Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Five Most Underrated Alice In Chains Songs with Layne Staley

Alice in Chains have produced a stellar catalogue of albums and amazing songs over their career. Hardcore Alice in Chains fan no doubt love these five most underrated tracks with the late, great Layne Staley, but newer Chains fans should definitely check them out to get a feel for some of the songs that don't get all the glory, yet are still powerful examples of the band's finest work.

"Real Thing" from Facelift

One of the most pro drug songs off Alice in Chains' debut album, "Real Thing" was written by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell and, lyrically, it details a love for drugs, presumably cocaine here (at the time of writing and recording Facelift, he claims he wasn't a heroin user). The chorus is typically good Chains with a swinging Cantrell riff carrying it along. It might be the last track on Facelift, but "Real Thing" is one of the most underrated AIC songs.

"Rain When I Die" from Dirt

"Rain When I Die" is an exemplary song from Dirt: A slow, grinding track that's both ominous, freaky and depressingly beautiful all at the same time. Staley wrote the lyrics, while Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr contributed the music. It's certainly got a grunge feel to it with its slow, plodding pace and wah wah parts. Kinney and Starr give "Rain When I Die" an amazing groove. While a pretty depressing song lyrically (it's also one of the most ambiguous tracks in terms of the words), the chorus is amazingly powerful with Staley's vocals right on point.

"What the Hell Have I" from Last Action Hero Soundtrack

Seems strange to have an Alice in Chains song on the soundtrack for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but that's where "What the Hell Have I" ended up, after not making onto the Dirt album. The verses have an Eastern feel to them with Staley and Cantrell both handling vocals, but the chorus is pure, powerful Chains at their best with amazing harmonies and a heavy riff. Check out the Toby Wright remixed version on Music Bank as it sounds better than the soundtrack version.

"Over Now" from Alice in Chains

This song became a bit of a hit after the Unplugged album, but when Alice in Chains was released in November 1995, this track stood out because it was the last on the album that happened to be their final studio record with Layne Staley. Fans at the time knew AIC was on their last legs because of Staley's overwhelming heroin addiction. They'd cancelled tours and took a hiatus as Staley tried to get clean. During that time he recorded the Mad Season Above album before, rejoining Chains in the spring of 1995. Written mostly by Cantrell with help from Sean Kinney, "Over Now" is essentially about the end of the band. The verses are sung by Cantrell, with Staley helping out on the chorus, where there's a melancholy guitar lead behind the vocals, as if Cantrell knew this was over. But the real sadness comes out of Cantrell's guitar at the end in the form of a long emotive solo. The final note stretches on for 15 seconds, as if Cantrell doesn't want it to end. It's very poignant.

"Junkhead" from Dirt

If one song could sum up the Dirt album, it would be "Junkhead". It's heavy, ominous, boasts amazing harmonies on the chorus, and probably features the most pro-drug lyrics on the entire record. Written by Staley and Cantrell, the opening and verse riffs are dark and heavy with a Black Sabbath feel, then it changes and almost turns to happy, sunshine for the chorus as Staley and Cantrell sing out "What's my drug of choice? Well, what have you got? I don't go broke, but I do it a lot." Now, Junkhead isn't one of the best songs off Dirt, but it's definitely an underrated Alice in Chains song.

See how Alice in Chains recorded their amazing Dirt album and what Layne Staley kept in the vocal booth

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Pink Floyd's The Final Cut: One of their Best Albums

Look around the internet for what people think are Pink Floyd's best albums, and The Final Cut usually rates as one of the worst, at least of those from the Roger Waters era.

It's too bad because The Final Cut is a lyrical masterpiece from Waters showcasing his true genius, and should get far more praise from Floyd fans than it does.

Released in 1983, it's a concept album decrying war and mocking the world leaders who make war. Originally intended as a soundtrack to The Wall movie, Waters quickly changed the album's direction after the Falkland Islands war began in April 1982. The war was a brief battle between Britain and Argentina, which had invaded the Falkland Islands (a British colony), prompting the British to retaliate and take them back.

