Nina Simone - Wild Is the Wind (1966), 5/10

Wild Is the Wind is a wildly inconsistent record but when it is great, it is truly remarkable. This irregularity in quality largely stems from the long list of songwriters but also from the scattered source of recordings and Simone’s variation in styles. Unsurprisingly, this is most apparent with Nina Simone’s only compositional contribution to the record “Four Women” that is easily one of her best songs, if not the very best, both from a songwriting and stylistic execution perspective. Contrasted with “Break Down and Let It All Out” which is unremarkable and misguided from the start, this makes the album appear jagged and unpredictable rather than fluid or attractive. There are, however, more good songs than bad, with side one being more irregular than side two, yet the best songs are undoubtedly hosted in the most inconsistent section of the record, never allowing for any true momentum to be constructed. Still, Simone’s single “Four Women” carries enough weight to make the first half memorable and interesting while the second does not have a standout song, apart from perhaps the thematic peak of the title track. The band is equally irregular, sometimes brilliantly matching and accenting Simone’s eccentric vocal qualities and sometimes detracting from the emotive power built by a song. Her style is another aspect of the album that breeds divisiveness, equally through Simone’s discography in general but it is more extreme and apparent here. The aimless and haphazard presentation mixed with a heavy reliance on individual quality to overshadow various grades of songwriting make Wild Is the Wind one of her less appealing major projects.
XTC - Skylarking (1986), 7/10

XTC’s maturity can be heard right away with one of the strongest songs of the album and one of their strongest openers in “Summer’s Cauldron”, followed by eight or so songs that are equally impressive in sound and scope. While things are less consistently outstanding in the second half of the record, stark exceptions being "Mermaid Smiled", “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”, and the emotionally charged philosophical closer included on later releases “Dear God”, the bar had already been set very high and the album as a project is remarkably well executed. The band had reached a peak in songwriting and focused arrangements, a combination that yielded what is perhaps their best effort in the pop realm. There is a relatively clear concept of time and its relationship with nature that comes across through the collection of songs that sometimes diverges but largely remains pleasantly consistent. You can also hear the influence of sixties pop and rock music, particularly in the second half of the album. While the inclusion of “Dear God” in later releases adds to the summative quality of the album, its thematic place among the rest is questionable and arguable as fairly omitted, making its presence ultimately unnecessary but simply another testament to the strength in songwriting from Partridge at this stage in the band’s development at its height. There is not a significant difference in the quality of compositions coming from Partridge and Moulding, respectively, which is a pleasant surprise considering the level that these songs blend and form as a cohesive listening experience. The result is a simply gorgeous pop album that transcends most of what the band had accomplished, at least in recent projects and in a sense of thematic and technical achievement. Where the album excels at its highest peak of achievement, however, is in its deviation from expectations, especially with daring songs like “Mermaid Smiled” or “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”. These stylistic shifts are mostly heard at the end of the record but are also present as background to some of Partridge's more grabbing pop songs. The album as it progresses becomes a narrative exploration and developing adventure in pursuing deeper meaning through many aspects of life and time. This makes Skylarking a clear artistic high point for eighties pop music from XTC.
Yardbirds - Yardbirds [Roger the Engineer] (1966), 4/10

Yardbirds are another blues rock band relying on technical guitar work and thematic gimmicks to prop up otherwise unnecessary and uninteresting re-imagining of the blues. This has been accomplished better before and since, making most of the album drearily mundane despite its inconsistency in quality. That being said, the first two tracks are exceptional and grabbing before the rest of the record starts to drag on. Sections of “Lost Woman” and “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” make at least a passing glance worthwhile before the second half of the record proves itself aimless and impotent. While a track like “Jeff’s Boogie” shows off Jeff Beck’s remarkable individual talent, as a blues song it is inane, especially in its place signaling an immediate downward spiral in quality before the end of the album. The record becomes a mess despite its consistency in aim, becoming a series of questionable twists and turns before it ends with perhaps the weakest track of the bunch in “Ever Since the World Began”. Anyone coming simply to hear great guitar work from Jeff Beck or serious fans of blues rock may find substance amidst an otherwise pointless exercise, but for anyone else this is another generic release. There is simply nothing here to help the band stand out among the already overwhelming crowd of British blues rock, making it far from essential and ultimately a poor effort.
The Stooges - The Stooges (1969), 6/10

The Stooges embodied punk before punk was realized. Not only through the aesthetic and thematic quality of their music, but through sheer personality. The pinnacle of the record, both musically and artistically, is “1969” which blends punkish lyrics and psychedelic proto-punk to form one of the greatest songs of the era. While the rest of the album cannot quite measure up in comparison, the music still dares to explore largely uncovered territory and has some brilliant moments, some theoretically building off of the equally important music from The Doors, but some entirely new. Its classic status derives from two reasons: it provides the foundation for the punk movement and simultaneously achieves a timeless energy and sound, a rare and beautiful combination. While the band’s next two records clearly and definitively outshine their debut, The Stooges has its own place among the greats. The single “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is catchy and interesting, as are “No Fun” and “Little Doll” in particular, yet the songwriting and energy are remarkably consistent, and while neither reach the heights of their later efforts, they outshine practically any simple rock music coming from their contemporaries. The unhinged rock and roll sound paired with unapologetically simple and angry performances separate The Stooges from any other rock act of the sixties with their ability to embody the discontent of the sixties, and now much further beyond its time and place. Of course, Iggy’s vocals are so palpably charismatic that they often chew up the music and spit it out, leaving simple chugging and distorted psychedelia in its wake. The honest garage band aesthetic and quality of this debut provides a brilliantly simple launching point for one of the greatest rock bands to emerge from the sixties and seventies.
John Mayall with Eric Clapton - Blues Breakers (1966), 4/10

