Songs of the Year 1995

Runners Up “Lump” by The Presidents of the United States of America”
Anything off of the Batman Forever soundtrack
Honorable Mention: Smashing Pumpkins “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”

I think 1995 was the year I really started to have my own musical tastes as opposed to what I heard other people enjoy, namely my brother. This rift can be seen most clearly in my liking of the biggest post-grunge teen act from Australia, Silverchair, and my brother’s continued disdain for the band. But, I get ahead of myself. Where was I and where was music in 1995?

I was in the fourth grade. I loved the X-Men and still loved Nirvana so my clothes reflected that: lots of comic t-shirts and flannel–the pictures are pretty funny and invdicative of the times. This is the era of me listening to Nirvana before school while thinking for some reason that being somber was cool. I still didn’t understand Kurt killing himself and I probably still don’t. I can’t remember if POGS were big this year or the year before.

So I do remember rocking out to Alanis Morrisette’s first song, but I would not now include that in songs I really like. I also did buy the Foo Fighters album that year, but I covered that in another post. I didn’t know until recently that Dave Grohl actually played all the instruments on that album which is pretty cool.

There was a rash of deaths, from the odd disappearance into a canyon by the bassist of Iron Butterfly to the overdose of beloved Shannon Hoon from Blind Melon. That hit me as a youth because I distinctly remember the “No Rain” video playing many times that day after my brother had introduced me to the band the year before. Looking at what else was going on that year, I’m sure I could go on for a while so I’ve tried to break it down to two songs and a soundtrack.

1. “Tomorrow” Silverchair

I know my brother still hates Silverchair and I can understand why. They are a grunge enthusiaist band whose first few albums were done when they were barely out of middle school. The reasons he doesn’t like them are the reasons I do like them. Cobain had just died and these kids did an album all on their own which sounded good to me then and not terrible now.

I always crank up “Tomorrow” when it comes on the local alternative station. It’s not the most sophisticated stuff but when I think about what I was doing in middle school, the album becomes even more impressive. I learned to play “Israel’s Son”, the first and second best track on the album, recently on my bass and I definitely felt some nostalgia.

The two above-mentioned songs are my favorites but the whole album is good to my ears even still. Not amazing, but good. The lead singer, Daniel Johns, has disowned the albums and they don’t often play those songs any more,. He calls it “their high school albums or something like that. Nevertheless, I would be proud of such an album at that age and he should be too.


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Cover Songs, Redux

In an earlier post, I wrote about cover songs abstractly, taking the time to discuss only one of my favorite covers in detail. In re-reading and re-thinking that post, I have more to say about one of my favorite topics (big surprise).

First, the cover song plays important but often different roles for artist and audiences. For developing musicians, covering a song is a bit like a painter copying the brush strokes of a master. In performance contexts like the dive bar or a street corner, however, a cover is an important way to grab a distracted (or hostile) audience’s attention either through the fidelity of the imitation or the originality of the interpretation.

Covered by every bar singer in Boston 1999-2001

Indeed, it is in the transition between these two polarities that we often mark the difference between a musician and an artist. When we go to live performances (especially of artists’ we don’t know) we may be impressed by the ability of a performer to imitate David Gray or Dave Matthews (most typical for singer/songwriters in bars) but we remember performers who deliver familiar songs in slightly different or even surprising ways. In fact, less-than-talented musicians can still provide exciting takes on songs.

I was in more than one heated argument in my band days over the issue of fidelity vs. interpretation. (For my part, it was the inability to imitate sufficiently that drove my desire to innovate.) As I argue in the earlier post, the ability of a song to be translated into a different form by a different artist is a testament to the beauty, even transcendence, of that song. Imitating slavishly is good for wedding bands, but not for original artists (as the judges from American Idol should be explaining).

But interpretation can also fall flat—the genre of lounge singing, for example, levels out the edges of music and channels even the most powerful songs into flaccid, saccharine schmaltz.  And, falling in between the two can be disastrous. Back in the day, I attended a Bush concert that ended with a wretched cover of R. E. M.’s “Radio Song”. I didn’t love Bush beforehand; I certainly had no greater respect after that.

In order to think through what happens with cover songs and why they work, I have tried to come up with some categories. Hopefully these will get the Younger J either (1) up in arms or (2) adding/correcting my lists ad infinitum.

