The first six months of 2017 witnessed a number of key milestones in the history of popular, rock and roll, music. The albums offer perspectives on the anxieties of the last 50 years which whatever one thinks of the music or the artists remain relevant today.
In 1967, the Velvet Underground released their first album, the Velvet Underground and Nico. Unlike their other albums, their first featured the German model and actress turned-singer, Nico, apparently at the request of Andy Warhol who produced the album. While the album was not an immediate success, today it represents one of the most influential rock albums of all time. It tells the stories of the 1960s New York underground scene in a way that balanced the fleeting glamor against the persistent grime. If you haven’t given it a listen lately, you really should. There is something timeless about this album, but it might have more to do with our persistent nostalgia for the 1960s than anything singular in the album.
In 1987, U2 released The Joshua Tree which I’ve always felt to be the most-U2 of any U2 album. Like the Velvet Underground and Nico the songs on this album still resonate, but the Brian Eno production places it firmly in the 1980s. The sweeping grandeur of the album evokes the natural beauty of Joshua Tree as well as the packed stadium tours which pushed the U2 brand to global heights. The outrageous confluence of the natural and the artificial, sonic-saturation of the album still offers a sly commentary on a globalizing moment when the sincere, the commercial, and the real blurred. If this album is the most-U2, it also speaks to our ongoing realization that the 1980s is a past with particular resonance in our present.
If the 1980s of the Joshua Tree brims with a slightly cynical confidence, then Radiohead‘s 1997 album, Ok Computer expresses the anxieties of the late-20th century. Paranoia, false promises, technology run amok and set against a dystopian future which is abstract, bankrupt, and pointless. The production of the album leaves the listener in abstract space, devoid of comfort and devoid of hope. It’s still a great album.