Thursday, January 31, 2008

No. 348: At Newport 1960

Band: Muddy Waters
Album: At Newport 1960
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Again, Muddy Waters shows why Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page can't hold a candle to the king. Waters' undeniable guitar skill and monstrous vocal talent. He hits all of his standards and barrels through them with an all-star band.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's hard to discount this record. It's really amazing.
Best song: You'd be hard-pressed to argue with “Hoochie Coochie Man.” “I've Got My Mojo Working” or “I've Got My Brand On You.”
Worst song:"Goodbye Newport Blues" isn't perfect.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

I've never been a huge blues fan, but after hearing this and the “Folk Singer” record, I'm turned onto Muddy Waters. This record is the perfection of that form, with Waters and his band tearing through his best songs.

No. 347: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Band: Pink Floyd
Album: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The onset of Pink Floyd's recording career is a stark look into the band's troubled early leader, Syd Barrett. At times genius and complex, "Piper" is also often just plain weird.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's challenging, that's for sure, but it's the type of album that influenced a lot of people.
Best song: "Astronomy Domine" and "Bike" are great.
Worst song: I love Pink Floyd, so I love this album. No bad songs.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

"The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" was recorded at Abbey Road Studios at the same time as what many consider to be the greatest album of all time (certainly, RS does, as it puts it at no. 1 on this list), "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." You'd be hard-pressed to find two albums that were so at odds with one another.

For all its pleasures, "Sgt. Pepper's" remains, essentially, a pop record. The Beatles did most of their branching out on "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's" was mostly just working with that. The album wasn't concerned with grand issues; the band was great at working on a micro-, emotional level. As much as it gets held up as a "Summer of Love" record, it hardly plays to the drug-addled times.

"The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" does. It's the type of album a band could compose, play live and record under the heavy influence of lots of psychotropic drugs. "Pow R. Toc H." is clearly the downside of this, as it's largely just the band playing various bits and screaming like jungle animals. Unlike the vast majority of "Summer of Love" albums (the Love record, the Zombies record, etc.), "Piper" was terrifying at times. In short, not all trips are good trips (more on that in a bit).

A frequent dismissal of hippies of that time is that they were overly reactionary and, frankly, bipolar during those times. The overwhelming need to love everyone was destructive on some levels and its reach, while noble (I guess) has given us a whole lot of, well, something. Just not everything. Drugs aren't just rainbows, love and baroque instrumentation. Drug use doesn't always make sense. Sometimes, a trip is scary, mind-bending and strange, all at once.

And that's "Piper at the Gates of Dawn." It'll bend your mind entirely -- as it did to just about everyone in Britain who had heard it -- but it'll also open your mind. It's scary, exhilarating and great. The comparison to the album's creator is apt; Syd Barrett was teetering on the edge of madness while making "Piper" and the record reflects that. It's not the structured power of the band's highlight work ("Wish You Were Here," "Dark Side of the Moon," etc.), not is it the often directionless (yet still amazing) mid-career records the band made directly after Barrett's departure ("Ummagumma," "More," etc.). It's somewhere in between, as the songs have thematic flourishes, long departures and beautiful pop hooks. Some songs on the record are pure quirk, something Zappa would compose ("Bike" being the grand example) while others are improvisational masterpieces like concert standards "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive." As Pitchfork's Joshua Klein put it in a review of the recent reissue, "By 1980's 'The Wall,' Pink Floyd had become sterile and solipsistic. At this auspicious start, Pink Floyd were thrilling. Anything was possible."

That's what "Piper" sounds like, in a lot of ways. It's the endless possibility of rock and roll, the sound explorations that would come forth for the next forty years and beyond. Yes, "Dark Side" is cohesive and perfect. Sure, "The Wall" is far-reaching and flawed. But, "Piper" is raucous, beautiful and challenging. This is why Pink Floyd is among the best.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

No. 346: 3 Feet High and Rising

Band: De La Soul
Album: 3 Feet High and Rising
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Christgau calls it the "New Wave to Public Enemy's punk" and he's absolutely right. The group's odd rhyming style and Beasties-influenced sample use was totally unconventional at the time and their introspective narratives remain an oddity in the genre.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This is the type of album that probably should be higher. The album's influence on underground rap is nearly impossible to measure, as De La and A Tribe Called Quest were closer than you'd think.
Best song: "The Magic Number" is great, as is "Me, Myself and I."
Worst song: The skits can get annoying and "Ghetto Thang" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

Somewhere between the hippies of the 60s and gangster rap of the 80s and 90s lies this record. The album has the narrative greatness of , the sexual introspective greatness of "Eye Know and "Jenifa Taught Me," the anti-drug snthem "Say No Go," the enviornmentalism of "Tread Water" and the pure greatness of "Me Myself and I."

One of the first rap records I knew of was "3 Feet High and Rising." It remains one of the best hip hop albums of all-time.

No. 345: Stop Making Sense

Band: The Talking Heads
Album: Stop Making Sense
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: If there is a better concert film, I'd like to see it. The Talking Heads' off-kilter and strange brand of New Wave permeates the album, as it is mostly a set of the band's best hits.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Two problems. The first, of course, is the greatest hits conundrum. We've examined this a million times. The other inherent problem is this ranking is probably based on the movie more than the album. That's all good and well, but because an Oscar-winner directed a movies doesn't mean the album is great. I mean, it is, but still, one does not equal the other.
Best song: Considering it's largely a greatest hits compilation, just about every song is great. Since it's the Heads, I'll repeat my love for "Crosseyed and Painless."
Worst song: "Slippery People" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Of course.

"Hi. I've got a tape I want to play you."

So begins "Stop Making Sense." The band's sublime Jonathan Demme-directed concert film is a series of mostly extended shots of the band playing in front of crowds during the band's 1983 tour. The stage is stark, as David Byrne didn't want many distractions for the filming.

The film, of course, is famous for the "big suit" Byrne wears at the end of the film. An homage to Japanese Nogaku theater styles, the suit was become a symbol of the band's quirkiness. It's classic Byrne, as a bizarre look at the world around them.


I can't go on too much about the record. I love the Talking Heads, so my feeling on the record is that it's great. "Life During Wartime" is a strange, impassioned funk song. "Once in a Lifetime" and "Crosseyed and Painless" are played flawlessly to the original versions. "Take Me To The River" is perfectly in Byrne's range. The tape effect of the band in "Psycho Killer" is probably the album's best portion, as Byrne wrestles the sound from the tape.

But, again, it's sort of a greatest hits compilation. The audience is potted down for most of the recording and the band is as tight as ever.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

No. 344: Berlin

Band: Lou Reed
Album: Berlin
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Lou Reed's third album is something of concept album (Robert Christgau calls it a "song cycle") and includes reworkings of Velvet Underground songs and traverses the usual places where Reed is familiar.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: How much Lou Reed do we really need? At some point, how much do we need to hear about heroin, cross-dressing and failed romance?
Best song: "Caroline Says (II)" is pretty good and the title track is great.
Worst song: "How Do You Think It Feels"
Is it awesome?: It's good, sure.

I understand Lou Reed is one of the truly unique voices in rock and roll. I understand that his work with the Velvet Underground is nearly unparalleled in its influence on the underground. I understand that his edginess was incredibly important for the culture.

With all that said, Lou Reed in his post-Velvets days was basically a more guitar-based David Bowie. There's a lot to like about that, but it also gets a little tired.

There's beauty in Reed's soft-spoken vocals on "Caroline Says (II)" and the title track, both reworked versions of earlier Reed songs. The cacophony of "Oh, Jim" is cool, even if the horns are a little much. "The Kids" is a cool experiment, though creepy. "The Bed" is evocative and cool.

But, again, it's all a little trying.

No. 343: Bat Out Of Hell

Band: Meat Loaf
Album: Bat Out Of Hell
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: This album has sold 14 million copies. So, uh, there's that.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album is a showtuney festival of masturbation by songwriter Jimmy Steinman. Some sort of homage to both Springsteen and Peter Pan (the storyline of the rock opera is loosely based on Peter Pan), "Bat Ouf Of Hell" is ridiculous, over-the-top and silly.
Best song: Ugh.
Worst song: "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" is awful, awful and awful.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

Man, oh, man. If an artist was hoping to make an album that was created simply to annoy me, what would it sound like?

Well, it would need the earnestness of Springsteen. It would also need some sort of Eagles-esque bad metaphors. There would have to be some outlandish showtunes-type melodrama. A boring mid-range male voice probably needs to be there, too -- I prefer female singers or men with voices that are distinctive. Let's also have some songs about cars and driving. I almost always hate songs about cars and driving.

What do you know? "Bat Out Of Hell" is almost written exactly to annoy me. The awful narrative Springsteen-style "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" almost perfectly fits the above description. It sounds like something Andrew Lloyd Webber would write, coupled with a ridiculous boring -- though out of breath, thanks to Meat Loaf's considerable girth -- vocal. The obnoxious Billy Joel-style piano peppers the song's three portions. Also, about making out in a car, something I've done all of once in my life.

