Songs of the Year—1998 The Next Big Thing

Songs of the Year: “Give Me Daughters”, Jonathan FireEater; “Underground”, Ben Folds Five

Runners up: “Torn”, Natalie Imbruglia; “St. Louise is Listening”, Soul Coughing

Honorable Mentions: “Doo Wop”, Lauryn Hill; “The Rockerfeller Skank,” Fatboy Slim

1998 was the year that alt-rock died. I swear it. Later, it was reincarnated as “Indie”, but the death throes had started the year before. Pearl Jam and 311 (!) released live albums; Green Day went soft with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and Matchbox 20 acquired yet more fans. It was soon to be Jay-Z’s world and I was merely living in it.

In the year that Alanis finally thanked India, when Shaniah Twain was kept from conquering the world by Celine Dion and Cher and while we all started to endure an overwhelming onslaught of boybands and young R&B performers (Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Brandy and Monica), I started to stop listening to the radio.

No Lisa Loeb, for sure

What a terrible year for music—one that anticipated worse years to come. The top three singles? Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, Cher’s “Believe”, and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”. Napster couldn’t be deployed soon enough. Radio was dying or dead. I was in the dishroom, or behind a bar, or carrying trays of lobsters to tables begging for the radio to be turned off.

When I wasn’t playing bad cover songs or trying terribly hard to put together a band that sounded like Guster, I was probably in a classroom or a dishroom. In abandoning the radio, the Rhythm Guitarist and I entered a seemingly endless search for the next big thing. If we were still playing cassettes, we would have worn out Guster’s Goldfly and Soul Coughing’s Irresistible Bliss. But we weren’t. We had CDs. If you’re careful, they play forever.

The year was short on big things. What was I listening to? I loved the Ben Folds Five live album Naked Baby Photos, was slightly disappointed in Soul Coughing’s last album El Oso, Cake’s immensely disappointing Prolonging the Magic, and the wildly successful and only sometimes cloying You’ve Come a Long Way Baby by Fat Boy Slim. I wasn’t cool enough to know about Bright Eyes’ Letting Off the Happiness (which I wouldn’t hear for four years).

I was cool enough to have the short release Tremble Under Boom Lights by the soon-to-implode Jonathan FireEater. The nearly incomprehensible lyrics on the lead track “Give Me Daughters” detracted nothing from the distanced B3 organ, the throaty and deep voice of the vocalist, and the gritty dirt of the recording. The song structure is loose, but repetitive enough to be memorable.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Airport Bar Music

Yeah I didn’t hear this song in the airport bar, but I wanted to include a cover of the John Denver classic and this one was my favorite after sifting through a lot of them. I always loved this jam and seeing as I’m very into hip hop right now, it felt like the right one.

I’ve written about airline music and dive bars, but never about airport bars and the music played through in the background. I’m currently in Texas visiting the Elder J and family, flying in last night from Portland, Maine to Newark, NJ then on to San Antonio. I had a three-hour layover in Newark and as I hate to fly, I naturally had the compulsion to have a few drinks to settle my nerves. I stopped into a Heinekin owned lounge and found no place to sit, so I moved down the concourse and found a NYC inspired oyster bar where I quickly got a table. Instantly and aptly, I heard this song.

The Outlaws are great and the guitar soloing on this track is amazing. This version is my favorite, even above Johnny Cash’s because of the instrumentation. I never saw the Ghost Rider movie but Nick Cage looks pretty bad-ass. I think it was an apt choice because of the flying occurring, not because I am part Native American because this song is about the plight of our Native brothers. Lastly, I am in no way a Native American, 100% Scandinavian. 

I rarely hear songs in restaurants that I like anywhere, much less in an airport so this  is pretty cool. Because of the proximity to NYC and my affinity for bourbon, I chose to order a Maker’s Mark Manhattan. Airports are weird because people generally don’t want to communicate too much and use every distraction available to trick themselves into thinking they aren’t just killing time while in transit. I like to have random conversations with people while traveling, but had picked up Keith Richard’s autobiography on the way to the airport and was trying to get into it. As I settled on the shrimp Po’ Boy, this next song came on much to my surprise.

