Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best Things I Heard in 2009: Pazz/Jop Ballot and Comments

If you're interested in year-end music lists, especially those made by people who heard pathetically few new albums over the course of the year, here's mine! Also, if you enjoy rambling specious comparisons between theological concepts and pop music, you've reached the right page, my friend. These ballots are always fun to do, so God bless the Village Voice for letting me continue. As a response to their grace, my New Year's resolution is to be a better rock critic in 2010. Off I go to download some darkwave promos!

With the exception of the Collin Raye song, all top 10 singles are Youtubable, but I'm too lazy to provide links right now. (You know how to use Youtube.) I've had the best luck with Collin's tune at myspace.

1. "I'm On a Boat"--The Lonely Island feat. T-Pain (Universal Republic)
2. "High Cost of Living"--Jamey Johnson (Mercury Nashville)
3. "Midlife Chrysler"--Collin Raye (Saguaro Road)
4. "Quiet Dog"--Mos Def (Downtown)
5. "New Wu"--Raekwon feat. Ghostface Killah and Method Man (ICEAL)
6. "2 Turntables and a Microphone"--DJ Crazy Toones feat. Kurupt (
7. "Don't Stop Believin'"--Glee Cast (Sony)
8. "Sidestep"--Robin Thicke (Interscope)
9. "Then"--Brad Paisley (Arista Nashville)
10. "On the Ocean"--K'Jon (Universal Republic)

Other good ones:
"Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell"--Das Racist
"Bang!"--the Raveonettes
"Nothing to Hide"--Yo La Tengo
"ABCs"--K'Naan feat. Chubb Rock
"Waving Flag"--K'Naan
"Dead and Gone"--TI feat. JT
"I Run to You"--Lady Antebellum
"Waking Up in Vegas"--Katy Perry
"Nothing to Worry About"--Peter Bjorn & John
"My Life Would Suck Without You"--Kelly Clarkson
"I Get Crazy"--Nicki Minaj feat. Lil' Wayne
"I Do Not Hook Up"--Kelly Clarkson
"Use Somebody"--Kings of Leon

1. K'Naan--Troubadour (A&M/Octone)
2. Maxwell--BLACKsummer's Night (Columbia)
3. Ata Ebtekar and the Iranian Orchestra for New Music--Orientalism (Sub Rosa)
4. Lightning Bolt--Earthly Delights (Load)
5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs--It's Blitz! (Interscope)
6. Bob Dylan--Together Through Life (Columbia)
7. Brad Paisley--American Saturday Night (Arista Nashville)
8. Cesium 137--Identity (Metropolis)
9. Raekwon--Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II (ICEAL)
10. U2--No Line on the Horizon (Interscope)

Hi, thanks for letting me vote, since I'm nobody's idea of a Gatekeeper. Demographia: 32, a straight white married American, and a stay-at-home father of one. Also, as a part-time Lutheran organist and choir director, I am very moved whenever I listen to "Welcome to the Future" and Brad Paisley proclaims, "Wake up Martin Luther!" Assuming we did awaken the crusading monk and noted anti-Semite, what would he have to say about The Year In Music 2009? Probably something dicey about Matisyahu--but then, who wouldn't?

Maybe he'd compare the Catholic Church to The Monoculture! Remember when Michael Jackson's death symbolized the Death of Monoculture? (Results 1 - 10 of about 27,100 for "michael jackson" death monoculture.) I'm not totally sure I understand this claim--how long has The Monoculture been dead, exactly? Did it just die in June? Was it still alive in 2001, when Jackson's last album came out? Or did it die sometime since 1991-2, when he could have reasonably been said to have a claim on EVERYONE? (Though maybe not as big a claim as niche artists Metallica, Garth Brooks, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana, all of whom have sold more copies of their 1991 albums, at least in the U.S.) Furthermore, if The Monoculture has been dying or dead for a while, why did we only start mourning it when its last living exponent kicked the bucket? I'm pretty sure we noticed its death before Jackson died, if we read the preface to Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s, published in 2000. ("Who can possibly believe that Madonna and the Wu-Tang Clan mean as much to the Culture at Large as the Beatles and Aretha Franklin?") So if we only started mourning at decade's end, how much could The Monoculture have actually meant to us?