For Waters this was a crazy move, after all his dad had died in Italy fighting for Britain in World War 2, and the idea that the British would go to war again after the horrors of the Second World War was ludicrous to him, especially over a couple of tiny, British held, islands. So he was prompted to change direction, and turn The Final Cut into a stand alone album.

What makes the album so good is Waters' emotion and bitterness. The songs are great, but he takes them to another level with all the emotion he puts into every song whether it's anger, outrage or heartfelt sadness.

The record opens with "The Post-War Dream" (questioning the British economy and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's move to attack Argentina). The song starts with the sound of a car radio tuning to a station, much like the final song on the album, "Two Suns in the Sunset", which also features a car driving down the road, so the album starts where it ends. Waters lyrics on that last track take thoughts of warfare from conventional to nuclear in a stunning first-person narrative of anger and despair, that really kicks in heavy at the 2:17 mark as a nuclear bomb explodes.

A 2004 re-release of The Final Cut includes "When the Tigers Broke Free" as track No. 4. The song first appeared on the Wall movie, and describes in detail how Waters' father, Eric Fletcher Waters, died under fire from the German army holding the Anzio bridgehead in Italy in 1944 (Eric Waters died in a town called Aprilla, some 10 km from Anzio when his company was surrounded by German forces). In the song, you can hear the venom in Waters' voice in when he sings "And that's how the High Command took my daddy from me." It's that bitterness, that raw emotion that really makes The Final Cut the stellar album it really is. And when you know the history of Waters' father and Waters feelings about his death, The Final Cut is made that much more poignant.

Standout Songs on The Final Cut

Waters pays further homage to his late father in the amazing "Fletcher Memorial Home", which takes its title from his dad's name. It's a mellow song ridiculing some key world leaders like Ronald Reagan, Thatcher, Richard Nixon, Leonid Brezhnev, Ian Paisley and Joseph McCarthy. Waters paints them as "Colonial wasters of life and limb" who should be sent to a retirement home with a group of "anonymous Latin American meat-packing glitterati" where they can act like children and abuse themselves. The track features a standout, piercing David Gilmour guitar solo (it wasn't just a Waters solo album). And never one to mince words, Waters concludes the song by saying "the final solution can be applied" to these out of touch world leaders.

Another standout track is "Not Now John" with David Gilmour handling lead vocals, even though Waters wrote it and does some vocal work on the song. It's easily the most hard rocking track on the record with a heavy guitar riff and a thumping drum beat. "Not Now John" examines the global policy at the time and harkens to people only caring about trivial things "Who cares what it's about as long as the kids go". The final part of the song is sung by Waters who mocks global and British foreign policy and how "We showed Argentina, now let's go and show these. Makes us feel tough and wouldn't Maggie be pleased." Then he's heard wailing "Oh Britannia, Britannia" but mocking the British Empire with his tone.

The album's title track is a leftover from The Wall sessions, and while it's a great song, the theme of isolation and suicide doesn't quite fit the war and economic elements of the album. It fits much better into The Wall, although the sound and Waters' impressive effort on vocals, fits right into The Final Cut.

Final Cut is not a Waters Solo Album

Many decry the album as a Roger Waters solo effort, which just isn't the case. Sure Waters and Gilmour were fighting and had essentially split, but Gilmour still plays some phenomenal guitar on the record and drummer Nick Mason is steady as always. Only keyboardist Richard Wright was missing after getting booted from the band during sessions for The Wall. Yes, Waters wrote all the songs on Cut, but that was nothing new for Pink Floyd since the Animals record as he took over more and more writing duties because Gilmour and Wright didn't bring much to the table. Since Wish You Were Here, Gilmour only wrote "Dogs", and co-wrote on three Wall tracks ("Young Lust", "Comfortably Numb" and "Run Like Hell"). So The Final Cut is no more of a Waters solo album than any of those previous Pink Floyd releases.

