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 Amazon.com 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. Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com, 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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com. This is where we have to get picky. So I looked at the percentage of 5-star ratings on Amazon.com. 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 Amazon.com, 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 Amazon.com 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.