Thursday, June 12, 2008

Introducing... Albums That I Own

The next step in this little site's progression isn't, in fact, going to be on this site. I'm keeping One Man, 500 Albums up, but it will be dormant. I will not be posting here much in the future, if at all.

However, I will be continue to write about records, though not a specific list. Not unlike the unlisted albums on this site, I will be writing about various albums on the new site/blog/whatever, Albums That I Own.

As I wrote on the new site's welcome post:

But, I do want to bring out some of my favorite, odd and misplaced (within my collection, I mean) albums. This site gives me the opportunity to explain my interest, for example, in a Dixie Chicks record. No, I'm not joking.

As such, the first post on the new site is, indeed, a Dixie Chicks record. Though that album doesn't portend the type of music I'll be writing about -- I don't like country music much -- it does show that I'll be stretching a lot in my writing. It won't just be classic rock, but rather genres I enjoy (post-rock, for example) and quirky records in my collection.

Please, go check out Albums That I Own.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Unlisted: We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, this site's future is still unwritten. I'm not doing another list, as the work is too much for me right now. With that said, I'm going to continue to post unlisted pieces and here is an album I adore from a band I'm ashamed to admit I love.

Band: Death Cab For Cutie
Album: We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Well, Death Cab isn't a band that everyone knows, so I guess this album shouldn't be here. I imagine it's just a personal love of mine.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "We Have The Facts" is a wondrous romp through what appears to be an on-again/off-again relationship of hipsters in Seattle. Emotionally charged, the barbs fly ("For What Reason") while bitterness remains until the end of the album("Scientist Studies"). Musically, the perfect combination of emo-style vocal whining, angular Northwest guitars and four-piece production gives the lyrics more resonance.
Best song: "For What Reason" is vitriolic on a wonderful level; The song's opening lines give fuel for dumped boyfriends for ages: "This won't be the last you'll hear from me: it's just the start."
Worst song: There's no really bad song on here. It's a wonderful record.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

"I don't think I ever noticed."

I was standing with a tape recorder in my hand, about a foot away from Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla. Nervous, I'd just asked Walla what he thought of lead singer Ben Gibbard's dance moves. To me, a 21-year-old who was seeing the band a second time, Gibbard's strange foot motions were notable. To Walla -- a lanky cross between Prince Valiant and Spike Jonze -- this was just the way the show went.

I've never been a good interviewer -- my favorite interview I've ever conducted was with Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch and was almost entirely about basketball -- but this particular event with Walla was exceptionally awkward. I stopped being a real college radio person and turned into simply a fanboy, staring a member of one of my favorite bands down.

This was March 2002. I'm not sure I'd act any different six years later.


Despite growing up in the north suburbs of Chicago, my parents raised me a White Sox fan. Being a sports fan in general torments me -- it's a generally stupid group -- but being a White Sox fan torments me in particular. The Sox' fanbase is a lower class than many baseball fanbases, drawing from the group of fools who rush the umpire and try to beat up a coach. It's a group that includes the main guy from Styx. It's a group that asks questions about stolen bases of Mark Gonzales.

It's not a club I'm proud to belong.

Simlarly, I love Death Cab for Cutie. The aforementioned 2002 show was attended mostly by female Rock Bridge and Hickman High School students, with a smattering of University of Missouri people, mostly affected skinny men or squealing women. It's probably sexist, it's certainly stupid, but this annoyed me.

This fanbase, of course, connects to the band and the band's frontman. Gibbard, chief songwriter and lead singer, crafts music of a mostly adolescent nature. I don't know another way to describe it. Songs like "Photobooth" -- an indie rock update of "Summer Nights" -- tells the tale of teenage love, while Gibbard's voice falls between matter-of-fact snark and the whispery tenderness of a brooding sophomore. It's brilliant in its potential to draw both men and women into the mix. Drawing on relationship experience, the songs have an overly emotional feel, though it is one that we've felt. It's sensitive, but grave enough to have heft.