The group now featuring Eric Clapton on guitar plays a collection of blues standards and does a decent enough job of covering these tracks with good energy and excellent technical execution. Unfortunately, Mayall’s vocals are incredibly weak compared to the original artists and while Clapton’s performances exhibit solid proficiency, they already foreshadow his inconsistent ability to convey feeling outside of already charged compositions. The simple way to look at it is these songs had been and would be played much better than they are here. Particularly such a strong song such as Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind” is practically botched by Clapton, proving that the project is a misguided attempt at recreating better music. It further proves that technical prowess does not yield artistic merit, especially when it comes to the blues that relies so heavily on genuine emotion through performance, something that artists like Clapton, and many others who bastardized the genre, struggle with consistently. Mayall’s vocals, in comparison, are a matter of taste but rarely provide anything moving, again especially in comparison to some of the source material they use in conjunction with Mayall’s material. So once things get going, the album is just another example of an unnecessary stylistic tangent stemming from an originally pure genre, especially considering its complete lack of vulnerability or originality.
The 13th Floor Elevators - The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators (1966), 4/10

The new psychedelic aesthetic exhibited in The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators provides a necessary shift in the psych rock movement but the murky production, grating sound, and colorless songwriting make it an unremarkable relic only notable for its novelty. This new sound is beaten into the ground and by the end of the record becomes a grinding and discordant image. Regardless, Erickson’s vocals are wonderfully raw and powerful in certain moments like the opener, or “Fire Engine” and the band has great driving energy through the entirety of the record including tasteful guitar soloing and drum breaks. Songs like “Don’t Fall Down” or “Monkey Island”, on the other hand, have little to offer outside of an already worn-out sound and style, even already explored particularities that persist ad nauseum. The “reverberation” that the band chants about and invades the majority of the album is simply irritating and makes already mediocre songs awful. When there is less to grab onto or questionable theatrics such as those found in “Fire Engine” or “Monkey Island” the album is at its worst. When things haven’t quite reached this level of irritation yet and Erickson’s vocals take center stage, examples being the opener “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Roller Coaster”, the album is at its best. The album’s cult classic status is questionable considering its generally irritating sound and largely unremarkable songwriting.
Tim Berne - Fractured Fairy Tales (1989), 8/10

One of the most uniquely engaging instances of modern avant-garde jazz, Tim Berne’s Fractured Fairy Tales combines a unique palette of instrumentation with offbeat compositions and free improvisation all while presenting a remarkably sympathetic set of songs. The opener “Now Then” is nothing short of electric and entirely stimulating, while “SEP” dares to experiment with space and dynamics outside of the initially appealing assortment of sounds. Berne’s personality can be heard through his saxophone but more clearly and perhaps more importantly through these rapidly evolving compositions that quickly jump from idea to idea, compiling a rapid-fire collection of intriguing notions one after another. This is explicit and definite in “Hong Kong Sad Song : More Coffee” where you can hear and feel the shifts between precision and untethered improvisation. Mark Feldman’s violin and Hank Roberts’ cello add substantial depth and intensity to a song like this third track where percussion and horns typically reign supreme, and sometimes still do. The vocals during “Evolution of a Pearl” are wonderfully unsettling while also presenting as whimsical, intertwined with the instrumentation in an eerie blending of sound that covers an impressive amount of musical and dynamic ground. The result is an uncommonly visual soundscape that, again, dares to go places most modern jazz either refuses to or is incapable of. The closer “The Telex Blues” extends the already existing tropes a bit further while leaning into its influences, making it a thematically sound closer notable for Baron’s CZ-101 synth. Herb Robertson’s credit as performing the laryngeal crowbar is a nice touch. An exemplary instance of modern jazz that excels in all aspects of composition and performance while displaying a refreshingly eccentric personality from Tim Berne.
Simon and Garfunkel - Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966), 4/10

Simon and Garfunkel produced plenty of good music. They also produced a substantial number of poorly written and arranged songs, several of which are on this overly acclaimed album. The obviously well written and executed songs such as “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”, “Homeward Bound”, and “The 59th Street Bridge Song” are surrounded by awful songs such as “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” or the two closing tracks, the final track hardly providing anything artistically interesting. There is also a significant amount of unnecessarily indulgent pretentiousness in the lyrics of “The Dangling Conversation” or the goofy but unsuccessful Bob Dylan pastiche “A Simple Desultory Philippic”. Perhaps the melodramatic arrangements were and continue to be appealing to the masses, but their lack of musically interesting or meaningfully introspective lyrics becomes more and more disappointing as the record continues to offer hardly anything outside of a few pop hits, though these hits are outstanding in their quality of composition and musicianship. The duo recorded better albums and there would be a serious improvement in folk music after this stage in its development, yet the material they satirize is ironically far more interesting and better arranged than anything these two could offer. Art Garfunkel puts his personality fully on display, an unapologetic but very subjectively questionable artistic choice that makes this album surprisingly divisive. Paul Simon’s approach to songwriting is simultaneously solid at times and downright inane or senseless at others, making the album experience jagged and inconsistent at best.