Sunday, July 31, 2011

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Thirty

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

“Short songs not only reflect a state of dissatisfaction and noncomplacency; they simulate it. The band’s very name suggests vigilance.”-Michael Azerrad on The Minutemen, in Our Band Could be Your Life

“This Malkmus idiot is a complete songwriting genius.”-Gary Young, on Stephen Malkmus

Love makes me think about death. This is because I am (obviously) not currently in love. When you’re in love, love makes you think about life. It makes you think about all that you get to do in the coming years. It makes you think about marriage and kids and decades of bliss (and probably some other horse shit happy people think about too). When you are not in love, though (or at least when I’m not in love), love makes you think about death. Love reminds you of absence (the lack of a person for you to love), and from absence you’re just a hop, skip, and a logical leap from death.

When you aren’t in love, thinking about love makes you think about everything you would have to do in order to be in love again (and when I say “you,” I am of course still talking about me). You’d have to get up, go outside, meet people (probably in a loud place with weak drinks) and, worst of all, be reasonably charming. And if all of that goes well, then maybe you go out on a date, and another date and eventually get serious, and then one of you will break the other’s heart or, and this is the best case scenario, one of you will die first. And people say I’m a cynic.

Some of you may be wondering why I just spent two hundred words in a music column discussing the relationship between love and death, or at least the way that I perceive said relationship. To those of you I would say two things: first, shut up, and second, because music is rife with meditations on love, death, and on the relationship between the two. And more importantly, because those who make music inevitably experience both of these emotions, not rarely because of the music they make. This is a column about love, life, death, and the soundtrack for each of these moments in the lives of the people who made the music we will discuss this week.

The title of Michael Azerrad’s opus on the ‘80s underground scene (which I quoted from above) is taken from a lyric by The Minutemen in their song “History Lesson, Part 2.” That book (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in that particular period, or in a much more lengthy discussion of several of the bands we have touched on here, including The Minutemen, Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and Dinosaur Jr. is called Our Band Could Be Your Life, and is titled as such not just because that’s a great lyric from a band that is discussed, but because much of the ‘80s underground practiced the way they preached, turning their music into an ethical code and a lifestyle that they could embody in their day to day existences.

While many bands of the era pioneered a DIY (do-it-yourself) style of recording and touring, perhaps no band better encapsulated these ideas than The Minutemen, who called their style “jamming econo.” The group’s inception occurred when 13-year-old Mike Watt met D. Boon, who fell out of a tree in the park Watt was walking through. The two shared a passion for music from the first, and Boon already knew how to play the guitar. Watt quickly decided he would play bass, an effort complicated only by the fact that he did not know the difference between a bass and a standard guitar. After creating and playing in several short-lived bands, Watt and Boon formed the minutemen in January of 1980. The name was taken both from the nickname for the militiamen in the Revolutionary War and from a desire to satirize a right-wing reactionary group from the 1960’s who had used the name (contrary to popular belief, it had nothing to do with the brevity of their songs). The duos old friend and former band mate George Hurley came on as drummer, and the band played their first gig opening for Black Flag.

The band released their first EP, and one of Tab’s several selections by them this week, Paranoid Time in 1980, becoming only the second release by the soon to be legendary indie label SST (founded by Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag). In an effort to save as much money as possible (a central tenet of the band’s “jamming econo” philosophy), the group recorded all seven songs on the EP in one go, in the order in which they appear, with no overdubbing except for backup vocals. The opening track, “Validation” is a scant 41 seconds, a forceful torrent of sound and vocals so rapid and powerful it almost knocks your socks off. Their songs are so short, and their earliest releases so rare, that finding many of their songs on youtube is impossible (so apologies for the dearth of clips in this section).

“The Maze,” also only 40 seconds long, is a political screed from D. Boon that lasts exactly as long as it needs to in order to get its point across. “Joe McCarthy’s Ghost” opens with Watt asking, “You just sing ‘Joe McCarthy,’ you want to do that?” The band was so efficient and so meticulous about not wasting time, their discussion in the recording session is just included on the record. Paranoid Time is seven songs long, and runs only 6:31. The Minutemen knew what they wanted to say and didn’t waste any time saying it.

The band released their second EP, Joy, the next year. Its three songs run 3:18, which by The Minutemen’s standards means each song gets a little bit more time to breathe. “Joy” is a takedown of what many people go through to experience joy, decrying those who spend money, time, or hide behind religion to experience happiness. “Black Sheep” is a mission statement of sorts for the band, while “More Joy” ups the melodic complexity from the first track, and also ups its satire of the upper class.

The same year the band released their first full album, The Punch Line, which packs eighteen songs into just 15 minutes. The only album to feature vocal from all three members of the group, with drummer George Hurley doing a lead vocal (which the band called giv(ing) a speech” in the liner notes) on “Ruins”. The title track mocks the death of General Custer during the Battle of Little Bighorn, claiming “he didn’t die with any honor, any dignity, or any valor.” The following track, “Song from El Salvador” is a frenetic instrumental reflecting D. Boon’s support of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador. As usual the band sought to be as economical as possible in the recording of their album, recording late at night (when studio time is cheapest) on used tape, recording the songs in exactly the order they appeared to cut down on editing costs, and avoiding almost any overdubs.

The same method, now a tradition for the band, was used to record 1982’s Bean Spill EP. The EP is notable as the only release by The Minutemen to feature Mike Watt on vocals in most of the songs. While he was a vocalist on every album the group released, D. Boon generally sang on more songs than Watt. “If Reagan Played Disco” is an abashedly political satire, fitting comfortably into the band’s highly opinionated wheelhouse. “Futurism Restated,” the final track on the original EP, summarizes what the band has been aiming for over the course of the EP, referencing the previous songs and tying the album together both melodically and thematically.

The band’s second album, What Makes a Man Start Fires?, released in 1983 is almost twice the length of the group’s previous album, yet still clocks in at only 26:39. The music for the album was written entirely by Mike Watt (though all three members contributed lyrics), which explains the album’s bass-centric construction. The band maintained their political subject matter, with songs like “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs,” “Mutiny in Jonestown” and “The Only Minority” wearing their messages on their sleeves.

We will continue looking at The Minutemen next week, yet it is important to stress here how much the group loved what they were doing. They made almost no money, spent almost no money, and were always on the brink of starvation throughout their years together. The Minutemen was their life, and they used it to discuss politics and their views on life in general, as well as ensuring they maintained their integrity and lived by their personal codes throughout. And, sadly, for D. Boon The Minutemen was also his death. Boon was killed in a van accident on December 23, 1985 in Arizona near the California border. Sick with fever while on tour, Boon elected to just lay down in the back of the van. The van went off the road and Boon slid out the back, breaking his neck and dying instantly. For The Minutemen, loving how you lived and living the way you thought was right was essential. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Boon martyred himself for the things he loved, and (while we aren’t there quite yet) the band died with him, dissolving immediately upon his death.

