Under 30

I can't complain but sometimes I still do

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Winner's History Of Rock 'n' Roll

I wrote the sprawling essay below for this blog, but it ended up on The A.V. Club blog instead. Which is cool, because people actually read that blog. (Big ups to Paul, Mark, and Tom Roz for keeping it real with Under 30, though. Anyway, you should click the link and read it there. But if you're lazy, here it is.

Thanks to the archive plumbers at VH1 Classic, I recently rediscovered a 10-part documentary series produced by Time Life in 1995 called The History Of Rock 'n’ Roll. I was a big fan of the series back in high school, even if as a junior rock historian I was already well-versed in blues, Berry, Beatles, and Bowie anecdotes. Watching it now, I’m less interested in what it has to say about rock history than how it illustrates how history is written and re-written over time.

Seen now, The History Of Rock 'n' Roll is hopelessly rockist in the worst sense: The only decades covered with multiple episodes are the ’50s and ’60s, and about half deal with the ’60s alone; punk gets its own episode, but the rise of rap and MTV (the most important developments in music in the past 25 years, along with Napster) are shoehorned together into one show; disco is depicted as a grave threat to “real” music; electronic, heavy metal, and non-grunge indie music is ignored altogether; and white rockers almost always overshadow black ones. Oh, and richly mustachioed yacht-rock legend Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is quoted on nearly every subject.

Most of these oversights have been corrected since '95—metal and disco, in particular, have gotten their due thanks to revisionists. But music writers today continue to get some stuff wrong. Take MTV. The impression you get of the music channel from The History Of Rock 'n' Roll is that it ultimately hurt music because it made image more important than substance. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich (whose band otherwise isn’t mentioned in the series) is brought out to give the obligatory quote about how rock fans in the old days could make up their own imagery to rock songs, and MTV took that away. I never understood this argument, even though it’s still common enough to pass as conventional wisdom. First of all, image has always been important. Is it just a coincidence that Elvis Presley was a cool, sexy dude? Wasn’t “seeing” The Beatles on Ed Sullivan the pop culture tipping point, not just hearing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on the radio? Did David Bowie dress like a transsexual alien because it made Mick Ronson play better? Yes, all these examples just happen to be much better musically than, say, Kajagoogoo, but as far as teenagers from any era are concerned it scarcely mattered. At any rate, MTV didn’t stop people from assigning their own visual memories to pop songs. Faith No More made a striking video for its ubiquitous hit single “Epic,” but I never think about it when I hear that song—I remember my disastrous first junior high school dance in 1990, where Mike Patton’s spastic vocals taunted me as a struck out with every single girl in my grade. Quite frankly, I’d rather remember a flopping fish.

Nevertheless, “the MTV took my imagination away” party line is still popular among critics and has become gospel among casual followers of pop music over time. What’s interesting is that most people probably liked MTV when it first came out. Certainly a lot of people watched it, and they likely didn’t fret about how the video for “Talk Dirty To Me” was preventing them from assigning their own mental pictures to C.C. DeVille’s righteously rockin’ guitar riffage. And yet, it’s equally likely that most people think the early days of MTV pale in comparison to what was going on in the ’80s punk underground, even if they never owned a Replacements album at the time. Why? Because that’s what rock history tells us. Rock history, unlike regular history, is written by the losers. I define losers as people who liked music that wasn’t popular in the mainstream, and had very little impact on pop culture at large. (Before anyone gets their undies in a bundle, let me just cop to being a “loser” myself. It’s not a value judgment, just a reflection of what was happening in the marketplace at the time.) Because rock writers tend to love “loser” music—punk, indie rock, alt-country, “conscious” hip-hop, dance music that goes on forever without a hook—“loser” music is what gets remembered as history. I’m not necessarily questioning it, just pointing out that it’s “a” history written with a certain agenda in mind. Think of it as revenge of the nerds—we make our music popular in the long term to correct the mainstream's short-term "oversight."

It is possible to look at all the music from the past 50 years of pop and come up with different conclusions, however. Consider how regular history is kept. Historians determine what movements affected society the most, and look for specific examples that tell that story. In the end, history writing ends up being a popularity contest—whichever side of the movement comes out ahead is what is depicted most favorably. Because society eventually came out against segregation, for example, Martin Luther King is seen as a hero. But if the segregationists had won out, MLK would have been a dangerous dissident threatening to tear apart a hallowed American institution. And as an event recedes into the past, it gets tougher to argue with history. (No matter how hard you look, you probably won’t find a Massachusetts resident who regrets the Declaration Of Independence.)

