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Songbook: A Guide To Mastodon's Themes And Progressive Impulses, From Metal Sludge To Hard Rock And Psychedelia
Prolific metal group Mastodon are nominated for a Best Metal Performance GRAMMY Award. Ahead of the show, and with their debut studio album 'Remission' turning 20 this May, here's a guide to each eclectic era in the group's prodigious career.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Songbook is an editorial series and hub for music discovery that dives into a legendary artist's discography and art in whole — from songs to albums to music films and videos and beyond.
Even though it sounds like the product of some urban legend, buried deep in the digital detritus of an obscure Reddit thread, the members of Mastodon really did meet at a High on Fire show in 2000.
Drummer Brann Dailor and rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher were already well acquainted and a fixture of the New York underground scene, having played together in mathcore outfit Lethargy and noisegrind act Today Is The Day. After relocating to Atlanta and stopping by a High on Fire show in a friend's basement, they quickly forged an easy friendship with bassist Troy Sanders and lead guitarist Brett Hinds over their shared love of sludge metal, classic new wave British heavy metal (NWOBHM), and dive-bar hard rock staples.
Contrary to most acts in the genres of metal and rock, Mastodon has never been a revolving door of membership. With the exception of original lead vocalist Eric Saner (who left the group in its infancy prior to any formal releases), the core quartet has remained unchanged for over two decades. It's easy to see how this continuity has been fundamental to their success, impressive body of work and growth as musicians.
With each member of the group bringing their unique talents to bear across their diverse discography — Dailor's impeccable polyrhythms and smooth melodic croon; Hinds' banjo-inspired hybrid picking and wailing growl; Sanders' rumbling low-end tone and gruff yell; Kelliher's steady rhythms and technical versatility — Mastodon's collective unity has created something greater than the sum of its gifted parts.
In the latest edition of Songbook, GRAMMY.com explores the dense themes and progressive impulses that have motivated Mastodon for over two decades — from their molten sludge metal origins to their embrace of heady psychedelia and hard rock songwriting.
(Editor's note: This list focuses on the core Mastodon discography and excludes EPs and live albums.)
Summoning Hail And Flame
To fully appreciate Mastodon's turn-of-the-millennium beginnings, it's necessary to jump forward in time ever so slightly. Released in early 2006 as one of their final projects with long-time label Relapse Records (and before their big-league step up to Reprise Records and Warner Music), Call of the Mastodon provides a scattershot sampling of the band's early years.
Featuring tracks from the Slickleg and Lifesblood EPs — both originally released in 2001 and remastered by original producer Matt Washburn — this compilation LP showcases a proto-Mastodon still in formation. Repackaged out of sequence, the compositions sound less like the towering and imposing beast of their Pleistocene namesake and more like a wild elephant calf finding its feet. However, this sonic adolescence still manages to provide subtle hints toward the band's future potential.
From the thrash-like precision and murky downstrokes of "We Built This Come Death" to the frantic rhythmic pummeling of "Welcoming War," it's clear that Hinds and Kelliher always had the chops as axemen to rival sludge icons like Eyehategod's Jimmy Bower and High On Fire's Matt Pike. Both "Shadows That Move" and "Hail to Fire" bristle with livewire energy that feels almost hardcore-inspired, while "Battle at Sea" and the droning "Deep Sea Creature" point towards the quartet's inclination for distortion, juxtaposition, and thematic lyrical gestures — albeit across a more abrasive vocal range that future albums would wisely temper.
While the compilation may lack the overall narrative cohesion and vision of their later records, Call of the Mastodon should ultimately be viewed as the band's first "true" album — a sentiment Kelliher expressed to Loudwire in 2017.
If Call of the Mastodon represented the Atlanta quartet finding their feet, then their official debut album is the moment that truly stamped their arrival on the American heavy metal scene.
The sonic leap from those early EPs to Remission (2002) is noticeably stark, present in almost every facet of the record: the heavily saturated, down-tuned crunch of quaking album opener "Crusher Destroyer"; the coarse bellows and multi-pronged vocal attack from Hinds and Sanders; the lengthy experimental gallop of "Trainwreck" and "Trilobite"; Dailor's effortlessly intricate drum fills and accents; and engineer Matt Bayles' (Botch, ISIS, These Arms Are Snakes) thick, weighty production.
Although Remission isn't strictly a concept album, Mastodon weaves together thematic elements to complement their towering riffage and serpentine grooves. With fire as a loose motif, tracks like "Burning Man" and lead single "March of the Fire Ants" draw on hellfire imagery to add emotional color to expressions of hopelessness and torment. "Where Strides the Behemoth" and "Ol'e Nessie" channel mythical creatures as metaphors for revelatory visions and desperate soul-searching, while "Trampled Under Hoof" throws back to the "life's blood" of the group's origins.
Yet, perhaps the most grounding inspiration comes from Dailor, who described the record as an outlet for grief following his sister's suicide when he was a teen: "I was never able to put that stuff anywhere. All that pain I was carrying inside. The pain of losing her had always been there… When I started playing in Mastodon and moved to Atlanta, there was a big personal healing. Mastodon had a lot to do with that. That's one of the main reasons that the album is titled Remission. Remission means forgiveness and healing."
Paul Romano's striking album cover — a distressed "Workhorse" caught mid-combustion and near-death, as vibrant purple flames erupt from its torso — brings it all together: fading strength and all-consuming power; bitter cycles of life and death; anger and love; existential heaviness and divine light. Following Remission, Romano illustrated all of Mastodon's artwork throughout their first decade.
