Home Read Features Area Resident’s Stylus Counsel | Can’t Go Wrong

Area Resident’s Stylus Counsel | Can’t Go Wrong

Track 173 | We all have to start somewhere — even with great bands.

Last year I reached out to my social media friends for help filling a gap in my record collection. I didn’t own any Sun Ra albums, and had no idea where to start. I got some good advice, which was to first figure out which phase of his career I was most likely to be into. Some of it is rather traditional jazz, but most is of varying degrees of experimental.

Like most people who are keen to fill a hole in their collection, I was hoping to pick his “best” album — one with a high probability of replay. In this case, it should be a record which won’t clear the room and sounds equally great as the centre of attention or a pleasant backdrop. It also shouldn’t be stupid-expensive, and I don’t normally buy compilations except as a completist (hello, Pink Floyd Works). I settled on his 1962 album The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, because it’s accessible but not abnormally so. It also was highly rated.

This kind of stuff can be hit and miss, obviously — and that’s part of the fun. The nice thing about records is, it’s not like buying a burger. If it turns out to be awful, you can just resell it. Albums are kind of like silver bullion — they keep their value. But perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones who is seeking to fill a gap in your collection with a can’t-go-wrong band or musician. In my opinion, there are some artists who never made a bad record. Sure, that doesn’t always mean any record in their discography would be a good place to start but it does mean you probably won’t hate it.

So, who are these unicorn bands? You probably already know two of them — The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Yeah, even In Through The Out Door (1979) is a great record. I wouldn’t start there, of course — with them you start with the debut and work your way through. When my friends and I were in Grade 8, we made a decision to avoid Physical Graffiti (1975). We knew it was special, and wanted to have something to look forward to. We saved it, like an unopened bottle of really good wine. This was 1988, so it’s not like Zep were going to be making any new records. When I finally did get the album, there actually was a pang of sadness when the last notes of Sick Again faded away. Kind of like Christmas morning after all the gifts are opened. In reality, that’s also when this happened — I got the album from Santa.

So, who else is a no-brainer? Here’s the rules: They need to have made at least four records. (Sorry, Joy Division, Nick Drake, Big Star, Alabama Shakes and Alvvays). Those records don’t have to all be awesome — there just can’t be any that suck. Here, then, is a list of what I consider to be bands who made no bad albums, and the one you should buy first. This isn’t meant to be a complete list, but it’s a good one.

Talk Talk | The late Mark Hollis’s band got better and better with each record, and less and less commercial… and less and less of a band. Spirit Of Eden (1988) is my favourite, but I’d suggest buying The Colour Of Spring (1986) first.

Tame Impala | I actually suggest starting with Kevin Parker’s sophomore album — and breakthrough — 2012’s Lonerism. It was the first one I heard, thanks to the track Elephant.

The Roots | They literally do no wrong, even as the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. I’d start with their sophomore album as well — 1995’s Do You Want More ?!!!??!

El Michels Affair | Jazzier and more soulful than The Roots, Leon Michels’ hip-hop group also features analog sound. It is ingeniously realized music and shockingly consistent. That said, start with 2021’s Yeti Season.

Jim Bryson | Ottawa singer-songwriter-producer whose cool, intimate style taps into your consciousness via clever hooks and magnetic and endearing melodies. He’s also a brilliant multi-instrumentalist who seems to see us all coming from a mile off. Get 2016’s Somewhere We Will Find Our Place first.

Death Cab For Cutie | You have to get 2003’s Transatlanticism first, but all their records are good — some are exquisite. The kings of emo because they’re not a bunch of vain sad sacks.

Fleetwood Mac | Through three distinct eras, Fleetwood Mac just kept making really good albums. The blues beginnings featuring band co-founder, the unparalleled Peter Green, followed by the Bob Welch wilderness years and finally the gold-plated, wine-sodden Lindsey Buckingham / Stevie Nicks era. Almost all the while, the spectacularly talented Christine McVie was there. I miss her. Tough band to pick a first-buy album, so I’ll take one from each iteration — 1969’s Then Play On, 1972’s Bare Trees and 1977’s Rumours.

Beastie Boys | They were so clever. Hooks! So many hooks. The greatest curators of samples, ever. Nothing sounds like Beastie Boys — no matter if they’re constructing an entire record from samples, or playing their own instruments. They were an island. First purchase: Their fourth album, 1994’s Ill Communication.

Hüsker Dü | The Minneapolis punk/hardcore trio went on to craft some of the best alt-rock songs of the ’80s — and scored a major-label signing as a result — before the healthy competition between principal songwriters Bob Mould and Grant Hart got unhealthy. The records get progressively accessible, so grab a middle one first — 1985’s New Day Rising.

J Cole | The rapper, producer, poet and activist walks his talk. His music can be edgy or it can be soulful and cool. That incredibly articulate mind of his must just be loaded with music. Buy 2014 Forest Hills Drive first.

Sebadoh | Entirely different, and not always consistent beyond every album being at least “good” but most of them “great” and a few of them “classic.” Start with a mid-career blend of early/later sounds by grabbing 1994’s Bakesale. It has a bit of everything and is basically a perfect record for the genre.