To give another, more musical example, the importance of punk music continues to be grossly overstated. Aesthetically, punk’s influence can’t be denied—it’s why there’s a Hot Topic in every mall and pop bands dressed like punk bands on the radio. But musically, punk hasn’t endured nearly as well as disco. Even if the word “disco” was outmoded by 1979, disco-influenced music has accounted for about three-fourths of the most successful pop for nearly three decades (including hip-hop, which is aesthetically punk but closer musically to disco). If this sounds like sacrilege to you, consider this: Did most singers on the radio in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s sound more like Joey Ramone, or Donna Summer?

What if someone wrote a version of rock history based on the winners instead of the losers? The amount of radio play and record sales an artist garnered would be equated with how good he or she was. Mainstream pop music would take up a proportionate amount of pages in the history books, keeping fringe music on the fringes. In short, music history would document what people actually listened to, not what they should have been listening to. It might not be a better account than what already exists (and would probably be much, much worse), but it would be more accurate in some ways.

Here’s a quick stab at a winner-friendly version of rock history:

Rock music was born in the mid 1950s thanks to artists like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Pat Boone, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who provided a silly-but-fun complement to serious and sophisticated music-makers like Mitch Miller and Dean Martin. As the decade rolled on, Ricky Nelson and Fabian picked up the torch and created brilliant hit singles for radio, as did Phil Spector, who helped to set the pop producer template with Berry Gordy. The most important music of the ’60s was made by Motown—its records formed the foundation of pop music for decades to come. Motown’s only rival was James Brown, an influence on pretty much every “important” artist in rock history afterward. White listeners followed British rock bands like the Beatles, whose Trans-Atlantic spin on American blues resulted in heavy metal, rock’s greatest subgenre.

Metal and stadium rock were among the most artistically important genres of the ’70s, as was disco, which revolutionized radio. A small minority embraced punk music, which was improved upon by the incendiary catchiness of new wave. In the ’80s, kids expresseed their rebellion against authority by listening to hair metal bands like Motley Crue and Poison and rap groups like Beastie Boys and Run DMC. But the decade’s most important artists were Michael Jackson, the best male R&B singer ever and creator of the greatest album ever made, Thriller; and Whitney Houston, whose wonderfully emotive style was adopted by most female singers in her wake.

In the ’90s, radio was ready for a revolution, and it was delivered by one of rock’s great artists: Garth Brooks. Gangsta rap and boy band pop, along with country music, completely changed how mainstream pop sounded. Alt-rock bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam also enjoyed popularity for a few years in the early ’90s, though the “grunge” fad failed to produce any lasting artists. Later in the decade, the two greatest genres of the past couple of decades—metal and rap—combined for a fresh sound epitomized by Limp Bizkit and Korn. Music in the ’00s was helped greatly by American Idol, which produced a series of brilliant artists. Eminem, Nickelback, and Rascal Flatts were among the brightest spots of the decade.

It’s not a perfect representation of a “winner’s” version of rock history, but you get the idea. There is no Velvet Underground, no Clash, no Husker Du, no Pavement. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps. But perhaps not. One thing is for sure: the losers better be grateful the winners don't care either way.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Records 1/30/07

The following reviews can be founding in the current issue of Harp. Check it out.

The Shins, Wincing The Night Away
A funny thing happened to the Shins on the way to their third album: They became known. Yes, 2001’s Oh, Inverted World and 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow made the Albuquerque, N.M. natives stars of the underground, but when Natalie Portman slapped her earphones on Zach Braff and played “New Slang,” they became actual stars. For those of us who loved the Shins before Garden State, the “New Slang” scene played like a cruel joke: This was a really cool band we loved introducing to people, and here the Scrubs guy came along and ruined it. Unlike Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie—the other unholy corners in the great indie-yuppie triumvirate—the Shins could honestly claim they had nothing to do with their newfound success, unless signing a licensing deal makes you complicit. Nevertheless, it took the band four years to make another record, and there’s no way Zach and Natalie didn’t have something to do with that. Even the title of the new album is dripping with flop-sweat: Wincing the Night Away. You’d be wincing, too, if you knew every rock fan under the age of 35 kind of wants to hate you.

