Thursday, July 18, 2019

100 Albums: "Flood" by They Might Be Giants

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

Artist: They Might Be Giants
Title: Flood
Released: 1990
Genre: alt-indie experimental whatever-passed-for-folk-in-the-80s college rock


There's a spectrum, you might say, that goes from "art" to "novelty" and They Might Be Giants sit squarely at its center. A duo based in New York, Johns Linnell and Flansburgh have been doing their own thing for forty years now, and Flood represents the best of whatever that thing is. It has their best-known songs Birdhouse In Your Soul, Particle Man, and their cover of Istanbul (Not Constantinople) alongside a host of other ear-worms like Whistling In The Dark, Twisting, Women & Men, the mostly instrumental Minimum Wage, the orchestral-hit-heavy Road Movie To Berlin, et al. Some of the songs feel like nonsense, such as We Want A Rock, which tells that "everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads", but others like Lucky Ball & Chain are bouncy fun little jaunts whose lyrics are downright depressing if you stop and think about them: "She threw away her baby doll, I held onto my pride, but I was young and foolish then--I feel old and foolish now. Confidentially, she never called me baby doll. Confidentially, I never had much pride."

With 19 tracks, it clocks in at just under 45 minutes, which means when you listen to it you're getting a lot of music. It is fast and unrelenting, never lingering on a single weird idea long enough for you to get bored of it. One gets the impression that this is a band who aren't really beholden to anyone so they record whatever it is that amuses them. Flood may be their masterpiece, but you have to respect artists who have built an entire career out of "hey, I've got a weird idea." And I love that this is one I can listen to with my kids. It's silly, but also thought-provoking, and at the end of the day, I can't help but wonder about the issues raised in this album. Why is the world in love again? Why are we marching hand-in-hand? And why is Particle Man such a jerk?

Further Listening: I've heard a few other of their albums and none of them resonate the way this one does, although fans I know of TMBG will usually recommend John Henry as a next-step. They've released a few children's albums that are well-regarded as well.

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!
]{p

Monday, June 24, 2019

100 Albums: "Dookie" by Green Day

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

Artist: Green Day
Title: Dookie
Released: 1994
Genre: punk pop


Green Day was one of the standard bearers for the second wave of grunge, playing music that wasn't technically grunge and completely eschewing all of the movement's faux sophistication. (Remember when Smashing Pumpkins came out against moshing? Yeah, that was a thing!) Instead, Green Day broke with a dry punk aesthetic, a lead single about masturbation, and an album named after poop. Green Day got major label interest after their second album Kerplunk made waves in the indie scene. The demo for Dookie landed on the desk of producer Rick Cavallo who immediately recognized that it had potential to be huge. Supposedly (read as: I read this somewhere and can't remember where) he recorded most of the album during the band's rehearsals and tracked all of singer Billie Joe Armstrong's vocals in two days.

Dookie has one of the great rock-and-roll opening tracks in Burnout, which opens with a rapid-fire drum roll and Armstrong belting out "I declare I don't care no more!" The entire thing is only forty minutes, but I can't help but think that if it had been recorded even ten years later, a few of the back-end tracks might have gotten cut, as the disc does flag a bit towards the end. All though the closer F.O.D. is a pretty strong song, followed by two minutes of silence and then drummer Tré Cool singing another song about masturbation. The album spawned five radio singles, and they all still get play to this day.

I really like how rough-and-tumble this album feels. It's practically bursting with youthful energy. The vocals are extremely dry--they're not even doubled on most of the songs. The band wanted this record to sound like Sex Pistols. Mike Dirnt's bass sound is exactly how I like a rock bass guitar to sound: lots of attack, lots of movement, with some room scooped out for the kick drums. Cool's psychotic tom-slapping drumming keeps everything moving at an insane clip--the typical song is under two minutes long--and for most of those songs you get the impression that band is playing as fast as everyone can keep up. You can definitely hear the tempo slipping around a bit in songs like Longview. The whole affair is sparse and dry and dirty and I love it.

Further Listening: Green Day followed up Dookie with Insomnia, which was a disappointment. It has some great songs, but it starts weak and Armstrong's vocals feel off. After that, their sound fell much more in line with mainstream second-wave grunge. Their catalog is pretty deep, and while nothing comes close to being as good as Dookie, they have a few records that are extremely listenable. I recommend Warning most of all, and it's definitely one of their poppier ones. I haven't listened to Nimrod back to front, but it produced the band's most enduring single: Good Riddance (The Time Of Your Life) which became the soundtrack to every commencement ceremony in the country for about five years. There are a lot of fans of American Idiot, and while it's got some great singles, the operettas really don't work for me. After that they did a series of "garage rock" albums called ¡Uno!¡Dos!, and ¡Tré! that I rather enjoy, even if they are lesser works. ¡Uno! has my favorite Green Day song that doesn't sound like a Green Day song: Kill The DJ.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

100 Albums: "Crimes Of Passion" by Crocodiles

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

Artist: Crocodiles
Title: Crimes Of Passion
Released: 2013
Genre: lo-fi indie rock


Crocodiles was born out of the mid-aughts punk movement, tied to bands like Some Girls, Dum Dum Girls, and The Plot To Blow Up The Eiffel Tower. They got some buzz in late 2010 with an instrumental song called Kill Joe Arpaio, which drew the ire of the actual Joe Arpaio, who thought he would show them by tweeting his disdain at them. You know, like an idiot. (He also misattributed the song to Alligators. You know, like an idiot.)

Crimes Of Passion is a breezy thirty-four minute jaunt through lo-fi noise pop. The songs are a soup of guitars and horns, held together by catchy guitar leads and staticky vocals slathered in reverb and delay. In the garage rock tradition, the writing has just the tiniest hint of surf-rock in it, enough to give it a little bit of old-timey shimmer that belies the stylistically rough production values. The best song is Heavy Metal Clouds, and it's a pretty good indicator of what you can expect from this album. I Like It In The Dark is a rollicking piano-driven opener. Teardrop Guitar is delightful (even if the guitar hook feels a bit borrowed from R.E.M.'s Pop Song 89). And Me And My Machine Gun makes for an excellent late-album mope, because you need just a tinge of depressed angst twenty minutes in to a thirty minute record. All in all, this is just well-constructed noise pop. Fun, accessible, and inoffensive despite trying to feel just the teensiest bit dangerous.