Four years after the dissolution of The Minutemen, Pavement formed in Stockton, California in 1989. Originally a studio project of Stephen Malhmus and Scott Kannberg, with Gary Young on drums (Young also provided the group studio space in his home recording studio). In 1992, Pavement became a full-time band (leaving behind their studio only days and adding bassist Mark Ibold) and released their debut album, and Collin’s pick this week, Slanted and Enchanted. The opening track, “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” is a slightly remixed version of a single the band released around the same time of the album’s release. Clearly Pavement’s time in the studio paid off, as “Summer Babe” is an excellent alternative rock song, catchy and full of enough emotions to give it added depth.

“Trigger Cut/Wounded Kite at :17” is another incredibly catchy alt-rock song with a strong bass-line and a fantastic chorus. “Zurich is Stained” is a slighter, more pointed song, sparer in comparison to much of the rest of the album, but no weaker as a result. “Two States” is a classic-rock influenced Civil War anthem with a heavy bass and drums that drive the song.


Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

The Minutemen Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat while ensuring they drive at Double Nickles on the Dime, we look at Suede’s self titled and Nirvana are In Utero.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Breaking Bad: Season 4, Episode 2: Thirty-Eight Snub

By Jordan

Everyone on Breaking Bad is adjusting to new circumstances this week, and some are doing it far better than others. Each of these characters has been going through some deep traumas over the past few months, and each of them is trying to determine what exactly is the new normal for their situation, and whether they might be able to find a way to make their circumstances a little bit better.

First, there's Hank, who got more screen time this week, which gave us the chance to see just how despondent and bitter he has become. He stays up to all hours of the night examining his rocks (and letting Marie know there are four other bedrooms if she doesn't like being kept awake). He puts on a brave, positive face for his therapist, but when left alone with Marie that faux positivism curdles into anger. Hank resents depending on Marie, and her relentlessly upbeat behavior does not make him feel any better about that. For Hank, the new normal is a state of constant impotence; he has been reduced from a fiercely independent man to someone still using a bedpan his wife has to clean out for him. For Marie, the new normal is putting a positive spin on her husband's misery, dealing with his anger, lifting his rocks and cleaning his bedpan. She seems perfectly happy to help, but Hank seems a far cry from being willing or able to graciously accept that help. Whether this will have long term effects on their marriage remains to be seen, but there may very well be a foil developing here. When Walt got sick, Skyler stayed positive and Walt grew angry, which (along with all of Walt's lies and manufacturing of methamphetamine) ultimately poisoned their marriage. The signs are similar, but I hope the outcomes will be different, and will ultimately serve to show us why Hank is a better man than Walt. Alternatively, we may be watching the dawn of Hank's own drastic changes in the face of his mortality.

Skyler's new normal is one spent neglecting her kids in the service of her criminal enterprise, one that she seems to be operating very smoothly, in spite of a few hiccups. Sure, she left Holly on the floor while searching Walt's place last week. Sure, she didn't make Walter Jr. his breakfast, instead telling him she'd laid out cereal. And sure, she ignores Holly, even while feeding her, in order to spy on the car wash. But she knows what each customer wants when they come in, has a well-reasoned offer for the owner, and deals with Walt's paranoia in stride. She has jumped in with both feet, and though the car wash owner refuses to sell to Walter White after the way that he quit, Skyler seems to already be scheming a way around that. For her, these new circumstances present new challenges, but as of yet she seems to be relishing them. She may be breaking bad in her own way, but she's experiencing a honeymoon period Walt never had. I'm sure, however, that before long the honeymoon will be over and Skyler will start to see some consequences for her actions.

For Jesse, the new normal is far more disturbing. Last week he watched Gus gut Victor (I learned his name when Walt mentioned it tonight) without blinking and had a hearty appetite at Denny's afterward. Tonight, we see that all of that was Jesse's carefully constructed front. He distracts himself with music, with drugs, and with a pathetic attempt to make his house a 24-hour party zone, both because he is likely afraid to be alone knowing that Gus is out for blood (and that he is less essential than Walt) and because he needs something, anything to distract him from his dire circumstances. Jesse took an innocent life and now lives every moment in fear that the retribution he saw Victor take for him will soon reach him. He lives every moment afraid he may die, and afraid of who he has already become to stay alive.

And then there's Walter, who spends the whole episode tonight looking for a leg up and angling for a move he can make to change his circumstances. From the stellar cold open in which Walt purchases the titular gun from a man who tries to warn him off, to the end of the episode, which sees Walter on the floor of a bar, taking a beating from Mike after he suggests Mike behave disloyally toward Gus, the whole of "Thirty-Eight Snub" seems almost perfectly constructed to disabuse Walter of the notion that he has any moves left to make or any hope of gaining control of his situation. Walter White is all about control, and for the moment at least, that control eludes him.

There's a brilliant construction to those two interactions that serves as just another example of why Breaking Bad is the best show on television right now. In the first, the gun man speaks in stylized rhetoric; he's been doing this for a while and he knows the ins and outs. He speaks in carefully guarded phrases ("If you're not a convicted felon, you might be best advised to bear your arms within the confines of the law") but conveys some simple truths: buying a gun with the serial numbers filed off is serious business, and he wants Walter to know what he's getting himself into. In the second, Mike (who continues to be, like the rest of this cast, a perfectly drawn character) attempts to be as stoic and laconic as ever. Mike is a man of few words, but he is a very wise man and he uses his words carefully, usually to try to avoid the violence he has to dole out when his advice is not followed (both to the wife abuser he spoke of in last season's "Half Measures" and to Walt tonight). "You won," he tells Walt, "You got the job. Do yourself a favor and learn to take 'yes' for an answer." But Walt doesn't heed his advice and so, with a sense of weariness, he punches Walt in the eye and delivers a few kicks to get his point across.

Yet in both of these cases, Walt uses words to convey anything but the truth. This has always been the case for him; he would rather use words to lie, to trick, to muddle, to convince, to get defensive and ultimately, to convince himself of his own righteousness. In the first, he insists that he will use the gun for defense, and repeats the phrase as if rationalizing in his mind that killing Gus is an act of self-defense. In the second, Walt knows from the start he is at a disadvantage, which always makes him come off as desperate. He tries to cajole Mike into a mutiny against Gus, but as usual Walt is trying in vain to convince someone who doesn't care about his motives. Mike especially is unwilling to take Walt's shit and seems surprised that Walt refuses to adapt to his new circumstances. Early on, Walt demands to see Gus, saying, "Because of the way we left things, I would like a chance to clear the air" and Mike swats him away, saying simply, "Walter, you're never gonna see him again." Walt thinks he can use words to make things the way he wants them to be; Mike knows he should use words only to convey the absolute truth.

Everyone in this episode is adjusting to a new normal (even Mike now has to deal with Walt's scheming and blathering seemingly on a daily basis, which means he is working way more than he appeared to be before), but as usual Walt is the most resistant to change. Walt always believes that he can turn things in his favor, that the universe works for him and that everything has to work out logically. Over the series so far, he has yet to admit that in the real world, this is not the case. Perhaps this season Walter White will finally learn that he lives, as we do, in a random and chaotic universe, a universe that does not care one iota about our motives or our logic. And perhaps that is what will finally, ultimately drive Walter White over the edge into full-fledged villainy.