If any musician had Monocultural reach, I suppose it was '80s Jackson. But by 2009, MJ and The MC had outlived their symbolic equivalence. Maybe the Black Eyed Peas or, yes, Madonna still deserve it. More likely, The Monoculture as symbol deserves to die. The cranky Protestant in me counters any claim on The Monoculture with Jimmy Guterman's sage comment from 1991's The Worst Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time: "Rock and roll is but one small part of the music being made on this planet. Rockers who think they're changing the world are in fact only reaching a small part of it." (If you're put off by the rockist language, Guterman selected MJ's Off the Wall in his companion volume of Best Rock 'n' Roll Records.) My advice for trendwatchers: next time you're tempted to overstate the importance of The Monoculture, stop to consider the reach of Norman Borlaug, practitioner of a very different kind of monoculture. The agronomist, who died in September, won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize and is estimated to have saved a billion lives through increased crop yields and large scale farming techniques. That's monoculture with reach.

That said, I liked Jackson more than most other pop stars--probably more than I like the Catholic Church, now that I think of it. I can't think of another singer able to negotiate such rage and beauty within a single song--and in plenty of his songs, within a single line ("DIRTY DIANA! Nooo...."). Forget "crazy," forget "rich," even forget "entertainer" and "influence." They may be true, but they smack of faint praise. This guy was one of the great MUSICIANS of the past century. We're talking Stravinsky, Armstrong, Ornette, Beatles territory. (As a vocal arranger of multitracked Michaels, he's an unsung studio hero.) The fact that he was able to communicate to unimaginably huge audiences with stuff that was as claustrophobic and violent as lots of black metal only rarefies his music even more.

Ultimately, though, the only size audience I care about is me. I'm sure you all have the same impulse. That's the Protestantism rearing its head again--screw the papacy, I'll worship however (whoever?) I want! It's no accident that Protestantism has inevitably led to "niche" religions, even within Lutheranism. The self-hating Missouri Synod Lutherans = doom metal, the woman-hating Wisconsin Synod Lutherans = black metal, while my beloved Evangelical Lutheran Church in America = power metal. We're happy and we fight dragons! Plus, as of August, gay people can preach and get married. And fight dragons. (If they want--we don't make them or anything.)

I guess the "point" I'm dancing around (and was trying to avoid "making") is this: just as the breakdown of Catholicism wasn't really a breakdown because Catholicism still exists, and just as the breakoffs from Catholicism inevitably led to a boutique culture within Protestantism--so the breakdown of The Musical Monoculture wasn't really a breakdown because the Black Eyed Peas still exist, and so the breakoffs from Said Monoculture have inevitably led to the boutique culture that Christgau identified back in 2000, if not earlier.* The interesting aspect of all this is that both impulses, Protestant and Catholic, still exist, always have and always will--we only like what we like, but we still want to see the consensus. If your Protestant nature totally wins, you're probably not voting in the poll. If your Catholic nature takes over, you probably scored the top Critical Alignment rating, and everyone knows those dudes are LAAAAME.

I fear I'm making the classic critic's mistake of equating Pazz and Jop with The Monoculture. Sure, Thriller won, but so did TV on the Radio's Dear Science. Like, who actually listens to Dear Science? Among people I regularly talk to, Susan Boyle is far more important. So is Brad Paisley. And like Martin Luther, like MLK, like most sane people who accomplish anything, Paisley's a dreamer and a realist, which is why his vision of a modern American Saturday Night is a union of the niches. (A very consumer-driven union, too--his multicultural title song reads like a Google Products search.) However popular, though, Paisley's not The Monoculture. He's a niche, too--just one with more crossover appeal than TVOTR.

Speaking of crossover appeal, the local Hot AC station became integrated this year! I mean, they'd played "Hey Ya" and "No One" before, but this was the first time I heard actual black people rapping on 101.9 "The Mix." We're talking a station that had previously left Lil' Wayne and TI verses on the cutting room floor. Now they play the Peas (who doesn't?), but also the Weezy verse of Jay Sean's "Down," and "Empire State of Mind." That one blew me away. Aging fans of Bon Jovi and Vertical Horizon must finally be ready for Jay-Z!

