Read This: VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums

June 30, 2009

100greatestFROM JASON’S HESITANCE — Let’s get this clear up front: Normally, I wouldn’t rely on VH1 as the arbiter of taste. And usually I wouldn’t bother with a coffee table book, let alone recommend it.

But as I thumbed through this one while standing over the $2 clearance bin at Barnes & Noble, I realized that these pastiches were the story of my youth. They were the time-warped-and-faded record covers my dad played over and over as he burned through turntable needles like matchsticks.

In case you’ve never tried, let me explain that writing about music is very difficult. But here are compiled novelists’, biographers’, journalists’, VH1 produces’, songwriters’, and DJs’ insights and warm memories of how everyone from the King of Rock to the King of Pop to the King of Soul changed everything. And in-between, there are odes to Bowie, Aretha, u2,  Radiohead, Bob Marley, Jeff Buckley, NWA, AC/DC, Kraftwerk, Van Morrison, The Beastie Boys, Otis Redding… well, I’m not going to list all of them.

The rankings aren’t arbitrary — they were voted upon (in 2003) by 700 industry insiders “from Art Garfunkel to Britney Spears” and including radio programmers, critics, and disc jockeys.

The unmitigated victors, of course, and as they should be, are The Beatles, who in the countdown seal four of the top 10 spots (with a fifth album ranking in at number 11). I can hardly argue with reviewer Eric Wybenga’s praise of Revolver‘s sitar-versus-backmasking eclecticism, or editor Jacob Hoye’s colorful comparisons of Abbey Road to both Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein in the same breath.

It’s not a perfect list by any means, but that can be expected of direct democracy. Nevermind is sort of self-consciously thrust into the number two spot ahead of Pet Sounds (a travesty, possibly a capital offense), while Thriller, the dominant force in my life circa 1985-1995, ranks a lowly number 23. I don’t want to stoop to an ad populum fallacy here, but it’s the best-selling album of all time for a good reason; it could have easily replaced Joni Mitchell’s Blue at the 14 spot, or The Joshua Tree at 15. RIP, Michael.

Dark Side of the Moon, which I consider the most cohesive album and certainly the best concept album, didn’t hit the top 50. Crime. Meanwhile, Appetite for Destruction hit number 42 to edge out both Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II (Physical Graffiti also makes the list even further down).

The Pixies — who more than Nirvana birthed the alternative genre — do not even make the list. Enough said. Conversely, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer cripple the list by even being there.

All that aside, what make VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums work are the stories.

There are the historical looks at Fleetwood Mac’s tragically romantic entanglements (Rumours chronicles the break-ups of John and Christine McVie and of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks). There are musings on how Public Enemy’s potent rhymes about the black expierience really scared white parents on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. There’s the utter godsmacked-ness over how Stevie Wonder played every single instrument — no outside help at all — on Innervisions. And there’s writer Matthew Specktor’s almost embarrassingly personal essay on how he discovered Tom Verlaine’s “thyroidal singing” on Television’s Marquee Moon.

I could go on, gushing about the treatment of Sex Machine and Mothership Connection and Astral Weeks and Abraxas. But there’s too much too cover — just read it.

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Read This: On a Pale Horse

June 22, 2009

palehorse01FROM JASON’S TRIP TO HALF PRICE BOOKS — Just ignore for a moment that On a Pale Horse is written by one Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob, author of those hideous Xanth novels.

Up front: It has flaws. It’s simplistic to a Da Vinci Code fault, clearly pointed at the young adult audience. You get the impression that it was written in one long incense-fueled sitting, and the whole mass simply congealed on the pages. On a Pale Horse isn’t style over substance; it’s concept over substance.

I’m not doing a hot job of selling it, am I?

Still, it has its novelties, and that’s why I was willing to spend $3.56 to own it (can I plug Half Price Books any more ardently?).