Further Listening: I don't know any other Crocodiles records, but I suppose I need to check some out. They've got seven (!) albums out now.

Monday, June 17, 2019

100 Albums: "Seal (1994)" by Seal

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

Artist: Seal
Title: Seal
Released: 1994
Genre: adult contemporary


Seal came to international prominence in 1991 with the song Crazy off his self-titled debut. He followed it up with another self-title album three years later, one that propelled him to superstardom, featuring Kiss From A Rose, his best-known song that was also features on the Batman Forever soundtrack and promoted alongside the movie. Seal is almost the textbook definition of adult contemporary. If you scaled back the R&B influence, this could almost be a Sting album (Sting being the actual textbook definition of "adult contemporary music"). It's got a lot of inventiveness buried under a ton of polish, but if you don't mind a record with some gloss on it, this one is solid.

Seal's got an incredible voice and puts together some very strong music here. The best tracks are the singles, and if you like them, you're going to like the rest. Kiss From A Rose is, of course, fairly iconic by now, and the version on this album is slightly longer (and also slightly better) than the one from Batman Forever. Don't Cry and Prayer For The Dying are soft-rock radio staples and also very good, if you like passionately sung tunes about sadness. My other favorite from this album is Newborn Friend (embedded above) because it's a little more upbeat and complex than the singles. The opener Bring It On is a lot of fun, and I also enjoy Fast Changes, which is an oddly sparse arrangement for an uptempo song that's not guitar-centric.

It's the kind of album that you get to the end of and think "Oh, well, that was pleasant." It was also a tricky one to buy. When I bought it, I was purchasing mostly used CDs on eBay, and the word "Seal" used to be a popular keyword meaning "unopened" in addition to being the name of the artist, the album, and another of his albums.

Further Listening: The 1991 album is pretty good too, and for my money, Crazy is Seal's best song.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

100 Albums: "Playland" by Johnny Marr

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

Artist: Johnny Marr
Title: Playland
Released: 2014
Genre: post-punk britpop


Best known as a guitarist and co-writer for the Smiths, a band that broke up in 1987, Johnny Marr has had a long career in the background of rock-and-roll. He was briefly in the Pretenders and Modest Mouse. He did a lot of session work. He produced a few albums, did a stint with the Cribs. And then in 2011, he started putting out solo albums. And... this is one of them. And it's really quite good.

Playland is the sort of album that gets written by a rhythm guitarist. The leads are slow and thick and melodic. The rhythm parts are densely layered but still pop and jangle. There's a definitely britpop sheen to the whole thing: solid hooks, simple structures with lots of tiny variations over the course of a song, a bit of the old post-punk jangle, and a healthy dose of reverb on everything. Although, for as atmospheric as its musical elements are, it's got a real sense of movement. The single Easy Money is the standout song and the clear radio track. The opener Back In The Box is excellent. 25 Hours is a bass-forward chunky, almost punk track. I love the chorus on The Trap and Candidate, two of the slower songs.

But really, what's most enjoyable about this record is how well put together it is. Yes, the songs are catchy and impressive and all of the instruments sound good, but you also have to take a step back to appreciate the craftsmanship on display. Marr has been playing in bands for over four decades now. He's really quite good at this.

Further Listening: Marr has two other solo albums that I haven't listened to, although I've liked the snippets I've heard. But if you just want to revel in some rhythm guitar awesomeness, then there's nothing better from him than How Soon Is Now?

Monday, June 10, 2019

100 Albums: "Third Eye Blind" by Third Eye Blind

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

Artist: Third Eye Blind
Title: Third Eye Blind
Released: 1997
Genre: post-grunge power pop


The late 90s were a weird time for rock and roll. The second wave of grunge was on the ebb, the pop renaissance was just around the corner--the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys had their first commercial hits in 1996, although bubblegum wouldn't completely dominate until Britney Spears' debut in 1999. All around there was less appetite for self-serious angsty music, and the rock acts that broke during this era embraced their fun side. Two bands in particular stand out to me, Third Eye Blind and Incubus. Both broke around the same time and constructed their sound from a lot of the same component parts, even though the end result was quite different. The both wrote up-tempo pop songs that were infused with punk and hip-hop influences. They both wrote lyrics that specifically de-glamorized the culture of partying and drug abuse that surrounded rock and roll. Of the two, Incubus was the more sophisticated, pursuing an experimental and complex sound. Third Eye Blind wrote popcorn, but it was some tasty popcorn. Third Eye Blind wasn't a huge-selling album, but it produced some very successful singles: Semi-Charmed LifeGraduate, How's It Going To Be, and Jumper, which all got heavy radio play.

I remember being completely, er... charmed... by the lead single Semi-Charmed Life. It was fast and bouncy and very high-energy, while somehow seeming to be about junkies who weren't enjoying getting high anymore, or something like that.  It was also very easy to play on the guitar, so double-bonus. I loved that they sang about sex and drugs with candor and earnest, if not nuance, but even then I didn't really get it. I owned the cassingle with the radio edit, and mostly bought the whole album because I loved that song but hated the way the radio edit garbled with phrase "crystal meth." The rest of the album followed suit: catchy, high-energy songs about subjects that sounded cool even though I didn't really understand the narrative. I mean, I understand them better now. Now that I've been through a rough break-up or two, I have a better handle on the opener Losing A Whole Year and its opening line "I remember you and me used to spend the whole goddamn day in bed." Back then I assumed they were just tired all the time--the next track was called Narcolepsy, so I guess that made sense. Or maybe it was a drug thing?

Oh, 1997 Kurt, you sweet summer child.