Gibbard's writing defines this. His lovelorn and simple lyrics hardly have the tone of McCartney, Lennon or fellow Washingtonian Cobain but rather read like overwrought prose, albeit pleasant and relatable overwrought prose. Side project The Postal Service was a an exercise in such lyrics (Sample 1: "I want so badly to believe that there is truth and love is real." Sample 2: "I am thinking it's a sign. That the freckles in our eyes. Are mirror images and when we kiss they're perfectly aligned.") and his Death Cab work -- while more nuanced -- relies on similar emotive responses.

This is both Gibbard's blessing and curse. Death Cab is an anomaly in the current irony-centric indie rock climate due largely to Gibbard's huge sincerity. Death Cab's music isn't like Pavement's; love is good, songs about girls are encouraged and Gibbard's breakups make for great song fodder. You'll find very few non-sequitors in Gibbard's songwriting and words aren't chosen solely because they fit rhythmically.

Of course, it's not the sincerity that makes Death Cab stand out. It's the quality of said sincerity. "Photobooth" is both ridiculous and wonderful at once. It reflects a reality none of us have ever known but have yearned for, the reality of emotional fuck buddies within a three-month constraint. "Send Packing" -- a song from Gibbard's pre-Death Cab solo album All Time Quarterback -- is among the greatest breakup songs ever written. "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" is a brilliant breakup album. The band's first record is full of fun metaphors and dancing guitar pieces.

But, it's also the sincerity that opens the band up for criticism. In an indie rock world that celebrates the obtuse non-sequitir (Malkmus), the overly dark (Jason Molina), the overly political (Sleater-Kinney), the genre quirky (Devendrea Barnhart, Will Oldham) and the ironic (The Go! Team, etc.), a sincere angular guitar rock band doesn't always have a place. Torquil Campbell summed it up well in an AV Club interview a while back:

God bless Animal Collective, but they really have, in their own strange way, made indie rock a much more conservative place than it should be. If you can create intellectual distance from your work, then critics will feel clever for getting it and give you good marks; if you create music that fucked-up 13-year-old girls might enjoy, then critics will feel like you're trying too hard and not give you good marks.

Death Cab doesn't get the criticism within the blog/Web community that Stars does -- Death Cab is a better band, after all. But, I've heard it many times from pretentious friends and I understand why. I often feel a little ashamed that I am a Death Cab fanboy. And I don't mean sorta fanboy. I mean I have every single thing the band has ever released, including the extremely rare split 7" with Fiver, the "Wait/Prove My Hypothesis" 7", the original "You Can Play These Songs with Chords" cassette and the limited edition "John Byrd" EP. I prefer to listen to music that's above the fray, instrumental post-rock like Mogwai and Tortoise. But, being a melodramatic asshole, Gibbard's songwriting hits my buttons. At my heart, I'm still a 16-year-old getting dumped, wanting to know why. Wanting some answers.


Simpsons creator Matt Groening has a theory that anything serial is looked at by fans as being constantly deteriorating from the point which that specific fan first encountered the particular thing. He uses "The Simpsons" as the example, in that the first generation viewers of the show -- myself included -- found the third, fourth and fifth seasons to be the best. Whatever you first saw is what you will love the best.

Another Simpsons writer (I'm blanking on whom) mentions on the same DVD commentary that something serial will have to change things soon enough, because everything else has been done. For example, charges of Homer being too stupid were levied at the show as early as season six, mostly because the writers needed to continue to push some sort of envelope. This is how "22 Short Films About Springfield" was made, as well. Someone had to do something to break new ground and find new humor.

This isn't to say that later work isn't good. It almost always is. But, it's tough to grow with a band or a TV show. Someone who first knew "The Simpsons" via the 15th season is going to have a completely different view of the show than I. That's just life.

A lot of people have gotten into Death Cab via "Plans" or their latest, "Narrow Stairs." I like "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes."


