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.


Elton John and Billy Joel: It’s still rock and roll to me

May 24, 2009

FROM JASON’S TICKET STUB — We followed the tide of aging men and their clean-cut cougar wives Saturday night from the halls of Cleveland’s Tower City, through the Gateway tunnel, and into The Q.

Everywhere we looked, there were polo shirts.

I quipped at one point that the security guards might single me out as suspicious since I don’t have a bald spot — the one thing almost every other man in the horde had in common. I’m a walking Rogaine commercial; each of my hairs has its own head of hair.

We laughed at the expense of the nearby 50-somethings, but my joke led me to wonder silently whether as 29-year-olds we’d be relevant at this concert. After all, there were very few people under 40 in the mass of 20,000 who crowded into the arena to see Sir Elton John and Billy Joel.

We felt isolated.

That changed when the lights came up and two concert pianos rose through the floor to settle on the stage. Here were two rock gods sitting (about a football field’s length) before us, perhaps the greatest musical geniuses of their era. I had listened to their songs hundreds and hundreds of times. Nevermind that their tunes had been repackaged into greatest hits compilations by the time I was ready to understand their tales of love, loss, pain, and triumph. These two pianists were my bards.

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We were perched at the front of the second-floor balcony, a long (as the picture shows) way from the action. But it almost felt like I was stage-side as Sir Elton (at 62 years old) did a risky handstand on his piano. Meanwhile, Joel (50) mixed it up with bawdy jokes and some acrobatic mic stand-twirling drills.

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I got my money’s worth. It was all I could do not to mist over in nostalgic elation seeing these legends belt out Benny and the Jets, Rocket Man, We Didn’t Start the Fire, and Piano Man. But I’m a man, so I kept it all inside. I’m also stupidly puritan, so I refrained from the drunken dancing the guppies were engaged in all around the arena.

Besides, I have little to no rhythm.

I like to think that what I lack in body-movin’ I make up for in analysis. When not reveling in the light show — which was amazing — I starting comparing and contrasting John’s and Joel’s performances.

My conclusion: Billy Joel is the winner (if it were a competition).

Joel’s portfolio is more technically dynamic, building on horns and complex counter-timing and overall musicality. John instead presents very simple, heartfelt melodies built on the backs of blues riffs. Johns’ style might be more effective in reaching his audience and building their time-tested loyalty (he received far more applause), but Joels’ sounds were better.

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There was also a marked difference between the way the two giants metered out their energy during the concert. Joel compacted his into tight upgrades on the studio versions, while John elongated his standards into captivating, looping jams.

Regardless of who “won,” both men’s styles are remnants of a day when popular music engaged listeners by using something called “talent,” coupled with something called “innovation.” There is a dearth of such novelties in today’s clutch of cloned-sounding FM bar chords, howling vocals, distortion, and pop-princess bubblegum crap.

I just wish that the music of these two heroes wouldn’t be relegated to the murky realms of “adult contemporary” radio. John and Joel used to be revolutionaries. They were the rebellious young rockers. In their time, they were the ones bringing a crude new noise to challenge the old “good” music.

I don’t want them to be oldies.


Wallpaper of the Week: Flight of the Conchords

April 3, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Flight of the Conchords might have been deported in their season two finale, but muddy comments by HBO president Michael Lombardo suggest the New Zealand parody popsters could get a green card for a third season.

The duo have not confirmed this news, not even using their telepathic text messaging super powers.

I discovered FotC sickeningly late, just this January, and have been getting a big kick out of the band’s self-depricating-haha-we’re-simple-mumbling-shepherds humor. The HBO show’s gag is almost entirely a fish-out-of-water one, playing on the ethnocentric American view that New Zealand (which is better than Old Zealand) is just a backwater nation where Vikings and hobbits clash in epic warfare against a pastoral background filled with sheep.