I digress.

Most Protestants still value their gatekeepers, be they pastors, bishops, teachers or whoever. Our worship is our own, but it's nice to have people in charge who know what they're talking about just the same--WHICH LEADS ME TO MY BRIGHT IDEA FOR FUTURE POLLS. Have everyone list the gatekeeper who introduced them to their favorite music. That'd give us a nice sense of how the industry operates and who the most influential critics are, about which I'm sure everybody's curious. Here, I'll start:

"I'm On a Boat"--Chuck Eddy via Rhapsody
"High Cost of Living"--Chuck via ilx, library
"Midlife Chrysler"--Chuck via ilx (I swear I'm not a sycophant.) (Actually, I think I first heard this on some mysterious country station in Rolla, MO, this past summer. Haven't heard it on the radio since.)
"Quiet Dog"--KDHX (St. Louis community radio)
"New Wu" and OB4CLII--media blitz, previous fandom
"2 Turntables"--KDHX
"Don't Stop Believin'"--TV
"Sidestep"--Chuck via LiveJournal
"Then" and American Saturday Night--media blitz, library
"On the Ocean"--WGCI (Chicago R&B radio)

K'Naan--Chuck via ilx
Maxwell--Borders promo, previous fandom
Ata Ebtekar--Scott Seward via ilx
Lightning Bolt--previous fandom
Yeah Yeah Yeahs--media blitz, library
Dylan--Borders promo, previous fandom
Cesium 137--Metropolis promo, previous fandom (Note that this is the only item on my list that came directly to me as a promo. Metropolis is my only promo provider. Boo hoo.)
U2--Borders promo, previous fandom

With the Borders well dried up (I quit in August), who knows how I'll hear music next year? Library CDs and darkwave in 2010!

Despite my stodgier demography, I think this is the first time I've ever voted for three artists whose names rhyme--K'Naan, K'Jon, and Raekwon. (Of course, pointing this out may just reinforce the stodge.) No Jay Sean, though, and I'm still awaiting the J-Kwon comeback. Oh wait--Wikipedia tells me it happened this year and I missed it. Youtubing (at church) as we speak... The lyric "J-Kwon back--WHAT?!" seems about right. Yeah, this "I Smacked Nikki" thing is way stodgier than even my sorry attempts at rhyming.

Speaking of stodge, how about that Neko Case CD?

If I want a song cycle that grapples with nature and gets me in touch with my chthonic urges, I'll listen to Germans. Schubert's piano/vocal Winterreise has more variety, and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) has more feel-good moments. I would maybe buy Case's maneater claim if she didn't sing "surprised, -prised, -prised" the exact same way in every chorus of "People Got a Lotta Nerve." As it is, I feel like I can predict her every move, and would thus be able to escape her attempts to eat me. Frankly, there's an alarming shortage of people on my list that I believe could eat me. Maybe the girl from Glee. But even Lightning Bolt are more comforting than threatening at this point.

I'd apologize for running out of steam and leaving you with half-baked ideas, but that assumes the presence of steam and ideas to begin with. So anyway, keep up the good work and may your health insurance not screw you over.

*My parallel between Catholic/Protestant and Monoculture/Niche Culture breaks down in a couple important respects. Catholicism is (theoretically) completely hierarchical, whereas The (theoretical) Monoculture is at least partly driven by consensus and consumer choice. Untouchable record label honchos may be responsible for 90% of what we hear, but even they can't make us like what we don't like. It's not like pop stars are ordained by God, no matter what they might say while accepting Grammys. And while Protestantism represents a more direct relationship with God, which resonates when discussing Niche Culture--nobody's force-feeding you this music, and maybe you even know the artists--it also represents a rejection of idolatry, which means the elevation of something temporal to the status of an absolute. Temporal things could include golden calves, money, the Bible, or your own opinion. Absolute things include God. So it's sort of perverse to say the Protestant Principle is making me vote for Ata Ebtekar instead of the Peas. If anything, the Protestant Principle should be telling me, "Christgau and Rosen are voting for the Peas, you think you know any better?" Or, "In the grand scheme of things, what does it matter whether Ebtekar's better than the Peas?" Or, "Why don't you go become an agronomist and feed starving people?"

