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Showing posts from January, 2004

23. The Costello Show - King Of America (1986)

In a competition to determine which album is Elvis Costello's masterpiece there would be several contenders. There's the compact power of This Year's Model, the propulsive maturity of Armed Forces, the underrated brilliance of Trust, and the eloquent bitterness of Imperial Bedroom.

I love all of those records, but for my money, none of them beat King Of America. Released in 1986, the album represented a sort of break for Elvis. He'd gone through a divorce (already well-documented on Imperial Bedroom), and just released his first disappointing album in 9 tries (Goodbye Cruel World). So he grew a beard, put his longtime band The Attractions on hold, and went to America to record this album.

The results really represent where he was at, both literally and figuratively. For one, its sound is firmly in the genre of American blues and country-folk. Elvis has tried many many genres in his career, and I think this one suits him best. Then again, maybe it just suits the co…

Wyclef Jean - "Industry"

It's interesting that The Fugees were considered a rap group, because really the group was only one-third rapper, and their biggest hit was a faithful cover of an R & B classic (Killing Me Softly) about singer-songwriter Don McLean. When the group broke up, Lauryn Hill went on to make one of the great soul records of the last ten years, and Wyclef immediately scored a folk-rock hit called Gone 'Til November.

So I guess it's fitting that this song is "dedicated to everybody who loves hip-hop music" but isn't actually hip-hop itself. Maybe Wyclef's vocal tone is just too melodic to really ever rap, or maybe it's the catchy choruses (with whoa-oh-ohs), but this is not a rap song.

Amidst paens to fallen rappers such as Biggie, Tupac, and Jam Master Jay, and pleas for beefs (P.Diddy vs. Suge Knight, Jay-Z vs. Nas) to be killed with skillets, is a song calling for unity and revolution in hip-hop and in black culture. Not to mention the fact that it inc…

Simon & Garfunkel - "A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or, How I Was Robert McNamera'd Into Submission)"

An oddity in the mostly gentle and humor-free ouvre of S & G, this song serves as both great parody and social commentary. The former takes aim at Bob Dylan, who at the time was Paul Simon's chief folk-poet rival (and who would undoubtedly but unfairly receive more serious analysis). So here Simon proves he can do Dylan. The music is organ-tambourine-harmonica driven in the obvious style of Mr.Zimmerman. The title too seems to be a swipe at Dylan's thesaurus-searching style. Translated it means "a random verbal insult."

The lyrics even reference Dylan twice, once condemning someone for confusing Bob Dylan with Dylan Thomas and again in the stolen combo line: "It's alright ma, everybody must get stoned!"

In terms of social commentary, the lyrics turn many of the leading proper nouns of the current youth culture into verbs, including The Beatles, Mick Jagger, Phil Spector, Andy Warhol, Ayn Rand, Lenny Bruce, and even Art Garfunkel. The narrator se…

22. blink-182 - self-titled (2003)

One of the greatest currencies of pop fandom is the ability to say you knew about a band before they hit it big. (Of course, this sort of braggery pretty much annoys everyone, even other pop fans.) Personally, I can lay claim to Third Eye Blind, Jimmy Eat World, The Strokes, and the band whose new album is the subject of this review.

Actually, I owe blink-182 to my junior year roommate, Nick. He was obsessed with their album Dude Ranch, and listened to it at least once a day from September to December 1997, well before they had their 1999 breakthrough. blink was the perfect band for Nick, because they captured the same balance he did, that is, a sensitive soul with a sick sense of humor.

I liked them too, especially songs like Dammit and Josie. They sang catchy songs about how fucked up girls can make you feel, and I really connected with that. But I could do without a song like Degenerate, which is as far as I can tell is about having your nuts attacked by rats. They continued this tre…

Justin Guarini & Kelly Clarkson - "Timeless"

Okay, so I promise to cut out the American Idol stuff now (at least until season 3 is over), but this is a great song, perhaps the best to come out of the AI experience thus far.

It has the unfortunate distinction of being featured in the stinkbomb film From Justin To Kelly (which I saw in the theater...how many people can actually say that?!). Actually, I think its inclusion in the movie is one of the reasons I like it so much, but I'll get to that soon.

First off, I hated Justin on American Idol. I thought he was cheesy and pandered to the crowd. He seemed like that guy at work who will do whatever it takes to get in with the boss. He seemed shady. So I shed no tears when I heard recently that he was dropped from his label. But I won't deny that he has a good voice.

The song itself is a passionate dramatic love duet, the likes of which we haven't seen in ahwile. The art form flourished in the '70s and '80s, and continued through the Disney movie ballad trend …

21. Pernice Brothers - Yours, Mine & Ours (2003)

In High Fidelity, John Cusack's character gives his list of best side one, track ones and then gets blasted by Jack Black for playing it too safe. But he lists instant classic songs like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Let's Get It On. The first track of an album is very important. Joe Pernice of Pernice Brothers knows that. The first song on Yours, Mine & Ours is called The Weakest Shade Of Blue, and it's an absolute pop gem that sets the tone for the album to come.

(My side one, track one top 5 is in the Misc. Lists section.)