It’s the kind of humor that’s not going to stick with most New World viewers, simply because it doesn’t have enough fart jokes, guys getting hit in the balls with baseball bats, or fratboys having hilarious sexual mishaps — the three most common and egregious forms of American comedy.

Witty cracks (like riffs on robo-genocide or Footloose dance homages) take a little more thought. Maybe that’s why FotC have been relegated to “cult” hero status instead of mainstream entertainment.

So to celebrate a possible continuation of the Conchords’ television success, I hunted down some desktop wallpapers featuring Bret and Jemaine in all their glory. They seem to be made using fan art from whatthefolk.net, which uses the appropriate three w’s (www.) in its URL instead of alternately four or seven. Click to enbiggen:

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Don’t despair, old music snobs. Blip.fm can help find new sounds

April 2, 2009

FROM JASON’S EARDRUMS — I’m getting old, and radio is repulsive now.

Sure, there was a time when I was hooked. I was an FM junky at 16, spending hours dialing up music by the orange electric glow of my stereo receiver. Everything was new still, and I was doing the teenage thing: Deciding what I liked as part of defining my own personality.

More than a decade later, I know exactly who I am. I know what I like. I know what I don’t like. And I don’t want to become one of those pathetic easy listening adults who only listen to Rod Stewart and Michael Bolton. Ugh.

The trouble now is finding music that’s artistically good, still has an edge, and is meaningful without indulging in all that teen angst bull that’s floating around out there. So I started experimenting with Blip.fm, the social networking tool for tune addicts.

I have my own channel, where I post songs to stream out into the ether, to be caught by anyone interested in my white-boy-aging-and-fat-hipster-inspired-by-old-LPs taste. While pushing my own selections, I can browse through the Twitter-esque offerings of other “DJs” and browse a large number of random tunes in a very short span.

In three days of use, I’ve found a handful of new sounds to fill out my iPod playlist:

Metric – Help, I’m Alive

The Faint – The Geeks Were Right

Goldfrapp – Strict Machine

Cage the Elephant – Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked

I also picked up some classics that were blatantly missing from my collection, including titles from The Velvet Underground, The Cure, Iggy Pop, Johnny Cash, and Van Morrison. These had previously just fallen through the cracks in my memory, and were nicely jogged by the odd “blip.”

There is a downside to Blip.fm’s buffet-style music surfing: There’s very little emotional connection to the music. Honestly, most of my favorite songs are linked to specific movies or television shows. Soundtrack music comes with visual luggage. That’s what made the old MTV era (when they actually had videos — remember that?) so great. It provided a new dimension of context to the music.

With Blip.fm, we get a lot of noise, little context. But I guess that’s been radio for a long time now, and is a main reason why I ditched actual FM in favor of YouTube and iPod (other than endless trash jockey talk and commercial interruptions, plus ad populum garbage).

Despite my enthusiasm, Andrew’s not digging blips either. His bone: “They don’t have the songs I want… It’s too mainstream.” I asked how he defines mainstream. “Anything I don’t like,” he answered. So there you have it.

Apparently I’m not the only new acolyte, though. According to the site’s dev blog, new users have been flooding the site faster than they can keep up with server power. The result has been sporadic crashes. During one Monday night about 10 p.m., the site went down, and when it reloaded this gem appeared before the UI came up:

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I can get behind anyone or any service with that sense of humor.


New obsessesion: Flight of the Conchords

January 29, 2009

FROM JASON’S YOUTUBE — The obsession has lasted three days already.

Good laughs are hard to find these days; once you get past the miserable sea of fart and sex jokes out there, there’s not much left. My single criterion for all sitcoms and comedy acts: They have to be damned clever.

That’s why snarky, off-beat shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock caught my attention, and recently I’ve noticed the same low-fi buzz that surrounded both has encompassed a new act — The Flight of the Conchords. After hearing the show’s title bandied around all the right circles, I decided Tuesday to check out New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk/comedy duo, and I still can’t rip my eyes and ears away from their nerdy pun-and-run musical humor.

