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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’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.


Music Thursday: Jack Johnson and Echo & the Bunnymen

May 29, 2008

Jack Johnson — Rodeo Clowns

It’s an overused device, sure, but imagine for a second that Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Tony Hawk had a lovechild. It would probably look a lot like Jack Johnson.

I first got turned on to Johnson through G Love, who featured Rodeo Clowns and Jack on his 1999 album Philadelphonic. The syncopated acoustics are just low-key enough to trigger visions of morning-after-prom sunrises or 11 p.m. tiki lounge acts. That’s fitting, since Johnson is Hawaiian. I think it’s that island mentality that appears to me. It’s hard to imagine him playing anywhere far away from a body of water.

Another thing that I like about his music is that it’s always so understated. He has a habit of singing close to the mic, which lends a bit of intimacy — perfect for a love song or soulful disclosures about loss and healing.

I also recommend Flake and Better Together.

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Echo & the Bunnymen — The Killing Moon

For years I confused Echo & the Bunnymen for The Cure. That’s not a bad thing in my book.

Both bands are products of the post-punk move into the early 80s movement that would eventually become alternative. And both Robert Smith and Ian McCulloch sport periods of very pointy hair. But moreover — in case you haven’t noticed — I have a crushing weakness for very dark new wave ballads, and the Bunnymen deliver with The Killing Moon.

The single from the Liverpool boys’ 1984 album Ocean Rain didn’t exactly catch fire in the States until much later than The Bunnymen were hits in the UK. But as America gradually grew more aware of The Smiths and Joy Division, the band gained a foothold on top 40 radio. It even provided a niche for psychedelic hold-overs not quite ready to embrace the goth aesthetic.

Check out The Cutter and Bring on the Dancing Horses.


Music Wednesday: Thin Lizzy and Spoon

May 28, 2008

Thin Lizzy — Dancing In the Moonlight

You know The Boys are Back In Town. You might know Whiskey In the Jar. But for my money, Thin Lizzy’s best is Dancing in the Moonlight, which has instrumentals deceptively upbeat compared to its lyrics.

A couple of covers by the Smashing Pumpkins and Magnet play the song wound tight with angst, but Thin Lizzy effortlessly makes their mournful songs accessibly pop. For example, the guitar solo two-thirds of the way through The Boys are Back in Town is one of the saddest pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and the quiet bass line in Moonlight underlines lyrics borne of a teen feeling trapped.

Also, if you haven’t ever seen the VH1 Behind the Music episode about Thin Lizzy lead Phil Lynott, find it. Of all the working-class rockers to come out of the 70s, Lizzy is easily my favorite and I can’t understand why the band didn’t get more attention.

If you like Moonlight, try The Cowboy Song and Don’t Believe a Word.

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Spoon — The Way We Get By

Andrew likes complicated, thrashing counter-melodies crashing together in dark metal anthems. I like rebellious, jazz-inspired experiments by alt-slacker beatniks. So here I am, recommending Spoon, a band that mixes piano and cymbals with underplayed guitars to create catchy indie pop.

These are songs that are more about creating a mood than causing jaws to drop in awe. There’s not much technical prowess here — just a jangling basement-jam-session pathos. And that’s why The Way We Get By ends up in heavy rotation on my iPod.

May I also recommend Lines In the Suit?


Music Monday: Edwin Starr and The Tragically Hip

May 26, 2008

Edwin Starr — War

The Iraq War. Huh. Good god, y’all. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

It’s Memorial Day in the United States and we’re all busy “honoring” veterans by watching parades and grilling hamburgers. This holiday has officially been watered down to the point where it means nothing and honors no one. It glorifies America’s overrated involvement on the international stage and conflates patriotism with military service.

I’m not entirely sure how Andrew feels about this, but the older I get the more opposed I am to any kind of deployment abroad. During the first Persian Gulf war, I was too young to see through the gloss of flag-waving. Now that I’m older, I can only see tremendous waste. Is it too late to trash the Monroe Doctrine and seek another period of popular non-intervention?

War is more than just a protest song. Starr’s guttural delivery puts an almost terrified plea behind the lyrics. It’s a plea to reason that is self-consciously falling on deaf ears.

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The Tragically Hip — Nautical Disaster

Too many people think of veterans as proud old men. I’ve talked to too many, though, who are shells of men, haunted by the things they saw years ago. Nautical Disaster is about a veteran of the Battle of Dieppe, a naval battle launched by Canadians (the Hip are Canadian) against German fortifications on the French coast.