The album is just over 30 minutes, 10 songs, every one of them a keeper. Joe Pernice's voice is at once familar and engaging, weathered enough to lend gravitas but still light enough to hit those sweet high notes. The music is well-crafted, unobtrusive. Some of the reviews I've read call the lyrics poetry. I can see that, if you think poetry is mysterious and undecipherable lines full of lots of outstanding imagry (I kind of do think that). I …

Elton John - "Funeral For A Friend (Love Lies Bleeding)"

Blowing in like a brisk north wind, this opening song from Elton's 1973 epic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album is really two songs in one (as the parenthetical title would indicate). The instrumental funeral really does sound mournful, as well as creepy. The first swell of synthesizers forms the basis for the entire Blade Runner and Legend scores (shame on you Vangelis).

About three and a half minutes in, the funeral gets crazy and hyper, with pounding piano and fuzz guitar, and then about two minutes later, the second song takes over:

"The roses in the window box have tilted to one side
Everything about this house was meant to grow and die..."

So goes a strangely peppy song about a failed relationship. As usual, lyricist Bernie Taupin gets in some great lines, like "I was playing rock 'n' roll and you were just a fan / but my guitar couldn't hold you so I quit the band."

(Here I'd like to stop and marvel at the Taupin/John partnership. As someone…

Tom Petty - "Walls (Circus)"

"Some days are diamonds / some days are rocks."

I can't tell you how many mornings and evenings that line has gone through my head. In the morning, it reminds me that every day has its possibilities, even though I don't want to even be out of bed. In the evening, if I had a bad day, it's easy enough to chalk off.

Walls can be found is on the only-Petty soundtrack to the Jennifer Aniston movie She's The One, which I've never seen. The soundtrack is very good and unjustifiably ignored, probably because I'm not the only one who didn't see the movie. So it might be Petty's great lost single.

It's got all of his laid-back, California-rock, pseudo-Dylan hallmarks: harmonica, piano, acoustic guitar, harmonies. And after that great first line, plenty more Zen wisdom follows, such as "some doors are open / some roads are blocked," and "half of me is ocean/half of me is sky."

I'm not one who looks for life advice in my music…

The Carpenters - "I Need To Be In Love"

In Bridget Jones' Diary, Bridget wallows in romantic self-pity by listening to All By Myself at obnoxious volume. This is a totally relatable moment, though I don't listen to much Jamie O'Neal. My song of choice is I Need To Be In Love. Before I get to any lyrical content, check out that title. It's not I want to be in love. It's I need to be in love. Right there it doesn't seem like this is going to be a level-headed affair.

But actually it kind of is. That's the beauty. In my mind, this song is the ultimate for romantic losers, because you've got overdramatics, but they're balanced by a certain weary pragmatism.

The opening line indicates a certain degree of rationality: "The hardest thing I've ever done is keep believing there's someone in this crazy world for me." But as the song goes on we get such "poor me" sentiments as: "it took awhile for me to learn / that nothin' comes for free / the price I'…

20. Dannii Minogue - Neon Nights (2003)

Pop is littered with brothers and sisters, but usually they're involved in the same enterprise: The Kinks, Oasis, Heart, The Beach Boys, Hanson, etc. Very rarely do you see siblings of established artists come out alone and make a go of it. Andy Gibb (younger brother of The Bee Gees) did well with his career, and Janet Jackson hasn't done too poorly for herself, but a more typical story is Solange, Beyonce's sister. What do you mean you haven't heard of her?!

(Of course kids of popular artists are a somewhat different story...witness Nancy Sinatra, Jakob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright, Wilson Phillips, et al.)

So Dannii Minogue is Kylie's little sister, and not only is she aiming for similar pop stardom, she's also decided to occupy her sister's electro-disco sex kitten niche. A curious move, and one that makes comparisons unavoidable. So...

1) Is she as hot?
Judging from the plentiful assortment of bedroom shots included in the CD booklet, she's quite…

U.S.A. For Africa - "We Are The World"

Recorded in 1985, this started the benefit single trend that continues half-heartedly to this day, most notably on the Bono, Gwen Stefani, Mary J. Blige, Michael Stipe and friends collabo What's Going On, done to raise money for AIDS research.

The interesting thing about these benefit singles is that you've got a bunch of filthy rich people who decide to raise money for a cause, not by giving any of theirs away, but by recording something that will entice other (poorer) people to spend their money. Very odd.

Anyway, We Are The World is great fun to listen to for a plethora of reasons. First, it's a very meta song. That is, basically the lyrics are about how the artists have decided to record the song. Kind of mind-blowing, huh?

Equally impressive is the assemblage of artists: Dylan, Springsteen, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, etc. (the latter two wrote the song; no wonder that it's both cat…

19. Death Cab For Cutie - Transatlanticism (2003)

"So this is the new year / and I don't feel any different." So goes the first line of Transatlanticism, in what seems like a statement of jaded ennui. But the narrator goes on to reveal that though the new year is so celebrated as a time for fresh starts, it means nothing to him because he's still separated from someone he loves: "I wish the world was flat like the old days / So I could travel just by folding the map / No more airplanes or speed-trains or freeways / There'd be no distance that could hold us back."

This whole album is really about travel and distances, both literal and figurative. There are two songs (Title And Registration and Passenger Seat) using cars as scenes for romantic despair and contentment, respectively. The title track, fittingly, is the center of the theme. A piano-driven, slow-burning epic, the song uses an extended geological metaphor to build to the final lines. After describing the ocean that has formed between them, song…