Grade: A


-"Either way, you're gonna wanna practice your draw. A lot."

-"This is the west, boss. New Mexico is not a retreat locale."

-I really don't understand Hank's crystal obsession yet. At first, I thought he was buying them for some sort of healing ritual, but that seems unlikely now. On the surface, I see the comparison being drawn between his new obsession with crystals and the new obsession Walt picked up when facing mortality, making meth crystals, but I'm not sure what the deeper meaning is for Hank yet. Keep you posted on my thoughts, though.

-Badger and Stinky Pete's drug fueled zombie debate (Left for Dead 2 vs. Resident Evil 4) was awesome. My favorite line was Pete's incredulous response to Badger's insistence that Nazi zombies are the best: "Zombies are dead, man. Who cares what their job was when they were alive?" Has Jesse been listening, that may have sounded eerily prophetic to him as he fears sliding into death (and by implication irrelevance).

-"I could so use a brain transplant right now."

-"You got some scissors? I will cut this bitch up good." Also, nice bit of continuity, with Venezia's pizzas coming uncut (last season, Walt threw one onto his roof and it stayed intact).

-"So, what's with the piece?" Nothing gets past Mike.

-Looks like the cops are interviewing Hank about the superlab next week. Can't wait.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Twenty Nine

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

“I want my career to be The Greatest Show on Earth.”-Michael Jackson

“Jackson’s lie was that Thriller wasn’t a fluke of history, that he really was capable of not only making another album that would go on to sell 29 million copies in the U.S. and tens of millions more overseas, but that he could actually will it to happen. When Bad failed to outdo Thriller, Jackson only amped up the bluster, insisting that the media refer to him by the self-applied moniker ‘The King of Pop’ when promoting the release of 1991’s Dangerous.”-Steve Hyden

“Hippies couldn’t understand jealousy because they believed in universal love; punks can’t understand it because they believe sex is a doomed reflex of existentially discrete monads […] How often do we get a great love album and a great punk album in the same package?”-Robert Christgau, in his A+ review for Wild Gift

My relationship with Michael Jackson is, like most people’s who actually put thought into it, complicated. This is not because of any of the crimes Jackson was accused of; I am of the opinion that Jackson never molested any children, and was instead trying rather desperately to live out the childhood fame robbed him of in ways that can only be described as creepy. And this is not because I see Jackson through rose-tinted glasses since his death in 2009. In fact, quite the contrary.

This is because I think Michael Jackson is overrated (hold off on slamming your laptop shut for a minute and let me qualify this). I think Michael Jackson is one of the greatest dancers in human history, no hyperbole intended, and I think he nearly single handedly revolutionized the music video, showing the potential of the form and creating some of its greatest achievements over the course of his career. That being said, however, I have absolutely no idea how Michael Jackson managed to get people to seriously call him “The King of Pop” (and make no mistake, that was his idea). Jackson was a great dancer, made great music videos, and was fantastic at selling himself. All of this is worth noting and worthy of praise. Yet when I think of great Michael Jackson songs, I don’t come up with that many (and if you exclude Thriller from the proceedings and focus only on his solo career, the great songs are even tougher to find).

After he died, people seemed to decide that Michael Jackson was a music legend. I heard many cultural commentators and many friends likening him to The Beatles and Elvis Presley, a claim that I find completely ridiculous. Michael Jackson was a pop culture phenomenon, to be sure, and our nation was obsessed with him culturally long after our obsession with him musically died down. But that’s the important thing to remember, I think: Our musical obsession with Michael Jackson was relatively short-lived, and during his heyday, he was mostly struggling (and in my view, failing) to live up to the glory that was his first #1 album: Thriller. Jackson seemed to think, really, truly think that he had another Thriller in him, and it seems like America believed him. Every album he released after Thriller (1987’s Bad, 1991’s Dangerous, 1995’s HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book One and 2001’s Invincible) hit number one, but each seemed to have diminishing returns. Thriller is his undisputed masterpiece, and an album that I think is worth mention in the annals of great music (especially in the annals of great ‘80s pop music). Bad is not as good as Thriller, but it still has some pretty high peaks and some undeniably solid songs (for a great consideration of Bad as an album and of Jackson’s place in our culture and struggle to replicate Thriller, check out Steve Hyden’s column on the album here). Then there’s Collin’s pick this week, Dangerous. There are no two ways around it, I’m afraid. Dangerous isn’t Thriller, and it isn’t even Bad. It’s just bad.

At 14 songs and 77 minutes long, Dangerous may actually be worse than bad; its painful and borderline torturous at some points. The opening track, “Jam” is fine, which by the standards the rest of the album sets is pretty good. It’s a pale imitation of earlier Jackson, but it has a strong beat and even feels like Jackson is stretching himself musically in interesting ways, incorporating hard funk, dance, and a rap bridge performed by Heavy D. It may not be a great Michael Jackson song, but at least it isn’t a terrible one. The same can’t be said of “Heal the World,” an agonizing, nearly seven minute long plea to make the world a better place that is at once painfully obvious, gratingly sentimental, and at least a little bit emotionally manipulative. I have no doubt that Jackson meant well when he wrote this song, but “Heal the World” surpasses even the most annoying U2 songs in its political pandering, and it doesn’t even have The Edge on guitar to make up for it. I might buy the message of the song (I am after all in favor of making the world a better place), but that doesn’t mean I ever want to listen to it again. And I mean ever.

“Black or White” begins with a spoken piece by Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt, before becoming a pandering and fairly reductive anti-racism anthem. Its unfortunate that Jackson’s intended message is mostly obscured by the fact that its kind of impossible not to treat the song’s title as a punch line about Jackson’s physical transformation, but I don’t feel too guilty, because “Black or White” was bound to be some sort of punch line regardless. Perhaps the best thing about “Black or White” is the presence of Jackson’s now signature “hee-hee,” a sonic sound effect that has become basically synonymous with his name (thanks in no small part to South Park), though that is also present in “Who Is It,” a song whose only real crime is being almost seven minutes long when less than half the runtime would have sufficed.

“Give In to Me,” which features Slash on guitar, is easily the best song on the album, and one of the few that, in spite of a relatively long runtime, doesn’t feel needlessly bloated by sonic excess. The title track, which was never released as a single due to the recent allegations against Jackson (And thus, the idea that he might not want to be associated with the word “Dangerous” for a bit) is also a decent song, but again, at 7 minutes long, the song feels needlessly drawn out. It’s almost as if Jackson wanted Dangerous to feel epic so badly that he just made every song on it long as if that would do the trick (the shortest track on the album, “Gone Too Soon,” is 3:24, which isn’t too long by itself, but taken in context makes this an album of extremely overlong songs). Michael Jackson has taken on legendary status, and in some ways, that status is deserved. Musically, however, I maintain that Jackson is overrated, and that Dangerous is less sonically risky than it is hazardous to your health.

