Songs of the Year—2001

Growing old and I want to go home
Growing old and I don’t want to know
–Nick Drake

Songs of the Year: “Black-Eyed Dog,” Nick Drake, “Life During Wartime,” The Talking Heads
Runners-Up: “Hash Pipe,” Weezer; “Time Has Told Me,” Nick Drake
Honorable Mention: “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, Rufus Wainwright, “Smooth Criminal” Alien Ant Farm

In the year that for interesting debuts we had Gorillaz (Gorillaz) and Weezer finally returned with the Green Album, Rufus Wainwright almost made it to cool with Poses while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Stripes delivered what would prove to be memorable albums. Unfortunately, in 2001 Britney Spears and ‘NSync still ruled the world. And they were cruel masters.

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Songs of the Year—1999

You start a conversation you can’t even finish it.
You’re talkin’ a lot, but you’re not sayin’ anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?
–The Talking Heads

Songs of the Year: “Either Way”, Guster; “Psycho Killer”, The Talking Heads

Runners-up: “Steal my Sunshine”, Len

Honorable Mentions: “Thank You” Dido

At the beginning of the year, if I remember correctly, Conan O’Brien attempted to outlaw all soundings of Prince’s “1999” for 12 short months. 1999 was the year of the Y2K panic. It was the year that boy bands were triumphant and when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera ruled the world. Back then, Carson Daly was on MTV and American Idol was still three years away.

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The Shows We’ll Never See

The Younger J and I are true believers in the live show—when it is possible nothing matches the experience of seeing a band perform. Now, while at times the experience is sublime, at other times, it can also have a deleterious effect on your view of a band. Despite the outcome, however, the experience of witnessing a musical performance and, more importantly, absorbing the reaction of other audience members as well, alters your relationship with the music irrevocably.

(I was not a Bare Naked Ladies fan (back in the Gordon days) until I saw them live; their energy and improvisation made me respect a band I would have otherwise ignored. Conversely, my heart was broken at a Dandy Warhols show, but that is a story for another time…)

These days, I leave most of the concert going to my brother. I am old an ornery: most good shows start after my bedtime . (Old, Old Man.) But I do have some experience to draw on: my first show ever was Jerry Garcia; my last concert was the Austin City Limits. There are many and varied acts between.

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Apocalypse Playlists: Songs for the End

In the spirit of Halloween and the depressive fog that fall can bring, I am combining two posts my brother and I wrote last year into one massive Apocalyptic post. Enjoy?

As my brother and I texted back and forth during the Walking Dead premiere on Sunday night, we got into a conversation about what would be a good playlist about the apocalypse. Granted, you almost certainly would not be listening to any tunes in the event of a catastrophic world event, instead focusing on any route of survival. So, I leaned more towards songs about the end of the world and ended up having to cut my list down to accommodate the end of the world as we know it.

No, I did not include anything by R.E.M., although I hope my brother does. I don’t think the world is actually going to end in December of this year 2012 because most simply, we don’t have all the information even to know what the whole clock even means. When the Spaniards came to the New World, they burned much of the written record of the Mayans after witnessing a human sacrifice complete with the heart being taken still beating out of the victim’s chest.

I mean come on, what use could the history of a people who are so obviously heathen homicidal maniacs possibly be? (If it’s not obvious, this is sarcasm) It’s really too bad because there is much information we could have used and I don’t think we have a real grasp on who they were as a people so this end of the world thing pertaining to their calendar is probably bullshit.

Unless our sun does burn out or we are hit be some giant celestial object or some massive nuclear war, the end will probably be a very gradual ordeal that no one generation will remember. Rarely does anything huge happen in history quickly. Nevertheless, the end of the world, or conception of it at least, has inspired a lot of good music

1. “The Weight”- The Band

Hard to believe this beloved anthem of the hippie generation is about the end of the world, but it is one of the themes. Robbie Robertson has said it is about that and the impossibility of always being a good person. It may not seem obvious, as it is an upbeat song, but think about it.  Some guy named Luke is waiting on the Judgement Day and the Devil is floating around.  It never occurred to me until I read into it a little.

