Monday, July 15, 2019

100 Albums: "Odelay" by Beck

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Beck
Title: Odelay
Released: 1996
Genre: dadaist electro-country alternative-folk singer-songwriter rap

Beck was totally going to be a one-hit wonder, right? Loser was a great song, but it was also a complete novelty of song whose album, Mellow Gold, didn't spawn any more singles. The aesthetic was fresh, but it was also incredibly weird. It was the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle sound that would never and could never be replicated. And then Where It's At hit radio and not only did it sound completely different than Loser, but it was pretty incredible in its own right. Never one to repeat himself, Beck teamed with producers The Dust Brothers who were at that time best known for the dense, sample-heavy Beastie Boys album Paul's Boutique.

The resulting album is kind of amazing. It's both stranger than more accessible than Mellow GoldWhere It's At remains a staple of alt-rock radio, and it produced a number of other successful singles, including the mellow groove Jack-Ass, jazzy The New Pollution, and the noise-rock opener Devil's Haircut.

(Fun aside for fellow guitar-players out there. The main riff for Devil's Haircut is ridiculously simple to play--it's just the bottom three strings played open and in ascending order. E, E -> A -> D. So, when I was in college I met a guy who used this song to pick up women. He would tell them he could teach them how to play a song in thirty seconds, show them that riff, et voila! I tried this once and it failed so spectacularly that I never dared try it again, as the girl I was hitting on--it turned out--had all the musical ability of a sea slug, and not being able to play something "that easy" was a pretty big turn off. Lesson learned.)

Deep cuts from this album are perennial favorites of mine. Lord Only Knows is a great alt-country romp. Sissyneck and Readymade and both fun grooves. There's really not a bad song, unless you count that hidden "computer rock" track after Ramshackle. Because it was the 90s, so of course there's a hidden track.

Further Listening: Beck is nothing if not prolific. If not for my one-album-per-artist rule, Sea Change, Guero, The Information, and Mutations would all have shots at being on this list, but out of those Sea Change is the one that almost supplanted this. It's a deeply sad avant garde singer-songwriter album produced by Nigel Godrich--who spends a lot of his time producing deeply sad avant garde albums for Radiohead. Some of his weirder projects include most of the Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World soundtrack, a collection of sheet music that he never actually recorded himself, and his "record club" project where he and a bunch of musicians would perform unrehearsed recordings of entire albums by Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground & Nico, and INXS.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

100 Albums: Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (Soundtrack from & Inspired by the Motion Picture)

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Various
Title: Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse (Soundtrack from & Inspired by the Motion Picture)
Released: 2018
Genre: kid-friendly hip-hop

I almost didn't include this in the list because it's too new to me. I only discovered it in the last few months. And now that I have, I wish I'd gotten to it sooner so I could put it higher on the list. Oh well.

I don't have much to say about this album other than that it--like the younger audience it's targeting--is relatively short, full of energy, and tons of fun. The lyrics are free of cursing or adult themes, which means I can listen to it with my four-year-old without worrying he's going to pick up something he can't repeat at school. And it's generally optimistic and inspirational--these are songs about fighting for what you believe, defending your family, and being heroic. The movie that it's tied to is one shockingly good as both a family film and a superhero film, and about half of the tracks are just monster ear-worms. After a listen, I find myself singing Whats Up Danger, Way Up, Familia, and Start A Riot all more or less at once. Once those wear off, I find myself singing Home, Elevate, Invincible, and Sunflower. The whole damn thing just lodges itself in my skull. I seriously lost sleep the first day or so after I got it because it was so stuck in my head.

I can't help remarking at just how much hip-hop has changed in the last thirty years. In the early 90s, when it came to dominate Top-40 and club music, it was more of a slow groovy that was dense with lyrics. Modern hip-hop is faster but also slower, with thicker beats and lyrics that come in quick bursts. Put on a gangsta-era classic like Gin and Juice and then listen to Jaden Smith's Way Up and you'll see what I mean. This isn't music you sit back and bob your head to; it's music you stand up and dance to.

Further Listening: I don't really know who any of these artists are because I'm an old dinosaur. I mean, I've at least heard of Post Malone, but I couldn't tell you another song of his. I'm familiar with Jaden Smith, insofar as I've seen him in movies and I remember when his dad released Parents Just Don't Understand as The Fresh Prince. There was a similar album that accompanied Black Panther that is mostly dominated by Kendrick Lamar. It's an album I admire but don't actually like all that much. Like Prince, Lamar is an undeniably talented artist that I have a hard time getting into because I just don't like how his voice sounds. My loss, I suppose.