One notable thing about Death Cab's success is its slow burn. The band's debut album was well-received, though under the radar. "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" was critically acclaimed, but arrived at a time when the Web did not dominate music (and therefore independent music was still not as accessible via iTunes and such). "The Photo Album" and "Transatlanticism" grew the band's popularity, albeit slowly. Eventually, of course, Death Cab signed with Atlantic and "Plans" debuted at Billboard's no. 4 position. "Narrow Stairs," released earlier in May, debuted at no. 1.

So, I don't know if I'd call "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" as the band's breakout. Today's music climate doesn't necessarily make for good breakouts; fellow Pacific Northwesters Modest Mouse's "breakout" was simply when they got a video on MTV. I don't know that Death Cab has ever had a video on MTV, as the channel rarely shows videos anymore.

Like any band that achieves success within its time, Death Cab is a product of said time. The band's best work takes from the other angular guitar music of the time while combining it with the pleading lyric style of the region. Put simply, the best of Death Cab's work sounds most like the lovechild of Modest Mouse and Elliott Smith.

"We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" is the best of Death Cab's work. Writing about the album in 2000, I compared it to my favorite songwriter:

The total irony of this album is that it came out within a month of Elliott Smith's album, "Figure 8." Where "Elliott Smith" SHOULD HAVE gone with "Figure 8," Death Cab for Cutie perfected.

I stand by this. Elliott Smith's brilliance was in his ability to use the rhythms of everyday language in his songwriting. His songs weren't repetitive in word, he never used cliches and the pullout lines were always ones we all use in conversation.

Gibbard often gets a little cute with his lyrics, but "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" has the same conversational quality. My favorite song on the album -- and my favorite of his compositions -- uses this strategy in its opening line. while "This won't be the last you hear from me, it's just the start" isn't epic and sweeping like so many Cobain lyrics, it has a mid-career Dylan quality (this, of course, is without mentioning Gibbard's splendid delivery). The album is full of similar lyrics, slowly sang over Walla's brilliant melodic-meets-mathy guitars. The album's opening track lyrics end on Gibbard repeating "I rushed this. We moved too fast, and tripped into the guestroom."

The album's breakup theme is near universal. Tiny Mix Tapes compared it to Annie Hall and listeners (well, one listener. Me.) extrapolated it to their breakup emotions. The escapism ("What ghosts exist behind these attic walls?") and the forgotten love ("Misguided by the 405 'cause it lead me to an alcoholic summer. I missed the exit to your parents' house hours ago.") all inhabit the album in various places.

While Elliott Smith's great work was able to reconcile breakups with still-in-love infatuation, Gibbard's is more sinister. Like the brilliant "Send Packing" (final lyric: "I've nothing to say that we haven't gone already."), multiple tracks on the album. The record's centerpiece, the dual "Company Calls" tracks, recount a wedding in which the protagonist lambastes the entire experience, culminating in a raucous chorus.

Set your sights destroy this partyline,
'cause it's so tired.
Set your sights! Destroy this mock-shrine,
'cause it's so tired

The same song repeats the album's theme of a resentful breakup, as the narrator recounts the arguing and unhappiness in the brilliant opening lyric:

I'll take the best of your bad moods
and dress them up to make a better you

The second track in the diad, "Company Calls Epilogue" is more sedate. A morning after of sorts, the song is no less unhappy, using the "Title Track" method of delivering somber lyrics over the song's ending while lamenting said wedding. Slow and melodic, the almost-chorus teems with resentment:

Crashing through the parlor doors, what was your first reaction?
Screaming, drunk, disorderly: I'll tell you mine.
You were the one, but I can't spit it out when the date's been set.
The white routine to be ingested inaccurately.


I generalize a fair amount when I write. Part of that is playing the part of a polemicist, part of it is our culture ingrained in me. Part of it is trying to be a relatable writer and mostly, it's much more interesting than the "on one hand, on the other hand" method that often inhabits my head. It's more fun to write "country music sucks" than "country music generally sucks, but artists like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard make interesting and great music. Also, the Meat Puppets take a great deal from country. What is considered alt-country is also great, specifically Uncle Tupelo..."

