November 25, 2008

Chinese Democracy, Great Voices, and Brilliant Albums

(Note: If you don't give a rat's ass about Guns N Roses, there's probably more to interest you below.)

I was 15 when Appetite for Destruction came out. Despite the fact that we didn't know a damn thing about cocaine (Mr. Brownstone), had little experience with hardcore sex (Anything Goes) and knew little about the booze-filled world (Paradise City) of which Axl sang, there was something about that album that struck a chord, not just in me but in about everyone I knew. It was a perfect album for suburban high school kids. But more than that - and history has shown this, I think - it was almost a perfect album altogether. I later saw the band live in 1991, a few weeks before they released Use Your Illusion. The show was incredible. But after those two albums hit - aside from the awful Spaghetti Incident and lackluster live package - we were left hanging. For thirteen years.

With Chinese Democracy, Axl Rose would have you believe that he's created a new Guns N Roses album. But don't believe it for a minute. Guns N Roses was five guys making some great music. And even with the personnel changes that went down during their heyday, the band's music was a collection of the input of each of those musicians. This incarnation of the band is merely Axl with some hired guns. The more you think of this as an Axl solo album, the happier you'll be with it. Because the bottom line is that it's a crappy GNR album but a pretty decent piece of music once it stands on its own without the baggage the band name brings.

The first major observation? There is absolutely no reason this album should have taken 13 years to make. Axl didn't use those 13 years to generate better and better material, replacing older inferior songs with better new ones. Instead it seems like he used the time to nitpick the material he already had on hand. Most of the songs are packed tight with extra guitar solos, electonic blips and bleeps, strings and towering walls of backing vocals. And in most cases these touches don't improve the songs themselves. They sound merely as if someone spent way too much time messing with them trying in vain to make them perfect.

That's not to say the songs are bad. In fact there are some fine songs on the album. After the jump, I've reproduced the notes I took as I listened. The bottom line? I'm having a hard time figuring out what I think of this album. Here's what I know for sure.

  • This isn't a GNR album. It's an Axl album plain and simple.
  • Thirteen years of work does not automatically yield a good album.
  • Axl can pick some mean guitarists. There's some astonishingly good guitar work on the album. But aside from those great guitar moments, the musicianship isn't anything astonishing. And it's clear these guys are hired guns. There's no cohesive group vibe.
  • Axl's voice is, for the most part, intact and pretty darn good given the time that's passed.
  • These songs were assembled (and reassembled) with the conviction of an OCD sufferer.
  • Sometimes the attention to detail pays off. A lot of the time, it dulls the music.

As a Guns N Roses album - with all the baggage that name carries - Chinese Democracy isn't good. Last night I popped in Use Your Illusion II and Appetite for Destruction. Now, that's Guns N Roses. Chinese Democracy isn't. But as an Axl Rose album, Chinese Democracy ain't bad. The parts of the album that work best are those in which Axl isn't trying to capture Guns N Roses' heyday and is just being himself. I guess my simple piece of advice for Axl would be to stop hiding behind the name Guns N Roses. GNR was five guys, making some kick-ass music. Most of those guys are gone. What remains isn't a band but an individual. But lucky for us, that individual is pretty damn talented.

Should you buy it? Ah, hell. I don't know.

* * * * *

On a related topic, I'm pretty sure that, when Rolling Stone gets to the point of publishing at least two or three magazines full of lists a year, they've jumped the shark. This month? The 100 greatest singers of all time. And like all their recent attempts at lists, they made some wacky picks and missed some talent. Like, why would Bob Dylan ever be included in a list of great singers? Songwriters, yes. But his voice sucks. And where is Frank Sinatra? Where is Randy Newman? Where are Peter Gabriel, Chris Cornell and Charlotte Martin?

And above I mentioned that I thought Appetite for Destruction was a near-perfect album. Others that I lump into that category are U2's Joshua Tree, Peter Gabriel's So, The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed and, perhaps, Radiohead's The Bends.

I ask you - who, in your mind, are the greatest singers of our time? And which singers are criminally under-appreciated? And what, in your mind, are the greatest albums made?

