May 25, 2012
(#327 on the original list, but–hah!–removed from the 2012 update.)
I’m really not a fan of public humiliation, but I did once witness an instance of it revolving around Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” that, to my discredit, I found kind of hilarious. I was at a karaoke night in my hometown, and a rather bookish looking fellow was singing the hell out of that song–really leaning into it with a fervor that implied some immediate personal relevance. I was kind of into it. And then, from the back of the room, someone shouted out “Sing it, Poindexter!” I know I shouldn’t find that funny, but I still kind of do. I think it has to do with his choice of word–I’d never heard anyone use the term “Poindexter” in real life before. I hope the poor guy didn’t actually hear him.
Mockery aside, that guy’s performance kind of brought me around to the realization that it’s not a bad song, or at least that the chorus captures the anger and hurt pride of a scorned lover in a pretty indelible way. I had never given Alanis Morissette much thought prior to that, but have since thought well of that one song, even after learning that milquetoasty Dave Coulier is its alleged subject. Hearing it today (two versions of it) in the context of a full album kind of undid a lot of the good will that I felt toward that song. The chorus holds up, but the rest of the song really isn’t very good, not even the allegedly shocking line about going down on someone in a movie theater (Ooohhh…). Also, as I learned very early on into listening to this record, I can’t stand Alanis Morisette’s voice at all. To me, that Poindexter at karaoke will always have the definitive version.
It was interesting listening to this one right on the heels of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Like when a Jackson Browne album appeared on the list immediately above a John Prine one, it’s one of those awkward moments that seem to happen in this list when two generically similar things appear side by side, and the obviously inferior one is alleged, preposterously, but by mathematical formula, to be the better album. Both albums are on the poppier side of “alternative” music, though Phair’s album feels in its sparseness and intelligence as if it still deserves the monicker, despite her penchant for a winning melody. This album is “alternative” in the sense that most albums that came out that year were–mainstream mediocrities that borrowed the superficial guitar distortion trappings of the grunge sound because it was the style at the time. Musically, it’s much lusher than Phair’s album, and is not in itself an unpleasant sounding production. Morissette’s melodies are also mostly agreeable, in a generic sort of way.
Unfortunately, there’s the small matter of her words and the way she sings them. It has by now become a bit of a shopworn observation that the other big song on this record, “Ironic,” is filled with examples that are in no way actually ironic. She mentions things that are coincidental, or unfortunate, but very few things that meet the criteria of irony. The thing is, it feels as though this basic error sets something of a template for the rest of the record: it thinks it’s smarter than it actually is. Generally, lyrics are the aspect of these records I’m least able to pick up in the one listening I get. But if only in contrast to Liz Phair’s record, which mines similar territory with inestimably greater intelligence, wit and insight, it was striking to me both how clumsy and ineffectual Morissette’s lyrics were, and how self assured she seemed singing them. I came into this album with an openness to the possibility of enjoying it, at least up to a point. But really, as soon as she started singing, I knew all hope was lost. Her voice is strong in the sense of navigating her performatively illogical ways of singing a line with a good amount of accuracy. But tonally, it’s like some hideous simulacrum of rage, sneering along unconvincingly as she beats to death in some terminally unfruitful way the basic tenets of good, which is to say emotionally honest, singing.
It’s probably a bit of an oversimplification to lump them all together, but it does feel as if Liz Phair, P.J. Harvey (who I don’t care for, but I can see is talented) and others represented something of a class of angry young women to emerge on the music scene in the early 90s. Their anger is generally (and wisely) expressed on specific levels, but seems to resonate with broader concerns of female discontent–the main one being that, for all women’s strides toward liberation and equality, men persist in being assholes. Above all else, this record felt like a cynical mass market exploitation of that musical trend, a debasement of a vital and honest movement in music into something palatable for mass consumption. It was obviously a great success commercially, but is a dismal artistic failure–if indeed artistry was ever its aim. While I generally don’t care about things like indie cred or popular aspirations, I do care deeply about the difference between good and bad music, and this one, for me, fell firmly in the latter camp.