Anthony does something quite rare; he writes into a unique niche I’ll call science fantasy, or sci-fa. The most interesting conceit of his Incarnations of Immortality series (of which this is book one) is the world in which it is set — a modern mirror Earth where dark magic is employed alongside nuclear energy. Where soldiers fired spells as well as bullets during World War II. Where car manufacturers compete for customers with flying carpet makers. Where Satan’s marketing department wages a massive billboard PR campaign for Hell. Where succubi can be had (for a price) and computer programs can summon demons.

Anthony does such an excellent job of fusing arcane arts, monsters, skyscrapers, and technology (early 1980s tech, anyway) that it many times overshadows the adolescent dialogue and clunky plot dynamics. Not all the time, mind you, but enough of a Band-Aid to pull it out of the proverbial hellfire.

The premise: Young Zane (an 80s name if ever I heard one) manages to shoot and kill the personification of Death and, just like in The Santa Clause, must take his place. Zane travels the world on his titular steed, harvesting the souls that are in perfect balance between good and evil and deciding whether those souls should go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Thanks to the meddling of other Incarnations — War, Fate, Nature, and Time — he becomes ensnared in a plot by Satan to kick-start World War III.

Think Death Takes a Holiday on a Harry Potter level, but without the depth.

Again, I know I’m not being very persuasive on behalf of On a Pale Horse, and I do apologize. But my feelings on this one are complicated. While Anthony’s style is oversimplified and sometimes even vacant, I am completely taken with the idea of an anthropomorphic Death who exercises choice, and has personality, compassion, and rules.

Here’s a Death who struggles with the ethics of mercy killings (incredibly progressive for 1982), rails against the rules God’s instituted for original sin, goes on strike, and isn’t afraid to rescue a select few “clients” who he believes are getting shafted by Fate.

And hey — Zane even loosely inspired Bryan Fuller’s Emmy-nominated Dead Like Me on Showtime, which featured similar Grim Reapers working the Seattle area. That’s got to count for something.

So this review was less than glowing. Not everything on my bookshelf is literary gold. If you’re interested, then do what I did — read it in an airport.


Wallpaper of the Week: Futurama

June 22, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — I was going to write about how Comedy Central’s ordered 26 more episodes of Futurama to start airing sometime next year. And I was going write about how Vanity’s reporting that Fox, which canceled the show in 2003 after four seasons, still has the option for first-run rights on broadcast television.

But you already know all that, unless you’ve been incapacitated for the past week by coma, bear attack, or alien abduction, and the aliens’ Internet was broken.

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But instead I’m just going to linger for a second on what makes Futurama so damn good — it’s all about abject failure, and that’s something all of us greasy-faced nerds can relate to.

There’s not a redeemable character in the whole cast. They are stupid, conniving, fragile, egocentric, criminal, arrogant, ignorant, velour-wearing, stubborn, feeble-minded, and cowardly. They say the wrong things at the wrong time. They make big mistakes and escape the consequences only by blind luck. By all rights, every single character should be condemned for eternity to robot hell. And we love them because they are just like us.

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More importantly: Futurama is helping me lose weight. The wife has recently put me on a treadmill regimen to help me shed some of the pounds with which marriage has cursed me. To make sure I walk/jog/kind of run in a shambling way long enough, I’ve got the infernal machine set up in front of my basement TV and I exercise through an entire Futurama episode every morning. I’m already about half-way through season one.

Three pounds down, 47 to go. I wish the professor would invent a Fat-Suck-O-Scope.

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And I wish somebody would get to work inventing some decent Futurama wallpapers. I spent about three hours looking for ones that didn’t look A) like they were hand-drawn with crayon, 2) busier than Britney Spears, or ♣) like cut-and-paste jobs by a mental patient using MS Paint for the first time.

Unfortunately, the best ones I found were entirely Bender-less. Enjoy what little fare there is.


Fuller says Trek needs new classic-era characters? Try Piper and Sarda!