But here’s another funny thing now that the Shins’ third album is finally here: They delivered. Wincing the Night Away is not a major statement. It doesn’t deviate in any major way from the first two albums. And it doesn’t totally justify the long wait. But it is the best album the Shins have made so far and, really, that ought to be enough.

The stakes are so high for Wincing the Night Away that it takes a while for the Shins to calm down. Bands caught in a similarly impossible situation in the past have typically taken one of two paths:

1) Dabble in “experimental” sounds that dress up the same old songs in Kid A-style window dressing

2) Become arena rock.

On “Sleeping Lessons,” the first track off Wincing the Night Away, the Shins somehow take both paths simultaneously. It begins with gently rolling bloops straight out of Radiohead central casting, and then it explodes into beer-friendly power chords. It’s not a bad song, per se, but it’s exactly what you fear the rest of the record will sound like. But by the time a lovely guitar solo cuts through the middle of “Australia,” the album’s bouncy second track, all worry has dissipated.

From here, the Shins pretty much pick up where they left off. OK, so there’s an irregular beat to “Sea Legs” that might be called hip-hop, and “Pam Berry” will inspire some to make a Loveless reference, but don’t let anybody tell you the Shins have re-invented their music. They’ve refined it. That may disappoint people who want something “more,” but Shins singer/songwriter James Mercer has apparently decided that the best way for his band to evolve is, simply, to write better songs. With “Phantom Limb, he’s written one of his best; the band is so relaxed and assured in the song’s undeniable melodicism that it lets the woo-wah-woo chorus go on for almost a minute, turning it into an almost-anthem. The highest compliment you can give Wincing the Night Away is that it doesn’t sound like it took four years to make. Here’s hoping it won’t be another four years until the next Shins record.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Some Loud Thunder
The hipper-than-thous in Clap Your Hands Say Yeah famously cribbed from Talking Heads ’77 for their infectious 2005 debut; if only they had ripped off More Songs About Buildings And Food for the follow-up, Some Loud Thunder. While working with a producer known for aural eccentricity did wonders for the Heads on their sophomore release, Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) illuminates the chief weakness of Clap Your Hands: Singer Alec Ounsworth’s intolerable whine. Not that Ounsworth sounded any better on the first record, but at least the music was poppy, hooky, and likeably amateurish. Some Loud Thunder is an amateurish record pretending to be a professional record, with the seemingly directionless Claps listlessly affecting the belabored “weirdness” of Fridmann’s other famous clients. Time to call Brian Eno, fellas.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Records 1/29/07

So, here’s how I plan to use this blog from here on out...

Basically, I want this to be an open notebook where I practice, hone, and explore my writing about pop culture. This is what I do for a living—I can’t believe it, either—and I want to get better at it. I don’t expect my writing on the blog to be great, and I’m not just saying that as a pre-emptive strike against any haters out there. (But I’m mostly saying it for that.) My recent off-the-cuff “tangents” about the Grateful Dead and Band Of Horses already are slightly embarrassing, and I don’t expect the slight part to stick around much longer. My hope is that if I spin enough shit out of my brain there is bound to be a few edible morsels in there for future consumption. (If that’s not the most disgusting metaphor I have ever come up with, doing this blog will never make a better writer.) At any rate, the crappiness of the writing will keep readers away, which will only make me feel comfortable trying new ideas on for size.

Every week or so, I pledge to write about some (maybe five to seven) albums I’m listening to at the moment. My model is Robert Christgau, whose Consumer Guide column is the epitome of shortform, pithy writing about music. I digress from Christgau where grades are concerned; I’m notorious about changing my mind, and a grade just seems so formal—mere statements of opinion, on the other hand, read like diary entries, and it’s assumed that perspective changes over time. (I also realize that it’s passé nowadays to write about albums, but if you know me, you know I’m passé.) Mainly I’m doing this as an exercise, to get better at analyzing music and expressing my thoughts on them. Otherwise I end up saying everything either is awesome or sucks.