If you have written off The Final Cut - Pink Floyd's last great album - as not being worth listening to, check it out again. It's actually a very strong Floyd record and sounds amazing the morning after a night of very heavy drinking.

Read how Pink Floyd chose the songs for The Wall and how a Canadian had a huge impact on that record

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Greatest Rock Power Ballads of All Time

There have been so many ballads and power ballads written since the 1970s. Many of them get boring over the years, but these five are the best power ballads that stand the test of time, plus an unheralded track from Canadian Devin Townsend.

Bed of Roses - Bon Jovi

A stellar track off Bon Jovi's 1992 Keep The Faith album, which was produced by Canadian Bob Rock. "Bed of Roses", - written by Jon Bon Jovi about life on the road and the struggle of maintaining a relationship while dealing with travel and temptation - was the second single off the record. Along with an amazing chorus, it boasts a great guitar solo and some stellar fret work from Richie Sambora, who also takes the choruses to new heights with his background vocals. Interestingly, Bon Jovi was actually hung over when he penned the track, giving the song a nice ring of truth to the lyrics (although "I wake up and French kiss the morning" is uber cheesey.

Still Loving You - Scorpions

The second single off the Scorpions' mega-selling 1984 Love at First Sting album, this is a power ballad that doesn't get the credit it deserves. It went to No. 64 on the Billboard Charts, but is among the best ballads ever penned. Written about trying to win back someone's love even though that person doesn't have the feeling anymore. The format of "Still Loving You" is interesting since it doesn't feature a typical chorus, and what is the chorus doesn't come till the latter part of the song, which is an amazing crescendo starting at the 4:40 mark featuring some wicked-feel guitar licks courtesy of Rudolf Schenker, the Scorps rhythm guitarist, that take the track to another level even as the song fades out.

Open Arms - Journey

"Open Arms" easily has stood the test of time as one of the greatest power ballads of all time. It went to No. 2 upon its release in 1982 in support of the Escape album, taking Journey to new heights. It's a traditional ballad with Steve Perry's vocals opening the song over a piano line. Then it kicks into the phenomenal chorus everyone knows and loves. At 3:18, it was the perfect length for mega-radio airplay and stands out as a high school dance classic. It was also used in the cult movie "Heavy Metal".

Dream On - Aerosmith

Aerosmith's first big hit, "Dream On" is both a brooding and uplifting track written by Steven Tyler. With lyrics about living for today and making your dreams come true, the chorus is timelessly uplifting. Guitarist Joe Perry wasn't a fan of the track at first, but later said he came to embrace the song. While being a ballad, "Dream On" still showcases that Tyler trademark screaming at the end. While released in 1973 on their self-title debut, the song didn't become a hit until late 1975/early 1976 and basically saved the band from getting booted off their Columbia record label.

Home Sweet Home - Motley Crue

While Motley Crue's Theatre of Pain wasn't their one of their best records, it gave us "Home Sweet Home", featuring a beautiful piano part written by drummer Tommy Lee. Aside from the amazing verses, "Home Sweet Home's" guitar solo is by Mick Mars is a work of art. It's one of those solos that carries the song to it's peak. "Home Sweet Home" went to No. 98 on Billboard, and was even covered by country crooner Carrie Underwood for a 2009 single. The Crue ended their touring career with a final show at Los Angeles' Staples Centre, and naturally ended it all with "Home Sweet Home".

Bonus Power Ballad Many Haven't Heard: Hold On by Devin Townsend

"Hold On" showed up on the Devin Townsend Project's Epicloud record, released in 2012. This indie-metal Canadian maestro has released some of the heaviest records (esp. under Strapping Young Lad), but Townsend has a penchant for writing melodic ballads as well, and "Hold On" is a standout. The track opens with an eerie feeling as Townsend sings over an acoustic guitar, then it jumps into the epic, bombastic chorus that is mindblowing with Anneke van Giersbergen's high backing vocals carrying the song to another level as it chugs along.