It’s public knowledge that the Elder J and I love Soul Coughing and Mike Doughty so it was awesome/strange to hear this song sitting in an airport bar. I watched an interview with Doughty a few weeks ago where he blames the other members of the band for all of their issues, saying they bullied him into giving all of them credit for songwriting and kind of glossing over his significant smack habit. Who knows what went down, but I love their music.

I also think back to Fight Club when talking to random people while in transit, the whole concept put forth by Tyler Durden of single serving friends you meet at airport or on an airplane. You will almost certainly meet these people only once so you have ultimate control over their perception of you and the ability to talk about whatever you want. I had a five-minute conversation with a middle aged looking woman about how Maker’s Mark is the most drinkable bourbon and a roughly 8 minute conversation with how silly most airplane safety measures are with a teenager. Lets face it, if a plane falls out of the sky at 20,ooo feet, a seatbelt ain’ t gonna do much for you. I missed a few songs and my second conversation ended as this song came on.

My brother and I obviously love the Pixies and Fight Club so it was pretty cool and coincidental that this song came on at this time at this airport bar. This is one of the best songs by the band and probably my top ten use of songs in a movie which is another post we should write. However, the Elder J is annoyed enough that three days into my Texas visit I still haven’t finished this post so first things first.

I was feeling pretty relaxed at this point and my boarding time was near, so I wandered back to my gate and tried to delve further into Keef’s life story. It was pretty slow at the beginning because he felt the need to recount endless details of his childhood but it heated up as he got into his early love of music and the first time him and Mick Jagger met. I am very into this book three days later and glad I spent the twenty bucks on it. I got onto the plane and was seated next to a harried looking woman and what I assume was her very young son, although the ages didn’t really match up. From the get-go, this kid was running across both our laps so I smiled and plugged my headphones into the armrest like I did the last time I flew to Texas. This song was what I heard first.

The last time I heard about Fatboy Slim was when he did that sweet music video for “Weapon of Choice” with my boy Christopher Walken doing some gravity defiant dancing. It doesn’t surprise me that Slim would have a career resurgence because electronic music is so big right now. I hope he does well and steers clear of  dub step music.

The kid kind of settled down and his father, who was the next row over, bought me and the mother a Jack Daniel’s nip so that made me feel much better. Besides the kid and a terrible movie called Last Vegas, the flight was pretty uneventful. I got off the plane in San Antonio and as I waited for my brother, I watched a man get busted for drunk driving right in front of the airport. He literally had an open Dos Equis in his newer Chevy Sedan  and by the look on his face, you could tell he knew he’d made a grave mistake. Besides that, my trip has been very chill and spent mostly with the kids who now are much bigger and have equally bigger personalities. I love it and it makes me happy to see the Elder being such an adept parent and sad I live so far away. Every time we get into the car, they want to hear this song which I think I introduced to my brother a little while back.

Our enthusiasm for J. Roddy has not waned. I love this band and I hope to catch a show in Boston this spring. It makes me very happy I can enjoy this music with my family while on the other side of the country.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. My brother just brought the kids to school and is hitting the gym while I finish up this post. I only came for a few days and as per usual, it feels like I just got here and I really don’t want to go back to the frozen north tomorrow at noon. We are going to go out tonight after we go shotgun shopping and then I’ll spend some time with the kids tomorrow morning before I get on the plane. I guess I should consider myself lucky for being able to come visit at all and cherish the time I got with my brother and his family whom I don’t see that often. This is what the Elder would do but as I am the youngest of the siblings, I’ve always been the emotional one. So on that note, I leave you with a happy/sad song about the fleeting nature of existence and the advice that you should spend as much with your family as you can because blood runs thicker than anything else. Also, take my other advice and spend some time in an airport bar, I know I will tomorrow.

One of the best shows I’ve ever been to is the Flaming Lips and I highly suggest you all check them out if you have the chance.

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).

Misunderstood: Lyrical Losses

Years ago, a friend and I got over our strange addiction to the movie The Rules of Attraction by acquiring a new drug, by becoming obsessed if only briefly with the movie Napoleon Dynamite, a wan and delicate movie whose humor still gets me to this day and whose repeatability (for me) has been bested only by that greatest comedy of the modern era, Office Space.  Part of what I liked about the movie was the use of music in the prom scene where a few of the corniest songs seem almost profound.