Through The Salt, Earth And Sky
Mastodon needed to take things to the next level on their sophomore LP and push the scope of their Southern sludge metal into the realm of the gargantuan and monolithic. Curiously, inspiration for this conceptual leap came in the form of two unlikely sources: the recurrence of elemental leitmotif, and American novelist Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851).
This deep engagement with Melville's "Great American Novel" allowed the group to continue the use of elemental cues as their dominant theme. Where Remission used fire to stand in for themes of redemption and rebirth, Leviathan (2004) turned to the sea as the spiritual catalyst for exploring mortality and the band's desire for greatness.
As Dailor explained in several interviews, there were a number of parallels between the fixated obsessions of Melville's now-iconic Captain Ahab and the band's longing to establish a legacy in the hallowed halls of metal. Discussions among the quartet acknowledged that this pursuit was, in part, a manifestation of their own "white whale," their collective and elusive "sea salt mastodon."
Musically, the record throws the listener overboard into a raging tempest. Opener "Blood and Thunder" sports one of the most iconic and recognizable riffs in the genre, while vigorous cuts like "Aqua Dementia" and "Naked Burn" successfully split the difference between density and playfulness — equal parts Melvins and Slayer, Neurosis and Thin Lizzy. Yet even such lofty ambitions can't sink the record's staggering 13-minute opus "Hearts Alive," a track that effortlessly fuses the lumbering mass of Sabbathian doom with lugubrious melodic undercurrents.
Despite future albums achieving ever higher levels of commercial success, Leviathan spawned four singles ("Iron Tusk," "Blood and Thunder," "I Am Ahab," and "Seabeast"), received multiple Album of the Year accolades, was inducted into the Decibel Hall of Fame in 2016, and is now considered one of the defining metal albums of the 21st century.
With their status as metal titans now solidified, Mastodon used this creative freedom to refine and expand their sonic template. As the band told Dave Grohl in a revealing interview for Revolver, much of the impetus behind Blood Mountain (2006) came from seeking out "melody as a fifth instrument."
For their third LP, the quartet leaned into intricate vocal layering, ambient textures and dizzying instrumental wandering of psychedelia harder than ever before. This progressive flirtation was immediately evident with the double lead single "Crystal Skull/Capillarian Crest." The former moves briskly through gnarled tempo changes and locked-in grooves from Sanders and Dailor, allowing each harmonized riff from Hinds and Kelliher to shine brighter; the latter frequently descends into jazzy prog passages, resting on a lofty chorus and mystic nods to "cosmogenic cycles" and "universal dreams."
Drawing heavily from Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), Blood Mountain crafts a fantasy epic worthy of a hefty acid trip, with earth as the primary elemental cue. Supercharged opener "The Wolf Is Loose" is a carnal, riff-centric beast that guides the record's overarching narrative. Utilizing a deceptively catchy hook, "The Wolf" sets up a werewolf protagonist, the quest for a crystal skull to replace a reptilian brain, and the ascension of the album's titular peak.
Bolstered by guest features from Scott Kelly (Neurosis), Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Isaiah Owens and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (the Mars Volta), Blood Mountain racked up accolades from outlets like Kerrang and Metal Hammer, while also scoring the group their first GRAMMY nomination for the album's third single "Colony of Birchmen" — itself a direct homage to Dailor's love for English rockers Genesis, further shoring up Mastodon's progressive credentials.
Piecing together Mastodon's exploration of elemental leitmotif across their 2000s output, a distinct narrative telos begins to emerge. Beginning with the fiery molten core of Remission, we move outwards from the planet's center to the sprawling watery depths of Leviathan, before stepping foot on earthly terra firma in Blood Mountain. Taking this conceptual thrust to its logical end, Mastodon's fourth LP concludes their early album tetralogy with air or "aether" as its elemental lodestar.
Crack The Skye (2009) is one of the band's most meditative and diffuse efforts, exploring themes of disembodied emancipation. "[Crack The Skye] is a departure from everything we've previously recorded in the sense that we kinda strapped on our aeroshells and departed from Earth for a while," Sanders told Stereogum. "Basically we're exploring the ethereal world. We're dissecting the dark matter that dominates the universe, in a nutshell."
Switching out Matt Bayles for producer Brendan O'Brien (AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots), alongside the works of King Crimson and Frank Zappa as instrumental touchstones, Mastodon's continued search for that long-desired "fifth element" had finally reached its lofty zenith. With the welcome addition of Dailor's melodic croon to the group's already potent lead vocal register, tracks like "Oblivion" and "Divinations" approach anthemic transcendence, pushing their weighty sonic profile into the stratosphere off the back of arresting hooks and sublime vocal harmonies.
Elsewhere on the record, ethereal elements combine to push their storytelling into narrative overdrive, drawing on references to paraplegia, Tzarist historical actors ("The Czar"), occult rituals, astral projection ("Quintessence"), Mephistophelean bargains ("The Last Baron") and sci-fi wormholes. And yet, for all its thematic density, Crack The Skye still retains a sense of playful wonder and emotional majesty, whether it be through the cathartic release of tension on "Ghost of Karelia" or a moving tribute to Dailor's sister Skye on the album's expansive title track.
