Thursday, August 30, 2012

Certain Songs

I freely admit: I love lists and countdowns. Even when I don’t agree with them, or with the placement of certain favorite items on them, I still am bizarrely attracted to them. I don’t take them seriously, of course, reflecting as they do simply someone’s opinion. So, no, I am not one to start bombarding online comments sections with “how dare you say x belongs at #203, when it clearly belongs at #2.” And vice versa.

So it was some months ago, I came across Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, surely an entertaining bit of flamebait if ever there was one. Naturally, I have my points of disagreement, but ultimately, why argue? It’s not that important.

As I was flipping through the Rolling Stone list one lazy Sunday last spring, I began to think about my own favorite albums—and it dawned on me, perhaps incorrectly, that at age 44 (well, 45 today), all the albums that were ever destined to be my favorites have probably already been released. A bit of a sad prospect, I suppose, and I have to admit that if I had one wish, it would be to be able to go back in time and hear Dark Side of the Moon again for the first time.

But then, that may not be true; there are a handful of titles on my list of personal favorites that actually date from the past decade, and two of my favorite bands of all time—The Decemberists and The Hold Steady—were formed in the 2000s and are still very much active. So never say never. Plus, I have not listened to everything that has ever been recorded, and it is entirely likely that I will discover a band I had previously not heard and an album or two will hit me in that certain way that some records do, when—as the man said—certain songs get scratched into our souls. (In fact, I had never really listened to 1980s jangle-pop college rock faves The dBs but I just discovered their first two albums and now I can’t stop playing them. So there is still a lot of stuff ou there waiting for me to discover it.)

Music has always been a vital, integral part of my life—and I don’t just mean as background music. I mean, being enveloped by words and music, of connecting to a sound or, especially, a lyric in a very real, emotional way. We all do this to some extent, but some of us more than others (I recommend reading Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity—or see the movie—which explains how obessive we can get). In my teenage years especially, music was a form of not only escape, but also of some kind of validation. And, of course, entertainment. I used to (and still do) make mix tapes (and now mix discs) and if anyone ever bothered to listen to them closely, they were probably the best way of understanding what I was thinking or feeling at any given moment. They were always kind of like therapy, in a way.

It’s not just about songs. In this day and age of iTunes, the album as a concept—a set of songs sequenced in a particular way, that form a more or less cohesive whole unit—may seem foreign to a lot of people. But remember, though, before (arguably) Sgt. Pepper, albums were subservent to singles, and albums were assembled piecemeal without any real structure. Especially in the British Invasion, UK and American albums—even those having the same name—could have wildly different songs on them. (See The Beatles and The Kinks, to name two bands whose British and American albums differed drastically from each other.) The album as some of us think of it is really only about as old as I am. And that’s not very old at all!

Anyway, what will follow over the following months—if only to keep this blog active again, after I had spent far too much time over on The Facebook Machine—is my own 152 Favorite Albums of All Time. A couple of ground rules:
  • No greatest hits albums—I mean, come on, that’s cheating. 
  • No live albums—I never really cared for live albums, with a few exceptions, but, again, that’s cheating because they’re usually “greatest hits live” albums. Exceptions are a couple of Frank Zappa live albums which contain all original songs that never had a studio release.
  • No more than five albums by the same artist. We all have our favorite musicians, and it would be easy to frontload this list with almost everything Pink Floyd or Rush or The Beatles or Robyn Hitchcock ever released. You gotta draw a line somewhere. I think I adhered to this rule, but I may be wrong. 
I did not spent an inordinate amount of time mathematically determining which number each album should appear at. I’m obsessive, but not that obsessive! And who has the time? (It’s 3:21. No, wait...) Ahem. Anyway, this ordering is a rough guestimate—not too much should be read into any qualitative difference between #51 and #50. The top 20 or 25, though...they’re pretty solid, I would say.

Bear in mind that this is also a snapshot in time. In a couple of years time, some records may fall out of favor, and some may shoot up the list. Who knows?

Of course, this is just a list of my personal favorites. This has no bearing on the respective musical merits of any musician or album relative to any other musician or album. If someone is not on this list...well, it just means it never struck me particularly hard. Or I am unfamiliar with it. Like any list, it’s all completely subjective, is really just for a bit of fun, and is not intended to be taken internally.
We’ll be proceeding from number 152 (round numbers are boring) all the way up to number 1, with three new entries every Tuesday and Thursday. (Although, since I was away, Blogger has been made virtually unusable. It used to be such a great blogging platform, and now it is utterly horrible. Just getting this post up has been nine kinds of frustrating.)

Anyway, without further ado...