Meat Loaf was good in "Rocky Horror Picture Show." That's about it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

No. 342: Violator

Band: Depeche Mode
Album: Violator
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Depeche Mode's seventh album was the band's biggest seller and best album. The culmination of their keyboard bleeps and Dave Gahan's baritone was released in 1990 and speaks to a real romantic side. Two of the three singles are considered singles and the record contains other fantastic songs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The great songs may be great, but most of the regular, non-album songs are just OK.
Best song: "World in my Eyes," "Enjoy the Silence," "Personal Jesus" and "Policy of Truth" are all great.
Worst song: "Clean" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yes, absolutely.

Two stories about this album:

1. The small suburb where I grew up was not wired for cable TV until I was in the fifth grade (the fall of 1989). I knew of cable TV (in my case, MTV and Nickelodeon) only from my cousins' houses, some friends and my father's office. When cable came to Northfield, two of the first videos I knew from MTV were "Personal Jesus" and "Enjoy the Silence." I remember mostly that "Personal Jesus" was a weird concept and something I wasn't totally comfortable with (I was a very small religious Jewito at the time). I also remember thinking that "Enjoy the Silence" was a weird video, with Dave Gahan carrying a lawn chair around while wearing a crown:

I later found out that this was some sort of allusion to "The Little Prince," a book I still have not read.

2. Between my junior and senior years of college, I interned at WXRT, one of the best commercial radio stations in America. One of my jobs at the station was to answer voice mails from the listener line. The listener line was mostly just people asking about songs XRT had on the station's heavy playlist. Most of the time this was easy; XRT is still a commercial station (so a heavily-played song is still played, like 50 times a week) and if the listener wasn't totally stupid, we could figure it out. Also, I have a decent knowledge of the station's playlist -- the XRT DJs played a lot of classic rock -- so I had a working knowledge of the songs the listeners asked about.

Anyway, I remember very clearly a listener asking about what he called a "psychedelic-sounding" song with a "reach out and touch me" chorus. Despite being a fan of "Violator," I got stuck on the "psychedelic" aspect of the dude's comment. It took me almost an hour before I realized, "Hey, wait, 'reach out and touch faith. Depeche Mode! Ah..." So, I called the dude back and sent him down the right path.

The song is pretty great. The conceit of the record, that celebrity could make someone into a fan's personal messiah, was influenced heavily by Elvis and Priscilla Presley's relationship. The song's guitar/drum thump is the hallmark of the song's appeal, though. Sounding like something a cowboy would produce while on LSD, the guitar's twang swings like a woman shaking her hips. Not surprisingly, the song is very popular at strip clubs.

No. 341: Play

Band: Moby
Album: Play
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Trust me. You know this album, considering you couldn't see a movie or watch TV without hearing something from this album. Somewhere near the intersection of Moby's native electronic and soft rock, “Play” is full of samples, guest vocalists and white-guy soul.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's hard not to hear the term “sell out” in this record. Every song was licensed from this album for something, so it was, uh, kind of overplayed.
Best song: “Natural Blues” is pretty great.
Worst song: "Guitar Flute & String"
Is it awesome?: I don't know, quite frankly.

What is the nature of selling out?

I guess it's less of a concern now that the Internet and advertising companies have infiltrated the music industry and will poach any mildly interesting band to use in an ad, TV show or movie.

Maybe it's just gutter punk politics. Back when I was in high school and college, the idea of “selling out” was as bad as murder. In punk and indie circles, making money and creating something commercial are some of the worst sins an “artist” can commit.

The first issue is a previously indie band signing on to a major label. Let's take Death Cab for Cutie as an example. Death Cab started as a nothing band on a nothing label in a nothing town and gained a small modicum of fame when their critically acclaimed second album, “We Have the Facts And We're Voting Yes” was released in 2000. The band then released two EPs (“The Forbidden Love EP” and “Stability”) and two more LPs (“The Photo Album” and “Transatlanticism”) on smallish indie Barsuk.

At this stage in the game, Death Cab had found itself as something of a force in indie rock. Between Chris Walla's angular guitar work and Ben Gibbard's teenage lyric/vocal situation, the band found a following among emo college students, teenage girls and almost-rock critics. Record companies took an interest in the band and eventually Death Cab got signed to Atlantic, a major label.

There weren't many screams of “sell outs!” when the record came out. That surprised me. Eight years before, Elliott Smith was called the same when he moved from tiny Kill Rock Stars to giant Dreamworks to record “XO.”

However, thinking about it now, the difference between the two artists could not be greater, despite my love for both. Elliott Smith went into the studio with major label money and made albums that could be artfully described as self-indulgent. He took what he was great at (writing songs) and expanded it to include strings, honky tonk pianos and saxophones. This didn't ruin the songs – the subsequent album, “XO,” was actually pretty good – but it took away Smith's greatest asset, intimacy.

At the time, Elliott Smith also licensed four songs to the film “Good Will Hunting” and supplied a fifth song – newly written “Miss Misery” -- to the soundtrack, aslso. His fans in 1998 looked at him as a sellout.

My own feeling is that selling out doesn't exist in any way unless a band is totally whoring it up – like, uh, Three Doors Down. In the case of “XO,” Smith got money to fulfill his vision for what an orchestrated record would sound like. While I see intimacy as his greatest asset, he might not have. Certainly, the songs were still beautiful and well-written. The difference between the sublime “Either/Or” and “XO” is that “XO” suffers from overproduction. Plain and simple.

In the case of the film, I also have no problem with making money. I do not believe any band should turn down money and Elliott Smith was smart to do so. The guy wants money – who can blame him? -- and he had an avenue to get some. Having spoken to people at his record company before his death (this was when I was in college and new something about music), the label never put anything on Smith. Any changes in Smith's music from KRS to Dreamworks were because he wanted them.

It's really easy for everyone to want artists to not concern themselves with money, but this is their job. In a mediocre interview with AV Club, Iron & Wine's Sam Beam talked about his music being in commercials:

Yeah, there have been a couple of them. Some people have problems with songs in commercials, but my feeling is, I've got kids to feed. My criteria comes down to, basically, "I like M&M's." It's a product I actually use. I think I did a Clorox one, too.

(Emphasis is mine)

Look, no one isn't a sellout a little. I love my job – most people can't say the same, by the way – but I am not doing exactly what I want with my life. To do that, I'd get paid money to do this project or I'd be on the radio or something. Due to a myriad of reasons (oversaturated media market, I suck at radio, etc.), I am a Web producer for a magazine and I keep my hobbies as my hobbies. It's called “being part of a society.” If we all just did what we wanted, bedlam would ensue.

There are two main reasons Death Cab didn't get a world of shit when they jumped. The first is because of Moby and his licensing every single song from Play. That opened the door to bands licensing anything they could. Teenage girl emo fans don't know of Braid, no less Elliott Smith, so to expect them to know what happened 10 years ago is silly.

Secondly, of course, Death Cab, didn't change their sound much when they went to Atlantic. The album wasn't really good, but the band has become pretty uneven since Ben Gibbard started using his best material for the Postal Service and Chris Walla did the same for his solo stuff. Comparatively, “Plans” is just a s mediocre as “The Photo Album,” a Barsuk release.


I can't really say a ton about “Play” that hasn't been said already. It's remarkable catchy and you have heard every single track. I don't love Moby as a musician – white guy soul doesn't work on me and I'm not a big dance music fan – but I respect the hell out of him as a person. He's remarkably principled, yet not pretentious. He's slammed Eminem in a very classy way, only to be lambasted by Eminem in both song and public.

Like I said, Moby licensed every single song from this record. He licensed them for things he was in support of or ambivalent to, like the Weather Channel or movies. He licensed them for things he didn't support, like Ford Truck ads. For the latter, he mentioned that he would donate all the money made to an environmental cause. Again, I find him principled, even if his music is often annoying.

“Play” is a classic if only because it soundtracked much of the late 1990s. You heard it at the mall, you heard it at the movie theater, you saw it on MTV and you've heard “Bodyrock” as basketball games since. It's overplayed and it's dated, but it's catchy.

Friday, January 25, 2008

No. 340: Damaged

Band: Black Flag
Album: Damaged
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The first full length album from the seminal LA hardcore band was Henry Rollins, "Damaged" is a testament to teenage frustration. Youth and power go hand in hand on "Damaged," even though the album is decidedly anti-authority. In true punk fashion, the band had problems with the label and distributor.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'd probably put this one higher.
Best song: "Six Pack," "TV Party," "Rise Above," etc. Whatever, they're all great.
Worst song: "Damaged I" goes on too long.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

Before he was a TV host, spoken word recording artist, author, actor or philosopher king, Henry Rollins was the singer of Black Flag. When Dez Cadena moved over to guitar, Hank took over as the band's vocalist.

The continuing theme within "Damaged" is, like most hardcore, aggression and frustration. Despite AllMusic saying that most of Black Flag's music "just sounded petulant and bored," "Damaged" starts with one of the band's anthems, "Rise Above." The song's lyrics reflect the overall hatred of authority ("We are tired of your abuse/Try to stop us its no use"), evidenced in the band's constant conflicts with the police, their record distributor, club owners, etc. The binary refrain in "What I See" ("I want to live. I wish I was dead.") reflects the melodrama evident in the youthful existence that the band parroted often.

Alcoholism isn't funny, but it's powerful in one of the album's highlights, "Six Pack." The idea of "I was born with a bottle in my mind, now I've got a sixer I'll enver run out" is classicly clever and angry, the band's signature. Rollins' Waits-esque growl is perfect for the song, though he was likely not drinking, but destroyed on acid while recording it.