Monday, July 8, 2019

100 Albums: "August And Everything After" by Counting Crows

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Counting Crows
Title: August and Everything After
Released: 1993
Genre: adult contemporary roots rock

In retrospect, one of the real benefits of the 90s "alternative" label was that it could be applied to basically anything, which made for a lot of variety on rock radio. I've talked before about how "grunge" was a pastiche of glam-rock, hard rock, heavy metal, and punk; "alternative" not only included all of that, but it also fit in funk-rock acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers, post-punk arty groups like Talking Heads, and rootsy college/jam acts like Dave Matthews Band. So in 1993, on the strength of a bopping lead single Mr. Jones, Counting Crows--with its prominent mandolin, organ, and accordion--got to be on rock radio.

I picked up the album for Mr. Jones and the hypnotic follow-up Round Here and was immediately taken with it. It was slow, but it felt deep and meaningful. Adam Duritz's sad, poetic warbles spoke to me, despite the fact that at fourteen-years-old I absolutely didn't understand what he was singing about. This was an album that I largely set aside in college and came back to a few years later and just went track-by-track going "Oh, that's what it's about." Some things you just don't get until you've been through a messed up relationship or two. Duritz is a low-key great lyricist. His stuff is fairly abstract, but I love the way ideas evolve over the course of a song. In Omaha, for instance, the fourth line is "Turn a new leaf over" in the first verse, then "Turn a new life over" in the second, and finally "Turn a new love over" in the third.

The singles are all great, the two I've already mentioned (Mr. Jones and Round Here) as well as Rain King and A Murder Of One. I'm also a big fan of Anna Begins and Omaha--which are slow-but-optimistic songs--and Raining in Baltimore, which is maybe the saddest, most beautiful thing I've ever heard. One particularly morose evening I sang that at karaoke and basically brought the night to a screeching halt. Good times!

Further Listening: None of their other albums really work for me, but they have some great tunes: Einstein on the Beach (For an Eggman), Long December, and Hanginaround are all fantastic. They have a greatest hits album called Films About Ghosts that's worth checking out for some of their harder-to-find single content.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

100 Albums Supplemental: Childhood Faves (That I Just Don't Like Anymore)

We're halfway through the list, which means it's time for another supplemental. The last few weeks have been heavy on albums or artists I discovered in my childhood and still listen to today. So here are a few that I don't feel the same way about. And I want to distinguish this from the Christian rock supplemental where the problem is that my beliefs have changed and that makes it difficult to listen to anymore. These are albums or artists where my tastes have changed or the times have changed and I no longer enjoy them, ranked from greatest to least.

Jimi Hendrix - The Ultimate Experience

Any guitar player (which I have been) is going to go through a phase where they worship Hendrix. I got this album in high school and listened to it on repeat in the car. I still have a lot of affection for Hendrix, but unfortunately he's an incredible artist whose retrospectives greatly lack cohesion and whose individual albums are only good, not great. To give a random example, Are You Experienced? has some phenomenal music on it, but it also has a lot of filler. Hendrix was incredibly prolific and it would be interesting to see what could have been if his life hadn't been cut short. Additionally, this particular album is hard to find, as the Experience Hendrix collection has replaced it, and is a bit bloated.

Van Halen - III / Greatest Hits, Vol. 1

See the above note about guitarists. Van Halen III is the one where Gary Cherone of the band Extreme sings lead, and he's just not up to the task. He's a mediocre lyricist and lacks either the bombastic charisma of David Lee Roth or the animal magnetism of Sammy Hagar. Plus his voice is too low and throaty to their songs. I still enjoy Josephina, but this thing is a curio at best. As for their ambitiously-titled Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, there's a lot of fun music here, but it's also missing some of their most iconic hits: Hot For Teacher, Jamie's Cryin', Finish What You Started, and so forth. It includes two new Roth songs that are solidly meh, and the transition from Roth to Hagar eras is jarring. As it was in real life. They've done other retrospectives since, notably one called The Best Of Both Worlds that interleaves the work of the two singers and is bloated and awful. Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 does have Humans Being from the Twister soundtrack, though, and that is maybe my favorite guitar solo ever.

Prince and The Revolution - Purple Rain

I wish I liked Prince more. He's got some legitimate classics, but I kind of hate his voice. I don't remember how I ended up with a copy of the Purple Rain soundtrack, but I was mesmerized when I first put it on. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before. I still love When Doves Cry and a few other songs of that era, like 7, but when I've revisited Prince as an adult, I find the vocals cloying. I'll still dance along if Kiss or Let's Go Crazy comes on, but most of his work is not to my taste.