The Postscript: My notes from the Chinese Democracy tracklist

  • Chinese Democracy. Sounds like something that should have been recorded on an early 2000s metal album, like something from Limp Bizkit. Besides Axl's voice, there's absolutely no signature GnR sound to kick off the album. The song is actually pretty terrible.
  • Shackler's Revenge. Okay, there's a hell of a hook here but otherwise the song is pretty much cliche. And there's a little too much going on - noises, guitar riffs everywhere, Axl all over the place. Still, not terrible. Actually, pretty good.
  • Better. Not tragic but not good. It sounds like a lame attempt at combining nu-metal and formulaic GNR sounds. The result is a combination of the crappiest aspects of both.
  • Street of Dreams. If Axl and Elton John co-wrote a song (yeah, I can see that happening), this is what it would sound like. A little wimpy for Axl but I like it. And fantastic guitars reminiscent of Slash.
  • If The World. There's a distinctly non-GNR funky cadence to it. It's not bad - different but not bad. This is definitely not something that would have ever come close to appearing on a previous GNR album but it's worth listening to. The Spanish guitar is a but much but the other guitar work is top-notch.
  • If There Was A Time. Son of Estranged. Which isn't a bad thing.
  • Catcher In The Rye. Another mid-tempo, not too hard, not too soft number. Something you can tap your foot to.
  • Scraped. A throwaway. Here's an attempted return to the hard-driving three and a half minute metal song that contributes almost nothing to the album. The tight, compressed rhythm guitars give it a nu-metal feel which might have sounded cutting-edge when the song was written (whenever that was) but sound dated now. The guitar solo, while good, tries a little too hard to sound like a Slash solo.
  • Riad N'the Bedouins. More electronic elements mixed with some crunchy guitars gives off that nu-metal vibe which leads to the same dated sound. And I've got to say there are a couple verses during which Axl sounds distinctly female. The song tries way too hard though the groove is good. The guitars are frantic and uncharacteristically annoying for this album. Throwaway.
  • Sorry. There's a distinctly dark, dirge-like feel to this song. Think Led Zeppelin's No Quarter or something in the early Sabbath catalog. In fact, Axl himself sounds like Ozzy from time to time. Totally different direction for GNR but a good one.
  • IRS. Again uncharacteristic for GNR, there's an electronic groove accompanied by acoustic guitars and an almost breezy feel. It hasn't changes much from the leaked version a couple of years ago. It's not a bad song and probably would have been at home on Use Your Illusion. The guitar work is fantastic.
  • Madagascar. Who broke Axl's leg and left the tape running in the studio? Seriously, it kinda sounds like he smoked way too much then sprained something. And honestly, the strings on this album are getting a little old. And oh goody - sound effects and samples. Again, great guitars.
  • This I Love. During the first 20 seconds I came to the conclusion that this was the worst piece of shit on the album. The remainder of the song did little to convince me otherwise. Ingredients: piano, strings, sap. Like November Rain only suckier which is, admittedly, difficult. The only saving grace is the guitar work which there's way too little of but it's fantastic. Otherwise? Really bad.
  • Prostitute. More drama. It's got a really big sound that alternates between quiet and laid back and completely over the top dramatic, similar to the way Axl interpreted Live And Let Die. Brilliant way to close the album.

Posted by Chris at November 25, 2008 6:25 AM

"Who broke Axl's leg and left the tape running in the studio?"

Best way to wake up in the morning that I've found...

Cornell's pretty high up there on my all-time singers. I'd say otherwise, Jeff Buckley just did interesting things that are still influencing vocalists, the old Steven Tyler, Sharon Jones, for starters...

Posted by: alektra at November 25, 2008 7:01 AM

Gah! My 10 year old wants the album- not sure I can listen to it. As far as "not appreciated" vocalists go? Allison Krauss, James Taylor and I always love me some Jimmy Buffett. Darius Rucker's recent album is nothing to be sneezed at either!

