Monday, December 12, 2011

2011: 10 Albums I'm Glad I Bought

Though it surely wasn't reflected in my blogging frequency, 2011 found my relationship with music rebounding from the slump of the last few years.Though most new artists and I remain strictly platonic, several old flames rekindled the passion.

As has been tradition the last couple of years, here're the albums that stuck with me the most. Along with my thoughts, I've listed my personal highlights.

Adele: 21
One of those rare records that find simultaneous commercial, critical, and personal success. Though the album flirted with overexposure in the months after its release, I believe it will endure a long time.
Faves: Rollin' in the Deep, Rumour Has It, Set Fire to the Rain, One and OnlySomeone Like You


The Cars: Move Like This
Reunion albums tend to have an air of desperation and the sweat of trying too hard to recapture past glories. Move Like This manages to avoid that completely. Ric, David, Greg, and Eliot pick back up and zip through these 10 songs as if it'd been 24 hours, not 24 years, since they last recorded.
Faves: Blue Tip, Too Late, SoonSad Song, Take a LookHits Me


Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys
For me, their previous album, Narrow Stairs, was a slow-grower, revealing its considerable charms after many many listens. This one got to me quicker, but I have a feeling it will make less lasting impression. Even so, it's got a lot to recommend it.
Faves: Codes and Keys, You Are a Tourist, Unobstructed Views, Underneath the Sycamore, St. Peter's Cathedral, Stay Young,Go Dancing


The Decemberists: The King is Dead
The Decemebrists past work has felt too affected to me, but this one is straight ahead and irresistable. Straddling the middle ground between Americana and indie rock, the album is a gem from front to back.
Faves: The whole thing, but especially June Hymn. I don't typically have emotional reactions to songs, but that one gets me.


Fountains of Wayne: Sky Full of Holes
Less bombastic than F.O.W.s last couple of albums, Sky Full of Holes has quieter charms. The songwriting, however, is as sharp as ever.
Faves: The Summer Place, Acela, Action Hero, A Dip in the Ocean, A Road Song


Kaiser Chiefs: The Future is Medieval
Kaiser Chiefs have quickly and quietly (at least in the U.S.) been building up a pretty amazing oeuvre. The Future is Medieval (released in 2012 as Start the Revolution Without Me) is a great addition. The band initally offered a "make your own album" via their website, with 20 tracks to choose from. Then they released their own 12 song version. The 8 songs they left off are equally (and in some cases more) worthy.
Faves: Things Change, Long Way from Celebrating, Out of Focus, Man on Mars, Heard it Break, Howlaround, Problem Solved, I Dare You, Can't Mind My Own Business, My Place Is Here


Rogue Valley: False Floors
This is pretty amazing. In a one year timespan, Minneapolis songwriter Chris Koza and his bandmates released four proper albums, one for each season. Winter's entry, False Floors, was the only one to come out in 2011, but it's also my favorite.
Faves: False Floors, Blueprints, Orion, The Scattering Moon


Sloan: The Double Cross
Sloan's 10th album (which came out in their 20th year, thus the punny XX title) is typically great.
Faves: The Answer was You, Unkind, Shadow of Love, Your Daddy Will Do, Beverly Terrace, Laying So Low


They Might Be Giants: Join Us
I'll admit, I'd all but written TMBG off. But Join Us is a strong return to form, with John Linnell especially bringing his "A" game. It's a diverse album, bringing to mind their Flood glory days most, but with the more musically mature touches of John Henry and Factory Showroom. When Will You Die immediately belongs in their top ten singles of all time.
Faves: Can't Keep Johnny Down, You Probably Get That a Lot, Canajoharie, Let Your Hair Hang Down, When Will You Die, Judy is Your Vietnam, Never Knew Love, You Don't Like Me


Wilco: The Whole Love
Wilco continue to surprise. The third album with this iteration of the band manages to happily marry their pop sensibilities to their need to experiment.
Faves: Art of Almost, Sunloathe, Dawned on Me, Open Mind, Capitol City

Thursday, December 08, 2011

More Songs of 2011

Here's the tracklisting and cover art for my end-of-the-year favorites mix. Click here to see the details on the first volume.

1. R.E.M.: All the Best
2. Raphael Saadiq: Radio
3. Wugazi: Killa Hill
4. Foo Fighters: Arlandria
5. The Rosebuds: The Woods
6. The Decemberists: Foregone
7. Wilco: Dawned on Me
8. They Might Be Giants: Can't Keep Johnny Down
9. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Skipper Dan
10. Fountains of Wayne: A Road Song
11. Death Cab for Cutie: You are a Tourist
12. Kaiser Cheifs: My Place is Here
13. Ben Folds Five: Stumblin' Home Winter Blues

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Rock Solid: Paul Simon

"If you only own one album by Paul Simon it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Paul Simon is a big baseball fan, so I'll start with a baseball analogy: Paul Simon is to songwriting what Joe DiMaggio was to the national pastime. Both men are undisputed hall-of-famers in their respective fields: amazingly consistent, fantastically talented, and wildly successful. (They had ill-fated marriages to movie stars, too, but we won't dwell on that.)

The numbers are gaudy. Just as many of Joltin' Joe's records still stand today, few musicians have put together a career quite as charmed as Paul Simon has. The Simon and Garfunkel years are nearly untouchable, and of the 10 proper albums he's released as a solo act, none can be considered truly bad. And there are masterpieces sprinkled throughout.