I always associated this song with Easy Rider and my father, a former motorcycle enthusiast and eternal hippie. It’s interesting also that the song talks a lot about asking other people for help, favors being traded for favors. In an apocalypse style situation, you would have to depend on whoever else was around and I’d imagine the currency system as we know it would go right to shit.  Even now in the rural area I live in, I often trade labor for labor with friends but I think this is a dying thing in the hectic 24/7 over-connected and electronic society we live in. Unfortunately, I think it would take an ending of the world as we know it to get people to work together.

2. “Electric Funeral” Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath is one of my top five favorite bands. I really don’t talk about them enough on this blog and how awesome they are. I know Ozzy made himself look like a fool on MTV a few years back and his solo work never did much for me, but Black Sabbath is the real deal. They created heavy rock as we know it, obviously with help from a few other bands, and basically all metal and heavy rock now is Sabbath in some respect.

For coming out in the afterglow of the swinging 60’s and singing about dark scary things in down tuned jams that lurch along, they deserve some type of medal. Nobody sounded like them and I just love that they put this stuff out not caring if anyone even wanted to hear it. This cheery little number is about atomic bombs and the chilly aftermath of nuclear winter. I love the guitars in this and the tempo break near the end. This is a mainstay of their music, the long and slow climb and then a kick up into a faster time with an ill guitar solo. Never gets old for me and I hope that if you haven’t ever tried Sabbath out, that you go ahead and give it a whirl.

3. “Pink Moon” Nick Drake

I never had any idea that this song was about the end of the world and it probably isn’t. I was having difficulty coming up with a different song so I googled “songs about the apocalypse  and this one popped up. Nick Drake is really great if you don’t know him, kind of like Elliott Smith but from way earlier and with less of an output. Exceptionally pretty songs but very morose.  Is this about the end of the world? I think Drake’s world anyway because he did die accidentally through a lethal combination of medications.

The couplet “None of you stand so tall, Pink Moon will get you all” is quite a bit more ominous than the melody would suggest. Is the pink moon a result of nuclear winter like in “Electric Funeral”? Who could be sure but I really dig this song. Great for summer nights at the end of the world.

4. “The End” -The Doors

The classic break-up tune and what a jam it is. I loved this song from the first time I heard it as the jets napalmed the hell out of the jungle in the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now. Although definitely about a break up, this is a great song about the end of the world as well. I think Morrison always wrote lyrics open to interpretation and this is one of the best. Like the Sabbath, it slowly builds through cool jazzy riffs and Morrison’s stoned poetry full of images of despair and Oedipus. I absolutely love the jam at the end, it feels like some type of tribal dance thing and it inspires me to take my clothes off and bang my chest like a chimpanzee. I think that would help in the high stress of an apocalyptic event.

5. “Santa Monica” Everclear

Another song about suicide and certainly the only one I like by this band. But what a song, from the very beginning fuzzy guitar riffs to the ending lines of “Let’s swim out past the breakers and watch the world die” Some thing about that really makes me happy like, ok it’s the end of the world but at least we have each other.

In some respects,  our world is pretty cluttered up right now so maybe we could use some massive cleansing to work out the kinks. I don’t hope a bunch of people die or anything but just from watching the nightly news it’s clear we need to make some serious changes in the way we treat each other. The word apocalypse, from the Greek, means revelation of something hidden. Perhaps we need to swim out past the breakers, watch the world die and find whatever it is inside of us to come alive. I look forward to re-posting this in December of this year and think we will be around quite a bit longer after that.

(if you think there’s more to say, my brother does too: he wrote his own damn list)

Well sure as planets come, I know that they end. 
And if I'm here when that happens, will you promise me this my friend? 
Please bury me with it! 
I just don't need none of that Mad Max bullshit.
-Modest Mouse

 

Recently, my brother listed his favorite songs about the apocalypse. For various reasons, I cannot let this post stand alone. (This says far more about me than about my brother or his post.)