Posted by: Christy at November 25, 2008 7:53 AM

I certainly won't be buying. I have heard a few songs on the radio enough to know that I do not want to buy it. GNR was awesome back in the day. But this is not GNR especially when half of GNR is in Velvet Revolver. Give me a break. This is an Axl album and unfortunately for Axl he's not as good as he was with the real band of GNR. Sorry Axl. I'll just be sitting over here listening to One in A Million and Welcome to the Jungle and rocking out...until you get "Better"

Posted by: Deirdre at November 25, 2008 8:05 AM

Actually, I jsut read that issue of RS - and I don't believe the staff at RS voted - basically, they asked a LOT of musicians to name the best singers and that's where the list came from. I know in the front of the mag, they show a copy of (without grabbing the mag, I can't say for sure) Keith Richards's ballot, I think.

So - yeah, there may be some amazing talent missing - but if I'm understanding right, it's representative of the people who voted.

Personally, I will ALWAYS love Kurt Cobain and though I will never describe him as a good singer for any reason based on technical merit, there was just the way you could feel something in his voice. ("Where did you sleep last night" - though a cover, is one that always gets me when I think of Kurt).

Many of my favorites made the list, but I would have added Adam Duritz from Counting Crows. I love him.

Posted by: Sarah at November 25, 2008 8:07 AM

Bono of course. Jim Morrison. Such an amazing and haunting voice.
Michael Jackson before he went crazy. And Whitney Houston before Bobby Brown.
Steve Perry- for as ugly as he was, every high school girl went crazy for that voice.

Also Freddie Mercury, Jon Bon JOvi, Kurt Cobain

I was going to say Madonna, but she's more of a great "performer" than singer.

Posted by: Lisa at November 25, 2008 8:09 AM

greatest singers? Chris Cornell, Bono, Udo Dirkschneider, Rob Halford, David Daniel "Dee" Snider, oh there are so many more that I could put up, but I'm wore out already and the day hasn't been going all that long.

Posted by: Jeff A at November 25, 2008 8:21 AM

I listened to the snippets on iTunes, so I got a taste of each song. We all know that you've gotta hear the entire thing to be able to judge the album... I don't intend on buying it -- after all, who wants to buy music that's 13 years old?? -- but it may be acquired in some way. Perhaps I will 'borrow' it from someone. I just need to hear the album through to be able to make a decision. Maybe that'll happen within the next 13 years for me. (As you can see, I'm not in a real big hurry here...)

Posted by: ironic1 at November 25, 2008 8:32 AM

In addition to Appetite For Destruction and Joshua Tree, I'd say

Radiohead - OK Computer (although Bends is right up there)

Pearl Jam - Vs. (yes, Seattle purists will argue, but Vs is mature PJ before Eddie Vedder became completely disillusioned with the music industry)

Led Zeppelin - Houses Of The Holy (IV and In Through The Out Door get honourable mentions)

Posted by: SciFi Dad at November 25, 2008 8:43 AM

I can't answer your question because I go through phases where I don't listen to music for years at a time.

I think I'm going to give Chinese Democracy a try. Thank you for the review.

Posted by: Maria at November 25, 2008 8:53 AM

I have to agree..after 2 listens I was like why did this take SO long? 14 songs on the album, he could have spent a year per song and I don't think they are very good. It's certainly NOT GNR but like you said, its Axl. Might as well been a solo album. The Velvet Revolver albums more more GNR...I am not going to get overly excited about a GNR album until i hear its the original lineup (drummer doesn't matter) recording it.

Posted by: Darren at November 25, 2008 9:12 AM

Your questions are tough as far as greatest singer but I am going to have to say will Shatner.

Posted by: William at November 25, 2008 9:17 AM

I thought Mr. Brownstone was heroin...guess I have been living a lie for years.

Posted by: harrylips at November 25, 2008 9:24 AM

I think Chris Cactus should be on the list of greatest singers.

Posted by: jessica at November 25, 2008 9:54 AM

Definitely Robert Plant, James Taylor and I love me some Billy Joel and Elton John!!

Posted by: Terra at November 25, 2008 10:01 AM

I'm thinking that the little-known Shawn Smith should be on that list.

Posted by: ::c:: at November 25, 2008 10:45 AM

ann wilson is way up there on my list of great singers. her voice is amazing and im my opinion the one of the best female vocalists ever. Freddie Mercury is tops too. there are so many more that i cant think of right now.

Posted by: madmom at November 25, 2008 10:59 AM

Great review, thanks!