The Germans knew they were coming and slaughtered almost everyone. It was one of the bloodiest routs suffered by Allied forces in all of World War II.

The veteran, now an old man, sees the battle over and over in flashbacks — but he says only a fool would complain about surviving the battle, even though he must live with the memory of basically murdering his crewmates by leaving them behind during the retreat.

That’s what war is, I think: Making the best of murder by attrition. Happy Memorial Day, America.


Music Monday: Such Great Heights

March 31, 2008

The Postal Service

Cleveland doesn’t have an indie or alternative-that-isn’t-Smashing Pumpkins stations, so this song filtered down to me in commercial form. It was released in 2003 by The Postal Service, but I first heard it on the Garden State soundtrack and then (as a cover) on that infamous kaleidescope M&Ms commercial. I didn’t really think much of it at the time.

Then Andrew sent me a YouTube link for the above vid a couple of months ago, and I instantly recognized the song. But what I recognized wasn’t — again — The Postal Service. What tugged at my mind was a jangling ditty I’d heard by piano virtuoso Ben Folds.

I’ve spent a good bit of time in the past few hours trying to decide which version I like better. The original is more clipped and polished with an electric edge.

I think the video is worth mentioning. Remember when Mr. Rogers used to take us to the peanut butter factory of the cotton mill to show us how those things were made? Well, I’m not sure if the PS vid was filmed in a real microchip lab or if some set design engineer deserves a raise, but The Postal Service uses some very nice shots to give us a new spin on the old Earth-as-dirt-under-a-giant’s-fingernail chestnut (think the big pull-back shot at the end of Men In Black).


Ben Folds

He’s a genius. I’ve always had a man-crush on Ben Folds, and here we get so many things to praise: Starting with his awesome glasses, hitting his frenetic piano-key-jamming performance, and wrapping up with the improvised percussion.

After a lot of reflection, this is my favorite version of the song (to date). It’s by far the most dynamic in it’s highs and lows (see what I did there?) and I really think the piano is an underused tool. With so much being done by synthesizers, you can sometimes forget how great that deep, rolling concert piano timbre is. Plus, he adds the word “shit” where it should be.


Iron and Wine

This cover was released right on the Postal Service single in 2003, and it’s my least favorite of the three (I know, Wiki-heads, there are some other covers but I haven’t tracked them down). Iron and Wine blatantly try to yank my emotions around with that angsty whisper-over-acoustics tactic I hate. That’s led to a legion of 14-year-old amateur guitarists posting their YouTube odes. Ugh.

Sadly, it works so well as a soundtrack mood piece that I can’t just blow it off entirely. Oh well.


Music Monday: Nada Surf and The Statler Brothers

March 17, 2008

1. Nada Surf — Popular

These were the days of flannel and backward baseball caps. I remember how huge Popular was in 1996 in New York state — mostly because the band had a huge teen following downstate. When the video hit MTV, Nada Surf suddenly became the ironic icon of misplaced teen priorities, showing how delusional most pop culture depictions of high school were.

The first few times I actually listened to the lyrics, I was stumped. Was Matt Caws being serious? It didn’t take long to catch on to the vitriol as his spoken rant escalated into full, hateful ablution. I was dating my first real girlfriend at the time and I remember that this song triggered my first doubts that high school love was real.

Also, that slutty cheerleader was really hot by 1996 standards.
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2. The Statler Brothers — Flowers on the Wall


I spent some of my earliest years hanging around my grandparents’ farm in the hills of western Pennsylvania, a state where Flowers on the Wall might as well be the official anthem of depressed cultural solitude. That was the 1980s, but even today that part of the state seems to be permanently stuck in a sepia-toned shadow of the 1960s, when The Statler Brothers’ tune hit the radio waves.

There’s that famous refrain: “Playin’ Solitaire ’till dawn with a deck of 51/Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo/Now don’t tell me I’ve got nothin’ better to do.” It’s ostensibly about a man who’s left direction-less after a break-up. But I think it perfectly describes the tired mindset of the backwoods Pennsylvania coal miners who watched industry and progress fall away in the 1970s.

That kind of disenchantment was lost on me at age 4 when the song would play on my grandfather’s pick-up truck radio. But it really hit home in the context of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1995 — especially next to other 60s and 70s slacker songs. Quentin Tarantino’s track list was brilliant and I think my dream job would be choosing songs for his films.