B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums

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“Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved, See my heart I decorate it like a grave” – Alice In Chains, “Down In A Hole”

A few weeks ago I posted a playlist about heroin, entitled “Chasing the Dragon,” B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin. When I was compiling that playlist I ended up thinking a lot about Alice In Chains and their best album Dirt. Yes, I’m with everybody else in thinking that Jar of Flies was their creative peak, but that was an EP like Sap (another great bit of music), not a full blown album. When doing a playlist about heroin it’s hard not to think about Alice In Chains and their late lead singer Layne Staley who died of an overdose. When I put that list together I realized that I had put not one but two Alice In Chains tracks on it, both from Dirt. I really dug those two tracks on the playlist, “God Smack” and “Junkman.” I hadn’t listened to that whole album in quite a long time and so with those two tunes bouncing around my skull, I had to put it on. I love that record, but I realized about halfway through…this is an unrelentingly dark album. Why they didn’t just name it Smack I’ll never know.

It slowly began to dawn on me, I really like music on that dark edge. It wasn’t always that way. When I first started listening to rock and roll on KY/102 and then later when I started actually buying and consuming music, my tastes ran to the more upbeat. I wanted something that “RAWKED!” Van Halen, Boston and ZZ Top were amongst my early purchases. I wanted that good time, party music. I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to listen to anything acoustic. I think most of my friends’ musical tastes ran in that same direction. We were all young, testosterone driven maniacs. What’s that phrase, “young, dumb and full of cum.” My friend Drew and I used to joke that our pal Matthew’s record collection when he got to college was all heavy metal with one Fleetwood Mac album thrown in. His fixation on Kiss back then still baffles me. For my  part, heavy metal did play a big part in all of my early listening from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest to AC/DC.

I have to admit, looking back, that even then I was a sucker for a good ballad. I would have never admitted to liking sad songs back then… no, no, give me songs about chicks with a guitar solo. My first Springsteen album purchase was The River and while I loved “The Ties That Bind,” “I’m A Rocker” and “Out In The Street,” I was really, really into “Drive All Night.” The mellow tunes drew me to that album as deeply as the rockers. It’s hard to explain. You could say I was always secretly drawn to great lyrics, hence my early interest in Dylan, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. I was that odd person who could relate to songs about broken hearts and sad endings to relationships before I’d even kissed a girl let alone had a girlfriend. Maybe I was slightly depressed as a kid and thus I had this feeling that my heart was already broken from a very early age. No one ever really wants to share the dark parts of themselves, especially when you’re young. There are just some of us who feel things more deeply and life itself can break your heart sometimes…

In college I started to branch out in terms of musical tastes and that’s when I started to buy some of the darker music in my collection. I mean, in truth,  it’s not all “dark,” some of it is just sad or melancholy music. It seems even at that tender age I was like Tom Waits who famously said, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” In the old days, when things weren’t going well, I’d put on some mellow, generally sad songs and hearing these artists sing about their heartbreak and losses made me feel, well, less alone. Someone else out there had been through what I was going through now and survived. Of course, you can take the sadder end of the musical spectrum too far sometimes. After one break up, my friend the Accountant (who lived three floors below me at the time) came up to my apartment and I was listening to some funeral dirge, moping about when he said, “Say man, uh, maybe all this downer music is affecting your mood… do you have any Van Halen you can put on?” The Rock Chick used to pretend to weep every time she caught me listening to Ryan Adams.

I realize that now may not be the time to share this particular list of albums. Many of us are feeling isolated and alone (B&V’s Pandemic Playlist – Rock n Roll To The Self-Isolation Rescue). If you’re prone to depression, I would suggest maybe avoiding these albums until we’re all free to walk outside without looking like extras on the set of the television show ‘E.R.’ I know the Rock Chick feels like I do, stuck at home and slightly bored. I take my life into my hands every time I go downstairs… like they say about a blowout football game when the teams start taking cheap shots at each other, it’s getting a little chippy down there. I have always either found solace in these records, or they’re just kick ass albums that everyone should hear. Take the gold where you can find it.