Allen Toussaint, The Allen Toussaint Collection
I bought this 16-song “greatest hits” collection in preparation for an Onion interview with the legendary New Orleans-based writer-producer-musician. My favorite song so far is “Southern Nights”—yes, it’s the same “Southern Nights” country singer Glenn Campbell turned into a crossover hit in 1977. Toussaint’s version doesn’t have the jaunty gallop of Campbell’s better-known cover, sticking instead with a slow, swampy groove and psychedelicized vocal. Toussaint told me later that “Southern Nights” is the best song he has ever written. He also talked about how he decided to become a pianist at age 6 and a half after liking a Professor Longhair song on the radio, and about how he doesn’t mind singing but if Elvis Costello is in the building he will gladly hand over the microphone. Every now and then I could hear him play a little riff on the piano while he talked from his New York City apartment, where Toussaint has mostly lived since losing his house and studio in Hurricane Katrina. (The house is still being rebuilt almost 17 months later.) Toussaint was talking to me because he needed to promote his first solo concert tour after more than 50 years in the business. He was charming and a natural conversationalist, but standing in the spotlight does not come naturally to him. I asked whether the joyously gritty songs he wrote for Lee Dorsey (including “Working In A Goldmine” and “Yes We Can Can”) allowed him to explore the nether regions of his otherwise humble, dignified personality. I guess I hit on something, because he asked me if I was a musician. (This is the nicest thing an interview subject ever said to me.) After about 40 minutes, we were done and said our goodbyes. Allen said it was a very interesting conversation, though I’m sure he says that to all the reporters. I checked my tape after we hung up and all I could hear was me breathing. Because the phone recorder jack wasn’t hooked up properly, my interview with Allen Toussiant only existed in my imagination. He really did ask me if I was a musician, though. Honest.

Rob Crow, Living Well
Rob Crow is from Pinback, whom I have never heard. Living Well is Crow’s third solo album, but I get the impression it’s not all that different from his band. This record does what it does very well, and it does it repeatedly and without much variation. What “it” is I can’t say, but I doubt it started here. (If you want a generic description, I’d say adult contemporary indie rock with a Pixies fetish.) I have tried listening to Living Well twice, and it slipped past me both times. This is what you hear on public radio as transitional music between segments. You hear it but you can’t listen to it.

Ray LaMontagne, Till The Sun Turns Black
Like most American TV viewers, I heard about Ray LaMontagne from Taylor Hicks, who performed “Trouble” off LaMontagne’s first record during his victorious season of American Idol. For a long time after I bought a used copy of his 2006 sophomore effort Till The Sun Turns Black I couldn’t figure out if LaMontagne was worth following or merely John Mayer with facial hair, but this album is seeping under my skin. Ethan Johns produced it and played most of the instruments, which is a good sign—he’s the rich man’s Rick Rubin. The string parts are really breathtaking, darting in and out of LaMontagne’s bare-boned guitar-and-voice arrangements. This guy plays it cool and dreamy, but he can’t keep his melancholy contained. If you liked Sea Change but wished the singer sounded less like Gordon Lightfoot, you will love this—LaMontagne’s whispery lullabies are enough to soothe even the over-singing, bad-dancing, gray-haired beast.

Time Life Series, 1957: Still Rockin’
Early rock ‘n’ roll is like children’s music—you know it down to your bones, and yet you hardly think of it as music. It simply has always been there--how often do you ponder where trees come from? This compilation of hits from 1957 (one of two recent Time Life 1957 comps I picked up) is reminder that rock was never more raw, weird, stupid, or dangerous than it was early on. The heavy hitters, of course, are wonderful, and the greatness of their music is more apparent away from “good times, great oldies” radio: “That’ll Be The Day,” “Blue Monday,” “Lucille,” “Rock & Roll Music,” all unbeatable after so many listens. But I’m drawn to lesser-knowns, the one-hit wonders, the nobodies, who make music just as great—Paul Anka’s proto-Springsteen rocker “Diana,” Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones’ delightfully dumb “Black Slacks,” and perhaps best of all, Bill Justis’ filthy instrumental “Raunchy,” which already has a place in rock history for being George Harrison’s audition song for The Beatles.