I listened to this album constantly. It was just under an hour long, the perfect length to put on a 60-minute blank tape and listen to in the car on repeat. Again, this is not high art, it's pop art, but it's really compelling pop art. Some of the non-radio tracks are still in my sing-a-long playlists. (How, for example, was Graduate a single but not the far superior London?) And there are little lyrical flourishes that I still enjoy. Like "The clothes she wears mis-fit" from Thanks A Lot or "I've never been so alone and I've never been so alive" from Motorcycle Drive By. The couple of down-tempo numbers like The Background and God Of Wine have drive and purpose. The only songs that haven't aged well are Good For You, which feels like such a throwback to second wave four-chord grunge, and I Want You, which is aggressively sappy, but neither of those are bad, by any stretch.

Further Listening: The follow-up Blue was pretty underwhelming, and I haven't heard any of their other albums (although apparently they have a lot of them). Alas. Sometimes, you only have one hit record in you.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

100 Albums: "Even Worse" by "Weird Al" Yankovic

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

Artist: "Weird Al" Yankovic
Title: Even Worse
Released: 1988
Genre: comedy


I first heard Weird Al's song Dare To Be Stupid when I was maybe seven years old and it was a revelation. For a kid like me--coming from a very conservative background but with an off-beat sense of humor--this was eye-opening. He was subversive, but in a family-friendly way; Yankovic identifies as Christian and has always kept his material PG and free of swearing. He makes fun of people, but only after getting their permission. His whole MO is to take everything you think is "cool" and shift the context just a little in order to make it silly. He's a virtuoso musician, a comic craftsman, a consummate goofball, and beloved the world over. He's supposed to be a first-rate showman (I haven't seen him in concert yet, although that is going to be remedied later this month) and, by all accounts I've heard, one of the nicest human beings you could ever interact with. I've been a fan of his for basically my entire life. As I've gotten older and musical landscapes have shifted, I don't find myself enjoying the newer material as much, but I go back a lot to this era of his work and this disc specifically--not because it's one of my favorite novelty albums, but because it's one of my favorite album albums. I enjoy the performance and craftsmanship on display here, and it doesn't even matter than what's being crafted and performed is a joke.

Even Worse is best known for Fat, a parody of the song Bad Yankovic's second go at spoofing Michael Jackson. As a rule, comedy doesn't age very well, but Fat has fared worse than most of Yankovic's material due to shifting attitudes about body-shaming and.. well... not to put too fine a point on it, shifting attitudes about Michael Jackson. Yankovic is most famous for his parodies of specific songs, even though that makes up less than half of his oeuvre. The song parodies here are good, but they're also the least interesting thing going on. Aside from Bad, all of the songs being parodied are 1980s covers of songs that were originally written in the 50s or 60s. There's I Think I'm A Clone Now, parodying Tiffany's cover of I Think We're Alone NowLasagna, parodying Los Lobos' version of La Bamba, and Alimony, which specifically satirizes Billy Idol's live cover of Mony Mony. But by far the best song parody is (This Song's Just) Six Words Long, a skewering satire of George Harrison's take on Got My Mind Set On You. Because while Harrison's hit is a bona fide classic, we all have to admit that it's a little weak in the lyrics department.

But the real meat of this album is the style parodies. Velvet Elvis is a spot-on riff on The Police. You Make Me is a fantastic Oingo Boingo spoof. Twister is not only a pitch-perfect imitation of the Beastie Boys, but it also takes the form of a product jingle (The Beastie Boys have famously never allowed their music to be used in commercials). Good Old Days is supposed to be play on James Taylor, but what really sells it is that it's a gentle ballad being sung by a psychopath. It's one of Yankovic's darkest songs. And Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White, while not specifically parodying any artist, is an early example of Yankovic's here's-a-bunch-of-funny-nonsense songs. It's also remarkable for being the only studio album after his debut to not feature a polka medley of some sort, but it doesn't suffer for the lack. And since it's still early on, there's the energy and willingness to push that you get from a hungry young artist still trying to figure things out. I still enjoy this one immensely.

Further Listening: Yankovic's catalog is huge, but if I had to pick other favorites... Dare To Be Stupid has some of his best work. The title track is a Devo style parody that is so spot-on that Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo) has gone on record saying that he wished he'd written it. It also has Yoda, a parody of The Kinks' Lola which is noteworthy because Lola is itself a comedy song, and Yoda is so much funnier. Off The Deep End is probably the first album of his that I owned, and it holds up pretty well. I also have a tremendous amount of affection for the UHF soundtrack, which has parodies of R.E.M. and Dire Straits, plus an entire polka medley of Rolling Stones songs. Finally, I'll recommend Alapalooza, which opens with a parody of Richard Harris's MacArthur Park re-written to be about Jurassic Park and closes with a polka rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.

Monday, June 3, 2019

100 Albums: "The Dark Side Of The Moon" by Pink Floyd

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

Artist: Pink Floyd
Title: The Dark Side Of The Moon
Released: 1973
Genre: psychedelic rock


Pink Floyd was always a deeply experimental band. It wasn't always successful, but even their older weird stuff that doesn't quite work (I'm looking at YOU, Ummagumma) is still at least interesting. They were able to evolve their sound over several years, and DSotM is where all the pieces come together in just the right way to form something magical. And by "magical" I mean one of the greatest-selling albums of all time. As Floyd albums go, it's fairly straightforward. It runs a little over forty minutes and has eight-to-ten tracks (depending on whether you separate Speak To Me/Breathe and Brain Damage/Eclipse), all of which have run-times that are under seven minutes. The tracks with vocals run a little long and the instrumental interstitials run a little short, but that's pretty standard for 70s rock. I mean, compare this to 1971's Meddle, whose closing track Echoes is over 23 minutes long and takes up the entire second side of the LP. (This is even more impressive when you realize that standard tape reals used in recording run out at 16 minutes.)

