Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Can't Get You Out of My Head" by Kylie Minogue (2001)

Ah, Kylie. What can I say?

I am neither a gay man nor a teenage girl, so by rights this song, like the rest of Kylie Minogue’s oeuvre, should do nothing for me. In fact, more to the point, it should trigger my gag reflex and send me hurling, right? That would be the expected typical adult heterosexual male response to Kylie? And then to run off and play some Pearl Jam or crap like that?

Kylie’s music is angst-free low-calorie entertainment. The thing is that I reckon that’s a compliment. I’ll take genuinely artificial over artificially genuine any day. And Kylie brings to her pop ditties a legitimate dedication to, and pride in, making people happy.

“Can’t Get You Out of my Head” doesn’t mean anything. It’s a skip-rope melody over a roller-rink beat. Its catch phrase is ‘na na na’ repeated over and over again. A nine-year-old could dance deliriously to it and appreciate it in just the same way I do.

Is there anything wrong with any of that? Not a bit. Songs like this can fall very easily into tackiness, phoniness and deliberate childishness. In my opinion, this song has none of these shortcomings, and Ms. Minogue herself deserves most of the credit for that: her performance is filled with sexiness but confidence, a love of life that still takes life seriously. It took Kylie a long time to get to that stage (and she didn’t hold onto it long): between “I Should Be So Lucky” and this (not the widest progression musically) she went through all kinds of phases, but finally came back to what she was good at, with an appreciation that being good at this kind of music is (a) no small feat, and (b) a real gift.

The result made her superhuge, or else remade her as superhuge. The trick? Showing that ‘pop’ really does mean ‘popular’, in the most democratic vox populi manner possible. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this song – in keeping with the opening paragraph, I should say that while I can imagine lots of people claiming not to like this song, in their hearts, alone in their rooms with their headphones on, I can’t imagine anyone not being transported to a place of simplicity and of innocence.

No wonder she’s such a gay icon!
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Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues (1987)

The potential minefield that is the Christmas song... Christmas is such a major holiday, such a major event in the lives of people in Western countries that it's easy to imagine the impetus to commemorate it in song. The thing is, of course, that the vast majority of Christmas songs are horrible beastly things that you would never dream of listening to eleven months of the year and only give an ear to on the twelfth because shopping centres and radio stations just won't... stop... playing them.

Oh, but then there's this: by any rational definition the best Christmas song ever, and one of the few that merit playlist inclusion at any time of the year. That is, of course, because it's not really about Christmas, merely set during Christmas. But more to the point, because it's not mawkish, cloying, crass... any of those things Christmas songs tend to be. It's just undoubtedly, undeniably real. In short, it's a tale of two Irish immigrants to New York and their volatile, on-again, off-again relationship. It's about the kind of desperation people feel when they have no real future, and it's about the dignity that maintaining hope in such circumstances engenders. Heavy stuff for a Christmas ditty, but those messy emotions are what drives the song and what makes it so special.

I could have included any of a dozen different Pogues songs here, and maybe eventually I will. Their impact on the 1980s is sadly underappreciated, but their fusion of old and new, of tradition and modernity, and of art and entertainment, was groundbreaking and truly wonderful. The music was exciting or beautiful or often (as is the case here) both. But ultimately it was Shane MacGowan's words, and the voice with which he delivered them, that made them a cut above (I realise not all of the lyrics were written by MacGowan, and in fact my second favourite song about Irish immigrants in New York on If I Should Fall from Grace with God was entirely written by Philip Chevron). This is a hopeless case – a drunk, a gambler, an eternal dreamer. The female role in this duet (sung by the enchanting and sadly long gone Kirsty MacColl, making her incidentally the first person to have two entries in this list) is endlessly frustrated at his shortcomings, yet still able to find comfort in his words. They define dysfunction. All of us know, or perhaps are, a couple like this. Their story has no real resolution, because soon enough she'll realise again that the cold comfort of his words is ultimately empty. She'll try to get out again. He'll pull her back in. It's not his fault: it's much more difficult for men to grow up and give up on their dreams than it is for women. “I could have been someone,” he pines, bitterly. “Well, so could anyone,” she replies, deflating his pronouncements in an instant.

All of this is borne out over a melodic backdrop so light that it carries the listener in the wash of contradictory, bittersweet emotions. The box set Just Look Them Straight in the Eye and Say... Pogue Mahone contains several early versions of the song, a work-in-progress that show just how much labour went into making it sound so light and free. It takes effort to give the appearance of effortlessness. The takes are interesting because they're so terrible: they're 95% there, yet that extra 5% seems to make such a difference: what makes the song great instead of merely good.