The Dance Of Death
After a string of critically-acclaimed records and building rich narrative-driven worlds to accentuate them, Mastodon began to feel the need for a creative reset. Following their world tour throughout 2009-2010, which included a European run with Metallica, the band began work on an entirely new creative endeavor: scoring the film adaptation of the DC comic Jonah Hex (2010).
While the band were initially given full creative control on the project, the score and the film itself were met with several production issues and changes in composer, forcing the band to scrap the entire thing and start again. (Hinds even lamented to Vulture that the shelved material was "some of the best s<em></em><em> I've ever written in my life.") With their creative juices now thoroughly drained and the score's final form — the Jonah Hex: Revenge Gets Ugly* EP (2010) — is a pale imitation of what might have been. As a result, it's hardly surprising that Mastodon chose to strip things back at the conceptual level for their upcoming fifth studio album.
The Hunter (2011) was a lean and multi-faceted record that pulled liberally from their back catalog while also remixing stylistic influences with a sharp ear for accessibility. GRAMMY-nominated single "Curl of the Burl" plays out like a funked-up QOTSA, with "Octopus Has No Friends" and "Dry Bone Valley" acting as spiritual cousins to the mind-melting psych of their previous LP. Tracks like "Blasteroid" and "Stargasm" embody what Dailor describes as "super-heavy Led Zeppelin," walking a fine line between meaty drop-C chugging and shimmering lead work. The cackling laughter and Moog synth-scapes that open the epic "Creature Lives" feel like sincere Pink Floyd worship.
The Hunter also marked the band's first time working with Californian producer Mike Elizondo (Maroon 5, Avenged Sevenfold, 50 Cent), along with the use of a sculpture titled Sad Demon Oath by woodcarver AJ Fosik for the album's artwork. And much like Remission almost a decade earlier, The Hunter has a fluid thematic focus, shifting from a tribute to Hind's brother on the title track (who died from a heart attack during a hunting trip) to digressions about birds, sex in space, and childhood video games.
Continuing where The Hunter left off, Mastodon's sixth LP once again left the concept album behind in favor of more liberatory forms of expression. With band members namechecking influences as diverse as Alice in Chains, Deftones, Rush and Foo Fighters — all of whom had worked with producer Nick Raskulinecz previously — the band's transition from sludge metal lifers to outright prog- and hard rock advocates feels like a tacit no-brainer.
Speaking with Rolling Stone, Dailor describes the sonic range explored on Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014) with noticeable excitement:
It's gonna be massive and insane, lots of epic greatness. There will be lots of huge riffs and new directions. It's real weird, real math-y, real straightforward. It's up, down and all around. It's a culmination of everything for the band. The snowball keeps rolling and collecting snow.
And yet, much like Oakland-based artist Skinner's evocative album cover — a vivid "psychedelic nightmare painting" of a tessellated cosmic dragon-demon figure — Once More ‘Round the Sun cycles through eerily familiar moods and themes. Opener "Tread Lightly" hits like the Mastodon of old; "High Road" contrasts crunchy, riff-heavy sections with a strong hook and Hind's flashy fret-work; "Feast Your Eyes" and "Chimes at Midnight" offer up the high-octane verses, open choruses and spacey bridges that have become the quartet's signature.
Things also get weird in spots: Dailor's soaring chorus on "The Motherload" is one of the group's most direct attempts at a radio-rock hit — even if the single's twerk-laden video makes for a fun little head-scratcher. Later, Atlanta punks The Coathangers pop up on "Aunt Lisa" for a strange gang vocal section ("Hey-ho/ Let's f<em></em><em></em><em></em> rock and roll"). But when Mastodon do strive for alt-metal cohesion, as on standouts "Asleep In The Deep" and "Ember City," the results are stunning and richly textured.
At the level of theme, Once More ‘Round the Sun does feel like a bit of an oddity in the band's back catalog. While Kelliher has insisted that the album's guiding motif is death itself — aligning it spiritually with Remission and The Hunter — its compositions feel far too jubilant for this theme to resonate in any meaningful way. Still, this narrative ambiguity is far from a hindrance, as it's still one of Mastodon's best performing records and responsible for the quartet's third GRAMMY nomination.
Exploring The Desert And Darkness
At this point in Mastodon's journey, it might seem difficult to track their intended trajectory. Should the group further dilute their sound and abandon their abrasive edges for further crossover appeal? Or perhaps a pivot back to their sludgy roots is called for? The answer, as it turns out, is to essentially do both: Double down on the dance with death that defined their 2010s output, while also synthesizing all eras of the band into a formidable, cohesive whole.
For example, take the punchy one-two that opens Emperor of Sand (2017). "Sultan's Curse" — which earned the group their first GRAMMY win for Best Metal Performance — pairs Hinds' intricate leads with Kelliher's charged rhythms before bursting open into swelling melodies from Dailor and Sanders. Then, immediately chasing that shot of adrenaline with a mid-tempo alt-rocker, "Show Yourself" takes that Mastodon formula and promptly twists it into grungy, truck-stop radio territory.
Inspired by the brutal reality of cancer — including the passing of Kelliher's mother, and diagnoses for Sanders' wife and Dailor's mother — Mastodon returned to the concept album for their seventh LP, shading increasingly elaborate story elements with real-life tragedies. Unifying themes of survival and temporality, Emperor of Sand focuses on a protagonist facing a death sentence from a cruel desert sovereign, ultimately forced to wander alone in a barren wasteland and confront the grim shadow of their own mortality. As Sanders states:
To that end, the album ties into our entire discography. It's 17 years in the making, but it's also a direct reaction to the last two years. We tend to draw inspiration from very real things in our lives.