"TV Party" is probably the silliest Black Flag song and the band's least aggressive. Relying on goofy full-band backing shouting ("all right!" and the shouting of various popular early '80s -- "That's Incredible," "Fridays," etc. -- TV shows) and a raucous bassline, the song is the simple description of a TV party and the sadness that occurs when the band's TV stops working. Again, it's silly, but tons of fun and the band's least punk song, despite it backing up the punk rock slacker image.


Black Flag's loose musicianship is one of the hallmarks of the band. Greg Ginn's solos, while skilled, don't have the crispness of the metal by which he was influenced. The riffing and transitions sound, at times, sloppy and hurried, though entirely by design. The swing beat bass lines are put together well, but Ginn and Rollins are the stars of this particular show.


Black Flag was one of the bands that introduced me to punk rock. As a freshman in high school, I befriended some kids in a band (I cannot remember, for the life of me, what the name of the band was) who played Meat Puppets and Black Flag covers. I was sort of familiar with Rollins, as Rollins Band has a minor hit when I was in junior high. I got a tape from my cousin of the band's greatest hits collection ("Wasted...Again") and fell in love.

"Damaged" is the culmination of West Coast hardcore. Like Minor Threat, the band almost personifies hardcore punk rock. This album is angst before it became "alternative" or one of the calling cards of Sub Pop records in the early 1990s.

Also, it was released the year I was born. Strange.

No. 339: The Heart Of Saturday Night

Band: Tom Waits
Album: The Heart Of Saturday Night
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Dispensing with the love songs, Waits' second record was a start of the character sketches and odd personas that would be the trademark of his later work.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Waits' voice is much clearer than his signature growl and it's not what I know as Tom Waits.
Best song: "Fumblin' With the Blues" is great, as is "Drunk on the Moon."
Worst song: I don't love "New Coat of Paint."
Is it awesome?: It's interesting, if nothing.

Tom Waits is a great songwriter, but my knowledge of him is the incredibly strange older fellow of the past ten years. Singing like he's gargling hot asphalt, Waits' recent albums all tumble towards incredibly strangeness, taking as much from Vaudeville and old-time jazz as they do from rock music.

His second album, however, is just a good record. It's not exciting, it's not weird, it doesn't really push any envelopes. Lyrically, it's really just Semisonic's "Closing Time" before "Closing Time" existed. Musically, it's a lounge singer playing the blues. An interesting concept, yes, but not the best thing I've ever heard.

There's a real tenderness in some of the songs. The sorta title track, "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night" has string-tinged sadness as Waits' voice works over the folky guitar. The piano balladry of "The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)" is overlaid with Waits basically speaking the song; singing just seems overwhelming at that point in the album. His florid descriptions in the song are probably a little much, but sound incredibly interesting as a beatnik-style spoken word track. "Fumblin' With the Blues" is a rapture in blues while Waits' voice starts to crack a little. "Depot, Depot" has a little showtunes in it, as does the awesome "Drunk on the Moon."

It's not Tom Waits as I know him, but it's still not a bad album and certainly interesting.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

No. 338: Cheap Thrills

Band: Big Brother and the Holding Company
Album: Cheap Thrills
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Janis Joplin remains a boomer icon and this album was the first to showcase her voice.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album isn't much more than blues rock with a great singer.
Best song: "Piece of My Heart" is pretty good. Their version of "Summertime" is good.
Worst song: "Ball and Chain" is too long.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

At what point does this list just become pointless hero worship? Joplin's voice is great, but she's a greatest hits artist, at most.

The inclusion of this album on here is either based on the over-love for the San Francisco scene or the fact that R. Crumb did a badass album cover. I'm hoping it's the latter.

No. 337: Aqualung

Band: Jethro Tull
Album: Aqualung
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: An almost concept album (side one is six character sketches, side two is an anti-religion tome), the band's fourth album is Tull's career highlight. It wasn't the full figure of Tull's progressive situation, but it certainly had the seeds of it. Ian Anderson's voice is gritty, tough and convincing while the band is tight and complex. All in all, a simple equation: Hard guitars + flute solos = awesome.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Save for Pink Floyd, there isn't a lot of love for progressive rock on the list, so I'd suggest that this album should be higher.
Best song: "Aqualung" doesn't have a bad song on it. As for best, let's say... "Up to Me?" "Cross-Eyed Mary?" "Locomotive Breath?" "Hymn 43?" "My God?" Any of them, really.
Worst song: "Wond'ring Aloud" is a little soft, but still amazing.
Is it awesome?: Yes, yes, yes yes.

Let's go with a list here:

  • The song "Aqualung" is about a transient, possibly a free spirit, written mostly out of Ian Anderson's guilt about homelessness. Anderson and his wife had seen a homeless man and Anderson concocted a character sketch, eventually putting it onto paper. Of course, the man on the exceedingly creepy album cover is, in fact, supposed to be said man. The actual aqualung was an underwater breathing device and the character is nicknamed as such because he has a breathing problem.

  • The album's second side -- "My God" through "Wind Up" -- are a string of songs conceptually connected by the idea that "God" had been corrupted by man. Each song is interesting in its own way; Certainly "My God" with its heretical lyric ("And the graven image you-know-who/with His plastic crucifix/he's got him fixed") is amazing.

  • To my father: No, Jethro Tull is not a person. It's a band.

  • It goes without saying that the folk/prog combination is quite interesting and the band's signature. The flute solos in many of the songs are the distinctive aspect of the band.

  • "Locomotive Breath" was recorded almost entirely through overdubs because Anderson couldn't explain the song properly to the rest of the band. Since then, of course, the song has become a live staple of the band.

  • For about a year, this was one of, maybe, five albums I listened to. I spent all of my senior year digging on Tull. This album still holds a place in my heart because of this period.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

No. 336: Superunknown

Band: Soundgarden
Album: Superunknown
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Robert Christgau calls it "This is easily the best--the most galvanizing, kinetic, sensational, catchy--Zep rip in history." I don't totally agree; Soundgarden's metal is harder-edged and Cornell's voice is more melodic and less animal-like. Yes, I prefer Soundgarden to Zeppelin.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'd like to see this one higher.
Best song: The album doesn't have many bad songs on it, though I'd say "Fell on Black Days," "The Day I Tried to Live" and "My Wave" are the best.
Worst song: "Like Suicide" and "Fresh Tendrils" are good songs, but not on the level of the other songs.
Is it awesome?: No doubt about it. Absolutely. It's a great, great album.

In late 1993/early 1994, the three grunge powerhouses released albums. Each could be considered each band's best work. Certainly, "Vs." is my favorite Pearl Jam album. "In Utero" is an awesome Nirvana album, though you'd be hard pressed to argue any of the three Nirvana albums are better than the others.

Certainly, "Superunknown" is Soundgarden's best work. I still hold that Chris Cornell's voice is the best in the history of rock and Kim Thayil's wacky tunings and time signatures make for nothing if not interesting metal.

The album is the band at its most mature. While Thayil almost entirely relied on the Black Sabbath/Black Flag dictum (Sub Pop Records' mantra) on the band's first albums, "Superunknown" is equally influenced by Eastern sounds, specifically, the Beatles' work with Eastern music:

We looked deep down inside the very core of our souls and there was a little Ringo sitting there. Oh sure, we like telling people it's John Lennon or George Harrison; but when you really look deep inside of Soundgarden, there's a little Ringo wanting to get out.

"Half" takes influences from Indian music, while "Black Hole Sun" and "Head Down" both sound Beatles-esque. "Kickstand" is more punk rock than other tracksm, while "Like Suicide" meanders. "Spoonman" features a slidey guitar riff and a spoon solo by a Seattle street musician.

"Fell on Black Days" might be the album's highlight. Being that the record came out a month before Kurt Cobain's suicide, a song about depression sounds oddly prescient, but it's as morose and beautiful as an Emily Dickinson poem.

The band is remarkably tight on the album. No song meanders too much ("Like Suicide" aside) and Thayil's guitar work is at its most interesting. The hard riffs and weird time signatures of "My Wave" just backs up Thayil's ability to fuck with guitar tuning like no one other than Keith Richards.


It saddens me that Soundgarden is left out of the conversation when people speak the praises of bands like Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam remains because, well, no one has told them forcibly enough to stop making mediocre Neil Young ripoffs. Soundgarden was better than those bands and was much more distinctive in style. Pearl Jam copped whatever classic rock band was popular; Soundgarden masterfully crafted metal in the image of the greats while still continuing to feel the punk rock of Black Flag and Flipper. It's no small feat.


Again, I am having trouble actually explaining how great this album is. It, like "Meat Puppets II," Isis' "Panopticon," "Revolver," Elliott Smith's "Either/Or," Neil Young's "Harvest" and a few others as albums I can enjoy in their entirety. No skipping songs, no fast forwarding. It's that good.

No. 335: Squeezing Out Sparks

Band: Graham Parker
Album: Squeezing Out Sparks
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Graham Parker was, sound-wise, Elvis Costello before Elvis Costello was himself. Parker's pub rock took on New Wave tinges on "Squeezing Out Sparks" and rocked pretty hard.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I prefer Costello's brand of this music.
Best song: "Passion Is No Ordinary Word" is extraordinary.
Worst song: "Don't Get Excited" isn't exciting.
Is it awesome?: Not really. Elvis Costello did this stuff much better.

