Thursday, March 21, 2019

100 Albums: "Astro Lounge" by Smash Mouth

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

Artist: Smash Mouth
Title: Astro Lounge
Released: 1999
Genre: alt-rock surf-pop


Twenty-two records in and this is the third surf-rock album. I may have a type. This is another album that is just plain fun. And yes, All-Star is much maligned, and I suppose that's fair. It's light and fluffy and got seriously overplayed when it came out. But the entire album holds up. I make sure it's on my iPod before any lengthy road trip, because not only is it compulsively listenable, it even sounds good on crappy car speakers with messed up EQs.

It opens with Who's There, a track that gleefully announces what you can expect for the next fifty-odd minutes: vintage-guitar-and-rock-organ dance-pop that's been bedazzled with sci-fi sound effects and theramins. It's not deep, but it's up-tempo and immensely fun. And even if the singles are kind of played out, there are plenty of other great songs to choose from. I'm a big fan of Waste, Fallen Horses, Diggin' Your Scene, and I Just Wanna See. The only thing I don't particularly like about the album is the ending. The penultimate song Home would have been a perfect closer, but a cover of ? And The Mysterians' I Can't Get Enough Of You Baby is tacked on after (yes, I know The Four Seasons did it first, but SM's version definitely is inspired by ?atM). Skip it.

Further Listening: Fush Yu Mang, the band's debut, has a couple decent tracks, but nothing else Smash Mouth has put out really holds a candle to this, not that I've heard anyway.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Curious Fictions (And Some Blog Cleanup)

Hey everybody!

I'm going to be doing some housekeeping around here, deleting older posts and what not. Part of that means I'll be taking down the Friday Flash Fiction posts. I anticipate most of them will be given a coat of polish and then moved over to Curious Fictions.

Which, oh, by the way...

I've got a page at Curious Fictions. It's a platform for authors to post their reprints, so I'll be migrating previously published stories over that way. If you are so inclined, you can subscribe to my posts over there.

]{p

100 Albums: "Play" by Moby

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

Artist: Moby
Title: Play
Released: 1999
Genre: alt-rock but also techno and somehow kind of archival?


Alt-rock and grunge were on the wane in the late 90s, having been displaced by nü-metal, rap-rock, and the boy-band revival. Into that melange, enter Moby, a tiny bald vegan from New York whose song Natural Blues was essentially an EDM-lite remix of a Depression-era Mississippi Delta song by Vera Hall. So when that creeped into radio playlists, my cohort's collective reaction was "Wait, what the hell was that? Play it again!"

Though Play felt like a bolt from the blue, Moby had been working in music for nearly two decades. He'd started in the early 80s playing guitar for a hardcore punk band called the Vatican Commandos and then had a career as a DJ and techno artist through the late 80s and early 90s. In the mid-90s he'd started blending those sensibilities, putting out Everything Is Wrong, which has the vibe and tempo (mostly) of an alt-rock album but whose songs are largely structured like EDM songs and sung by guests vocalists. Several of those had found their way onto film--notably God Moving Over The Face Of The Water, which is prominently featured in the finale of Michael Mann's crime drama Heat.

Play takes those same musical sensibilities but adds a new gimmick: several tracks feature vocals sampled from delta blues songs. Trouble So Hard becomes Natural BluesJoe Lee's Rock becomes Find My Baby. Moby himself sings on a few, notably the singles Porcelain and Southside, the latter of which featured Gwen Stefani on both the single re-mix and music video (honestly, I prefer the non-Gwen version, but your mileage may vary). Overall, it's an odd duck of an album. It absolutely should not work, but it does work and it's kind of amazing. Moby's process at this point was to just record 150 songs in his apartment and then pick his favorite 17 or 18 to make the record. It's mostly driven by piano and slide guitar over looped drums. There are a half dozen lead vocalists. The liner notes contain essays about veganism, prison reform, and fundamentalism. It includes progressive dance (Bodyrock), gospel (Run On), spoken word (The Sky Is Broken), ambient instrumental (Inside), alt-rock (Southside), in addition to the delta blues remixes (Natural BluesFind My BabyHoney).

It is, in short, Moby being Moby. This is the man who, as a successful musician, opened a tea store in New York City where he would occasionally buss tables. He's just a guy who found a way to make a living doing what he loves, and his albums are always just doing whatever he's interested in, and for a while there, whatever he was interested in happened to be very popular.

Further Listening: If not for my one-album-per-artist rule, Everything Is Wrong would be on this list for sure. Animal Rights, which fell between EiW and Play, is an interesting mix of lo-fi punk and ambient piano that just doesn't quite work. I do like 18, the follow-up to Play, but it doesn't break any new ground. It feels very much like a re-tread of the Play formula.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

100 Albums: "Puppy Love" by The Kickstand Band

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

Artist: The Kickstand Band
Title: Puppy Love
Released: 2012
Genre: garage surf-rock


I got this album as part of a bundle from the now-defunct music curation service Sound Supply. Of the dozens of albums I got from that service, this is the only one that really stands out (I've discovered lots of interesting songs, but this is hands-down the best album). It's light, it's poppy, it's energetic, and while musically it hews to a fairly classic formula, it has a lot of fun within the constraints of said formula. The two singers--it's an early teens indie band, so of course there's one female and one male singer--sound great together, and the playing is tight and lively.

Puppy Love is a mere 24 minutes long--the longest of its ten tracks barely crack two-and-a-half minutes. Still Thinking Of You is one of the of the slower songs. My fave from the album is Purgatory, which gives the afterlife the same sort of treatment the Squirrel Nut Zippers did with their song Hell: dressing it up with genre-specific lingo. I'm also a big fan of New Years Eve, the album closer. But honestly, there's not a track here I don't enjoy.

Further Listening: They've put out a few EPs, but no other proper albums. Nothing else I've heard from them shines quite a brightly as this. I'd recommend going to their Bandcamp page where you can stream the entire album and buy it at whatever price you think is fair.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

New Fiction Out Now: Please [redacted] My Last Email

I've got a story out in the Futures section of the new issue of Nature Magazine. This is my second time being published in Nature. It's probably the weirdest story I've ever sold, and I'm super proud of it.

]{p

Monday, March 11, 2019

100 Albums: "Tron: Legacy" by Daft Punk

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

Artist: Daft Punk
Title: Tron: Legacy Original Motion Picture Sountrack
Released: 2010
Genre: orchestral electropop


I've never seen the film, but I love this soundtrack. Neither am I a particularly huge fan of French EDM pioneers Daft Punk. This is simply a situation where the right elements came together to make some incredible. Instead of their normal sample-heavy dance tracks, Daft Punk crafted the music for this from whole cloth, blending their synth sensibilities with an 85-piece orchestra to create something that wasn't quite a movie score and wasn't quite a dance record, but existed somewhere in between. It's great background music. I can put it on while working on something and enjoy it without being too distracted by it. In fact, after Trouble Will Find Me, it's my favorite music to write to.

There is a single motif that runs throughout the album, and it's a great one. A stripped down version of it shows up in the Overture, a high-energy version over the end titles, and other permutations throughout. A few tracks break away to do their own thing, and of those I highly recommend Derezzed and Adaggio For Tron. It's got highs and lows, staggers and stops, but unlike a lot of the scores that you can find to listen to on their own, the tracks here each feel like their own song, not just an aggregate of music cues that have been glommed into a single track because they run together.