In fact, the AllMusic Guide identifies 3 perfect albums in the Paul Simon oeuvre: His 1973 self-titled debut, the 1974 follow-up There Goes Rhymin' Simon, and 1986's commercial giant Graceland. (Four others fall just short of masterpiece status, with 4.5 stars: Still Crazy After All These Years (1975), Hearts and Bones (1983), Surprise (2006), and So Beautiful or So What (2011)). The reviews are similar but stingier. Only Paul Simon and Graceland get perfect scores, with the latter garnering 91% perfect ratings (I told you the numbers were gaudy).

AMG's William Ruhlmann called Graceland "the standard against which subsequent musical experiments by major artists were measured." Which is nice, but in my eyes actually short-changes the album a bit (more on that soon).

Most of the review are, as usual, rhapsodic. Consider Fetish 2000, who says Graceland's "shift through various moods of being Exuberant, Poignant, Reflective, organic, and spiritual and Consistent remain[s] unquestionably impressive."

However, a strange undercurrent of anger runs through many of the reviews. Witness:
  • "When Graceland came out after the music's death by disco in the 80's, I was thrilled. At last, something great to listen to. What a sound!" (Joanna Daneman) 
  • "Graceland is easily one of the best albums to come out of the otherwise dismal 80's, and a must-have for most music fans." (Dave Yoerke)
  • "Not much good came out of the 80s besides the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and even THEY weren't good then). And actually, Paul Simon didn't come out of the 80s, either. He and Garfunkel had been recording some time before then. But Graceland came out of the 80s, and God, am I glad." (Patrick Varine)
Why all the blanket hatred for the '80s? I'm not sure. I don't understand it the way I don't understand why people like music from the '90s. (See what I did there?)

Moving on, Karissa Clark claims, "If you are looking for a way to breathe life and Cajun spice into your life, here's the way to do it! " Or this. And finally, we have the high praise of Raymond Engstrand: "The product is what I expected. It arrived on time and in the condition advertised."

Of course, many reviewers chose to focus on the "world music" aspect of Graceland, and it's probably fair to say that there's no way Graceland would have been the massive commercial hit (14 million in sales) it was without the international dressings. For one, it gave the album a story, and everyone loves that. For another, Simon had been commercially floundering with his old formula. His two previous albums, One Trick Pony (1980) and Hearts and Bones (1983), were both generally considered failures. They didn't sell up to Simon's usual standards, and the critics were not over the moon about them, either. There's nothing especially wrong with either album. Quite the contrary, actually (see below), but the the public is fickle with its musicians, and Simon had held their attention for longer than most. They'd drifted away until Graceland's crazy energy (due mostly to Simon's newfound South African musical inspiration) called them back.

Even so, the album would have been nothing without the typically-strong batch of songs Simon wrote. They're the heart of it all. They were and are amazing compositions, full of the precise lyrical flourishes and keen pop sensibilities that define Simon's career. At its core, Graceland is a singer-songwriter album. A listen to the demos (available on the 2004 remaster) for Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and Homeless prove as much. The music of other lands inspired Simon, obviously, but the songs themselves are just as well-crafted as Still Crazy After All These Years, or 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.

No song personifies the songwriting strength of Graceland better than the shimmering title track. In it, Simon and his son make a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley's homestead, envisioning it as a secular heaven, a place to repair broken hearts. The line that always gets me is: “Losing love is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you’re blown apart." Simon himself has named it the best song he's ever written, which, considering his catalog, is a bold statement.

That Was Your Mother is a another songwriting highlight. It's perhaps the least sentimental, but most truthful, song ever addressed to a child. Check out this chorus: "Well that was your mother / And that was your father / Before you were born, dude / When life was great / You are the burden of my generation / I sure do love you / But let's get that straight." Before I became a parent, that "burden" line seemed harsh, but I kinda get it now.

Really, the lyrics are surprising and amazing throughout, clearly earning Simon "pop poet" status.
  • The Boy in the Bubble: "It's a turn-around jump shot / It's everyone jump start / It's every generation throws a hero up the pop charts."
  • You Can Call Me Al: "He looks around, around / He sees angels in the architecture / Spinning in infinity / He says 'amen' and 'hallelujah'"
  • Under African Skies: "After the dream of falling and calling your name out / These are the roots of rhythm / And the roots of rhythm remain."
So, yes, Graceland is a great achievement. And it's it's a very fitting Rock Solid. But it's not my favorite Paul Simon album. For that, we have to go back a few paragraphs. The underloved Hearts and Bones is my go-to. I'm ever the sucker for a piece of art that is nakedly personal, and Hearts and Bones is exactly that. I'd say more, but you can read my detailed thoughts here.

As I reflect, there's one significant flaw in my comparison of Joe DiMaggio and Paul Simon. DiMaggio retired from baseball in 1951, at the age of 37. All of his greatest accomplishments (marrying Marilyn Monroe aside) were behind him. Paul Simon made Graceland in his mid-40s. And even if we take that as his peak, he's continued to make high-quality music for 25 more years. No need for the nation to turn its lonely eyes to him; he's been in front of us the whole time. And we're all the richer for it.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

278. Refrigerated Love: Inmortality (2011)

It's an established truism in the music industry that you can never count a good band out. A lesser-known but no-less-true correllary is that you can't really count the bad ones out either.

And thus we have Refrigerated Love, the British group Stephen Thomas Earlewine once called "the chronic bronchitis of rock."

It's been a wild ride since their 2008 reunion release No Expiration Date. That album found modest success, mostly due to ironic attention from hipster bloggers, and the band went back into full swing. In 2009 they put out a spiritual follow-up to their 1994 all-female cover album We Refuse To Pun the Word Cover. The album, Coming In, featured the band's renditions of tunes by gay artists such as Judas Priest, Husker Du, Ricky Martin, and Indigo Girls. Despite excellent song selection, the album tanked.