I should probably stop linking (I already did it in the Sex Pistols piece) to the National Review piece on the top 50 Conservative Rock Songs, as I don't really want to direct traffic to their site. Anyway, "You Can't Be Too Strong" is on that list, because it is one of the more explicitly pro-life songs in rock and roll history. I mean, who can misread the song's opening lyrics?

Did they tear it out with talons of steel, and give you a shot so that you wouldn't feel?
And washed it away as if it wasn't real?

Really, Parker's lyrics tend to fall towards the "man, life was great back then, wasn't it?" that also peppers the Kinks' "Village Green" record, though not nearly to the same place. "Saturday Night is Dead" is a little "Glory Days"-esque in its writing. "Passion Is No Ordinary Word" is conservative in message and "Waiting for the UFOs" has an odd anti-government thing in it.

Parker's politics -- British Conservatism -- is totally out of place in rock and roll. At our college radio station (small sample size, sure, but at a place like University of Missouri, probably more indicative of the nation than some Northeastern liberal arts college), for example, we had a couple of conservatives, but not many. Most people were pretty liberal.

Nevertheless, Parker's sound is remarkably like Costello's. As noted commentor and Yahoo! blogger Kelly Dwyer says, "If you think this is [Costello's] best record, then kindly check out any Graham Parker record from this era." I still prefer Costello, but I now see what he's talking about.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

No. 334: Wild Gift

Band: X
Album: Wild Gift
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: X's album of guilt -- as described by Robert Christgau -- is deeper and more interesting than their other records. Again produced by Ray Manzarek, the album's sheen belies its punkiness, though both aspects work together to make a pretty good record.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm still not totally in the X camp. It's still punk, as much as the lyrics are much better than so many punk rock bands.
Best song: "White Girl" is a cool racial song -- not a phrase uttered a lot.
Worst song: "I'm Coming Over" isn't great, but, thankfully, it's short.
Is it awesome?: It's close. My mind is changing on this band.

Because of my lack of effort in reviewing "Los Angeles," a couple of excellent commenters expressed a disappointment in my non-love for the record. Because I trust said commenters' taste, I took a little more interest in "Wild Gift" and went in with a little more optimist. And, quite frankly, they were right. "Wild Gift" is great.


Music critic Robert Christgau is one of the biggest supporters of "Wild Gift" in the world, and he gave the album one of the very rare A+. The opening line of his review -- "Hippies couldn't understand jealousy because they believed in universal love; punks can't understand it because they believe sex is a doomed reflex of existentially discrete monads." -- puts the record in a perspective I didn't really think about.

"Adult Books" has the feel of a dance while the frantic lyrics stream out, the love-goes-wrong "When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch" is interesting and cool and "We're Desperate" is wonderful. The aggressive guitars and upbeat drums work well with Exene's sultry-if-you-squint vocals.

Maybe it's the timing, but I do like "Wild Gift" more than I like "Los Angeles." It's a great punk rock record.

No. 333: Shoot Out the Lights

Band: Richard and Linda Thompson
Album: Shoot Out the Lights
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Um...
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Full of California sound nonsense and AAA-type fake grittiness, "Shoot Out the Lights" sounds like something modern country stations wouldn't even play. The almost-folk stinks and I had trouble listening to the album.
Best song: The title track is listenable.
Worst song: Oh, this album is bad..
Is it awesome?: Nope.

Often, an album on this list pops up and I simply have to ask "huh?" "Shoot Out the Lights" is one of those albums.

I don't know if, in 1982, this type of music was novel (my inclination would be "no" on that note), but nowadays, this record remains in the domain of mediocre country/folk hybrids a la the Eagles, James Taylor and the like.

Certainly, "Shoot Out the Lights" is harder and has some distorted guitar and more upbeat songs, but Richard Thompson's baritone is simple a Cash ripoff and Linda's vocal delivery is Bonne Raitt gone bad.

I'd love to deconstruct the lyrics, but I could not get past the music. Each time I listened, I just wanted the album to go away. It's not as bad as "Hotel California," but this one is up there for "worst album on the list."

Monday, January 21, 2008

No. 332: Help!

Band: The Beatles
Album: Help!
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Well, it's The Beatles, so it's great. It's placement, I imagine, is due to its lesser place in the band's discography, but it's still great.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It is, outside of “Beatles for Sale,” the band's weakest effort.
Best song: I really like “The Night Before.” Of course, “Yesterday” is also a classic.
Worst song: “You Like Me Too Much” isn't great, but it's still a good song.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

Oh, John, Paul, George and Ringo! I've missed you so! Where have you been?

“Help!” isn't a great movie and it's certainly not the best Beatles record, but an album like this reminds you as to how catchy, popular rock should be done. “Act Naturally” is the great sad song that the Beatles didn't often cover, complete with Ringo's sad sack voice. “It's Only Love” is similarly dark, “Help!” also has some negative stuff to it.

It is, in a lot of ways, the band's most negative record. Nearly every song has a tinge of regret in it, probably due to the fact that the band was in the complete grips of American Beatlemania and couldn't, you know, have anything close to a private life.

“The Night Before” is “Fuck and Run” twenty five years earlier, while “You Like Me Too Much” isn't as positive as the normal Lennon/McCartney numbers.

McCartney's masterpiece, “Yesterday,” is among his best sad love songs. The band didn't often write such songs – they were incredibly upbeat – and the story of the song is similar to the story of “Satisfaction.” McCartney consistently says the melody simply came to him and he even put nonsense words into the melody when he was writing (the famous example being “scrambled eggs”). Oddly enough, it's the most covered song of all time. To say it's a classic is a bit of an understatement.

“Help!” is not a fantastic album. There aren't any of the experiments that dot “Revolver” or the White Album. The record wasn't a revelation like “With the Beatles” or “Please Please Me.” Still, it's an amazing record by the best rock and roll band.

No. 331: Tonight's the Night

Band: Neil Young
Album: Tonight's the Night
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: A record written and recorded in the direct aftermath of two Young friends (Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and band roadie Bruce Berry), the album is straight ahead rock and roll. The lyrics are stark and, at times, morbid. It's a dark record, but beautiful'
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Young's best stuff still remains his most radio-friendly (“Harvest,” “After the Gold Rush,” etc.) and “Tonight's the Night” will make you want to kill yourself.
Best song: "Borrowed Tune” is a great creepy drug use song while the title track is a tribute to Young's fallen comrades.
Worst song: “Mellow my Mind” isn't very good.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

Neil Young's career is dotted with albums he delivered to labels and were promptly rejected. “Tonight's the Night” was his second straight album in the '70s and you can see why the label had no interest in it. It's a dark, dark album; it's the type of thing Jason Molina base much of his Songs:Ohia stuff upon. It is not the type of record cone listens to as background.

Nevertheless, it's brilliantly written – even if some songs were written while totally wasted – and one of the highlights of Young's post CSNY work. The title track is rhythmic and cool, while “Tired Eyes” has the narrative qualities of a Velvet Underground murder mystery. The lighter “Albuquerque” is downright positive and whimsical in its celebration of a certain life.

It's not Young's best work, but it's an interesting, introspective look at death and mortality.

Friday, January 18, 2008

No. 330: In the Jungle Groove

Band: James Brown
Album: In the Jungle Groove
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Compiling several of JB's best songs fro the 1970s, "In the Jungle Groove" has hits like "Funky Drummer," "Hot Pants" and "Soul Power."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's a compilation and compilations are silly for this list, even for a guy who was mostly a singles artist.
Best song: "Hot Pants." Hot pant hot pants hot pants hot pants.
Worst song: It's a great compilation. The whole thing is awesome.
Is it awesome?: Sure, but it's essentially "The best of JB in the 70s."

A compilation album -- even for JB -- is still a compilation. We've already got the JB boxed set on this list, so this one should probably not be on this list.

No. 329: Daydream Nation

Band: Sonic Youth
Album: Daydream Nation
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the most important albums in the history of indie rock, "Daydream Nation" was the album to end all indie rock albums. Sounding distinctly like New York's underground scene, the album has droning guitars, ironic lyrics and overall distortion years before Pavement, Mogwai and other such stalwarts were making records.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I imagine I have to spend more time with the album to fully understand it, but I think I may still be missing something. I don't shit all over myself whenever I hear this album. With that said, it's wildly important to indie rock and should be way higher.
Best song: "Teenage Riot" is my favorite from the record, certainly.
Worst song: "Providence" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: I love it as background music, but I can't keep it as a foreground record.

I can't speak specifically to this album too much (I still don't know if I fully get it), as I'm no Sonic Youth expert. Certainly, "Daydream Nation" is a masterpiece, being clever in songs like "Sprawl" and "Teenage Riot." It's epic in "Total Trash" and "Trilogy." It's a great album, building from the sounds of Jesus and Mary Chain to take indie rock from its jangly roots to the harder stuff. It's futuristic, it's artsy and it's urban.

Nevertheless, I have spent most of my rock fandom not being overly impressed with Sonic Youth. I imagine it's similar to my feelings on the Pixies; both bands were godfathers when I began to receive underground rock and roll. I wasn't paying attention when these bands were at their peaks and, unlike the less-forced-on-me Meat Puppets, I pushed back on the constant barrage of "Man, you should like these guys" from everyone I knew.