Cracker, Cracker
Cracker is one of the early ’90s alt-rock bands that got played on MTV after Nirvana hit. I loved their first record, which I bought in ’92 after hearing the big single “Teen Angst” on either Alternative Nation or 120 Minutes. I loved Cracker’s second album, Kerosene Hat, even more, but soon after I learned it wasn’t cool to like post-grunge bands and I stopped. Years later, my friend Rebecca taught me that liking Counting Crows is nothing to be ashamed of, and I revived my interest in Cracker not long after. Cracker is a really fine country-rock record, with plenty of era-specific sarcasm and all-era Stonesy riffs. I played the album’s best track “I See The Light” for Rebecca last night. She said it sounded like a Chevy commercial. I’m going to ignore her this time.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Some Dylan lyrics take 40 years to make sense

I was listening to Highway 61 Revisited--one of my five favorite albums ever and a record I know by heart--just now and a lyric from "Tombstone Blues" leapt out like one of them crazy-talking soothsayers:

Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, "Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?"

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, "Death to all those who would whimper and cry"
And dropping a bar bell he points to the sky
Saying, "The sun's not yellow it's chicken"

When does mind-bending, surrealistic wordplay suddenly become journalism? When reality itself becomes surreal, I guess. Now I'm terrified to hear "Desolation Row."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Night Of The Living Dead

On Friday I did something I never thought I was capable of. Did I kill a man in cold blood? Sadly, no. Did I perform fellatio on a golden retriever? Not exactly. Did I attend a concert by a Grateful Dead tribute band? You betcha!

In my defense, I didn’t pay for my ticket—I was put on a guest list as part of an Onion promotion. Also, I became a Dead fan in the past year, which I say not in my defense (because I’m not sure it can be defended) but because it’s probably pertinent to the case at hand. I have been analyzing my recent about-face on The Dead, a band I was taught (inexplicably, in retrospect) to hate from my earliest days as a music fan, and have come up with three reasons:

1) I like live albums, and nobody has more live albums than The Dead. Of the half-dozen or so Dead albums I currently own, only one is a studio record (Aoxomoxo) and I never listen to it. (I play it so infrequently that I’m sure I spelt it incorrectly just now.) The others are Dick’s Picks releases or boots downloaded off archive.org. The thing I like most about The Dead is that lazy Dead shuffle--not quite blues, country, or jazz but a stoned amalgamation of the three, it’s precisely the perfect rhythm for sitting and doing absolutely nothing. (Which is why I’m not listening to The Dead right now because I wouldn’t have the fortitude to type.) It’s hard to reproduce well-rehearsed laziness in the studio, so Dead albums (at least the ones I’ve heard) sound mealy. I used to think The Dead wasn’t a good rock band, and now that I like them my opinion hasn’t changed—they rock like a Jimmy Buffet tribute band whenever they cover Chuck Berry. But when they mosey into that do-nothing Dead groove for 10 minutes on “Row Jimmy,” it makes me lay on the couch and wish it was grass. The Dead non-rocks like a bastard.

2) Size matters. I like double albums, triple albums, the ever-elusive quadruple album. (Chicago At Carnegie Hall is the only one I know of.) I like discographies overflowing with LPs, EPs, 7-inches, singles, unreleased tracks. I’m a Guided By Voices fan, for crying out loud. (They call GBV the Grateful Dead of beer, so there you go.) You listen to enough music and you start digging in unexpected places for something new. It’s like the explorers with the Americas. I see undiscovered territory and I rush to conquer it. So here’s a band that releases four-disc live albums like Justin Timberlake puts out hit singles. Warn the natives, sharpen the spears, and burn me a copy of May 8, 1977 at Cornell University.

3) I like the music. There, I said it.

So this is how I ended up at Pabst Theater in Milwaukee for the Dark Star Orchestra, a Chicago-based tribute act providing a meticulously researched soundtrack for the undead fantasies of Deadheads. (Is that an anagram?) DSO has played 1,000-some shows in the past several years, and almost always re-creates an entire setlist from a past Dead show. (Sometimes it plays an “original” setlist composed of Dead covers chosen by the band.) DSO can do this because so many Dead shows have been taped; Dead fans, in turn, tape DSO shows and trade them, a copy of a copy. Sometimes DSO sounds better than The Dead.

Here’s the problem with seeing a Grateful Dead tribute band: The Dead didn’t move around much on stage, which means DSO doesn’t move much on stage, which means the only movement on stage is the hippie girl “singer” that keeps twirling in circles. And contrary to what you might assume, watching a hippie girl twirl in circles is actually really annoying.

