Moving right along with the next ten, including some grunge titans, a post-hardcore outfit, an alt-metal four-piece, and more.
Beck Hansen may not have virtually disowned his breakthrough hit “Loser” the way Radiohead did of their similarly buzzworthy “Creep,” but no doubt he got sick of the labels it brought him. Though the technique was vastly different than Nirvana’s aesthetic, vague physical similarities between he and Kurt Cobain in the song’s music video cast him as some new Gen-X prophet. His specific corner was as a voice of the “slacker ethos,” though anyone paying attention knew he was no lazy, accidental genius.
“Slack,” on the other hand, was a bit more appropriate when witnessing the lo-fi junkyard mannerisms and cottonmouth raps rambling through Mellow Gold and the ramshackle anti-folk of One Foot in the Grave, but even that distinction was dashed to pieces on his excitable bric-a-brac mélange follow-up, the multi-platinum Odelay. That would then be tailed by the low-key, reflective and downbeat Mutations, which would in turn be chased by the disco-glam-funk party record Midnite Vultures and the irony-free baroque pop/alt-country monument Sea Change. By the time he loosely referenced an early incarnation—Guero, which had the splintered, jigsaw pop mentality of Odelay in common (and the Dust Brothers’ participation)—his audience was grateful, not bored of the same ol’ thing.
That unpredictable nature, that willingness to push the boundaries and explore uncharted territory, that refusal to rest on his past laurels, is what made Beck one of the most intriguing and respected acts in alternative music. His track record isn’t spotty, but the fact that he’s thrown caution to the wind and dropped the occasional flat noisemaker, puzzling sonic amalgam, and drab ballad isn’t a debit from distance—for better or worse, you want to hear what he’s been up to. And no matter how tepid some of his deep album cuts can be, every last one of his records has multiple winners, and his singles are almost uniformly excellent. He could have kept spitting out “Loser” anti-anthems or tried again and again to replicate the exhilarating, maverick fix of Odelay again and again, but instead he took chances, tried on different outfits, bamboozled both fans and critics, and improvised on the whims of his own thoughts and moods rather than exterior expectations. It’s hard to pigeonhole someone who jukes and jives as fast as he does.
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Where It’s At
Nobody’s Fault But My Own
Also endorsed: Cat Power, Meat Puppets, Supergrass
There aren’t many groups that rockists tend to scorn more than Tool. They’re “metal,” “prog,” and “alternative,” all profanities to the rockist sensibilities. Their writing frequently drifts into compositional phases and lumbering suites rather than actual songs. The music is arranged first with lyrics added later like secondhand spicing. They’re mathematically intricate instead of instinctually erupting from the gut. They have a bizarre sense of humor and write abstract, sometimes ludicrous lyrics but take themselves rigidly serious. Technical craft and moody soundscapes are considered way before verse/chorus structure and hooks. So it’s no wonder so many people ridicule them and their devoted fans. It’s also no wonder why they have so many of those devoted fans.
It’s not an unimpeachable strategy, mind. Tool at their most wayward, pretentious and poorly inspired gives their detractors solid ground to stand on. Their debut EP Opiate is loose, unfocused, inconsistent—gripping only in fits and starts. Their most recent album, 10,000 Days, began reflecting the complaint that they seem to feel required to fill up every digital second available to them in the CD format, stretching the tunes out way too long and sometimes ignoring dynamic grooves, battering beats and angular riffs for ethereal psychedelic noodling. In between those two minor efforts, though, they hardly made a wrong move. Undertow picked up where Helmet’s Meantime left off and found time to expose the jugular, sketch its intricacies, and describe its dark secrets before lunging in for the attack. Lateralus was divisive, artiness overcoming general songcraft, but delivered dozens of lasting moments (not to mention drafting one of the all-time great musician showcases by Danny Carey on the skins). And Ænima is their unqualified masterpiece, one of the most incredible metal albums ever released. At their best, Tool exhibits constant forward momentum, melodies that develop unpredictably as they are playing, roaring out or tearing apart on the whims of cerebral dictation, capable of slithering subtly or crashing mercilessly. At their worst, they’re still a group of staggeringly talented musicians taking a breath after blowing our minds.