Fourteen years before Dangerous was released, and a million musical genres away, bassist and singer John Doe (born John Nommensen Duchac) and guitarist Billy Zoom (born Tyson Kindell) decided to form a punk rock band. Doe brought his girlfriend, poet Exene Cervenka (born Christine Cervenka) to practices, and she soon joined up as another vocalist. When drummer DJ Bonebrake joined the group, the original lineup was complete. They decided to call themselves X, and the music they made changed the face of not just the LA punk scene, but of rock and roll in general.

Much like The Buzzcocks and The Slits, X made music during the punk rock era, but refused to disregard the past or ignore the future like most of their punk counterparts. There’s no denying that X has a punk rock sound, especially in their vocals, but unlike other punk bands at the time, X knew how to play their instruments, and used their inherent musical abilities to create melodically complex punk. Basically, while most of punk rock was out burning down the house rock and roll had built and rebelling against a genre they felt was dead, X was pulling out the fire extinguisher and refusing to give up hope. I don’t think it’s too bold to say that X was making the best rock and roll music of the punk rock era.

X released their debut album, and Tab’s pick this week, Los Angeles in 1980. The opening track, “Your Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not” opens with such a strongly constructed guitar riff it had to shock anyone who had been living on a diet of punk rock for the past several years. Similarly, “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” opens up with a riff that would feel right at home in the work of Chuck Berry or The Beach Boys, and while the lyrics that follow are fairly standard punk rock fare (the song details a hit and run accident), the guitar throughout has a very ‘50s rockabilly edge.

The band follows up that song with a cover of The Doors “Soul Kitchen,” freely displaying their strong rock and roll influences (ex-Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek produced the album). The title track is another rousing rock and roll number that focuses on melody without eschewing the speed of punk rock.

The following year, X released their second album, Wild Gift. The opening track, “The Once Over Twice” features a rocking guitar riff and a full on solo, as well as dealing with the idea of love, all rarities in punk rock. “We’re Desperate” is maybe the most straightforward punk rock song at the album, a slight, speedy tour de force about frustration.

“Adult Books,” with its crooning vocals and strummed guitar, feels like a song you might have heard at a sock hop back in the ‘50s, and I mean that in the best way possible. Something tells me, though, that the subject matter of the song (take a guess based on the title) wouldn’t have flown in the repressive ‘50s, but as it stands, it’s a near perfect piece of retro rock and roll. “In This House That I Call Home” meanwhile seems to fuse punk and pop so fluidly it almost makes you forget how divergent the two genres generally are. While most punk rock bands were creating an alternative to rock and roll, a genre many of them considered dead, X was proving that rock music still had vitality and reviving the genre within a punk rock context.

The year 1993 was big for Chicago. Over the last several years, Seattle had been the hotspot for the alternative rock movement due to the grunge explosion, but in 1993, Chicago struck back, producing Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, Urge Overkill’s Saturation and Ashley’s pick this week, The Smashing Pumpkins’ second album Siamese Dream, which became a landmark record both in the band’s career and in the alternative rock movement.

Over the course of the ‘80s, alternative rock had been just that: an alternative to mainstream music. Yet Nirvana had changed all that, making “alternative rock” the best selling genre of the early ‘90s. This allowed bands that otherwise would have been ghettoized as alternative to seek out mass audiences, but it also created a conflict for these bands. Their predecessors in the alternative movement had seen signing to major labels, engaging with the record industry’s hype machine and aiming for a mass audience as “selling out,” and while that view was clearly becoming outdated, it was still clung to by much of the music-savvy audience these bands hoped to reach. Yet Smashing Pumpkins didn’t really care if they were seen as selling out; in fact, some might say they liked it that way.

That Billy Corgan is an arrogant, self-obsessed asshole isn’t just a fact, it’s part of the Smashing Pumpkins mythos. Corgan also openly sold himself as a tortured genius, which made him come off as even more arrogant, and angered detractors even further because it was a little hard to argue with. Corgan not only wrote all of the songs on Siamese Dream and served as the band’s vocalist, he also handled virtually all of the guitar and bass work on the band’s early albums, quite the achievement considering that some of the songs on the album have more than 50 different guitar tracks. The album’s opening track “Cherub Rock” deals with Corgan’s perceptions of the alternative rock community, from which he declares his independence early and often. If, as Corgan often claims, he was always scorned by the “cool” kids when he was younger, this is his full throated rejection of everything those kids ever stood for.

The band’s first big hit, “Today” is a great grunge rock song about a day in which Corgan contemplated suicide while experiencing writer’s block during the writing of Siamese Dream. “Today” smartly pairs its dark lyrics with a relatively upbeat melody that still fits into the standard quiet verse/loud chorus template for grunge rock. Corgan calls “Disarm” the most personally important song on the album, and he sings it like he means it. Some have interpreted the song as a pro-life screed, but Corgan insists that it is about his shaky relationship with his parents while growing up. The song is a tour de force of pain, overflowing with emotion and a swelling melody. Again, the song fits the basic grunge template but manages to transcend it through melodic complexity and sheer force of emotion. “Soma” meanwhile displays Corgan’s ambition, including well over 40 different guitar tracks over the course of its nearly seven minute runtime.

The Smashing Pumpkins would eventually be felled by the backlash against grunge at the end of the ‘90s, yet Corgan keeps some version of the band afloat to this day (though he is, at the moment, the only original member still playing with the band) through sheer force of will. Corgan’s bitterness, willingness to hold a grudge seemingly eternally, and arrogant rants alienate most people these days, but for a while in the early ‘90s, he was the “tortured genius” at the front of The Smashing Pumpkins, one of the greatest bands of the grunge era.

I may never agree that Michael Jackson deserves his legacy as “The King of Pop,” or that Dangerous is anything other than a ramshackle carcass of an album reeking of desperation and a sad, failed attempt at the epic, but I can see why some people might want to argue for his musical significance (mostly it seems like this is because “The King of Music Videos” doesn’t sound as cool and “Lord of the Dance” is already taken). My relationship with X is much less complicated, though; they seem to me to be the one band keeping rock and roll truly alive throughout the punk era, and combining rock and roll with punk so fluidly that they gave the faltering genre some much needed credibility in a time where most were celebrating its demise. And while I can’t really get past my view of Billy Corgan as a self-centered, vengeful bastard, I can’t help but admit that The Smashing Pumpkins were pretty great in their day, and that Siamese Dream is a solid album.