Best Thing I Heard on Christmas: Michael Nyman doing "Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds"

Not THOSE shepherds! Nyman originally wrote this peppy Purcell rip for Peter Greenaway's 1982 movie The Draughtsman's Contract, but we heard it last night in the 2008 documentary Man On Wire, which is fantastic, go Netflick it now. (You can stream it!) Here's the Youtube with superior sound:

--and here's a live performance, which is nice because you can see who's playing what:

When I played Nyman’s career retrospective overhead at work some years back, I got one of two responses:
“It sounds like movie music.”
“It sounds like Philip Glass.”

These made sense, because it was movie music, and because Nyman wrote the book, literally, on Philip Glass and his cronies (Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond), and some people blame him with first describing music as “minimalist” back in 1968.

Ever since I first heard him, though (in Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover), I’ve heard a lunatic parody of Baroque music. Nyman’s stuff is more compact, driving, and repetitive than most movie music, and it employs Baroque circle-of-fifths ground basslines, rather than the 3 or 4-chord pop basslines of Glass’s tunes. "Chasing Sheep" features crazy horns jumping unexpectedly out of the texture on dissonant passing tones, a caffeinated pogo-stick beat, and a weird double-time “B” section, but the whole thing manages to be gorgeous anyway. Nyman’s repetition and aversion to development gives his music a static quality, which goes well with Greenaway’s contemplative, often monochromatic imagery. Be warned: after it loses the Baroque edge a quarter-way through, Nyman’s 2-disc retrospective goes downhill, with only a couple minimalist-y exceptions along the way. (He also wrote some more generically pretty stuff for The Piano.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Brenda Lee doing "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"

As Ms. Dynamite would say, I'm sorry, because you're probably sick of this song. But isn't it the coolest? Think nothing of it friends, that's just Mr. Hank Garland on the guitar fills, with Mr. Boots Randolph on the ace sax solo. And the lovely and talented queenofspades25 helped us out with the Sims animation in this video.

Whenever this song comes on the radio, my four-year-old boy says "I LOVE that voice!" Me too: good-humored without hamming it up, the 13-year-old Brenda Lee somehow had the presence of mind to wink with her voice. When she sings the lines,

You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear
Voices singing "Let's be jolly,
Deck the halls with boughs of holly"

we're reminded of how unsentimental this music is. The guitar fills and sax solo refuse to linger, and their virtuosity is casual. Even the song itself is a highly efficient joy machine, doing its job as quickly as possible and then going away. (May your holiday guests behave likewise!)

Fifty years after it was recorded, "Rockin'" no doubt induces sentimental feelings in lots of people, the way most oldies do. But lately I've been hearing the song in a NEW old-fashioned way. Its citified professionalism, the mark of "Nashville Sound" producer Owen Bradley, makes "Rockin'" sound even more stunning--it can cut through the maudlin sentiment of Christmas radio like the shards of a broken ornament. (Or like our little ceramic Mrs. Victorian Caroler, who recently sustained a decapitation while worshiping at the manger scene.) (May your holiday guests behave likewise?) Writer Johnny Marks knew how to make money off of Christmas songs. In "Rockin'," he and Ms. Lee blatantly condescend to the idea of "sentimental feeling" in order to have some fun and make a buck. The effect is beautiful.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Hawkwind doing "Spirit of the Age"

The lyrics in verse one have not been equaled. Equaled for what? Not sure, but they're in a class by themselves:

"I would've liked you to have been deep frozen too
and waiting still as fresh in your flesh for my return to Earth
But your father refused to sign the forms to freeze you
Let's see you'd be about 60 now,
and long dead by the time I return to Earth
My time held dreams were full of you,
as you were when I left; still underage
Your android replica is playing up again, it's no joke
When she comes she moans another's name
But that's the spirit of the age"

Not to belabor the point, but these guys sound like how I WISH Amon Duul II sounded. That's especially true of the Live Seventy Nine album, which is one monster moto-jam after another, and vocals that are much more unhinged than those in the above clip. Some quick digging reveals that I'm not the first person to hear some Kraut in the English Hawkwind. It's blitz!