Further Listening: Random Access Memories is interesting, and digs a little more into funk and disco. Paul Williams sings on it, so that's fun. It's an odd duck of an album, but it features Get Lucky, which was destined to be the song of the summer of 2013, until it got blasted out of the water by Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines. And then there's the Daft Hands meme that sprang up around Harder Better Faster Stronger, which is itself a great tune.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

100 Albums: "Help!" by The Beatles

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

Artist: The Beatles
Title: Help!
Released: 1965
Genre: The frickin' Beatles


I almost went with 1 instead because honestly how the hell do you pick a favorite Beatles album? On a different day of the week I might have said Rubber Soul or Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, but I settled on Help! because it's the absolute best album of their early period when they were the most like a normal band. They still played together as a group and hadn't started getting super experimental yet--which, to be clear, I love their experimental stuff, but there's something to be said for a rock band in a room playing straight-forward rock music. At a certain level, it becomes less about what songs you like on an album and more about which album has the bits that annoy you the least. And for my money, I'd rather hear George Harrison mess around with an expression peddle (I Need You) than with a sitar (Love You To from Revolver, Within You/Without You from Sgt. Pepper, basically all of the Concert For Bangladesh).

Lennon and McCartney are absolutely on fire with their writing on this record. The title track is one of the best--if not the best--of John Lennon's entire oeuvre. Second-to-last on the album we have Paul McCartney's Yesterday, one of the greatest pop songs ever written and the most-covered song of all time. In many ways, Help! is the archetypical Beatles records. We get John being sad but in a poppy way (Ticket To Ride), John being sad in a sad way (You've Got To Hide Your Love Away), John being out-and-out depressed (It's Only Love), Paul's bubblegum pop in a major key (I've Just Seen A Face--my low-key fave on the record), Paul's bubblegum pop in a minor key (The Night Before), George being overly technical (It's Only Love), George kicking back and having fun for a change (You Like Me Too Much), a cover that's fun but doesn't really feel like it belongs here (Dizzy Miss Lizzy), and a goofy song for Ringo to sing (Act Naturally, a great Carl Perkins number). The only song that's not great is Tell Me What You See, which is a pretty good song actually, it just gets droney in the verses.

Recorded over four months and then released six weeks later, Help! came in the middle of a whirlwind of productivity when the Beatles were putting out two albums a year and touring constantly. There's a rushed feel--it never gets too perfect, but the Beatles were also extremely well-practiced musicians, so even the not-quite-perfect stuff feels pretty good: loose and vibrant, never sloppy. At thirty-seven minutes long, none of the album's fourteen tracks sticks around very long, so you get positively pummeled by brilliant pop song after brilliant pop song. After the dreary Beatles For Sale, Help! is a revelation. The band was reinvigorated in no small part by becoming friends with Bob Dylan (Dylan's fingerprints are all over You've Got To Hide Your Love Away) who introduced them to his other friend Mary Jane. So the band was relaxing a bit but hadn't gotten to the point yet where Paul was writing love songs about the drug yet (Revolver's Got To Get You Into My Life).

The album is accompanied by a movie of the same name, which I really can't recommend. The performances in it are fun, but the plot involves the band trying to escape a Thuggee cult that's trying to murder Ringo and it's... rough. Suffice it to say that seeing British actors in Indian make-up is problematic by modern standards, and really problematic when you dig into the history shared by those two countries. I don't blame the band for this, though. By their own admissions, they were basically stoned out of their minds for the entire shoot.

Further Listening: I dunno, all of it? I mean, it's the frickin' Beatles. What do you want? The White Album is a touch overrated, Let It Be is kind of a hot mess, and their really early stuff is sloppy, especially the stereo mixes. On the other hand, they're the frickin' Beatles. Help! kicked off a stretch of amazing records that got progressively more inventive: Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (also overrated, but only because it's merely brilliant and not world-peace-inducing), and Magical Mystery Tour (uneven with some bizarre A-side tracks, but overall a very solid effort). But if you're looking to dip your toe in, I would still recommend 1, released in 2000 in an attempt to repackage The Beatles as a boy band and also somehow as direct competition with Elvis, for some reason? It's a decent career retrospective that includes almost all of their best-known hits (the big notable exception being Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds which was never a single). It was the first major remaster of any of the Beatles songs since they were originally released on CD in 1987, and its success led to the remastering of the entire catalog that was released in 2009. It's not as comprehensive as the blue and red compilations from 1973, but it's stronger for being a bit more streamlined.

Monday, March 4, 2019

100 Albums: "The Electric Lady" by Janelle Monáe

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

Artist: Janelle Monáe
Title: The Electric Lady
Released: 2013
Genre: afrofuturist R&B


The Electric Lady picks up the tale of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android, hunted in her home city of Metropolis for falling in love with a human. So, Janelle Monáe is a big old sci-fi nerd, is what I'm getting at.

This album was a bit of a slow burn for me. Dance Apocalyptic is just breathtakingly fun, but nothing else on the record is quite as immediately accessible. The songs do get under your skin, though. After a complete listen, I found myself going back to groove on Electric Lady, It's Code, and We Were Rock & Roll. Monáe mostly belts out soul, but Q.U.E.E.N. and Ghetto Woman both feature some blistering raps. But I think my favorite on the album--after Dance Apocalyptic--is Sally Ride, an ode to eponymous astronaut who was the third woman in space, the first American woman in space, and the presumed first LGBTQ astronaut ever.

I poked fun at the sci-fi stuff above, but it's an important part of the album's aesthetic and message. A lot of it is relegated to the music videos and liner notes and some oblique lyrical references, but there are three interludes that take the form of a call-in android radio show that do some interesting world-building. The host, DJ Crash-Crash, fields calls from pro-human and anti-human androids, android sorority girls (the Electro-Phi Betas), even a human who has called in to say that "robot love is queer." It becomes pretty evident that in the context of this album, androids are an oppressed class who have formed their own vibrant subculture. And in case that metaphor is too subtle for you, I'll remind you that this is afrofuturism.

The Electric Lady is fun, inventive, soulful, immersive, and it has something to say. And I have a soft spot for ambitious projects, especially ones that you can dance to.

Further Listening: The Electric Lady is parts IV and V of a proposed seven-part concept series that started with the Metropolis EP and continued with The ArchAndroid. Both of those are highly listenable. Her most recent album is Dirty Computer, which I haven't listened to yet, but it's been very well-received. And while it's not exactly "further listening," Monáe gives a great performance as real-life mathematician and NASA engineer Mary Jackson in the movie Hidden Figures. Science!

Thursday, February 28, 2019

100 Albums: "The Fragile" by Nine Inch Nails

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

Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Title: The Fragile
Released: 2000
Genre: industrial


Of all the celebrities I admire, the one I'd like to meet the least is Trent Reznor, the man behind Nine Inch Nails. And the reason I never want to meet him is that I would probably turn into a blubbering fool and embarrass both of us. (Or who knows, we have children the same age, maybe we'd just do the parent thing and talk about our kids.) The thing to keep in mind is: Nine Inch Nails fans don't talk about favorite songs--we talk about the songs that saved our lives. Reznor's angsty, anthemic tracks reached out to us at our lowest and let us know that we weren't alone. It's pretty deep, life-affecting stuff when you're an angry, confused fifteen-year-old. (And for what it's worth, the songs-that-saved-my-life for me are A Warm Place from The Downward Spiral and the 9-minute remix of Wish from the Fixed EP. I'd just lie on the ground and switch back and forth between those two songs. Fifteen was a rough year, folks.)