Like Leviathan, Blood Mountain and Crack The Skye before it (including the return of producer Brendan O'Brien), this progressive impulse goes on to yield exhilarating results, with zig-zagging riff sections ("Precious Stones," "Word to the Wise"), muscular bursts of aggression and emotional catharsis ("Roots Remain," "Andromeda"), droning atmospherics, colorful synthesizers, and memorable hooks ("Steambreather," "Clandestiny," "Jaguar God").
Ensuring that dedicated fans would not be left out in the cold during the creative stalemate of a global pandemic, 2020 saw the release of yet another Mastodon compilation LP. Cheekily titled Medium Rarities, the release celebrates the band's 20 year milestone by bringing together 70 minutes of previously unreleased live versions, bonus tracks, instrumentals, standalone originals and a slew of eyebrow raising covers — further adding to the quartet's versatility and prolific output.
The unreleased "Fallen Torches" (featuring frequent collaborator Scott Kelly) is a worthy throwback to Leviathan's might, with a devastating build-up and planet-cracking riff as a finisher. Mastodon's cover of Metallica's legendary instrumental "Orion" (from Master of Puppets) is faithfully rendered with just enough sludge metal kick to make it their own.
Originals like "Cut You Up with a Linoleum Knife" from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (2007) soundtrack and "White Walker" from Game of Thrones are equally amusing: the former acts as a snotty blast of tongue-in-cheek punk-metal; the latter a plaintive and elegiac ballad fit for feuding kingdoms.
While Medium Rarities may lack a "cohesive whole," it nonetheless underscores the band's chameleonic ability to shift between various moods and styles. Notes Steve Beebee in Kerrang, "Rather than adhering to anything so obvious as chronology it becomes a seemingly random, yet highly effective, stampede — but that's Mastodon to the core."
After everything Mastodon have delivered across their prodigious career, it's fitting that their first effort for a new decade is also their most ambitious. Composed of 17 tracks and clocking in at nearly 90 minutes in length, the spellbinding double LP Hushed and Grim (2021) requires a certain level of commitment even for the most dedicated fan.
With Paul Romano returning to provide the record's moody cover — a spindly old tree, knotted with whorls and adorned with spirit animals, awash in muted hues — the band enlisted the help of Canadian producer David Bottrill (Tool, Muse, Placebo) to render each lamenting composition in evocative detail, making Hushed & Grim by far the darkest and most collaborative entry in the quartet's catalog.
As Dailor explains, themes of death and cancer once again dominated their conceptual framework:
[The tree] is an afterlife mythology that when you pass away, your spirit goes into the heart of a tree and then experiences all the pillars of your life in successions of the seasons that the tree experiences. That is the way you're able to say goodbye to the natural world and move on to the next dimension. You can see a green man in the center of the tree — the heart of the tree — and that is our good friend and manager Nick John, who passed away, unfortunately, a couple of years ago. [Nick] has a lot to do with the inspiration of the album.
Opener "Pain With An Anchor" echoes this sentiment with a sorrowful ode to the sting of defeat. Grief then turns to righteous anger on "The Crux," "Savage Lands" and "More Than I Could Chew," while the closing trio of disc one — "Skeleton of Splendor," "Teardrinker" and "Pushing The Tides" (also the band's sixth and latest GRAMMY nomination for Best Metal Performance) — move swiftly from moments of melodic mourning to raging bursts of energy.
Elsewhere on disc two, this recognition of emotional heft results in some of the most striking Mastodon tracks ever recorded. Two Sanders-led cuts, "Dagger" and "Had It All," flirt with the melodramatic, and border on goth-rock balladry with the addition of sarangi and French horns. Epic closer "Gigantium" reaches out for divine inspiration, wrapping Hind's solo work with elegiac strings and violin.
One element common to all Mastodon records is symbology. Forming part of the band's iconic typography and logo, each album features a distinct glyph that denotes the record's overarching theme: sun, fire, water, earth, aether, wood, cycles and time.
As Albert Chessa of The Mastodon Podcast argues, the symbology of Hushed & Grim and its inclusion of the "Zenithal Crescent" glyph helps to conceptualize all of Mastodon's work as a functional meta-narrative:
In symbolic language, the arc-form signifies both beginning (sunrise) and end (sunset), as well as evoking a pair of embracing arms — one that gives, another that takes away… Four figures on each side (past and future), viewed from bird's eye view, gather around a portal (or tomb) — an Octogram, evoking eternal rest and remembrance (∞)… Zenithal means ‘highest point' — thus, this glyph honors someone who always brought out the very best of those he loved.
Of course, at the material level, Mastodon are still just four friends, sharing in their creativity and making heavy music together. Yet, what Hushed & Grim proves is that the Atlanta quartet will likely never be content with creative complacency, continuing to have surprises in store for those willing to venture beyond the music.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
From left: David Corio/Redferns; Paul Natkin/Getty Images; Scott Gries/Getty Images; Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Songbook: A Comprehensive Guide To Tom Waits’ Evolution From L.A. Romantic To Subterranean Innovator
As Tom Waits’ series of Island Records releases from the ‘80s and ‘90s are being reissued, take an album-by-album trip through the legendary singer/songwriter’s significant body of work.
