18. Les Rallizes Dénudés, “People Can Choose / Field of Artificial Flowers*,” Heavier Than A Death In The Family, Phoenix, 1977?, Japan
Two truths: loaded and overloaded. Setting off an avalanche with fists, where each snowflake is a microwave at full popcorn with the door smacking open and shut, where the ski lift is tipping into an event horizon, where your limbs are cybernetic cobras squealing cytotoxic squeals to rip the faces off the Lords Of Bullshit, who gradually accrue wealth at the expense of nature.
This 1977ish Rallizes Dénudés recording of “Field of Artificial Flowers,” here incorrectly identified as “People Can Choose” by pirate operation Phoenix Records, is a magnetic field of aesthetic rock. As dead nihilistic as their music appears at first glance, “People Can Choose” pierces through that nihilism to be living, physical music. From the ash of rejected mythology comes a radical music of objective sensory experience. The first minute and forty-five seconds are anthemic, staring down a hurricane with leather pants on Fucking Rock. Then electric noise ejaculating out of a looping anti-structure. If The Velvet’s White Light, White Heat was a predecessor, “People Can Choose” makes “Sister Ray” sound like Peter, Paul and Mary.
Like most Rallizes Dénudés recordings, “People Can Choose” is unsettlingly effortless. Look up a video of them creating a demonstorm of downer rock and the band appears almost casual, like they’ve given themselves over to the inevitability of the self-perpetuating feedback squall they initiated. Time is distorted; bars, phrases, or the entire song feel as if they occur over the same time. The chug keeps some sense of wheels-spinning progress, but it’s only end is for us to be subsumed by the music for the duration of the recording. The console is so overloaded that the instruments fry into an indiscernible smog of bassy distortion. “People Can Choose” is maximalist and minimalist. It goes nowhere and everywhere. It is the sound of heaven and the sound of hell. It is live music, as bandleader Takashi Mitzutani was never satisfied with sporadic studio efforts to release the recordings. This recording feels unique each time I listen to it.
The story of Takashi Mitzutani’s Les Rallizes Dénudés is all ghosts and folk tales. See this Grayson Haver Currin article for something approximating a history through an account of his attempts to contact Mitzutani in the 2010s. With scant biographical information, It is a stretch to enter a political reading of “People Can Choose” here, but if pressed, I would argue that Mitzutani saw meaninglessness in available social expressions. He responded with a music that engages the physical senses and that defies structural reduction.
Side AA: Tal National, “Say Wata Gaya”
17. T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, “Mi Ve Wa Se,” 7″ single / Echoes Hypnotiques…, Albarika Store / Analog Africa, mid-70s, Benin
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou have been one of the best bands on Earth for the last half-century. Their Vodoun informed, poly-rythmic funk is distinct, served with the twitch of a garage band and the sophistication of a soukous big band. That resplendent, gold mixtape launched into the heart of Alpha Centauri by renowned NASA ethnomusicologist, Carl Sagan, should have been all Orchestre Poly-Rythmo cuts, no fucking around. We’re trying to get floored with advanced spacefarers, right? Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is the only band featured on this list from whom I considered multiple recordings*, because many of their recordings are similarly conceived and consistently devastating. Cranking funk plus virtuoso Afrobeat plus Vodoun ritual rhythm equals an unstoppable, TransAtlantic heartbeat. “Mi Ve Wa Se” is the selection among equally deserving cuts, because rhythmic layers are easier to distinguish.
The song form is a short intro, followed by a groove pattern over which bookending verses, a guitar solo and an organ solo are featured. Each instrument in “Mi Ve Wa Se” – drum kit, congos, percussion, bass, two guitars, blitzed Italorgan – is locked on to the groove, and there is no gradual buildup. The song is full tilt from the moment Eskill Lohento punctuates the intro, “HO!” Longer guitar phrases offset the two note bass line (which may be doubled by the organ). The kit is played with the impossible, multi-limbed timing of Afrobeat originator, Tony Allen. Of the songs on this list, “Mi Ve Wa Se” features by far the best drum performance. The repetition of the patterns reveals the blooming depth of the ensemble rhythm.