June 21, 2009

dreadnought01FROM JASON’S VULCAN HALF — Hey Bryan Fuller, I’ve got a pitch for a fresh Star Trek television show that could potentially be set in the J.J. Abrams movie universe.

Why don’t you try using Piper and Sarda, the Starfleet Academy cadets who took center stage in Diane Carey’s Dreadnought! and Battlestations! novels?

Fuller, who has some free time now that his Pushing Daisies has been canned by ABC, told Sci-Fi Wire a few days ago that he’d like a crack at creating a new classic-era Trek show (for CBS, which owns the rights).

“I love the aesthetics of the new movie,” he said. “I think it has to be set in that world… [and] I think we need a new ship with a new crew and an entirely new adventure that is in the timeline and the aesthetic of the movie, but it’s telling a different story.”

Carey’s cadets fit that bill perfectly.

Piper is a wannabe Kirk thrown into the middle of a conspiracy against the Federation, and Sarda is a conflicted Vulcan she has mortally offended in the past, to whom Piper turns for help in her darkest moment. The result has a tinge of romance mired in a personal enmity — a dynamic Kirk and Spock never had to struggle through.

It’s all very reminiscent of the TNG episode Below Decks, and Piper as lead has enough dimension to warrant her own space legs.

“I made her female, because if I’d made her male everyone would have said I was trying to do a young James Kirk and outshine the captain,” the author said in Voyages of Imagination, a 786-page summation of every Trek novel through 2006.

“In fact, James Kirk remained the hero of Dreadnought!, which was very important. He was one step ahead of [Piper] the whole way…. My [new] characters were young, imperfect, and clumsy, but they had heart and integrity,” Carey said.

The novel broke pretty much every Trek rule theretofore established by Pocket Books, and the editors loved it when it shot up the New York Times bestseller list. Carey followed six months later with a sequel, Battlestations!.

And then we never heard from Piper and Sarda again. That’s a shame, because the original series Star Trek universe has needed new life — new characters and perspectives — for a long time.

dreadnought02Carey’s imagination also gives us new technology that (to my knowledge) never again manifested in the Trek-iverse, but which would give a new and dangerous spin to the Abrams one. There are the Tycho class interceptor and the Arco class attack sled, which are X-Wing-ish fighter shuttles.

There’s also the titular war machine, officially Christened the Star Empire, which boasts a strange, phaser-resistant hull, unimaginable weaponry, and a holographic projection system that can fool scanners into “seeing” dozens of realistic copies of the ship.

The top-secret battlecruiser is stolen — seemingly by terrorists with connections to Piper — but the cadets (and Kirk) eventually find evidence that nothing is quite as it seems, and the real enemies could be posing as allies….

Dreadnought! would make a good two-hour pilot.

Disclaimer: Trek novels tend to settle into the young adult subcategory of science fiction a little too easily. I wish they had more substance, a grittiness more in line with, say, Battlestar Galactica than The Phantom Menace. Dreadnought! is the only Trek book I still own; that’s a testament to its ingenuity. And my reluctant nerdiness.


’21st Century Breakdown’ doesn’t do much new

June 20, 2009

greenday01FROM SAIL’S EIGHT-TRACK PLAYER — Listen: I am swamped with schoolwork right now. This weekend alone I have to compile a 16-page document on various political topics, finish the first draft of a short story that I have no ideas for, and begin a 10-page paper on education reform.

But instead, for your morbid amusement, I’ve decided that I need to sit through Green Day’s new album, 21st Century Breakdown, in order to be able articulate exactly why I don’t like it.

The reviews have been outrageous. Kerrang! somehow compares this incredibly clean and radio-friendly pop-punk sound with NoFX’s dirty and in your face political thrashings. AbsolutePunk, a source I’ve generally come to trust, admits that the record is nearly identical to their previous one, American Idiot, while still giving it a glowing score of 91/100. Similarly, Rolling Stone gave it 4.5 stars out of 5 while also saying that the music sounds like they’re trying too hard. My own school newspaper compared it to London Calling.

