Songs of the Year—1997

Go ahead you can laugh all you want
I got my philosophy
Keeps my feet on the ground
And I trust it like the ground
That’s why my philosophy
Keeps me walking when I’m falling down
–Ben Folds Five

Songs of the Year: “Super Bon Bon,” Soul Coughing; “Bury Me,” Guster

Runners-up: “Philosophy”, Ben Folds Five; “Stickshifts and Safetybelts,” Cake

Honorable Mentions: “Firestarter,” The Prodigy; “Tubthumper”, Chumbawumba; “Hypnotize,” Notorious B. I. G.

In 1997, I went to college. I had the grandest of opportunities to re-invent myself. In life, rare are the occasions when you can literally trade in your old mask for a new one. So, I changed my clothes (a little); I broke up with a girl over Limp Bizkit and I went off to conquer the world.

Or something like that.

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Songs of the Year—1994 Geek Rock Comes out

You say I only hear what I want to.
You say I talk so all the time so.
And I thought what I felt was simple,
and I thought that I don’t belong,
and now that I am leaving,
now I know that I did something wrong ’cause I missed you.
-Lisa Loeb

Songs of the Year: “Stay” Lisa Loeb; “I Should Be Allowed to Think,” They might Be Giants
Runners-up: “Better Man”, Pearl Jam; “Animal”, Nine Inch Nails
Honorable Mention: “21st Century Digital Boy”, Bad Religion; “All Apologies”, Nirvana

1994 was the year that, for however brief a moment, cardigan sweaters were cool. Thick-rimmed glasses were no longer tokens of an embarrassing limitation but rather a sign of honor from a glorious Geekdom. Green Day were geeky punks. Weezer sang a song about 12 sided die.

1994 saw the release of albums that surprised and stuck around. I still remember the furious onslaught of the The Lead Singer as he tried to persuade me to love Green Day’s Dookie by enumerating everyone he knew (who was cool) who liked it. He should have known that this was the wrong tack to take with me. Contrarian I was.

The list of great albums that came out in 1994 is long, but a few highlights include: Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral, Weezer’s Blue Album, Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys, Stranger than Fiction, Bad Religion, Definitely Maybe, Oasis, Ready to Die, Notorious B. I.G., Ruby Vroom, Soul Coughing. Tracks from these CDs would dominate the world for the next few years. But not me. Not yet.

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(Songs for) Debt Servitude

I have read a lot lately about the spiraling forces of income inequality: student-loan debt, new possible mortgage fears, and the breakdown in the basic social compact of which education is a central and collapsing piece (Thomas Frank, why do you have to make me so sad?). During my sister’s recent visit when we got to celebrate the Red Sox’ most recent World Series win and even during the good news of my brother landing a real teaching job, discussions have been sobered by the reality of crushing student loan debt.

So, before the pretty lights of the holidays distract us, here’s a re-post and reminder that we live off tomorrow’s wages today.

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

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Tupac: You Are Appreciated.

“God Bless the Dead” is certainly my favorite Tupac song and possibly my favorite rap song ever. It’s got bad-ass beats and, as an extremely white person from almost the most northern state of the United States, the lines “I was the last of G’s, pump the shit that make the white man bleed” really strike a chord with me. Although a much bigger fan of Biggy, I can say that Pac was definitely a mainstay of my high school class’s listening, he definitely wrote some more socially conscious lyrics and was definitely more publicly in trouble with the law which made me him scary to me as a youth. Tupac Shakur was one of the greatest rappers ever and like his Mama, he is appreciated.

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The Notorious B.I.G.: Amazing across all socio-economic divisions.

I can’t tell you how many times I joined in with about ten white kids yelling the lyrics to this song and almost every other Biggy track I mention in this post. Just last night, I got strange looks from the slide guitar player in my band when I threw this track on after we finished up working on our original music. Not everyone got into gangster rap out here.

I love gangster rap. I talked a while back about my affinity for this genre, starting with the work of the Wu Tang Clan and now moving to the unmatched and incomparable Notorious B.I.G. Of all the solo rappers out there, I can say with earnest that Biggy is my favorite. His combination of hard core gangster and lovable family man coupled with some of the dopest beats in hip hop and often highly introspective lyrical thoughts on street life and the rap game add up to make him the reigning king of gangster rap.

How does an upper-lower middle-class Scandinavian kid from the great white north end up being such a huge Biggy fan? I think that he was such an immense talent and personality, it doesn’t matter where you are from or what color you are to stand up and recognize that this shit is the bomb. And if you don’t know, now you will know.

I watched Casino a lot as a youth and I always loved the reference to the movie in this song. This song has one of the best beats in hip hop music ever while also making an incredibly viable point about mass media and death. Would The Doors be so big if Morrison had lived? What about Jimi Hendrix or Janice Joplin? You can never tell, but it’s a good topic to explore another day!

The closest thing we have to ‘the streets’ in rural Maine is the trailer park which is where I began my education in rap music. Everyone listened to Tupac, Eminem and a slew of other hip-hop artists of varying qualities. Biggy was always a mainstay, the baby-faced gangster from the urban warfare of  Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in the 1970’s where a 1977 power outage led to hundreds of stores being looted and many more burned to the ground. We are talking about a man who was equal parts court jester and bloodthirsty criminal. In hindsight, I think it’s this juxtaposition that makes him such an enigmatic character, thug and teddy bear. As he puts it in “Machine Gun Funk”, just because he joked and toked a lot doesn’t mean he doesn’t tote the Glock. Lyrically, not many rappers have ever come close to the eloquent and gritty nature of the Notorious.