And so on.

But, this record remains a wonder. Whereas later Death Cab albums fall into the overarching (The band's latest single "I Will Possess Your Heart") or the weirdly dark ("What Sarah Said"), "We Have the Facts" is specific and smart. As a concept album, it's easy to follow, but as a thematic one (slight difference), it's brilliant. It's easy to extrapolate. I first experienced the album during a breakup and personalized it to an outrageous extent. I acted like a child and took to the album as such. It was idiotic, immature and a time I wish I had back.

But, on some level, I'm glad I shared that time with the album, as strange as that sounds. It's not a place I want to revisit, but that was a time when I was able to achieve a depth of emotion I'm not sure I can access as easily anymore. The album makes me remember, on some level, why extreme teenage emotion can be fun.

Friday, May 23, 2008


And so it ends.

It's been 51 weeks since I started this project. It started as a test of baby boomer logic and my own discipline and it ends as a repudiation of the former and a confirmation of the latter.

I made it through the entire list, though somewhere my piece for "Armed Forces" got lost in the Internet. I'll rewrite it within the next week. Nevertheless, I got through about 490 records (after considering help from Padraig, Taft and Ellen) in under a year.

What did I learn? I learned that this type of list is ridiculous. We live in a culture wherein we rank everything constantly for no reason other than we need to fill column inches and TV time. The Web has followed suit with a constant barrage of 10 best this and 10 best that. It's an odd cultural entry to a variety of content, which is good. But, it also discourages serious criticism and analysis.

Gone are the days of the pullout stories and in its place are shorter pieces. I'm not one of the dinosaurs who laments these stories; this is the nature of information in 2008. I'm cool with that. Hell, I'm a Web producer by profession. But, I do appreciate great in-depth writing and we have lost a lot of that in the mainstream press.

Of course, I'm a total hypocrite being that none of my reviews are particularly in depth. But my point is mostly that these lists are an easy way to generate a lot of copy.


I mentioned above that the list has problems with the term "great." Like the MVP in sports, "great" is essentially meaningless. It could mean influence on other bands, it could mean records sold, it could mean groundbreaking sounds. It could mean any combination of those factors.

I've spoken a little about records that need to be on the list in lieu of some of the lesser albums (Quicksilver Messenger Service, for example). I'll just throw some more out there now with the caveat that this list is horrible incomplete.

  1. Something by Mariah Carey. If only because Carey's vocal style is the most imitated in all of music. If Whitney Houston is there, Mariah needs to be there.

  2. Anything by Garth Brooks or the Dixie Chicks. Country music, especially popular country, is wildly popular and not represented on the list.

  3. Any music not from Britain or the U.S. This is a little more abstract, as the list doesn't make any claims about putting "world music" on it, whereas there are definitely jazz and country records there. Still, it'd be nice to see some Fela Kuti on there.

  4. More jazz. Simple as that.

  5. Anything by the Foo Fighters. I actually don't like the Foo Fighters, but I do think they're one of the bigger bands of the past 15 years and at least as important as the last few Springsteen and Dylan records on the list.

  6. Something by Tupac Shakur. Tupac is rightly considered one of hip hop's greatest MCs and he is not represented on this list.

This is not counting my particular bent of having more indie rock and metal on the list (two genres I enjoy).


So... What now?

Despite suggestions, I am not going to tackle another list anytime soon. No AFI movie list, no RS 500 songs list. It's just too much work in too little time for me.

I haven't finalized what I'll do, going forward. I've got some ideas, but in the interim, I'll simply be writing some small reviews like the unlisted stuff from this site.

Obviously, thanks to everyone who has read, commented and helped with the project. It has been a blast and I've learned a ton.