Listening to the album, it's easy to pick out the bits and pieces of what would follow. Like "Loveless" or "Surfer Rosa," this record is wildly ahead of its time. I hear music stuff that I've loved in modern music, not knowing that Sonic Youth was doing this stuff 10-15 years ago.

Today, Sonic Youth are indie rock ambassadors and experimenters. They tour with Jim O'Rourke, they make atonal SYR albums and they go about their lives. I'm cool with that, but it does push them into the background and lets pricks like me act like Mogwai invented droney metal guitars.


I don't expect to hear too many complaints about the rating above. Daydream Nation is a great uniter: You'd be hard pressed to find many fans of indie rock who don't have some love for this record.

--Nitsuh Abebe, in a 10.0/10.0 Pitchfork review of "Daydream Nation."

I'd say I'm the one person, because I'm not. However, I do think there is a lot of slobbering over this band that is probably unfounded. Like I said, they haven't done anything of particular note in 10 years.

Just for shits and giggles, here's a video for "Teenage Riot":

Thursday, January 17, 2008

No. 328: Exile in Guyville

Band: Liz Phair
Album: Exile in Guyville
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: As "Jagged Little Pill" is overproduced and Canadian, Liz Phair's debut album is slightly underproduced and decidedly American. Her frank sexuality and lo fi guitar work set a template for many girl rockers to come. Without Liz Phair, so many artists don't exist.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Often, vulgarity is often a substitute for intelligence and that happens on "Exile."
Best song: "Fuck and Run" is great.
Worst song: Hmmm. I don't know. The album's closer, "Strange Loop," isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

Let me get two things out of the way: Yes, the album is based on the Rolling Stone's "Exile on Main Street," though it doesn't follow the original's track listing perfectly.

The second thing is probably annoying to anyone who knows me, so I won't repeat it over and over. Elizabeth Clark Phair and I went to the same high school. She graduated fourteen years before I did. Other famous entertainers to graduate from New Trier Township High School (go Trevians!) include Rock Hudson, Rainn Wilson, two dudes from Fall Out Boy and Charlton Heston.


"Exile in Guyville" excites rock journalists for the same reason this story excites, well, just about every Jewish man in America. The idea of a good-looking chick with a potty mouth and a guitar excites the tons of nerdy dudes who've spent more time with "Zen Arcade" than with other human beings.


The forward sexuality on "Exile in Guyville" isn't so noteworthy now, but if you look at it in relation to "Jagged Little Pill" -- released three years later -- it is quite striking. The emotional range on "Exile" is just as large, from the touched sincerity of "Canary" to the platonic problems of "Help Me Mary" to the breakup anthem "6'1"." With that, though, Phair's sexual straightforwardness is the draw in the album. How many records have lyrics like this?

Hair's too long and in your eyes
Your lips a perfect "suck me" size
You act like you're fourteen years old
Everything you say is so obnoxious, funny, true and mean
I want to be your blowjob queen

Not many, at least coming from a woman.


For the uninitiated: Phair released a series of self-recorded (in Winnetka!) tapes called "Girlysound" that eventually made their way to Matador.


Something that also struck me about the record is the guitar sound, a Brad Wood trademark. The guitar on the album is incredibly distinctive, as though Phair directly plugged her Jazzmaster into the board and recorded it. The distorted guitar sounds equally as simple, as though the overmodulation is the sole thing that distinguishes it from the clean guitar.

It fits with Phair's deadpan, near-ironic vocal delivery. She sounds so disaffected, yet her lyrics are clearly passionate and sincere.

The song "Fuck and Run" is the pinnacle of the record, as it shows the hole of Phair's ability. The song's easy guitar is almost testimonial and the song's lyrics are both a little raunchy and a lot hurt. Phair's song of unhappiness towards her one night stand life doesn't have the anger of "Jagged Little Pill" but is equally unhappy and much more interesting:

And I can feel it in my bones
I'm gonna spend another year alone
It's fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen

And, of course, the narrative of her most recent one-nighter buttresses the chorus. The twinges of regret surrounds the song and perfectly.


"Exile in Guyville" is a Lil' Kim rock and roll record. It's forceful, smart and clever all at the same time. It's what smart girls listened to while idiots listened to "Jagged Little Pill." It is, in short, a classic.

No. 327: Jagged Little Pill

Band: Jagged Little Pill
Album: Alanis Morissette
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The fresh-faced Canadian's third album is considered a masterwork and was her certain breakthrough. The album stayed near the top of the charts for over a year.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album is overproduced, largely insincere and was Morissette's only real mark on culture. It came at a time when America was particularly amenable to this type of thing (angry rock), only Morissette's version had no real substance.
Best song: Oh, whatever.
Worst song: Let's say... "Ironic?" That song has nothing to do with Irony.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

You know how Whitney Houston's first record sold 13 million copies?

Well, "Jagged Little Pill" has sold 30 million units since it came out in 1994. That's mind-boggling. The album is the tenth-best selling album in history. And it's not jsut fans of the song Wesley Willis did about her. Thirty million people is, basically, the combined populations of New York state and Illinois.


You know the song "Ironic?" Well, here's Mo Rocca's take on it:

Irony is the disparity between what you expect will happen and what does happen. So raining on your wedding day isn't ironic; it's just crappy. It would have been ironic if she had lived in a place like Seattle and traveled to the desert of Mexico for a wedding, and it ended up raining there, but not in Seattle. Alanis always gets the last laugh though. We all sit here, saying her song isn't ironic, but in fact, that's pretty ironic that she wrote a song called 'Ironic' that wasn't really ironic. Those Canadians are pretty crafty.

That is why I hate this record.


I consider myself a feminist, but I'm also a realist. I'm a man and we, um, run almost everything. Thankfully, that's changing as more women are taking power in various roles. Hell, we may have a female president next year, which is damned cool, if you ask me (even if I'm not a Clinton supporter).

Nevertheless, I have a feeling about modern feminism and its role in what I call "fat girl logic" (one of the two best phrases I've ever coined). "Fat girl logic" doesn't just apply to fat girls, but to anyone who has unreasonable expectations for themselves in life. It's an extension of the failed dreams of suburbia (the children of suburbia were never told anything but positive things and never faced reality) on a lot of levels.

"Fat girl logic" is best summed up in a book like "He's Just Not That Into You." Ironically, the book's title belies its actual message, that women should expect to meet guys who love them and treat them well. This, of course, is absolutely true and we all should find boyfriends/girlfriends who treat us well/love us/etc.

However, here's the problem: If you combine that positive, good message with the failed dreams of suburbia (being spoiled, never being told "no," a tenuous grasp on reality, etc.), you end up with "fat girl logic." This logic posits that even though woman is unattractive, she should expect the perfect man to come forward. If said woman is unattractive, to expect Brad Pitt to come walking through that door is entirely foolish.

Look, it's not just exclusive to overweight women or to relationships. I utilize a lot of "fat girl logic" in my own love life and often have absolutely unreasonable expectations (I am not a fat girl, but actually, an unattractive man).

(At the risk of sounding like I'm invalidating my own theory, this stuff is all very nebulous. We all often date people we think wouldn't give us the time of day -- my dating fat girl logic is based on the fact that I've consistently punched above my weight in matters of love -- and I see great-looking women with ugly dudes [and vice versa].)

I don't know that "Jagged Little Pill" has a lot of "fat girl logic" on it. As my friend Ellen says, "it's angry in an I-deserve-X way." Not everyone deserves everything.

Maybe I'm being sexist, because I like that sort of song by a lot of men (and a lot of women, as evidenced by my feelings on "Exile in Guyville"). Maybe anger is more attractive on men. I don't know, but this album is obnoxious.


You want a real album about female power, sex and anger? Check out the next album.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

No. 326: Disintegration

Band: The Cure
Album: Slowhand
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Like David Bowie, it's difficult to understate the Cure's influence on fashion and the overall musical culture of the 1980s. The gothic look largely came from the mind of Robert Smith, his powdery makeup and ridiculous hair. Oh, also, they made some decent music.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Like Bowie, the band's influence on music isn't groundbreaking. They were mostly just an '80s band, albeit one that did tremendously sad songs.
Best song: "Lovesong" is, probably, the band's best work.
Worst song: "Prayers for Rain" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

The Cure always occupied the same place in my mind as the Smiths. They're mopey English bands from the 1980s. The people I knew in college that liked them were annoying and dressed like idiots. This is probably foolish, as the Smiths were more political and jangly, with the Cure being a more straightforward '80s band.


I used to work with a woman who was a fan of the cure (Actually, two women, but we'll just deal with the one I actually liked). This woman sat about five feet from my desk and would listen to her iPod at a ridiculous volume. I could identify much of her music simply from how loud her headphones were.

She was (and still is, I assume) a very sweet woman with pretty good taste in music. The ebst way I could describe her is by saying she was in a sorority in college, but was the cool chick in her sorority. She'd totally talk to the college radio dorks and the engineering students.

Anyway, one day, I'd seen one of those commercials for "Alternative Rock Hits" or something. This particular set had 311 doing a cover of "Lovesong." If I remember correctly, 311 had a minor hit with this cover.

Now, if you're even remotely familiar with my music tastes, you can correctly assume that I find 311 to be a terrible, awful band. I sorta assume that everyone hates 311. So, I turned to my co-worker and asked her "Hey, did you know that 311 does a cover of 'Lovesong?'"

