Personal playlist: Fred Armisen
Few comedians are as intrinsically tied to rock 'n' roll as "Saturday Night Live's" Fred Armisen. He was a drummer in the early '90s Chicago hard-core band Trenchmouth, and his role on IFC's "Portlandia" often sees Armisen lampooning indie rock culture alongside Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney/Wild Flag fame. Here, Armisen speaks with Pop & Hiss about some of the records he can't live without.
"I haven’t put that much thought into this, and that’s a good thing," Armisen said beforehand. "Otherwise, I would over-think this. These are generally the albums I go to the most, or the albums that stick out in my mind as perfect from beginning to end."
Prince's "Sign o' the Times." "Everything is perfect on this album. Everything. Every note, every lyric, every piece of artwork. It’s a monster of perfection. It sounds like it was created by someone who isn’t of this earth. It’s almost like an alien came down to make music.
There’s a song called 'The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,' and I still can’t figure out what kind of music it is. There’s a drum pattern to it that can’t be classified as anything. It has a danceable quality, but it’s still something different, and it’s not regular R&B. I can’t even tell if it’s a drum machine. I don’t know if it’s electronic pads or how that pattern is working. There’s a roll in it -- a snare roll, but it still sounds electronic. And the lyrics? There’s no way you can do them justice. And the artwork? On the cover, he’s a little out of focus. I love that. There’s a drum kit, and he’s a little out of focus. It’s everything an album should be. And then there’s androgynous photos on the inserts. Who is that? It’s great. Prince had every opportunity to make ‘Purple Rain Part 2,' or something to try and compete with Michael or Janet Jackson. Instead, it’s an R&B concept album."
Kraftwerk's "Computer World." This will never sound dated to me. It’s from 1981, and it still sounds futuristic. It’s still ahead of its time. I was a teenager when I bought that record, and I remember when I put it on my turntable. The sound was so crisp. It was so minimal, and it just sounded great on my stereo. Even today, however I listen to it, it’s still crisp and bright. I like that they had to use analog to record it, but it’s still digital sounds. It’s a perfect mix of instrumentation and recording technology. It jumps out of my speakers and headphones all the time.
This is another one where I can’t figure out how they made the sound. It’s not as simple as finding a setting on a synthesizer. It’s like, ‘What is that?’ Especially the rhythms. It almost sounds like the equivalent of a CD that’s scratched -- the clicks on the scratched CD. It’s so tinny, but it has so much rhythm to it. They could have new-waved it up. This was the prime time for new-waving it up. Instead, this is ice cold. This is an ice cube of an album."
Paul & Linda McCartney's "Ram." "This will always be my favorite album ever. It’s someone who clearly enjoys making music. It almost sounds like he did it mostly at home. Those songs are just so beautiful. He didn’t rely on fancy musicians in the studio. It seems like it was just people who were close to him.
To me, all three of these albums I have mentioned are aggressive punk albums. They’re as aggressive as can be, if you think about what was working against these artists at the time. Aggression doesn’t have to sound like anger. ‘Ram’ is a punk album in its instrumentation, its artwork and its timing. It was 1971, and there was no celebration of the Beatles, there was no posing -- it was a true reinvention. He was almost an anonymous artist. This album could have come from Sacramento, from some weird musician."
Hüsker Dü's "Zen Arcade." "This really shook things up for me. There’s so much going on. I don’t know if this is a fact, but it sounds like it was recorded direct into the board. The sound is very compressed. It’s so great. 'Chartered Trips, 'Never Talking to You Again' -- I don’t think hard-core bands have done anything like that. The fact that ‘Never Talking to You Again’ is acoustic is such a great punk/anti-punk thing. Hüsker Dü affected me because of how melodic they were for being so punk."
Joanna Newsom's "The Milk-Eyed Mender." "This was an album that put me in my place. I thought I knew what it took to make great music. I was settled in my record collection, and this album came out and it was like, 'You don’t know anything.' This really did it for me. Hearing those lyrics and hearing the harp as an instrument that wasn't just an affectation -- hearing the harp as a percussive instrument, almost African -- it completely blindsided me."
-- Todd Martens
Image: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein on "Portlandia." Credit: Scott Green / IFC