But the song that got me the most was “The Promise” by When in Rome

Continue reading

Mike Doughty’s Soul is Coughing.

This is probably the only song that will sound like this on this post and not even a Doughty original, but nevertheless an important song for me by him. My freshmen year roommate and I  listened to this song so many times at like three in the morning in college, often yelling the lyrics. The band Drink Me wrote it and I’ve never heard of them or anything else they did.

After over a decade, Mike Doughty is re-embracing his Soul Coughing roots and doing a whole tour of covers by the band that made him big. SC is a band that I’ve liked as long as the Pixies or Zeppelin or any other band I’ve mentioned that I’ve listened too since elementary school. Their three albums are good from beginning to end and this alone is enough to make them a favorite band.  They had a jazzy,alternative, and hip-hoppy vibe that no one came even close to in the 90’s. Like Primus and as my brother mentioned, it might have been their uniqueness that kept them from the mainstream and big financial success.

This was their first huge hit, one of the two songs most people will recognize and one my brother runs to on a regular basis. It’s way different from anything by the Foo Fighters or Pearl Jam and makes you want to move. Even though obscure, this video from an old Playstation game is the only one I could find without ads.

Although very unique and off the beaten path of commercialism, Doughty and SC had what I’d consider to be a pretty standard rock and roll trajectory. Doughty was a struggling artist/poet with some drug problems (a la Jim Morrison) who ended up collaborating with some heavily talented jazz musicians to form the band. Doughty met the whole band through working the door at the famous Knitting Factory in NYC and turned an off night jam session into an almost decade-long career with the band. After some minor airplay with “Super Bon Bon”, they released a third album which had their most popular hit, the catchy and relatable “Circles”. This was their epoch, even if things were disintegrating internally due to songwriting credit disputes and Doughty’s increasing heroin dependency.

This song was in inescapable during 1998, seemingly on the local alternative station every other song. Doughty even makes light of this in his big solo live release “Smofe and Smang” , where he plays the song with snatches of other hit songs like “Brimful of Asha”, ” Closing Time” and the refrain “I don’t need to walk around with Urkel”.  Doughty is a funny dude, on the junk or not, and his humor has always been a draw for me.

From my observation and a little research, it’s amazing they lasted as long as they did.  Doughty’s drug use was rampant and from his book entitled The Book of Drugsthe acrimonious relationship among the band members was enough to break the band up many times over. Doughty paints such a negative picture that it’s a wonder he stayed in the band so long, a criticism some reviewers of the book have made. It’s unclear specifically who or what was the final linchpin for the break up, but Doughty quit the heroin and spent a few years drinking heavily and crossing the country multiple times on solo tours afterwards.

This was a mainstay in Doughty’s drunk repertoire and remains to this day as he’s been sober for something like ten years. “Smofe + Smang” was also a mainstay in my listening for basically my entire college career, even superseding the SC albums temporarily. The song is constructed around samples of a voicemail an ex-girlfriend left for Doughty, sample usage being another example of why SC was different from any other band of their era.

Doughty sobered up, got signed to ATO records in 2004 after meeting up with Dave Matthews at Bonaroo and has maintained a career ever since. Because of the SC negative memories, he largely did not play their songs for the last several years and it was crazy to read that he was re-recording a bunch of SC songs for a new album. He referred to the “dark marriage of Soul Coughing being annulled” on NPR and apparently this fan-funded album is doing better than any of his other solo releases. Here we come to what is my main point of this post: did Mike Doughty do this album because he has genuinely  come to terms with his SC past or because he’s broke?

I will not include any of the new songs on this blog post. I’m sure they are solid and I will listen to them someday, but the SC originals are what I grew up with and love, so it is what I will stick with. To meet him halfway, I’ve chosen many songs that are on the remix album so at least you hear some semblance of the new album if you have never before listened to Soul Coughing.