Posted by: Brad at November 25, 2008 11:05 AM

greatest singers, in terms of actual voice and singing ability? bono, sting, roger daltrey, peter gabriel, michael jackson, van morrison, bruce.

perfect albums: joshua tree, born to run, indigo girls' rites of passage, moondance

Posted by: Gayle at November 25, 2008 11:15 AM

Surprisingly enough, I never really got into rock, until a friend realized that I had no idea who Guns and Roses were besides thing like Paradise City. I believe it started the morning he said he was listening to Free Bird... and had me listen to it. Since then... wow. I can't believe how much I was listening.

I still have to say that Appetite for Destruction is my favorite Guns and Roses cd, but I'm looking forward to hearing Chinese Democracy.

Posted by: Hannah at November 25, 2008 11:29 AM

I may have to pass this blogpost onto a coworker of mine who is a music fanatic and I'm sure he'd give you an list of awesome singers of all time.

Me, only because I don't see them mentioned at all here, and because they are my all time favorite band is Fleetwood Mac. Stevie Nicks along side Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood all Rock!! I love 'em! It's too bad they're all not together anymore.

Posted by: Samantha at November 25, 2008 11:35 AM

Bono by should google him singing opera...not that i am a fan of opera but he did a duet with pavarotti...amazing he sang the opera part live I got to hear it twice...amazing

Posted by: Becky at November 25, 2008 11:43 AM

I am a confirmed anti-music-snob, so I have nothing to say regarding singers.* But I did want to say thing: I was 13 when GNR hit and I had never seen anything sexier than Axl Rose. I wasn't one to swoon over musicians but...holy crap. That man was so different and crazy and he did that sexy, snake-y dance thing and his voice just killed me. When he played several years ago at the MTV music awards and looked sad and out-of-tune and old, my heart broke. And that is why I probably will never listen to Chinese Democracy. I just can't go back.

*That's so not true. Lyle Lovett could sing me to sleep every damn night and I wouldn't mind. Okay, that's all.

Posted by: Alias Mother at November 25, 2008 12:13 PM

Best singer: Harry Connick, Jr., but I really dig that kind of music, so I kind of expect you to be making a, 'Huh?' face right now, as you may have been expecting rock-flavored singers.

Underrated singer: Chris Cornell. Maybe underrated isn't quite accurate, but between his Soundgarten work and his Audioslave stuff, his voice has not only retained its awesomehood, but the music behind it has also remained really high quality. That combination puts him in rarified air in my opinion as a musician.

Greatest album: Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin entries are the obvious choices, but I'm going to go with Def Leppard's Hysteria. I listened the shit out of it in high school, after high school, and ever since and I'm still hooked on every single song.

Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' at November 25, 2008 12:19 PM

someone gave me a copy of this yesterday. i'm still not sure how i feel about it...

Posted by: ali at November 25, 2008 12:20 PM

I put that list down immediately when I saw Freddie Mercury had placed BELOW Bob Dylan by ELEVEN SPOTS because at that point, it completely lost all credibility for me.

Yes, Dylan is an amazing song writer, I love some of his songs, but the list is SINGERS. SINGERS.

(I really do think I threw the magazine away right after that. Dylan? Over Mercury? Bah! Humbug! I call scam!)

Posted by: Caleal at November 25, 2008 12:25 PM


I really thought OK Computer was a triumph. Also Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Wilco, as a rule, doesn't get half the credit they deserve. They're beautiful melodic, with amazing AMAZING lyrics and craftsmanship in their music. Bob Dylan? Really? That gives me hope. If he can be a world's best singer, so can I.

God help you all.

Posted by: Mr Lady at November 25, 2008 12:48 PM

I'll restate my feelingw about Chinese Democracy, the album -- why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free on MySpace?

I don't read Rolling Stone precisely because I'm sure they got it all wrong. It's all personal taste, anyway. Is Jeff Tweedy as good a singer, technically, as Jessica Simpson? No. But he's the better singer because he knows how to impart his life experience in a song, how to project a mood... it's all about subtlety, really.

My favorite current singers, at least that come to mind, are Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Of the 20th century? Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin. Sorry, boy singers, you don't make the cut. :) Ooh, maybe Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding.