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I don’t really know new Wilco. I don’t really know old Wilco actually as I only listened to their first album with any regularity. I know they’re kind of a hip band for collegians and slightly older folks as well as for alt-rock afficiandos of all ages. I like the alternative country stuff from their earlier albums, reminiscent of the earlier band Uncle Tupleo.

I guess I get ahead of myself as I haven’t really explained that I have been a devout honky-tonk fan from the very first time I heard Hank Sr. in the seventh grade.This has to do with Wilco only because of the fact that I really only like their country sounding stuff. Two songs seem to stick out and they were both on my iTunes. (Oddly enough, I have itunes but have never owned an iPod…..but that’s a story for another day.) I like Wilco mostly because of the song “Passenger Side”: and this is due to my memory of hearing it for the first time and what it’s about.

To illustrate my ignorance about the band, I will give a short recitation of what I do know. I know they came from the break-up of Uncle Tupleo, allegedly due to Tweedy’s growing role as singer and songwriter and his possible proposition of Jay Farrar’s girlfriend. (I saw Jay last year at Mountain Jam, accompanied by himself on a guitar and a pedal-steel player. He was really good, a perfect Sunday afternoon gig.)

Anyway, whatever the reason for the break-up, Jay went on his own and formed Son Volt and the rest of them became Wilco with added members along the way. I know Tweedy is supposed to be kind of an arrogant prick, although I can’t say since I’ve never met him.

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Song Studies: “Passenger Side” A. M. (1995)

Hey, wake up, your eyes weren’t open wide
For the last couple of miles you’ve been swerving from side to side
You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steer
Passenger side, passenger side,
I don’t like riding on the passenger side

Years back at a party in my apartment I received several compliments on a playlist I had put together (called the Phoenix List in honor of the burned out apartment whose rebirth was being celebrated). This was not too surprising—if a list has significant variety and some rare tracks over four hours of drinking it is bound to seem good to someone.

There were, however, some exceptions taken to certain choices. After Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” came on, one of my guests (who, incidentally, had tattoos on the inside of his mouth and made a point of mentioning that he didn’t drink but would do cocaine) began to interrogate and mock. Of course, I would like Wilco, he said. I probably like Death Cab for Cutie too. (The answer to that question in a later post.)

Now, as then, I wouldn’t describe myself as a Wilco Fan. Some of their music is good, but I prefer Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. (Jeff Tweedy is, also, a little more than annoying.) The early Wilco albums are pretty good; the recent stuff is fairly mediocre.
But, I guess the question I pose to myself, is: why do I buy Wilco records when I don’t really listen to them all that much? The answer: one song. What draws me to that song, I think, tells me more about me (as usual) and about what makes pop songs work (if not art in general).

The first time I heard “Passenger Side” I was hooked. The song is pretty simple: one vocalist, a basic rhythm guitar with some countrified electric licks, backed by an organ in the background, some strings peppered in effectively and a simple but clear drum line. Tweedy’s voice is raw and breaks at just the right moments. The verses transition well into the chorus; a bridge appears ¾ of the way through the song before the final verse.

This musical description can’t possibly explain the attraction of the song—too many rock and country songs fit the same description. What makes this song effective is its narrative. The singer asks for a ride from a friend (someone who could have been a lover) because his license has been revoked.

The story is simple, but its details strike up just enough verisimilitude to evoke memories from my world growing up—the friend offering a “few dollars to put in the tank” to go on mundane errands because he or she is somehow barred from driving; someone worrying about spilling a beer in a car; “rolling another number” for the road; court dates to get driver’s licenses back.

The story is also a simple one. This is not an overtly political song. This is not obviously engaged in broad universal themes, but there is something in its simplicity that is deceptive. Regret suffuses the lyrics and nearly drips from the chords and guitar licks. When Tweedy’s voice breaks it seems worn by both the weight of nostalgia and the knowing self-deprecation of remorse. The narrator seems to know that he is, like most of us, a self-saboteur.

The chorus, the complaint of being relegated to the passenger side, helps to expand the focus of the song from the specific to the general. The ‘passenger side’ becomes a metaphor for being sidelined, for being compromised, for being, in some way or another, disabled. By engaging with the mundane, by evoking a simple believable life where the narrator is incapable of running simple errands but still drinking and smoking and making grand deals over minor gestures, the song achieves a sublime effect. It makes the able bodied listener feel disabled. It puts drivers in the passenger seat.