The first vid I pulled up on the ol’ YouTube was titled “Mermaids,” and I had no bloody god-damned clue what to make of it. It was a strange dorky brew of uncool nightclub cliches, ukulele, and groan-worthy wordplay. But it all came across as gut-wrenchingly funny:

I had to have more, and the next vid I loaded up was the clincher. After seeing this double punch of philosophically-confused robots and a binary solo, I was a Conchord groupy.

Look no further for proof that comic timing is just as important as any other part of the joke. I mean, “Come on, sucker, lick my battery” wouldn’t have had nearly the same punch except that it was slipped in at just the right time before Bret launched into the Robot Boogie.

Octave-switching can also be especially funny, especially when combined with completely uncomfortable lyrics like:

Well sometimes It gets lonely and I need a woman,
And then I imagine you with some bosoms.

In fact, one time when we were touring
And I was feeling really lonely,
And we were sharing that twin room in the hotel,
I put a wig on you while you were sleeping,
I put a wig on you.
And I just lay there and spooned you.

Yeah, bro-mance is funny.

Of course you don’t even need words if you can summon the pure visual power of a 1980s angry Kevin Bacon musical movie montage, like Bret did. Seriously — who picks Footloose as a target for parody these days?

These hilarious kiwis have translated their stage show into an HBO sitcom, which just launched its second season last month. Now, I really don’t care to order up any premium cable channels, but I am ready topay for the two-disc seasone one set of Flight of the Conchords, which can be found on Amazon.com for just $20 and change.

Oh, and if you are reading this, HBO execs, look how great an advertising avenue YouTube is for your product. You’ll be getting money for me because some “pirate” posted your intellectual property for free.


Music Monday: The Gandharvas and The Commodores

December 29, 2008

The Gandharvas — Watching the Girl

I grew up in New York state, right across the St. Lawrence Seaway from Ontario, Canada. So most of my youth was spent listening to Canadian radio, which is required by Big Brother law to broadcast a certain amount of nationalistic propaganda made-in-Canada media content.

Living now in the heartland of America, it’s strange to casually mention any number of Canadian bands — Barstool Prophets, The Tragically Hip, The Gandharvas — and get slackjawed stares in return. A few here and there remember Our Lady Peace, but nobody in Ohio has heard of Econoline Crush or Cowboy Junkies.

So here, American friends. Let me act as an ambassador for my penguin-eating, maple-syrup-snorting, hockey-puck-humping, bomber-hat-and-flannel-wearing cousins in our 51st state to the north. Let me share with you a taste of the boys from London, Ontario, the pride of Toronto’s 102.1 The Edge.

Even in the band’s height (they broke up in 2000, shortly after I headed to college in the Great Lakes Region) they didn’t grab a whole lot of airtime. Watching the Girl seemed to ignite a red-hot fan base for about a month, and then it was gone — which is strange, considering how I always thought its artistic invocation of Norse (Ouroboros) and Greek (Sirens) mythology was extremely attractive.

The Commodores — Lady (You Bring Me Up)

My father is a short, compact, curly-haired white man of German and English decent. If he slapped a yamika on his head, he could easily pass for a rabbi. But that never stopped him from thinking he was black, at least when it came to his LPs.

His vinyl collection (still very much in use to this day, and I am hoping to inherit it) is built around prog rock classics like Styx’s Grand Illusion and, strangely, soul brothers like The Commodores, Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and Marvin Gaye.

When I was little, he would crank up Brick House or Easy and dance around in a pitiful white man’s mockery of rhythm. The memories of that dancing still burn.

But now that I’m quickly approaching 30 and have lived through a full generational cycle of musical styles, a horrible truth is sinking in: My father, though I rail against the idea, had excellent taste. Lady (You Bring Me Up) probably isn’t the coolest song I could have mentioned here, but Dad would be able to tell you it’s got tight composition, a jumpin’ signature bass line, and just the right mix of brass to make it indelibly good, and a more or less permanent fixture on my iPod.