Posted by: Laura at November 25, 2008 1:19 PM

I laughed at the line up at the music store for that album on Saturday. Seriously - Axel Rose is not a reason to purchase an album - I can tell you that if all 5 guys got back together my 9 month pregnant belly would have been camping out overnight to buy that record. I think I will take Velvet Revolver any day.....

I think Sarah McLachlin, Chris Cornell, Adam Duritz, Scott Weiland, Maynard James Keenan (even though Tool is not my style) and Steven Patrick Morrissey were painfully overlooked.

Never mind- Morrissey is #92 - I must have missed it the first time through (now I have that damn Big Mouth Strikes Again song in my head).

I love that Roger Daltrey is on the list - although I would have put him higher up in numbers....I also love that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are on there too; even though I hate country music I loved their voices as a child. It brings back memories of hanging out with my dad.

Posted by: Sleepynita at November 25, 2008 7:37 PM

I have a hard time nailing down the greatest singers or the under-appreciated...because for me, that changes depending on the week, the year, the day, the hour!

I have a few great albums...what makes a great album to me is one I will listen too all the way through every time...can't listen to just one song without the rest. Or, you won't skip a song because they are all just too good...Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, Queensr├┐che's Empire, Beatle's White Album, Rolling Stones's Let It Bleed, Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Alanis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill. Anything by the Doors, Anything by Led Zepplin.

Posted by: cyndy at November 25, 2008 7:57 PM

Best review notes ever. I adore bad reviews. In fact, I seek them out I think they are an art.

On the 100 list. There are a few stupid choices. Dylan you can sort of see as defining his own style.
But Tom Waits? Really? Rod Stewart? Come on.

While Cobain offed himself and he seems to appear on all these lists, and he was influential for sure. I think both Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell were better singers. Bono maybe. I'm sure if I were to sit and think about this I'd come up with more.

Posted by: Nat at November 25, 2008 10:53 PM

I can never answer these "pick five" questions -- I couldn't narrow music's "best" down to five with a gun to my head.

I'm on board with Peter Gabriel's So; beyond that I'd have to say Miles' Bitch's Brew, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper, The Rainmakers' self-titled, X's Los Angeles, Led Zeppelin III, and Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks. And about 100 others. Ha.

Posted by: Elise at November 26, 2008 7:40 AM

listening to GNR brings back memories of bon fires, 20 gallon trash cans (new of course) full of fruit and jungle juice and after that...well, it's all a blur.

i listened to this new cd and i gotta say in my (humble)opinion it sucks ass. axl should be ashamed of himself. i dont know if it's all that plastic surgery that has gone to his head, but if this cd is all he's got after 13 years then he needs to quit. i didnt like it. i tried to listen to it several times, but found myself hitting the fwd. arrow and trying to get through the songs. bummer too cause i was as equally as excited about this as i was the new AC/DC cd.

now, in my mind (as fragile as it is) i gotta say my all time favorite cd is throwing copper. pure poetry. Kowalczyk is a genius. i also remember listening to CCR when I was growing up and that band will always have a sentimental place in my heart-reminds me of my dad when he'd be in the garage cleaning it on a saturday morning with the music blaring and my mom screaming at him to turn it down. "have you ever seen the rain?" good tune.

not big on sinatra..but never really listened honestly. i should...and i will.

enjoy your thanksgiving with your are blessed.

Posted by: kimmyk at November 26, 2008 1:59 PM

Ooh, favorite albums, fun! I agree with the Radiohead "Bends" one. Also I have always loved Weezer's Blue album, the Snatch soundtrack, and that first Macy Gray album, from when she was just partly crazy.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

Posted by: tamara at November 27, 2008 12:18 AM

My two favorite albums of all time are "Appetite" and "Prett Hate Machine".

(also, I think Mr. Brownstone is about Heroin, but having done neither - you may be right about the cocaine)

Posted by: Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah at December 15, 2008 8:14 PM

GAH! I always hit enter before I am done.

Most underrated band: Alice in Chains.

Best voice: Steve Perry. I know. I can't believe it either, but I think that is the correct answer.

Posted by: Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah at December 15, 2008 8:17 PM