Ultimately, I think what we can draw from this is that reputation very often has little to do with quality. When Michael Jackson released Dangerous, he was considered a great pop performer (maybe even the best), yet the album is not very good. Soon after its release, he was accused of child molestation, yet HIStory still opened at #1 (and still wasn’t very good). X had pretty much no reputation when they started making music, but they quickly became known as one of the greatest LA punk bands, in spite of a pretty far rift between a lot of their music and what we would traditionally consider punk rock. And everyone hated Billy Corgan even before he formed The Smashing Pumpkins, but that didn’t stop a whole lot of them from buying, and loving, several of his “masterworks.” Whether we love a musician, hate them, or have no idea who they are should have no effect on how we judge their music. In an ideal world, music should be judged absent any preconceived notions about the people behind it. We certainly don’t live in that world yet, and my guess is we won’t anytime soon. But it’s a nice thought anyway.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We begin a two week look at Minutemen, examining Paranoid Time, Joy, Bean Spill EP, The Punchline and What Makes a Man Start Fires?, analyze Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted and take a look at The Breeders Last Splash.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review: Breaking Bad, Season 4, Episode 1: Box Cutter

By Jordan

Pretty much since its premiere, I have generally considered Breaking Bad to be one of the best shows on television. Ever since its stunning pilot, it has shown itself to be beautifully shot, almost perfectly executed, and incredibly intelligent television. The only reason we have never previously covered the show on this site is because during seasons one and two I was always a bit behind and playing catch up, and during season three I was just too busy to add another show to my schedule, what with real life constantly getting in my way. For its first two seasons, Breaking Bad lived (in my mind at least) in the shadow of Mad Men and I generally considered it to be the second greatest drama on television. Season three changed that. Last year, Breaking Bad was the best show on television, overtaking Mad Men and turning out one of the strongest seasons of television I have ever seen. I was very upset, therefore, when AMC delayed the season four premiere from March to July; I was, of course, extremely excited for tonight's premiere. And I am happy to report that, for the most part, it didn't disappoint.

There are a few examples I want to point out before delving into the episode as a whole, that indicate to me the level that this show is operating at (and it's quite high). The first is the fact that the titular box cutter appears twice: originally as Gale uses it to open the packaging on the equipment for the shiny new meth lab, and later when that lab is sullied as Gus murders his right hand man in an effort to intimidate Walt and Jesse (and, also, because he was too obvious at the scene of Gale's death). The second is the Large sticker on Walt's new shirt toward the end of the episode: after disposing of a body, Walt is, in spite of his increasing slip into immorality, shocked enough that he forgets to remove it, in contrast to his sharp attention to detail. Skyler notices, though, and tears it off, commenting on the shirt ("Kenny Rogers, huh?") but not bothering to ask a question she doesn't want to know the answer to. She is changing, and quickly at that.

The first three seasons of Breaking Bad opened with a shocking, almost surreal opening sequences. Season one gave us two dead guys in a Winnebago and a half naked Walt preparing to commit suicide before getting caught. Season two gave us a burned, eyeless Teddy bear floating in a swimming pool. Season three gave us two unknown men joining a mass of people crawling towards a shrine to murder. This year, the show changed things up a bit, giving us a flashback to Gale as he prepares to take charge of the new lab. At this point in our journey, the show doesn't need to open a season with a bang; we know the shocks are coming, and those of us who are caught up know exactly how tragic it is to see the optimistic Gale ("I doff my proverbial cap to you sir") just months before his tragic death. And just like the opening of every other season, we are given a brief view into the consequences of Walt's actions. This may be the most subtle yet, but each opening has given us a clear view of how Walt's degradation affects those around him. In the first season, we saw murders that were directly his fault, but committed out of desperation. In season two we got a glimpse of the effects of Walt's actions, which lead to the plane crash that resulted in that bear landing in his pool. In season three, we saw that the death of Tuco would not be forgotten that easily. And this year, we see that Walt's moral degradation has cost an inherently kind and gentle man his life.

Not a lot happens in "Box Cutter," but then not a lot has to. We know the score going into this episode, and the show lays it out pretty much perfectly. Walt and Jesse are about an inch from being murdered, as Gus knows he needs them now, but clearly won't be satisfied with the current arrangement for long (and his near-wordless scene in the lab, in which he silently enters, disrobes, murders his right hand man, dresses himself again and exits with only a single line of dialogue, is phenomenal and an excellent display of the show's always superb cinematography and sense of pacing). Saul knows he can't trust Mike and fears for his own life enough to have hired a bodyguard (and when it looks like Walt's plan might have failed, Saul cynically turns to the bodyguard and asks, "You got a passport, right?") and searched his office for bugs. Skyler is knee deep in Walt's business, both because Hank's medical bills are rising and because she seems more and more invested in his livelihood. Hank is still angry and depressed, though he is able to walk at least 16 feet given twenty minutes. Marie is still optimistic and trying to pep Hank up. And Gus is still smart enough to know when he's been out played, but still prideful enough that he is not willing to easily admit defeat.

"Box Cutter" sets up a lot of the conflicts in this season and does it so fluidly, and with so much style that it is often a marvel to watch. We inherently understand that a game of cat and mouse between Gus and Walt is prepped to ensue. We see many times how characters can seal their own fates (Gale suggests the hiring of Walt, Gus' right hand man enters the apartment out of his own shock and anger, Skyler moves Walt's car indicating her own complicity in his crimes). We understand the importance of these characters actions, and how the way they act will always trump what they say (Gus' civility hides his monstrous evil, Walt's attempts, as per usual, to talk himself out of a situation are silenced by Gus' murder). We see the fear that these characters live in (Saul's paranoia, Skyler moving the car, Walt's desperation to stay alive). And, perhaps most significantly, we watch Walter White become encased in a new prison. When he "broke bad" in season one, his decision to start cooking meth was really about freedom, whether he claimed it was a necessity or not. Walt started cooking to escape his shitty job (s, if you count his evening work at the car wash), his claustrophobic family life and his generally unsatisfying existence. Yet now he finds himself imprisoned by Gus, forced to work in the lab that once was his ticket to wealth and total freedom. I imagine the bulk of this season will focus on Walt's attempts to get his freedom back, and the huge moral costs that freedom will come by. "Box Cutter" is not the best episode of Breaking Bad I've ever seen, and it's certainly a step below the show's full potential, but it does a lot of heavy lifting, both thematically and in terms of plot. It re-acclimates us to the lives of these characters and hints at the struggles that will likely form the center of this season. And that means that while it may not be an instant classic, it is a damn fine season premiere.

Grade: A-


-"I don't consider him a professional." "If he's not, I don't know what that makes me."

-"He carpools? He carpools to work at a meth lab."

-"If you and he and everyone in America took a vote and changed the meaning of the entire English language, yeah, I guess I broke new ground."

-"You make it Gale vs. me or Gale vs. Jesse, Gale loses every time."

-"What did you expect me to do, just simply roll over and let you murder us?"

-"Well? Get back to work." Gus is such a fucking bad ass.

"We're all on the same page." "And what page is that?" "The one that says, 'If I can't kill you, you'll sure as shit wish you were dead." Sounds like a mission statement for the season, if you ask me. And if that's the case, I couldn't be more excited.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Twenty Eight

Week Twenty-Eight:

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

“Here Lies Darby Crash.”-Suicide note written on a wall by Crash, unfinished.

“Hey, hey, rock and roll is here to stay, its better to burn out than to fade away.”-Neil Young, “Out of the Blue”

The Joshua Tree made U2 into international rock stars and established both a standard they would always have to live up to and an image they would forever try to live down.”-Bill Flanagan

Punk rock was never built to last. Created by a bunch of angry, depressive, sincerely fucked up teenagers as a desperate reaction to the mainstream music they loathed, perhaps it was never meant to. Many punk rock bands were populated with violent, drunk, drug addled malcontents who needed to vent their emotions, whether they could play an instrument or not, and the “punk lifestyle” is a resolutely unhealthy, short-lived one. To live up to the suspect ideals they set for themselves (and I’m speaking here of the more self-destructive punks, like Sid Vicious and Darby Crash, who we’ll get to in a moment), they were basically required to live fast and die young. For many of them became legends partially (if not mostly) because they took the advice Neil Young handed out to them and burned out rather than fading away.