Check out 5 of the saddest songs of all time

Friday, August 12, 2016

Why Exile On Main St. is the Rolling Stones' Best Album

Many fans argue over which is the best Rolling Stones record. Well, it's Exile on Main St.

Granted the production is murky and dark with many vocal tracks buried low in the mix, and there are arguably better songs on other Stones' albums, but Exile has a certain je ne sais quoi to it.

Exile is the final of the Stones' four acknowledged greatest albums (Beggar's Banquet, Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers being the other three).

Released on May 12 back in 1972 (and mostly recorded in 1971), the epic double album was primarily recorded at a villa called Nellcôte in the south of France using the legendary Rolling Stones Mobile Recording Studio (Exile was finished at Sunset Studios in LA), and the location, along Mediterranean coast, probably helped create the loose, carefree vibe exuded in the 18 songs that comprise the record - that along with lots and lots of drugs - heroin and cocaine to be more specific.

The unmistakable, but hard to describe vibe on Exile kicks off instantly - two seconds into the leadoff track "Rocks Off" - when a voice (sounds like Keith Richards) happily goes "Oh yeaaaaaah" and from there Exile on Main St. takes off on a roller coaster of rock, country, blues and gospel - all the elements that made the Stones one of the best bands in the world.

What also helps create that vibe or tone are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards' vocal harmonies on most of the songs, and often during the verses, which was unusual for the band up until then, when most harmonies would come only in the chorus. And it's those harmonies - Jagger belting it out in his shouty vocal style and Keith's nasal, high-pitched whine - that carry the songs into that "we don't give a fuck, we're having all kinds of fun" space. "Rock Off", "Torn & Frayed" and "Loving Cup" are standout examples of the Jagger/Richards harmonizing, and those three are among the best songs on the album.

No doubt the Stones were enjoying themselves during the recording: Gambling in French Casinos, touring around Saint Tropez on yachts while ingesting a steady amount of drugs brought by dealers to Nellcote. Richards' dealer would hand deliver high-grade heroin to Nellcôte and, at that time, Richards was peaking as a songwriter. But his smack habit began to take over more and more following the Exile tour, and the recording of it's follow up, Goat's Head Soup, which led to Jagger taking more control of the band, but that's another story.

Another standout track that defines the album is "Tumbling Dice", an ode to gambling that showcases the easy-going swagger the Stones were feeling as they were indeed tumbling dice, not caring where they land. They were merely making music while enjoying the rock and roll lifestyle.

Stones Were Peaking During Exile

And if Richards was at his peak, so was the band.

Exile on Main St marked the last truly great album from the Rolling Stones, and it's certainly a culmination of them coming together and leaving nothing on the table.

If you take a bell curve of the Stones body of work, the peak came with Exile and things were never quite as good after that.

Even Jimmy Miller, who produced the four best Stones records, was dabbling in drugs and, while he knew recording in the Nellcôte basement made for a bad sound, nobody cared and neither did he, probably in part due to his heroin indulgence.

But that muddy sound and "who cares" attitude is part of what makes Exile so great - it's inherent rawness, clearly seen on "Sweet Virginia" where the chorus sounds like a bunch of drunk partiers belting it out and not caring in the least how it sounded. That's part of the album's je ne sais quoi as well.

Some of the Stones' most underrated songs are lurking on Exile including "Ventilator Blues" a grinding blues track featuring some heavy guitar and growling Jagger vocals.

Certainly Exile isn't as polished and clean sounding as its predecessor Sticky Fingers - an amazing album itself - but the whole process of recording and living like they were on holiday in France, away from Olympic Studios in London, produced an album for the Stones that stands alone - in the best way possible - from any other records they made.

It's the vibe. The soul. The feel that comes across the record.

Some will argue against it, but Exile On Main St. is the best album by the Rolling Stones.

Check out producer Jimmy Miller's impact on the Stones