March 30, 2012
(#379 on the original list – removed in 2012 update.)
I’m trying to like Bruce Springsteen–I really am. After a lifetime of ambivalence, I finally feel a desire to enjoy his music. In part, it’s because I’ve come around to thinking of him as a pretty good guy. His blue collar earnestness used to strike me as a pose of some kind, but I’ve gathered over the years that it’s who he really is. He seems like a fundamentally decent man. The other thing to happen was that another of his albums, Tunnel of Love, has already appeared on the list, and I was more taken with it than I had expected to be. I didn’t fall in love with it, but I could finally start to see where his songs were of good quality, and even managed to draw me in emotionally to some extent. That album came just after his period of greatest commercial and critical success. This album, his first, comes before it. I had a slightly harder time with this one.
I didn’t hate it. His voice is cleaner and a little less constipated sounding than I think of it. His band’s sound, while not fully formed, is starting to come together nicely. And I can feel and admire the passion for what he’s doing. But I kind of stopped short of actually enjoying most of the songs. My primary issue was the lyrics, and the torrential volume of them. While I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan, I’m far less of a fan of things that might be labeled “Dylanesque”. Many of the songs on this album seem to aspire to Dylan’s level of poetic obscurity and wordplay, but fall substantially short. Some of his imagery sounds more like Don McClean than Bob Dylan–it’s just trying a little too hard to be interesting to actually be interesting. It’s all a bit shopworn and…not amateurish, exactly. Just maybe kind of immature. Which makes sense–he was a young man when this album came out. I trust that as I encounter the albums of his more mature period, he’ll have toned down the pseudo-poeticism a bit. I did really like the song “The Angel”–it seemed a cut above the rest, and a portent of better things to come. So my effort to like Bruce Springsteen continues. I don’t consider this a set back, exactly, but found that this particular album did little to advance the cause.
March 30, 2012
(#380 on the original list. Removed for 2012 update to make way for the Smile Sessions box, which I think was the right decision.)
I’ve never gotten much into digital piracy, but I did briefly take advantage of the original Napster in the month or so before it got shut down. I used it mostly to find bootlegs and other material that was not readily available elsewhere. The best stuff I got was a substantial amount of material from The Beach Boy’s fabled Smile sessions. Known as the most famous unreleased album of all time, it was intended to be Brian Wilson’s masterwork of psychedelic studio wizardry, a symphonic rock symphony that would have stood alongside The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper as the soundtrack to the summer of love. Instead, the other band member’s ambivalence to this ambitious new direction, pressure from the record label, an inability to pare down the flow of ideas into a coherent whole, and Brian Wilson’s mental instability, fueled by heavy drug use, led him to abruptly scrap the project.
Over the years, the reputation of these sessions grew, and the bootleg recordings that leaked out exerted a massive influence on certain corners of the musical universe. Eventually, some portion of the sessions were officially released on the 1993 Good Vibrations box set. Assembling a meaningful whole out of the available pieces became a rite of passage for many an admirer of Wilson’s unfinished masterpiece. I myself dabbled in trying to put together the pieces I had into something that resembled what the album, had it been finished, might have sounded like.
Because this music, along with Wilson’s finished masterpiece, Pet Sounds, is such arrestingly gorgeous music, the temptation inevitably arises to keep the party going. One begins to contemplate exploring Beach Boys albums of the post-Smile era. For myself, I have found this enterprise profoundly depressing. Here and there, I’d hear particular albums recommended–Friends or 20/20 or Surf’s Up. I’d give them a try, but generally could barely get through a full album. The Beach Boys were a one genius band–they didn’t have a whole lot to fall back on. Brian Wilson’s involvement in these albums varied, from almost none at all, to small contributions that were conspicuously less interesting than his earlier music. Some of these albums mined a song or two off of the Smile sessions– “Surf’s Up,” and “Cabinessence,” for example. These inevitably were the best things on the album–often the only things remotely worth listening to. The rest of the songs tend to be heartbreakingly inept efforts at staying relevant, singing songs about Transcendental Meditation or student demonstrations. The sound is that of fundamentally square, old fashioned guys, too guileless to quite pull off being hip, struggling to find their place in the post-psychedelic era, and not quite making. I don’t begrudge them the effort, and that they were able to even try to keep going in the relative absence of their primary songwriter is admirable. But I really don’t care for most of the post-Smile stuff I’ve heard.
