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Americana Obscura

Essentially, a “song cycle” is a glorified term for a concept album. It’s a jazz-rock odyssey on folkier instruments, but when done right, adds an overarching, operatic theme to what would ordinarily be a random mix of great songs. While most song cycles are held together by small thematic threads, Van Dyke Parks’s music is an odd mix of songs that follows the theme to the rhythmic eccentricity of the music. You really can’t sit back and listen to it, but actually have to focus and follow along. It doesn’t exactly get parties started, but it could clear the room of all but the nerdiest of music heads (e.g., jazz record collectors, Rush fans). And isn’t that the party you really wanted in the first place?

» Listen to “ Four Mills Brothers” by Van Dyke Parks

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The United States of America were really aiming high with that band name. Their only album—a concept album of psychedelic circus Americana—a phrase which always reminds me of somebody dressed like Uncle Sam on stilts. They really went for broke, yet while most people are aware of Jefferson Starship’s concept albums, U.S.A. languishes in the bin of obscurity. Songs float between comical caricature and dirty garage numbers, harpsichord freak-outs and quiet lullabies. Not so much a thematic adventure, but a royal sampler that gives the impression it all went somewhere in the end.

» Listen to the United States of America at Raven Sings the Blues

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Joseph Byrd, the composer/arranger/leader of U.S.A., only had one album outside of the group. It was another orchestrated psychedelic album that integrated random song structure amongst the pop tunes. Not as popular, sometimes hokey, and much more experimental with the echo effects talking about how “you’ll never come down.” Sort of a song cycle about LSD, but still some American caricature in choral verse once it breaks your ego down.

» Listen to “Patriot’s Lullaby” by Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies

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After Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident in upstate New York, he began recording The Basement Tapes with members of the Band; the tracks abandoned all his righteous folk inspirado and indignation in favor of a dark and drunken rambling. It’s all very slow and a bit draining, but it was drenched in an immensely descriptive wording that seems to make sense even if the lyrics are completely meaningless.

» Listen to “All You Have to Do Is Dream” by Bob Dylan

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You’d think there’d be so much more true American folk music, what with all the blues, country, and jazz in our history, but this country seems now to eat its young. And since old people don’t make music and leave it up to the kids, there’s really nobody left except that small window for uninformed teenagers to make something worthwhile before their spirit is crushed by the overwhelming meaningless of their existence. Sadly, the chances of more Texas Bohemian Oompa music being made are slim to none.

» Listen to “Musikanti Pojdte Hrat” by Ray Krenek’s Orchestra

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