Those rockists like to give their reasons for despising them as a fixture on their musical constructs, but in reality, it comes down to their incapacity to resolve the band’s elusiveness. Many fans, even ones who show up at their concerts, couldn’t pick out any of the musicians in a lineup. Their technically astounding music videos are always bizarre, visually fantastic, and are alternately fascinating and sluggish, but never feature the band members. They don’t give interviews frequently, and usually treat them as performance art by being mysterious and sarcastic, revealing nothing of their personal lives and little more of the profession. When accepting a Grammy, Carey jokingly thanked Satan and Justin Chancellor (perhaps not jokingly) thanked his mom for doing his dad. These things rub the rockists the wrong way. But the only thing that annoys me is how long it takes for them to release new music.
Or, maybe I’m just a big prog-metal nerd. Could be.
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Forty Six & Two
Ticks & Leeches
Also endorsed: A Perfect Circle, King Crimson, Helmet
I used to think Isaac Brock was a madman. And I’m not even going to pretend I was into them before they crossed over to mainstream success and started scoring gold and platinum records and Grammy nods. I worked backwards from “Float On” and Good News for People Who Love Bad News through the humane obsessions, hooky rock outbursts and unspooling winterscapes of The Moon & Antarctica, and towards the twitchy, unpredictable highways of The Lonesome Crowded West and beyond, where Brock seemed less interested in focusing the narrative and speaking through the heart than he was fixated on doin’ the cockroach, talking shit about a pretty sunset, and manic depressives named Laughing Boy. Maybe because he seemed to be disintegrating before my eyes is why I assumed his head was gone. And watching this in forward progression would either play as unfortunate to sensitives or manufactured to cynics. But like a gimmicky Christopher Nolan movie, I worked out the forward as actually backwards, and resolved that wavering line between madness and brilliance. And if not brilliant, then at least the maturation of authentic intensity.
Whichever direction one happens to move in, the first thing that’s apparent is Modest Mouse’s fractured compositional restlessness. The typical indie rock move was to cut ‘em short and leave ‘em half-finished—scrappy ideas that might not have been as brash or immediate if nurtured. But this group always finishes their songs, even the slippery two-minute punkish gems and the seven and eight-minute spastic nightmares that can morph from whisper to earthquake in the blink of an eye. Besides Brock’s zealous yelp, whimper and whine, the defining characteristic of the traditional music elements is the interplay between Brock’s guitar and Eric Judy’s bass, the former a scratchy, savage thing while the latter is a fluid navigator; meanwhile Jeremiah Green’s erratic funk drums are about as principled as “I’m Keith f-cking Moon” before the horse tranquilizers knocked him cold.
See the enormous instrumental codas flashing with a hideous grin beneath eoke-ringed nostrils; then came sophistication and accessibility. In the midst of that sophisticated accessibility, Brock queries, “Are you dead or are you sleeping? God, I sure hope you are dead,” pens a tribute to Charles Bukowski, and the band metamorphosis somewhat spare acoustic grief into a violent, rollicking hoedown with “Parting of the Sensory.” Those echoes of “sell out” make me chuckle.
ULTIMATE 8-TRACK MIX
Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine
Tiny Cities Made out of Ashes
Alone Down There
Dig Your Grave/Bury Me with It
Also endorsed: Sunny Day Real Estate, Sebadoh, the Mountain Goats
If you couldn’t get down with the indignant politics and polemics, ignored scene trends and vices, and had no interest in the lifestyle of sniffing glue, there wasn’t much in 70s punk rock that would directly appeal to you. But there was a friendlier fix out there: Buzzcocks (as the band members have stressed, not the Buzzcocks). They were only laterally a part of the movement anyway—fast tempos, simple chords, youthful vigor and anxiety. But their gripes were both much more clichéd and more a part of the pop music spectrum—they just wanted to cherish youth, to love and to be loved. In fact, if their songs didn’t tend to be a blur of crisply distorted guitars, chugging rhythms and frantic fervor, they would have easily landed in the realm of power pop—if slowed down about 30%, those hooks they seem so breathless to get to and then toss away like lint off their scarves would have been enormous. And so pop punk was born (please hold your boos).