This began yet another dark period for Refrigerated Love. In 2010 Lead singer Colin Porthorn served as a judge on the disastrous reality series Sing For Your Life. Billed as a combination of Survivor and American Idol, the show placed contestants in life-threatening situations and required them to perform their way out. Porthorn's merciless "I don't see the passion" comment, often delivered before sending an off-pitch contestant to his or her apparent death, became a popular catchphrase briefly. After only three episodes, ABC cancelled the series due to pressure from reactionary parent groups and human rights activists.

Subsequently, and more tragically, Porthorn's attempt to cash in on his new fame with the solo power ballad Show (Me) Your Passion failed miserably. Despite being offered free as the iTunes Single of the Week, no one downloaded it.

In the meantime, lyricist Elvis Hornman was fired. Rumors of bitter feuds between Hornman and the rest of the band members had simmered since the mid-'80s, most traced back to Hornman's penchant for indiscriminately eating food out of the tour bus refrigerator, impolitely ignoring clear shelf labels.
Apparently the boys had finally had enough. Hornman, a notorious absinthe fiend with no musical ability, promptly laid claim to the Refrigerated Love name and declared his intention to tour with replacement musicians, setting off a bitter legal battle. Hornman lost, and has been touring under the name "Elvis Hornman's Frozen Romance". Catch them at your local depressing bar this winter.

Completing the triumvirate of tragedy, the band were unceremoniously dropped by their label, Polydor. In a terse statement, the label said simply, "It's not us, it's them."

Given this run of bad luck, it's a minor miracle that the band have soldiered on. Yet here we have their newest effort, Inmortality, which the band is releasing without a label. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, guitarist Nigel Hornblower said, "Record labels are like dinosaurs. They roam the Earth, obsolete." Added keyboardist Hornel Lieberman, "With the advance of technology, we can take the songs right to the people with no middle man. We make all of our money off of t-shirt sales anyway."

Thus, the album is available on traditional outlets such as eMusic, iTunes, and, or directly through the Refrigerated Love website, where fans can pay $50 for a deluxe download package that includes a "poster-sized jpeg" and "extensive liner notes in .txt format". For an additional $5, "Refrigerated Love will friend you on Facebook!"

Initially, no member felt confident enough to write lyrics in Hornman's place, so the album began as a scat project. When recording sessions stiffed, the band took a 4 month hiatus. When they reconvened, they began to move forward by looking back. During the break, Hornblower audited a community college course called Lyrics as Poetry 102, and his mind was sufficiently blown. Said Hornblower: "Most of the most respected rock lyricists out there - Bob Dylan, Britney Spears, Gene Simmons - write lyrics that make little-to-no sense. They're just words strung together. And we thought, well, we can do that."

And indeed they have.

On several songs, the band members chose to collaborate in an exquisite corpse sort of style, and the result is the most lyrically impenetrable album in the Refrigerated Love ouvre. Take the ponderous opener, Sounds Like an Impressionist Painting, for example. The song starts as an indictment of sensationalist news exposes and ends up as an ode to a turtle sunning itself on a rock. Iridium is little more than a chanted list of transition metals, in alphabetical order (the didgeridoo backing from Lieberman is haunting). And Karaoke Night features such couplets as, "I saw you on the teeter totter / I've got myself a small pet otter" and "Never lose that magic touch / So and so and such and such." Oh, and there's no mention of karaoke anywhere in the song.

Elsewhere, thankfully, the band members took solo turns at composing lyrics. And while the results aren't always good, at least they are coherent. Porthorn offers up Mate, a reverse-double-entendre-laden ballad that seems to be about sex, but is really about friendship. Cue the awkward moments when you're driving with your friend and this tune comes on. Muscular rocker Get Over Here, on the flip side, both seems to be and actually is about sex. The chorus, "Get over here, and get under me / Get over here, I'll be on top" might have served as a Schoolhouse Rock lesson on prepositions, if not for the explicit content. Porthorn's final contribution, Amelia, first seems like a lost track from his Mystery Pants solo album (which featured 10 songs with women's names as titles), but is actually a surprisingly accurate retelling of Amelia Earhart's life.

Guitarist Hornblower contributes Fill Me and In Decay, both of which reflect his well-documented obsession with composting. Hornel Lieberman, long considered the hidden talent of the band, wrote the lyrics for Black Tie Only, a folk-style story song about a plucky young man trying to make his way in high society, and Under the Tundra, a dense and rhythmic bit of slam poetry. And even drummer "Pasty" Pete Pockhorn, the only Refrigerated Lover to have never made a solo album, gets in on the act. He's responsible for the abrasive Possessive Rant, which wins the award for the most accurately-titled song on the album, and  It's Been a Long, a surprisingly thoughtful and strummy number that might just be about everything the band has been through together. Perhaps appropriately, the song ends abruptly mid verse.

But that's not the end. Following 12 seconds of silence, a two note piano drone starts up. After 12 minutes of that you're rewarded with a bonus track. In the liner notes, the bonus song is labeled as No Comment, and is credited thusly: "Music by Refrigerated Love. Lyrics by ???" This lack of credit has set of a firestorm of Internet speculation as to who contributed the words. Some suspect Elvis Hornman wrote the lyrics and will soon be welcomed back into the fold. Other signs point to Steven Sondheim as the composer. All parties thus far have played it coy.

The song itself is a mid-tempo pop number full of harmonies, not dissimilar to a mid-period Hollies track. Lyrically, it's a withering condemnation of the culture of Internet comment sections. Sample lyrics: "I must be a Billy Goat Gruff / Cause you're a troll whose makin' life rough" and "You'd never be that rude in person / Because you know you'd get a hurtin." It's insightful, timely, and clever, three things that are exactly the opposite of what one expects from Refrigerated Love.