When Tom Waits warned on "Underground," the first song on his transformational 1983 album Swordfishtrombones, "there’s a rumblin’ groan down below," he very well could have been describing the artistic awakening that made him a legend.
Once an earnest yet good-humored singer/songwriter, Tom Waits is the rare artist in the past 50 years to successfully pull off something as radical as a complete artistic reinvention. A songwriter with a taste for the dark and grotesque as much as the theatrical, Waits has built up a catalog heavy on bizarre characters, morbid nursery rhymes, gruff junkyard blues and a uniquely unconventional take on rock music. And though it took some experimentation, trial and error and eventually getting married to arrive on the sound we hear today, he’s made a five-decade career of embracing sounds on the fringe and turning them into memorable melodies.
A Southern California native who got his start playing folk clubs in San Diego before relocating to Los Angeles in the 1970s, Tom Waits debuted as a relatively conventional singer/songwriter with a twinge of blues and jazz in his bones. And where his earliest records found him singing with more of a raspy croon, he adopted a vocal growl more spiritually akin to Louis Armstrong and Captain Beefheart.
Waits never quite fit in alongside peers such as Jackson Browne or James Taylor. His instincts often pushed himself somewhere a little dirtier and darker, favoring tales of vagabonds and outcasts told with an inebriated sentimentality and irreverent humor. Throughout his decades-long career, the two-time GRAMMY winner never let go of the emotional honesty in his songwriting.
Waits has joked that he makes two types of songs: grim reapers and grand weepers. The former became his staple sound in the 1980s after he married longtime creative partner Kathleen Brennan and began his decade-long tenure on Island Records, which still occasionally found him returning to the latter via less frequent but no less disarming ballads.
What once was a songbook reflective of the bars and familiar streets evolved into surreal dens of iniquity and theaters of the grotesque. Waits' knack for storytelling and character development only strengthened over the years, even as his songs took more oddball and ominous shape. Swordfishtrombones' "Sixteen Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six" follows a hunter following a crow into a Moby Dick-like epic; spoken word standout "What’s He Building In There?," from 1999’s Mule Variations, prompts the listener to ponder who’s really up to no good.
Though his record sales have been modest, Waits' songs have been covered by the likes of Rod Stewart and Eagles, and he’s collaborated with everyone from Bette Midler to Keith Richards. His songwriting and unique musical aesthetic have influenced records by Andrew Bird, Neko Case, Morphine and PJ Harvey.
As Waits’ acclaimed series of albums on Island Records from the ‘80s and ‘90s are being reissued in remastered form — some for the first time on vinyl in decades — GRAMMY.com revisits the legendary singer/songwriter’s significant body of work via each of his studio albums. Press play on the Spotify playlist below, or visit Apple Music, Pandora, and Amazon Music to enter Waits' sonic wonderland of '70s era ballads and his plethora of twisted narratives and experimental sounds.
The Barroom Balladeer
Though often treated to his own idiosyncratic filter, Waits’ early output in the ‘70s reflected the glamor and sleaze of his Los Angeles surroundings.
Closing Time (1973)
Making his debut at the height of the ‘70s singer/songwriter boom, Tom Waits revealed only slight glimpses of his myriad idiosyncrasies on 1973’s Closing Time. Heavily composed of ballads, the album’s sound is a result of a compromise between Waits’ own preference for more jazz-leaning material and producer Jerry Yester’s penchant for folk.
Despite, or perhaps because of, that creative tension, Closing Time has a unique character. A sense of wanderlust and escape within its 12 piano-based songs feels like a jazzier, West Coast counterpart to Bruce Springsteen. Waits imbues the call of the road with a sense of melancholy on gorgeous opener "Ol’ 55" and gives a hefty tug at the heartstrings on the aching "Martha." He kicks up the tempo on "Ice Cream Man." Closing Time is often at its best when it’s more quietly haunting, like on the bluesy "Virginia Avenue."
Though the album didn’t initially garner much critical or commercial attention, it’s since become regarded as one of the finest moments of Waits’ early recordings. It also quickly earned the respect and admiration of other artists, with various songs from Closing Time being covered by Bette Midler, Eagles and Tim Buckley.
The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)
After establishing himself with the romantic ballads of his debut album, Waits waded deeper into the waters of boho jazz and beat poetry in its follow-up, The Heart of Saturday Night.
Waits shares his perspective from the piano bench and the barstool, occasionally delving into a sing-speak delivery against upright bass and brushed-drum backing. Throughout, Waits serves up colorfully embellished imagery about nights on the town and getting soused on the moon. Though not as experimental or sophisticated as some of his later recordings, The Heart of Saturday Night nonetheless finds Waits in a more playful mood, more overtly showcasing his sense of humor and penchant for a particular kind of down-and-out protagonist. Fittingly, the album's title track was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac.
The Heart of Saturday Night is somewhat autobiographical in that it’s one of the few albums that repeatedly features references to his youth growing up in San Diego. Most famously on "San Diego Serenade," as well as in his narrative of driving through Oceanside in "Diamonds on My Windshield," and his name-drop of Napoleone’s Pizza House, the pizzeria in National City where he worked as a teenager, in "The Ghosts of Saturday Night."
Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
As Tom Waits further established himself as a singer/songwriter more at home in the naugahyde and second-hand smoke of a seedy nightclub than a folk festival, he sought to replicate the atmosphere of a jazz club on his third album. It’s not a live album in a literal sense; Waits invited a small crowd into the Record Plant studio in Los Angeles on two nights in July of 1975, and though the venue is artifice, the crowd reactions are genuine.