I'd also like to note that, in the past year, two of Rolling Stone's "legacy" interviews have been with ex-members of Hawkwind--Lemmy and Ginger Baker. (They weren't in the band at the same time, true...) Unfortunately, Hawkwind didn't get a mention in "The Devil and Ginger Baker." The Lemmy interview mentioned Hawkwind, though, and also referred to Lemmy as a "Zelig-like figure." Other "Zelig-like" figures in that same issue were Paul Shaffer and Madonna. Granted, Madonna referred to HERSELF as Zelig, but still! Either the editors need to settle on some new cliches, or Hawkwind and Zelig are the real roots of rock 'n' roll. There are no other options.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Surfing with CryoShell

Allmusic's biggest failure may be that they don't have a proper biography of the band CryoShell. Of course, that's true of the band's website too, leading me to believe that CRYOSHELL ARE SHROUDED IN MYSTERY. Either that, or they're an Archies-like jingle machine for the LEGO corporation, a theory supported by this droll Wikipedia entry:

"Cryoshell is a Danish band best known for their work for Lego BIONICLE advertisements. Until their site changed its cover in promotion for their newest song, "Bye Bye Babylon", the site contained a strange and interesting story stub relating to a powerful biomechanical form in the Arctic, called the Cryoshell, from which the band may take its name. There were also fictional profiles of the three band members..."

Indeed, the most hilarious comment for the above-linked Youtube says, "I work at a LEGO store and this song KEEPS PLAYING in the Bionicle section. Good song when heard thru occasionally, not when you hear the chorus every 3 minutes for 5 hours straight!" Momentarily set aside the question of how huge the LEGO store must be to have a whole Bionicle section. You can really hear the pathos of the Common Man in commenter 902411's words, especially if you've ever worked retail.

I'm puzzled as to why the latest Bionicle jingle is a Babylon song. A cursory search turns up nothing in the Bionicle line of fine products that would support such imagery, but maybe I'm missing something (or maybe something's coming down the pike). The song does sound like what I imagine Bionicle fans hear when they're playing with their action figures or video games, i.e., an uninteresting Lacuna Coil knockoff, sung by a hot chick.

Though it dabbles in "Middle Eastern" scales by throwing some flat seconds into the guitar riff, CryoShell's Babylon song has little in common with Rainbow's far superior invitation to hell. "Bye Bye Babylon" is basically a smattering of Babylon cliches mixed with the sort of dimestore (LEGOstore?) antiauthoritarianism that advertisers and their young demographic targets love.

This Bionicled Babylon is a land that reaches for the sun, depraves everyone, is scattered and will run, left burning in the sun; so right there we've got the Tower of Babel's hubris, the unspecified moral depravity of hair metal's Babylon, and the fact that Babylon's in the desert. These various definitions do NOT mean that lead singer "Lore" is operating on some multi-tiered architectonic platform of deep meaning. More likely, she (or whoever wrote it) didn't know why they were writing a song about Babylon any more than we do, so they went to Wikipedia and tried to incorporate every meaning in the book. (No whores, though; missed one!)

Note the lack of specificity. We don't know exactly how Babylon is obstructing our heroine's fight for... whatever it is she's fighting for. Freedom? Identity? The right to trademark Maori words for commercial purposes? (Dude, some of those words sound pretty rad.) Maybe she should buy some Bionicles and make them fight; I bet that'd help.

Best Thing I Heard Today: Hawkwind doing "Motorway City"

I'm tagging this "metal" because they're in Martin Popoff's books, but this tune is more thud-prog meets Krautrock (a term I use with impunity, thanks to my heritage) (Did you hear about the new German microwave? Seats six!). Great solo at about 3:00 or so, and the fadeout jamming is just as motorik as anything by Neu--with Ginger Baker on drums, no less!