Rather than experimenting with form and breadth, Pink Floyd use this album to play around with depth. This thing is densely layered. The topmost layer is 5 glossy psychedelic pop songs built on classic rock fundamentals but working in some jazz and blues. But when you dig into the lyrics you start to find stories about drugs and desperation and mental illness. And then those interstitial tracks have voices on them, people talking casually about death and fear. And then if you really crank it up, during the quieter moments you discover these lush soundscapes sitting under everything. And then you get the shit scared out of you for listening at high volume because Time opens with a sound collage of alarm clocks going off. It's a moody, atmospheric masterpiece that really defines its era of music. The craftsmanship is superb. Floyd were masters of sounding like Pink Floyd. No one else really comes close, and if that's your jam, then you've already bought this record and listened to it a dozen times.

Further Listening: I haven't consumed the entire Floyd catalog, but of all I've heard, DSotM is the stand-out. That said, I have a lot of affection for Meddle--in which the band was starting down that path--and Wish You Were Here, a concept album delivered because their record company was begging them for a follow-up to DSotM. So it's mostly about how record execs are douchebags. For all of its accolades, I don't particularly enjoy The Wall. It has a few epic tracks on it, but it feels like mostly filler to me--a reach-exceeds-grasp situation.

And yes, I'm aware of the Wizard Of Oz thing and no, I don't think it actually works or is all that interesting. But, to be fair, I kind of hate that movie.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

100 Albums: "(What's The Story) Morning Glory?" by Oasis

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

Artist: Oasis
Title: (What's The Story) Morning Glory?
Released: 1995
Genre: britpop


Americans will never understand just how huge Oasis were for a while there in Britain. The brothers Gallagher were working class rockers who emulated the Beatles with their candy-coated, drug-fueled, pop rock. Liam was the voice and Noel was the writing talent, and when Wonderwall broke in 1995, it was huge. (WtS)MG? does what every artist wants in a sophomore album. It hones and doubles down on their sound. It pushes on their boundaries: Noel sings lead on a few songs--including a single--the album has two untitled instrumental fills, and then there's the seven-and-a-half minute closer. The songs are very earwormy, and I adore Noel Gallagher's lead guitar work. His fills are melodic and dynamic, but they're not overly flashy and the counterbalance nicely against the vocal melodies. They never shred, but they never sit still either.

It's slightly more ballad-y than their previous album. After the raucous openers Hello and Roll With It, the album settles in for lighter with Wonderwall and Don't Look Back In Anger. It picks up a little with the mid-tempo rockers Hey Now and Some Might Say before dipping again for Cast No Shadow, which is a decent song and also the least memorable, in my opinion. It picks back up for the bouncy She's Electric and the hard-rocking Morning Glory, which is my favorite and probably also the most brazen, teasing an unidentified party for being hungover after a cocaine bender. Then it lilts away with Champagne Supernova, an epic which somehow got cut down into a radio single.

This was the peak of their success in the US. The follow-up Be Here Now was dull and indulgent, and the band was soon better known for the family feuds between Noel and Liam than for their music. But for a little while there Oasis was everywhere.

Further listening: If not for my one-album-per-artist rule, there's a very good chance their debut Definitely Maybe would also be on the list. Yes, it's a little rough around the edges and yes, Shakermaker borrowed some melodic elements from that Coke commercial, but Live Forever and Supersonic are excellent, anthemic songs, and Married With Children is just a good time.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Sale: "Carpools & Coworkers"

I've added a new entry to the "Coming Soon" section of the old Fiction page. My story Carpools & Coworkers has been purchased by Daily Science Fiction and will be appearing there in the near future. I don't have a date locked down yet, but you can always subscribe and get it delivered straight to your inbox whenever it does come out.

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Monday, May 27, 2019

100 Albums: "Stadium Arcadium" by Red Hot Chili Peppers

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

Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Title: Stadium Arcadium
Released: 2006
Genre: alternative funk


There really isn't any other band quite like Red Hot Chili Peppers. Defined primarily by Anthony Kiedis's raps about sex and geography and the insane punk/slap bass playing of arguably-the-greatest-bassist-who-ever-lived Flea, RHCP's sound is a bizarre blend of not-quite-funk, not-quite-hip-hop, and not-quite-punk. It became one of the earliest things you could point to and call "alternative" back when we were all still trying to figure out what that word meant. Stadium Arcadium is the last album they recorded with their most successful lineup: Kiedis and Flea alongside drummer (and Will Ferrell doppelganger) Chad Smith and guitarist John Fruciante. The music was originally conceived to be released a series of EPs, but wound up being joined into a double-album with a total run-time of just over two hours.

Stadium Arcadium has the laid-back vibe of a record from band that's been doing this forever and is just really good at it by now. That's not to imply that it's low-energy. It bops and grooves and jumps along. The songs are generally brisk and short and there's not a bad track out of the twenty-eight. The radio singles are good, but my favorites are Charlie and Turn It Again, the latter being the longest song on the entire album by over half a minute and the one where Frusciante is allowed to just cut loose the most on. My only complaint is that at two hours long it's exhausting. RHCP albums always have lots of tracks, but somewhere around track 25 is where my attention starts to really wane, which is hilarious to me since Turn It Again is second-to-last and the closer Death Of A Martian is pretty excellent.

I had the opportunity to see them touring this record and it was a thoroughly engaging show. Stages exist so Flea can take them. However charismatic you think he might be based on music videos and recordings, he is even more so. The opening act was Gnarls Barkley. Helluva show.

Further Listening: Californication is a great record, and it was the first one they did when Frusciante re-joined after he quit the band the first time. It produced a number of singles, the most enduring of which is Otherside. Blood Sugar Sex Magic is not a very listenable album in my opinion, but it gave us Give It Away, Under The Bridge, Breaking The Girl, and Suck My Kiss, all of which still get radio play. And while it's considered something of an anomaly, I rather enjoy their album One Hot Minute. It was the only album recorded with Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, and while he was a poor fit for RHCP, the album is solid and memorable.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

100 Albums: "Bringing Down The Horse" by The Wallflowers

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

Artist: The Wallflowers
Title: Bringing Down The Horse
Released: 1996
Genre: adult contemporary roots-rock


Bob Dylan was a funny looking man with an odd but unique voice who couldn't sing particularly well but managed to completely upend the 60's folk scene and become one of the most influential musicians of all time. His son Jakob is an extremely handsome fellow with a beautiful singing voice and hoo-boy his music has been hit-or-miss. Conveniently for us, The Wallflowers--technically a band, although Dylan is the only permanent member--were kind enough to put almost all of their hits on a single disc, their sophomore album Bringing Down The Horse.

