Saturday, January 31, 2009

Weekly iPod Shuffle: 1/31/09

1. "Like Suicide," Soundgarden
Sometimes success just isn't fair. Soundgarden toiled in the indie scene for nearly a decade, honing their craft and churning out several solid releases for Sub Pop Records (who would later introduce Nirvana to the world, changing the face of popular music forever). But by the time they released the album that would explode them into mainstream superstardom, Superunknown, they were largely spent and tired. "Like Suicide" closes Superunknown, and its slow burn and eventual full-throttle rock-out is an archetypal example of Soundgarden at their best. After this, they'd only release one more album, the uneven Down on the Upside, and then disband. Too bad. (My rating: *****)

2. "Misery Whip," Everclear
From the bleh second half of their two-part concept album, Songs from an American Movie. I say bleh like every Everclear record isn't bleh, but Songs from an American Movie, Volume 2: Good Time for a Bad Attitude is especially so. In fact, I'd forgotten I even had it until just this very moment. (***)

3. "As I Rise," The Decemberists
Ah ha! The Decemberists return! You know, I'd describe this song at length, but even I can feel how sick you are of hearing me talking about the goddamn Decemberists. The rating here should not surprise you. (*****)

4. "Huh?!" Chrono Trigger
This is a five-second sound clip from the video game. Why I have it on my iPod, I have no idea. (no rating)

5. "Cool James," Harvey Danger
One of my favorite songs from an album that you'll be seeing on my 100 albums list...but not for a very long time. The clever lyrics here abound, and Sean Nelson's delivery of the line "Devil's advocates/And nasty bits/Of fits of desperation" is one of my favorite moments in all of music. In the end, he shakes his head and sighs in resignation at the object of his ire: "That's why ladies love cool James," he says, "'cause the bastard changes." (*****)

6. "Thunder Road," Bruce Springsteen
Hey, the Boss. Think he'll play this one at the Super Bowl tomorrow? He better -- it's easily his best song, and one of the best songs ever written, period. "There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away / They haunt this dusty beach road / In the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets / They scream your name at night in the streets / Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet / And in the lonely cool before dawn / You hear their engines roaring on / But when you get to the porch, they're gone on the wind." Bruce wrote an awful lot of songs about escaping small-town hell, but they never got better than "Thunder Road." (*****)

7. "Do You Know What I'm Seeing?" Panic at the Disco
Good lord, here they are again. Look, I like them, okay? I don't give a damn what you think. Not in the slightest. That's right, fuck you. (****)

8. "The Lonely End of the Rink," The Tragically Hip
This is a bootleg from the concert René and I saw at Scout Bar in March of 2007. I can still Gordie so clearly, bouncing around that stage like a sprite. He owned that fucking building that night. They need to tour again. Like, now. (*****)

9. "Lady Picture Show," Stone Temple Pilots
If you listen to Tiny Music... very carefully, you can actually hear the exact moment when Scott Weiland was completely lost to his heroin addiction. It's not in this boring, bred-for-radio song, though. Don't listen to this. (**)

10. "Somebody's Watching Me," Rockwell
Ha! I've been unable to get this song out of my head recently, thanks to its use in the newest round of Geico commercials. Now you can have it in your head, too. You're welcome. (****)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Song of the week

Offered without commentary, here is Franz Ferdinand, with "Ulysses."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The jwalkernet Musical Canon: Part One

I've seen a few other bloggers doing this over the course of the last several months, and I'm nothing if not a bandwagon jumper who loves to impress upon others his own musical tastes, so it's time to implement my newest long-term writing project: an in-depth look at my 100 favorite albums, three to five at a time. I'm shooting for one post added to the list a week, maybe more. My ultimate goal is to have posted my write-up for #1 by my birthday at the end of June. We shall see.

The rules aren't really rules as such, but guidelines I did consider while assembling the list. They are as follows:
  1. Albums only. You may not have noticed this, but I'm kind of an anal-rententive dork. Hence, when I construct a list of albums, that's what you're going to see: albums. No greatest hits compilations, no live albums, no remix collections, no EPs, no box sets. Van Morrison's It's Too Late to Stop Now is one of the most astonishing pieces of music I've ever heard, but it's a live set, so it's not here. Now, one of these titles does feature quite a lot of live material, but it's mixed with studio-recorded music and...well, that's a prickly one that we'll get to when we get to it.
  2. My current listening habits are more important than nostalgia. This is a list of my 100 favorite albums today. If it were a list of albums that were most important to me on the grand scale of life, Metallica's black album would be #1, no question. But I don't listen to it much anymore, and haven't listened to it at all in probably four years, so it's not. This also means that the titles here are fairly fluid, especially in the top half -- another day, and it would be a different list entirely. Oh well.
  3. There was no limit on the number of titles per artist. Not intentionally, anyway. I thought about imposing a three-album-per-artist limit, but found I didn't need to. Only two artists have more than two albums here...and they're probably not who you think they are. (Okay, one probably is.)
I invite any and all commentary you wish to provide. Like I said, the list will be an ongoing project. If a few weeks go by and I don't mention it, feel free to take me to task.