Why are we obsessed with the apocalypse? I actually ask this of my students on a semesterly basis. I think that the answer, if there is one, is partly psychological and structural. First, we know that we begin and end individually—part of our death drive or obsession also nearly demands contemplation (and fantasy) about everything expiring just as we will.

In addition, there is a structural logic among the cultural offspring of the Abrahamic religions. We tell the story of the world being created. Logically, that which is created must eventually be destroyed.

(Oh, and science supports this. Oh, and we keep destroying things. And, by the way, our lifestyle and growth rates are unsustainable….)

So the Younger J confessed that during the premier of The Walking Dead we were texting song lists back and forth. My brother’s list is great and, I am sure, cooler than mine. His music taste and knowledge can be so much deeper. My corresponding ‘interests’ are random and aesthetically scatter-shot.

Oh, and I am also pissed that he stole my shtick and mentioned that apocalypse is Greek in origin.

So his list is good, but it isn’t mine. In ascending order of my subjective taste (from best to 8th best), here are my favorite songs about the apocalypse.

 

1. “(Nothing But) Flowers”, The Talking Heads

The happiest song about the end of the world—at least on the surface level. I have loved this song since my best friend in high school (a previously mentioned Lead Singer) played it for me when we were in 7th grade. I can still remember the road we were on, the caravan his parents were driving, and how hilarious we both found the song.

While I still see the humor in it, I think that Byrne’s lyrics are more satirical and cynical. His post-apocalyptic paradise is one where men cannot adjust—not because it is too terrible or tough, but because it is too wonderful.

This was a discount store,

Now it’s turned into a cornfield

you got it, you got it

Don’t leave me stranded here

I can’t get used to this lifestyle

2. “Bury Me With It”, Modest Mouse

What more is there to say about this great song? I love the frantic balance of the multi-syllabic verses with the almost-screamed chorus. The instrumentation supports the contrast beautifully. This is Modest Mouse at its most quintessentially schizophrenic.

When I ask my wife about post-apocalyptic scenarios (on the occasions she will entertain my hypotheticals), she insists that preparing for the occasion is a waste of time. She says she wouldn’t want to survive in a world undergoing whatever cataclysmic event could be called an apocalypse.

Besides loving the late alt-rock crunch of this song (and, in general, appreciating the even quality of Modest Mouse’s work), I love this song for this one line: “I don’t need none of that Mad Max bullshit”. The command of the title and chorus (“please, bury me with it”) reflects my wife’s opinion just enough to demand the inclusion of this song.

 3. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, REM

I know my brother didn’t include this song because a lot of people despise REM. In fact, of the seminal early alt-rock bands REM get the least respect and probably garnered way too little attention when they called it quits. I think that this comes from a few things.

First, REM had too many styles and took risks (“Shiny Happy People”? Worst song by a great band). Then, when REM broke through it was with the wrong music. “Losing My Religion” was a fantastic song, but not grungy enough or angry enough. Who wants contemplative when you can be mad?

Second, “Everybody Hurts”. When I first listened to Automatic for the People (and “Drive” had just been released) I knew that “Everybody Hurts” was going to be a big hit. But like similar 1990s explosions (say, Hootie and the Blowfish and Forrest Gump) what seemed initially universally appealing, aged quite poorly. Now, “Everybody Hurts”sounds like a parody of itself.

But I don’t care about any of this. “It’s the end of the world…” is one of the few American made indie-rock songs from the 80s that (1) almost everyone knows, (2) many have imitated , and (3) sounds like nothing else. REM was one of the most important and influential bands on College Radio—they didn’t break through with a consistent style and image like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or Green Day, but they took more risks.

There is something about the insouciance of this song that is reassuring. I also have fond memories of covering this (rather poorly) with one of my bands. It is successful because of the radical juxtaposition of the end of all we know with a feeling of not sorrow or elation but measured acceptance.

