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Baseball Season is Here! Musical Grand Slams to Welcome It In

April 8, 2014

Baseball season has just begun, and although my beloved Yankees might be rebuilding for the first time in two decades, and the hated Red Sox are the defending World Series Champions, I refuse to let that dampen my excitement. Last year the Red Sox were coming off a 69-win season after which they fired their manager and were all but written off before the season even began. The lesson: you never know. It’s possible that Yangervis Solarte will lead the Yankees to a surprising 28th title.

In the spirit of the season, I revisited a podcast that had been sitting on my iPhone for just over a year, Episode #383 of WBEZ Chicago’s Sound Opinions. Why that episode? The theme of it was musical Grand Slams: Four knockout albums in a row. As they explain:

With Baseball’s Opening Day around the corner, Jim and Greg team up with Len Kasper, TV voice of the Chicago Cubs, to pay homage to their version of a Grand Slam. We all know how this works in baseball (though sports-phobe Jim DeRogatis is still getting the hang of the rules). A batter hits a home run with bases loaded, sending four players to home plate. In music, Jim and Greg define a grand slam as four masterpiece albums in a row. Which artists have achieved this rarest of rock feats? Jim and Greg sit down to compare stats.

Jim is Jim DeRogatis, full-time lecturer in the Professional Writing Program of the English Department at Columbia College Chicago, former rock critic at The Chicago Sun-Times and author of many books about music, including ones about Lester Bangs, the Velvet Underground and the Flaming Lips. Greg is Greg Kot, music critic at the Chicago Tribune since 1990, music blogger at Turn it Up, and author of several books, including Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music – a book I highly recommend. These two men know their music.

Each of Jim and Greg selected four artists as their Grand Slam hitters. Of the eight, only one was an obvious choice to me, and both men cited it as the most obvious selection overall, one they fought over. That is the Velvet Underground. The band that put out only four albums with their core duo of Lou Reed and John Cale made them count, as each of the four albums is a masterpiece.

After the Velvets, the other band that I’m in overwhelming agreement about is Hüsker Dü. Starting with double album Zen Arcade, ending with Candle Apple Grey, and with my two favorite HD albums in between – New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig, somehow Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton put out four fantastic albums – one a double LP – in just three years.

After that, the choices by Greg and Jim become increasingly less obvious to me. Greg started things off with Stevie Wonder, the one artist of the eight whose work I honestly don’t know at all. Jim offered back Led Zeppelin (starting with Led Zeppelin II). I know how beloved this band is for many people so I won’t question the selection, but I’m just not a Zeppelin guy (though even I’ll admit the brilliance of Led Zeppelin IV). Greg shockingly came back with Riot Grrrl band Sleater-Kinney. Even though I’m a fan, that one’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Jim – hating the Sleater-Kinney choice but sticking with the era – offered up Blur, starting with their second album (Modern Life is Rubbish) and ending with their self-titled fifth. Blur has always been a critical darling, so this selection didn’t shock me as much as it could have. Anyway, I’ve always liked Blur, so I’ll allow this one to pass without critique. Greg then offered up the only post-millennium artist and of all people it was Kanye West (his first four albums). Believe it or not, Greg offered up enough evidence to convince me that Kanye was a worthy selection. Doubters should listen to Late Registration and Graduation in particular, which are both really strong albums. Finally, Jim went with ’80s new wave band XTC, claiming that they had not four, but seven masterpiece albums in a row. Seven! Dear God.

So who did they miss? Well, if the standard for a musical masterpiece is XTC or Sleater-Kinney, probably a lot. But here would be some of my proposed musical Grand Slams. Remember, it has to be four albums in a row, no duds allowed:

  1. The Velvet Underground. Starting things off easy here. They could rename the musical Grand Slam the VU. Not to diminish Lou Reed’s prolific solo career, but it’s a real shame that the band’s four masterpieces were their only output.
  2. The Smiths. Maybe the key to hitting a musical Grand Slam is to only produce four albums? For the life of me I don’t understand how Greg and Jim could include Blur but exclude the Manchester legends that effectively gave birth to them. Over four years Morrissey and Marr put out four albums that are so exquisite that the band lives on today in the hearts of thousands if not millions of fans as if it still exists.
  3. The Replacements. I’m giving them the edge over Hüsker Dü. Barely. In my opinion the four album run that is 1983’s Hootenanny, 1984’s Let It Be, 1985’s Tim and 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me is the standard by which 1980’s indie rock should be measured.
  4. Beck. The man has so many great albums that it’s hard to pick any four consecutive ones to make up the Grand Slam. Forced to choose, I’d go with the following foursome: Odelay, Mutations, Midnite Vultures, Sea Change. It feels criminal to leave off Guero, but I decided that I was going to stick to the rules (that DeRogatis himself broke) and forced to choose to between starting with Odelay or Mutations (and thus ending with Guero), I went with the 1996 game-changing album.
  5. The National. The only artist on my list whose streak is still active, as I believe each of their last four albums are masterpieces. But you already know how I feel about the National.

I would defend any of those five choices until the end of the earth. But if somehow one of you wonderful readers disagrees and is looking for another worthy selection, here are five more that I think are just a shade below (but musical Grand Slams nonetheless)

  1. Sonic Youth. I’d start the run with the best of them all, Daydream Nation, which is followed by Goo, Dirty and Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Full disclosure:I don’t really know Experimental Jet Set well enough to confidently call it a masterpiece, but the other three are so great that I’m putting this on my list anyway.
  2. The Cure. They made it easy in some respects by really hitting their stride with the run that started with The Head on the Door and ended with Wish. that’s not to say that there haven’t been great albums before or since, but I believe that was easily the Cure’s best sustained run.
  3. The White Stripes. I’d say that their last four albums, White Blood Cells, Elephant, Get Behind Me Satan, and Icky Thump are the ones to include, but you could take one or two off the end and include their second album De Stijl and their self-titled debut and I wouldn’t argue. Jack White really is a talented S-O-B.
  4. Arcade Fire. I wanted so badly to have them in my top 5. I just don’t have it in me to call Neon Bible a masterpiece. That album has never resonated with me the way that Funeral, The Suburbs and Reflektor do.
  5. LCD Soundsystem*. What would a post about home runs and baseball be without an asterisk?  LCD Soundsystem only put out three studio albums before James Murphy closed up shop in 2011. Those three though were so perfect that there’s no doubt that LCD would have hit a Grand Slam with their next album. Murphy went out on top (and is milking it for all it’s worth) but who’s to say there won’t be a fourth LCD album somewhere down the line?

I don’t get a lot of comments around here, but I’m curious to know whether anyone thinks I’ve left off a great musical Grand Slam. Share your thoughts!

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