Buzzcocks were (are?) one of the last great singles bands. Not only because their singles were frequently of superlative quality, but also because the so-called “album cuts,” while not always of the same high standard, were also snappy, winsome nuggets that were lots of fun as well (in some cases, like “Nothing Left,” “You Say You Don’t Love Me,” “ESP” and “Fast Cars,” they even rivaled the classic seven-inches in superiority). They also, more or less, invented indie rock with their Spiral Scratch EP, one of the very first DIY independently released records, made all the more astonishing by the fact that it was only the third release from any of the British punks. After that: more singles, three albums in two years, and their most famous release, Singles Going Steady, which collected those singles and B-sides into a separate collection. Those first three LPs of theirs are essential not for “album-y” reasons but because almost every track has an effective hook, exciting chorus, bratty vocal or catchy riff that demands to be heard. But they themselves are completely undemanding; most so-called punk bands falter and ultimately perish under such weightless concerns, but Buzzcocks thrive. Angst and affection are intertwined in their vocabulary.
On “Sixteen,” Pete Shelley yowls, “And I hate modern music: disco, boogie, pop. They go on and on and on and on. How I wish they would stop,” and I sense no irony on his part. But before that year was up, his group had become one of the best pop groups in the world. They were inspired by the savage, intense energy of the Sex Pistols, but they liked adolescence better than anarchy (one of the reasons they started playing in the first place was to replicate the Pistols’ London explosion in their own Manchester, which worked). Neither the best nor most admired of the punk scene of any era, but, if it weren’t probably an insult, the most lovable—they did crave love, after all. Depending on what rock n’ roll you think can be described as “power pop,” maybe the most lovable of that crowd, too.
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What Do I Get?
I Don’t Mind
Ever Fallen in Love?
Everybody’s Happy Nowadays
Also endorsed: The Jam, Magazine, the Vibrators
Public Enemy was the whole package. They had everything you wanted out of a hip hop group. There was the incisive, incendiary frontman Chuck D: an angry, young man with a viewpoint, a purpose, and a library card. There was the famed hype man Flavor Flav: always an absurdist clown, but before he became a reality TV punchline, almost ruthlessly efficient at being the jester with the wits to rival the royals. Professor Griff mastered the visual aspect: he envisioned militant backup dancers Security of the First World like the ultimate posse fit for street warfare, even having them brandish fake uzis. The sound was incredible: Terminator X was a wizard on the wheels and the Bomb Squad created these dense, furrowing, scabrous landscapes and edgy, aggressive hooks out of loads of mostly obscured samples, noise fragments, blaring horn sirens and jarring beats. And most of all, Public Enemy had a tactical function: plenty of other groups and MCs spoke “from the streets” and recognized the violence, confusion and cancers of ghetto life and communities beyond, but only Public Enemy really made you want to get off your ass and do something about it.
What Chuck D sometimes lacked in subtlety and intricacy, he made up for in sheer force, magnetism, authority of cadence, audacity and intelligence (all at levels that frightened “the man”). That audacity attracted controversy; in addition to Griff’s anti-Semitic remarks that eventually got him booted from the group, D lent his support to Louis Farrakhan and tore the Duke to shreds, found parallels between the prison system and slavery, and dared to confront his own race for contributing to the sorry state of urban affairs. He was a radical mind with a sober and confrontational posture and censored nothing from mind to mouth; that made Flav’s comical, incongruous persona the perfect foil.
Chuck D famously called hip hop the “black CNN,” touching on news and issues in the African American community that the mainstream media avoided or ignored. As a commentator, he has few rivals in his league, and when combined with mic skill, extremist inspiration, and deep agitation, perhaps no one is in his league. But still I can’t help but wonder how effective he’d be without the supporting players, especially the sound of sonic chaos being honed to a brutal series of blows, stabs and gunshots. And, of course, there are those sirens, which disorient but excite in the moment and sound like the law’s chasing you down for justifiable crimes in the aftermath.