There is a reason this song is so timeless, and it's not because of the naughty-words verse (which I appreciate in its place but consider perhaps the least wonderful part of the song). It's because it's something that Christmas songs almost never are: honest. It cuts to the bone of the mess of emotions that Christmas evokes, and for that reason they'll still be singing it 100 years from now.
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Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" by the Shirelles (1960)

Ah, youthful innocence. There are, and have always been, people who claim that this generation loses its innocence more quickly than the previous generation. Being now old enough to claim that if I so choose, I do wonder. I think that a lot of the perceived generational differences we claim have to do with our own shifting perspectives, not those of any given generation. As we slide into age-induced conservativism, perhaps we colour our own childhood memories differently, so that when we see a child today behaving more or less exactly as we did, we misremember our own youth and see today’s kid as more licentious.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps we truly are going to hell in a handbasket, morally.

To learn, let’s go back in time – way before I was born, before even my parents were old enough to worry about the sentiments expressed herein. I have no idea what age group the record labels presumed this was written for, but I suspect it’s the teen age group. Popular music is generally marketed to teens, and in 1960 I don’t think anybody marketed anything except movie soundtracks and big band music to adults.

So this is an experience meant for teens. The lead singer’s crystal-clear vocal performance is so filled with fear and anticipation that you suspect it really was recorded on the verge of her ‘first night’. The strings (an absolutely gorgeous use of strings) conspire to inflate the romance inherent in the event, but the singer is all about uncertainty. She is quite naïve, not very worldly at all, and quite dependent on her boyfriend for emotional satisfaction: all very pre-Kennedy era.

As Carole King’s lyrics, artful yet conversationally plain, explain, she is about to surrender her virginity to her boyfriend and is terrified that he’s just in it for the conquest and will disappear the next day.

In that light, almost fifty years seem to have changed nothing. Girls today – and if not at the same age group then at least in the neighbourhood – ponder the same dilemma. This girl is not married; this is not a ‘wedding night’ song. This event is happening in a bedroom in either her house or the boyfriend’s house, with the parents downstairs watching TV, unaware. They’re both young, emotionally unaware, yet going with it anyway.

And she’s looking for assurance. Perhaps the most explicitly female emotion there is, outside of motherhood, is the need for that ‘first sexual encounter’ to be a sharing and bonding experience for both of them. This is a need that men, particularly teenage men, are almost entirely bereft of. This is why it matters that the words were written by a woman, and an 18-year-old woman at that (addressing, no doubt, her songwriting partner and soon-to-be husband). In an era where older men were awkwardly putting insincere words into the mouths of teenage girls, this song is so completely legit because it’s written by someone who knows, who feels the emotions expressed in the words. This is virginal female sexuality laid bare, and though it might be filtered through a the lens of a more inhibited era, the emotions are just as raw and real as if they had been written today.

I hear this song with a bitter nostalgia: not for the era, which is almost a full generation before me, but for the age at which girls feel this way, and age that has now long passed for me.

And perhaps if I find myself judging the kids of today, it’s with more than a twinge of jealousy.
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Saturday, December 5, 2009

"Ojos Asi" by Shakira (1999)

Okay. Let me just say it and get it out of the way: Shakira is an immensely talented woman who deserves financial recompense for her talent at whatever cost that may entail. Whew. I feel better.

I say that sentence because I’m not a snob, truly. I don’t sit there with a latte sniffing and accusing any underground artiste who’s ever sold in excess of 10,000 copies of their music of ‘selling out’. Glamorizing obscurity (or in this case ‘authenticity’) for its own sake is a little pointless. It is genuinely a pity the sacrifices artistes sometimes have to make for a wider audience, but life is not always fair.

So… who am I to criticize Shakira for going blonde, moving to the States, collaborating with Gloria Este-frickin’-han and singing repeatedly about the size of her breasts? Right? Hey? Plus, “Hips Don’t Lie” and “Objection” are all right. The less said about songs whose titles end in “…Clothes”, the better.

But this… this is a hurricane, a whirlwind, a force of nature. This is something fundamental in the human spirit brought forth and recorded onto modern machines. Exotic as hell, it seamlessly mixes Arabic and South American – Lebanese and Colombian – with a guitar sound and an attitude out of American heavy metal, all grafted onto a Euro techno pulse. Yet despite all of this, it never sounds anything less than natural and never for a minute pushes you away by being foreign or disparate. Listening to this song makes you feel that there’s a little bit of American- and European-influenced Lebanese Colombian in all of us.

