences, woven together and funneled into 6 minutes and 46 seconds. The hands-in-the-air opening significantly starts with the chorus first, the light Pop side, whatever paradise Axl still saw in his Midwest roots (the same place that could’ve inspired the rage of “Out Ta Get Me”). But when that whistles blows, the band comes roaring out of the cage, that snarling riff decimating everything in its path. The verses are all Sunset Strip struggle, but it’s the chorus that holds the song aloft like a Bic lighter – the grass-is-greener mentality is basic human nature – until we get to the full-throttle endpiece. The band sounds absolutely unhinged. You can clearly hear Izzy, Duff, and Slash individually shredding their instruments; Slash’s fingers are moving so fact you’d think his fretboard was on fire, but his playing never once becomes excessive like so many 80’s guitarists, where it moves beyond servicing the song. This is partly because the band keeps up with him, Axl too, stretching his vocal chords to reach the back row on the highest tier of every stadium. This second part of the song isn’t just their punk fury unleashed – it’s a confirmation of their Rock & Roll legend status. It’s their Rock & Roll anthem, a reminder that this is music for the people, for everyone who doesn't accept everything they're told, and yearns for a better life. The Guns N’ Roses of Appetite For Destruction proved that some blues chords and a 4/4 backbeat don’t just make something Rock & Roll. It’s the attitude and the hunger, the need to push back. And boy, did they push back. Listening to Appetite For Destruction now, not only is there no doubt to its greatness, but there’s no doubt that finding that greatness again might be futile. How great must an album be if you can’t escape its long shadow? 20 years later, and I think Axl Rose has answered that question for us everyday - with his silence.

01. “Welcome To The Jungle”
02. “It’s So Easy”
03. “Nightrain”
04. “Out Ta Get Me”
05. “Mr. Brownstone”
06. “Paradise City”
07. “My Michelle”
08. “Think About You”
09. “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
10. “You’re Crazy”
11. “Anything Goes”
12. “Rocket Queen”

MTV's Live At The Ritz [NYC, 02.88]
This show is ridiculous! They're all great, but "Out Ta Get Me" and "Nightrain" transcend their album versions, and of course "Paradise City" is a highlight - Axl goes into the crowd with a shirt, comes out without it, all while Slash is soloing on his back on the nasty stage floor.
- "My Michelle"

- "It's So Easy"
- "Mr. Brownstone"
- "Out Ta Get Me"
- "Sweet Child O' Mine"
- "Welcome To The Jungle"
- "Nightrain"
- "Paradise City"
- "Rocket Queen"

"Welcome To The Jungle" [video]

"Paradise City" [live in NYC, 05.88]

"Rocket Queen" [live in NYC, 05.88]

- BONUS: "Welcome To The Jungle" [live in L.A., 03.86]
- BONUS: "Welcome To The Jungle" [live on the 1988 VMA's]
- BONUS: "It's So Easy" [explicit unreleased video]
- BONUS: "It's So Easy" [live in Middletown, NY, 08.88]
Home video was totally the YouTube of 20 years ago
- BONUS: "It's So Easy" [live in Melbourne, 12.88]
- BONUS: "Nightrain" [live in NYC, 09.88]
- BONUS: "Nightrain" [live in Melbourne, 12.88]
- BONUS: "Out Ta Get Me" [live in Middletown, NY, 08.88]
- BONUS: "Out Ta Get Me" [live in NYC, 09.88]
- BONUS: "Mr. Brownstone" [live/acoustic at CBGB's, NYC, 1988]
- BONUS: "Mr. Brownstone" [live in Middletown, NY, 08.88]
- BONUS: "Paradise City" [video]
- BONUS: "Paradise City" [live in Melbourne, 1988]
- BONUS: "My Michelle" [live in Long Beach, CA, 03.86]
- BONUS: "My Michelle" [live in Melbourne, 1988]
- BONUS: "My Michelle" [live in NYC, 1991]
- BONUS: "Think About You" [live, 03.86]
- BONUS: "Sweet Child O' Mine" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Sweet Child O' Mine" [live in Melbourne, 1988]
- BONUS: "Sweet Child O' Mine" [live in Middletown, NY, 08.88]
- BONUS: "You're Crazy" [slow version; live in NYC, 05.88]
- BONUS: "You're Crazy" [live/acoustic at CBGB's, NYC, 1988]
- BONUS: "Anything Goes" [live in L.A., 07.86]
9-minute version, with alternate lyrics
- BONUS: "Rocket Queen" [live in L.A., 07.86]
- BONUS: "Rocket Queen" [live in Melbourne, 1988]

- DOUBLE BONUS: "You're Crazy" [live in L.A., 11.90]
Performed by Slash, Duff, Sebastian Bach & Lars Ulrich at a RIP Magazine party.