Tuning Up

Take a crash course in this year's Virgin Fest lineup with these 10 essential albums

July 29, 2008|By Sam Sessa and Rashod D. Ollison | Sam Sessa and Rashod D. Ollison,Sun reporters

Before the lights dim and the band plays, the question stands: Have you done your homework?

Did you dig back through your record collection, spot the band's best album and spin it a few times before the show?

Crack open a CD case (or click an iTunes download button) and listen to the music. Suddenly, old memories mingle with a rush of fresh excitement. You're going to see these guys live. And with the two-day, three-stage Virgin Mobile Festival a couple weeks away, there are a lot of bands to prep for.

Announced yesterday, the full schedule of more than 40 performers spans generations and musical genres. Since many of the festival's acts have large catalogs, it can be tough to sort through all their albums in the next couple weeks.

Here is the essential listening for 10 of the festival's biggest bands:

*Kanye West, Late Registration: The notoriously egomaniacal producer-MC achieves a more cohesive sound on this CD, which followed his 2004 blockbuster debut, The College Dropout. Where the production was a bit thin and crude on the first album, it sounds much fuller on Late Registration. Horns and strings tastefully shadow West's sometimes clever but always limited flow. Despite its heavy reliance on Curtis Mayfield's 1970 classic "Move On Up," "Touch the Sky" is a standout track along with "Gold Digger," the album's No. 1 single.

*Bob Dylan, The Essential Bob Dylan: Summing up a long, gloriously chameleonic career like Dylan's (or picking a definitive album) is no easy task. But for those who want a satisfying sample of the various phases and stages of his storied, nearly 50-year recording career, this two-disc set is perhaps the best on the market. The collection features 30 songs, including his most popular (and frighteningly relevant) classics, such as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'." The album, which boasts clear and balanced remastering, serves its purpose as a succinct overview of an amazing catalog.

*Jack Johnson, Brushfire Fairytales: The soft-voiced surfer shared his smooth, acoustic, Hawaiian sound with the rest of the world on this 2001 debut album. "Flake," the album's only single, was a hit with the college crowd, who embraced Johnson's laid-back style. Brushfire Fairytales is full of breezy summer tunes with easy-going grooves and catchy melodies.

*Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III: Undoubtedly the hottest album of the summer, Tha Carter III is also the most fully realized set by the quirky New Orleans rapper. Though overlong and uneven in its second half, the CD still teems with catchy rhymes casually delivered in Wayne's wheezy, idiosyncratic flow. They're all backed by hypnotic beats that burble and boom. The album features some of the artist's best cuts, including the hits "Lollipop" and "A Milli."

*Stone Temple Pilots, Purple: If you listened to rock radio in the mid-'90s, Purple was inescapable. Named after singer Scott Weiland's favorite color, it was the band's sophomore album and one of its most commercially successful. Heavy guitar riffs and Weiland's husky voice helped drive the album, and singles such as "Interstate Love Song," "Vaseline" and "Big Empty" pushed Purple to multiplatinum status. Loved by fans and loathed by some critics, Purple cemented the band as a fixture in '90s rock.

*Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral: Front man Trent Reznor holed up in the Beverly Hills house where Sharon Tate was murdered to record this 1994 industrial rock album which chronicles the destruction and eventual suicide of an unidentified main character. Critically acclaimed, it contained the pulsing hit "Closer" and the climactic "Hurt," which Johnny Cash later covered on one of his final recordings. Ironically, though The Downward Spiral introduced Reznor to a mainstream audience, its title is indicative of Reznor's career after its release.

*Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Raw Power: The name says it all. This incredibly influential album is a sonic assault from start to finish. Pop howls and hisses his way through eight tracks - each with blistering guitars and thunderous drums. Though a commercial dud when first released, Raw Power inspired several generations of punk rockers. It was grunge pioneer Kurt Cobain's favorite album and still resonates some 35 years later.

*Foo Fighers, The Colour and the Shape: Drummer and guitarist Dave Grohl proved his skill as a musician and songwriter on this seminal alternative rock album. With it, Grohl shed his reputation as "Nirvana's drummer" and became known as the front man for the Foo Fighters. The dynamic single "Everlong" became one of the band's signature songs, and "My Hero" was featured on the smash-hit high school football film Varsity Blues. A critical and commercial smash, The Colour and the Shape earned a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album.

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