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I've been undertaking a little project recently... you could call it something of an archival project of my music collection. The details aren't important really. Instead what this project has given me is an view of a cross section of my listening tastes... what bands and albums I listen to the most, etc etc. I don't normally think about it that much, but as it turns out, apparently many of my favorite albums and bands are what many might consider "difficult" to listen to... and that's actually kind of interesting.
What qualifies as a difficult album? Well that's hard to say, but it seems pretty obvious to me when I hear it... they're less immediately accessible Some albums just make for an easy listen... often times leaving little to be desired... while others take some time to grow on you, and continue to grow in complexity on each subsequent listen. Then there are some albums... some albums which many a person will actually turn off before listening all the way through... that might be a little odd, abrasive or just downright strange. Those are difficult albums, but often times, they are also the ones that leave the most lasting impact. These are the albums that once they've fought and clawed their way into your consciousness are actually the most rewarding listening experiences of all.
And so I thought I'd share 5 such albums that are currently worming their way into my head... or have already done so and earned a place of respect within my collection.
1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - And the Ass Saw the Angel
We'll start off with the known. I've talked at length about Nick Cave for this site many times already... even did a featured album a month or so back... and my appreciation for his art grows every day, most recently with this intriguing little album. This is more of an art piece than anything else though. The first 4 tracks are spoken word poetry pieces from Cave, while the rest of the album consists of tracks that are more like "sonic collages" than songs... ranging from simply odd to downright frightening. The overall effect thought makes this one of the Bad Seeds most gothic and chilling works, albeit in similar, but unique way when compared to many of their others. Perhaps this one is a bit more than just a difficult listen, as although I really like it, I think it is doubtful to become a regular in the playlist of even hardcore fans. As an artistic work though, this is compelling, shockingly primal and "spine-tinglingly" powerful... definitely worth checking out if you think you can handle it.
Amazon: And the Ass Saw the Angel
2. The Dirty Three - The Dirty Three
Perhaps that first album actually serves as a good introduction to this one as well. I first heard innovative violinist Warren Ellis through his work with Nick Cave actually, not coming to this trio of his (The Dirty Three) till sometime later. The music they make has definitely earned its own position within my collection though. Composed entirely of instrumentals that feature Ellis' violin primarily with a tone that ranges from stark and melancholy to shrieking lines of noise and feedback, this most likely isn't one that will draw in too many casual listeners either. The resulting work though is astonishingly emotionally charged, with the subtle shades of timbre... the shift between soaring extended lines and howling, fuzzy, feedback noise... making for a gripping and engrossing experience. This album is also one that serves as a good reason why I consider Ellis to be one of my musical influences, in spite of the fact that I play guitar, not violin.
Amazon: Dirty Three
3. The Frogs - Racially Yours
Once billed as something like "the most offensive album of all time" it's no surprise that this one actually went unreleased for a while. A quick glance through the song titles is probably enough to scare many people away. A concept album that uses humor and satire to not only look at racial stereotypes and prejudices, but shatter them with absurdity, it's really not that offensive at all. There's more to it than that though, as this album also contains some of the Frog's best songs. These aren't necessarily their funniest songs, but then again I don't really consider the Frogs to be primarily about "being funny". The silliness and the absurdist, raunchiness is just a side effect of making a social commentary about music as art etc etc. Other albums of theirs may be funnier, and others may even be more offensive to many, but this album is high on social comment and strikingly ambitious. It's a compelling work, even if purely because of how gutsy a record it is... tackling a difficult social issue and showing the extremes for just how ridiculous they are... certainly not an easy task, but a great artistic piece when fully appreciated.
Amazon: Racially Yours
4. Shellac - Excellent Italian Greyhound
Steve Albini's band Shellac is by far one of the most grating, abrasive bands of all time. Buzz saw guitar, combined with bare bones bass and drums and bitingly satirical lyrics makes them so, but it also makes them great. This album, their 2007 release is actually one of their best in my opinion... a tour de force of stark rawness, dynamics, noise and emotion. It isn't mindless rage though, as behind all the angst is actually a lot of intelligence and artistry... signs of a band that can craft some great post punk riffs, right along side 8 minutes of sonic destruction with interwoven patters and jabs of guitar, bass, drums, vocals and silence (it's all about the silence really) called "The End of Radio". Oddly enough I find this album to actually be slightly more lighthearted (as if that's ever the right word to describe Shellac) than their past works. There's just a touch more humor to that biting vocal edge. That might actually make it less of a "difficult album" than others from this band, but calling any album by Shellac anything but a difficult listen is not really doing it justice... nor is it really understanding their genius.
Amazon: Excellent Italian Greyhound
5. Lou Reed - Berlin
Of the 5 albums I picked to focus on for this piece, this one is actually probably the most immediately accessible. In fact, on first listen, compared to some of these other works, it's almost like a regular rock and roll album. It's in the ambition that most casual listeners are sure to get lost. A concept album that is incredibly emotional and thoroughly depressing, it's a rock opera of sorts throughout which Reed weaves a complex story of love, hardship and drug use. I think the same reason most people shy away from this album on first listen is actually the same reason I think it was initially panned by critics... it's simply a matter of not knowing what they're getting into. Like I said, this album could be viewed as simply a straight up rock and roll album, but it's much more than that and deserves to be appreciated as such. The concept and storyline is sound and powerful, and although you could argue that the execution of that concept and the musical arrangement falters at time, it's still and engrossing artistic work... one that might just be a little too intense for listeners not expecting something so deep. Those who allow themselves to be drawn in though are rewarded with a masterpiece. That is why in recent times this album has received a bit more of the recognition it deserves being heralded as not only one of Lou Reed's best, but also one of the greatest albums of all time.
Bonus: The Velvet Underground
No discussion of "difficult albums" really seems complete without mentioning the Velvet Underground. Just about every Velvets album is a bit of a challenge to get through for "initiates", but they're also some of the most rewarding in all of rock history. I didn't want to bump any of these albums for one from the Velvets, nor could I pick any particular one over any others (plus I already had one from Lou Reed), but I still think they are at least worth a mention. I've written more than a few pieces about the Velvets already as is... they're always worth writing about in my opinion, and worth checking out by any rock enthusiast. In fact, I consider my listening to the VU to be one of the reasons I've become so open to letting the rest of these "difficult" ones grow on me over the years, and probably the reason so many of my favorite works are less accessible albums.
More Bonus: Frank Zappa
Just as I don't think this conversation would be complete without the Velvets, I don't think it would be complete without mentioning the colossal catalog of Frank Zappa either. There are far too many great works to choose just one, and nearly all of them tend to scare people off through their sheer innovation whether it's orchestral, satirical or experimental. Frank's music though is the kind of work that can truly change how a person thinks about music and composition though and I highly recommend his work to anyone who's interested and has an open mind.
So there you have it... 5 albums sure to scare more than a few rock enthusiasts. That's ok though. Great art is often times the least accessible without question, so there's nothing wrong with taking a listen to one of these works and being completely turned off by it.
I hope you'll take the time to let them grow on you though because these albums, and many of the "less accessible" albums out there are actually some of the most compelling listening experiences around. They're the kind of music that can make you think, keep you interested, move you emotionally and inspire you artistically everyday for the rest of your life.
Difficult albums may not be the most accessible music around, but they're easily some of the most rewarding.
P.S. If you liked this piece, you might also be interested in a two part piece I wrote a while back on a similar topic:
Rock and Roll Experimentation: 10 of the Strangest Musical Compositions Part 1, The Past
Rock and Roll Experimentation: 10 of the Strangest Musical Compositions Part 2, The Present