I’ve spoken several times in this space about how relatively short-lived punk rock’s Golden Age was and yet how vastly influential it managed to be. I think there are a few reasons for this. First off, and most obviously, punk rock stars were killing themselves or dying faster than new punk rock bands were forming virtually from the start; that’s a good way to guarantee the end of a musical movement right there. But punk rock suicides seem to me to be less a cause than a symptom of why punk rock was never going to become a long-lasting musical movement: very few punk rockers wanted it to be.

This again is for a few reasons. First off, when you’re young (and many of the founders of punk bands were very young), the idea of legacy is a distant one, and it can be hard to think as far away as tomorrow, much less years or decades into the future. Few of the early punk bands formed with the intention to be powerhouses for decades to come (like, say U2, who we’ll return to in a moment); most of them wanted to make music they would want to listen to and didn’t put much more thought into the formation of their bands (that isn’t to say they should have, that’s just the way it was). Second of all, punk burned out because it effectively got what it wanted pretty quickly. One of the most important reasons for the creation of punk rock as a genre (if not the single most important one) was to create an alternative to music that was just not meeting the quality or style standards of a lot of late-‘70s youth. By that definition, punk only needed to exist to make sure there was good music again. So while bands like Sex Pistols and The Germs were destroying themselves, post-punk outfits like Joy Division, DEVO, Gang of Four, Talking Heads and Wire were filling the void that punk rock had originally been created to plug (and if post-punk wasn’t your cup of tea, you always had hardcore with bands like Black Flag, The Minutemen, and Husker Du or industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle and Coil to keep you sonically satisfied).

The Germs formed in 1977, when Jan Paul Beahm and George Ruthenberg got kicked out of University High for antisocial behavior (specifically, they were alleged to have been using mind control techniques on fellow students). Beahm, who was then going by Bobby Pyn and would soon take on the name Darby Crash, became the vocalist and Ruthenberg, who adopted the name Pat Smear, became guitarist. Before their first live show, the band added Teresa Ryan (who went by Lorna Doom) on bass. By 1980, Darby Crash was dead, and The Germs were over. While together, they released one album, entitled (GI), and a few EPs. Nearly all of their recorded music was later collected in Tab’s pick this week, (MIA): The Complete Anthology.

The 30 songs on the anthology span the length of the band’s brief career and display a supremely confident punk band. “Forming,” the opening track, was released as a single in July of 1977 and is considered the first true Los Angeles punk record. Featuring the band’s recently added drummer Becky Barton (who went by Donna Rhia) and thus an all-female rhythm section, which earned them much respect in the early LA punk scene. “Forming” was the first song Crash wrote for the band, and is a perfect example of an early punk song by a band that’s quickly finding its feet.

Soon after the recording of the song, Donna Rhia left as drummer and was replaced by Don Bolles. Like everything about the band, their moment as feminist punk icons was brief. “Lexicon Devil” is an infectious punk anthem from a band who is clearly comfortable in their own skin. “What We Do Is Secret” (which would eventually become the title of a biopic about Crash and The Germs in 2008), is 44 seconds of pure punk energy, with such velocity and power its hard not to get a little caught up in the rush.

“Shut Down (Annihilation Man)” is an almost 10 minute punk epic, brimming with rage and guttural anger, a tour de force performance both musically and in Crash’s anguished vocals. The bands cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” is a strange departure for them. While The Buzzcocks and The Slits were both punk bands that were more than willing to incorporate their influences and other musical stylings into their sound, The Germs seem otherwise content to ignore most of what came before in an effort to form their own sound. Nevertheless, “Round and Round” is a solid effort by the band, remaking Berry’s classic so fully that it loses almost all association with the original.

The Germs lived briefly (until their reunion a few years back with Shane West, who played Darby Crash in What We Do Is Secret) and burned out almost before they had even started. In that way, they may be the quintessential punk rock band, violently antisocial, none too musically talented (in fact, at their first show they spent an hour setting up and only “played” for two minutes, most of which was spent by Darby spreading peanut butter on the faces of everyone in the band), and with a radically self destructive member who killed himself overdosing on heroin at the tender age of 22 (surviving his similarly self destructive punk counterpart Sid Vicious by a year, though rumors have it his suicide may have been influenced by Vicious’). Fittingly, news of Crash’s suicide was overshadowed; the day after he died on December 7, 1980 John Lennon was assassinated. The mainstream world had overlooked Darby Crash for the last time, but punk rock, and all of the music that sprung from its fertile roots, will never forget his formative influence on the LA punk scene.

As I mentioned earlier, in opposition to most punk bands, U2 seems to have always intended to be a rock band until they all die or Bono is dragged, screaming from our collective musical consciousness (which seems unlikely to happen since the band has been making shitty music for at least a decade now and are still powerhouses virtually beyond compare). When the band set out to record The Joshua Tree, their fifth album and Collin’s pick this week, they chose to use America as its central theme, allowing them to explore their love-hate relationship with the U.S. and to return again to the well of socially and politically conscious lyrics the band has been drinking from almost since its inception. I know that I tend to mock U2 whenever I bring them up, and I do tend to think that their politicization of rock and roll and self-satisfied, self-serious attitudes are ripe for mockery, but let’s not mince words here: The Joshua Tree is a great rock and roll record, the beginning of a golden era for the band, and in my opinion, the record that took them from being “those really political Irish rock and rollers” to being the biggest rock and roll band in the world for a time. It’s the album that took U2 from an ‘80s rock band to the ‘80s rock band.

The opening track, “Where the Streets Have No Name” was written by Bono as a response to the (classically ‘80s) notion that it was possible to tell a person’s religion and income based on the street on which they lived, a notion particularly forwarded in Belfast. The song began as a demo by The Edge, who feared that the album, nearing completion, was lacking “the ultimate U2 live song” and wanted to create a guitar song that would knock people over. Though I’ve never seen U2 live, I would have to say he succeeded in creating a “classic U2 song,” the perfect amount of political rock song, rousing anthem, and emotional musical journey. The band had such trouble recording the complex track that at one point producer Brian Eno was prepared to stage an accident and erase the master tape of the track so the band could just start fresh. All of that hard work paid off, though. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a phenomenal rock song, powerful, emotional, singable and forceful.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” deals with another quintessential U2 theme: spirituality and a religious search for Truth. The song is a pretty standard rock ballad, which isn’t to say it’s obvious or unoriginal, just that it fits (and arguably transcends) that rock template. Another of the band’s most enduring songs, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” captures the seeker in Bono’s soul, a side to the singer that is far more appealing than the heavy-handed political activist he can often come across as in other music (and, obviously, in almost everything he ever says in real life). The man who admits he doesn’t know the answers is always more appealing than one who thinks he knows everything, and to an extent that holds true when it comes to U2 songs.