The production on his tracks is always top notch and this is due in no small part to the skills of Mr. Sean “Puff Daddy”, aka “Diddy” or whatever the fuck he calls himself now. He was a mover and shaker in the NYC hip hop scene and brought on Easy Mo Bee to help produce this album, a genius producer who had worked with Wu Tang Clan’s GZA, Big Daddy Kane and was even behind  Miles Davis’ last album in 1992.

His lyrics  have a nice easy flow to them that allow you to actually hear them the first time and see how they fit into whatever narrative is happening in the song. This seems like an obvious trait for any rapper, but check out rap from today, such as some recent Lil’ Wayne tracks. I don’t know if I’m too sober,  but his tracks have been making less sense to me than ever before. With a recent trip to the hospital for allegedly overdosing on codeine cough syrup, it’s not surprising that his songs have made less sense.. My 8th grade students tell me he is doing painkillers too, but this is neither here nor there.

Biggie’s first album Ready to Die is one of the best rap albums ever, running a whole cycle of stories from party songs like “Big Poppa” and reflective songs like “Juicy” to a song about contemplating suicide and then doing it in “Suicidal Thoughts”. One thing I love about Biggy is the lack of celebrity guest rappers on this first album. The only one to really feature another rapper on the debut is “The What” with the incredibly talented Method Man dropping some serious rhymes. One can see why being such a fan of Wu Tang would also lend well to Biggy, but I can’t remember which I got into first. I am leaning towards the latter though. In the days of entire albums of guest stars, it’s nice to see an artist who only needs himself and a few good producers.

I have given a lot of thought as to what the appeal was to this music to me as a youth because let’s face it, I had a very easy upbringing with almost no elements of the street life. I think the answer is a multi-faceted response. First, the Notorious B.I.G. is an amazing performer regardless of the genre he makes his music in, from the lyrics to the production to the whole persona.  Biggy is the man and anyone who likes any type of music can see that. And he also pulled himself up from the streets, sold drugs and then used his experiences to pursue his greatest passion and change the rap genre forever. His gritty tales really do tell a story of a place that is scary and exciting to me, probably because I’ve never been held up at gunpoint or sold crack to feed my family. I’ve never held anyone else up either but I do love hearing Biggy rap about it.

So I don’t think it really matters where you are from, Biggy truly does pass above all socio-economic divisions. I can promise you that anyone who likes hip hop likes Biggy and even if they are rock and rollers, there is at least one song they can get into. This leads nicely to my final point. Like the Felice Brothers or Creedence Clearwater Revival doing genres of music that are not necessarily aligned with where they are from, music does not have geographic , racial, economic or any boundaries for that matter. It is perfectly ok for me to love the Notorious B.I.G. even though I am white and live in the woods, just as it’d be ok for Biggy to be into Lucky Tubb if he was alive and so inclined. Music is a universal language to be spoken wherever it wants to be. Socio-economic lines mean nothing for good music and if that’s the one thing you get out of this post then I’ll be happy. Oh yeah, and the fact that Biggy was probably the best rapper ever!

I think if Biggy had not been needlessly gunned down in the yet to be unsolved murder in Los Angeles, his music would have gone this more poppy direction. I will add that I am sure many of the violent and misogynistic lyrics are frowned upon by those who think song lyrics can push people to act out some of these terrible things. Like I’ve said before, no one has ever shot a man in Reno just to watch him die because of a song; they are surely already crazy. So, I am sorry if anyone is offended by some of this rap lyrics. The joy of the modern era is that  we all have the freedom to listen or not listen.

East Coast vs. West Coast: Hippie-Folk Smackdown

So, recently, I was telling my brother the following anecdote, and it got me thinking about rivalry, throwdowns, and a less tiresome way to talk about new music than to list it and have me give you my thoughts.

A colleague of mine who is from NYC told me that he met a younger professional who insisted that the difference between Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. was that the former (yes, Pac) was real ‘street’ whereas the latter (Biggee) was faking it. This is why, according to this anecdotal fool, that the music of Tupac was so ‘real’ and the music of Christopher Wallace seemed fake.

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(Songs for) Debt Servitude

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

Continue reading

iPod Time

For the first time ever, I now own an iPod. In the wake of last week’s huge show and a general feeling of unease (which must be the comedown after all the hard work from such a large even), I went through a strange sensation of needing to clean stuff up in my life. The first target was my bedroom.

I am not one to hang out in my bedroom and I am not sure of the last time I really cleaned it. As a general indicator, I did find an ex-girlfriend’s sock, the owner of which I have not seen in over three years. I did find some other interesting things, like old books and elementary school pictures, but most importantly, I found an iPod. It must have been my father’ s from the playlist, but now it is mine.

I have never owned an iPod. I am probably the last person in the first world to make this move and it was only accidental. It is not that I have some moral standpoint against it, I just never got around to buying one and have subsisted thus far on borrowed iPods and a small FM radio that I’ve probably had for a decade.

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