No. 500: Touch

Band: Eurythmics
Album: Touch
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Despite not having two of the band's biggest hits, "Touch" is Eurythmics' strongest record.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The record isn't great. I could think of a lot of other albums to sit in this spot.
Best song: "Here Comes the Rain Again" is brilliant.
Worst song: "Aqua" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Annie Lennox had something of a solo career in the early 1990s with her album "Diva," wherein she sang tons of easy listening-type songs. The album's videos were a mainstay of VH1 back when VH1 was a place for AAA music and not a repository of over-the-hill celebrities acting like children for five more minutes of fame.

I bring "Diva" up only because that was my first exposure to Lennox. I wasn't aware of Eurythmics when I was a lad. For whatever reason -- my parents' listening habits tending towards the Beatles, our not having cable until I was 10, etc. -- I never really knew about the band until way after knowing about "Why" and "Walking on Broken Glass."

There's no question that Lennox has an amazing voice. Her low register croon is decidedly feminine, despite the androgynous qualities it has. "Regrets" is her best exercise of said voice on the album, while "Here Comes the Rain Again" is an amazing tale of unrequited love. "Who's That Girl" is straight synth pop with David Stewart bringing fine drum programming and even finer synth work. "The First Cut" is a genre-bending funk track, though the piece falls a little short of great funk.

It's overkill, I'm sure, but there's no question this album is a product of the times. Elecro pop is fun, but it's hardly timeless. Lennox' voice is fantastic, but Stewart's production is layered and cool. It also sounds like the 1980s.

No. 499: Born Under a Bad Sign

Band: Albert King
Album: Born Under a Bad Sign
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Albert King's 1967 is a later edition of blues, with the tight Stax house band. While not navigating the breadth of blues' styles like earlier blues records, the album's title track remains a classic.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I hate to sound repetitive here, but why complain about this album when it's no. 499? The title track is a classic and the
Best song: The title tack is fantastic.
Worst song: The tail end of the album is pretty boring.
Is it awesome?: It's close.

Again, the Stax House band, Booker T. and the MGs, make an appearance on the list. The band backs up King's awesome interstellar playing as tight as they are on the Otis Redding records of the same vintage. Duck Dunn's bass is clean and bright and Booker T. Jones' piano nearly carries "As The Years Go Passing By."

It's not in the same category as the classic blues masters (Muddy Waters, B.B. King, etc.), but it's pretty good stuff. The title track, of course, is a classic.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

No. 498: Tres Hombres

Band: ZZ Top
Album: Tres Hombres
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Before they were the guys with the crazy car, ZZ Top played hard blues riffs over and over. "Tres Hombres" is an album of hard blues riffs, played over and over.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: There's not a lot to hate here. It's ot one of the best 500 albums of all time, but at 498, is anyone really complaining?
Best song: "La Grange," a song about a whorehouse, is a classic. "Waitin' For The Bus" is pretty good.
Worst song: Once you get to "Have You Heard?" you're pretty tired of the same three riffs.
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Before ZZ Top was the ZZ Top we all know, the band was simply a three-piece from Houston. Playing inexplicably simple blues-rock, the band released "Tres Hombres" in 1975, to minor fanfare.

The album is actually quite pleasant for what it is. It's blues rock as filtered through a solo-happy guitarist and a rhytymn section happy to fall into the background. So, you have songs like "La Grange," a three and a half minute guitar solo, with some stolen John Lee Hoker riffs in between.

That's not to say "La Grange" is a bad song. It's not. It's tons of fun and that song's opening -- lifted or not -- is iconic in rock and roll music. You know it the minute you hear it.

"Jesus Just Left Chicago" is a similar blues song, in that the riff is lifted and the lyrics are thematically typical of the genre. "Waitin' For The Bus" isn't bad and "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" has a decent populist streak (though I still dislike blue collar rock).

It's not the worst thing in the world, but it's pretty standard blues

No. 497: Yo! Bum Rush the Show

Band: Public Enemy
Album: Yo! Bum Rush the Show
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Public Enemy's debut is a product of its times. It features some young, angry men practicing hip hop in a great way. It's not as solid as the group's later work, but it remains excellent.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Again, it's a dated record.
Best song: "Timebomb" is great.
Worst song: "Too Much Posse" is what happens when you give Flavor Flav a mic. This is a bad thing.
Is it awesome?: It's not totally awesome, but it's the precursor to something awesome.