"Oh, yeah. I love their cover. I'm a big 311 fan."



With all that said, I've turned a little bit after listening to "Disintegration" a few times. It's a pretty good record. "Pictures of You" is pretty, though long. "Lullaby" has a cool arrangement and the synth strings in "Last Dance" are decidedly '80s, yet still warm. "Lovesong" itself is the type of song that works on repeated listens and the title track is similar.

Smith's vocals are touched and aching. It's not hard to feel for the dude, even if he wasn't really that sad when the album was recorded.

Overall, it's a much better album than I anticipated. while I still dislike the Smiths, I might be turning into a closet Cure fan.

No. 325: Slowhand

Band: Eric Clapton
Album: Slowhand
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Clapton's most successful 70s solo hits open "Slowhand," as the gritty J.J. Cale record "Cocaine" leads to the romantic "Wonderful Tonight."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "Wonderful Tonight" is the first of Clapton catering to the AAA set and it reflects the rest of the album. Clapton's hard rock bent started moving on this album.
Best song: Most would say "Wonderful Tonight," but I'd suggest that's not even the best middlebrow love song on the album (that would be "Next Time You See Her"). "Cocaine" is a nice song.
Worst song: "Mean Old Frisco" stinks.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

"Slowhand" doesn't rock and that's a problem. For a guy who was in the Yardbirds, Cream and Derek and the Dominoes, I expect some rock and roll. Clapton doesn't rock often on "Slowhand."

There are three hits from the album on the first three tracks. First, Clapton's roughish treatment of J.J. Cale's (alleged) anti-drug track, "Cocaine." The soloing on the record shows what Clapton can do, but the guitar riff is easy to the point being lazy. It's a song so ingrained in our culture, it's hard not to enjoy it.

"Wonderful Tonight" is similarly tattooed on our collective consciousness. It's been played at just about every wedding ever (including my sister's) and -- I'll assume, as women find overweight hairy Sicilian-American narcissists mostly repulsive -- women continue to swoon over it. I'm not going to argue that it's not a sweet, pretty song. It is. But, Clapton's huge gifts are mostly wasted on the track; trying to be David Gilmour does not fit Slowhand.

"Lay Down Sally" is a shuffle and similarly wastes Clapton's copious gifts. It's a great version of a shuffle, as it is rhythmically interesting, but it's still a shuffle.

That's the album, though: Clapton doing things he isn't really good at.


I don't know where else to put this, but it's kind of mind-blowing that there have been thirteen (!) Clapton compilation albums. Now, I know people like Clapton and all, but, thirteen? That's a little much.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

No. 324: The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt

Band: Linda Ronstadt
Album: The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Ronstadt's voice is among the best in music and her interpretations are among the best.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Having a greatest hits compilation on here is dumb, especially one that came out a year before the list came out.
Best song: "You're No Good" remains my favorite song by Ronstadt.
Worst song: "Desperado" stinks, though an excellent "Seinfeld" episode used it as a big plot device.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

I'm going to save you from another of my famous greatest hits rants and send you to my piece about "Heart Like A Wheel."

Otherwise, I don't like "Desperado."

No. 323: Station to Station

Band: David Bowie
Album: Station to Station
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: As Bowie holed himself up in Los Angeles, he lived on peppers, cocaine and milk. He recored "Station to Station" under these conditions. His drug habit became so insane, he expressed admniration for Hitler and stated that he wanted to rule the world. He also made his best album, "Station to Station."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's hardly the type of record that people warm up to. The songs are long and hard to process.
Best song: The title track is an awesome suite-esque song. "Wild is the Wind" is done better by Cat Power, but nonetheless, a great song. "Golden Years" is delightful.
Worst song: While "Stay" has some cool guitars, it's the weakest track on the album.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

There's something very cool about the idea of assuming a character on an album. Obviously, "Sgt. Pepper's" is the greatest of these sort of things, but "Station to Station" is one of David Bowie's many attempts at becoming someone else. His "Think White Duke" persona is the backbone of the record and is his best persona.

Where "Ziggy Stardust" is more of a rock record, "Station to Station" is probably my favorite Bowie record; One I hadn't heard until last week. It falls from the funky ("Golden Years") to the crazy (the title track) and just about everywhere in between. Bowie's cocaine-fueled nightmare life in Los Angeles provided for a ton of strange sounds and experimentation.

Who says drugs are bad?

"Golden Years" picks up where "Fame" left off, with the space funk of Bowie's voice rolling over a Bootsy-esque bass line and spectacular backing vocals. "TVC 15" is another drug-fueled rant, mostly nonsensically lyriced and "Stay" has elements of about 20 genres of music (blues guitar, funk bass, jazz drums, etc.). "Word on a Wing" has e-bow-esque (though, not) guitar lines during the choruses, while the piano harmonizes with Bowie's thin voice. "Wild is the Wind" is a more tender song. It's a decompression from the whole of the album.

Monday, January 14, 2008

No. 322: Ghost in the Machine

Band: The Police
Album: Ghost in the Machine
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Police's brand of reggae-infused rock reached its commercial plateau with "Ghost in the Machine," as Sting's pop sensibilities took over. The addition of larger production values made for different styles, as the band strode away from punk rock.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album is the beginning of the end as Andy Summers found himself being used less in the writing process. The band's rawness -- a defining and good trait -- began to fade away with this album. Needless to say, it sounds overproduced.
Best song: "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" is a wonderful love song.
Worst song: Andy Summers, you shouldn't be writing much. "Ωmegaman" proves that.
Is it awesome?: Not really.

Feeling locked out of the process, Police guitarist Andy Summers had problems with "Ghost in the Machine."

I have to say I was getting disappointed with the musical direction around the time of Ghost in the Machine. With the horns and synth coming in, the fantastic raw-trio feel—all the really creative and dynamic stuff—was being lost. We were ending up backing a singer doing his pop songs."

As a fan, I can't disagree. The horns and the synths and the production just feels silly to me. "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" is the album highlight, but even it is overly layered and sounds like the decade from which it came.

The album is filled with such juxtapositions. Sting and Co. wrote tons of great songs, but as the decade tended to do to its great songs, the production hurt the records. "Invisible Sun" has been covered by tons of bands and it's wonderful stripped of the synths. "Secret Journey," while silly lyrically, is romping good song when you take away all the sturm und drang.

The first and Police records are brilliant, but once Sting decided he wanted to stop being a New Wave dude and become a man of the '80s, the band suffered.

No. 321: Sail Away

Band: Randy Newman
Album: Sail Away
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: You know who's a badass? Randy Newman.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Newman is hardly rock and roll in any conventional sense. I imagine most people who love the preceding and following albums are big Newman fans. Or anyone who loves the first ten albums on the list.
Best song: "Political Science" is perfect for current American life, while "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" and "He Gives Us All His Love" are a great maltheistic track. "Burn On" features Newman's classic sarcasm.
Worst song: I don't really like "Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear"
Is it awesome?: Yes.

About his music... Randy Newman does a lot of film scoring and songwriting for children's movies these days. He's not really much in the way of a rock and roller, but he never really was. He has a giant pop sensibility and his ability to use old genre-style piano stuff -- honky tonk, New Orleans jazz, etc. -- backs up his catchiness.

The reason to listen to Newman, of course, is his world-famous sarcasm. Simply put, Newman is awesome. He opens the album with the title track, a song of a carnival barker singing the virtues of... The slave trade. In pure parody, he sings the virtues of America:

In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family
You'll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree

A ridiculous notion and one that is wonderfully clever. And, of course, that's just the first song. From the sarcasm about Cleveland ("Burn On") to the prescient political theme song ("Political Science," in we the U.S. bombs the whole world) it's a wonderful record.

Friday, January 11, 2008

No. 320: Pink Moon

Band: Nick Drake
Album: Pink Moon
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Drake's final album is his darkest and most sparse. He sings of death, alienation and sadness. The album was recorded over two two-hour sessions that began at midnight and contains his most touching work.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: For some reason, I just don't love Nick Drake.
Best song: "Parasite" is excellent, as is "Know."
Worst song: I don't really like "Who Will."
Is it awesome?: Sure.

I haven't written a lot on Nick Drake, mostly because I am not the world's biggest fan.

A commentor, Roger, was disappointed in my not writing more about Drake's "Five Leaves Left."

He's right. I didn't do my duty as a reviewer. If I don't really like something, I should at least explain why and talk about the music a little.


And, on some level, Roger is going to be disappointed. I've listened to "Pink Moon" about 10 times in the last week (it's a pretty short album) and I still don't love it. I'm trying to force Stockholm Syndrome on myself, but it hasn't taken as well as I thought it would.

Roger mentions my love for Iron & Wine and Elliott Smith as reasons for the confusion as to my non-love of Drake. He's absolutely right. By all accounts, I should love Drake, but I don't.


One auxiliary benefit of doing this project is thinking more about why I like certain music. I try to think objectively about all this stuff and included in that is trying to eliminate all the "whatever, I like it because it's good" thinking.

This, of course, is impossible. As I've mentioned in my "Damn the Torpedoes" piece "derivative" and "showing its influences" are basically the same thing, yet one is an insult and the other a compliment. This stuff is very nebulous.

But, as shown with Petty -- the anti-Drake in that he's an artist tailor-made for me yto dislike -- I saw Petty as an early adolescent and was hooked.