Their recordings have been called “lo-fi,” but this isn’t appropriate to “Mi Ve Wa Se,” nor would it be for their Albarika Store recordings. They are densely mixed, but with careful attention to space and application of reverb on the treble voices to separate them from the groundswell of bass and percussion. As a sampling beatmaker, the drum kit here is how I envision my drum samples to sound.
*Hawk-eyed readers will know that I considered two Dick Dale recordings. “Hava Nagila” and “Miserlou” are the same formula. Doesn’t count.
Side AA: Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, “Iya Me Dji Ki Bi Ni”
16. Andy Irvine and Paul Brady, “Mary and the Soldier,” s/t, Mulligan, 1976, Ireland
Andy Irvine and Paul Brady’s self-titled, 1976 album is a touchstone of Irish folk. It is the most intimate and focused of the Planxty and Bothy-adjacent projects. (Dónal Lunny and Kevin Burke support throughout.) It’s recurring theme is the exploits and shenanigans of Irish soldiers, with a historical background of Irish impressment into the British military, and the ruptured families and national identity, and geographical displacement that resulted. Ireland has been variously subjected to British rule and exploitation for much of the last millenium. The British Royal Navy recruited heavily from Ireland, including bouts of forced conscription, in times of war. If the military glory went to the British empire, Irvine and Brady have assembled a collection of songs to enshrine the human glory of the Irish soldiers forced to fight. This theme is expounded directly in half of the songs, including the ruthlessly carefree murder of a recruiting British officer on Christmas morning in “Arthur McBride and the Sergeant.” “Mary and the Soldier” inverts the tragedy of a family ruptured by conscription and war, as Mary convinces the soldier to marry her and allow her to journey with him to battle. A farfetched scenario, perhaps, but nevertheless boldly symbolic.
Brady’s measured, well rehearsed, performance of the song is masterful. His hybrid, finger and flat-picked guitar accompaniment is far more difficult than it may seem. Irvine and Lunny’s mandolin and bouzouki rise to join Brady’s guitar in the second and third verses like voices in a tavern Bolero. The verses are interrupted, the gallantry of the soldier trumpeted, by an instrumental section in which Irvine’s harmonica is twinned with Burke’s fiddle. Brady’s timing, and the nuances in the arrangement, squeeze every bit of music out of a simple song with a verse-verse-verse structure.
Along with the studio recording, I’ve included a video of Brady, Irvine and Lunny performing “Mary and the Soldier” in Tallaght in 1976. Brady’s introduction to the song does not do justice to the depth of the material, nor to their subsequent performance.
Side AA: Herb Johnson, “War”
15. Los Jharis De Ñaña, “Mi Nuevo Amor,” Los Creadores del Sonido de la Carretera Central, Masstropicas, late 1980s?, Peru
Before I delve into why “Mi Nuevo Amor” is the fifteenth best song ever recorded, allow me to provide a rundown of Peruvian chicha, underscoring the confluence of cultures that I’ve found flowing through many songs on this list. Peruvian chicha is cumbia rhythm, performed most frequently with guitars as the lead instrumental voice and electric keyboards as a supporting voice. Chicha guitar has a prominent strain of Ventures instrumental rock in it. Electric bass, congas, timbales, cowbell and güiro are all common in the rhythm section, with Cuban and Colombian influences. Chicha also has local influences derived from Andean huayno, and parallel development of the two popular genres has generated mutual exchange. Emcee-like shoutouts to soloists, patrons and hometowns (“arriba las botellas”) are common in both genres. So too are melodramatic lyrics of drowning lost love and domestic misery in cold beer. The predominant guitar tone in chicha guitar since the late 70s, digital clean with gratuitous delay and reverb, is not dissimilar to the tone of the arpa peruana on popular huayno records.
Chicha is the Amazon, it is Lima, it is the Andes, it is Latin America and the towns along the Carretera Central. It is ayahuasca and a bottle of beer (or a glass of chicha). It is bonked psychedelia and everyman radio pop. It is the dream of outer space and the band that plays your uncle’s sixtieth birthday party. The recordings collected by Masstropicas for this micro anthology are Jharis favorites still performed today. They were initially released on cassette, and sound as if remastered from cassette.