Leaning hard on their roots-rock sound, the slide guitars and organs are front-and-center in the mix, just behind the vocals. They marketed this album directly to Counting Crows fans by putting no less than Adam Duritz himself on the first single, 6th Avenue Heartache. The songs aren't really about anything, but the album is hook-heavy, passionate, and compulsively singable. And it sounds terrific. Every note is crisp, clear, and perfect. Just listen to the slow build-up at the front of the opening track One Headlight, with that flanged guitar giving way to the drum and then letting the other instruments creep in. Listen to the warm atmosphere of Invisible City or the driving drums under The Difference or the chirping keyboards on Three Marlenas or the smooth ascension of the verses in Angel On My Bike. It's a pristine sound underscoring some first-rate songwriting.

It's honestly kind of hard to understand why their other albums aren't better. You have to think it was the producer, or something, right, who was able to bring out the brilliance from an otherwise lackluster band. Or maybe it was the 4 year gap after their previous record, which gave them time to write and cull new material. Who can say?

Further Listening: They had a cover of Heroes on the soundtrack to the 1998 movie Godzilla that's pretty decent, although it prompted my wife to quip: "Bob Dylan's son covered David Bowie on the soundtrack to a remake. How many coattails can one man ride?"

Monday, May 20, 2019

100 Albums: "Purple" by Stone Temple Pilots

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

Artist: Stone Temple Pilots
Title: Purple
Released: 1994
Genre: alt-grunge / hard rock


Stone Temple Pilots appeared on the national scene in 1992, alongside other first-wave grunge acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. The "grunge" monicker covered a variety of musical styles: post-glam (Pearl Jam), punk (Nirvana), metal (Alice In Chains), and hard rock (Soundgarden). STP's debut Core is a solidly in the "hard rock" camp, and the most popular singles from that album--Creep and Plush--are also its mellowest. They followed this up with Purple, a record that transitions between their hard rock origins and the vintage pop-rock sound that would dominate their future records. I've mentioned earlier that "vintage" sounding bands are specifically aping Jimmy Page's guitar tone, and you can see the beginnings of that with STP on this record, especially in the album's most enduring single, Interstate Love Song. It should not be a surprise that the only cover STP ever released as a single was Led Zeppelin's Dancing Days.

Purple is a best-of-both-worlds record. It has some the band's best hard rock tracks in Vaseline and Unglued as well as some of their best mellow music in Pretty Penny and Big Empty. Silvergun Superman has a great deconstructed ending. Kitchenware & Candybars is--alongside Nirvana's Something In The Way--a quintessential grunge album closer. Still Remains is one of my favorite rock-and-roll love songs. The album wraps up with a hidden track called My Second Album, a lounge-style tune that satirizes the idea of hidden tracks while also showing off singer Scott Weiland's amazing singing voice in the same lounge context that he would later put to use in his amazingly bad solo Christmas album.

STP the band was consistently stymied by Weiland's drug addiction. Tours got canceled, the band broke up and reformed multiple times. Supposedly while recording No. 4 they would just finish the music and then prop him up in front of a microphone so he could record vocals while blasted out of his mind on heroin. Meanwhile the band recorded an entire other album with Dave Coutts of Ten Inch Men under the name Talk Show. But Weiland was so integral to STP's sound that they've never really been able to get any traction without him, and like so many other heroes of the era of music STP helped usher in, Weiland's habit would eventually lead him to a premature death.

Further Listening: The follow up to this was Tiny Music... Songs From The Vatican Gift Store, and it's a weird one, but I like it quite a lot. Big Bang Baby is my jam. I also like the subsequent album No. 4 for songs like low-key crooners like Sour Girl and I Got You. Their records after that range from forgettable (the recent self-titled album with Jeff Gutt) to really, weirdly bad (Shangri-La-De-Da) Weiland has some solo music that's almost unlistenably bad, and the rest of the band's forays without him are pretty disappointing.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

100 Albums: "Jagged Little Pill" by Alanis Morissette

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

Artist: Alanis Morissette
Title: Jagged Little Pill
Released: 1995
Genre: alt-rock / adult contemporary


Well this came out of freaking nowhere. A minor Canadian pop-star who was probably more famous for her brief stint on You Can't Do That On Television records a DIY album with Glen Ballard in his bedroom recording studio and the thing explodes like a bomb on MTV and rock radio, selling sixteen million copies and spawning six hit singles. The lead single was the bolt-from-the-blue You Oughta Know, featuring instrumentation from a couple of Red Hot Chili Peppers and more angst than people realized was possible in someone from Canada.

It's a big, sloppy mess of an album. Ballard messed up the levels while tracking vocals for You Oughta Know and clipped the hell out of them, but it was a great take that sounded good in the mix and this record was only going to move 20,000 units or so anyway, so who cares? Then, when it was an unexpected hit, and he was asked for raw tracks so people could remix it, all he could say was "yeah, sorry, we scorched that." I mean, what the hell is Hand In My Pocket even supposed to be about? It's a tone poem more than a song, and the main guitar part is one chord repeated over and over. It's the sort of record that you can't make on purpose. It was crafted by two people who were having the time of their lives writing music with absolutely zero stakes.

But here's the thing: it's kind of an amazing album. It was angsty enough for the alt-rock crowd, but you could still listen to it in the car with your mom and not feel too embarrassed when the lyrics let fly with an occasional F-bomb. Morissette is an animal on the rock tracks and a sweetheart on the ballads. She sings frankly about obsessing over ex-boyfriends, losing faith after years of Catholic school, and famously has an entire song devoted to the concept of irony that doesn't actually get around to describing anything that is genuinely ironic. Which is, itself... unintentionally ironic. And Head Over Feet may be the perfect love song? Maybe? All I know is that I developed a monster crush on Morisette after hearing it. You Oughta Know has an alternate mix as one of the two hidden tracks (don't ask, it was the 90's) in which Flea is allowed to just go crazy with the bass-line, and it's an astonishing thing to hear.

