Sunday, April 26, 2009

numbers 18-20

20. Talking Heads, Fear of Music. This is not exactly an obscure album, but probably not the one most people think of when they think 'Talking Heads.' The only song on here that's familiar as a Talking Heads hit is "Life During Wartime," which is a great song but not even one of the best on the album in my OP. David Byrne is a hell of a musician - the Talking Heads earned this Top 20 spot in part for his solo work as well as their own oeuvre - and he was on his game for Fear of Music. Most of the songs are just nouns - Mind, Paper, Electric Guitar, Drugs, etc - all wrapped up in a plain black cover.

Amazing what could happen when David Byrne fixated on a bunch of nouns. "Heaven" is such a great tune, man. You can make a case for 77 over Fear of Music, but I was never the hugest fan of Speaking in Tongue or Little Creatures, so don't go there. (Especially if you're one of those people who still thinks This Year's Model beats Punch the Clock as Elvis Costello's best work, which is just a complete fallacy. More on that later, maybe ...)

19. The Pixies, Doolittle. This will always be the ultimate alternative album to me: the album that these people who worship Van Halen and Aerosmith and so forth will have never heard of, but which blows away the best that Van Halen and Aerosmith and their ilk ever had to offer. Doolittle didn't get played on commercial radio; it didn't pander to AOR programming. All the glory that Doolittle enjoyed was through college radio, and music magazines, and word of mouth. And ... the movie "Pump up the Volume." OK, I'll admit that too.

What more can I say about Doolittle? Every song is great; every song is different. Every song stands on its own, but when you listen to the album straight through they all have their own special part in the overall greatness. The album starts off huge ("Debaser") and finishes huge ("Gouge Away"). There's so much to explore and enjoy in between. And lastly, I never thought I'd see the Pixies live, but I was there a few years ago when they played Bumbershoot during their reunion tour. Boo yah! I thought I'd have to be satisfied for the rest of my life with Number 13 Baby (who were, in fact, a pretty good Pixies cover band), but then the real Pixies came back, and it was just an immensely satisfying experience.

18. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks. Back in the late 80's, Rolling Stone magazine stunned a lot of people by ranking Never Mind the Bollocks as the 2nd-most important rock album, behind only Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. All that I remember from my youth about the Pistols was this story that circulated in my junior high school, about how they pushed safety pins through their cheeks and other depraved sorts of behavior. It wasn't until years later that I heard the album, and maybe a while after that before I really appreciated it. Perhaps you had to be around when it was released to see the impact it had on rock 'n' roll, the spawning of the punk movement, etc. All I know is, it's still a great album. The quality kind of drops off after "God Save the Queen," but there's still some all-time great songs here. The one-two punch of "Holidays in the Sun" and "Bodies" to start the album: hard to beat it.

The ironic thing is, I suspect that if the members of the Sex Pistols knew way back when that they were creating something that would be revered years later as a rock 'n' roll milestone ... well, what would they have done? I think they would've just puked on everyone, or maybe all OD'ed on heroin. Weren't they just trying to piss everyone off? See how ironic that is? You try to piss everyone off, and instead you create a masterpiece ...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

numbers 21-22

22. Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. There's a dude I know who's also doing a Top 50 list, and earlier tonight he mentioned "Bennie & the Jets" in passing, so I figured it was time to bring out GYBR before he beat me to the punch. But really, this album belongs to me. This was one of the very first albums I recall listening to as a kid, on the old record player behind the cabinet in the living room. I didn't actually know how to work the record player: I listened at the whim of my oldest brother. He owned this, and Queen's A Night at the Opera, and some Rush, and sadly also some stuff like April Wine and Nazareth.

I don't know if I really appreciated the brilliance of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at that tender age - I do recall thinking that Elton John seemed like a rather "fancy" guy - but this is one of those albums that's truly stood the test of time. The whole sweeping odyssey of "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding." The blistering pace of "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." The sweet melancholy of the title track. Buh-buh-buh Bennie and the Jets. Sigh. Some of my earliest rock memories! Of course, GYBR also had some clunkers like "Jamaica Jerk Off" ... but what do you expect from a double album? I'm not the absolute hugest Elton John fan in the world, but I think this is his crowning achievement, and undeniably a classic.

21. Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof. Look out! Here comes controversy! Because Philip Glass ... well, you either love him or hate him, or don't know about him. And of the people who love him, I think, very few would choose this album as his most outstanding representation. And maybe it's not, if you judge it critically and weigh its parts and compare it to some modern-day Glassian juggernauts like Einstein on the Beach and Koyaanisqatsi. But ... I love it! I really do. It's got the distinctive Philip Glass sound, and this incredible vibrancy and energy, and then there's Linda Ronstadt warbling these beautiful otherworldly wordless vocals like some siren out of Star Trek, and the theme revolving around people who've experienced alien abduction, and the fact that it debuted in an airport hangar ... damn. It gives me shivers just to think about it.