And thus once again we find that we may have underestimated Refrigerated Love. Not to worry. They'll surely let us down again. That's another truism of pop music, one you can bank on.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: It's Been a Long

Want more Love? Check out the updated Band History and Discography (we're still waiting for approval to put these up on Wikipedia).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

277. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Alpocalypse (2011)

Just when I thought I was out...

Last year I did a marathon review-every-"Weird Al"-album project. Honestly, it was more "Weird Al" than any person should have to experience in a short period of time. But now, Al's back with a new album, Alpocalypse, and duty compels me to throw in my two cents.

I actually already wrote about 5 of these songs, because Al released them 2 years ago as the Internet Leaks EP. I wrote then that this was somewhat of an odd strategy, and I still feel that way. It essentially means that a little less than half the new album is actually new. It's also disappointing because, as you'll see, I didn't much care for 4 of the 5 songs on the EP.

Following the format of my past "Weird Al" reviews, let's take a look at Alpocalypse.

The album leads off with Perform This Way, a take on Lady Gaga's anthem Born This Way. There was apparently a misunderstanding about this song, with Al going to great lengths to get the tune approved (he won't parody a song without the original artist's permission) only to have Lady Gaga refuse at the last minute. Once he went public with the story, however, she promptly changed course, claiming she'd always intended to let him release it. As it is, the back story is actually more interesting than the song's lyrics, which amounts to little more than "Lady Gaga does weird stuff, doesn't she?"

TMZ uses Taylor Swift's You Belong To Me to comment on rabid celebrity trash journalism. The song wisely places equal blame on the members of the media and the celebrities themselves, as evidenced by the line "It's getting to the point where a famous person can't even get a DUI or go on a racist rant."

Miley Cyrus' ubiquitous Party in the U.S.A. becomes Party in the C.I.A., and like the best Al parodies, the juxtaposition of the source material and lyrical subject matter is ultra-effective. Thus we end up with hilariously absurd lyrics such as "staging a coup like yeah / brainwashing moles like yeah." This is the best parody on the album. And while that isn't saying a whole lot, it doesn't diminish the quality of the song.

Whatever You Like is a parody of the 3-year old T.I. tune of the same name. I already went into detail on this one (follow the link above). In summary: I'm not a fan.

Finally, Another Tattoo is a Crazy List song based on Nothin' On You by B.O.B. and Bruno Mars. Like all the parodies on Alpocalypse (save Party in the C.I.A.) it's passable but by-the-numbers. In other words, Al's not really pushing his craft or anything.

Style Parodies:
Of the four style parodies that appeared on the earlier EP, Skipper Dan is the clear winner. It's got heart, doesn't go for the easy jokes, and manages to musically recall its source material (Fountains of Wayne, though other reviewers have claimed Weezer; I don't see it) without ripping it off. The other three, Craigslist (a Doors riff), Ringtone (a Queen riff), and CNR (a White Stripes riff) vary in quality, with none particularly floating my boat.

If That Isn't Love finds Al taking on the style of Hanson. This seems random and left field unless you know that Al is friends with the brothers, having directed a handful of videos for them. The song boasts a decent melody, and - get this - the theme is actually mature (namely that being part of a couple is more than just the sweet stuff) though the specifics aren't. It's riddled with sophomoric references to butt cracks, farting, obesity, boogers, spastic bladders, and so on. Despite that, it's one of the better songs on the album.

In latter years, Al's obsession with TV has been replaced by a fixation on computers. He has devoted songs to eBay (eBay), Craigslist (Craigslist), core processors (It's All About the Pentiums), viruses (Virus Alert), and illegal downloading (Don't Download this Song). So here's a tune about chain e-mails, Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me. The song is in the bombastic, multi-movement style of Meat Loaf's work with Jim Steinman (Paradise By the Dashboard Light, I'll Do Anything For Love, etc.). There are some good moments, especially when Al touches on how quickly misinformation spreads on the Interweb, with the conclusion, "I have high hopes that someone will point you toward Snopes and debunk that crazy junk you're spewing constantly."

Polka Medley:
The always-enjoyable polka medley is here as well, this time entitled Polka Face. It contains the following songs: Poker Face (Lady Gaga), Womanizer (Britney Spears), Right Round (Flo Rida), Day 'n' Nite (Kid Cudi), Need You Now (Lady Antebellum), Baby (Justin Bieber), So What (Pink), I Kissed a Girl (Katy Perry), Fireflies (Owl City), Blame it (on the Alcohol) (Jamie Foxx), Replay (Iyaz), Down (Jay Sean), Break Your Heart (Taio Cruz), and Tik Tok (Ke$ha).

As is consistent with his work in the last 15 years, it feels like Al is mostly going through the paces, with an exception here or there. But, as always, add a letter grade if you are a boy between the ages of 11 and 15.

References to TV: 3
References to food: 3
Grade: C-
Fave Song: Skipper Dan

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Songs of 2011

Every year I make a compilation of some of my favorite songs. Some years I make two. This is one of those years. Here's the tracklist and cover art for my first-half-of-2011 collection:

 1. Sloan: Shadow of Love
2. Adele: Rumour Has It
3. The Cars: Sad Song
4. Duran Duran: All You Need Is Now
5. White Light Riot: Conduit
6. Tapes 'n Tapes: Freak Out
7. The Get Up Kids: Regent's Court
8. Beastie Boys: The Larry Routine
9. Paul Simon: So Beautiful Or So What
10. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
11. Rogue Valley: Orion
12. Apex Manor: The Party Line
13. The Decemberists: This Is Why We Fight
14. Sloan: Beverly Terrace

Monday, May 30, 2011

Rock Solid: Van Halen

"If you only own one album by Van Halen it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Word has it that Van Halen will put out a new album this year. It would be their first full-length effort in 13 years, and their first with lead singer David Lee Roth in 28 years. Given the Van Halen brothers' spotty work ethic and volatile history with lead singers, I'll believe that when I'm holding the new album in my hands. But what better time, as we wait with skeptical anticipation, to review the band's moments of greatest glory?