The Ventures - Super Hits

When I got a CD player, I got four albums and then my family immediately went on vacation, so I listened to those for over and over again. This was one of them, and it may be part of the reason I enjoy surf rock as much as I do. Walk Don't Run is a classic tune, but this particular record ends up being mostly covers of James Bond themes.

Billy Joel - An Innocent Man

Billy Joel's doo-wop tribute is... odd. Songs like Uptown Girl and The Longest Time still hold up pretty well. Songs like Christie Lee and Keepin' The Faith, less so. And this album in particular starts to feel a little like cultural appropriation, more so than his others. It's not quite uncomfortable. At any rate, he has much better albums. 52nd Street, River Of Dream, or Storm Front, for instance. (Although, word to the wise: Google "Storm Front" with care, as it's also the name of a White Nationalist hate group).

Ray Stevens

I don't know what album I had, but it was a "greatest hits" that didn't include any of his actual hits. No Mississippi Squirrel Revival, no The Streak, no It's Me Again Margaret. It was terrible. As for Stevens' actual "hits"... Look, I love a good novelty record, I have "Weird Al" in my top 50, but as a rule comedy ages poorly, and Stevens is not an exception. The Streak stops being funny now that we consider that sort of behavior sexual assault. Ahab The Arab... yikes.

Michael Jackson

Bad was this one of the first four CDs I owned, as well as one of the main reasons I wanted a CD player--because the CD version of the album included a bonus track, Leave Me Alone. I was a huge Michael Jackson fan in middle school or so (which would have been the late eighties and early nineties--a reasonable time to be an MJ fan). I still know how to moonwalk, and will demonstrate this after sufficient quantities of beer.

Bad just isn't very good. This is an album that is supposed to showcase Jackson as a rebel, a "bad boy" who wears leather and has street cred. Its opening line is "Your butt is mine." What... the hell? It includes Dirty Diana, a song about a woman trying to trap him into having sex with her? There's Liberian Girl, a song so boring that the music video is filled with 80s stars talking over the music. Speed Demon and Another Part Of Me are fun in a retro sort of way, and Smooth Criminal holds up, but the rest of it is very forgettable. Instead, it's an opening salvo in a series of weird missteps for the singer. For example, on his next album Dangerous, he would include a song that was designed to demonstrate his virility and heterosexual prowess. That song would be called In The Closet. HIStory would include a song called They Don't Care About Us about prejudice that would come under fire for antisemitic lyrics, like "Jew me" and "k**e me." Seriously? Was no one else around to let him know that these were transparently terrible ideas?

Oh, also, there's the thing where he was a serial child molester. So... going back to his catalog at all is an exercise in controlled squeamishness. Which is kind of a shame. I mean, Thriller is mostly good, despite that horrible duet with Paul McCartney. I still have a lot of affection for Off The Wall. Because I am a grown man who still enjoys him some disco and Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough is a jam. But yeah, Jackson is a difficult artist to separate from his art enough to still enjoy it. But, believe it or not, there is an even more problematic album I owned and listened to religiously as a child...

The Best Of Comedy

There are probably eighty albums called this. This one had standup from Buddy Hackett, Foster Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield, and Bill Cosby. It was another of the initial four CDs that I owned, and it has aged soooooooo badly for a variety of interesting reasons. There's Brooks telling a joke where the punchline was that his wife was asleep while he was having sex with her. There's Hackett's profoundly racist impression of a Chinese waiter. Dangerfield... isn't that controversial, he just isn't that funny on this disc. Aaaaaand there are a couple of Fat Albert routines from serial rapist Bill Cosby.

Happy 4th of July, y'all. Try not to blow yourself up. Monday we'll be back to our regularly scheduled count-up.

Monday, July 1, 2019

100 Albums: "The Transformers The Movie: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack"

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Vince DiCola, et al
Title: The Transformer The Movie: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Released: 1986
Genre: kid-friendly synth-metal

This is one of the first tapes I remember owning, although I don't know how I ended up with it. I suspect one of my parents saw it and picked it up because they knew how much I enjoyed the property. I had a birthday party where all six (!) of the Constructicons were used to decorate my cake. So this is one I listened to a lot. And, much like the movie it's attached to, it's way better than it has any right to be. The Transformers: The Movie was supposed to be a cynical cash-grab, in which the older lines of toys were wiped out an a new generation of toy characters were introduced. It never occurred to the muckety-mucks at Hasbro that grade-school kids would think of these robots as characters. Ergo, a huge number of the children in my cohort at the age of six or seven experienced this movie as their introduction to dramatic tragedy. This is a movie in which the most recognizable hero of the franchise dies in Act I. It's a war movie in which the generals are killed early and the boots-on-the-ground troops are suddenly rudderless and flailing. It's a cat-and-mouse movie where the good guys spend 90% of the run-time being chased. It pulls zero punches, and once we got over the initial trauma of it, my generation kind of fell in love with it.