Recorded over two years and released a full five years after The Downward Spiral launched the band to worldwide success, The Fragile is sprawling and ambitious. Twenty-three tracks (eight of which are instrumental) spread over two discs. In addition to the usual Reznor arrangements with distorted drums, fuzzed out guitars, and slightly out-of-tune pianos, The Fragile has orchestral elements, horn sections, and three different choirs. To look at it from the outside, it seems like a piece of hubris rather than art. It should not work. But it does. The whole thing is nearly two hours long, but I get done listening to it and I just want to put it on again. Of the entire Nine Inch Nails catalog, this album is probably the most melodic. Unlike thrash metal, which seeks to take instrumentation and make it noisy, industrial music tends to take noise and try to make it musical. So you get weird elements like the percussion line from the song The Fragile (embedded above) which uses a sample of a chain being dragged as an accent. The song Ripe (With Decay) has buzzing flies on it. This is the era where Reznor would tune all of the strings on his guitar to D (in three different octaves), distort the snot out of it, and just play really fast with his finger barring the entire fretboard, and then do that with two different guitars to make these huge dyad chords. You can hear it to great effect on the last chorus and outro to We're In This Together.

This is also where his lyrics got more introspective. The Downward Spiral was about sex and drugs and, well, spiraling down. It opens with a track called Mr. Self Destruct and ends with a song called Hurt. The message is pretty straightforward there. But here, the songs are more about the messiness of relationships, the joys and the sorrows, the ugliness but also the beauty. The opener Somewhat Damaged is angry about a relationship falling apart: "How can I ever think it's funny how everything you swore would never change is different now?" But then look at the song The Fragile just a few tracks later: "She shines in a world full of ugliness. She matters when everything is meaningless." Now, it's Nine Inch Nails, so there's still going to be some anthemic battle cries and righteous indignation. Look no farther than the chorus of The Wretched: "Now you know, this is what it feels like." Or any of the lyrics from Starfuckers, Inc. But then you get moments like the refrain from The Great Below--"I can still feel you, even so far away" that are just rich with longing and emotion, a sentiment that is then echoed and distorted in the song Underneath It All at the end of the record.

Further Listening: Nine Inch Nails's debut Pretty Hate Machine is excellent, even if it feels a little undercooked. Head Like A Hole, Sanctified, Sin, Down In It, and Something I Can Never Have are all amazing songs. The Downward Spiral contains Nine Inch Nails' biggest hits: Closer and Hurt. Roughly half of that album is utterly brilliant, but there are a handful of songs on the back half that grate on me. Year Zero is a pretty epic album from start to finish, and if not for my affection for The Fragile, it would be the album on this list. It's noisy and overtly political, producing the singles Survivalism and Capital G. Reznor recorded several EPs with his wife Mariqueen Maandig under the monicker How To Destroy Angels. There's a lot of great music that came out of that, but my favorites are A Drowning and Ice Age. Reznor was part of a project called Tapeworm with Tool's Maynard James Keenan. The project was kiboshed, but one of the songs emerged as Passive recorded by A Perfect Circle, and it's quite good. Reznor won an Academy Award for his work on movie scores with Atticus Ross. Of the half-dozen or so they've put out, the best is The Social Network, and I recommend it if you're a fan of instrumental music. Similarly, if you listen to This American Life on NPR, you've likely heard a few tracks from the all-instrumental Nine Inch Nails double-album Ghosts. And if you want a real treat, look for some of Reznor's pre-NIN new-wavy projects.

Monday, February 25, 2019

100 Albums: "Cosmic Thing" by The B-52's

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

Artist: The B-52's
Title: Cosmic Thing
Released: 1989
Genre: Bouffant new wave surf-rock


There are things that you love, not because they're particularly good, but because they just make you happy. For me, that is Cosmic Thing. Any time I listen to it, I feel better.  The album is a mix of dance tracks and relaxed mid-tempo pop (and also Love Shack, which is sort of both) with call-and-response vocals and funk-rock guitars. It's a bit of an artifact of its era, production-wise: at only ten tracks, it's nearly 50 minutes long, meaning songs have time to linger and play around, instead rushing through verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/outro. It is aggressively campy. The album opens with a drumroll and Fred Schneider shouting "Gyrate 'til you've had your fill" on the title track--a song about having an out-of-body experience, running across cosmic beings, and watching them "shakin' their cosmic things." So, not exactly highbrow entertainment, but unapologetically fun.

The B-52's came out of the same Athens, Georgia rock scene that produced R.E.M. Athens in the 80s was similar to the way we think of Austin, Texas today: an oasis of weirdness and youth culture in the middle of an otherwise very conservative state. It shouldn't be a surprise that they were embraced early by the gay community, and in many ways, Cosmic Thing is a celebration of being different and an acknowledgement of the isolation that accompanies it. You can see this in microcosm in the album's (and the group's) biggest song Love Shack, which posits a tiny shack "set way back in the middle of a field" full of people "huggin' and-a kissin', dancin' and-a lovin'," but it's a lyrical motif that shows up throughout. In Deadbeat Club they sing about going to "crash that party down in Normaltown tonight." Dry County is about relaxing on your front porch because you can't get alcohol, and it contains possibly my favorite lyric of the album:
When the blues whomp you up on the side of the head
Throw 'em to the floor and kick 'em out the door
When the blues kick you in the head when you roll out of bed in the morning
Just sit on the porch and swing
There's an optimism to the record that I really enjoy. The final song is an instrumental track called Follow Your Bliss. The song before that, Topaz, is full of hopeful imagery about "cities by the sea" and "blue dolphins are singing" and "the universe expanding." It's not really about anything, just a list of nice ideas. Roam is about traveling the world just because you feel like it. The only moderate downer is Channel Z, which is certainly uptempo, but is more of a protest song. Even so, Cosmic Thing is a romp--just an infectiously joyful record that wants to throw you a party.

Again, some things you love just because they make you happy.

Further listening: The group's other big hit is Rock Lobster, a weird surf/dance song that John Lennon was apparently a huge fan of when he heard it in a club some six months or so before his death. One can only imagine that, had history played out differently, he might have collaborated with them.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

100 Albums: "Greatest Hits" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

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

Artist: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Title: Greatest Hits
Released: 1993
Genre: Americana rock




Are career retrospectives even a thing anymore? They don't really make sense in the iTunes age, when you can just go buy your favorite songs individually. And they don't really work as albums, for the most part. Inevitably they try to give the albums from the time period they cover relatively equal weight, which means including the flotsam from lesser albums and skipping over the deep cuts of the great ones, making less of a "greatest hits" collection than a "lots of hits and some stuff we felt sorry for" collection. They have to include one or two new songs, and those usually suck. Because they were recorded over the span of decades, the songs don't really sound like they live in the same sonic world. And because there is no unifying idea behind them, the whole thing is necessarily less than the sum of its parts.

Tom Petty's career retrospective is sort of the exception that proves the rule. Is it more than the sum of its parts? No, but it's still remarkably good because just take a look at those parts. Tom Petty spent his career writing the great American songbook. His singles are just legendary. From Free Fallin' to American Girl to Refugee and everything in between. As Slate noted when covering his death, Tom Petty was better than anyone else in rock-and-roll at penning opening lines. And it's a testament to the musicianship of Petty and his bandmates that his career retrospective actually does sound like it was recorded by the same band--like it all could have been recorded in the same month, even. The single from this collection is Mary Jane's Last Dance, which is an incredible song, one of the two or three best of Petty's career.