As with almost all debut albums, "Yo! Bum Rush the Show" portends the general sound that Public Enemy would later perfect on albums like "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" and "Fear of a Black Planet." Chuck D's low rap and the Bomb Squad's production flow through the album.

With that said, the record is also a product of its time and its producer. Rick Rubin executive produced the album, despite actual production from the Bomb Squad. The record echoes LL Cool J's "Radio" in its old school feel. With all that said, the Bomb Squad's attachment to the samples and scratches of Terminator X. Some of the record sounds old, there's no way around it. "Public Enemy No. 1" is ridiculous and "Miuzi Weighs a Ton" is to gangsta rap as cro-magnon man is to a modern human.

Here's the other thing, Flavor Flav's prescence on the record is a little grating. "Too Much Posse" is a Flav track and he's awkward and stupid, rhyming "cool" with "fool" at one point. Flavor Flav is, in and of himself, a total joke. The hype man is one of the worst inventions in popular music. The Dickipedia entry on him sheds light on the silliness within, so I'll just link to it.

Again, I look to PE as the group many liberal boomers see as the extension of black people they knew from the 60s and 70s: The Panthers. They're mad, but they're old now, so they're harmless.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

No. 496: Destroyer

Band: Kiss
Album: Destroyer
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Wow, well. People like Kiss, right? I mean, they've sold tons of records and every time they tour, scores of makeup-covered morons push into the nearest stadium to proclaim their love of partying.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Bah.
Best song: "Detroit Rock City" is stupid, but fun.
Worst song: "Beth:" Worst song ever? I'd say maybe.
Is it awesome?: Not even close.

I haven't written extensively about my favorite current video game (only referencing it once), but I am an avid player of Rock Band. I love playing that game. I bought a Playstation 3 largely to play that game and that game only.

Anyway, there's a phenomenon in that game which I normally compare to Stockholm Syndrome. If you play Rock Band enough, you start to know -- backwards and forwards -- songs you wouldn't otherwise know or like. The game's soundtrack is extensive and there are tons of downloadable songs online. Nevertheless, in order to do well in the game, a player has to play a lot of goddamned songs the player doesn't like.

The game, for example, features songs by Molly Hatchet, the Killers, the Hives and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, all bands I wish would fall off the face of the earth. Still, I know those songs up and down because I've had to get the rhtymns down for playing the drums, the lyrics for singing and some semblance of the melody through playing the Rock Band guitar.

And so goes "Detroit Rock City," the first song from "Destroyer." It's a ridiculous song, written about a
Kiss fan who drank, drove and ended up dead after colliding with a truck in Michigan. It's based on a repetitive guitar riff and some wildly stupid lyrics, but I've come to know it as well as I know some of my favorite songs. know all the words. I can rock about a 90% on it


I like Pitchfork Media a fair amount -- I find myself defending it to friends and haters all too often -- but this review of "Destroyer" is an example of why people hate Pitchfork. Granted, it's an old review (and the site has moved away from this style of review recently), but the self-indulgent reference to a fictional "Troy" is stupid.


The rest of "Destroyer" is basically dung. "Beth," despite its popularity, is overwrought and dumb. "God of Thunder" is threatening in the same way an angry child is threatening; it's more cute than scary. "Flaming Youth" is awkward and stupid. "Shout It Out Loud" is clunky, due to some pretty mediocre singing.

Kiss is more of a phenomenon than a band. Their place in music history is important, but I'd hardly call their music great.