This album did fare slightly better than the rest. I’d never heard it before, since no one had bothered to recommend it to me. It suffers from many of the same complaints I have about their other records of this era. Many of the songs range between forgettable and ass-clenchingly execrable. Even Brian Wilson’s involvement on “Put Some Music in Your Day” can’t quite rescue the fundamental sappiness of the sentiment. Dennis Wilson’s “Got to Know the Woman” has a kind of unsexy hamfistedness to it. The one song that kind of caught me off gurard was Bruce Johnston’s “Tears in the Morning”. It’s not a great song, but in the context of what’s around it, it really stands out for it’s basic decency. It’s not too cloyingly saccharine, and it has a nice arrangement to it. Other than penning “I Write the Songs,” I had never thought of Johnston as much of a songwriter. But in this one case, he did a pretty solid job. On the other hand, his other contribution to the album, “Dierde,” is kind of horrible.
But for all my ambivalence about the actual songs on the record, the overall sound is quite good. There’s an inventiveness to the arrangements that doesn’t equal Brian Wilson’s best work, but is impressive nonetheless. It’s a nice album to listen to, provided one doesn’t focus too heavily on the actual songs. The wikipedia entry sites one of the genres it belongs to as “proto-chillwave.” Sure! It is the most critically acclaimed of their later efforts, and I can see why. Nowhere else (that I’ve heard) did they pull off something this close to a coherent musical statement after Brian Wilson’s nervous collapse. It’s all the more impressive that the sound was achieved by the diverse efforts of many group members, rather than by the singular vision of Brian Wilson.
Like a lot of these later albums, it does knick something from the Smile sessions. The closing track, “Cool Cool Water” is based on a piece from Smile whose working title had been “I Love to Say Da Da”. And as in the other cases, this older material is considerably better than any of their newer efforts. It’s got a nice, mellow dreamy/trippy quality to it, and is that much better for having hardly any words to it. On the other hand, they attempt to stretch it out into a five minute song, and there isn’t really enough to it to make that effort a success. At heart, it’s a two minute snippet. Nevertheless, it still ties up the album nicely, and leaves the listener with a generally positive sense of the record.
As for Smile, it’s seen a bit of a happy ending recently. In 2004, Brian Wilson finally finished it, or some version of it, with help from his almost excessively competent touring band. It was great to hear it finally assembled into a finished, sensible order, although the recording lacked the magic and vitality of the original sessions. More recently, The Smile Sessions was finally released. A version of the album, as close to complete as they could get it, was assembled, drawing on the track order finalized by Wilson’s 2004 release. In the deluxe edition of the set, an additional four CDs full of pieces of the sessions were released. I listened to every last one of them, and found it fascinating. It’s a little bit heartbreaking to hear how close Wilson was to finishing the album. The finished version they give us is imperfect–it’s missing some vocal parts, and is too long to have been a single album, but it sounds about 90% there. On the other hand, had he finished it, it would be just another classic album–undoubtedly one high up on this list. By leaving it hanging all these years, it developed a mystique that no actually completed album could ever hope to match. I for one am extremely gratified that the sessions were finally officially released, and am also glad to have become a fan back in the days when you still had to cobble your own version together.