Now, all of that said, the above rules still hold true. The other new song, Something In The Air, is pretty inessential. And Don't Come Around Here No More, the sole inclusion from 1985's Southern Accents, feels like it wandered in stoned from another project. It doesn't completely gel. But the magic of this record is that it manages to transcend that and still work as a single, satisfying listening experience.

Further Listening: Judged purely on what got included here, Petty's strongest albums (at least until 1993) appear to be Full Moon Fever and Damn The Torpedoes. The immediate follow-up to this was Wildflowers, which spun off a great hit with You Don't Know How It Feels. But if you just want something fun, check out Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, a side-project Petty wrote and recorded with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan.

Monday, February 18, 2019

100 Albums: "Nevermind" by Nirvana

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

Artist: Nirvana
Title: Nevermind
Released: 1991
Genre: It's the template for grunge


To this day, I instinctively try to type "never mind" as a single world.

This is the album that killed hair metal. Perhaps as a reaction to the New Wave and party music of the 80s, the music of the early 90s all took itself very seriously. It was also the era of gangsta rap, after all. Gen-X-ers were the new youth culture and they were angsty and ironic this record in particular spoke to them. It was rough and raw but somehow also pop-friendly and glossy. It was angry but also fun--it was basically punk music, but it was slower and grooved a little. The lyrics were vague and weird and didn't seem to be about anything, but they were also poetic and beautiful in their own way. (And then you actually find out what songs like Polly are about and it sort of blows your mind.)

It has just so many good, enduring songs on it. The singles Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come As You Are, Polly, Lithium, and In Bloom get radio play to this day. Late-album fare like Drain You, Something In The Way, and On A Plain still hold up incredibly well and would get a revival on the bands MTV Unplugged In New York album. Stay Away showed up on the DCG rarities compilation under its original title Pay To Play (This an album that has no reason to exist, but it does exist, and it even had a single: Counting Crows' Einstein On The Beach (For An Eggman).) The hidden track Endless, Nameless gained notoriety for how batshit insane it was that someone would record 7 minutes of instrument-destruction like that, let alone include it on an album. Even the filler tracks, Breed and Territorial Pissings, are catchy.

I'm also a big fan of (the only song I haven't named yet) Lounge Act, largely because it's a nice little showcase for bassist Krist Novoselic. Drummer Dave Grohl and singer/songerwiter/guitarist Kurt Cobain are--rightly--heralded for their talents and contributions, but Novoselic is a bit of an unsung hero. His bass work was never flashy, but in a genre where bassists are assumed to be playing straight root 8th notes, he was always finding something interesting and functional to do. Years of playing with Cobain had knitted them into a tight unit, and I think it's a little under-appreciated how integral he was to Nirvana's sound. This song lets him show off a little.

Further Listening: Cobain's suicide in 1994 cut short Nirvana's career. In a way, that meant that they never had a chance to get stale or tired, and it paved the way for Dave Grohl's decades-long success with Foo Fighters, but it also means the Nirvana catalog is limited to three proper studio albums and a B-sides collection. Their indie debut Bleach, is rough and features a different line-up. Incesticide, the B-sides album, is similarly difficult to listen to, although it did give us Sliver and Aneurysm, which are fun. Their final studio album was In Utero, an intentional step away from the pop sheen of Nevermind. It's less accessible, but still has some amazing tracks on it and a healthy dose of irony, as evidenced in titles like Milk It and Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter. MTV Unplugged In New York is a concert album, and almost half of it is covers of other artists: the Vasolines, Lead Belly, and David Bowie, and then three Meat Puppets songs that feature Curt and Chris Kirkwood of Meat Puppets. It's an odd duck of an Unplugged record, but still quite excellent. I never did get into their other live album, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah. Their hidden track from the No Alternative compilation is worth seeking out, titled variously Sappy, Happy, or Verse Chorus Verse. Finally, there's the song You Know You're Right, which was the last song the band recorded while working on a fourth album that remained unreleased until 2002 because of legal disputes between the surviving band members and Cobain's widow Courtney Love.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

100 Albums: "Hamilton" Original Broadway Cast Recording

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

Artist: Various, but mostly Lin-Manuel Miranda
Title: Hamilton: An American Musical
Released: 2015
Genre: Hip-Hop Broadway Musical



Yes, it's as good as you've heard, even if you don't listen to rap. I, too, was daunted by the prospect of listening to an over two-hour soundtrack to a hip-hop musical when I don't listen to a lot of hip-hop in the first place (not hip-hop in English, at any rate). And I started it with the assumption that I would give up as soon as I got bored. And I not only finished it, I went back to re-listen to some of the stand-out tracks. The broadway juggernaut is based on Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton that lyricst/star/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda was reading on a beach in Hawaii, I presume while he was working on Moana. The musical covers the entire career of Hamilton (his early life is summed up in the first song) as told through the eyes of Aaron Burr, his rival who would eventually kill him in a duel. According to Miranda, Hamilton's life seemed especially well-suited to rap, a music that is associated primarily with black Americans. He was born into squalor and got out of it through his writing--which is essentially the hip-hop narrative. He was derided by his peers as an other, referred to at times as "immigrant" or "creole bastard." He and his friends were abolitionists. At one point the character of John Laurens raps about leading "the first black battalion," which sounds like an embellishment, but in historical fact that is legitimately what Laurens wanted to do.

The arrangements are relatively spare to give extra room to the vocalists, but there are some lovely little musical touches. My favorite is a sample of a horse neighing in Right Hand Man that's been cut up to sound like a record scratch. If you haven't heard any of it, the ratio of rapping to singing is probably a lot lower than what you're expecting (this is true of a lot of modern hip-hop as well). But something that I hadn't thought about at the time that's blindingly obvious now is that rap is extremely well-suited to a stage musical: it's energetic, it's danceable, it delivers lyrics (that is, story) quickly, it blends into basically any other music genre, it celebrates wordplay, and it's old enough to have a fairly rich history and array of sub-genres to tap into. Hamilton makes overt references to The Beastie Boys, Notorious B.I.G., and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. Oftentimes, differences in delivery are used to demonstrate character growth. Lafayette's first raps involve him stumbling over English pronunciations, but by the end of Act I, he delivers--in a French accent--literally the fastest lyrics in broadway history. Similarly, when Thomas Jefferson shows up in Act II, he's singing a jazz number. His early raps are awkward and forced, but over the course of the act, as he's become a more proficient politician, his raps become smoother and more complex. Not coincidentally, both characters are played by the same actor, Daveed Diggs on the soundtrack, who originated the role.

And it all works because Miranda is a hell of a storyteller. The first big set-piece of the show is My Shot, which centers on the refrain of "I will not throw away my shot"--a thematic element that will resonate throughout the show as a motivating factor for Alexander. It's no surprise that Burr is going to kill Hamilton; Burr says as much in the very first song. What's not as well known, and indeed what the entire show slowly points you towards, is that Hamilton died because he missed Burr on purpose, a practice known as "throwing away shot," and providing justification for what might have compelled him to make that decision. And over the course of two-and-a-half-ish hours (plus intermission), you get to see cabinet debates performed as rap battles, the nightmarish logistics of actually putting on a revolution with very little money, political backstabbery, and some business in Act II that will absolutely break your heart wide open.