  1. Alice In Chains, Dirt – I’ve already talked about this album above, but it’s truly AIC’s finest full length album. “Down In A Hole,” “Rain When I Die,” and “Them Bones” are all great tunes. It’s clear the theme of this album is heroin. The only lighter moment is the song “Rooster” about Jerry Cantrell’s father surviving the Vietnam War…if you can consider that upbeat?
  2. Nirvana, In Utero – This album was certainly Cobain’s reaction to being named the “voice of his generation.” They were trying to shrink the size of their fan base by recording some really abrasive music. You don’t record a song like “Rape Me” if you’re trying to bring people onto the bandwagon. “Heart Shaped Box” was the tune that actually turned me around on Nirvana. Something clicked for me when I heard it. I still love that song even with lyrics like, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” While some of the tracks on this LP are impenetrable, “All Apologies,” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are amongst their best. The art work told you all you needed to know about this record. I bought it in a used CD store downtown by the bar Harlings and it took me to the rest of their catalog.
  3. Pearl Jam, Riot Act – I may be wrong about this but at one time this was Pearl Jam’s worst selling record. It’s no coincidence that the first three albums on this list come from the Grunge era. That generation came of age on lithium (hence the SiriusXM station by that name that plays the music of that era). This is a later record by PJ and I’ve always considered it a bummer from start to finish. There are a few light moments like the humorous “Bushleaguer” about George W. Bush (“born on third, thinks he got a triple,” a line I use often). I’ve been listening to this album again and while it’s intense, it’s still a damn good Pearl Jam record.
  4. Big Star, Third/Sister Lovers – Big Star’s Alex Chilton was so disillusioned about the music business and Big Star’s failure to connect with a larger audience, he holed up and recorded this set of despondent songs. It wasn’t released until years after they broke up. There still isn’t an agreed to, official running order of the songs. “Thank You Friends” drips with sarcasm. “Holocaust” is despair exemplified. Big Star was a band I didn’t discover until after in life, but man I’m glad I did.
  5. John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band – Lennon’s first proper solo album after the implosion of the Beatles. He’d been going to Primal Scream therapy and the vocals bear that out. He often goes from a whisper to a scream. “Mother” is haunting. Songs like “Isolation” and “Working Class Hero” reveal a pretty jaundiced world view. I love the song “God,” where he lists the litany of things he doesn’t believe in any more… until he ends with just he and Yoko…”I believe in me, Yoko and me.” I like this album significantly more than Imagine, but that may say more about me than John Lennon.
  6. Nick Drake, Pink Moon – Drake was another artist I came to later in life. In his short tragic life he only recorded three albums. Pink Moon was his third album and it was a departure from his two power-pop albums that proceeded it. Pink Moon is just Drake’s vocal and an acoustic guitar. He was despondent his career didn’t take off but he largely refused to ever play live… He died shortly after this album came out from an overdose on antidepressants. I think that says it all.
  7. Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night – One of Young’s famous “Ditch Trilogy.” This is one of my absolute favorite Neil Young albums, if not my favorite. Drowning in despair, guilt and tequila after he fired original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who then died of an overdose, this is Young at his most raw and emotional. This album knocked me out the first time my friend Drew played it for me and it continues to do so today.
  8. Elton John, Blue Moves – People forget how huge Elton was from 1970-1975. This album isn’t dark but it’s certainly laced with a ton of melancholy. Many people feel it was Elton feeling sorry for himself after the backlash he got for admitting he was Gay. The 70s were at once a freewheeling and closed-minded time. I think he was just feeling some fatigue after 5 tumultuous years. He was bound to have some kind of let down… It’s not a great album but it’s a good one. It’s a double-LP and probably suffers in the shadow of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that preceded it by two years. The second album is particularly down. This album has the saddest song ever recorded, “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word.” I’ve got my own story about that song…but again, we can’t share all the darkest parts of ourselves.
  9. Lou Reed, Berlin – This is the bleakest, most despondent thing I’ve ever heard. Reed’s concept album about a couple (Jim and Caroline) who are German drug addicts. It’s got some great songs, “How Do You Think It Feels,” and “Caroline Says I” amongst them. But this is hard one to get through. It has grown on me significantly over the years but there is no fairy tale ending here… I dare you to listen to the song “The Kids” and not be haunted by it…
  10. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska – I was a huge Springsteen fan in high school. I had all of his albums up to that point. The River had hooked me. Then I went away for that difficult freshman year in college. I struggled my first semester due to some self-inflicted wounds (love gone wrong). I got home at Christmas and was in the mall when I saw that he had a new album out. Ignoring the stark imagery of the front cover, I thought, here we go The River 2.0. When I dropped the needle on the album and heard the stark, depressing title track I remember having the opposite feeling of the joy I felt when I heard The River for the first time. I liked “Reason To Believe” and almost immediately dug “Atlantic City,” but it took me years and years to come to appreciate this collection of songs about outlaws, losers and outcasts. Everybody feels left outside of society here. It’s a masterpiece, but I’d sure like to hear the “Electric Nebraska” – the version of the album recorded with the E Street Band… maybe we can hope for a boxset…

There you have it, my top bleak, depressing albums. Sometimes you’ve got to go dark. Again, if you’re prone to depression, you might wanna wait on these records. I’ve always loved these albums and I hope you do too. If there are albums like this that you’re into, please let me know and I’ll check them out! Otherwise, sit back, put one of these on, pour something dark and murky and contemplate…

Stay healthy and safe out there. Cheers!

The Music of Cinemax’s Quarry Led Me To Big Star’s “#1 Record”

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I never used to watch much TV. Sure I watched my hapless Kansas City Chiefs over the years… actually I guess I can’t call them hapless any more. I’d watch the Olympics or whatever sporting event happened to be on at the time. When I was in college, after a big test I usually drank a bunch of beer and stared vacantly at the screen for hours while MTV played videos. Those were the days! These days “binge watching” has become a thing. The Rock Chick loves to binge watch television shows. Her tastes run toward the murder and mayhem type shows like, “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Sons of Anarchy.” While in the beginning I was a reluctant participant in all this TV viewing, I now enjoy watching these shows with her. I’m still not over “Breaking Bad.” That was a bad ass show.