Further Listening: Nothing else in Alanis Morissette's catalog comes anywhere close to being this good. This was a happy accident of a record. She did release an acoustic version that's not as good, but is definitely interesting. It features an amusing lyric change in Ironic: "it's like meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful... husband." And no, that's not technically irony either.

Monday, May 13, 2019

100 Albums: "The Big Folk Hits" by The Brothers Four

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

Artist: The Brothers Four
Title: The Big Folk Hits
Released: 1963
Genre: folk


The Brothers Four were wart of the 1960s folk music that also produced acts like Peter, Paul, and Mary or The Kingston Trio. It's the same movement that was parodied in A Mighty Wind, referenced in Inside Llewyn Davis, and summarily destroyed when Bob Dylan arrived on the scene. The band was best known for their take on Greensleeves (the tune was borrowed for the Christmas hymn What Child Is This, although the original is equally haunting and low-key bawdy).

The Big Folk Hits was another car album for me, and I associate it with vacations and long drives. It includes a variety of standards which that band didn't appear to update at all. Silver Threads And Golden Needles is clearly sung from the perspective of a woman, but they don't change the lyrics at all. The John B. Sails keeps the Nassau dialect you'll find in the earliest versions of the song. There are more popular versions by The Kingston Trio and The Beach Boys under the title Sloop John B, but this version is the default version in my head. Similarly, when I think of the song El Paso, I will always think of The Brothers Four and not Marty Robbins.

In addition to standard folk fare like 500 Miles or If I Had A Hammer or Michael Row The Boat Ashore (which is a dreary album closer; I usually skip it), it also has some seriously wild tunes, like Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport or Darling Corey, both of which are energetic and just a bit zany. It's an album I still like to put on for long car trips and share with my kids.

Further Listening: It's a short album and if you try to buy it on disc you'll probably find it paired with Songbook which contains their version of Greensleeves. For car trips, my dad had taped his LP and on the other side of the tape had Today by the New Christy Minstrels, which is a fun album, although a bit more irreverent and Southern-oriented.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

100 Albums: "Lateralus" by Tool

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

Artist: Tool
Title: Lateralus
Released: 2001
Genre: halfway between prog-rock and art-metal

The poster of this video put the wrong album cover on it.

My gateway to Tool was A Perfect Circle, which featured singer Maynard James Keenan doing more radio-friendly songs with his friend Billy Howerdell. Tool albums pre-APC tend to be didactic and philosophical, but starting with Lateralus, Tool's driving math rock began to feel a bit more introspective and personal. The lead single Schism is about trying to heal a damaged relationship. "I know the pieces fit, 'cause I watched them tumble down." The Patient is about wanting to help others without really understanding why. "If there were no desire to heal the damaged and broken met along this tedious path I've chosen here, I certainly would have walked away by now. And I still may." Disposition is a quiet song whose lyrics in their entirety are "Mention this to me. Mention something, mention anything. Mention this to me. Watch the weather change."

My favorite song is the title track, a nine-and-a-half-minute opus about embracing randomness and seeking out surprises, all of it keyed to the Fibonacci sequence. The lyrical syllables, in fact, follow that sequence pattern through the verse (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8...) "Black / And / White are / All I see / In my infancy / Red and yellow then came to be..." It's all very cool and very nerdy at once. The album peters out a bit at the end. It's almost 80 minutes long, so once you get to the hefty instrumental Triad my attention is pretty spent. Tool wants you to work for your audio enjoyment, it seems. Which is fine. It's important to also have anti-pop in your life.

Further Listening: The albums on either side of this--Ænema and 10,000 Days--are both quite good, and if not for the whole one-album-per-artist rule then 10,000 Days would definitely be on this list, if for no other reason than it contains my favorite Tool song, the batshit crazy Rosetta Stoned, which is definitely worth eleven minutes and change of your time. Ænema is in the more didactic camp of Tool albums, but the title track is an excellent ode to Bill Hicks, and it's got 46 & 2, which is built around a phenomenal rock riff.

Monday, May 6, 2019

100 Albums: "Masseduction" by St. Vincent

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

Artist: St. Vincent
Title: Masseduction
Released: 2017
Genre: post-alt pop rock


When Annie Clark, virtuoso guitarist formerly of The Polyphonic Spree, started her solo career, she took her stage name from the hospital where Dylan Thomas died. She's always been a bit of an eccentric--like that one time she dressed like a toilet for a benefit concert in Glasgow. Her music frequently feels more like a deconstruction of pop music than actual pop music, where songs feel sonically like they're mostly about the space around the melody. The result is a string of brilliant albums that are great to listen to but barely memorable.

Masseduction is a bit of a reinvention. Clark allows the pop elements to breathe and works all the sonic weirdness in around the edges, and the end product is a masterfully crafted, personal statement from a truly gifted composer who is also an excellent lyricist. I love the build of the chorus from Los Ageless: "How could anybody have you / How could anybody have you and lose you / How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind, too?" or this line from the first verse that captures her contempt for star culture: "In Los Ageless, the mothers milk their young." Happy Birthday Johnny revisits a character who has shown up since her debut. Here, Johnny is a former friend turned junkie who explodes at her because she hesitates to give him "dough to get something to eat". It's a heartbreaking track, as is New York, a song about Clark's then-crumbling relationship with Cara Delevigne in which she sweetly croons "you're the only motherfucker in this city who can handle me." The other standout is Slow Disco, a gentle ballad that asks "Don't it beat a slow dance to death?" It's been redone as a dance track called Fast Slow Disco (very NSFW video, so Google at your own risk) or as a piano balled called Slow Slow Disco.