The White Stripes | They were so great. Just because you can’t get through a whole album doesn’t mean it’s not good — it just means it’s terribly potent. I’m not even joking. I love the duo of Meg & Jack White, but have a 20-minute max. Start with 2001’s White Blood Cells.

The Police | Like The Beatles, Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers and that other guy were born (in the ’50s… well, except Summers) to play together. Every album is fantastic. Start at the start — 1978’s Outlandos D’Amour.

Spoon | Here’s a band that usually gets me to hit “add to favourites” faster than any other. Less than 30 seconds into songs like I Turn My Camera On or The Fitted Shirt, and I’m hooked, hooked, hooked. Crisp drums, brilliant vocal delivery, conservative production… they’re stars. Get this one right away: 2005’s Gimme Fiction.

Black Mountain | Canadian outfit that would be the favourite band of so many, if they only could hear them. Perennial Polaris nominees, they don’t make bad albums. I didn’t love their most recent one, 2019’s Destroyer — but it is very good. Especially Pretty Little Lazies. The one to start with is 2010’s Wilderness Heart.

Blinker The Star | Jordon Zadorozny has been making albums as Blinker The Star with a revolving carousel of pals and peers since 1994. The closest he came to stardom was 1999’s August Everywhere, which was released via Dreamworks. But he still puts out at least an album a year and they kind of get better and better. Start with his latest album Animal Math, which just came out.

C.W. Stoneking | Devil music. Christopher William Stoneking is fascinating. He’s Australian, but his music sounds like it was recorded in 1920s America. Genuine Vaudeville blues. His first two albums are legit indie — he self-released both. Best one to start with is 2014’s Gon’ Boogaloo. He’s been way, way too quiet ever since. Come back, C.W.!

Daniel Romano | While I’ve been writing this, Daniel Romano has put out another six albums — and they’re all fantastic. The man is busy. He does solo albums, Daniel Romano Outfit albums, duos, trios and guest spots. His material is predominantly fun, but sometimes also quite sweet. He is a fiery and dynamic performer. Twice a nominee for the Polaris, I thought How Ill Thy World Is Ordered was probably the best album of 2020. Fun fact: It was the 10th album he made that year.

Faces | Better than The Small Faces, better than Rod Stewart, better than Ronnie Laine, better than Ronnie Wood, better than Slim Chance. Faces were awesome. If you put the legendary rock year 1972 into a stock pot and slow-boiled it down to discover the essence of its magic, you’d be left with the struttin’, slurring lads known as Faces. Go buy their 1971 album A Nod Is As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse right now if you don’t have it. Then get the rest. Then get Stewart’s first four solo albums.

Golden Seals | Almonte, Ont,’s Dave Merritt says he’s folded his Golden Seals project, but I refuse to accept this. Merritt is blessed with a number of fine qualities. First, he’s a smart bugger. But he’s also funny as hell, wears his heart on his sleeve, has a broad musical palate but a discerning taste. He’s also an excellent musician with golden ears. Dave is able to somehow put all this together and what you get is Paul McCartney without the grannies. Nick Lowe without the filler. Robert Palmer without the ska. Go get his beautiful 2019 album Something Isn’t Happening.

Grandaddy | Jason Lytle deserved to get rich with Grandaddy. So many unique and special songs, loaded with fascinating observations, catchy hooks, infectious melodies and creative instrumentation and production. Start with the breakthrough album — 2000’s The Sophtware Slump.

Nirvana | Yeah. You know it. Really, they only have three studio albums, plus Incesticide and MTV Unplugged — but I’m including them. Come at me (as you are). Go get Bleach (1989) first, because it’s cooler than getting Nevermind (1991) first.

Kelley Stoltz | I’ve adored Kelley since I first heard 2001’s Antique Glow, which is technically his second album. He’s a marvellous singer-songwriter who can create in almost any style and usually serves his stuff up without any glossy production. It really serves to underline his unpretentious voice and songwriting. This is, quite simply, great music — often in its simplest form. Go and get his fifth album, Below The Branches, from 2006.

Cage The Elephant | Like El Michels, this is another act introduced to me by my sweetie. I had no idea they only made great records. Even better — as the stepdad of a teenage girl — I’m happy to report the kids dig it as well. Start with 2013’s Melophobia.

Taylor Swift | Sorry to break this to you, right-wingers, but she’s not just the It Girl. Swift is a bonafide brilliant songwriter and a dynamic and engaging performer. Her albums are the soundtrack of a generation, and she did it all her way. Go get 1989. It is a seminal pop album.

Peter Gabriel | The former Genesis frontman has loads of stinkers, but not enough to spoil the records. They’re all good — and one of them is perfect. Start with that one, 1986’s So — produced by Daniel Lanois.

Simon & Garfunkel | They’re not as MOR as you think they are. Every song on Sounds Of Silence is about death. Quite a few tracks have rockin’ percussion and drums. This is very fine folk music — with enough pop sense to avoid being burdened by a bunch of twee, patchouli-stained crapola with words like “whilst.” There is, however, some rosemary and thyme to be found. Go get a copy of 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.

This Is The Kit | England’s Kate Stables makes really wonderful music. She has a unique voice and can dish out bona fide classics for your alt-rock playlists just as easily as she can fill up your “chill” ones. Go get a copy of her latest album, Careful Of Your Keepers from 2023.

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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.