With that, let us begin.

100. Toadies, Hell Below/Stars AboveToadies - Hell Below / Stars Above
If there's anything you'll notice glancing through my music library, it's this: I am an obsessive completist. If I hear one song by a band I like, I'm going to track down everything they've ever recorded. Case in point: Toadies, who had a few hits on their debut, Rubberneck, and then faded away. That album is wildly inconsistent and pretty mediocre overall, but their follow-up showed a far more solid and compelling approach. I've read everyone compare them to the Pixies, which is ironic, because I can't stand the Pixies (edit: Okay the Pixies have started to grow on me. But I still like the Toadies better). But the style is pretty much the same -- low-fi grungy guitars and strained vocals competing with one another for attention amidst the noise. Toadies, I suppose, put a little less emphasis on the noise half of the equation, remembering to actually write some good songs.

My favorite aspect of Toadies, and this album in particular, is Todd Lewis's voice, which is again ironic because Lewis can't really sing. But his strained warble works perfectly here, especially on the raucous opener "Plane Crash."

It's a little weird to see this one as the benchmark record, but there you go. I apologize to the great albums that didn't get past it. (Axl Rose, particularly, is probably sobbing somewhere, wondering why Use Your Illusion II is absent. Sorry, buddy.)

99. The Donnas, Gold Medal The Donnas - Gold Medal
Again: I'm an obsessive completist. The Donnas contributed "Take It Off" to the first Guitar Hero game, and I followed that song to their next album, Gold Medal. The Donnas are an all-girl rock group (and I firmly believe that there aren't nearly enough girl rock bands) that are, essentially, what KISS would sound like if they weren't guys. Or didn't, ya know, suck. They sing a lot of power-chord anthems about parties, drinking, fucking, and pretty much being the coolest people in the room. Gold Medal actually finds them branching out a bit, both lyrically and musically -- their best song is probably the title track, which brings in an acoustic guitar and a piano solo to accentuate a surprisingly somber lyric.

This album probably doesn't work as well without its predecessor, Spend the Night, for comparison. You'd probably do well to track them both down, tell the truth.

98. Jethro Tull, Thick as a Brick Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick
Ian Anderson didn't really appreciate that everyone interpreted Aqualung as a concept album. So he responded by pulling a rather elaborate practical joke on the media, his fans and the entire progressive rock genre: Thick as a Brick, the concept album to end all concept albums. It purports to be a musical interpretation of an epic poem by an eight-year-old boy, and features only one multifaceted 43-minute song. (So long, in fact, that it had to be split in two to meet the limits of vinyl LPs.) The music itself stretches all genres, from hard rock to classical to jazz to folk, and features an impressive array of instruments -- an astonishing number of them played by Anderson himself, who also produced the album. (And, of course, it was he who wrote the "epic poem," not the little boy featured in the gloriously clever newspaper that served as cover art.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Riding low in my chair, she won't know that I'm there/If I can hand it in tomorrow, it'll be all right

Sometimes, someone out there writes something so full of awesome I can do nothing but slowly clap and provide a link.

Hence: Scenes from an Alternate Universe Where Saved by the Bell, Rather Than Law and Order, Became the Dominant Television Franchise for a Generation.

*slow clap*

What is it with our generation and our fixation on Saved by the Bell? Any theories? I was flipping through channels a couple of weeks ago and came across an episode on TBS. It was the episode in the mall -- not the Christmas episode, where Zack falls for the homeless girl; no, the one where they're trying to get U2 tickets and Lisa comes across the shopping bag full of money and hijinks ensue. Don't insult me by pretending you don't know what I'm talking about, either.

I used to wonder, even while I still watched the show regularly without irony, why its depiction of high school life was so blatantly inaccurate. I mean, could it not have been possible to tell some of the same stories without asking us to accept as plausible a southern California high school with about fourteen students, maybe four teachers, and a laughably incompetent principal?