Maybe some of you people haven't considered this recently, but Philip Glass really is one of the giants of modern American music. Some of you would also mention Steve Reich - OK, what's he done? Maybe he's written some great works; but my point is, Philip Glass has put out 10 times as much great material as some people considered to be American masters. That makes him a giant, and I am trying to include the deserving giants here as much as possible, while also paying tribute to underappreciated works by bands like Young Marble Giants.

(And speaking of giants, anybody out there seen the Watchmen movie? There's one scene in the movie - my favorite part in the book - where Dr. Manhattan secludes himself on Mars. Now, one of my criticisms of the movie was Zack Snyder's erratic and occasionally ham-handed use of music, but his use of "Prophecies" from Koyaanisqatsi in this scene was perfect. Just shows how hard it is to make a great movie without some Philip Glass in the soundtrack. And FYI, once I'm done with all this nonsense, I plan to publish my list of Top 50 Soundtracks; and trust me, Philip Glass is going to f&*!#*ing rule there ...)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

vampire weekend ...

Vampire Weekend, what's the buzz? How do you say "overrated" with a Brooklyn accent? The European tours, the Rolling Stone covers, the glowing reviews: how did this happen? Trust me, in 5 years, there are going to be many people embarrassed by the fact that they bought so heavily into this.

I mean, I have no personal animosity against the band members; I'm sure they're all decent fellows. And if I had gone to a campus party, somewhere back east, and heard Vampire Weekend for the first time there ... I might have talked about it with others afterward. Maybe. I might have found them good for a local college band.

But basically, they've been handed to me, and you, and everyone else, as the Next Big Independent Thing. And that shit don't fly. You feel me?

Vampire Weekend is like Phish Lite, then dialed down just a notch or two. And "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" is the most precious song title of all time. Now, I don't know what a kwassa kwassa is - it may be the coolest f*&#%!!ing thing on the planet, for all I know - but it does NOT belong next to "Cape Cod" in any context, song titles especially.

VW also has this song that sounds exactly like Tom Petty's "Don't Do Me Like That," except the singer does this little squeaky thing with his voice at the end of each line. And that's precious, too.

Did any of you out there mistakenly think I was putting Vampire Weekend in my Top 50? Good god. Once again, it's nothing personal - I was just bitterly disappointed. So much buzz ...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

numbers 23-24

24. Grateful Dead, bootleg tape from the second set of Fillmore East show 10/14/78. All right, I confess that I made this particular one up. I never did become a connoisseur of Grateful Dead bootlegs, though I'm sure there are some legendary shows out there in somebody's cassette player. But my point here is that the Grateful Dead should not be snubbed from Top Albums lists, just because they focused on touring and live shows and treated studio albums as kind of an afterthought. They really were one of the Great American Bands, and deserve their place in the pantheon.

There's a legend that's gone around, people, which says that the first rock show I ever attended was the Grateful Dead. And this particular legend happens to be true: it was the summer of 1984, and I saw them in Saratoga Springs, NY with my brother and some friends. I'm pretty sure I was also the first kid in my high school to be into the Dead. I ended up seeing about 6-7 Dead shows altogether, and it was always a good time. It wasn't just the music - it was a unique cultural experience, kind of like immersing yourself in a huge lost Amazon tribe for a few fascinating hours.

I've never really been a jam-band kind of guy, and I had started to drift away from the Grateful Dead a bit even before Jerry Garcia joined the celestial choir, but they still hold a special place in my memories. And they really did make some great music in their time. RIP, Jerry ...

23. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds. I'm including this one partly under protest. I've had a number of heated arguments with my friend Brian about the place of the Beach Boys in rock 'n' roll history, with him saying "The Beach Boys were so awesome!" and me saying "Eh, they weren't all that." And I knew that if I excluded them from my Top 50 list, there would be a ruckus. So I just figured, "Eh, let's just give the baby his bottle," and decided to do a little research on them.

So, Pet Sounds is pretty much universally acclaimed not just as the Beach Boys' best album, but one of the greatest rock albums of all time. The story goes that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would never have happened without Pet Sounds, since it had such an influence on the Beatles. So I focused on Pet Sounds, listening to it a number of times over. And ... it's good. Really good. Especially because I thought "Hang Onto Your Ego" (not on the original, but included on a re-issue) was originally done by Frank Black, and "God Only Knows" was written as the theme song for Big Love!