Since I am an equal opportunity Van Halen fan (meaning I see the merits of all versions of the band, Gary Cherone years excluded), we'll be awarding them two Rock Solids. One with Roth and one with Sammy Hagar. In the interest of forthrightnesss, I must tell you that all but one of the 6 original Roth albums critically outperformed the 4 Hagar ones. Whether or not that's justified is a different matter.

David Lee Roth:

It was basically a two man race here. The band's 1978 self-titled debut vs. their 1983 opus 1984. Both received perfect 5 star ratings from the All Music Guide. They both got 4.5 stars from reviewers, however, the debut had 84% 5 star ratings to 1984's 67%. So Van Halen it is.

And it's hard to argue. The album features no less that 5 stone cold classics (and more dropped g's than you can shake a stick at): Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love, Jamie's Cryin', You Really Got Me, Runnin' With the Devil, and Eruption.

The tireless Stephen Thomas Earlewine of the All Music Guide calls the album "stellar" and "seminal" (have you ever noticed that no one uses the word "seminal" outside of college classrooms and music reviews?). He also finds the albums' songs to be "vital, surprising...and really revolutionary, because no other band rocked like this before." For a man whose sparing with his hyperbole, that's damn fine praise. reviewers, who are rarely sparing with the hyperbole, are on the same wavelength. I'll let a couple of them speak for themselves:
  • "This was something new, something purely American, and opened the door to what we know as Hard Rock or Heavy Metal today. It's impossible to listen to any rock artist today and not hear the influence of Van Halen." (Graboidz)
  • "Every song on this album is basically an advanced lesson in futuristic guitar playing. Nowadays, anyone and their grandmother's grandmother can do hyperdrive hammer ons and pull offs sprinkled with some telepathic psycho harmonic doorbells concluding with a kamikaze dive bomb whammy bar...but way back then, it was Eddie." (Rixter 109)
But is Van Halen Roth-era Van Halen's best work? Voices dissent. Jinx McElroy believes that "Van Halen 1 is not the best Van Halen album. Most fans will tell you either Fair Warning or Women and Children First hold that dubious title." Why is it a "dubious" title? Only Jinx knows. However, The One Who Knows (his name says it all) purports that "while Van Halen's subsequent CD's all had great tunes, none were as consistently excellent as this one."

My sentimental favorite is actually the band's supposed Rock Bottom (Diver Down), and I think 1984 hits higher highs, but overall, as I said, Van Halen is the objective best of the David Lee Roth years. At least until this new one comes out.

Sammy Hagar:

In the case of Van Hagar, the All Music Guide is quite stingy, with an average 3 star rating for their four albums. The one that raises the average (with 4 stars) is the 1986 Hagar debut, 5150. Amazingly, Amazon reviewers gave every Van Hagar album 4 stars. 5150 also comes out tops here, with 51% 5 star reviews (compared to 31%, 48%, and 44% for OU812, F.U.C.K., and Balance, respectively).

Though 5150 has some great high points (Why Can't This Be Love, Dreams, Best of Both Worlds, and Love Walks In), I'm not in as complete agreement here as I was about Van Halen. More on that later. First, let's hear from the critic and fans.

It's pretty clear where Earlewine falls on the whole Sammy vs. Dave debate, but he does have some nice things to say about 5150, even backhanding the Roth era a tiny bit: "[Hagar] helped push Van Halen into a dedication to writing full-fledged songs, something that often seemed an afterthought in the original lineup." Harsh!

But Stevie can't help philosophizing a bit as well:"And so Van Hagar was a bit of an odd mix -- a party band and a party guy, slowly veering into a bourgeois concept of respectability, something that eventually sunk the band." I think he's kind of dramatically saying Van Halen got too self-serious under Hagar. I'll buy that. Ultimately, though, Earlewine finds 5150 to be a "pretty impressive opening act."

Most fans give similarly qualified praise, but some find Sammy's work with the band to be superior to his predecessor's:
  •  "I am a VH fan and to me this is their best album. It really has it all: a great mix of melodies and guitar rock. What makes Eddie so great is his unreal guitar skills combined with his ability to write memorable tunes and no VH album shows that better than 5150." (Slim Pickins) 
  • "I have to disagree with some who think Eddie's best work was earlier in his career. As great as his early playing was (and it was great), I think it was a little one dimensional. His later work shows improved sophistication and real mastery of the instrument. His ability to compose a good melody and put underneath it a complex guitar accompaniment (it's so busy it's hard to call it accompaniment) really shines on 5150. (Clay Gilbert) 
  •  "If you ever buy just one Van Halen album in your entire life, make sure it's this one." (Anonymous)
Others are less concerned about the album's place in history and are instead intent on enjoying it for what it is. Dequan Waters says that 5150 "delivers optimism, fantasy, and appreciation." And Ian5150 reveals that, "This album + my air guitar skills = I got laid for first time in high school." Man, I wish I'd been better at math in high school.

Myself, I actually prefer 1995's Balance, Hagar's swan song with the group. It's not a popular choice, for sure, probably because it doesn't boast any huge singles on the same level as the earlier three albums. Despite that, it's actually the only Van Hagar album I actually enjoy listening to from front to back.