Okay, tongue ever so slightly in cheek. The thing is that I really don’t understand why this is not enough for the world. Why something this stunning, this powerful, this forceful didn’t suffice to make Shakira a star, why inevitably it came down to the language she was singing in. The first question I have is whether or not we here in the English-speaking world are truly so provincial that we cannot connect to music whose lyrics we can’t understand. For every “99 Luftballons” whose original happily manages to outsell its ‘translation’, there are a dozen singers taking English lessons in order to pursue that golden ring. And the second question is why, outside of the English- (and in this case Spanish-) speaking markets, sales should increase the moment the singer puts out an English-language song. I mean, a foreign language is still a foreign language to, say, a German, isn’t it?

Shakira speaks excellent English and writes great lyrics in English too. But I’m not sure if I can find an English-language song by her that has quite the passion we can hear in this song as she declaims forth over that beguiling mix of eastern percussion and western machines. No, I don’t know what she’s saying. But I fee what she’s saying. And since music is a gut-reaction experience, that’s the more important thing, in my opinion.

Pity so few people worldwide, or at least so few record companies worldwide, appear to agree.

Oh, and as a final note, isn’t she drop-dead gorgeous as a brunette?

(This blog mentions in it.)
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Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Hot Burrito #1" by the Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)

I think I’m starting to understand country music. The ‘keening’ vocals are not meant to be conventionally attractive, so all those years I spent wondering what was attractive about the forlorn dog-whine, I was missing the point. In fact, the vocals on the best of country songs sound that way because it’s a more direct combination of form and content. The successful country singer’s voice breaks as his heart breaks, and somewhere in the process, we the audience are drawn into the drama. And, potentially, hooked.

If there’s any truth to this theory, it seems ideally best presented in the context of weepy country songs. Hoedown stuff, the ‘western’ half I suppose, I still can’t explain. Garth Brooks I can’t explain either.

And, as a further caveat, if there’s any truth to this theory, then I reckon the vocal melody is essential. A weepy country song without much of a melody behind it is just, well, annoying. The kind of thing that people who detest country imagine when discussing how much they detest country.

Which explains the miracle of this poorly-titled song performed by a poorly-titled band who were hailed as ‘country rock’ at the time for reasons I can’t fathom (this is all country, no rock, though granted its fraternal twin “…#2” does have a fuzz guitar on it): the melody. Gram Parsons sounds as if he’s at risk of crumbling to little bits like a dried clay sculpture at any minute, particularly when his melody tests his thin vocal talents. And yet it is precisely the marriage of his vocal performance to his vocal melody that gives you the feeling that you’ve entered this poor man’s head. Suddenly ‘weepy and self-obsessed’ becomes ‘profoundly universal’, and the words appear to be conveying a meaning much deeper than they truly are. (And why isn’t this song called “I’m Your Toy”?)

Some day they’ll make the movies they’ve been making about Ian Curtis now about Gram Parsons. And presumably they’ll be just as interesting. Just like 2Pac (there’s a comparison you don’t meet every day), Gram Parsons is perhaps accorded too much glory merely for dying young, but this particular rich kid did float ethereally through the music industry for a few years, inventing Emmylou Harris and giving the Rolling Stones the keys to the magical Credible Country Vault. Along the way, he wrote a handful of beautiful songs with indelible melodies, and sang them all with that voice that could be a torture instrument, but somehow manages to convince you that everything will be all right precisely because it so self-evidently won’t.
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" by P.M. Dawn (1991)

Does not compute.

We all know what hip-hop is. We all know what rap is. It’s testosterone, it’s aggression, it’s ‘hard’, it’s ‘raw’. It’s all about ‘keepin’ it real’. Verbal dexterity, the dozens, etc. etc. etc.

What it’s not is soft, sensual and dreamy. And it doesn’t sample Spandau Ballet.

Okay, nobody’s ever going to use the word “revolutionary” in reference to P.M. Dawn. By now, the word most people will use is “who?” The fact is, though, that P.M. Dawn showed us a new direction for music just as conclusively as N.W.A. did. The fact that N.W.A. launched a 10-year industry and P.M. Dawn bore the insults through gritted teeth for a few years before giving up the fight has nothing to do with the relative quality of those artists’ outputs and everything to do with public expectations. I like N.W.A., but they became famous by pandering to peoples’ expectations / fears of what rap, and young black males, should sound like.

