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The 5 Essential Patti Smith Albums
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The 5 Essential Patti Smith Albums

Picture of Ryan Parkes
Updated: 4 October 2016
Patti Smith is a seminal poet and musician responsible for shaping both underground and mainstream modes of music. Her career spans the length of about four decades, spawning 11 albums and countless poems. Smith is known as a forerunner of punk rock, fostering the development of many after her, including the highly influential band, The Smiths. Much like the modernist movement of poetry, punk rock was known for its deconstructive cultural elements.

Gone Again

Released in 1996, what makes Gone Again so essential is its ability to capture the grunge, hopelessness, and petulant malaise that was 1990s alternative rock. Where Radiohead’s musings dealt with social tension through Thom York’s vapid yet pensive vocals throughout Ok Computer, Smith’s delivery remained as painfully direct and lyrically coded – Sylvia Plath through electric chord progressions. The sound itself is not one in which she waves the flag of punk rebellion. She closes out “Beneath The Southern Cross” describing a place where “gods get lost beneath the southern cross,” an almost tacit subversion of religion and its monotheistic leanings. Also, one would be hard-pressed to find better stolid wailing than on the numinous “My Madrigal.”

Radio Ethiopia

Plath had two poems about poppies in summer and autumn. Whether this fact has anything to do with the listener’s ability to connect these poems to the third track on Radio Ethiopia is fully up to the listener. It really does seem like Patti was in the studio with Plath, Muddy Waters, and Lou Reed to talk about drug use, both legal and otherwise. Her spoken word on this song is eerily colloquial, yet staggering. Some phrases are drawn out, but for the most part, she’s conservative with the spastic vocal screeching. But that doesn’t speak for the rest of the album. The opener contains a scratchy, power electric guitar solo amongst Smith’s own vocal delivery, packed with bluesy and semi-crooning expressions. The album also contains the seemingly improvisational titular track coming off like an extended ode to punk rock. While not obligatory, these jam sessions became as much of a staple to a Patti Smith album as her spoken word pieces.

Banga

Smith’s most recent album is Hollywood in the least pejorative sense. Not one instrument attempts to disrupt the sonorous vocal delivery throughout the project. It comes off like a fusion of Morgan Freeman’s reputed storytelling abilities tempered by the breath of Robert Browning’s lauded dramatic monologues, especially on “Constantine’s Dream.” While Smith maintains her roots throughout most of the project, somewhere between “Tarkovsky” and “Seneca” – like Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly in Cyrus – it starts to feel like this figure, steeped in uncharted musical poetry and independent thought, has been here before.

Easter

It’s difficult to decide whether Smith created the blueprint for ideas about privilege or helped usher in a sound that ran pop music’s sense originality into a loop for the decade following the record. Either way, the album is future oriented. It’s easy to blame Kraftwerk for fostering the insistent use of synthesizers throughout the 1980s, but it’s difficult to imagine Cyndi Lauper’s perennial hit “Girl’s Just Want to Have Fun” without at least feeling the influence of Smith’s record “Because the Night.” But in-between “Babelogue” and “Privilege” lies the fine-tuning of John Lennon’s cumbersome 1972 proclamation. Because social issues are often couched within ideas preceding them by thousands of years, issues regarding oppression and the outsider mentality are clothed in spoken-word Bible verses.

Horses

Amidst the rapid-fire soul poetry of Gil Scott-Heron and the opium-induced musings of the beatnik generation arose a voice that couldn’t decide between the lyrical distortions of Jimi Hendrix and the poetry of T.S. Eliot – so Smith chose both. The discontent youth’s growing frustration over war and tension with the communist powers that be fueled Patti Smith Group’s debut effort, among many other factors. The opening line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” echoed throughout all of Smith’s proceeding work and the music of others. If the 1980s was nothing more than a simulacrum of Smith’s pop oriented effort on Easter, then it must be noted that Morrissey could probably never sing about a vicar in a tutu without those opening lines. Furthermore, Andre 3000 could not express the frantic exhaling over Y2K not causing the sky to physically fall at the back end of “So Fresh, So Clean” without “Kimberly.”