But course the true Van Halen Rock Solid is Greatest Hits, Volume 1. Get that, download Jamie's Cryin', Everybody Wants Some, Hot For Teacher, I'll Wait, Finish What Ya Started, and Not Enough, and you're all set.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Rock Solid: U2

"If you only own one album by U2 it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Thriller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

You probably think this one is a no-brainer. The album cover that comes to mind when one hears the words "U2's best album" probably features black bars at the top and bottom and a black and white photo of the band in the middle of the desert (in medium shot, bunched up on the left hand side). The Joshua Tree, 1987's epic breakthrough that featured Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, and With Or Without You, is U2's best-selling and best-known album.

But it's not their best-reviewed and best-loved.

You may have forgotten about a little number called Achtung Baby, 1991's epic dirty pop masterpiece. Can you believe it's U2's only album to receive perfect overall ratings from both the All Music Guide and reviewers? I can.

Sibilant Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All Music Guide says Achtung Baby is "vibrant and endlessly inventive." He also feels that, "Few bands as far into their career as U2 have recorded an album as adventurous or fulfilled their ambitions quite as successfully...and the result is arguably their best album." fan reviewers are similarly gob-smacked. DJ Jazzyjoe finds Achtung Baby to be "easily U2's best, if not the best of the entire 1990's." Ape-Dawg does him one further, stating: "Achtung Baby is BY FAR the BEST U2 album, as well as one of (if not the BEST) albums of the 90's, and of all time!" David H. says simply, "U2 can never top this."

M. Fine believes Achtung "this is a musical classic as much as The Three Musketeers is a literary classic." An anonymous reviewer adds: "This is the album that every human being NEEDS to own!" I propose that, upon birth, every baby born in the U.S. should be given a copy of The Three Musketeers and Achtung Baby. Maybe then our test scores will go up.

Kevin Day is so inspired that he mixes up his metaphors: "This album is filled with moods and colors that not only change the atmosphere of the room, but turn it on its head." Then Lazarous072 shows him how to do it right: "Not to slight the Beatles in any way, but Sgt. Pepper's is a whole greater than the sum of its parts--not the band's best collection of individual songs. Imagine experiencing Pepper as being hit in the back of a head with a frying pan, whereas Achtung Baby is a collection of 12 separate painful pins sharply stuck all over your body: they each hurt equally, and in a different place, a different way." Well played, sir!

Finally, even "Bono" himself chimes in: "I love all these wanna-be Rolling Stone employees, with thier  15 paragraph reviews and fancy words they had to look up in the dictionary. Here is my review for Achtung Baby - best U2 album made."

I totally agree. Achtung Baby has always been my favorite U2 disc. I love how it finds Bono turning away from the soul-searching of The Joshua Tree and the world-beating of Rattle and Hum to examine different aspects of relationships (romantic and otherwise).  I love how much of a musical 180 the album was from its predecessors, adding new weapons to the U2 arsenal (the most powerful being the Edge's buzzy new guitar tone).  But most of all I love the songs themselves.

Let's see how it does on the Thriller Test.

1) At least 3 hits
Achtung Baby placed four hits in the U.S. top 40: Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, Even Better Than the Real Thing, Mysterious Ways, and One. The latter two went top 10, and One might just be U2's crowning achievement, whether you choose to see it as being about a romantic relationship, world peace, or the band itself. Pass

2) Great album tracks
Hell yeah. Zoo Station, So Cruel, Ultraviolet (Light My Way), and Until the End of the World are all alternate universe hits. The Fly was actually the first single released from the album and though it did well overseas (#1 in Ireland, Australia, and Britain), it stiffed in the U.S. Pass

3) No filler
The album's final two tracks are less memorable than the others, but they are difficult to dismiss. Acrobat features searing guitar work and some surprising toughness from Bono ("Don't let the bastards grind you down!") And the musical slow burn of closer Love is Blindness puts the focus squarely on the dark truth of the lyrics. Pass

4) Memorable cover art
Certainly not as iconic as some of the band's other album covers (War, The Joshua Tree, Rattle & Hum), it's at least instantly recognizable and representative of the music within. However,  it wouldn't make a list of the 100 best album covers of all time. Pass, barely

To be fair, there are probably at least two other U2 albums could also pass this test. But instead of seeing it as a deciding factor, I see it as evidence of Achtung Baby's worthiness.

So there you have it: A rare case where the fans and critics agree with each other, and manage to get it right. Savor the moment.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

12 by Old 97's

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).


"12 by" is an old feature; the last time I did one was April of 2009. But upon discovering belatedly that the Old 97's put a new record out last fall (The Grand Theatre Volume 1), I realized they're due for a career summary.

1. If My Heart Was a Car (from Hitchhike to Rhome, 1994)
Lays out a rough blueprint for the band: Fast tempo, country roots, raw but controlled vocals, and metaphor-laden lyrics about how f***ed-up love can be ("If my heart was a car / you would have stripped it a long time ago").

2. 4 Leaf Clover (from Hitchhike to Rhome, 1994)
This one is always a concert highlight.

3. Victoria (from Too Far to Care, 1996)
I want Rhett Miller to write a song about me.

4. Timebomb (from Wreck Your Life, 1997)
A perfect marriage of music, lyrics, and performance. The narrator is about to lose control, and the song spends its entire 3 minute lifespan walking on the right side of chaos.

5. Barrier Reef (from Wreck Your Life, 1997)
"My name's Stuart Ransom Miller / I'm a serial lady killer / She said, 'I'm already dead' / That's exactly what she said."