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Songs of the Year—1991

Saying I love you
is not the words I want to hear from you
it’s not that I want you
not to say, but if you only knew
how easy it would be to show me how you feel…


(Before I even get to this post: how can I deal with the grammar of the first two lines of this song? I loved these lyrics, I really did. In 20 years will I think that the current me is as dumb as I now think that 1991 me was?  Will I actually be any smarter? Had I rejected the me from 1990? I know I was in denial about my NKOTB phase.)

Songs of the Year: “More than Words”, Extreme; “Summertime”, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince
Runners-Up: “I Touch Myself”, Divinyls; “Losing my Religion”, R.E.M.

In the year that “American Music” by the Violent Femmes, “Alive” by Pearl Jam, and “Smells like Teen Spirit”  were released as singles and during the same year that 2Pac, U2, Pixies and Guns N’ Roses released albums, I was listening to some real schmaltz. Some true crap. It is almost embarrassing to think of the two albums I remember buying that year after my sojourn with M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice.

The two albums: Pornograffiti (Extreme) and Homebase (D. J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince). My brother will probably remember that peppering this fine collection were such tasteful acquisitions as the debut album of Another Bad Creation, the hit record by Heavy D (R. I.P.)  and the Boyz and a copy of Color Me Badd’s self-titled offering (including the sublimely subtle “I wanna sex you up”).

(At least I wasn’t listening to “Everything I do…” by Bryan Adams or “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Michael Bolton. But, there’s only so much solace to be had there).

Now, the “More than Words” fixation is not one I am actually that embarrassed about. The song remains, if trite and a little too polished, a unique and pretty song. Certain aspects of it reflect tastes that I never quite shook: intricate harmonies and acoustic guitars. (As you can imagine, I saw the Simon and Garfunkel reunion special on PBS many times when I was very young. That explains it all, really. And this: I think my parents preferred Art to Paul. Seriously.)

“More than Words” came on the radio as I was just beginning to think about someday, just maybe, dating girls. The tone, rhythm, pace and overall arrangement made it sound like quite the love song. Upon contemplation, however, I was in a quandary. At first, I thought the singer was trying to guilt-trip his girl into sex. After almost rejecting the song for such a base message, I decided instead that it was really about matching words with actions (thus beginning a long personal practice of debating, rejecting, and reconciling song meanings).

The dark side of this song is the rest of the album. My recent album training under M. C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice led me to expect “More than Words” to be surrounded by songs that were more or less like it (just not quite as good). My shock, upon discovering that Extreme’s name was no accident, was incurable. I don’t think I could ever get through the screaming vocals and heavy guitars of the rest of the album.

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New Nephew Playlist

Note: The following was originally written in December

So I am an uncle again. My brother’s wife gave birth to my new nephew just this morning and I am filled with emotions both good and bad. Good, in that I am happy to have a new family member and am always impressed by the miracle of life. Bad, because my father is not here to see his first grandson and because my poor little nephew is being born into one of the most fucked-up times in human history. Maybe sad is the preferred adjective here, because I also wish I could have been there but he is across the country and multiple factors kept me in the northland.

My dad would be happy as shit I am sure, so for that one I feel ok. As for the current state of the world, who knows? The world is supposed to end this next year, but people have been saying that since time started so that shouldn’t be a real issue. I guess I mean specifically the way people treat each other, from backstabbing to shit-talking to just looking the either way when someone needs help. Everyone is guilty of this at some point but it’s the amount of people I’ve seen as of late who don’t seem to ever realize they’re doing it and amend their behavior.

I feel the same way about the state of the world as I do dub step music, a current craze amongst the younger generation. It sounds bad, I can’t dance to it and it confuses me.  If you don’t know about it, it’s like this drum and bass thing that occasionally has vocals and what sounds to me like electronic mosquitoes buzzing around. I am sure it has its merits but I just don’t get it. Am I getting old? Will all music be weird to me by the time my new nephew is old enough to appreciate it?

  1. “All things must pass”-George Harrison

I don’t know if my dad was ever into the solo work of the Beatles but I am sure he would have loved this song both for its music and lyrics. I think it is my favorite solo song by George and maybe even of any songs he’s written period, although “Something” is pretty damned good. I really love the first couplet which is “The sunrise doesn’t last all morning / A cloudburst doesn’t last all day”. To me, it says everything is fleeting and we have to grab at what we can when we can. It is clearly some type of Tao rephrasing but like any song, I think its content allows for multiple interpretations. You have a seemingly happy delivery of a dour realization, that shit happens and that is the way it is.

