Songs of the Year 1996

She said it’s cold
It feels like Independence Day
And I can’t break away from this parade
But there’s got to be an opening
Somewhere here in front of me
Through this maze of ugliness and greed
–The Wallflowers

Songs of the Year: “Novocaine for the Soul”, the Eels; “One Headlight”, the Wallflowers

Runners Up: “What I got”; Sublime; “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, Smashing Pumpkins

Honorable Mentions: “Old Apartment”, Barenaked Ladies;  “California Love” Tupac, Dr. Dre

1996 was the year that I dropped the transmission on the Ford LTD station wagon; but it is still filled with memories of music playing in that car. I can see the road I was turning on to when Sublime’s “What I got” was playing on the local radio station for the first time. I can remember where the snow was falling when I first heard the terrible and memorable lyrics “The world is a vampire / sent to drain …”

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First Days of School fo Real

People think I’m crazy for teaching Middle School. They don’t know any better and I feel pretty fearless about it. Give me three weeks.

After almost half a year of planning and gradually working more and more with identified students, my co-teacher and I have moved into our own space away from the mainstream middle school. It’s as exciting as it is scary with all of our curriculum and research now needing to be turned into action. As you can imagine, I’m running at a high-speed wobble. I’m actually writing this while my students do their daily journal writing because I intend to keep my promise of writing more while my brother’s life gets a little crazier.

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Northward: 10 Songs for Chicago

This weekend, while my native state digs itself out of a terrible snowstorm in obscenely cold temperatures, I fly to Chicago for a whirlwind trip to a conference. Yes, for 36 hours I will be separated from wife and kids and surrounded only by the pasty-cold denizens of my field at one of those professional conferences where people nervously check your name tag to see if you’re someone to talk to or not.

I’ve only been to Chicago once before and then I was barely into first grade. My primary memory is that the trip involved my first ever visit to Toys R’ Us. And it blew my little mind. (Maine didn’t have the emporium for another three or four years).

So, in the spirit of my trip, here are 10 songs that have something to do with the Windy City.

“Chicago”, Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens is odd. His music is quirky. But he (and his music) are damn good. The fact that I haven’t mentioned him before only underscores what a hack music-writer I am.

 

“Chicago, We Can Change the World”, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When we grew up we had a family friend who played old protest and folk songs on his piano and Ovation Celebrity (though, not simultaneously—that would have been too cool). Although we each individually had fall-outs with this man, his musical taste and passion certainly made a tremendous impact on our lives.

This song was one of his standards. I still cannot hear the word Chicago without thinking of this song. The song reacts to the highly political and counter-cultural events of the late 60s when all went to hell at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The raw emotion and timeliness of the song always struck me, even as our friend sucked down Gennessee Cream Ales and chain-smoked in-between renditions of this and favorites by John Prine, Billy Joel and James Taylor.

“Jesus Just Left Chicago,” ZZ Top

No, this isn’t about Kanye.

How could I resist a song by this band with this name?

I have to confess that I really do wish I could grow I beard. I am not saying I could or would grow one to match one of these guys but I suspect that it would protect me against the vicious cold I’ll face this weekend.

“Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago”, Soul Coughing

My strongest memory of this song—by one of my favorite bands—is of the percussionist in my college band discovering that the lyrics developed from some type of drug-fueled existentialist fugue during which Mike Doughty contemplated the nature of what was and was not Chicago.

(And don’t think it is silly. What exactly is a city?)

Fueled ourselves by gin and tonics, there may have been imitative pointing and declaring that, yes indeed, this was not Chicago.

“In the Ghetto”, Elvis Presley (written by Mac Davis)

Yes, this is about Chicago.

True story: I was just in a sandwich place called Dave’s Cosmic subs and in the bathroom there was a fantasy painting of Elvis Presley crooning as Michael Jackson listened reclining on the hood of a car. It was all very creepy.

This ballad is so tortured and corny that it is transcendent. Less transcendent, of course, is the fact that Chicago leads the nation in murders and helps to round out some of our worst income inequality.

“Southside,” Common ft. Kanye West

Like all major US cities, I am sure that the class segregation will keep my conference and all of its attendees comfortably safe from the ghetto and from the working class neighborhoods. It is safe to say that the conference is not on the Southside of the city.

(Have I dared to mentioned that my respect for Kanye grows with each crazy thing he does? He is a performance artist.)

“If You Leave Me Now”, Chicago

One cannot have a list of songs about Chicago without including one by the band Chicago. Seriously, I am sure there is a law about this somewhere.

Chicago is one of those big-sounding, schmaltzy bands that I could care less about—the very over-produced and maudlin character that makes me avoid many bands from the time period. I hope I don’t feel the same way about the city.

“Chicago at Night,” Spoon

I haven’t talked much about Spoon on this blog, but it is a band that has great rhythms and writes some great songs. This album (poorly named Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga) wasn’t great, but it was still pretty damn good. I don’t remember spending any time in Chicago at night…but then again, I was barely reading the last time I was there.

 

“Tonight, Tonight,” Smashing Pumpkins

This song was written in Chicago and recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had the double album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) but it was not oft used and I think my brother took it from me. Smashing Pumpkins are one of those alt-Chameleon bands that could have done almost anything.

At night in Chicago, I will probably be drinking too much. But I won’t be melancholy (or hanging out with dogs). This video, by the way, is fucked up.

 

“Train to Chicago,” Mike Doughty Cover

My brother has written about how much he loves this song. It is a beautiful song and a great cover by Doughty. If I had endless stretches of time, I might take the train North to Chicago. There is something old-world and peaceful about a good train ride. If anything, it doesn’t have the frantic pace and madness of air travel.

So, my brother, while I fly north and endure the actual and metaphorical cold, perhaps you can let me know which songs I have missed.

(Oh, and wish our sister a Happy Birthday).

To Solo or Not to Solo: Is that a Question?

My brother and I have had an ongoing debate for the past few years. In fact, I think that this debate probably predates this blog by a healthy length of time. See, he has a predilection for bands that use what I consider to be too much noise. I have a taste for music that he, at times, considers too ‘emo’ or something like that.

This summary, of course, doesn’t fairly represent either the depth of the discussion or the opinions on either side. The whole concern, I suspect, is so directly connected to our  converging but essentially separate music aesthetics as to represent in toto our different characters and world outlooks.

Most recently, we have been debating the musical structure of songs by Mumford & Sons. One thing we both recognize (and disagree about) is that what sets the band and their style (shared in part with bands like the Lumineers and The Last Bison) is in the eschewal of conventional rock instrumentation—the abandonment of both the drumset and the iconoclastic lead guitar.

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Songs of the Year 1995

“Tomorrow”-Silverchair
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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