It really is as good as you've heard.

Further listening: My Shot is emblematic of the show, but if you want a more thorough sampling, check out Alexander Hamilton, The Schuyler Sisters, You'll Be Back, Wait For It, Yorktown (History Has Its Eyes On You), Cabinet Battle #1, and The Room Where It Happens. Or you can just listen to the whole thing on YouTube.

Monday, February 11, 2019

100 Albums: "MTV Unplugged" by Alice In Chains

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

Artist: Alice In Chains
Title: MTV Unplugged
Released: 1996
Genre: Acoustic Metal/Grunge


Alice In Chains had pretty much run their course when they put on this concert. They hadn't performed in 2 and a half years. 1995 had seen the release of Alice In Chains, but they didn't do anything else that year. They'd broken up for six months and been plagued by singer Layne Staley's heroin habit. This performance was recorded in April of 1996. They would put on their last performance with Staley in July of that year, after which he would disappear into his addiction and eventually die of an overdose in 2002. Writer and co-singer Jerry Cantrell would start a successful solo career, and the band would reform with new singer William DuVall in 2006.

I love Alice In Chains, and part of what I love about this album is that it is part greatest hits collection, part heavy metal deconstruction, and part swan song for Layne Staley. Their sound was defined by the way Staley's nasal vocals were layered over top of each other and against Cantrell's throaty baritone. Hearing these songs rendered acoustically takes away the buzzing vocals and crunching guitars and strips the songs down to their core melodic elements and simple Staley/Cantrell harmonies. Songs like Over Now, Down In A Hole, and Rooster really benefit from this rendering.

The performance is rough, but there's an honesty to it that I find compelling. They goof off and make mistakes. It's not captured on the album, but if you watch the DVD of the concert, they stop Sludge Factory and start it over because Staley flubs a lyric. The vocals on the chorus of Heaven Beside You sound out of key, and the guitar solo just doesn't land right. And then there are the little improvisational moments, like Cantrell riffing before they play their last song. Metallica were in the audience and had just cut their hair short, so the band poked fun at them. Bassist Mike Inez played a few bars of Enter Sandman which Staley introduced as an L.L. Cool J. song. It's a weird joke and not really funny, but it's also a very honest moment between friends having a laugh.

Further Listening: Jar Of Flies is the studio almost-an-album where they messed around with writing almost exclusively on acoustic guitars, and it produced two incredible songs: I Stay Away and No Excuses. Their self-titled album has studio versions of Heaven Beside You and Over Now and is a pretty solid album in its own right. Dirt is kind of scattershot, but it has more good songs than bad and several of their biggest hits.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

100 Albums Supplemental: Christian Rock

10 posts down. 90 to go. Whew!

So, in the last post, I talked about how I'd listened to a lot of Christian music as a kid and how--since I'm not really religious anymore--it doesn't resonate with me in the same way and can in fact be uncomfortable for me to listen to. But the late 90s was an interesting time for Christian music and I think it's worth talking about even though most of the albums aren't in any danger of making my top 100 (caveat: there are two more Christian rock acts that did make the top 100, so if something seems missing here, there's a reason for that).

So without further ado, some albums I used to love and really can't bring myself to listen to anymore.

dc Talk - Jesus Freak

Originally a rap trio whose closest sonic contemporary was probably Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, dc Talk's best known song up this point was Jesus Is Still Alright which heavily sampled The Doobie Brothers. They had drifted from euro-dance rap into the more sample-driven East Coast style but always with a bright pop family-friendly sheen over it. And then they went and recorded an alternative record and I'll be damned (literally, I suppose) if it wasn't the best thing any of us had ever heard. As a marketing strategy, they'd sent out CD singles with CD-ROM content to youth groups. And it really changed the game because it was first and foremost good, interesting music and it spearheaded something of a revitalization movement within Christian Contemporary Music. Part of what made is so compelling was the way it hybridized of alt-rock and hip-hop sensibilities to make something new. It used rock music structures, but the singers traded off vocals within a song and backed/hyped each other up like the Beastie Boys. The record, meanwhile, was structured more like a 90s rap record with skits and interludes. And it was just fun music. There was the juggernaut of a title track of course, but other favorites included Day By Day and In The Light.

How does it hold up? For me, not very well. There was in-fighting within the Christian Contemporary Music community (no, really) about whether a band could really call itself Christian if most of their songs weren't about Jesus, and dc Talk definitely fit into the message-heavy camp. In fact, they had a few songs that criticized other artists (without directly naming them, of course) for being message-light. This was something I loved about it as a kid and part of what makes it harder to listen to now. As I mentioned in the Sixpence None The Richer post, I'm 100% fine with Christianity as a perspective, but I don't enjoy being thumped over the head with messages I don't agree with. And it doesn't help that the lyrics were a little... blah. Not bad, but... "spiritual baby-food" was a phrase that got thrown around a bit. Some of the mellower tracks that had a bit more maturity actually hold up pretty well as far as I'm concerned, thinking specifically of Between You And Me and Mind's Eye. They're still preachy, but at least they feel like they have something to say.

Jars Of Clay - Jars Of Clay

This was band that inspired the term "alternacoustic" after a crossover mainstream hit with the song Flood. It stood out because of the peculiar arrangement of the songs: acoustic guitars over machine drums with a thick slather of orchestration. The album felt like it hadn't been written and performed so much as frankensteined together from parts of a dozen different recording sessions and demos (this is not a dig, by the way, there are some great franken-records out there). Flood was the breakout hit, but unfortunately it didn't sound like anything else on the record, so a lot of people picked it up and felt cheated. The rest of us slowly fell in love with it, though, mellow broodishness and all. As the band continued to put out albums, they got more and more, well... boring. Much Afraid was pretty decent, but you could already hear them moving away from the acoustic-guitars-plus model into a more contemporary rock-band sound, and the drums got better-but-not-quite-good, so they no longer sounded stylized, just fake. I'm convinced that their self-titled debut was a happy accident of sorts.

How does it hold up? Okay-ish. Worlds Apart is still pretty excellent. Flood mostly feels very dated, and I think enough time has passed for us to admit that it was never quite as good as we thought it was. I still like Art In Me, but previous favorites like Love Song For A Savior and Like A Child don't sit well. Also, the last track is almost thirty minutes long because it's weighed down with hidden-track nonsense that's just part of the recording session from Blind and is not interesting AT ALL.

Audio Adrenaline - Don't Censor Me

College rock with some virtuoso guitar and bass work. A youth minister once told me that in college it was what they would have called "fag rock", so make of that what you will. The breakout song was Big House, but We're A Band was a great late-album jam and I adored Scum Sweetheart, which was a strange and kind of bluesy closer. I saw them in concert supporting this, and they played a rock version of If You're Happy And You Know It that was just as much silly fun as you can imagine.

How does it hold up? Poorly. Mostly because the lyrics are awful. They were never great, but I think Audio A got graded on a curve because they were message-forward. These days I find it almost unlistenable, and the "don't censor me" mantra of the title track honestly feels toxic in the modern culture-war context.

Newsboys - Going Public

Finally some decent lyricists. They got a little silly on their follow-up Take Me To Your Leader, which was I think their most popular album, but I always thought Going Public was the better record. It's a bit more raw and less self-deprecating, feels more like a rock record, before they were writing silly (if clever) songs about breakfast cereal.