6. Murder (or a Heart Attack) (from Fight Songs, 1999)

This catchy tune has a chorus that goes "And I may be leavin' myself open to a murder or a heart attack / But I'm leavin' the back door open 'til you come home again." I could easily be interpreted to be about a rocky romance, but it's actually about a lost cat! Somehow that makes me like it even more.

7. Valentine (from Fight Songs, 1999)
There's typically one or two songs on every Old 97's album on which bassist Murray Hammond takes lead vocals. I have to say I'm not a huge fan of those songs, except for Valentine. Over an understated arrangement, Hammond details how "it's a lonely, lonely feeling when your Valentine is wrong."

8. Bird in a Cage (from Satellite Rides, 2001)
Any number of songs could have represented the excellent Satellite Rides album, but I chose this one because it perfectly describes an unfortunate romantic situation I was trapped in, and the way I justified it: "I may be a bird in a cage, but at least it's your cage."

9. Won't Be Home (from Drag It Up, 2004)
Picked this one mostly for the chorus, which plays on repeat in my head on a fairly regular basis.

10. Dance With Me (from Blame It On Gravity, 2008)
With a bit of a nod to Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

11. The One (from Blame It On Gravity, 2008)
The lyrics of this clever number recast the band members (three of whom are mentioned by name) as audacious bank robbers who feel so confident that they choose Highway 101 in Los Angeles, a notoriously traffic-heavy stretch of road, as their escape route. It's really about the band's experience signing a deal with Elektra records, recording in L.A., and feeling like the world is their oyster.

12. Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You) (from The Grand Theatre, Volume One, 2010)
The new album finds the band returning to a purer, rawer country rock sound, and this rocker is one of the finest examples of that.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Rock Solid: Monkees

"If you only own one album by The Monkees it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

I spent a lot of time on the Monkees back in 2009, reviewing all 11 of their albums, plus a compilation and a '70s half-revival. I devoted a lot of words to the "pre-fab four" but one thing I didn't officially determine was which of their albums is the best. If compilations were allowed, I'd go with Then & Now...The Best of the Monkees and call it a day. But since rules are rules, we have to look elsewhere.

The All Music Guide finds there to be no perfect Monkees album. The two highest-rated albums are 1967's double shot of Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd with 4.5 stars each. reviewers are kinder, bestowing 4.5 stars on five Monkees albums (their debut, More of the Monkees, Head, and the two mentioned above). With a slightly higher percentage of 5 star reviews on Amazon, Headquarters takes the Rock Solid title.

Now I may be slightly hypocritical here in supporting this choice. See, I balked at Tumbleweed Connection as Elton John's Rock Solid because it isn't representative of who he is as an artist. Likewise, Headquarters, because it was recorded by the group alone (instead of the usual studio musicians) and features no huge hits, is not truly representative of who the Monkees were, at least in public perception.

HOWEVER (and here's where the critic attempts to explain away his double standard), I feel Elton is one of the rare artists who is perfectly rated. That is to say: He's not overrated or underrated, he's just rated (thanks to Chuck Klosterman for this concept). The Monkees, on the other hand, are both overrated and underrated. Diehard fans won't hesitate to compare them to the Beatles, despite the fact that several sections of their catalog are abysmal; anyone who tells you otherwise has not spent enough time listening to Your Auntie Grizelda. At the same time, they are not nearly given enough credit for their talent, staying power, or spirit of experimentation. One listen to Headquarters proves that.

There's also the matter of intention. Way too much of the praise heaped on Tumbleweed Connection was some form of "Elton John is usually rubbish, but this is a great album!" In other words, it was backhanded complimenting. Headquarters' accolades feature none of this faint praise.

That cleared up, let's move on to the critic and fan perceptions.

The All Music Guide's Tim Sendra calls Headquarters a "dynamic, exciting, and impressive album." He says what it lacks in hits it makes up for in good songs, and that the Monkees proved "they were legitimate musicians with enough brains, heart, and soul as anyone else claiming to be a real band in 1967."

On, fan reviewers echo these sentiments. Clark the Shark shouts, "WHAT A SHEAR [sic] MASTERPIECE FOR ANY BAND/...LET ALONE A BAND THAT ISN'T EVEN A BAND." Steve Cronen doesn't shy away from comparisons: "Revolver. Exile on Main Street. Who's Next. Blonde on Blonde. These are some of the best albums ever. Headquarters, the album on which the Monkees broke free from their 'manufactured pop' image, ranks right along with 'em." And Sebastian Davies claims that Headquarters "is the album that proves it don't take great musicians to make great music." Um, thanks, I think?

The album's do-it-yourself nature (though the Monkees didn't write all the songs themselves) also inspires some anachronistic hyperbole. "I venture to say Headquarters would be labeled an indie pop masterpiece had it been released now by a bunch of no names," says Jeff Lekson, starting us off easy. Next, JK Baxter claims the album is "at heart, a garage band tour de force...the force behind this album is just so raw, I even want to use the word 'punk' here!" And William brings it all home: "This is the Sex Pistols had they stuck it out for another four albums."

And then there's this anonymous review, which I'll let speak for itself:

This has got to be the greatest album of all time. i will give anyone who disagrees the worst pinchet of all time. sunny girlfriend is the best monkees song ever recorded, when i rule, it will be a national song. this album shows how great Mike Nesmith really is. i got to meet him once, he shook my hand told me that i was a failure and said that i had to shave my sideburns because he invented them, then he punched me in the face. You can see why i like him so much. he hates animals just like me. i like my rabbit and he is my best friend. my bird is El's best friend but i hate it and it will pay the ultimate price if it ever hisses at me. she is also best friends with someone who sits in an empty bathtub and freezes.I think that is why i like this album so much because when played backwards it gives you the secret recipe to make a flaming golpangis and talks about bornage.