More heavily rooted in jazz than Waits’ first two albums, Nighthawks at the Diner mostly follows a particular pattern: An "intro" track featuring some witty barfly banter, followed by an actual song. Introducing each song with a round of inebriated wordplay ("you’ve been standing on the corner of Fifth and Vermouth," "Well I order my veal cutlet, Christ, it just left the plate and walked down to the end of the counter…") is a bit of a gimmick, yet for all its loose, freewheeling feel, the album features some of his best early songs, including "Eggs and Sausage," "Warm Beer and Cold Women" and "Big Joe and Phantom 309."
Releasing a manufactured live album early on proved a canny gambit for Tom Waits and resulted in his highest charting album up to that date. And it’s easy to see why: Nighthawks showcased the raconteur persona that’d come to define much of Waits' work to come.
The Bluesy Bohemian
Embracing a grittier sound and a more character-driven approach to storytelling, Tom Waits entered a period of creative growth in the second half of the ‘70s that saw him balancing a darker tone with a wry sense of humor.
Small Change (1976)
On his second and third albums, a jazz influence and increasingly prominent humor saw Waits developing not just as a distinctive personality, but as a character. His raspy growl deepened onSmall Change, as Waits' barfly persona finds himself in increasingly seedier surroundings. This new area is best showcased through the amusingly unsexy striptease scat of "Pasties and a G-String" and the surreal and misty eyed "The Piano Has Been Drinking."
Small Change isn’t nearly as jokey as the previous year’s Nighthawks at the Diner, but Waits carries a persistent smirk as he rattles through a laundry list of hucksterish advertising slogans in the carnival-barker beat jazz of "Step Right Up": "It gets rid of unwanted facial hair, It gets rid of embarrassing age spots, It delivers the pizza." He even ramps up an element of danger in the noir poetry of "Small Change (Got Rained on With His Own .38)".
Still, the heartache and romance remains within the album’s best ballads, including the gorgeous opener "Tom Traubert’s Blues" and the imagined depiction of a lonely waitress in "Invitation to the Blues."
Foreign Affairs (1977)
Tom Waits’ fifth album Foreign Affairs unexpectedly became one of his most consequential releases.
A rare Waits album that opens with an instrumental ("Cinny’s Waltz"), Foreign Affairs finds him taking on more narrative driven songwriting, as in the lengthy noir tale of "Potter’s Field" and the nostalgic road-movie recollection of "Burma-Shave." It seems fitting that this is the moment where Hollywood began to crack a door open for Waits — these songs sound like they were made for the silver screen.
Indeed, album standout "I Never Talk to Strangers," a duet with Bette Midler, inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s 1981 film One From the Heart. Waits wrote and performed on its soundtrack, and would work with Coppola multiple times.
Blue Valentine (1978)
Parallels between Waits' music and his acting career crop up throughout , beginning with 1978’s Blue Valentine. Released the same year that he made his acting debut in Paradise Alley — cast as a piano player named Mumbles, an apt role to be sure — Blue Valentine opens with a big, cinematic number itself, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Somewhere," the famous ballad from West Side Story.
Blue Valentine also finds Waits in character development mode, increasingly populating his bluesy and bedraggled songs with widows and bounty hunters, night clerks and scarecrows wearing shades. It also features one of his most heartbreaking songs in "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," in which Waits’ first-person epistle comes from the voice of the title character who reaches out to an old friend in a hopeful and warm update on the changes she’s made for the better. And then he seamlessly, devastatingly pulls out the rug from underneath it all, as only a fabulist like Tom Waits can.
Heartattack and Vine (1980)
The transition from one decade to the next couldn’t have been starker for Tom Waits as he entered the 1980s. His final album for Asylum Records seemed to signal a sea change, with its leadoff track steeped in scuzzy, distorted guitar and gruff blues-rock rather than piano balladry, jazz and beat poetry.
Heartattack and Vine is in large part more of a proper rock record than any of Waits’ earlier albums, as he lends his husky growl to gritty songs such as "Downtown" and "In Shades." Still, it’s the most tender moments that comprise some of Heartattack and Vine’s most enduring songs, such as "On the Nickel" and, in particular, "Jersey Girl," covered four years later by the Garden State’s own Bruce Springsteen.
The Avant-Garde Auteur
Tom Waits underwent a significant transformation in the 1980s, mostly leaving behind the smoky jazz-club ballads of the ‘70s in favor of a more avant garde take on rock music, rife with an arsenal of unconventional instruments.
The most dramatic shift in Tom Waits’ career came with the release of 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, his first release for Island Records and the first album of what came to be the sound most often associated with Waits. It’s rougher, rawer, more experimental and offbeat. A great deal of the credit goes to Waits’ wife, Kathleen Brennan, who introduced him to artists like Captain Beefheart and who became his creative partner, co-writing many of his best-known songs.
Waits trades the piano and strings of his earlier material for arrangements better fit for junkyard jam sessions and New Orleans funerals. Though he’s delivered a long list of releases that have since usurped such a title, Swordfishtrombones certainly sounded like his weirdest album at the time. Very little of it sounded like a conventional pop song;it’s interwoven with spoken-word pieces both hilarious and unnerving ("Frank’s Wild Years," "Trouble’s Braids"), instrumentals ("Dave the Butcher," "Rainbirds"), boneyard bashers ("Underground," "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six") and even a few tender ballads ("Johnsburg, Illinois," "Town With No Cheer").