This album has neither the importance of Smile, nor the genius of it. It seems to me to be a bit lavishly praised by critics, perhaps out of relief for finally having another Beach Boys record that wasn’t complete garbage. In contrast to their other albums of this period, it is pretty good. And, unlike a lot of those albums, it’s one I will surely listen to again. It’s possible that I’ve underestimated it after the one listen, colored by my general prejudice against their later stuff. But to play it again will require a deliberate effort on my part. If it is a great album, it doesn’t give it’s greatness away as readily as the unfinished pieces of Smile we are left with. But that’s not really a fair comparison–I surely wasn’t expecting to hear genius on this record, and that I heard something that almost resembles it here and there was a pleasant surprise. If nothing else, it’s the best proto-chillwave album ever made.
March 28, 2012
(#384 on original list. Removed in 2012 update. What follows should make my endorsement of that decision clear.)
Fats Domino. The Everly Brothers. Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, The Shirelles, Leonard Cohen–all artists who shockingly do not have an album of their own on this list. Little Willie John, Dinah Washington, Irma Thomas, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Alexander, Candi Staton, Charlie Rich, Nick Lowe, The “Five” Royales, The Shangri-Las–artists whose absence from the list is to varying degrees less surprising, but still a goddamn shame. It’s no one’s fault–the list was decided by committee, and some things inevitably fell through the cracks. I’m sure any music lover perusing the list could come up with a list of their own of scandalous omissions. But Def Leppard–has two albums on the list. Two. I know, I know–they were hugely successful, and their music meant a lot to a lot of people, and they helped make some version of heavy metal commercially viable pop music for a while there. But two albums, when a gazzillion superior artists get not a one–it bothers me.
I think what I find most offensive about this band is that, on songs like “Rock of Ages,” they come on like they’re keepers of the flame of the rock ‘n roll spirit. But to me, this music is product. With its synthesized sound, math nerd guitar pyrotechnics, and focused grouped feeling “ROCK” sound, it resoundingly fails to meet any of the criteria of rock ‘n roll that seem worth holding on to. It’s “fun,” I guess, but it’s not my kind of fun, and never has been. While the songs all seem reducible to single word concepts like “danger,” “fire,” “action,” and “gun,” there is nothing remotely dangerous, or spontaneous, or inspired or revolutionary about their music. It’s just shitty 80s pop with crummy fake distortion on the guitars. I had gathered that the other album I had to listen to earlier was the excessively poppy one, and that this one had more solid metal credentials behind it. Heavy Metal isn’t my kind of music, so I don’t really care, but to me, this album sounds exactly the same as the other one, minus the minor nostalgic twinge I got from hearing “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” which I hated as a ten year old. I was too young to hate this album at the time it came out, but now, I’m just the right age.
Source: CD. This band cleverly has kept their music off the streaming sites, so, adding insult to injury, I actually had to buy both of their records, despite an absolute certainty that I’ll never play them a second time. Hence in part the bitterness.
March 27, 2012
(#387 on original list – removed in 2012 update)
I’m getting a bit of a crash course in Roxy Music these days. I just heard For Your Pleasure a few days ago, and Siren is coming up soon. They’re a group I enjoy, but in a kind of provisional, uncertain way. Their music is adventurous enough to be compelling, but at the same time, I had a hard time latching on to any of the songs as distinct entities–like “hey, that’s a good song.” The record as a whole was really quite good, although I couldn’t provide you with the name or distinguishing characteristics of any of the songs, and I just heard it yesterday. I don’t think is a fault, exactly. It feels like one of those records that could really grow in personal importance upon repeated acquaintance, but doesn’t give itself away very readily upon first listen.