(By the way, is there a worse opening credit sequence than Big Love's? I mean, the ice skating and the crack in the ice, etc? It's just dreadful! But I do like Chloe Sevigny. And I also like rock songs with some good French horn. Best French horn player in rock 'n' roll history, in my opinion: John Entwistle. His horning on "Pictures of Lily" rocks!)

Also, I think Brian Wilson is one of the more fascinating figures in rock 'n' roll. One of these days, I'm going to read a biography about him. But in spite of all that, I'm not putting Pet Sounds in my Top 10. Like I said, it's really good, but I just can't put it there. So it'll go here, with the Grateful Dead: a fascinating juxtaposition of bands at opposite ends of the California spectrum.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

numbers 25-27

27. Lounge Lizards, Voice of Chunk. All right, I've got a confession to make: I screwed up. I miscalculated the number of albums I would need for my Top 50 list. Don't ask me how it happened: just accept that it did, and move on. I already have.

So, today's trio are all selections I probably would've put somewhere between #'s 40 and 50, if I could do it all over again. (And there will be a corrected recap of my Top 50 once I'm done, if anyone was wondering.) Not to dismiss these great albums - I mean, they're in my Top 50! Geezus! - but I already feel bad about putting King Crimson way back there, and these all would've come behind King Crimson if I'd finalized my list before I started. But that would've been too easy. I never do things the easy way ...

But back to the music: the Lounge Lizards. Heard of them? If not, you have nothing to lose by checking them out. From what I understand, they're pretty much inactive now, but put out some great nouveau jazz (my term) back in the 90's and early 90's. I haven't heard all their albums, but I'm confident Voice of Chunk belongs here. Featuring the great John Lurie (star of Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise") on saxophone, his brother Evan on piano, and the really great Marc Ribot on guitar, Chunk seamlessly goes from warm soft instrumentals to anguished sax wailings without missing a beat, no pun intended. I learned about the Lounge Lizards from Brook, one of my earliest Seattle housemates, who also fostered my appreciation for Public Enemy (foreshadowing: more on them later) and some other great groups.

Brook, where are you now??? Thanks for sharing your CD's, dude.

(And FYI, don't get this group confused with the Austin Lounge Lizards. These are the plain old Lounge Lizards.)

26. Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. A tip of the hat to my friend Cindy for introducing me to Andrew Bird indirectly through her husband, my friend B-Phat. I didn't quite know what to make of this album the first few times I listened to it, because Andrew Bird really does have a unique sound and writes unique songs. And also, he's pretty much the best whistler going. But before he gets pigeon-holed as a whistler, by those not familiar with him, let me say that he's also an oustanding violin player, a glockenspielist, and a deceptively good singer. In fact, I would dare to call him the enfant formidable of modern American music. There aren't too many others who can match his musical range and creativity, and Production of Eggs is a fine representation of his abilities. Haven't heard the new CD, Noble Beast, but I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't also a humdinger.

25. Neko Case, Furnace Room Lullaby. To my mind, there's something perverse about Neko Case's ascendancy: she's becoming more and more popular even as her music has become less enticing to me. Her greatest strength, of course, is that rich, magnificent, alt-country voice of hers, which has always reminded me of Patsy Cline more than anyone else. And I don't think it's displayed better anywhere than Furnace Room Lullaby, where it aches and soars across a range of great songs culminating in the memorable title track. Except for maybe "Deep Red Bells," which is on a different CD - I think that's Neko's best song ever. (Did you know "Deep Red Bells" is about the Green River Killer? It's true. I guess the whole Green River Killer thing made a strong impression on her when she was growing up in Tacoma.)

Anyhow, I know there's a lot of people out there who really dug Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and there's probably a bunch more who are into her new CD. But let me ask you this: when did you hop on the Neko bandwagon? Because if it was after Furnace Room Lullaby, you need to backtrack a little, whoever you are. But with that being said, it's still gratifying that more and more people are enjoying her music. It's hard to believe that Neko can look as cute as a button, and have that unreal voice, and still be a terrific person. But from everything I've read about her, it's true.

getting my ass handed to me, part 2

Well, this has been the longest break in my blogging since Mad City first made its inglorious debut in the blogosphere. And there's a good reason for that: lately, I've been getting my ass handed to me. Been quite busy. Had a big presentation last week, and then took off for some quick R&R and BBQ in Austin before heading back home (I'll get to my Austin adventures at a later date). And before I could get back home, the chuckleheads at American Airlines stranded me in Dallas overnight, which sucked.
Anyhow, I'm back and ready to kick some butt. Stay tuned ...