Easily one of my favorite U2 songs (and also one of their most popular and well acclaimed, because of course I have excellent taste), “With or Without You” became the band’s first #1 hit in America and Canada. The song is about the tension that Bono claims “defines” his life, the tension between his wanderlust and participation in a touring rock band and his attempts at married life and domesticity. Powerful, emotional, and romantic without ever losing its rock and roll feel to overly sentimental melodies, the song is one of the band’s strongest efforts.

The Joshua Tree remains the band’s best selling album, and is one of the greatest rock albums of the modern age. It is the album that made the band what they are today, and also the album they have spent most of their career since trying to distance themselves from, top, or recreate, depending on the era. The album was the band’s creative height, a modern masterpiece of rock and roll that toned down the more pretentious and annoying aspects of the band’s personality for long enough to turn in a great album (mostly) unburdened by their self-serious political opinions.

When Liz Phair released her debut album, and Ashley’s pick this week, Exile in Guyville, the alternative rock scene was not exactly flooded with powerful women (some would argue that’s still pretty much true today). Upon its release, Phair claimed that the album was a song-by-song response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, a claim I find somewhat dubious but also very interesting, which is arguably the point. With her clever (and cleverly profane) lyrics, her catchy melodies and bold assertions that her album was an attempt to take on The Stones, there was almost no way Phair wouldn’t get noticed by the music press and, by extension, the public at large. This isn’t to suggest that Liz Phair is calculating (or at least not anymore calculating than anyone in the music business looking for success), but that she is a little bit brilliant. Few debut albums are as widely acclaimed as Exile in Guyville, an album that is still discussed today as a landmark and one that Phair has spent most of her career trying to top.

The opening track, “6’1” (which, for those playing along at home, should according to Phair correspond to “Rocks Off” from Exile on Main Street) is a powerful kiss off to an ex, about the singer’s feeling that she is taller after being empowered by regaining her freedom. “Dance of the Seven Veils” (an apparent response to “Casino Boogie”) is an incredibly catchy and clever song that proves Phairs skills as both a songwriter and a lyricist.

“Fuck and Run” (corresponding to “Happy”) is a delightful song about Phair’s regrets after a one night stand and desire to find real, lasting love. Again, the song is catchy and clever in equal measures, but also carries a meaning that is completely relatable. “Flower” (corresponding to “Let it Loose”) is recorded with just Phair and her guitar, yet uses distortion to sound somewhat like a wind instrument. The song first appeared on Phair’s Girly Sound demo tapes and has a lo-fi sound that sets it apart from the more traditional pop-rock of the rest of the album.

Exile in Guyville is a very solid record, all the more impressive for being a debut album. Though Phair has struggled for her entire career to top the album (much like U2 has fought the legacy of The Joshua Tree), she has also been able to leverage its success to remain an ever present force in the nearly two decades since its release.

The Germs may never have intended to be around for very long (and they were right in those intentions), but U2 and Liz Phair both seemed to know early on that they wanted to be musical forces for quite some time, and each did the necessary leg work to create enduring albums that catapulted them into the stratosphere. The Germs were incredibly influential to the LA punk scene, which may make their influence more of an academic footnote at this point, yet they managed to craft a style that would transcend their small body of work. U2 managed to take their politically conscious rock up to the next level, creating memorable and enduring rock and roll about a decade after that seemed possible. And Liz Phair managed to get noticed in an industry that is always inclined to ignore, and managed to assure herself a place in musical history through smart lyrics, catchy melodies, and sheer force of will. Each of these bands, whether they intended to last or not, has formed an indelible mark on musical history. Oh, and they made good albums in the process too.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We follow X to Los Angeles to pick up a Wild Gift, discover that Michael Jackson is Dangerous, and follow the Smashing Pumpkins into a Siamese Dream.

Want to keep tabs on all of our updates? follow us on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Twenty Seven

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

Closer is even more austere, more claustrophobic, more inventive, more beautiful, and more haunting than its predecessor. It’s also Joy Division’s start-to-finish masterpiece, a flawless encapsulation of everything the group sought to achieve.”-Pitchfork media.

“We wanted to be the Dynamic Two, the Treacherous Two—when we heard that shit, we was like, ‘We’re gonna be ruined!”-DMC, on hearing the proposal of the name Run-DMC

“The world that we’d been involved in had disappeared, the world of Husker Du and The Replacements, all that had gone […] We were just in a different place, and that worked itself out musically and lyrically.”-Peter Buck

James Dean appeared in seven movies, but you’ve only heard of three (his first four roles were as extras). He died at 24 years old and mostly because of that has become permanently engrained in our cultural consciousness. A lot of people will tell you that Dean wasn’t a very good actor, and that he didn’t even make very good movies, but that was never the point of James Dean. He lived fast and died young and will forever embody 1950’s youth culture as a result. His fame has little to do with what he actually did; James Dean is famous because of what he meant.

My point is this: fame, real lasting fame (not the 15 minutes in the spotlight we afford to Disney channel kids and heiresses because watching the fallout entertains us) is a complicated beast. Clearly it isn’t tied to longevity. Many who have attained eternal fame have relatively small bodies of work, or were only around for a very short amount of time. And many people who have been around for decades, turning out good work all the while, have never and likely will never attain the sort of fame that others have handed to them for little work. So neither, then, is fame tied to output.

For the moment, then, I will forward the theory that fame is tied not to longevity or to output but to influence. James Dean made three movies, but he influenced ideas about teen angst and youth culture forever. Sid Vicious (who died at a scant 21) could barely play bass, but he will always represent the violent ideals of English punk (as well as a certain form of completely, desperately self destructive romance for those who are into that sort of thing). And Ian Curtis, who died at 23, was the front man of Joy Division for just two albums, an EP and a few singles, yet in that short time he solidified the post-punk movement and laid forth a perfect example of what somber, depressive introspection would look like for the rest of time (Elliott Smith, who we will look at later this year, is a clear example of the influence Curtis has had on music by and for the depressed).

Closer, Joy Division’s final album and Tab’s pick this week, was released just two months after Curtis’ suicide and features a sound that is simultaneously more melodically complex and more somber than the band’s previous efforts. The album also includes a larger use of synthesizers and studio effects, both of which would become central to the New Wave movement that was formed largely out of the ashes of Joy Division.

It’s impossible not to listen to Closer and think that much of it sounds downright funereal. I have no evidence that Curtis knew he was living his last days during the writing and recording of the album, but it certainly sounds like the sort of album he would have created while on his way out the door. The opening track “Atrocity Exhibition” shares its name with a “condensed novel” by J.G. Ballard, though most of the song was written before Curtis had read the novel. The song feels as if Curtis is leading us forward, down the rabbit hole into his headspace. “Isolation,” which is a quintessential Joy Division song-title, is built around an industrial beat by Stephen Morris, accompanied by a high pitch keyboard line by Bernard Sumner and becomes sort of a clarion call by Curtis towards seclusion and loneliness, a love song to isolation itself in many ways, saying as the song ends, “This is my one lucky prize.”