I don’t think I can say for sure what the man’s intentions were because I am not him. I did meet him one time briefly and he did seem pretty smug; however, I was newly 21 and suffering from a severe case of consuming cold beer too fast. I am sure it is annoying to have a solo career and constantly have people yell out your former band’s songs, which happened each time I saw him live. Adding to this are his feelings of anger at the band and the relation to his substance abuse problems of the past, I can see why the songs would drum up some weird feelings for the dude. Apparently, not weird enough not to play the songs ever again and to make an album of remixed songs which is selling fast.

I love the jazz bass line. The stand up rig really sounds great in every song and is yet another thing that sets this band apart. I wish more bands would have the cahones/inspiration to come up with music like this that is unapologetically original.

I’ve been the biggest cheerleader of Soul Coughing  since “Super Bon Bon”. Its one of those bands that I’ve liked since I was aware of them in the early 90’s and I’ve kept an ear out for Doughty solo stuff since the beginning as well. My heart is with SC, but I don’t begrudge Mike for trying to forge his own path or even for trying to make a little extra dough with songs he knows so many people already love. I can’t say for sure if this is his motive because he could have just finally come to terms with his animosity and this was the best way to exorcise the demons of the past. Regardless, he helped to write these songs and he should be able to do whatever he wants with them. Listen to  Soul Coughing if you haven’t, keep listening to them if you haven’t, and go see Mike Doughty if he travels to a city near you. You won’t regret it.

This is top five favorite songs by SC for me and a fitting conclusion. Like soft serve, everyone should like this band and Mike Doughty.

Running Songs

Another week, another re-post. I am putting this up today because @jake_turbo and I are running a half-marathon together. Here are all the songs we won’t be listening to. But don’t worry about us, there will be beer at the end.

 

A while back twitter directed me to an article claiming that Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard was lying about his song list for running. Because I am a narcissist, this made me immediately thing about my running list—it is several hundred songs long and not all of them are actually that good to run to.

I run a bit—I don’t call myself a runner because I have never run ‘officially’ or in any public capacity, but I do run enough to know the names of different shoes, the arguments for and against going barefoot, the ideal amount of hydration before, during and after runs, etc .etc. I do it because I enjoy it, because you can’t play basketball for three hours a day when you’re a real adult, and because my grandfather and father died young.

Continue reading

Labor-Day Songlist: Arbeitsmusik (Work-music)

In honor of labor day, here’s a blast from our not-so-distant past. What better to make us appreciate a day off of work than ruminations on the privations suffered in jobs present and past…

 
I could buy myself a reason
I could sell myself a job
I could hang myself on treason
All the folks I know are gone
Modest Mouse, “The Devil’s Workday”

Our friend the Historian’s vivid entry on his paper-route playlist and my brother’s musings on his forced music choices reminded me of a list of my own I started a while back. See, he and I are both older than our years. All of us who went to high school (and part of college) before google, before Napster, and before cell phones or text messages, keep part of ourselves in a world wholly foreign to siblings and cousins a mere five years younger. It is strange how time moves that much faster.

Before ubiquitous CD players, mp3 players and satellite music, the car was one of two places where you could find yourself subject to the whim of faceless disc-jockeys or the machinations of entertainment executives. (Some of us even drove cars that didn’t even have tape players.)

The other place? Work. Before I found myself in a life where silence was more common than noise in the workplace, where my voice was the sound that could most often be heard, I worked a series of jobs to pay for band equipment and long distance phone bills, to pay for college, and to put myself through graduate school. At each one of these jobs I found myself subject to the musical choices of others: a boss’ favorite radio station or CD.

Continue reading

Guster all Squared: Four Shows, Four Albums and….

It is funny how if something happened before google it almost doesn't exist

It is funny how if something happened before google it almost doesn’t exist

My sister recently wrote about the possible resuscitation of her faded love for the band Guster. I really identify with the phenomenon of hearing old music anew through the experience of her child because I have watched my daughter and son learn to love music bit by bit and have had my sense of wonder and mystery reborn through them.

But I also identify with my sister’s confession of perplexity, that something she once loved so much is now so distant and strange. I think that  the nostalgic fit of self-doubt that comes in such moments is in part a function of our own sense of aging and mortality. But there is something undeniably true about the band: their music has changed. But, then again, so have we.

Continue reading