Overall, it's hard to deny Headquarters its place at the top, either musically or sentimentally. I'd have to put it as my own personal favorite of their proper albums, as well. And that's with or without the bornage.

Author's Note: For more, read my original review of Headquarters.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Rock Solid: Weezer

"If you only own one album by Weezer  it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Oh, Weezer. What more can we say about you? You've made us love you, made us hate you, made us question your sanity, made us question our sanity. Just when we think maybe we can embrace the strangeness (2009's Raditude), you throw out something like 2010's terrible Hurley (I actually lost 5 I.Q. points while listening to Where's My Sex). And not even the fans or critics can agree on when you are actually being more terrible: The Metacritic rating for Ratitude is 57; Hurley's is 68.

You know things have gone wrong when someone starts an online fund-raising campaign to get you to quit making music, as James Burns did in the fall of 2010. Said Burns, "I beg you, Weezer. This is an abusive relationship, and it needs to stop now. If we reach at least $10,000,000, then we get the chance to possibly stop hearing about a shitty new Weezer album every goddamn year." (Burns has since suspended the campaign, having proven his point).

I usually hate when critics and fans pile on the they're-not-as-good-as-they-used-to-be bandwagon. It always seems so closed-minded and cynical. It seems to disallow others the right to discover something wonderful that I just can't see because of whatever blocks I've put up. But Weezer present a strong challenge to my open-mindedness. In their case I feel completely justified in saying that they've lost their magic.

HOWEVER, let's not focus on the bad for once. Let's look at what gave us such high expectations for Rivers, Brian, Patrick, and Matt/Mikey/Scott in the first place. If you know anything about the last 15 years of pop music, then you probably know which two Weezer albums will contend for the top spot: their 1994 debut, Weezer (a.k.a. The Blue Album), and the 1996 follow-up Pinkerton.

So which is it? Both receive perfect 5 star ratings from the All Music Guide as well as This is where we have to get picky. So I looked at the percentage of 5-star ratings on Weezer has 88%. Pinkerton has 86%. It doesn't get much closer than that folks. Now, I could spend this space debating the relative merits of each album, but for simplicity's sake, I'm going to let the Blue Album stand as winner. I'll give Pinkerton its due before I wrap up.

So, of Weezer, the STE (Stephen Thomas Erlewine) at AMG (All Music Guide) says, "time has been nothing but kind to Weezer's eponymous debut album." He also adds this gem: "If, as Howard Hawks said, a good movie consists of three great scenes and no bad ones, it could be extrapolated that a good record contains three great songs and no bad ones -- in that case, Weezer is a record with at least six or seven great songs and no bad ones."

Over on, Stu Schroeder is feeling the same vibe: "Not only is it the best album in Weezer's catalog, but it very well could be song-for-song the most consistent 40 minutes in music history." Josh Reynolds continues the hyperbole, claiming that Weezer is "everything you can want in an album and you can never get bored of it." And Grant Jordahl finds the album to be "perfect for driving and doing homework!"

Many Amazon reviewers believe the album to be a must-own:
  • goven: "Everyone should have their first album. If you don't, quite frankly it's just strange."
  • Weezier: "There's no reason why not to buy the Blue Album."
  • Laszlo Matyas: "This is a just plain great album, and it belongs in every half-decent music collection." (But only the half-decent collections, not the fully decent ones?)
Still others assert that Weezer have not topped their debut. Samot says, "I really don't think Weezer ever made a more consistent, more infectious, or more charming album than this one." And Alex contends that "Weezer might have written great songs in the future, but they never were able to recapture this sound again, and that's probably why everyone remains so nostalgic for their past."

Surprisingly, there are very few mentions of Pinkerton at all. In fact, the reviews are much more concerned with comparing the Blue Album to other watershed '90s albums, like Nirvana's Nevermind and Oasis' Definitely Maybe. And then there's Oliver Eckles: "This is the best rock album since Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy." Okay, sure.

I'm partial to the Blue Album myself. In fact, if the totalitarian Obama administration gets their way and forces me to give up my constitutional right to own more than 10 CDs, it might make the cut. A big part of it is nostalgia. The Blue Album hit me at the exact right time in life and I was completely susceptible to its wiles. But at the same time, its charm hasn't worn over the years. I still thrill over the quiet/loud dynamic of Say It Ain't So, cringe at the naked jealousy of the narrator in No One Else, and still completely understand wanting a girl that looks like Mary Tyler Moore (circa 1965). In the Garage is probably the best four minute description of outsider adolescence that exists, and The World Has Turned and Left Me Here always sends me into a fugue-like revelry.

I like Pinkerton too, just not as much. Plus, I hate the half-truth legend that has formed around it. Yes, not many people liked it when it came out (myself included). Yes, it grows on you. Yes, it's a good record. BUT - lazy rock critics listen up - it DID NOT create emo. Emo started in the mid-'80s, 10 years before Pinkerton. Bands like Rites of Spring, Jawbreaker, and Sunny Day Real Estate got it going. Bands like Braid, Jimmy Eat World, Promise Ring, and Get-Up Kids all formed, played shows, and/or made albums before Pinkerton came out. Maybe a lot of current emo bands cite it as an influence, but that doesn't mean it created the genre. Pinkerton is also portrayed as being a dark and tortured record, but really only a handful of the songs fit that bill. A good portion of the album is actually kinda funny (Tired of Sex, El Scorcho, Pink Triangle, The Good Life).

So let's conclude with a moment of silence for Weezer. They may continue to put out albums, appear on TV and magazine covers, and put out the occasional irresistible single, but it's clear that we really lost them somewhere in the the murky fog of 1996.