“Heart and Soul” features some of Curtis’ best, most insightful lyrics (one of which I used to open last week’s column. Technically cheating, sure, but it seemed like a fitting remark for a halfway point), and is also one of the few Joy Division songs on which he played guitar. He also displays a greater vocal range than usual throughout the song, beginning each verse in a higher octave and slowly lowering to his standard baritone by the end of each verse. “The Eternal” is a slow, ponderous and deeply moving song about the passage of time and mortality, one of the many instances throughout Closer where Curtis’ upcoming suicide seems obvious, almost palpable, if still impossible to avoid.

Closer is nothing short of a masterpiece, an album so fantastic it is a tragedy that it was destined to be their last, but also an album so rich, detailed, accomplished and conclusive that it almost seems like it was intended to be Joy Division’s final bow. Monumentally influential to New Wave and to roughly all of alternative music that followed, Joy Division are titans of music history, a band who shone too briefly and too brightly to be contained, but one it is a pleasure (and even an honor) to experience at all.

Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell grew up in Queens, hitting their formative years just as hip hop was emerging as a movement. Simmons’ older brother Russell, a hip hop promoter, recruited him to DJ for rapper Kurtis Blow, who Russell managed. Soon, Simmons began performing as “DJ Run, Son of Kurtis Blow,” trading rhymes with Blow and beat boxing during shows. He would often come home and play tapes of his shows for McDaniels, who soon began DJ-ing, but refused to rap in public due to crippling stage fright. He quickly began writing fantastic rhymes and calling himself “Easy D.” After overcoming his stage fright, McDaniels and Simmons would hang around Two-Fifths Park in the fall of 1980, hoping to rap for the locl DJS who performed and competed in the area. The most popular performer in the area at the time was Mizell, who performed as “Jazzy Jase.”

Run released his first single, “Street Kid” by himself, as his brother didn’t like McDaniels rapping style. But after the two started college in 1982, they finally convinced Russell to let them record as a duo, and recruited Mizell, who was now going by Jam-Master Jay, to be their official DJ. IN 1983, Russell agreed to help them record a new single and land a record deal, but only if McDaniels would change his stage name to DMC and the group would market itself as Run-DMC.

The group released their third album, Raising Hell, their breakout hit and Collin’s pick this week, in 1986. It is difficult for me to accurately place Run-DMC in a hip-hop context; while just last week I was questioning my level of music expertise, I can easily admit that when it comes to hip hop, I’m a novice (in fact, there has been talk already of following up My Year in Lists, provided I survive this year, with a similar feature that would allow me to track the development of hip hop, country, and classical music, three genres that received little attention in this feature. Feel free to comment on your interest level). Yet it is not difficult to say that Raising Hell is one of the first great hip hop albums, combining the burgeoning genre with rock influences to create an early example of hip hop that could also be marketed to the masses. Basically, as best I can make out, Raising Hell was a bit of a gateway drug to the world of hip hop.

Perhaps the group’s most famous song (or at least the one I knew best prior to listening to this album. Again, I’m a hip hop novice), “It’s Tricky” is an amazingly catchy and rocking song that also centers on hip hop stylings. The music video for the song features Penn and Teller, which can be seen as another attempt by the group to reach out to the mainstream and introduce (and if possible, indoctrinate) them to the world of hip hop. “My Adidas” is a song that is brilliant in its simplicity, showing the vast potential for hip hop to be a genre that could explore literally anything, even something as seemingly insignificant as a pair of shoes.

The group’s cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” again indicates their attempts to break into the mainstream. It worked, and the song was the first ever hip hop song to break the top five in the Billboard 100. The song blazed the trail for both pop musicians looking to incorporate hip hop influences into their music and for rappers to bring singers into the studio for collaborations, a trend that exploded in the ‘90s and over the course of the last decade. Following the success of “Walk this Way,” the group released “You Be Illin” as their next single. The song is basically a long list of things a person might do to be “illin,” allowing the band to trade on their newfound mainstream success to establish the beginnings of a culture of cool within hip hop.

Stephen Erlewine of once said that, “More than any other hip hop group, Run-DMC are responsible for the sound and style of the music.” While, as I’ve said many time before, I would have trouble verifying that claim, I see a lot of the beginnings of where hip hop was headed throughout Raising Hell.

When we last discussed REM, we were looking at their debut album and the way that their timeless feel, cryptic lyrics, and refusal to give up any of their artistic integrity helped to blaze trails for alternative artists across the board. By the time they released their eighth album, and Ashley’s pick this week, Automatic for the People, they were already a mammoth success, enjoying a creative and commercial peak. Having just finished the heavily acoustic Out of Time, the band hoped to make their next album have a harder rock edge. After the release of Out of Time in May of 1991, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Perry began meeting several times a week to write harder, more rock-based music. They ended up with fewer than six workable songs in this vein and quickly abandoned their original intentions. Instead, Automatic for the People became a subdued meditation on mortality and the passage of time, with the group entering their 30s and realizing that many of their original contemporaries were no longer around.

The opening track, “Drive” is derived from the band’s support for the Moter Voter Act, which allowed for voter registration at the time of obtaining or renewing a drivers license. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is the band’s attempt at an homage to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” including singer Michael Stipe’s opening screech. The song is actually about a refusal to answer the phone, with the sidewinder referring to the cord that resembles a snake. Throughout the song, a caller is attempting to reach the singer, yet he refuses to answer.

One of the band’s most famous and enduring songs, “Everybody Hurts” is actually a departure from the band’s cryptic lyrical style, because, as Peter Buck explains, “it was aimed at teenagers” who are of course too dumb to interpret opaque lyrics. The song is a straightforward affirmation that while every person experiences pain, we should all hang on because good things will happen eventually. While it is not complex, either lyrically or emotionally, “Everybody Hurts” retains power in its simplicity. Plus, it’s an easy song to plug in over a montage of various people who are upset, so it will likely remain in our cultural lexicon until the sun explodes.

Another of the band’s most popular songs, “Man on the Moon” is simultaneously about Andy Kaufman and the theory that he faked his death as an elaborate gag, and about the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked. Clever, more lyrically dense than “Everybody Hurts” but still catchy and compelling, “Man on the Moon” is vintage REM, a fun alternative rock song that, like the song says of Kaufman, cannot be seen to have “nothing up its sleeve.”

“Nightswimming” consists only of Michael Stipe and Mike Mills, with Stipe singing and Mills playing piano. Peter Buck claims that the song is about the band’s early days in Athens, Georgia, when parties would often end with a small group of people breaking into a country club to go swimming, but Michael Stipe disregards that interpretation, saying the song is about a “kind of an innocence that’s either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost.” Automatic for the People is widely considered to be the greatest REM record ever released, and its surely a classic for the band with just the perfect mix of melancholy, insight, and catchiness to ensure that it will stick with you and also make you think.

The careers of Joy Division, Run-DMC, and REM are all vastly different. They are completely divergent bands with careers of different lengths and styles that are disparate to say the least. Yet each of them has attained fame, not only because they created great music, but because they had great influence, shaping music in different but equally important ways and forever leaving their marks on our cultural consciousness.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

The Germs are MIA, U2 is headed for The Joshua Tree and Liz Phair experiences an Exile in Guyville.

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