I did like it better than For Your Pleasure. Brian Eno had left the group by this time, but the impulse toward experimental, divergent structures and instrumental choices remain in place. My sense of the group is that their evolution was from maximally experimental to much more poppy over the course of their career. This one seems to fall quite nicely in the middle of those extremes. The songs are fundamentally pop songs, albeit somewhat oblique ones, but most have some compelling and unexpected interlude to them that distinguishes them from more pedestrian fare. I will say that some of the interludes of this sort on For Your Pleasure were in themselves more interesting, and sounded to me very much like Eno’s doing. They had the same quality one finds on his records of some incredibly cool musical idea, inexplicable yet catchy as hell, seeming to sneak up on you out of nowhere. The experimental bits on this record, while also quite good, rarely rose up to that “Holy Shit!” level of awesomeness that Eno seemed to provide. The trade off, though, is that the songs as a whole, and the general tenor of the album, is more consistent, and overall more of a pleasing listening experience. Some of the more jagged instrumental textures on the earlier album had been smoothed over as well. The guitar parts are less insistent, and there’s far less squaky, skronking saxophone, and much more oboe, of all things. It’s an unlikely choice of instrument for a pop band, but it works really nicely in most cases–not quite so arid as a soprano sax, but providing a similar feeling of mellowness and repose.
I can’t remember whether or not I had ever listened to the record. I know I had heard the one before it, Stranded (which is not on the list). I think I had played this one too, but I’m not sure. I bought a bunch of their records at a time when I was buying lots of records generally, so the memory is indistinct. In any event, this really feels like a record one would need to spend some time with to develop any real familiarity with, and warmth for. But it also felt on first listen (more or less) like an album that would be well worth taking that time.
March 14, 2012
(#412 on original list. Removed in 2012 update.)
This is another group I’d never heard of before this project began. They’ve got two albums on the list in fairly short succession. Their first album, Blue Lines, is just a few entries away. They are also somewhat tied in, I’ve gathered, with Portishead, who had an album on the list a few entries back. So it’s a bit of a crash course for me in this particular kind of austere British electronic music of a sort that I’d not really explored before.
This album, I’m told, represents a big departure from the sound on which their reputation is based–more hard edged or something. If so, I still look forward to hearing their first album, which sounds plausibly interesting to me, though I found this album extremely dull to listen to. With Portishead, I was also a bit bored, but I was at least captivated by the beginnings of each song–the tracks they put together had a surprising degree of personality, though not enough to persist through full songs with somewhat detached, austere vocals. But this album gave me nothing to really hold onto–I was just kind of bored throughout. I felt no sense of personality or warmth to it, whether in the various singers, or in the tracks themselves. The only track that gave me any minor twinge of interest was the final one, “(Exchange)”. It sounded warmer than the rest somehow.
As I’ve said, it’s not a genre I have much background in. And I am still open to enjoying Blue Lines. But the picture that’s taking shape is that electronica (and its seemingly endless array of subgenres) isn’t really for me. I find that I enjoy its influence in other musics–that it has contributed some worthy sonic textures and ideas to the musical spectrum–but that in itself, it leaves me a bit cold. I have no hostility to the premise of electronic music, and I enjoy its textures tastefully employed in other settings. But to just sit and listen to a record like this–I either lack the requisite attention span and/or have never taken the right drugs.
March 13, 2012
(#414 on the original list. Removed in 2012 update.)
This is one of the true redundancies on the list, in that every track on it also appears on the four disc Star Time collection, which is #79 on the list. The frighteningly good, more specifically focused collection In The Jungle Groove makes the list as well at #330. So I believe I’ll save my more extensive enthusings about James Brown for those entries. I will say that the distillation is a pretty good one–with the possible exception of the more disco-leaning “Get Up Offa That Thing,” every track is prime material. Some of the tracks are the shorter versions of the songs–for singles that filled up both sides, just the “Part 1” is often represented here, whereas the whole thing is generally on the Star Time collection. This makes sense in the context of what this collection is trying to do, and with the exception of “Mother Popcorn,” which fades out during one of Maceo Parker’s very finest sax solos, I didn’t generally miss the longer versions.
I did initially find the loose, non-chronological order of this collection to be somewhat freeing, but found as the disc wore on that the transitions between dissimilar material proved a bit distracting. Songs falling on either side of the fault line of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” are so structurally and spiritually dissimilar that having them all jumbled together wasn’t always very fruitful. It tended to make the older material like “Think,” “Night Train” and “Please Please Please,” great songs all, sound a bit out of place, which is a shame. Still, for the entry level James Brown enthusiast, this is a fine place to start.