Top to bottom, a great record that is frank, inventive, and earwormy.

Further Listening: Her albums are all pretty solid, but my other favorite is Actor, which has my two hands-down favorite St. Vincent songs: Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood and Actor Out Of Work (the video for that song is amazing--and SFW). It doesn't really sound like any of her other music because she fired her producer halfway through and was left with a bunch of orchestral arrangements she had to fit songs into. It's definitely a "happy accident" record. There's also an album called Masseducation (note the added "a" turning "seduction" into "education") that is Masseduction stripped down as piano-and-vocal only. It's interesting, but it doesn't really stand up to the fully-rendered version.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

100 Albums: "The Sign" by Ace Of Base

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

Artist: Ace Of Base
Title: The Sign
Released: 1993
Genre: euro club pop


Circa 1992, a Swedish pop quartet sent their "Mr. Ace" demo tape to an up-and-coming producer named DenniZ PoP. He hated it. It was basically unlistenable. But his car radio broke and the tape got stuck, so he had to hear to it over and over for weeks, at which point he decided that there was something salvageable in the song and he agreed to work with the band.

Music. It's a glamorous biz, yo.

The resulting album was called Happy Nation, which was released in the U.S. with some slight alterations as The Sign. It was not only a commercial juggernaut, but it became the template for an entire wave of pop music. After The Sign was released, PoP would found Cheiron Studios and hire songwriter Max Martin, and together the would launch the careers of N'Sync, The Backstreet Boys, Robyn, and Britney Spears. Ever wonder why a generation of pop songs have lyrics that sound like they were written by someone who doesn't quite understand English idioms? Odds are, it's because they were either written or influenced by Max Martin. According to Ace Of Base, "all that she wants is another baby," which sounds like a woman wants to get pregnant, but in the context of the song "baby" here clearly means "lover." See also Britney Spears' breakout ...Baby One More Time. "Hit me" is supposed to me "call me" and would probably have been more naturally rendered as "hit me up." No natural English-speaker would phrase it that way. But you know who would? Max Martin. Ever wonder why The Backstreet Boys want you to "believe when I say 'I want it that way'" but also "don't ever want to hear you say 'I want it that way'" and never bother to talk about what that way is? It's because Max Martin wrote it. For a full treatment on the Swedish Pop machine, I recommend Slate's Hit Parade episode on the subject.

I enjoy this album without any irony. For as much as it is prototypical of the late 90's pop renaissance, it's not as formulaic as you might expect. It takes the early 90s fast-but-brooding dance club sound (think Real McCoy or Everything But The Girl) and blends it with bright bubblegum pop melodies and reggae instrumentation. In my most recent re-listen, I was surprised at just how much reggae is in there. The keyboards favor organ and horn sounds over piano. The bass is forward in the mix with the higher-end instruments mostly accenting upbeats. The tone of the bass and drums are clearly reggae-influenced--the song The Sign even has timbales in it. It doesn't have quite the same leisurely pace of a reggae song or the high-tempo drive of a club hit, but instead bounces jauntily in between. The Sign, All That She Wants, and Don't Turn Around were big radio hits in the U.S., and that club-with-reggae vibe is evident in non-radio (in the U.S. anyway) songs like Happy Nation, Wheel Of Fortune, or Living In Danger, but my favorite tracks are the ones that just go full-tilt into trashy eurodance mode, like Dancer In A Daydream, Waiting For MagicYoung And Proud, or Voulez-Vous Danser. It peters out a bit towards the end with a weird and not-great dance mix of a song called My Mind and a not-terribly-interesting remix of All That She Wants, but for the most part it moves along merrily between aggressively dancey or danceably poppy without fully committing to--or getting bogged down by--either.

Further Listening: Nothing else the band did would be as popular as The Sign, but they did have modest hits with Beautiful Life and a cover of Cruel Summer.

Monday, April 29, 2019

100 Albums: "Yes And Also Yes" by Mike Doughty

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

Artist: Mike Doughty
Title: Yes And Also Yes
Released: 2011
Genre: alternative acoustic rock


Soul Coughing was one of the stranger bands to come out of the 90s. They had two major hits, the poppy Circles and the fun-if-incomprehensible Super Bon-Bon. After they disbanded, singer Mike Doughty got a rental car and an acoustic guitar and started playing shows and selling burned discs of his first solo album Skittish. 19 years and 17 albums later, he's still going strong and playing weird, poppy, acoustic-driven rock over (with the occasional dash of avant-garde EDM).

Yes And Also Yes sits nicely in the center of the Venn Diagram consisting of these circles: weird enough to be interesting, poppy enough to sing along with, and suitable to play in front of my kids. In fact, Strike The Motion was my oldest child's favorite song at one point in his short life. Weird Summer has an anthemic vibe. Vegetable is an odd groove. Rosanne Cash drops in to guest on Holiday (What Do You Want?) which is actually a fairly compelling holiday song. And, because it's the guy from Soul Coughing, whose lyrics are all basically existential poetry anyway, you get this delightfully odd little turns of phrase like "She doesn't fall in love, she takes hostages" from The Huffer And The Cutter. All in all, it's a fun, breezy, easily-listenable-yet-highly-engaging record. It very nearly has an adult-contemporary feel to it.

Further Listening: I haven't heard much of his other solo stuff, except Circles, which is basically him covering Soul Coughing's greatest hits, but on the strength of this I should probably check it out.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

100 Albums: "Untitled (IV/Zoso)" by Led Zeppelin

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

Artist: Led Zeppelin
Title: untitled
Released: 1971
Genre: classic rock


Is there a more epic album opening than Black Dog? Plant screaming "Hey, Hey, Mama..." and a trio of musicians exploding into that proto-metal riff behind him? There's a reason Led Zeppelin is always included in discussions of who might be the greatest rock band of all time: Plant's bluesy wail, Bonham's impossibly huge drum sound, Page's guitar work--and tone, when people talk about "vintage guitar tone" they're talking about Jimmy Page--and Jones's bass and keys (bassists are the unsung heroes of rock, and Jones's bass work here is low-key phenomenal). They're an iconic band, and this is their most iconic album.