How does it hold up? It was always a little rough around the edges, so I never turned against it so much as I just sort of forgot about it. The standout song, Shine, hasn't aged well at all, and not just because its hook sounds like it was stolen from Hot Chocolate's You Sexy Thing. There's a line in there about making "a vegetarian barbecue hamster" that was really funny when I was young WASP but it less so now that I have a diversified friend group.

Michael W. Smith - i 2 (EYE)

I... um... Look, it came out when I was eight years old. When I was, I dunno, eleven or twelve my youth choir went on "tour" with a show that was mostly stuff from Go West Young Man but included Secret Ambition from this album, and it's an awesome song if you're twelve and in a youth group in the early 90s. I also really dug Hand Of Providence and All You're Missing Is A Heartache, which had an earnestness to it that I found compelling. It was the first Michael W. Smith album to go platinum and had a bit more of a "serious artist" vibe than previous records, like his second album Michael W. Smith 2 whose cover was a picture of him climbing on the argyle pattern of his sweater. Throughout his early career he seemed to have been styled as a Christian George Michael, which feels terribly, terribly wrong-headed now.

How does it hold up? About as well as anything that came out in 1988.

Monday, February 4, 2019

100 Albums: "This Beautiful Mess" by Sixpence None The Richer

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

Artist: Sixpence None The Richer
Title: This Beautiful Mess
Released: 1995
Genre: Christian alt-rock


Yes, that Sixpence None The Richer, but at the same time, no, not that Sixpence None The Richer. Before they were the treacly pop band who sang Kiss Me and covered Crowded House and The La's, they were an alt-rock band with a different line-up on an independent label that specialized mostly in Christian heavy metal. All of this to say, don't just this record by Kiss Me.

A lot of the music I listened to during my formative years was from Christian bands, and for various reasons many of those albums that I once loved dearly are now difficult for me to listen to. This Beautiful Mess is an exception. That's because for this record, religion isn't a message so much as a perspective from which to explore themes of love, death, mistakes, sex, doubt, addiction, anxiety... you know, grown-up stuff. But it's never about judging, just about experiencing the mess of life and finding the beauty in the dissonance.

The music is guitar-forward--the obvious influences are the Cure and U2--but the real secret weapon here is Leigh Nash's amazing voice. It's beautifully textured and she sings with yearning and passion. The opener Angeltread is the hardest-rocking and possibly also the least interesting. The real gems are Love, Salvation, The Fear Of Death (embedded above), Within A Room Somewhere, and Circle Of Error, but there's not a bad track on it.

Further Listening: After this album, two of the members quit, and Sixpence transformed into the Kiss Me band, which also started them on the road to mainstream success. Their previous album, also their debut, Fatherless And The Widow, is almost un-listenable. They have an EP called Tickets For A Prayer Wheel that includes an extended demo of Within A Room Somewhere, and while the EP is only okay, the indulgent guitar solo outro on that demo is pretty remarkable.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

100 Albums: "Songs For The Deaf" by Queens Of The Stone Age

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

Artist: Queens Of The Stone Age
Title: Songs For The Deaf
Released: 2002
Genre: hard rock



The record that broke QotSA into the big leagues. It was the last album with bassist Nick Oliveri and featured drumming from none other than Dave Grohl. Songs For The Deaf is the album where the band cuts loose with false song endings, multiple hidden tracks, crazy breakdowns, and pithy interludes. It presents itself as a radio "saga"--you the listener are surfing the channels and hearing the various songs on the album played on hard rock, college rock, top 40, hip hop, easy listening, and tejano stations. It's a satire of terrestrial radio while also seeming to beg for radio play.

Good thing SftD has two spectacularly radio-friendly tunes, the ubiquitous No One Knows and the non-stop drive of Go With The Flow, which really drove the album's success. But even the non-radio tracks are plenty fun. Song For The Dead and God Is In The Radio play around with structure. I'm a big fan of First It GivethHangin' Tree, and Another Love Song. The intrasong shenanigans make for a better album-listening experience than song-listening experience, so if you shuffle this on your iPod you're going to get intros in the wrong places, etc. Whether or not this is a feature or a bug is at your discretion, but I'm a firm believer that a good album should be more than just a collection of songs, and while the interludes are gimmicky, they're fun and do contribute to the album's cohesiveness.

The record isn't completely flawless. Six-Shooter and You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar But I Feel Like A Millionaire feel like filler, but they're also super short. Mosquito Song is amusing, but by the time it comes around the album feels like it's running out of steam. But these are minor quibbles for a an otherwise fantastic album.

Further Listening: I debated whether or not to use Songs For The Deaf or Villains for this list. Villains is tighter and is just excellent, but it doesn't have the two massive hits you find here. ...Like Clockwork is excellent as well, and while I don't know if I like it enough to include it on this list, Lullabies To Paralyze is solid.

Monday, January 28, 2019

100 Albums: "Amnesiac" by Radiohead

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

Artist: Radiohead
Title: Amnesiac
Released: 2001
Genre: Pretentious art-rock


Radiohead came into their own with OK Computer--an album that successfully bridged alt-guitar-rock with arty euro-dance while also celebrating Douglas Adams. To follow it up, they wrote and recorded two albums worth of material at once. The weirder stuff became 2000's Kid A, and the (slightly) more normal-for-Radiohead songs became Amnesiac. Both are incredible, dense, and surprising, but Amnesiac is my favorite of the two by a thin margin.

The lead single, Pyramid Song, is sad and beautiful and one of my favorite songs by this or any band. Two more all-time faves found on this record: You And Whose Army? and Like Spinning Plates. Fun fact: The band had a song called I Will that just wasn't working, so they played it backwards and thought that sounded interesting, so vocalist Thom Yorke learned the melody backwards and penned new lyrics, and that's where Like Spinning Plates came from. Two years later, a sped up, reconfigured version of I Will appears on Hail To The Thief.

Those songs are all kind of downers, but there's some good uplifty fun on this album as well: I Might Be Wrong is a rocker with one hell of a guitar lick at its core. Knives Out is danceable, and Dollars And Cents is a nice breezy groove. The final track, Life In A Glasshouse has a lounge-hall jazz vibe that I really dig, along with some great opening lyrics.
Once again I'm in trouble with my old friend
She is papering a window pane, she is putting on a smile
The only songs that I don't absolutely adore are Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors which is almost too weird even for me, and Morning Bell/Amnesiac. That's a good song, but a better version of it (in a more interesting time signature) was already released on Kid A.

Further listening: If not for my one-album-per-artist rule, the list would definitely include OK Computer, Kid A, Hail To The Thief, and probably In Rainbows as well. It was just a ten year stretch of incredible music. I'll point you towards some favorite non-Amnesiac tracks: The National Anthem, Reckoner, A Wolf At The Door, and the Kid A version of Morning Bell.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

100 Albums: "Not Not Me" by Charisma.com

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

Artist: Charisma.com
Title: Not Not Me
Released: 2017
Genre: Japanese electro/funk rap


Finally, something good and weird. Charisma.com (who took that name without realizing it was the way commercial URLs are formed in the US) comprises MC Itsuka and DJ Gonchi, who perform songs about working as office ladies. And I just want to get this out of the way: I don't enjoy this music ironically. It's not a novelty. They're good enough that it transcends a genre I don't listen to very much in a language I can't understand.