ULTIMATE 8-TRACK MIX
Public Enemy #1
Bring the Noise
Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
Don’t Believe the Hype
Fight the Power
Welcome to the Terrordome
Brothers Gonna Work It Out
Shut ‘Em Down
Also endorsed: N.W.A., Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions
Of the seemingly endless roster of grunge rock bands (local, legitimate, and/or otherwise), Alice in Chains might have been the very darkest. They might have also been the most fundamentally beautiful. Typically, Alice in Chains summons the image of a dirty, hairy metal band, cloaked in flannel and misery, playing Sabbath chords like they were murderously furious at the each viscous note. And they certainly exhibited that aspect: “Man in the Box,” “Grind,” pretty much the entirety of their Dirt album, etc. But as good as they were as a wallowing, destructive heavy metal band, what seals AIC’s legacy for me is their penchant for haunting, atmospheric harmonies and the exquisite pain seeping out of the lovely melodies of their demi-acoustic songs. They were nowhere near the first nor the last rock band to give life to the spiraling sickness and wayward desolation of drug addiction, but almost no one else getting nationwide radioplay could make it so tangible that you swore the heroin was coursing through your own veins.
As miserable as I must be making it seem, another crucial aspect to their immortality is how great they were as both songwriters and performers. Stripped of the words and meaning, the twin gloom of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell’s voices could be reinterpreted as divine release, a hurt more common to those who’d never touched the needle. And when they flipped up the amp and raged through power chords pushed to eleven, they were liberating; heavy, potent, and unmistakably catchy, they devised riffs as unforgettable as anything since Britain’s hard rock dominance in the early 80s.
Cantrell’s solos had remarkable power—they could be as punishing and forthright as heavy metal tended to be, but they also had stylishly searing soul, meticulously layered and very melodic when the songs called for it. Meanwhile, the grinding minor-key sludge part of their sound avoided much of the grim, lo-fi snarl of their predecessors—the stony, booming distortion had more bite, curling fingers into a fist that drove ferocious energy into the listener rather than mordant gloom. Thanks to the compelling performance, detailed engineering, and tough but appealing hooks, I actually almost always emerge on the other side invigorated rather than depressed.
Heck, they’re almost great enough to make you forgive the existence of Godsmack.
ULTIMATE 8-TRACK MIX
Man in the Box
Down in a Hole
Also endorsed: Jerry Cantrell (solo), Faith No More, the Melvins
Sure, they gave the world AC/DC, the Easybeats, the Bee Gees, Kylie Minogue, INXS, Silverchair, the Vines, and plenty more, but the greatest rock n’ roll Aussie import has to be Nick Cave. He didn’t come out with a hearty “G’day, mate” and weave cheery, sanitized tales of his homeland—this was a bold, unhinged young man obsessed with American Southern Gothic, biblical damnation/salvation, violence, and a savage rogue’s gallery of characters that even Tom Waits and Alice Cooper would likely shy away from. And he spent most of career backed by the most perfectly named band in synergy with musical theme: the Bad Seeds.
Starting with the Birthday Party, it was evident that the faintest hint of psychosis was involved in the sordid patterns, but despite fits of berserk post-punk anxiety, Cave was already proving eclecticism—“Nick the Stripper” proved he didn’t need to use strangled yelps and gasps to encourage (unfounded) considerations that he was desperately off his rocker. In fact, if you don’t correlate madness with obsession, you may think he’s perfectly reasonable (if a little on the grim side). Drug addiction fueled his darkest periods, mired in decay and unease, but he didn’t employ angular dissonance or shattered structures to emphasize the mental harassment. In fact, what really elevated Cave over most of his fraught and grizzled peers was a sense of melancholy beauty—raw as they are, a lot of his tunes aren’t defined by jagged edges. In fact, many are startled by eerie calm and subdued melody. One of his finest, “Into My Arms,” is even positively gorgeous. But that doesn’t make him a maven of pretty pop—the serenity is undercut by crumbling chords, fits of despair, hamstrung blues beat, waxy paranoia, unresolved motifs, carnival and cabaret, guilt and dread. And when his unstable instincts turn extroverted, he can rampage feverishly like the Lord on the warpath claiming all sinners.
Though he’s in no shortage of diehards, he’s never been a particularly big-seller—in career hindsight, radio and MTV favorites like “Where the Wild Roses Grow” and “Into My Arms” were clearly anomalies. This can easily be attributed to his bleak stories, ruthless and metaphorical prose, unobscured fixations, and squalid villains (and his sympathies for some of them); even a fan such as myself can relish opportunities to visit, but I’d never want to live there.