Tom Lehrer
More of Tom Lehrer
We kick off with the most atypical album on this list (well, no, not really; there is a Residents record lurking further up the road)—but it is the oldest. Song satirist Tom Lehrer was not especially prolific (he was actually a mathematics teacher and only released three proper albums, plus a couple of live albums that replicated track-by-track the studio albums), but his funny, erudite, sarcastic piano-accompanied rags were staples of Dr. Demento and still hold up today (generally—one or two songs are a bit less than PC, but not offensively so; “wetback” is the roughest word he uses, so there’s no need to haul out the fainting couches). He occasionally contributed songs to TV shows, such as PBS’s Electric Company
Dark humor masked by bouncng melodies was one of Lehrer’s fortes, and “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” gets things off to a jaunty, if disturbing, start. “When they see us coming, the birdies all try an’ hide/But they still go for peanuts when coated with cyanide.” And if you’re thinking what I’m thinking: “We’ve gained notoriety/And caused much anxiety/In the Audubon Society/With our games.” And, of course, “maybe we’ll do in/A squirrel or two.” “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” was later orchestrated, a version that really is quite lush, but no less amusing. 
“The Masochism Tango” is another favorite that was also later orchestrated. “I ache for the touch of your lips, dear/But much more for the touch of your whips, dear/You can raise welts/Like nobody else/As we dance to the masochism tango.” How can you not love lines like “You caught my nose/In your left castanet, love” or “Before you here I stand/My heart is in my hand...ecch!” It was another Dr. Demento favorite. 
“The Elements” is essentially nerd heaven, being a recital of all the elements on the Periodic Table (at least up to that time) set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. It ends: “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard/And there may be many others, but they haven’t been discovered.” He loves weird forced rhymes.
Elsewhere Lehrer sings about Oedipus Rex (“He loved his mother”), Christmas (“Hark, the Herald-Tribune sings”), and schooldays (“Soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life”). “Clementine” reinterprets the old folk song via Cole Porter, Mozart, Gilbert and Sullivan, and (then) modern jazz. “It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier” was curiously militant for the pre-Vietnam era (Lehrer did a stint in the Army just after the end of the Korean War). 
This and its predecessor, 1953’s Songs By Tom Lehrer, are required listening. Everything he ever recorded was released in The Remains of Tom Lehrer box set in 2000.

Sonic Youth
Daydream Nation
And now for something completely different. Although I remember when this record came out (it was prominently displayed in the Syracuse University on-campus record shop back in 1988), I didn’t get into Sonic Youth until the follow up Goo came out in 1990, and I never got around to picking up Daydream Nation—their magnum opus—until 1998 (when A Thousand Leaves came out, I went through a bit of a SY period). It is very much their White Album (and that same year they did release a spoof—if unlistenable—record called The Whitey Album, credited to Ciccone Youth). Daydream Nation is a sprawling two-LP affair (back in the days of vinyl) with classic songs (“Teen Age Riot,” “Candle”), extended jams, their signature alternate tunings, explosions of noise and feedback, found sounds (“Providence” is a sound collage featuring a solo piano over the sound of an amp exploding and an answering machine message from Mike Watt), and even a concluding “Trilogy” (the three parts share a common guitar tuning so they were recorded en suite).

SY was always more about NYC avant garde performance art than traditional rock, or even punk. The elaborate gatefold cover—featuring a Gerhard Richter painting—caused printing problems which led to availability issues, and was one reason the group decided to abandon indie labels a year later. Go figure: an indie band goes to a major label because of printing. Gotta love it.

Pop culture jokes and references abound; “Hey Joni” pays simultaneous homage to the old classic “Hey Joe” and Joni Mitchell; the third part of the closing trilogy, “Eliminator Jr.,” was so titled because it sounded like a cross between Dinosaur Jr. and ZZ Top’s Eliminator (it’s even labeled part “z” on the album sleeve in case you missed the reference). The bandmembers even chose special symbols for themselves, à la Led Zeppelin IV.

Daydream Nation doesn’t get an awful lot of play on my CD player or iTunes—it’s one of those records you tend to appreciate more than actively enjoy—but I do wish I had heard this when it came out.

Steely Dan
Gaucho? Really? Well, OK, the selection of Gaucho as this album entry is meant to stand in for Steely Dan’s entire 1972–1980 output. Naturally, I heard the hits on the radio in my youth, but never really got into the band in earnest until a cross-country train ride in 2000, after which I bought the Citizen Steely Dan box set that ran all seven of their classic albums in a row. As a result, each record never really had its own identity for me, although my mother had Gaucho and I recall “Hey Nineteen” and “Time Out of Mind” when those singles were on the chart in 1980.

Delving into them in detail one begins to figure out that what sounds like pure AM pop actually is a bit subversive (not a shock, given where the band’s name came from). “Reelin’ in the Years” (from their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill) sounds like cheery, if sentimental, ode to the past or some such, but is actually quite a bit darker, even if you don’t know what exactly it’s about. That’s what I like about them—behind the surface of highly polished, radio-friendly sheen are clever, often fairly twisted lyrics. (Bit of trivia: Craig Finn, lyricist and singer for The Hold Steady [see later in this list], purportedly took the name of his recurring “Charlemagne” character from the Steely Dan song “Kid Charlemagne” which is a satire about a drug dealer.)

Their final album, until reuniting in 2000, Gaucho was the result of Donald Fagen and Walter Brecker’s studio obsessiveness; some have said the album is all sheen and gloss and no soul, but you could make the same argument about any Steely Dan album. It does have my favorite Steely Dan song, “Hey Nineteen,” which I understand more and more the older I get (and understanding Steely Dan lyrics is rarely an easy task!):
Hey Nineteen
That’s ’Retha Franklin
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul
It’s hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old
I get that a lot... The perfect track for anyone whose cultural references are decidedly passé!

It did seem only fitting that they broke up after Gaucho—for a while. No, Gaucho is probably not their best or most definitive album, so if you prefer subsitute their entire oeuvre—or Citizen Steely Dan—as in my mind it’s all of a piece.

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