In keeping with the movie's aesthetic of "kids stuff, but more grown up," the soundtrack goes for heavy metal textures, albeit in a very mid-80s kind of way. Stan Bush does the poppier stuff with The Touch, the opening track and the best remembered, and Dare, which is a much better song. Both of them hew fairly close to the sound of Vince DiCola's score, which is synth-driven but tinged with metal guitar work. There are four tracks that are more standard hair-metal: N.R.G.'s Instruments Of Destruction, Lion's cover of the Transformers Theme, and Spectre General's Hunger, and Nothin's Gonna Stand In Our Way. And to give you an idea of how sanitized this music is for children, Spectre General is actually the Canadian band Kick Axe, which was considered too racy for this soundtrack. The last track on the tape, and also one of the singles from the album, is "Weird Al" Yankovic's Devo tribute Dare To Be Stupid. So yes, this album was my introduction to Weird Al. And we all know how that worked out. That plays during and after the battle against the Junkions, who were all voiced by Eric Idle and only spoke in phrases they'd heard on TV.

I reiterate, it's bizarre how well this movie still holds up.

Three of Vince DiCola's music cues from the score appeared on the initial release of the soundtrack, and another three got tacked onto the end for more recent releases. Even as a child, I found those instrumental tracks highly listenable, which is saying something, and since he's the dominant artist, the album feels much more like it belongs to him than any of the other contributors. Stan Bush notwithstanding, I suppose.

Further Listening: Who can forget Mark Wahlberg's take on The Touch from Boogie Nights? I also highly recommend Movie Bob's Really That Good video essay for the film.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

100 Albums: "Extraordinary Machine" by Fiona Apple

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Fiona Apple
Title: Extraordinary Machine
Released: 2005
Genre: adult contemporary jazz pop

I was a fan of Fiona Apple's album When The Pawn... but had kind of forgotten about her by 2005. So when I happened to spot a new album from Apple--her first in six years--on the rack at a Best Buy, I excitedly picked it up and popped it into the player. I listened to the eponymous opening track, and my initial reaction was "What the hell did I just listen to?" After that song, the over-compressed drum machine kicked in and it started to sound more like the Fiona Apple I was familiar with, and by the time I got to the end I was completely won over. It got me wondering why there was such a gap between the two albums. It turns out Extraordinary Machine was finished and ready to be released in 2003, but it sat on the shelf for a few years. The reasons aren't known, but it's widely believed that the label didn't have much confidence in it. In the intervening years, the album was re-recorded and polished up and finally released at the insistence of ardent fans who knew that it existed and just wanted to spend money on it!

Extraordinary Machine leans hard into Apple's strengths. Her jazzy piano compositions are filled out with bouncy marimbas, horns, and leslie'd organs. Her deep, smoky voice is front and center without doubling, harmonies, or really any noticeable effects on it. She's a dynamic singer with a charismatic voice, and you can very clearly hear everything from her gentle whispers to her rapid-fire vibrato. And of course, there are the playful lyrics. Apple turns phrases with the best of them and does some delightful things with meter. Better Version Of Me opens with the line "The nickel dropped when I was on my way beyond the Rubicon." See also the chorus from that same song: "After all the folderol and hauling over coals..." Tymps (The Sick In The Head Song) has this great little turn: "To keep in touch would do me deep in Dutch." The subject matter is pretty typical for Apple's work: the uglier sides of relationships. Oh Well has her comparing a partner to "a hypnic jerk when I was just about settled" and lamenting "What wasted unconditional love." There's also an undercurrent of ire at audiences who only want "something familiar, something similar to what we know already" (Please Please Please). But even so, it manages to be an optimistic album, about taking the lumps and turning them into something positive. The closer, Waltz (Better Than Fine), has her instructing the listener: "If you don't have a date, celebrate, go out and sit on the lawn and do nothing."

It's really a remarkable record. It's a little challenging, but it's built on solid pop fundamentals and feels earnest and personal.

Further Listening: When The Pawn... is an excellent album and it would be on this list if not for my one-album-per-artist rule. The album that came after was The Idler Wheel... and it's okay. As for her debut, Tidal, I could never really get into it. Sleep To Dream was an unremarkable single, and while Criminal is a good song, but it's hard to separate from its scandalous music video. I mean, green shag carpeting, who does that?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Sale: Water Seekers

Hey y'all,

My story Water Seekers has been purchased by Nature Magazine for their Futures feature. It should be appearing in the next few months. This is my third sale to Nature and I can't wait for y'all to read it.

For Science!