ULTIMATE 8-TRACK MIX
Zoo Music Girl [The Birthday Party]
The Mercy Seat
The Ship Song
Red Right Hand
Into My Arms
No Pussy Blues [Grinderman]
Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
Also endorsed: Suicide, Scott Walker, Captain Beefheart
There’s always room in the world for bands like Melt-Banana, Ponytail, Pre, UUVVWWZ—noisy and agitated musical savages that yelp and thrash incoherently over earsplitting, fractured and maniacal instrumental carnage. Likewise, there’s always room for songs that explicitly spell out exactly what’s going on, from Brian Johnson’s single entendres to pared-down folk rock storytellers. Splitting the difference is the El Paso post-hardcore five-piece At the Drive-In, which was loud, intense, assertive and weave their narrative webs in frankly peculiar, even inscrutable ways. Beyond collegiate and hovering near the boundary of flat-out pretentious conceit, I would still rather scream “Position the stitches like miles of torpedoes, permission was hinted, lungs that hollered in a sleeper hold!” instead of, “We built this city on rock and roll!” any day of the week.
But study rewards that conceit, and sorting through the puzzling (and sometimes ludicrous) connections between “cloak and dagger muzak” and a “breakfast table search team” pays off once the concrete elements are unearthed. Most assume that it’s surrealism as fed by political demands, psycho-social strife, and personal terms of death and deceit—what little I can glean simply suggests that they’re extremely passionate (and not just because of their intensity and volume). Cedric Bixler-Zavala, meanwhile, is one of the best rock screamers there ever was, rivaling even that aforementioned Johnson howler. Over the pure assault of his throat and Jim Ward’s back-ups and the instruments rushing to keep pace, it hardly even matters if you can’t solve the meaning—sometimes you can’t even decipher the words at all. Swept up in the furious rush, though, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to scream along even mumbled, slurred and scarred.
Let’s be honest, though: no matter your stance on their politico and the tragedy that breeds reprisal (or, if unwilling, the ostentatious posture of the vocabulary), you come to ATDI for the visceral release and hyperactive rush. I was not straining for hyperbole when I described Relationship of Command as “a good substitute for caffeine”; I’ve never emerged from the other end of tunes like “Mannequin Republic” and “One-Armed Scissor” without feeling more alert, awake, aggressive (shit, even more alive). Fugazi famously emphasized angular dynamics, shards of noise, and experimental aesthetics in the hardcore sound and ATDI took those elements even further, particularly in whipcrack time signatures and the immersion of electronics to beef up both the chaotic friction and the subliminal beauty underneath the rhythmic tantrums. Pummeling, blistering, severely unwound, with intensity well past “11” into the upper teens, this was an act that left nothing in the studio or on the stage but a smoldering crater and a piercing echo of feedback in the ear. The bewildering intellect was just a bonus.
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Invalid Litter Dept.
Quarantined (Lamacq version)
Also endorsed: Sparta, the Mars Volta, Drive Like Jehu
By classic definition, Paul Westerberg was not a good rock star. He recorded a KISS cover for the Let It Be album, but as much as I’m averse to KISS, any member of that group (even the kitty cat drummer) is a better classically-defined rock star than Westerberg. He wasn’t one of those “tortured artists,” yet he never really seemed to be enjoying the role. He was famous for loose, “heart on the sleeve” lyricism but his uncouth drawl seemed to work in opposition and actually muffled his heart. His rock howl was bleary and adolescent and his penchant for usually performing severely inebriated made many wonder if he really even wanted to be there at center stage. When giving voice, he seemed tentative, more likely to recede than careen over the edge, but then would recklessly spin out of control with self-deprecation and slurred, gravelly shouts. He didn’t shy from it either like a prop in some kind of anti-heroic “artistic” statement (the kind that would make him, therefore, seem heroic for doing so). He was just there, mumbling and riffing and falling over, not overly hip and not overly confident and not overly bored and not overly anything. He didn’t “own it,” if you will. Which is what made him Paul Westerberg. And—wait for the smoke and mirrors to pull away—that’s what made him a pretty badass rock star.
