Let’s wish a Happy Birthday to a man who put his own stamp on Americana, and did so under a number of different monikers. Will Oldham a/k/a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, has recorded as Palace Brothers, Palace Songs and Palace Music. He’s even recorded under his own name. Along with kindred spirits like Bill (Smog) Callahan, Oldham has led a sort of anti-folk movement, with recordings that make him sometimes sound like an old man. In addition to his recorded work, he’s made well-received forays into film acting. Let’s salute Bonnie Will by grabbing your iPod or MP3 player, hitting shuffle, and sharing the first 10 songs that come up.
The Bongos — Three Wise Men (Drums Along The Hudson): An appropriate start on a Christmas weekend. But this percussive pop song has nothing to do wit the tale of baby Jesus. Instead, it’s a hyper tune that actually shares a bit in common with the early work of The Feelies. The drums and the strumming guitar dominate the proceedings on this cool tune.
Yello — Desert Inn (Stella): One thing that made Yello stand out from many of their synth rock brethern was their use of guitar and drums on a lot of their songs. Here, it’s a cool stuttering guitar part mixed with prominent electronic percussion and some great atmospheric synths. Stella might have been Yello’s best album in terms of having a cinematic quality on almost every song. This tune goes in a few different directions, in a cohesive manner, in just a few minutes. And it has some real catchy parts.
Danny Wilson — Charlie Boy (Be Bop Moptop): In the late ’80s, there was a small explosion of sophisticated UK pop groups. Some were teeth grindingly annoying (like Johnny Hates Jazz and Curiosity Killed the Cat), while there were others, like Swing Out Sister, Deacon Blue and Danny Wilson who did themselves proud. Danny Wilson sounds at times like a cross between Divine Comedy and Steely Dan. Some of their songs aren’t really hooky, but sound great nonetheless, like this one.
The Insomniacs — Maryanne Lightly (Switched Out): A garage rock band with a strong mod influence (their logo is a heart shaped variation on the classic mod target), The Insomniacs cranked out consistently good albums for a few years. This song has a great fuzz guitar part and would make any freakbeat fan freak, with its strong drumming and deceptively sturdy melody lines.
Ramones — Ramona (Rocket To Russia): It didn’t take to long for Ramones to wax some tunes that were not even slightly punk and simply showed what a fantastic pop group they were. Moreover, songs such as this one are pretty much homages to the classic girl group sound. Some Pipettes type group should cover this tune.
Roxy Music — Out Of The Blue (Country Life): The evolution of Roxy Music from a hyper glammy/Velvet Underground inspired band to the lush lounge lizards that gave the world the make out classic Avalon is fascinating. Country Life is a key step in that journey, primarily because of epic songs like this one. This song is so swirling and beautiful with a palpable sense of drama. And Bryan Ferry milks it for all its worth. As with Yello, this has cinematic flair.
House Of Freaks — King Of Kings (Tantilla): This Virginia band may have been the first guitar/drums duo that I was aware of, a decade or so before The White Stripes and so many others. Bryan Harvey wrote urgent folk rock songs and drummer Johnny Hott lived up to his name, matching Harvey’s intensity at every turn. This song is pretty urgent from the get go, but really builds up in the chorus. Underrated band.
Shudder To Think — Trackstar (Pony Express Record): Shudder To Think is the rare band that got a major label deal and then made a record that was even more inaccessible than the indie releases that proceeded it. On this album, Nathan Larsen made his presence felt, pushing the odd tempoes and dissonant chords, finding places where melodies could bloom and riffs could rock along the way. This provides a great showcase for the vocal acrobatics of Craig Wedren. This is a moody number with a jazzy feel that eventually devolves into something more grinding and menacing.
Nothing Painted Blue — Career Day (Placeholders): A nice jangly mid-tempo tune from this California band noted for Franklin Bruno’s clever lyrics. Bruno has a distinct, albeit limited, voice and he always did a good job finding musical settings that didn’t highlight his weaknesses. Something about this song has a bit of an Elvis Costello feel, but a bit more relaxed.
Jimmy Cliff — The Harder They Come (The Harder They Come): The soundtrack to The Harder They Come is an essential reggae album, and the title song, from the star of the movie is a sunny yet defiant anthem. This is a stone cold classic and there isn’t much more to say about it.