Though arguably far less commercial than anything he’d released prior, Swordfishtrombones still cracked the bottom half of the album charts. It also received the attention of critics, who praised Waits’ bold new direction and unconventional stylistic choices.
Rain Dogs (1985)
For much of the 1970s, Tom Waits took inspiration from the seamier side of Los Angeles, with occasional sentimental nods to his youth further south along Interstate 5 in San Diego. With 1985’s Rain Dogs, however, he relocated to New York City to capture an even grimier and grittier album inspired by its outcasts and outlaws.
Recorded in what was then a rough part of Manhattan in 1984, Rain Dogs continues the stylistic experimentation of Swordfishtrombones with an unusual array of instruments for a rock album, including marimba, trombone and accordion, the latter of which opens the title track in dramatic fashion with an incredible solo.
Rain Dogs also began Waits’ long collaborative relationship with Marc Ribot, whose guitar playing helps craft the album's signature sound. Through his Cuban jazz-inspired playing on "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and the scratchy and dissonant solo on "Clap Hands." Yet the album also finds him in the company of Keith Richards, whose licks appear on the album’s most famous song, "Downtown Train," which became a hit for Rod Stewart when he covered it in 1991.
Rain Dogs features Waits’ first co-writing credit from Brennan, brought dded gravitas to the aching ballad "Hang Down Your Head." It’s one of a few moments that cuts through the carnivalesque atmosphere of the album (see the demented nursery rhyme "Cemetery Polka," the crime-scene poetry of "9th and Hennepin" and the litany of misfortunes in "Gun Street Girl"). IRain Dogs is Tom Waits perfecting his approach, completing a stylistic transformation with one of his greatest batches of songs.
Frank’s Wild Years (1987)
One of the highlights of Waits’ 1983 album Swordfishtrombones was a humorous spoken-word jazz interlude wrapped up in a David Lynch nightmare, titled "Frank’s Wild Years," in which the titular Frank settles down into a suburban lifestyle, only to set his house on fire and drive off with the flames reflecting in his rearview mirror. Those 115 seconds or so were enough for Waits and Brennan to spin the idea out into a stage play, with this album serving as its soundtrack. (Its original cast at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre included Gary Sinise and Laurie Metcalf.)
Frank’s Wild Years likewise comprises songs performed in the play, though without the context of knowing its origins, it doesn’t so easily scan as a set of songs written for the stage. It continues the aesthetic vision that Waits pursued on his two previous Island Records albums, steeped in Weill-ian cabaret and mangled lounge-jazz renditions, like in the hammy Vegas version of "Straight to the Top." Waits continues to run wild stylistically, however, veering from junkyard blues-rock in opener "Hang On St. Christopher" to the tenderness of the lo-fi 78-style recording of closing ballad "Innocent When You Dream."
Fifteen years after its release, "Way Down in the Hole," was given a second life as the theme for the HBO drama "The Wire," each season featuring a different artist’s rendition of the song. Waits’ original scores the opening credits for season two.
Bone Machine (1992)
The title of Tom Waits’ tenth album fairly accurately sums up the sound of the record, which finds Waits incorporating heavier use of curious forms of percussion, many of them he played himself. Opening track "Earth Died Screaming" even resembles the sound of bones clanking against each other as Waits growls his way through an apocalyptic nightmare.
It’s fitting that Bone Machine coincided with Waits’ appearance as Renfield in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A macabre sensibility and grotesque narratives permeate this record:Acts of violence become a form of entertainment in "In the Colosseum," and he retells an actual story of a grisly homicide in "Murder in the Red Barn." There’s levity too, like in the delusions of a fame-seeker in the rowdy "Goin’ Out West," which, along with half the songs on the album, was co-written by Brennan.
Eerie and macabre as Bone Machine is, it earned Waits his first GRAMMYAward, for Best Alternative Music Album in 1993. Likewise, the Ramones covered standout track "I Don’t Wanna Grow Up" three years later on their final album ¡Adios Amigos!; Waits repaid the favor in 2003 with a cover of the band’s "Return of Jackie and Judy."
The Storyteller’s Songbook
Deeper into the ‘90s and ‘00s, Waits became more active in writing music for the theatrical stage, albeit filtered through his own peculiar lens. He also closed out the ‘90s with his longest album, helping to usher in a late-career renaissance.
The Black Rider (1993)
The soundtrack to a theatrical production,The Black Rider closed Waits' tenure with Island Records with the soundtrack to a theatrical production. Though his music appeared in films by the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Francis Ford Coppola, and he entered the world of theater with Frank’s Wild Years, this was his released composed in collaboration with playwright Robert Wilson — they would work on three productions together — based on German folktale Der Freischütz. In fact, Waits affects his best German accent in the title track, in which he beckons, "Come on along with ze black rider, we’ll have a gay old time!"
Highlights "Flash Pan Hunter," "November" and "Just the Right Bullets" juxtapose distorted barks against ramshackle arrangements of plucked banjo, clarinet and singing saw. , The structure of the album — rife with interludes, instrumentals and reprises — sets it apart from any of his prior works, leaving room for the listener to fill in the visual blanks.