The music that Nick Drake influence came to me at times when I was particularly open to that music. I first saw Iron & Wine (I didn't like his first record, by the way) live at a Sub Pop showcase hosted by David Cross at my first CMJ Music Marathon. The show was one of many of the trip's highlights. I started listening to Elliott Smith because I was amenable to being an emotional 16-year-old.

So.. Who's to say that I wouldn't have loved Nick Drake if his music was originally presented to me the same way instead of first seeing a VW ad with "Pink Moon?"


There's a lot to love on "Pink Moon," however. "Parasite" -- a song I came to because Archer Prewitt covered it for a Drake tribute album -- is a brilliantly depressing song using an awesome metaphor. The title track is touching, though I can't really get the picture of a Volkswagen out of my head. "Free Ride" is awesome and you can see the influence on Archer Prewitt in a song like "Know."

But, for some reason, it took 10 listens for me to appreciate all this about "Pink Moon." I can't really explain why. Maybe I'm at a time in my life where whispery vocalled acoustic guitar stuff doesn't resonate. Maybe I am just contrarian and I'm pushing against the 10 years of "Hey, you should really like Nick Drake."

No. 319: Burnin'

Band: The Wailers
Album: Burnin'
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The final full Wailers album, "Burnin'" has two of the band's classic tracks one of which is, easily, the best Peter Tosh/Bob Marley collaboration.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Save for those two tracks, the album isn't consistently strong.
Best song: That collaboration, "Get Up, Stand Up," is among the band's best work. "I Shot the Sheriff" is so vastly superior to the Clapton version, it's not even funny.
Worst song: Bunny Livingston's "Pass It On" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Not really.

"Burnin'" isn't far from "The Harder They Come" in tone. I can't begin to understand the conflicts in Jamaica in the 1970s, but the militancy of the band shows through on "Burnin'."

The album's two standout tracks are, in fact, less conciliatory than previous Wailers tracks. In the same way that "The Message" is different than "Straight Outta Compton," "I Shot The Sheriff" is different from "Concrete Jungle." "I Shot The Sheriff" has Marley taking back the justice that he believes he deserves. Marley famously said:

"I want to say 'I shot the police' but the government would have made a fuss so I said 'I shot the sheriff' instead... but it's the same idea: justice."

The song's breakdown is nearly perfect. The guitar line -- I assume the reason Clapton took the song in the first place -- is striking as it moves down the scale and Marley wails "If I am guilty, I will pay!" It's a haunting song and among the band's greatest.

The rest of the record is full of rerecorded early Wailers songs, misplaces anger and mediocre cliched reggae. Overall, not the best work the band has done, but the highlights are awfully high.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

No. 318: Back Stabbers

Band: The O'Jays
Album: Backstabbers
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: As soul began to expand its reach in the 1970s, the O'Jays evolved into something of a more interesting group, hitting the classic themes in black music -- unity, peace, etc. -- on the band's fifth album.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album was popular, but the O'Jays don't exist in the popular consciousness -- save for "Love Train" and that's only because of beer ads. They should and this album is brilliant.
Best song: The title track is brilliant.
Worst song: I don't love "Listen to the Clock on the Wall."
Is it awesome?: Yes.

You know, it's really a shame that no one knows anything about this album other than "Love Train." It's got some really cool general political stuff ("When the World's at Peace" and "Love Train"), black community uplifting songs ("Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind of People" ), party music ("Time to Get Down" ) and general life lessons (the title track).

Really, it's a fantastic album.

No. 317: The Eminem Show

Band: Eminem
Album: The Eminem Show
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Eminem's ability to get introspective reaches its peak, as the rapper examines his impact on society, his own history and his fanbase.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: With the wealth of producers, the album sounds sporadic and distant. Em's flow is meaner and more aggressive as he appears to have lost his sense of humor sometime along the road to fame.
Best song: "Without Me" has a nice beat, but the lyrics are sort of annoying. "Say Goodbye Hollywood" actually is pretty good.
Worst song: I really don't like "Cleaning Out My Closet."
Is it awesome?: Nope.

I don't really know where to put this -- it has absolutely nothing to do with this particular album -- but since I have the floor, I wanted to vent about two things I see on other Web sites' comment sections.

The first is an extension of my annoyance with "IM talk" as a way of communicating. Every once in a while, you'll see someone write "effing" or "eff" in a blog post or comment section.

This is fucking stupid.

The reason that one says "eff" or "effing" is because they are trying to use a verbal version of "f" or "f-ing." It's pretty simple; They are simple naming the letter to invoke a bad word. While this annoys me a little in speech (we're all adults and bad words are still just words), I have a potty mouth. That particularly thing may be a Ross problem.

Nevertheless, when you're typing and you're self-censoring, what is the goddamned point of writing "effing." First off, "eff" is not a word. "F" is what you would be saying. That's it. If you're writing an e-mail, type "what the f?" Or "What the f--k?" If you're posting a blog comment, say "f-ing." Don't spell it out. It's two more keystrokes.

People I know and like do this, which makes it even worse.

The second annoyance is a speech pattern-type thing. I was toiling around the Tubes, reading about baseball and came upon this comment on an story:

Jim Rice, The Goose, The Rock, Andre Dawson - all should be in the Hall of Fame. There should be a way to enshrine at least 5 players a year. I don't like the present system. But that is just my opinion.

(Emphasis is mine)

Few things annoy me more than "That is just my opinion." It's one of those speech/typing crutches that take any and all weight of your opinion. I know people who say it are trying to be polite and not forceful, but, goddamnit, this is the Internet. There is no room for being polite. None.

Moreover, have you ever seen anyone in any particular position of power say "That is just my opinion?" By it's nature, that sentence makes anything you say totally forceless. Have you ever seen a presidential candidate say "It's just my opinion, but everyone should have health care?" Of course not. Has Osama bin Laden ever said "The United States is the great Satan. That is just how I feel?" Of course not. No one would take him seriously if he did.

More importantly, it's repetitive. We know it's your opinion. Your name (or login) is attached to it and it's a blog comment. You're expressing an opinion with the word "should." No right-minded person would look at that as fact, and if that person did, he or she is a moron.

OK, I'm done ranting.


"The Eminem Show" is Eminem's third album and the one where he looks the most inward. Normally, I'd love the full fruition of an introspective rapper like Em, but it's also the point where Em gained more creative control of the beats on his records. So, we have Em twiddling knobs and losing his sense of humor.

Introspection, in his case, appears to just be an exploration of Em's victim complex and his massive ego. That's fine; Eminem is a rapper. That's what they do. Still, it's obnoxious and his worst record so far.


"White America" is the album's opener (for all intents and purposes) and is something of a campaign speech for Eminem. That he mentions that he could be someone's kid and that TRL loves him in the hook is Em's best asset; He knows that being white has really helped him and he scares a lot of people. I enjoy that Em touts free speech -- I'm a free speech absolutist -- but that he is so excited about how Congress is out to get him is annoying.

It's a theme that Em works through on nearly every track. "Soldier" is the classic gangsta rap record that just sounds unconvincing. The best beat on the record is on "Without Me," but, unfortunately, Em spends the song mentioning that he's going to kick the asses of a member of *NSync, the folks in Limp Bizkit and Moby (also, calling Moby a "fag." Classy, Marshall.) and saying that the rap world is "empty without me."

(Note to Em: The rap world has been fine without you the past few years. Ghostface has put out two amazing records and your protege 50 Cent has put out some fine music. Lupe Fiasco is smart and clever and Kanye West has taken Euro disco and sampled it for hip hop. So, really, no, it's not empty without you.)

Em avoids "the world is out to get Em" storyline, as he raps in "Say Goodbye Hollywood," which is good, but that ability doesn't gain enough traction, partially thanks to some questionable beats. "Cleaning Out My Closet" is another song wherein Em sounds vulnerable -- something most rappers don't do often -- but the beat is some sort of staccato thing that doesn't compliment the lyrics.


You know, the farther Em gets away from Dr. Dre, the most his beats tend to stray. His lyrics continue to be interesting, if mostly humorless (the "This shit's about to get heavy/I just settled all my lawsuits. Fuck you, Debbie!" couplet notwithstanding). It's too bad, because Em is talented, he just takes himself too seriously sometimes.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

No. 316: Rock Steady

Band: No Doubt
Album: Rock Steady
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: On the band's fifth album, the band took up keyboards and took serious lessons in Jamaican music. In doing so, No Doubt went from being just another TRL favorite to a real force in music and in doing so, sold a whole lot of fucking records.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: No Doubt is often seen as a bastardization of real music, basically copping the shallowest features of the music they admire and mess with it. At best, it's post-modern. At worst, it's just bad copying.
Best song: The album's third single, "Hella Good," is an awesome party anthem.
Worst song: I despise "Hey Baby."
Is it awesome?: Yeah, actually.

I don't care for Gwen Stefani's personal style but I always likee "Tragic Kingdom" for what it was: A pop record. The songs are catchy and radio played the hell out of them.

But, enough about that record.

"Rock Steady" is No Doubt's third record of note (as far as their fame is concerned) and I really wanted to hate it before actually listening to the whole thing. I despise "Hey Baby" and generally don't like the idea of Orange County skaters trying to cop ragga and dancehall.