Officially untitled, but commonly referred to as either Zoso or IV, this record is not only their best-selling, but it contains their most well-known song, Stairway To Heaven, also known as the song you're not allowed to play in a guitar store. It includes references to Tolkien and visual elements taken from the occult. Of it's eight tracks, seven of them are absolutely brilliant and one of them is Four Sticks. Which is fine. Perfectly serviceable. Solid little tune. Anyway.

Even if you've never listened to it front-to-back, you've almost certainly heard most of it in commercials or on your dad's radio station. The opening drum line from Rock 'n' Roll is instantly recognizable. I've already mentioned Black Dog, but for fun some time try to count along with the drum line. It's crazy complex the way the guitar and drum interact, but you wouldn't notice unless you're listening for it. Stairway features one of the greatest rock guitar solos of all time and it was completely improvised on the first take. Misty Mountain Hop is delightfully psychedelic. Going To California is haunting. All told, it's one of the great rock records, an influential masterpiece.

Further listening: I mean, take your pick. It's Zeppelin--their entire catalog is rich. So to mix things up, I will recommend some off-beat covers of songs from this album. There's The Lovemongers' take on Battle Of Evermore from the Singles soundtrack, A Perfect Circle's dreamy atmospheric reinterpretation of When The Levee Breaks, or Dread Zeppelin giving Misty Mountain Hop the ska + Elvis treatment.

Monday, April 22, 2019

100 Albums Supplemental: Video Game Soundtracks

So far on this list I've had two broadway soundtracks, one movie soundtrack (two if you count Help!, which isn't really one but...), and one season of a score from a television show. I like soundtracks. One thing that is not going to show up on this list but is very much represented in my music collection is soundtracks to video games. They're usually available for a couple dollars as DLC, if you don't mind hunting through system folders to find them. I love video game music, but the soundtrack albums tend to not make very good albums. Invariably, some of the music is really more about setting a soundscape, which is really cool in a game and hard to listen to on its own. But it does mean that even the best ones are hit-or-miss. And some of them are really shoddily put together. But they can also be incredible in their own weird way. So here's a smattering of video game soundtracks that I don't really listen to, but definitely have a couple tracks mixed into my favorite playlists.

Darren Korb - Bastion

Swampy steel guitars and a low-key country vibe under light-industrial drums. It reminds me of Firefly a little. The best song: Spike In A Rail.

Aperture Science Psychoacoustic Laboratories - Portal 2: Song To Test By

It's four freaking discs long. And it includes the soundtrack for the entire first game as well, because of course it does. It generally blips along pleasantly (or darkly) enough, but there are some great high points. Robots ftw has a bouncy, dissonant party vibe. Furthering The Cause Of Science does a good job of capturing the awe-and-wonder side of the game. And of course there's the brilliant Still Alive penned by Jonathan Coulton that plays under the closing credits of the first game.

Markus Captain Kaarlonen - Rochard

A game about space junkers with a bluesy theme song, the album is surprisingly made mostly of ambient tracks with big shimmery orchestral swells. Aliens & Indians is worth your time.

The Adjective Plural Noun - Full Boar

Actually this album is terrible. It was pretty clearly put together by a multi-instrumentalist who could play anything but didn't really know much about tracking. The crazy-impressive guitar work is all out of sync with itself. But I included it anyway because it is one of my favorite band names.

Mike O.K. - Windforge

Steampunk RPG that's... not well-received. The soundtrack mostly builds itself around one particular theme, but it's a huge theme, almost on the scale of Lux Aeterna from Requiem For A Dream. It churns relentlessly but has a gorgeous melodic resolve in the fourth bar. It's best exemplified in the track At The Top Of The World.

Jean-Marc Giffin - Sentinels of the Multiverse

There are currently seven volumes with an eighth on the way--one for each of the expansions. Since this is an adaptation of a tabletop game, it doesn't have levels or the kind of narrative progression you see in most video games. Instead, the tracks are all musical themes tied to either a location or a character, and these characters and environments are riffs on traditional comic book settings. So you have the crime-ridden urban noir theme, or the theme for Wager-Master, an impish villain who wants to put the heroes through a life-or-death game show. These can get weirdly specific in very entertaining ways. Omnitron is a villain from the base game who comes back as an environment later, so its environment theme is an expansion and deconstruction of its villain theme. The Time Cataclysm theme is based on the idea that the deck of cards it represents is a mash-up of environments from all the previous games, so the song for it is a seventeen-minute series of mash-ups of previous themes. There are fifteen "team" villains that you fight not individually but in groups of three to five, and all of them have the same melody for their themes but with different arrangements, because when you hear that theme in the game, it's built of threads of all the individual villains, meaning you get a different arrangement depending on which villains you fought and what order you had them standing in. Honestly, it's all kind of amazing.

Nobuo Uematsu - Final Fantasy VI

The music in Final Fantasy is generally well regarded, but FFVI is definitely the highlight, and I'm not just saying that because it's my favorite video game of all time. But seriously, just listen to this theme that you walk around the world-map to! The music is gorgeously composed and doesn't fall into the some-of-it's-just-a-creepy-soundscape trap. On the other hand, it's three hours of chiptunes, none of which have an actual ending because they're made to loop indefinitely in the game. So for each track you hear the theme looped through twice and then fade out.

And you can't talk about Final Fantasy VI without mentioning...

Overclocked ReMix - Final Fantasy VI: Balance And Ruin

This is a fan reinterpretation of the music from FFVI and you can download all six insane hours of it for free! Every single track was recorded by a different artist, so you wind up with fingerstyle-guitar, rag time, and dubstep--all on the same disc! There's a gorgeous classical rendition of the evil Emperor's theme. The iconic-if-clunky opera (yes, this is a 16-bit game with a major story arc surrounding an opera) is given a 9-minute treatment by someone who, methinks, is a big fan of the song Bohemian Rhapsody. If you're a fan of the game, you need to have checked this one out.