Someone had a good time making the Youtube video, too! I'm not quite sure about the cover, though--what exactly is the HMS Hawkwind beaming down onto the mountains? It looks like something Dan Brown would recognize.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Dirty Little Rabbits doing "Hello"

If you asked me, "Would you like to hear a Slipknot side project?" I would of course say "Yes," but no way would I expect it to sound this HAPPY:

The drummer is the Slipknot link; and so (nevertheless?) the Rabbits manage some nice grooves here, especially the metal chugging during the dramatic prologue. Stella the singer manages to do justice both to the spacey journal-entry esoterica of the verses, and to the pure joy and vindication of the choruses. "All good people find one another," eh? It's easy for her to say that once she's found the guy. If she was still down in the rabbit hole or wherever, I doubt she'd feel quite as self-satisfied.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Surfing with SOJA

Here's a touching ode to the difficulty of NOT being an impoverished Jamaican:

SOJA (Soldiers of Jah Army) are a competent middle-class white reggae band from Washington D.C. Simply keeping their noses to the grindstone, they could have had a respectable career playing UB40 covers on cruise ships, or maybe busting out their roots repertoire at frat parties seeking a modicum of "authenticity." Instead, lead singer Jacob Hemphill seems bent on "self-expression." This is unfortunate, considering his skill at expressing himself in interviews:

HEMPHILL ON SONGWRITING: “When you listen to an artist you can either have a series of one liners, or you can tell a story with your music."
Guess which one he wants to do.

HEMPHILL ON ELEMENTS OF STYLE AND FINANCE: "We set out to tell a story, it's like poetry – dancing around an entire theme, but never putting a period on anything. It is like the two sides of a coin, but you can see them at the same time.”
Thoughtful of him to explicate the obscure meaning of that cliche.

HEMPHILL ON HIS LOVE AFFAIR WITH MUSIC: "I think music calls me for booty calls. It's kind of crazy."
Dude, that's called "masturbating to your Lee Perry records"--which is, admittedly, kind of crazy.

Granted, musicians often sound like idiots in interviews. (See Sheryl Crow.) Usually they can muster some clarity in their songs, though--that's what we pay them to do. True to form, Hemphill's "Born in Babylon" is CLEARLY the rant of a man who's been lambasted by critics, doesn't appreciate it, and sees in his bad reviews a parallel with the physical and economic enslavement of the Jamaican people. Why? Because these authoritarian critics are stifling His Voice!

Attacking critics is certainly nothing new--Eminem and Toby Keith have done so in fairly entertaining ways, Akon more passive-aggressively. (I'm conflicted about increasing nu-Idolator's hit count, but this is right on.) SOJA wisely choose the latter method, particularly during Jacob's priceless closing scat:

"If I never tried to do this at all/ I think he [the critic]'d be out of a job/ And maybe I just should've stayed in bed/ Stay out of the booth and put all these guitars in the closet."

Perish the thought! If you did that, we might never get to know your attractive self-righteous side:

"Saving this world just come with a cost..."
"I'm too busy to judge another man/ I'm tryin' to write the blueprint for all the world to understand."

Good luck with that, Jake! In the meantime, you might want to decide whether you want people to actually read that blueprint, or simply look into your eyes and divine your saving heart:

"While they were aiming at my words/ they missed the rest of me."

Well, your words provide a big target. The idea of "Born in Babylon" was born when Hemphill was shooting the breeze with his buddy, Redskins quarterback Colt Brennan, who has also faced the abject, soul-killing adversity of people telling him he'd never make it to the NFL. In what could have been a misplaced Punky Brewster episode, the two sat around one day bemoaning their lot in life. According to The Star:

"Me [Hemphill] and [Brennan] were sitting there talking one day like, `Dude, nobody wants us to f--king make it because of who we are, it's so f--king Babylon.' He said, `I came from a good family and good house, but because of who I was everybody says I can't make it; so it's like I might as well have come from nothing and pulled myself all the way up.'"

Not exactly. COMING FROM NOTHING is like coming from nothing. Overcoming discouraging words to become an NFL QB or a professional musician is admirable, but not unthinkable when your parents have had the good fortune to raise you in a middle-class suburb like Arlington, VA. I'll grant you, worrying about bands' authenticity and whether they've "paid their dues" is one of the biggest bugaboos around; a more real concern is when some yak from "a good family and a good house" makes a living in a touring band (behind Matisyahu, no less!), but still compares himself to this guy:

Choose your symbols carefully!