Los Jharis (jhari is quechua for men, guys) sit at that precarious apex of analog and digital, where the proliferation of cheap reverb and Casio horn ensemble tones could make an instant relic of the recording, except that these songs never tip over that edge, remaining vitally un-square. Where musicians are still squeezing every human emotion from their novel technology. Where their digital technology hasn’t yet learned to prioritize its own replication. Perhaps Los Jharis accidentally achieved the perfect balance of acoustic percussion and eighth inch tape flutter, the physical snap of the pick attack on Teo Laura’s guitar and the imaginary number echosphere within which Pascualillo’s voice careens. Maybe, thirty years of evolution and a liver full of microplastics later, I hear a point of genesis in these recordings from the late 1980s.
There are several recordings, both live and studio, available of Los Jharis playing “Mi Neuvo Amor.” The one collected by Masstropicas is the masterpiece. The recording begins with a nearly fifty second intro, more than a quarter of the song. The cavalry call of the first few bars is followed by a churning, carousel percussion break before the guitar snaps into the arpeggiation that serves as the main riff. Pascualillo puts everything on the line with his band introduction: “Después de tanto sufrimiento, de tantas envidias, aquí estamos. ¡Los Jharis de Ñaña!” (After so much suffering, so much jealousy, we’re still here.) The guitar is thickened by a synthesizer and a second, wah’d guitar. Then the melody. The stone simple melody that rings in my brain for days, and has me scrunching my face, posturing like I’m striving for video of the week on MTV. How could you not be swept away by the drama in “Mi Nuevo Amor?” Maybe this is how people feel when they throw themselves into a Taylor Swift hook. I don’t know, but if Pascualillo can find love, so can all of us.
Side AA: Wimeanacas Cambodian Band, “Rose Bud”
14. Jimi Hendrix & Band of Gypsys, “Machine Gun (1/1/70),” Live At The Fillmore East, Experience Hendrix, 1970, USA
There are two epochs of music history: before Hendrix and after Hendrix. Electricity had been introduced into music many years earlier – to generate sound, record sound, amplify sound – but only since Jimi has electricity sang. Electricity may have already been our second brain, our fifth limb, our third eye by 1965, but Hendrix gave it a voice, connected it directly to his soul.
“Machine Gun” is a reworking of “Here My Train A Comin’,” an earlier Experience song. The descending riff, vocal descant over the solo, explosion of previously unfathomable guitar ideas after paced, tension building verses are all present. Gone is the last train to freedom theme. Gone is the cocky, dust myself off, not exactly gospel humor. Here, a few more years into the Vietnam War, we have images of “natural born” farmers resisting the destruction of their families by mechanized warfare. Buddy Miles’ .30 caliber drum fill between the sinister, walking bassline hammers home the threat of violence. The violence isn’t from us or for us. It is systematic.
The introduction of the guitar solo, a rising inversion of the previous riff doubled by Billy Cox’s bass is titanic, Balrogian, like an ancient, thirty-story beast leaning back to spew lava over helpless mankind. Hendrix goes full-Guernica over the ensuing solo. I cannot write about his playing analytically. I’d prefer to leave your own creative mind open to what images may come. Jimi’s invention defies words like melody in their inability to describe the anguish and destruction screaming from his Marshalls. Listen and experience. After the solo, the band returns to the descending riff, and we find ourselves in the desolation after the battle. Hendrix ends the song with a quote of “Taps.”
There are many excellent versions of “Machine Gun.” The performance at the Fillmore East from the night before and a performance in Copenhagen nine months later should be sought out. Cox, Miles, and particularly Hendrix waste no notes on the 1/1/70 recording. Unfortunately, I can’t find a stream of the 1970 recording and I don’t want to run afoul of goddamn UMG yet again, so I’ve linked my second favorite recording, the aforementioned Copenhagen one, made two weeks before Jimi’s death. The recording I’ve written about, first Fillmore East show, January 1, 1970, can be found on both Live At The Fillmore East and Voodoo Child, The Jimi Hendrix Collection.
Side AA: Pharoah Sanders, “Black Unity”