I find this song uplifting. The connotation of good or bad is something we ourselves add to whatever situation we are in. Keeping a positive outlook on all things, even death and loss, is easy to say and a bitch to actually do. However, it is very much worthwhile if you can. Check out the new documentary on Harrison on HBO, its killer.


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Remembering Whitney

“Everybody searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone to fulfill my needs
A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me”

Last night as my wife and I enjoyed our first night out since well before the birth of our son, I looked to my phone to check the time  and sneaked a peak at the latest news. When a group of youngish college kids who were seated across from us began discussing the same news, I was dismayed. One of them said, “Who is Whitney Houston?” Another one responded, “I guess she’s a singer or something.” A third, “Never heard of her.”

I almost entered their conversation as I waited for my wife to return from the bathroom. “Who is Whitney Houston?,” I imagined myself saying, “only the best and most memorable voice from the end of the 20th century.” I wanted to tell them there was a time when she stood as large as Michael Jackson and Madonna, when the only thing as recognizable as her voice was her smile. But I didn’t. These kids were, well, kids who had ‘sir’ed’ me and ‘ma’am’ed’ my wife. (They also confirmed that we should start frequenting different establishments. Too old.)

How would they know who Whitney was, unless they watched TMZ all the time and followed the tabloid-perfect fall from grace? Maybe it is better that these 18 year-olds didn’t know who she was, or should have been. The best pop singer of two generations. The other songs they don’t know: “I want to dance with somebody”; “How Will I know”; “Saving all my love for you”. The list goes on.

A few years ago, when my wife and I were driving to a distant airport in the middle of the night, she prevailed upon me to cede all control of music to her. I can’t remember the exact details, but I lost some kind of bet or proposition and my fate was to listen to a “Best of…” Mariah Carey album. This listening turned into an hour-long debate about the best diva. We weighed the relative merits of Celine Dion (too Canadian, too creepy) and Christina Aguilera (amazing voice, no signature song) before settling on a verbal cage match between Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey (I was not arguing for Mariah Carey).

On the album was the track “When You Believe”, a duet between the two singers (I know, what a convenient piece of evidence). Their voices are different; Mariah may be the better technical singer, she may have a better range (maybe), but there is something about the basic quality of Whitney’s voice that cannot be taught. Mariah’s voice was made and trained for pop. Whitney’s voice was made for something else, for something bigger. It is golden, sweeter, pure. Its tone is so round and beautiful. Other singers work to hit notes that just flow from her mouth. Other people sound like Mariah; nobody sounds like Whitney.

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NKOTB Fan: A Confession

Now that my brother has ‘outed’ me, I have no choice but to embrace and then explain my identity. Yes, it is true, I was (although, unlike my sister, do not remain) a New Kids on the Block fan. The Younger J, out of kindness or because of the failure of youth’s memory, does not paint the picture in its true horror. I was not just a fan, I was a fanatic.

I had NKOTB posters on my wall. I had a fine collection of NKOTB pins, collectible cards, and every album (up to Step by Step and including the Christmas album). I watched their specials on TV; I envied my friends who had the concert tapes. I missed out on their concerts, but they would certainly have been revelatory experiences.

I definitely had this pin

As you can probably imagine, I took some abuse for this love. When I wore my pins to school, I heard sneers and catcalls. (I may have been pushed into a snow-bank, or two.) But, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter, because I had Donny, Danny, Joey, Jon and Jordan (well, not really Danny, who liked him anyway?)

How did this happen? How did I fall in love with one of the most annoying, overproduced, pop-crapular ‘bands’ ever? How did I, who came to exhibit such fine and discriminating taste (please understand the sarcasm), start here? Three answers: crazy parents, isolation, and girls.

First: the Parents J, well, mostly the mother, were a little extreme in the 80’s. They went from free-loving, getting stoned in small airplanes, driving across the country in snow storms with an infant, to attending church regularly, forbidding television, and exiling violent toys in a few years. As a young kid, I could not watch MTV (I saw “Thriller” at a babysitter’s house and FREAKED out), could not own G.I Joes (until I prevailed upon them in my first ever rhetorical triumph); even Nickelodeon was considered too vulgar (there was something about “You Can’t Do that on Television” that made my mother crazy).


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