And, if you’re living through the apocalypse do you want to take risks and feel fine about it or what?

4. “Eve of Destruction”, Barry McGuire (P. F. Sloan)

This is a phenomenal protest song that I grew up hearing on the radio (since my parents only listened to Oldies stations). I love the gravel in the vocals and I love the melody and desperation in the song. Now, I know that this is not literally a song about the apocalypse, but rather one anticipating.

Nevertheless, I guarantee that if there were a cataclysmic event occurring, too many of us would be in denial about it and would ignore voices like McGuire’s as if they were panicked Chicken Littles. And, hey, it isn’t like Global Warming is a serious issue. Or that overpopulation will eventually outstrip developments in agriculture. Or that we’re playing with house money when it comes to the fact that we haven’t used atomic/nuclear weapons since WWII…

5. “Seconds”, U2

Speaking of nuclear weapons and bands that no longer get sufficient respect: U2 has almost become a dirty name to ‘real’ music lovers. Bono is a megalomaniacal self-mockery at this point and while many praised All You Can’t Leave Behind, the band should have been disbanded after Zooropa.

But, to be fair, how many bands have given the world so many great songs? This song is about nuclear holocaust. As the Historian and I used to discuss, people just a little younger than we are (say, the Younger Js age), fear terrorists and Global Warming (and Zombies, fake things). We were raised with the fiery fear of nuclear war. I remember attack drills. I remember the 80s arms race. Even in my 30s, I still mistrust Russians because I was born and bred to expect a war of total annihilation in my lifetime.

So, this song takes me back to when I first started listening to U2 and when we didn’t have to hear random and unexpected attacks or religious war or Y2K.

6. “California Love” 2Pac (Featuring Dr. Dre)

I know that this song isn’t really about the end of the world. Including it also made be feel bad that (1) I didn’t include Tool’s “Aenima” which is also a song about California (and the world ending). But, Tool gets a little too heavy for me and I love this song.

What makes it fit for this list, though, is the video. Dr. Dre and 2Pac in a Mad Max party? It might not be the safest place to imagine, but what the hell do you expect from the end of the world. Count me in.

7. “Come to Daddy”, Aphex Twin

All I have to say is this. If the end of the world is anything like this video, I don’t want to be there.  Also, if you’re short on reasons that mankind may not be worthy of survival, watch this video.

( That was only partly a joke)

8. “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”, The Dandy Warhols

So this song is only partly serious. A great rock song—and the song the Lead Singer mentioned above said was the only one ‘half-assed’ music fans would know. This was the song that put the band on the map and which also inspired a great parody from the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

It is also a reminder that, should the end times come, survival will be random and serendipitous. The best won’t survive. The most well-prepared will not prevail. It will be chaos. Chance will preserve few. Some of those will be survivalists. Some will be honest and virtuous. But many will also be criminals, drug addicts, and, most of all, the ruthlessly selfish and opportunistic.

And, with that thought in mind, maybe I will join my wife and Modest Mouse to ask for this: if the world starts to end, please, bury me with it.

 

Songs of the Year—2001

Growing old and I want to go home
Growing old and I don’t want to know
–Nick Drake

Songs of the Year: “Black-Eyed Dog,” Nick Drake, “Life During Wartime,” The Talking Heads
Runners-Up: “Hash Pipe,” Weezer; “Time Has Told Me,” Nick Drake
Honorable Mention: “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, Rufus Wainwright, “Smooth Criminal” Alien Ant Farm

In the year that for interesting debuts we had Gorillaz (Gorillaz) and Weezer finally returned with the Green Album, Rufus Wainwright almost made it to cool with Poses while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Stripes delivered what would prove to be memorable albums. Unfortunately, in 2001 Britney Spears and ‘NSync still ruled the world. And they were cruel masters.