No. 495: New Day Rising

Band: Hüsker Dü
Album: New Day Rising
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the preeminent 1980s underground bands, Hüsker Dü was fast and furious before that term had soemthing to do with cars. Bringing pop melodies to hardcore speeds and muscianship to the Minutemen's ethos, "New Day Rising" is a classic.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'd suggest "Zen Arcade" is better, but I'm generally happy with this placement.
Best song: "Terms of Psychic Warfare" has a great guitar solo, the title track is awesome and "Celebrated Summer" shows the band's ability to branch out.
Worst song: I don't love "Whatcha Drinkin'".
Is it awesome?: Sure.

I am a liar. Earlier this week, I said Pearl Jam was the only band on this list without its best album on the list. Hüsker Dü also holds that distinction with "New Day Rising" here at 495 and "Zen Arcade" not on the list.


Hüsker Dü's influence is grand and "New Day Rising" backs up the band's reputation. The band was part of a wonderful blooming trio of bands in the 1980s out of Minneapolis/St. Paul including the Replacements and Soul Asylum (before they started to suck). Hüsker Dü was the hardest of the bands, starting as a hardcore band, all screams and distortion. As the band matured, vocals became more sing-songy and the guitars became more melodic, all while keeping the general aesthetic.

"New Day Rising" hitches up where "Zen Arcade" left off. The album's works themes like ambivalence and lost love are wonderful and tender. Bob Mould's voice is never better than on "Perfect Example" and Grant Hart's sadness is palpable on "The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill."

Of course, the bass lines roll ("Terms of Psychic Warfare") and the buzzsaw guitars on the title track show off the band's hardcore roots. Melody is wonderful, but thrashing is also awesome.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

No. 494: She's So Unusual

Band: Cyndi Lauper
Album: She's So Unusual
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: In another example of style trumping substance, "She's So Unusual" became a huge seller on the back of four huge videos and Lauper's crazy style.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's a typical 1980s record. There are bad compressed drums and crazy keyboards. Also, way too many backup singers.
Best song: "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" is great and "Time After Time" is a nice ballad.
Worst song: "I'll Kiss You" stinks.
Is it awesome?: No.

Cyndi Lauper's current popularity -- however small -- is more a product of the times than it is of her talents. That's not to say that Lauper doesn't have some talent; she's a decent songwriter and can sing a song within her limited range pretty well. But, for all intents and purposes, she should have been a one- or two-hit wonder. Instead, because of her strange style and quirky music videos, she's stuck around.

The album was released a scant two years after MTV's debut, so videos were incredibly important. Fighting with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince for airplay, Lauper fashioned a somewhat bizarre image -- layers of bright colors and giant hair -- that proved to be iconic.

She eventually became a gay icon, touring for the Human Rights Campaign recently. As an aside, I don't really understand who the gay community lauds as icons. Obviously, the "gay community" assumes that all gay people move as one, which is obviously not true. Nevertheless, individuality seems to be a big part of gay icon-ness, but I'd be lying if I said I understand what that means. Prince, for example, is quite the individual and wrote much better songs. Plus, you know, he's omnisexual. But, he's not a gay icon. But, Cyndi Lauper is?

As such, Lauper probably has the single most annoying speaking voice in the history of humanity (barely edging out Fran Drescher). The version I own of "She's So Unusual" has a few live tracks on it, and as Lauper introduces "She Bop," her ridiculous New York-via-nursery-school accent makes me want to stick a fork in my ear. Someof that comes through in her singing voice, but it mostly gets lost in the 1980s production.

"Campy" would be a fine word to describe much of the album. The album is over-the-top and pronounced, with the most famous single being a nod to femininity ("Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"). Only "Time After Time," a gorgeous ballad, remains understated. The backbeat keyboard from "All Through the Night" sounds like something out of a German disco, "Money Changes Everything" is yet another in the genre of "I hate the music industry" songs. "When You Were Mine" is a Prince-penned song that Lauper nearly ruins with her screech.

(Of course, "She Bop" is one of the more famous songs about masturbation. The video has Lauper dancing around the topic. That this video got airplay years before "I Touch Myself" really confounds -- and delights -- me.)

This album is probably the sneakiest 6x platinum album. Other than myself, I do not know a single soul that owns this record. Crazy, eh?