Honestly, I wanted to bolt as soon as I walked in the door. Imagine every loud, dumb, drunken hippie that has bumped into you at every show you have ever been to—a faux-Dead show is like a convention for those people. They aren’t bad people. I’m just not one of them, which was more of a relief than a buzzkill, actually. Sure, I like the Dead, but I still find out white people with dreadlocks utterly revolting. I guess the next time I watch Gimme Shelter I’ll still be cheering for the Hell’s Angels.

The band, however, I thought was pretty good. But I think I like listening to Dead by myself.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Best Of 2006

I am a little late on this, but I wanted to post my Best Of 2006 playlist, which I prefer to my Best Of 2006 album list. I had a hard time coming up with 10 albums I thought were great last year, but there were 90 songs I loved. I feel better about 2006 looking at this list than I do the album list.

1. Midlake, "Roscoe"
2. The Decemberists, "O Valencia"
3. Band Of Horses, "Wicked Gil"
4. Bruce Springsteen, O Mary Don't You Weep"
5. The Clipse, "Mr. Me Too"
6. Sonic Youth, "Reena"
7. Loose Fur, "The Ruling Class"
8. Blueheels, "Reason To Cry"
9. Ghostface Killah, "Jelllyfish"
10. Mew, "The Zookeeper's Boy"
11. Michael Runion, "Red Pony"
12. Camera Obscura, "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken"
13. Girl Talk, "Smash Your Head"
14. The Secret Machines, "Alone, Jealous, And Stoned"
15. Film School, "Deep Lake"
16. M. Ward, "Chinese Translation"
17. The Raconteurs, "Steady, As She Goes"
18. The Wandering Sons, "In The Spring"
19. Phoenix, "Consolation Prizes"
20. Arctic Monkeys, "Fake Tales Of San Francisco"
21. The Life And Times, "I Know You Are"
22. Ray LaMontagne, "Three More Days"
23. The Snowbirds, "Grips"
24. Cold War Kids, "We Used To Vacation"
25. Eagles Of Death Metal, "I Like To Move In The Night"
26. Van Hunt, "At The End Of The Slow Dance"
27. National Eye, "Silver Agers"
28. Cursive, "Big Bang"
29. The Robins, "Shake Shake"
30. Across Tundras, "Ramblin' In The Shadows"
31. Elf Power, "Come Lie Down With Me"
32. Sean Lennon, "Would I Be The One"
33. The Rapture, "Get Myself Into It"
34. Wilderness, "The Blood Is On The Wall"
35. Bob Dylan, "When The Deal Goes Down"
36. KT Tunstall, "Black Horse And The Cherry Tree"
37. Built To Spill, "Goin' Against Your Mind"
38. Los Lobos, "The Road To Gila Bend"
39. Justin Timberlake, "My Love"
40. Robert Pollard, "Serious Bird Woman (You Turn Me On)"
41. Neko Case, "Hold On, Hold On"
42. The Roots, "In The Music"
43. Goldfrapp, "Oh La La"
44. Herbert, "Someting Isn't Right"
45. Destroyer, "Your Blood"
46. Govt. Mule, "So Weak, So Strong"
47. Hellogoodbye, "Here (In Your Arms)"
48. Belle & Sebastian, "White Collar Boy"
49. White Whale, "Nine Good Fingers"
50. She Wants Revenge, "These Days"
51. 7L & Esoteric, "Everywhere"
52. Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, "The Sharpest Thorn"
53. Tobias Froberg, "So I"
54. Jet, "Bring It On Back"
55. Great Lakes, "Precious And Reckless"
56. Muse, "Take A Bow"
57. Mylo, "In My Arms"
58. The Goodnight Loving, "Smoke And Mirrors"
59. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Gold Lions"
60. The Championship, "Hurricane"
61. The Mountain Goats, "In Corolla"
62. Sam Roberts, "With A Bullet"
63. The Battles, "Omega Man"
64. Todd Snider, "You Got Away With It"
65. Birdmonster, "Ice Age"
66. Asobi Seksu, "Thursday"
67. Tapes n' Tapes, "Just Drums"
68. Gnarls Barkley, "The Last Time"
69. The Hold Steady, "First Night"
70. The Sword, "Freya"
71. Hard-Fi, "Cash Machine"
72. The Dears, "Hate Then Love"
73. Willy Porter, "Set Yourself Free"
74. Slayer, "Flesh Storm"
75. Wolfmother, "Apple Tree"
76. The Coup, "Tiffany Hall"
77. Neil Young, "After The Garden"
78. Cat Power, "The Greatest"
79. The Black Keys, "Have Mercy On Me"
80. Oh No! Oh My!, "A Pirate's Anthem"
81. Thom Yorke, "Black Swan"
82. Cheap Trick, "If It Takes A Lifetime"
83. The Long Winters, "Clouds"
84. Jim Noir, "How To Be So Real"
85. Pete Yorn, "The Man"
86. Robert Pollard, "U.S. Mustard Company"
87. Jenny Lewis With The Watson Twins, "Rise Up With Fists!!"
88. Chamillionaire, "Ridin'"
89. The Scarring Party, "Eye"