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Apocalypse (Playlist) Redux

Well sure as planets come, I know that they end. 
And if I'm here when that happens, will you promise me this my friend? 
Please bury me with it! 
I just don't need none of that Mad Max bullshit.
-Modest Mouse

 

Recently, my brother listed his favorite songs about the apocalypse. For various reasons, I cannot let this post stand alone. (This says far more about me than about my brother or his post.)

Why are we obsessed with the apocalypse? I actually ask this of my students on a semesterly basis. I think that the answer, if there is one, is partly psychological and structural. First, we know that we begin and end individually—part of our death drive or obsession also nearly demands contemplation (and fantasy) about everything expiring just as we will.

Continue reading

Songs of the Year—1999

You start a conversation you can’t even finish it.
You’re talkin’ a lot, but you’re not sayin’ anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?
–The Talking Heads

Songs of the Year: “Either Way”, Guster; “Psycho Killer”, The Talking Heads

Runners-up: “Steal my Sunshine”, Len

Honorable Mentions: “Thank You” Dido

At the beginning of the year, if I remember correctly, Conan O’Brien attempted to outlaw all soundings of Prince’s “1999” for 12 short months. 1999 was the year of the Y2K panic. It was the year that boy bands were triumphant and when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera ruled the world. Back then, Carson Daly was on MTV and American Idol was still three years away.

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Unreal Shows

Unreal(istic) Live Shows

To complete a trilogy of entries on live music, I want to write about some shows I was not able to attend because of not being alive. I won’t wax poetic on about how music in my generation isn’t as cool and all that(….but it isn’t). Maybe it’s because it actually it isn’t as cool or more aptly, there hasn’t been the time to create the mythology around the music. Oh yeah, and I cannot forget the fact that the bands of today are alive and generally still perform while all of these bands do not or can not. We all want what we can’t have.

The first show I will never be able to see is easy: Hank Williams Senior, sometime in the mid 1940’s and with a good pedal steel guitar player. Old timey honky-tonk music may be the music closest to my heart for a myriad of reasons that warrant their own entry. But, to sum it all up, I think that type of music is as real as it gets and Hank is the godfather of it all.

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The Shows We’ll Never See

The Younger J and I are true believers in the live show—when it is possible nothing matches the experience of seeing a band perform. Now, while at times the experience is sublime, at other times, it can also have a deleterious effect on your view of a band. Despite the outcome, however, the experience of witnessing a musical performance and, more importantly, absorbing the reaction of other audience members as well, alters your relationship with the music irrevocably.

(I was not a Bare Naked Ladies fan (back in the Gordon days) until I saw them live; their energy and improvisation made me respect a band I would have otherwise ignored. Conversely, my heart was broken at a Dandy Warhols show, but that is a story for another time…)

These days, I leave most of the concert going to my brother. I am old an ornery: most good shows start after my bedtime . (Old, Old Man.) But I do have some experience to draw on: my first show ever was Jerry Garcia; my last concert was the Austin City Limits. There are many and varied acts between.

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A Song to Die (to)

For the state of death is one of two things: either it is virtually nothingness, so that the dead has no consciousness of anything, or it is, as people say, a change and migration of the soul from this to another place.

Socrates, in Plato’s Apology

To start this blog, we are thinking  about endings. This may be morbid, but to be honest, it is not an uncharacteristic move. Poetry and music have a long and storied relationship with death—from ancient encomia and ritual hymns for dead heroes and gods to modern dirges and songs of commemoration, songs have always marked these critical transitions for those who have passed and, in any way possible, to speak to those who remain. Music communicates on so many different levels—death music feeds and assuages grief and, through its attempt to carve a single, critical moment out of time, effects a sense of timelessness.

While these are important aspects of songs, what I am interested in is something more personal and ineffable. Conversations about music often develop (or devolve) into simple questions: What is your favorite album? What is your favorite song? Anyone who cares about music even casually cannot answer this question the same way twice. So, my solution—and a strategy the Younger J employs in interesting ways—is to come up with contexts. What is the best song to drive to? What is the best song for running?  We all know that Marvin Gaye and Barry White have the market cornered for love-making.