Not Not Me was the final album they put out before going on hiatus in 2017. It's also the most funk-rock influenced. They don't write the music, but they do choose what music they're going to build songs around, and their early material was almost entirely electronic and dub. They play around a lot with musicality here: I Like It is an ode to 80s and 90s hip-hop (I hear a lot of Beastie Boys in there), Classic Glasses is backed entirely by a fretless bass with no other instrumentation. There's also more pure J-pop here. Not Not Me is a pretty standard pop ballad. Lunch Time Funk is going to make you think of Bruno Mars.

Itsuka is an incredible MC. She uses a low register, eschewing that high-pitched style that's common with female Japanese singers. Beyond that, her flow is just unbelievable. Now, part of this is because Japanese only has five vowel sounds and extremely evenly balanced moras (units of phonological syllable weight) while also being a language that is comfortable with ambiguity and implied meaning. All of this is to say that it gives lyricists a lot of license to deliver rapid-fire lines with a lot of internal rhyme. Just listen to the pre-choruses of Ostubone Rock (linked below) where she will have entire lines where nearly every syllable ends with "O". It's pretty amazing. And DJ Gonchi just oozes stage presence. Watch her in the video for Hate (also linked below) and just see the joie de vivre she has while swinging the axe around.

Further Listening: OLest and Ay Ay Syndrome are great, but they're also more EPs than albums. DIStepping, their other full-length album, is excellent, but it does get a bit samey towards the end. That said, most of their discography might have wound up on this list if not for my one-album-per-artist rule. However, since their albums aren't easy to acquire in the US, I'll point you to two of their better music videos: Otsubone Rock and Hate.

Monday, January 21, 2019

100 Albums: "Threads" by Now Now

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

Artist: Now Now
Title: Threads
Released: 2012
Genre: Nerdy indie alternative


I was smitten with the song Thread from the first listen, so I went to check out the rest of the album, and it turns out that the album Threads is largely built around the song of almost the same name. A deconstructed and abbreviated version serves as an intro track called The Pull, and lyrical motifs are repeated throughout, mainly about breaking patterns, pulling threads, and running away from problems and relationships only to get sucked back into them. The final lyric of the album in the song Magnet is "Can you still feel the pull? Can you?"

Common themes notwithstanding, apart from the intro, every single song stands on its own. If you liked the track above, the next two I'd recommend are Wolf and Lucie, Too. And for an album with some potentially mopey subject matter--frontwoman Cacie Dalager sings a lot about sleep on this record--it's surprisingly up tempo. The fastest song is probably Dead Oaks, which is also one of the most stripped down.

I love the production of the album. It's ambient and dreamy, but still guitar-forward. It's not a traditional rock setup; there is no bass, so the guitars have a little more low-end hum and there's a saw-wave synth pad sitting under almost everything. The lead guitar sounds are super shimmery. Dalager and Jess Abbott have a gorgeous vocal blend, even when they're slathered with reverb. Bradley Hale's drums are up-front, crisp, and clear, instead of sitting in the back. Whoever recorded him wants to make sure you hear the stutter-snare thing he does.

Further listening: Threads Remixed has a fantastic version of Separate Rooms, but there's not much else to recommend from this band, unfortunately. The previous albums, released under the monicker Now Now Every Children, just aren't that memorable, and after Threads Abbott left the band to work full-time on her side-project Tancred. Now Now's follow-up Saved is much more of a straight-forward pop affair, and in a way it feels like Dalager is being remade into an off-brand Hayley Williams (of the band Paramore), even down to the pink hair. Tancred has a solid following, but none of it's suited to my taste.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

100 Albums: "Automatic For The People" by R.E.M.

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

Artist: R.E.M.
Title: Automatic For The People
Released: 1992
Genre: Sadness


1991's Out Of Time was R.E.M.'s biggest success after over a decade together, propelled by the mega-hit Losing My Religion, one of the greatest pop songs ever written. The band wanted to get back to their dance-hall, rock-and-roll roots with the follow-up, so they put away the mandolins and started writing.

And when that didn't work out for them, they got the mandolins back out and wrote an album about loss and mourning. According to guitarist Peter Buck, the main inspiration for AftP was just the feeling of turning 30. Perhaps that's why it resonates with so many people. Or perhaps it was just the product of a group of craftsmen hitting their peak--the albums released on either side were also great, and this stretch of their career was their most commercially successful. And it couldn't have hurt that the mid and slower tempo broody-but-oddly-hopeful album fit nicely with the emerging early 90s alternative scene. In an era dominated by Pearl Jam and Nirvana, R.E.M. was something you could listen to with your parents.

AftP is probably best known for Everybody Hurts, a song (and music video) that absolutely revels in its own melancholy before turning wistful in the last twenty seconds or so. It's not the best song--that would probably be Nightswimming--or even the saddest--Sweetness Follows, embedded above--but it was emblematic and cemented the idea of R.E.M. as a "sad" band, a label that would follow them for basically the rest of their careers. And that's kind of a shame, because an overarching theme of AftP is that emotions are tempered and dealt with maturely. As noted above, Everybody Hurts is sad, but it ends on a feeling of positivity and almost whimsy. Sweetness Follows is explicitly about burying family members, but look at the title of that song.

This plays out in a number of different directions across the course of the album. The opener Drive has the prominent lyric "Hey, kids, rock and roll" (yes, lifted from David Essex's Rock On) but the song lurches back and forth from a low-tempo rocker to a stripped-down acoustic ballad. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight is so light it's almost silly, but if you dig into the lyrics you find a story of someone trying to keep in touch with loved ones while on the road. It also has my favorite lyrics of the album:

Baby, instant soup doesn't really grab me
Today I need something more sub-sub-sub-substantial
A can of beans, some black-eyed peas, some Nescafe and ice
A candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from Dr. Seuss

Monty Got A Raw Deal resolves to a chorus of "You don't owe me anything." Raging political rocker Ignoreland admits to the listener "I know that this is vitriol... but I feel better having screamed, don't you?" Even the closer, Find The River, is woven-through with optimism, leaving the album with a final lyric "all of this is coming your way" delivered without even a trace of cynicism.

And I suppose I have to also mention Man On The Moon and Star Me Kitten. Great songs with fantastic titles. If nothing else, R.E.M. knew how to write excellent titles.

There's not a bad or wasted track on this record, and even though it doesn't have the band's best song, it's almost without question their best album (this is a trend you're going to see a lot of over the course of this list, I think).

Further Listening: Out Of Time is largely overshadowed by Losing My Religion, but it's a very good album in its own right, containing love-it-or-hate-it Shiny Happy People and fan-favorite Country Feedback. I'm also a big fan of the album that followed, Monster, wherein R.E.M. were successful in their attempt to write a rock record without mandolins.

Monday, January 14, 2019

100 Albums: "Dulcinea" by Toad The Wet Sprocket

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

Artist: Toad The Wet Sprocket
Title: Dulcinea
Released: 1994
Genre: 90s-alt contemporary college-rock

The 90s were a weird time for fashion.

As evidenced in the above music video, Toad The Wet Sprocket have a bizarre sense of humor that is completely out of sync with their musical aesthetic. They took their name from the opening line of the Monty Python sketch. In interviews, singer Glen Phillips comes across as the kind of guy it'd be fun to have a game of Scrabble with. In fact, it's easier to think of them not so much as rockstars, but rather as nerds who happen to be really good at music.