A tangent about Band Of Horses

Describing a band by listing a bunch of other bands is about the laziest thing a music writer can do. It’s also one of the more helpful, because it’s how most regular people describe music. And it’s an underappreciated skill—being able to spot the right old band(s) a new band is ripping off requires a wide and deep knowledge of music. Otherwise you end up comparing everything to the Velvet Underground and Neil Young.

Band Of Horses is often compared to Neil Young. It also is compared to Built To Spill, Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, and The Shins. If you know any of these bands, you probably have an idea of what Band Of Horses sounds like. Unfortunately, it’s not the right idea. Because Band Of Horses sounds almost exactly like My Morning Jacket crossed with Supertramp and Jane’s Addiction. The first few times I heard the Band Of Horses record, Everything All The Time, I was convinced I was actually listening to Okonokos, the My Morning Jacket live album. Then I realized that, no, the singer sounds too much like the singer from Supertramp during the verses and Perry Farrell during the soaring choruses. And My Morning Jacket sounds more like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, and, um, Neil Young. Obviously, we are talking completely different influences here

This isn’t a matter of different people hearing different things on the same record. Critics who compare Band Of Horses to Neil Young or Flaming Lips are simply wrong, and obviously don’t have a suitably extensive classic rock record collection. This isn’t hard to prove. The Supertramp song “Dreamer” is in a new computer commercial. DVR it and play side by side with “Wicked Gil,” the best song off Everything All The Time, and tell me the Band Of Horses singer is more influenced by Wayne Coyne. (Who, let’s by frank, cannot sing a lick anymore.)

The drums and guitars on “Wicked Gil” are My Morning Jacketesque, the vocals are Supertrampesque, and the chorus is Perry Farrellesque. Since I like the bands that compose Band Of Horses, I like Band Of Horses, too. This is not a backhanded compliment. I can’t think of any artist that can’t be broken down into a handy formula comprised of other artists.

The Beatles=Motown+girl groups+Chuck Berry (Add Bob Dylan after Rubber Soul)

Bob Dylan=Woody Guthrie+Hank Williams+Robert Johnson+The Rolling Stones+Allen Ginsberg

The Velvet Underground=The Beatles+’60s Brill Building pop+Andy Warhol

Led Zeppelin=Muddy Waters+Howlin’ Wolf+Yardbirds+Cream

The Clash=Sex Pistols+Elvis Presley+Bob Marley

U2=The Clash+The Who+Preachy era John Lennon

The Replacements=The Beatles+The Rolling Stones+The Ramones+the Midwest

Nirvana=The Pixies+The Bealtes+Black Sabbath

Radiohead=Pink Floyd+The Smiths+Brian Eno+David Bowie

You get the idea. It’s not that some artists create something completely new and original while other, lesser artists merely reconfigure their influences and pass it off as their own. Every artist reconfigures, some are just less obvious about it. Being less obvious doesn’t make you better. Being better makes you better.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Milwaukee's Least Wanted CDs

So I haven't posted in a while. If anybody is still reading this blog, I apologize. But since I've been contributing regularly to The A.V. Club newswire, my blogging energies have been pretty much sapped. I was going to post my top 10 (actually 15) here, but The A.V. Club is taking that, too. They let all the city editors vote for The Onion's Top 25 (running in print next week and online by Monday or Tuesday, I would guess) and are posting individual lists online. As a reader of The AV Club's year-end best-of lists going back to college, this is obviously really cool for me to be involved with. Anyway, I shouldn't reveal my list until then, but I'll say this: My No. 1 made The Onion's top five (I got to write the entry, too.). The Onion's No. 1 won't come as any big surprise to loyal readers of rock crit (it made No. 8 on my list), but overall I think the list is pretty comprehensive.