I realized then that accuracy wasn't the point. Because, after all, the show wasn't for high school kids -- it was for kids much younger than that. They believed the Bayside fantasy, because they just didn't know any better.

Is that we're really nostalgic for? An age when we could believe a place like Bayside existed, an age before we realized high school was not a brightly-lit, responsibility-free spaces where we could indulge in elaborate pranks and schemes with our friends -- who would be in every single one of our classes with us -- and face, at most, a half-hearted talking to from Principal Goober?

I don't know. Maybe it is for me.

What's your favorite Saved by the Bell episode? I bet you can guess what mine is. It's probably yours, too.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Weekly iPod Shuffle: 1/24/09

1. "Too Much Paranoias," Devo
Yes, the shuffles are back, partly because I liked doing them, and partly to force me to start writing here again on a more regular basis. We start off as you'd expect: a thoroughly obscure track from a cult band. This is from Devo's debut album, the hideously titled Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, and it's not bad. Not exactly great, either. (My rating: ****)

2. "Yes Sir, No Sir," The Kinks
I got into the Kinks through, of all things, "Weird Al" Yankovic's Dare to Be Stupid album, on which he parodied "Lola" with "Yoda." Follow it backwards through the years, and I end up with the Kinks' masterful takedown of post-World War II Britain, Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), which features several harsh criticisms of British rule. Having been written in late '60s England, it doesn't always translate well to 21st century America, but the music still succeeds, thanks to Ray Davies's sharp ear as both songwriter and producer. (****)

3. "Scraped," Guns N' Roses
Ah, yes: Chinese Democracy. I made fun of Axl for years about the interminable construction of his fourth album, fully believing it would never be released in his lifetime. But here it is, sitting on my iPod, and I'd love to tell you about all of the good (and even great) songs it features, but the shuffle gives us "Scraped." And "Scraped" is...well, not one of the great ones. Or the good ones. Or the listenable ones. An overdubbed, overproduced, overwritten ungodly mess, this is exactly what I was afraid the album would sound like. Luckily, a lot of it doesn't, but, again -- we take what the shuffle gives us. Blech. (*)

4. "Six Blade Knife," Dire Straits
One of the joys of shuffling with an enormous library of music is the chance to hear something you haven't listened to in a while. According to iTunes, I haven't heard this since June 24th. Too damn long -- this is a quiet, haunting masterpiece. Most of the first Dire Straits record sounds an awful lot like it: beautiful guitar lines over a sparse rhythm section, Mark Knopfler whispering on top of it like he's just woken from his sleep. One of my favorite albums. (*****)

5. "Madame George," Van Morrison
Speaking of quiet, haunting and beautiful. Readers of That's When I Reach for My Revolver know in what high regard I hold Van the Man, and especially his album Astral Weeks. "Madame George" is one of the (many) highlights -- a soft, delicate piece that never stirs from its gentle pace; not going anywhere in particular and no hurry to get there. Van draws you in with his voice, of course -- there's never been another voice like that, and never will be. If you don't have Astral Weeks in your record collection (or iTunes library), I don't know what the hell you're doing with your life. (*****)

6. "Tangled up in Blue," Bob Dylan
I could say that about Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, for that matter, but I realize that his voice is something of an acquired taste. "Tangled" is one of his very best songs, and with a catalogue as deep as Dylan's, that certainly says something. I have to admit, though, that while I was delighted to hear it would be in Rock Band 2, it doesn't really work all that well. I mean, it's great for me as the singer, but everyone else has to just play the same lines over and over again. Oh well: their problem, yeah? (*****)

7. "Barry Bonds," Kanye West feat. Lil Wayne
From Graduation, Kanye's last album before losing his fucking mind and turning in a whiny Auto-Tune karaoke singer with a light show. Seriously, that new album is really quite bad. This song, though, was back when Ye still knew how to have a good time, and Lil Wayne's cameo fits in perfectly. (*****)

8. "Main Theme," Silent Hill
One of the best pieces of video game music ever composed. (*****)

9. "I Write Sins Not Tragedies," Panic! at the Disco
You know, I completely understand if you hate this song and this band. I do. So I hope you will understand if I don't. Deal? (*****)

10. "Consoler of the Lonely," The Raconteurs
I didn't give the newest Raconteurs record much of a chance, honestly, but it's surprisingly good upon further listens: unlike the debut, Jack White's side project feels for the first time like an actual band, instead of...well, Jack White's side project. Good on them. (*****)

I am filled with both anticipation and dread in equal amounts just can't be bad, right?

We'll find out just over a month, won't we?