Then, I listened to the record. There's a lot to like here. The band worked with several producers in order to vary the sound up and it works well. "Running" and "In My Head" have the keyboard sound of an 8-bit Nintendo game, while the Prince-co-written "Waiting Room" sounds, um, a little like a Prince song. "Platinum Blonde Life" is an odd song, but has the sheen of Rick Ocasek's song. "Don't Let Me Down," another Ocasek-produced track, sounds like an update on the Cars' sound. "Hella Good" is a great party anthem.

Oddly, I like the Jamaican-influenced stuff the least on the record. "Underneath It All" sounds like a bad Police cover band and "Hey Baby" is repetitive and obnoxious, echoing the Reggaeton nonsense that I hate.

Nevertheless, I like the record. It's varied and interesting.

No. 315: Surfer Rosa

Band: The Pixies
Album: Surfer Rosa
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Pixies' debut was a revelation when it was released in 1988, with throbbing basslines and Kim Deal's fine, fine vocals.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not the world's biggest Pixies fan, so I can't judge this well.
Best song: "Where Is My Mind?" is a good song. "Gigantic" is just all right.
Worst song: "Vamos" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Hey, you know what? This is the first album on the list to be produ-- sorry, engineered by the man who I mostly worship, Steve Albini. However I may feel about the record, the production is amazing and Albini's hand is perfect for the band.

"Surfer Rosa" is, in fact, a big reason Albini was recruited to engineer "In Utero," "Rid of Me" and the subsequent early 1990s bands he worked with.


At the risk of disappointing some of you guys, I am totally ambivalent about this album, so I can't write it well. How's this for blasphemy? I liked the album as background music, but found it to be pretty boring.

That's right, indie rockers. I called the Pixies boring.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

No. 314: The Velvet Underground

Band: The Velvet Underground
Album: The Velvet Underground
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Velvet Underground's third album has Lou Reed growing inward and taking a shot at folk music and toning the band's sound down from the spasms that was "White Light/White Heat."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Only one of the band's iconic songs is represented here, "What Goes On," though the rest of the album is excellent.
Best song: "After Hours" is, due to Mo Tucker's voice, the most tender thing the band ever released. "What Goes On" is one of the band's most famous songs and is fantastic.
Worst song: Here's my statement that will take away any indie cred I had previously had: I don't like "The Murder Mystery."
Is it awesome?: Yep.

One thing that bugs me a little when anyone writes about this record is how they describe it as being so different than their other stuff. The Velvets released four albums (I don't count "Squeeze" and neither should you) and none of them sounds like the others. The first record follows some song forms while rocking out, while "WL/WH" is wildly experimental. This record is softer while "Loaded" is, essentially, a pop album.

So, to say that this one sounds so different is silly. They all sound different.


Listening to it again, the album is strikingly good. Lou Reed's ability to tell the dissonant and bizarre stories of the world (as his personality profile in "Candy Says" is fantastic) peppers the album as well as his pop sensibilities. The album highlight, "What Goes On" is a beautiful little pop love song with Reed singing "you know it'll be all right."

Padraig, one of my commentors, recently calledthis album his favorite VU record. I don't know that it is my favorite, but it is full of tracks that always sound good. "Pale Blue Eyes" is wonderfully personal, allegedly leading Sterling Morrison to protest "if I wrote a song like that, I wouldn't make you play it" when Reed first played it for him. "Jesus" is a touching religious number and "The Murder Mystery" is a word experiment.

"After Hours" closes out the album in a way no other Velvets song could. Solely a guitar and Maureen Tucker's voice occupy the soundspace. Tucker's voice is feminine and tender, something fitting the album more than Reed's Long Island growl. The song's themes of ends and darkness work within the band's oeuvre, but sound refreshing in Tucker's hands.


Like every other Velvets album, "The Velvet Underground" is different and amazing. It may not be their best album, but it's certainly amazing.

No. 313: Damn the Torpedoes

Band: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Album: Damn the Torpedoes
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Petty's third album is his first consistent effort. While his previous two had iconic songs ("American Girl" on his debut and "Listen To Her Heart" on the second album), "Damn The Torpedoes" is, start to finish, a fine album.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I don't know, this sounds OK. "Full Moon Fever" is probably Petty's best, though.
Best song: "Refugee?" Great. "Here Comes My Girl?" Also great.
Worst song: "What Are You Doin' in My Life?" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It is.

Here's a thought I probably should put in "My biases" or create a separate post about, but I'm just too lazy:

Music fandom and love for any particular band is so nebulous that I have contradicted myself a lot on this project and will continue to contradict myself. I don't mean in the "I love this band/I hate this band" way; I try to stay consistent on that front.

But, often, I'll criticize a band for not being experimental enough, then criticize another for being too experimental. Often, I'll do it in subtle ways when I call one band "derivative" and say another is "showing its influences." Those are mostly the same thing, I guess. I know this is hedging; I am probably just giving your readers another reason to not give a shit as to what I'm doing here. So, sorry.

But, sometimes, a record is just great, despite the fact that I should hate it.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a band like that. I should absolutely hate them. Petty's music is, for the most part, the derivative sort that toes the line between populist blue collar rock and mainstream, boring nonsense. I should resent Petty for this. I should hate it.

I don't. I adore it. I adore Petty's Dylan-by-way-of-Florida drawl. I love his McGuinn-wannabe guitar sound. I love his mid-tempo middlebrow rock and roll. Love it love it love it.


Is "Damn The Torpedoes" the best Petty? Hardly. "Full Moon Fever" (also on this list) is his best-selling and is chock full of hits. "Wildflowers" has Petty as his most introspective and the "She's The One" soundtrack is Petty at the top of his game.

But, DTP is the closest Petty comes to being a fervent, who-gives-a-damn punk rocker. The cover, with Petty's devil may care stare as he hold his Rickenbacker 330 with one hand. The title itself is a fuck you to the industry. But, it was also the band's breakthrough and contains a few of the band's most popular concert standards and, arguably, Petty's best song.


Let's talk a little about "Refugee." It mirrors Petty, in my mind. At its heart, it isn't really anything much, simply a nice rock anthem with a cool keyboard line. But, having heard it live, the record takes on a totally new meaning. Petty's slight hesitation and the band's harmony vocals on the chorus become otherworldy when one is sitting fifth row at United Center (admittedly, I was, like, 12 and knew nothing about music, but I loved that goddamned show [Thanks, Pop]) with 15,000 of your best friends. You don't care that the place's acoustics were built for hockey and basketball. You don't care about anything except this:

To live like a refugee!

The guitar riff, the keyboard's backup of the riff and the tiny little drum roll... They all just exist to make that vocal better. Like the best albums and songs, I can hardly explain how much I love that song. It is... It is... It's just great.

Monday, January 7, 2008

No. 312: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Band: Lauryn Hill
Album: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: A self-critical look at black culture at the end of the 20th century, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" is a neo soul landmark. Hill's frankness of speech predates Chris Rock's most famous criticisms of black America by a few years, yet sounds just as good.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The songs are good, but, by the end of the record, it gets tedious.
Best song: "Doo Wop (That Thing)" is, of course, the highlight of the album, but the title track is also very good. "Every Ghetto, Every City" has tinges of Stevie Wonder in it.
Worst song: "Final Hour" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yep.

People need to understand that the Lauryn Hill they were exposed to in the beginning was all that was allowed in that arena at that time. There was much more strength, spirit and passion, desire, curiosity, ambition and opinion that was not allowed in a small space designed for consumer mass appeal and dictated by very limited standards. I had to step away when I realized that for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised. I felt uncomfortable about having to smile in someone’s face when I really didn’t like them or even know them well enough to like them.

I normally would call Hill a moron for saying this nonsense, but I have some level of respect for her because she did duck out of the limelight. Basically, being an entertainer means you have to do interviews and smile for people you may not like. If you want a large level of success, you will have to deal with this nonsense. If not, get out of the game.

Hill did that. She hasn't released a ton of material and appears to be happy with her life outside of the music industry. She'll play a show, get everyone riled up and fall back into the ether. I respect that, on some level.

(Of course, she did address herself in the third person. No one should ever do that.)


Named after a 1933 racial tome and with a cover referencing a Bob Marley record, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" lays its cards out on the table within the first few songs. Lauryn Hill is outspoken, smart and opinionated.

The record takes Hill's personality and puts it on a record. The story of putting her baby before her career is the story of "To Zion," while her breakup with Wyclef Jean is recounted on "Ex-Factor." D'Angelo turns "Nothing Even Matters" into a gem while Mary J. Blige makes "I Used To Love Him" into a great sad love song.

"Doo Wop (That Thing)" is the highlight of the record, as Hill takes on both genders, saying women need to stop looking towards men for worth and men need to actually think about something other than cars.


Chris Rock ranks the record as the 23rd best hip hop album of all time:

Lauryn Hill was groundbreaking because for the first time since Salt-N-Pepa the world was hearing a heterosexual woman rap an couldn't believe it. This is a masterpiece of a record. I know there's a lot of singing on there, but there's a lot of rapping, too. People don't have a problem with conscious rap; they have a problem with conscious beats. If you make some ignorant beats, you can say all the smart shit you want.

(Emphasis is mine)

Overall, I can't disagree, but I'm always left wanting something a little better from Hill. Maybe it's because the album is long (almost 78 minutes) and has a ton of filler, but this album could be better.