Anyway ... I wanted to post a story here that ran in Milwaukee a week ago. It's an idea I stole from Tom Roz. Hope you like it, even if you don't live in Milwaukee. (I'm guessing these CDs are unwated in most places.)

Milwaukee’s Least Wanted CDs

Used CD stores are where unwanted albums go to die. Every passing trend in recent pop music history—heavy metal power balladry, ska, rap-rock, swing revival, mopey British pop-rock—is displayed on the overstuffed racks like a rock ‘n’ roll hall of shame. The A.V. Club recently scoured Milwaukee-area used CD stores in search of the city’s least wanted albums. You can find multiple copies of the following discs in almost every store, so don’t try selling your copy any time soon.

5. A Rush Of Blood To The Head and X&Y (tie) by Coldplay
Coldplay is a wimpy band, but it used to be wimpy band you could secretly enjoy. A Rush Of Blood To The Head didn’t claim to be anything more than a soundtrack for lovelorn lads mournfully staring out rain-streaked windows; it was a private pleasure you never spoke of. With X&Y, Coldplay became a household name, thus outing Coldplay fans from the crybaby closet. Not only did X&Y (which isn’t that great, anyway) have to go, so did A Rush Of Blood To The Head. Selling your Coldplay albums is like saying, “Hey, I’m just waiting for the right gal to show me how it’s done!” But make no mistake: The next time it rains, you will yearn for the rugged embrace of “The Scientist.”

4. Devil Without A Cause and The History Of Rock (tie) by Kid Rock
Kid Rock once boasted that all of his heroes were at the methadone clinic, but his career trajectory suggests his real addiction was sugary pop. A monumental jackass in a scene with more than its fair share, Kid Rock exploited the rap-rock trend with records like Devil Without A Cause and the best-of compilation The History Of Rock (featuring the truly assy previously unreleased song, “American Bad Ass”). When rap-rock finally fizzled, Rock revealed his mercenary pop instincts by refashioning himself as a country balladeer and classic rocker. But the damage was done; in 2006, Kid Rock is to fellow Detroit natives The White Stripes what Cherry Pie was to Nevermind.

3. Forever Your Girl by Paula Abdul
Before she was the batshit-crazy lady sitting between Randy and Simon on American Idol, Paula Abdul was a pop idol herself, romanced by a long line of celebrity suitors that included Arsenio Hall, Emilio Estevez, and, most infamously, MC Skat Kat. (They argued about money, smoking, and stealing the bed covers, among other subjects.) Abdul’s 1989 debut Forever Your Girl was by far her most popular album, spawning chirpy dance pop hits like “Straight Up,” “Opposites Attract,” and the title track. Since it’s the one Abdul CD everybody bought, it’s also the one Abdul CD everybody sold once high school rolled around.

2. The Bridge by Ace Of Base
Only the most uppity music snob could deny the cheesy pleasures of early ’90s Ace Of Base hits like “All That She Wants,” “Don’t Turn Around,” and “The Sign,” which are as catchy as anything by fellow Swedish popsters ABBA. (The catchiness of the songs comes from sharing the same discoified reggae beat, resulting in a you-know-one-you-know-’em-all quality that still comes in handy at wedding receptions.) Every noteworthy Ace Of Base hit is available on 1993’s The Sign (or separately on iTunes), rendering the relatively hit-free 1995 follow-up The Bridge as worthless as meaningful lyrics in a Euro-pop song.

1. Extreme II: Pornograffitti by Extreme
The second album by Boston-based second-tier metal band Extreme (led by future Van Halen singer/wrecker Gary Cherone) was a serious-minded concept piece about a young boy named Francis making his way through a decadent society. Songs dealt with issues such as materialism (“Decadence Dance”), political corruption (“When I’m President”), and promiscuity (“L’il Jack Horny”). But most people bought this record based on two huge hit singles from 1991, “More Than Words” and “Hole Hearted.” (Where these songs fit in the overall concept of Pornograffitti is unclear; perhaps Francis was in danger of becoming a big pussy.) These acoustic pop diddies were hardly representative of the album, causing 14-year-old girls from Cudahy to Whitefish Bay to dump their copies of Pornograffitti like radioactive waste. With any luck, the CDs will decay in 100 million years.