Fuck. I guess I’ve gotta hear this.

10:05 pm – Six tracks in and I’m regretting this decision. It’s not the ear-bleeding brand of terrible, but it’s exceedingly mediocre and unoriginal. Also, [bassist] Mike Dirnt’s playing is ridiculously mixed out.

Miss you, Dookie.

10:14 pm – It’s like Billie Joe has become a parody of himself. He took the idea that people think he writes songs with cheesy lyrics and no more than four chords… and then actually did it.

10:16 pm – “Peacemaker” is actually kind of interesting.

10:22 pm – Too many of these songs sound exactly the same. Or exactly the same as songs on American Idiot.

10:26 pm – Some of this guitar playing makes me seriously doubt [guitarist] Billie Joe’s skill as a musician. I mean, I know he must have the potential, but he’s really just not using it. Tre isn’t an amazing drummer, but he’s always been good enough. I’m disappointed in Mike’s bass playing on a few songs for being a lot more simplistic than usual, but I’m more disappointed about how hard you have to listen in order to hear the better stuff he’s doing.

“Restless Hear Syndrome” is another interesting track. Everyone who likes this album seems to be talking about how much more “mature” it sounds, but I’m really just not hearing it at all, aside from this and “Peacemaker.” And two tracks out of 18 isn’t enough to call a record mature. If anything, this music strikes me as more obnoxious and immature than ever.

I’m going to have to listen to some major Operation Ivy to cleanse my ears after this is all over. Remember when Green Day sounded like OI? Yeah, me too.

10:51 pm – Verdict: A definitive “ick”.

Some may define this record as Green Day’s growing up, and that’s fine with me. I’m not one of those people who is going to bitch about a band or artist changing their sound or getting more popular. Usually, it’s a better thing for everyone involved if the artist doesn’t feel restricted to make the same music that made them famous. But 21st Century Breakdown is just a plan poorly executed.


Introduction – Rebellious Music

June 20, 2009

FROM THE DESK OF SAIL — School spirit is lackluster at Mira Costa High. After four years there, I’m convinced that you’ll never find a group more jaded and cynical than us. Really, it’s a wonder someone hasn’t tried to burn the place down by now.

But, then again, it might not be. Our school has but one shining pillar of pride, something that faculty may not recognize but every student does. The fact is, our school is the site of formation of some of the most influential California punk rock bands ever, including Black Flag, Redd Kross, Descendents, Circles Jerks, Pennywise, and now up-and-coming pop-punkers Defense Breaks Down.

And why not? When you take a bunch of rich, spoiled white kids and cram them all together in a scenic and sheltered community, some punk rawkin’ is bound to happen. This music all about sticking it to the man in ways that only someone who grew up protected from the realities of the world could be naive enough to dream up.

But don’t get me wrong, I love punk. I love house shows. I love moshing. I love NoFX, The Clash, and old Green Day (fuck 21st Century Breakdown!). But, most of all, I love all the great new things happening in the scene these days.

Alchohol-free and all-ages artspace The Smell in LA is a frequent haunt for many avant-garde punk bands like Abe Vigoda, Mika Miko, and No Age. The venue is a non-profit, volunteer-run institution. The entrance fee is usually about five bucks, and that gets you into a show with anywhere between three to seven bands performing. Totally punk rock, right?

When caught up with the kind of stuff that’s happening at The Smell, it’s easy to forget how ridiculously mainstream punk has become. The pop-punk, post-hardcore, and emo bands of today make some of the most popular and played rock and roll songs of this millennium. You can’t walk into a mall these days without seeing a Hot Topic store all decked-out in its black and plaid merchandise. When punk rock goes corporate, you know we’re fucked.

Furthermore, I assert to you, ladies and gentleman, that the following track is more “punk” than every band that has been listed above put together:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “MTV MUSIC – They Might Be Giants – Th…“, posted with vodpod

Let’s set the scene. It’s 1990. They Might Be Giants have released a hit album entitled Flood. Critics are hailing TMBG the next big thing in music and what the new decade is going to be all about.