Mule Variations (1999)
The release of Mule Variations coincided with the launch of Anti- Records, an offshoot of L.A. punk label Epitaph that was more focused on legacy artists in a variety of genres. This also resulted in the unlikely instance of a song by Tom Waits appearing on one of Epitaph’s famed Punk-O-Rama compilations, which typically featured selections by the likes of skatepunk icons NOFX and Pennywise.
The longest studio album in Waits’ catalog, Mule Variations makes good on a six-year gap by being stacked with an eclectic selection of songs, most of them co-written with Brennan (who also co-produced the album). From the lo-fi beatbox bark that blows open the doors of leadoff track "Big In Japan," Waits essentially takes a tour through a disparate but cohesive set of songs that feels like a career summary, from tent-revival blues ("Eyeball Kid"), to devastating balladry ("Georgia Lee") and rapturous gospel ("Come On Up to the House").
A new generation of TikTok users received an introduction to this album via a meme featuring the album’s "What’s He Building In There?", an eerie spoken-word track from the perspective of a paranoid, busybody neighbor that became an unlikely viral sensation.
Blood Money & Alice (2002)
Another collaboration with playwright/director Robert Wilson, Blood Money and Alice were released on the same day in 2002. Co-written by Brennan, both are the soundtracks to two plays, the former based on an unfinished Georg Büchner play Woyzeck and the latter an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
Blood Money is darker and harsher in tone, kicking off with the satirically pessimistic "Misery is the River of the World," and featuring highlights such as the obituary mambo of "Everything Goes to Hell" and the charmingly tender "All the World Is Green."
Alice — whose songs had been circulated for years in bootlegs in rougher form — is more subdued and strange, its gorgeously lush and haunting opening ballad an opening into a head-spinning world of Lewis Carroll surrealism and disorientation. "Kommienezuspadt" soundtracks White Rabbit hijinks through German narration and Raymond Scott machinations, "We’re All Mad Here" lends a slightly darker shadow to an uneasy tea party, and "Poor Edward" diverts slightly from Carroll canon to visit the story of Edward Mordrake, a man born with a face on the back of his head.
The Catalog Continues…
Though Waits hasn’t been quite as prolific in the past two decades as he had been from the ‘70s through the late ‘90s, he continued to refine and evolve his strange and uncanny sound, while sharing a triple-album’s worth of rare material that offered a wide view of his evolution over the prior two decades.
Real Gone (2004)
Waits maintained his prolific streak with the lengthy Real Gone, which featured 16 songs and spans nearly 70 minutes — just a hair shorter than his longest, Mule Variations. It’s also the rare Tom Waits album to feature no piano or organ, its melodies primarily provided via noisier guitar from Harry Cody, Larry Taylor and longtime collaborator Marc Ribot, along with contributions from Primus bassist Les Claypool and Waits’ own son, Casey, who provides percussion and turntable scratches.
Real Gone is, at its wildest, the most abrasive record in Waits’ catalog, clanging and clapping and clattering through uproarious standouts such as the supernatural mambo of "Hoist That Rag," the CB-radio squawk of "Shake It" and creepy-crawly stomp "Don’t Go Into That Barn," one of his better scary stories to tell in the dark. He leaves a little room to ease back on dirges like the haunting "How’s It Gonna End" and the subtly gorgeous "Green Grass," but every corner of the album is populated by outsized characters and ominous visions that seem larger than ever.
Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (2006)
A career as long and fruitful as that of Tom Waits is bound to leave some material on the cutting room floor, the likes of which is compiled on the triple-disc set Orphans. Composed of non-album material that stretches all the way back to the 1980s, it’s divided into three distinctive themes: Brawlers, a disc of rowdier rock ‘n’ roll and blues material; Bawlers, a set of ballads; and Bastards, made up of what doesn’t fit into the other two categories — essentially Waits’ most fringe, peculiar music.
In drawing the focus toward each distinctive type of songs, Waits lets listeners experience more intensive, discrete aspects of his music. It’s the "Bastards," however, that tap into the extremes of Waits’ unique talents, comprising strange and macabre storytelling, unintelligible barks, even a wildly distinctive take on "Heigh Ho," from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Some of these songs had previously been released in some fashion — many of them appearing on movie soundtracks as well as collaborative efforts like Sparklehorse’s "Dog Door" — Orphans speaks to how productive he’s been over the past 40 years.
Bad As Me (2011)
Tom Waits’ final album (so far) hit shelves 12 years ago, the aftermath of which opened up his longest stretch without any new music since he began releasing records. Yet Bad As Me only offers the suggestion that Waits still has plenty of energy and inspiration left in the tank, as the album — released when he was 61 years old — comprises some of the hardest rocking material he’s ever committed to tape. It’s an album heavy on rowdy rock ‘n’ roll guitar, including that of Keith Richards, who had also previously lent his guitar playing to 1985’s Rain Dogs, as well as longtime collaborator Marc Ribot and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. Waits mostly adheres to concise, charged-up barnburners such as "Let’s Get Lost," "Chicago" and the more politically charged anti-war song "Hell Broke Luce." Though when Waits does ease off the throttle on songs like the eerie "Talking at the Same Time," the results are often spectacular.
If Tom Waits were to simply leave this as the end of his recorded legacy, it’d be a satisfying closing statement, though the closing ballad "New Year’s Eve" — ending on a brief round of "Auld Lang Syne" — would suggest new beginnings ahead of him. As it turns out, Bad As Me isn’t intended to be his last; earlier this year he confirmed that, for the first time in over a decade, he’s been working on writing new songs.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].