After punk’s quick rise and fall, most everything spawned in the aftermath not relegated to small imprints and reserved fanfare brought back uniformity, straight lines and clean edges to the insistent sound (new wave, synth-pop, etc.). In rebellion, college rock went the opposite direction, achieving underground melodicism, post-punk desperation, and spry but muted jangle. The Replacements wavered in between, being overtly indebted to sugary, emphatic power pop as well as battered and torn punk. They were largely hung-up on romantic frustrations and small town wounds (secretly anthemic anti-anthems), but also slapdash, rude, raucous and informally detached. Their live shows could be disasters as the band frequently performed intoxicated, sometimes incapable of playing anything other than shoddy covers (or even remaining vertical), which made them even more endearing and/or infuriating, depending on a fan’s viewpoint. Though they never fared well on the charts (only one Billboard Top 100 song and no albums climbing into the Top 50), they managed to score a gig on Saturday Night Live, where they performed sloppy drunk and Westerberg dropped an f-bomb—and were banned for life. And their music videos were hilariously anti-video, single 4-minute shots of record speakers and clips with band members just sitting around doing nothing.
They were more than drunken myth, though. Throughout the 80s, they seemed to only drop top-notch albums, whether underrated (Don’t Tell a Soul, Hootenanny), widely considered alt-rock classics (Let It Be, Tim), or divisive among fans (their hardcore-inspired debut Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash). Their lone slack offering was 1990’s All Shook Down, recorded at a time when the band was barely functioning anyway (most of the tracks were done with session players). By the time they disbanded, they had revived garage rock, helped lay down the groundwork for the alternative scene, did their damnedest to avoid commercial prominence, became a cult fascination and huge influence on modern rock, and proved that rock music from Minnesota during the 80s wasn’t just about Prince. Oh, and they got really, really drunk a whole buncha times.
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Johnny’s Gonna Die
Kids Don’t Follow
Within Your Reach
I Will Dare
We’re Coming Out
Bastards of Young
Also endorsed: Hüsker Dü, the Pretenders, Big Star
Considered by many to be the ultimate “supergroup,” it’s hard to align that thinking today since, beyond classic rock aficionados, no one really thinks of Ginger Baker or Jack Bruce as belonging anywhere else. Instead, I like to think of Cream as being the ultimate “power trio.” Yeah, there’ve been finer three-pieces since them, but they were the first to really bring that term into public speak. Rock trios were very rare those days, and as for the “power” part, hardly anyone was remotely as heavy as them. Their dynamic, forceful English blues leviathans spawned heavy metal, after all, and back then, “metal” wasn’t defined simply by volume, tuning, and horrors both imagined and real; it was all about attitude, and they could’ve given the Stones a run for their money during their heyday.
In addition to that heaviness, they were also bringing blues and psychedelia together in commanding ways. Initial covers of tunes by Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson emphasized early on how “Clapton is God”—he was a performer first and foremost, and never much liked writing original music anyway—but they were also even more warped and woolly than Hendrix at the time (who named Clapton as one of his greatest influences, and whose guitar sound in turn influenced the Bruce-penned riff and Clapton’s “woman tone” sound on “Sunshine of Your Love,” their signature tune). Hell, just staring at the cover of Disraeli Gears will make you think you’re on drugs. But while that glaring-through-the-mind’s-eye fever fuels some of their most interesting compositions, any group featuring Clapton on lead is invariably indebted to the blues.
Psychedelic weirdness fueled tunes like “Anyone for Tennis” and “Strange Brew” while numbers such as “Swlabr” and “Sitting on Top of the World” were almost heavy enough to suffocate and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and “I Feel Free” have such powerful grooves that you can barely pay attention to how flashy but instinctive the playing is. In addition to Clapton’s possessed guitar prowess, Baker was one of the first behemoth drummers, the sort that would inspire John Bonham and all of his followers, and Bruce’s bass really came to the front and was so musical—getting attention under and around a Clapton Gibson is no small feat. Though they lasted only about two-and-a-half years, their stamp on late-60s and 70s rock was as enormous as nearly any of the other rock bands from their era or earlier, and most groups that last decades would salivate at the opportunity of kicking out multiple classic LPs and singles and then splitting long before getting stale.
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I Feel Free
Sunshine of Your Love
Tales of a Brave Ulysses
Sitting on Top of the World
Also endorsed: Eric Clapton (solo), the Yardbirds, Blue Cheer