Fast forward two years. In space-aged 1992, popular music has changed dramatically. Grunge is heralded as the definitive sound of 90s rock. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the rest rein over college radio.

But do They Might Be Giants care? Not a bit. In the midst of this ‘rebellious’ new sound, they released Apollo 18, which contained the lyrically bizarre song you just heard, horns, accordion, and all. It also contained an experimental song made up of 21 separate tracks entitled “Fingertips” to make use of the shuffle feature newly available on many music players at the time.

The truth is, I can go on and on about punk and what it means to be punk, but punk is punk and will always be punk. It’s a style of music that was once innovative and rebellious but now is standard and accepted.

While those LA bands are doing some new things in terms of use of noise in their music, which is the topic of a future post, at its core their music is no different from what you hear playing at Hot Topic. Not spontaneous, not innovative, just plain old punk.

In a series of posts, I will be highlighting artists that I believe are encompassing the true spirit of punk rock: innovation, experimentation, and, most of all, a “fuck you” attitude toward the accepted norms of music. It’s all about disrupting people’s opinions and breaking down the walls that bind you. Soon, you’ll see just how much arranging series of frequencies in particular patterns can really fuck shit up.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hot Topic is not punk rock.


‘Royal Pains’ is ‘Playing God’ meets ‘The OC’ (with a dash of ‘MacGyver’)

June 20, 2009

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FROM JASON’S HULU QUEUE — In case you didn’t know, rich people are evil. They do lots of drugs. They’ll only sleep with you if you own a jet. They either ignore their children or bend them to a sick kind of personal agenda. And if they speak with a Bavarian accent, they’re probably doing something illegal.

At least those are the conceits embraced by USA’s new drama, Royal Pains, which is one part Playing God, a dash of MacGyver, and a healthy dose of The OC (but replace angsty teens with a boat-full of vicious Long Island social climbers).

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Now, as a member of the lower middle class, I haven’t spent much time with the nouveau riche. But I’m fairly certain they aren’t the debased caricatures Royal Pains presents — vainly self-elevating, nearly James Bond villain-esque at times. And I have a good hunch that people who live in the Hamptons don’t need to remind themselves of such by saying, “Dear, this is the Hamptons,” or some such cloddy dialogue ever three-and-a-half minutes.

Why do we feel compelled to calumniate the uber-wealthy? I think we make them social Nazis out of sheer schadenfreude-ish jealousy. We hate them because we want to be them.

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That aside, Pains has several marks of excellence: While at time the characters may seem cut from uninventive archetypes, they are very well acted. Lead Mark Feuerstein is a bit dry as the doctor expelled from his profession; luckily, the supporting cast is vibrant enough to prop him up, and then some.

Paulo Costanzo (as Feuerstein’s brother) does more than anyone else to hook you with a loopy horndog lifeview, while Reshma Shetty and Jill Flint make for sympathetic (and eye-pleasing) cohorts in the shark-filled social pool.

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Of course, some of the eye-candy can be a tad distracting as Pains takes a cue from Two and a Half Men and saturates each episode (three, to date) with babes in order to snare its male viewers. Director Jace Alexander does nearly the same with establishing shots, offering what amounts to architectural porn featuring all the luxuries New England money can buy.

The real mark of excellence here is that Pains doesn’t dally too much on the debauchery, and so far it hasn’t stooped to CSI levels of procedural… well, procedure. It strikes a pleasant balance of bloody medical rescues and blueblood feuds, staking most of its bets on the intrigue surrounding the characters themselves.

It’s a drama where medicine and machination are both incidental, opening doors for relationship developments. And so far it’s been fairly (but not excessively) clever about it. Let’s couch it this way: This show has the potential to be the best that the summer season has to offer — which may be damning with faint praise. I’ll keep watching on Hulu for the time being (until something better comes along).