Fittingly, there's an undercurrent of intellectual curiosity to their music. Of the twelve tracks on Duclinea, only Something's Always Wrong feels in any way like a love song. Instead, we get tracks like the opener Fly From Heaven which is about the rift between Paul and James after the death of Jesus. The album title, as well as the song Windmills, are references to Don Quixote. Begin and Reincarnation Song explore the ideas of death and the afterlife. And then you have these delightful little turns of phrase in the lyrics, such as the opening line from Nanci: "I can't believe you. You bend your words like Uri Geller's spoons."

None of this would matter if the music weren't any good, but from start to finish Dulcinea is easy to listen to and compulsively singable, from heartfelt ballads like Crowing and Stupid to--especially--rockers like Fall Down and Woodburning. This is an album I can put on at basically any time and enjoy from a band I will see in concert any time they come through town. It's the ultimate comfort food for me.

Further Listening: fear is uneven but has Walk On The Ocean, one of their best songs. Coil is a great album but it doesn't have any true standout tracks.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

100 Albums: "Trouble Will Find Me" by The National

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

Artist: The National
Title: Trouble Will Find Me
Released: 2013
Genre: indie baritone adult contemporary rock


I love, love, love Matter Berringer's voice. It's smooth, emotive, resonant, and right there in my range so I can sing along without straining. Seriously, I grew up in the era of Nirvana knock-offs who all screeched into microphones, so the idea of someone growling from his chest instead still feels novel to me.

The National are definitely a rock band, but compared to their earlier albums, Trouble Will Find Me is more atmospheric, with guitars and swoop and sparkle instead of crunch and drive. When a song does rush along at a good clip (Humiliation, Sea Of Love), it's being propelled by the drums more than the guitar. The standout track, though, is the ballad I Need My Girl whose video is embedded above. I love the little storytelling vignettes that show up in the lyrics:

Remember when you lost your shit and drove your car into the garden. You got out and said "I'm sorry" to the vines, but no one saw it.

Moments like that are scattered throughout the album, whose lyrics are generally much more about feel than meaning. I mean, if you can understand what the line "I was teething on roses, I was in guns and noses" from Humiliation is about, you're a smarter person than I. It's nearly an hour and it's fairly mellow, so it's an album you'll want to settle in for.

Further Listening: Nothing else in The National's catalog quite lives up to this. The record that preceded it, High Violet is decent. The successor, Sleep Well Best is kind of a mess.

Monday, January 7, 2019

100 Albums: "Evil Friends" by Portugal. The Man

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

Artist: Portugal. The Man
Title: Evil Friends
Released: 2013
Genre: indie alt-rock (as produced by Danger Mouse)


As one might guess from a rock group who put a period in the middle of their name, Portugal. The Man are big on weirdness for its own sake. For this album, the Alaska-natives collaborated with art-house mega-producer Danger Mouse, best known (probably) for being the member of Gnarls Barkley who wasn't CeeLo. Did this collaboration work?

Reader, it did. Danger Mouse's hip-hop-but-vintage sound and sensibilities temper PtM's more out-there impulses to great effect. What results is an album that is off-kilter and driving, but still catchy and groovy. The sparse arrangements give the music room to breathe--much more so than you typically associate with a rock act--and every single song on this record is an ear-worm, none so much as the infectious title track.

There is not an ounce of fat on this record. There are no extended outros; there aren't even unnecessary measures to get a break to four bars. Even at nearly fifty minutes--long by 2013 standards--the album still manages to feel tight and taut. It never meanders or kills time. It's just a great listen from start to finish.

Further Listening: The much-delayed follow-up Woodstock contains PtM's only other (to my knowledge) collaboration with Danger Mouse, the monster radio hit Feel It Still. The rest of the album is good, but veers more into dreamwave and wall-of-sound territory. It took a few spins to really get under my skin, whereas I was in love with Evil Friends from the first chorus. They have maybe half a dozen albums before EF, but nothing I've heard from those records stood out.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

100 Albums: "Dreaming Through The Noise" by Vienna Teng

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

Artist: Vienna Teng
Title: Dreaming Through The Noise
Released: 2006
Genre: piano singer-songwriter mellow pop


I heard the song Feather Moon from 2004's Warm Strangers on one of those indie acoustic radio shows that play on Sunday mornings and I was immediately enchanted by it--so I went to the record store to purchase it (this was before iTunes). They didn't have it, but they did have 2002's Waking Hour, so I purchased that instead and was, you guessed it, immediately enchanted. I've followed Vienna Teng's career closely ever since.

Teng describes her music as "chamber folk." Rooted in straightforward piano-pop, DTtN weaves together jazz arrangements, a dollop of bluegrass, and middle-eastern melodies to create a collection of fascinating stories. Topics range from renting a shitty apartment (1 Br / 1 Ba) to a dutiful housewife blowing the whistle on her husband's sketchy accounting (Whatever You Want) to couples lining up to get newly-legalized marriage licenses (City Hall). The album closer, Recessional, has what are in my opinion the best lyrics ever written. A sample:

She dreams through the noise, her weight against me, face pressed into the corduroy grooves. Maybe it means nothing... but I'm afraid to move.

And while I still dearly love her first two records, Dreaming Through The Noise is the first Vienna Teng album that feels completely whole. It has just enough production to give it a nice layer of polish and cohesion. By happenstance, I've heard her speak about this and she thinks some of the songs suffered by being forced to all share the same sonic space and mood. Her follow up Inland Territory was a reaction to this, in which she explicitly set out to write a "mix tape" of an album. By further happenstance, I was living in LA when this album came out and got to see her play it twice. I saw her do a preview show where she played the whole thing solo on piano and then a regular tour show as a jazz trio--both in an intimate little club setting.

Teng's music is intelligent, nuanced, impeccably precise, and astonishingly beautiful, and DTtN is her at her absolute best. It's hopeful and heartbreaking all at once, and full of little surprises that will catch your attention even after a dozen listens.

Further listening: If not for my pesky one-album-per-artist rule, Inland Territory would certainly be on this list. It's more experimental and more sonically diverse, and while it's damn near perfect, it's not quite as damn near perfect. Her previous albums mentioned above are great, but they feel a little underproduced, and her final album Aims is a little overproduced for my taste, but still quite good.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

100 Albums

Hello all!

In an attempt to keep the old blog from atrophying, I'm going to try out a project a friend of mine did a few years ago and spend the year writing about some of my favorite albums. So over the next 50 weeks, you can expect a couple entries a week until we get to 100. Or until I run out of steam and give up. Whichever comes first.

The only rule I'm giving myself here is to limit things to one album per artist. If that would preclude other favorite albums from making the list, I'll note it, but I don't want the list to be completely overrun by Radiohead and the Beatles. I'm going to start at the top of the list (that is, with my #1 favorite), but the ordering is not super rigorous--especially beyond the first twenty or so.

I'll put a master list on a page that's easily accessible from the front and I'll probably throw in some supplemental stuff, like albums I loved as a child but can't really listen to anymore for various reasons or albums that I find fascinating(ly weird) even if they're not great.

My tastes skew towards "alt-rock you can dance to" so expect a lot of that, but I get into some eclectic and moody stuff as well. Hopefully you'll find something you've never heard of before.

Should be fun,
]{p