What would be the best song to listen to while dying? I do not mean the music other people would hear in a motion picture version of your life; but rather, if you knew you were dying and you could only listen to one song as your life slipped away, what would that song be? How does one even begin to answer this question? Most of us have no frame of reference for our inevitable ends. Any answer to this question is so wrapped up in issues of personal identity, memory and beliefs about the human condition and the hereafter that it may be dangerous even to try to answer it. Nevertheless, since the Brothers J believe that the music we listen to shapes the people we become and that talking about this music offers unique opportunities to know ourselves and our times better, I will try.

This is, obviously, not the first time I have contemplated my death song. I decided long ago that the best song to die to would be The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” from Stop Making Sense (1984;  the album version seems a bit stilted and lifeless in comparison). Above average in duration for a pop song (about 4:58), it starts with a characteristic blend of keyboard, rolling percussion, slightly eerie synth sounds, and a rhythm guitar that builds in crescendo until the verse begins. By the time the electric guitar comes in, the song itself is an absorbing topography of complementary sounds. It is impossible for me not to move when I hear those beginning measures.

David Byrne on Hitfix.com

More importantly, David Byrne’s lyrics are untethered to a specific time or place—sufficiently so that the listener may read what he wants to into it. The repetition of the word “higher” and the invocation of a “you” addressee (“and you’re standing here beside me / all long the passing of time / never money, always for love / come on up and say good night”) combined with the alternation between Byrne’s solo lines and a near gospel-choir develops, for me, a sense of the interdependence between the individual and others;  this relationship, in turn, creates a tension between the specific time of the song’s singing and the full life around that it seems to allude to.

The entire song—which is constructed around its rolling beat into a series of breathless crescendos—flirts with ambiguity and uncertainty. The singer expresses desire for love and home but at the same time admits that he is unsure where the place is (“Home is where I want to be / but I guess I’m already there”) or how he came to find the “you” he sings to (“I can’t tell one from another / did I find you or did you find me”). This uncertainty about the basic building blocks of life is projected outside life’s bounds through one of the most poignant lines of the song: “There was a time, before we were born, / if someone asks this is where I’ll be”. Soon after, this space outside of life is invoked again when Byrne and the chorus sing together “you love me til my heart stops / love me until I’m dead”. The song continues, but for me, these two last lines encapsulate its many different meanings.

The universal of this song becomes more powerful when combined with the personal. At the same time as it gathers in all of these different strains, this song triggers in me layers of meaning from its repetitions throughout my life. A flood of memories, beginning with trickles of moments, places, and people, overflows each single new listening to create a collage of my life. The singer’s “you” becomes the woman I love; the singer’s “home” becomes the metaphorical home my memory constructs from so many different places and times; and, finally, the singer’s own uncertainty becomes mine. But this uncertainty is not a pessimistic or depressive surrender; instead, it is a surrender to all of the beauty that life’s unknowns may bear and an acceptance that cherishing that which is temporary is the very act that gives life its most transcendent meaning.
“This Must Be the Place” is a song worth dying to for several reasons. The music itself is interesting—at once calming but rhythmic in a way that you feel that you must be moving somewhere. The song’s structure, even if this seems typical or trite, builds slowly, reaches several moving crescendos, and then fades out, much like a typical life (the applause at the end doesn’t hurt, either). The lyrics, which are a fit match for its myriad sounds, express, at once, both the uncertainty that surrounds life and death and an elegant optimism amid resignation to the end to come.

The song’s voice finds meaning in the “other” who loves him, accepts this love as having an origin that can’t quite be pinned down, and imagines (hopes? insists?) that even at the moment when we look at death—at the uncertainty of what comes after—we find the origin of all that we are in the similarly unknowable place we come from. When I listen to this song, my breaths become regular, my anxieties dissipate, and by its end, no matter how I felt before, I smile. I cannot truly imagine my own death, but this seems like a nice accompaniment.

And you, brother? What do you think of this song? More importantly, would you die listening to it, or can you think of another?