In that tradition, the Rock Chick found this new show on Cinemax, “Quarry.” As usual, there’s murder and mayhem involved. The show is set in Memphis in 1972. That grabbed me right away because it’s a time in history that I’m obsessed with. The Nixon-McGovern election of that year looms in the background like a lurking villain. We follow our anti-hero Mac Conway as he returns from Vietnam where he was involved in some sort of controversial battle involving civilians. When I was a kid all the bad guys on TV were Vietnam vets which was a complete disservice to those brave young men who served in that conflict. Because of the controversy Mac faced in Vietnam he struggles to find a job. It’s then a mysterious figure named “The Broker” appears and offers him a job as a hit man. Mac drinks a shit ton of bourbon which of course, makes this a B&V approved television show.

While all of that backstory is interesting, what drew me into “Quarry” (besides the bourbon drinking, Four Roses!) was the music. The early 70s was such a fertile time for music. Rock and roll, country, soul, blues, R&B were all so commingled. Mac, our hero, is a huge Otis Redding fan which fantastic. The sound track for this show is amazing. Since it’s set in Memphis you get a lot of blues and R&B. Mac also digs gospel so you get some Soul Stirrers among others. They’ve played everything from Harry Nilsson singing in Spanish to Waylon Jennings to Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” Whoever is DJ’ing down at the “Quarry” studios knows what he’s doing. The music is great and it always fits the scene.

While all that is great, since this is a show about a hitman, Mac is often meeting his mysterious cohorts in a bar or a club where live music is being played. Memphis is a great town for live music. Having been thrown out of the Rum Boogie Cafe back in the 80s for attempting to play an organ solo when drunk on the dance floor, I can testify to Memphis’ great musical traditions. Reaching through the crowd and pressing down on the organ keys was not greeted very nicely and I do regret that. Anyway, the bar bands that play in the background in this show are worth the price of admission alone. You add these great bands playing with the actual soundtrack and you have one great musical atmosphere. Add it all up, murder, mayhem, bourbon and music and you’ve got one kick ass show.

There is one band that gets mentioned, almost as a background undercurrent in the show, Big Star. This being Memphis in 1972, when their seminal LP “#1 Record” came out it only makes sense. Mac, the Otis Redding fan, comes home to find his wife Joni, (played by the lovely Jodi Balfour, who based on her nudes scenes, I feel is going to be a huge star) listening to Big Star. It’s not the only thing that’s changed while Mac’s been away. Joni is a journalist and her first article, which she mails to Mac while he’s in Vietnam is a write up about Big Star. In one great scene, Mac whose just polished off a bottle of Four Roses is lying in the middle of their living room, surrounded by LPs scattered around the floor (and who hasn’t been there friends?) is listening to the great tune “Don’t Lie to Me.”

I’ve always been a huge fan of rock journalism and Rolling Stone magazine in particular. Inevitably there’s some countdown of the greatest albums of all time. I’ve always sneered at some of the choices. There are always the bands Television and Big Star amongst others that no one seems to have heard. I’ve always blown those bands off, although 20 years ago I did get into the Velvet Underground and they just kick ass. Like the Velvet Underground apparently what few fans Big Star had went out and formed bands. Mike Mills from REM wrote the liner notes to the latest re-issue of “#1 Record.” When I heard “Don’t Lie To Me” I thought, wait a minute, maybe this is worth listening to.

Big Star suffered from a terrible record label and a complete lack of distribution for their records which was their death knell. They formed in Memphis in ’72 by Alex Chilton (who had been a childhood star) and Chris Bell, both singer/guitarists. They’ve been described as “power pop,” or “pop rock” but I think they rock. The Rock Chick hears a little April Wine in their music, I really don’t know how to categorize them. I have to admit, after sneering at Big Star all these years, I was wrong. “#1 Record” is simply put, amazing. These guys are hard to describe. Beatlesque might apply. When I put this LP on last night, I walked back into the living room to find the Rock Chick up on her feet, snapping her fingers and nodding her head. That doesn’t happen all the time. This stuff is catchy as hell.

“Feel” is the first song and right off the bat I’m hooked. Chiming, rocking guitars and beautiful vocal harmonies abound. If that’s power pop I’m in. “In The Street” and “Don’t Lie to Me” are great rocking tunes. The ballad “Thirteen” about young love is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard… it stirred up some bittersweet ghosts for me. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” is another terrific rocker with a great riff. These songs get under your skin and stay with you. I find myself humming or singing these songs in my head. “The India Song” is weird, trippy and funny all at the same time. “My Life Is Right” should have been a hit. I love the sound of the acoustic guitar these guys get on the quieter tunes. Really great strumming and it calls to mind Zeppelin’s “Tangerine.”

All these years later, it’s time to give Big Star a chance folks. This is great music that deserves to be heard by everybody. BourbonAndVinyl gives “#1 Record” a very enthusiastic  “Buy Now” review.

Put this one on, pour some Four Roses and thank me later. And when you’re done listening, tune into “Quarry” if only to see Jodi Balfour…

Cheers!