I don’t imagine anybody saw this coming. Prince Be was a large man decked out in loose-fitting gypsy robes and dreadlocks. Apparently Christians, at this early stage they evoked no specific religion but just a kind of all-encompassing spirituality that gave Prince Be a sort of Buddhaesque demeanour. You got the impression that he would release mosquitoes back into the wild rather than kill them.

Additionally, he was something that, in 1991, a rapper could be, and perhaps even aspired to be: a ‘poet’. I don’t like that word much in describing lyricists, but this song and others of its vintage weave a pattern of images and turns of phrase in a way that nobody in hip hop is doing today and even back then few people attempted. He was also something that a few people were at this stage but nobody had been until that time: a rapper capable of singing, or a singer capable of rapping, and thus actually wrote songs as opposed to verses.

And then there’s the Spandau Ballet part of the equation. I mean, what, was this team of siblings sitting in their Jersey living room saying, ‘Who should we sample?’ ‘I know! Spandau Ballet! That’ll improve our street cred!’

But that early-eighties synthetic groove, over top of ‘Paid in Full’, somehow worked amazingly, as the result is soulful, seductive and spiritual: one of those hip-hop songs that would still be compellingly listenable as an instrumental.

That is, if this is hip-hop. Among avenues left unexplored, if P.M. Dawn had found more success and spawned more imitators (okay, in a sense it did, but the ‘positivity’ acts that followed wouldn’t necessarily credit P.M. Dawn as an influence so much as a coincidence), would it have wound up coalescing into a genre not called hip-hop but called something else? Listening to second-biggest hit “I’d Die Without You” (in no sense a ‘rap’ song) makes you wonder…
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Saturday, November 14, 2009

"In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins (1981)

We’ve got a bit of a double-feature this week, looking at the same artist at his very best and at his very worst.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: Phil Collins isn’t one of the greats. In many ways he’s exactly what’s wrong with the music industry, in fact. Genesis in the 70’s, meh. And it wasn’t his band, anyway. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s been Phil Collins’s dream to muck up R&B into chicken-dance music for retired old ladies ever since trying our for the Monkees, but spending the 70s in a band that had certain powers to ‘evoke’ led him in the 80s to intermittently feel obliged to continue putting out mood music, amongst the cheese. Both under the name “Genesis” and under the name “Phil Collins”. Let’s be frank: in the 80s it didn’t make a bit of difference which name was on the label, did it? The contents were interchangeable.

Apparently, Phil was getting a divorce. He was depressed. He was experimenting with his new studio. He was making demos. He improvised the lyrics and most definitely did not see a man drowning another man and most definitely did not train a spotlight upon said killer during a concert. Actually I can report to you a lot about what Phil Collins has said concerning this song. The reason, of course, why Phil’s spoken at such great length about this song is that it’s the only song reporters have ever wanted to discuss with him.

What, they were going to ask about that great horn line in “Sussudio”?

Have you ever heard of the phrase “suspension of disbelief”? This is, I believe, the correct way to listen to this song. Convince yourself that this is not the guy who slaughtered “You Can’t Hurry Love” or did that “I Can’t Dance” song. This is not a dodgy balding Conservative with one freak moment of glory. This is an absolute frickin’ genius. Lie to yourself. It’ll make it all better.

Concentrate on that amazing mood he constructs. The sparseness – the chainsaw guitars somewhere in the background, the drum machine casually trotting along like a person aimlessly tapping his pencil on a desk, the array of weird sounds over top. Concentrate on, get this, the majesty of Phil the vocalist: the thespian way he moves from quiet rage to white-hot rage. The way subtle effects like echo and vocoder come in and out of Phil’s vocal line to spice things up.

It continues that way for several minutes: tension, followed by more tension, followed by more tension still. Then, of course, like a famous story often told or movie often watched, we know what’s going to happen yet it still knocks us off our feet.

Phil, bathed in vocoder, grunts out the line, “it’s no stranger to you and me”, and then suddenly it happens. At exactly 3:39, the world temporarily comes to a stop for the single most glorious drum break in the history of recorded sond. It starts at 3:39 and is over by 3:42. Phil Collins earned his place in music history with precisely three seconds of music. But there’s no way to overstate it. No human can resist air-drumming at this point, as Phil Collins invents the best advertisement ever for drumming as a professional career.

But like I give a damn about technically impressive instrumentation. You won’t find any Yngwie Malmsteen on this list, and for good reason. The thing is that the drum break, and the eternal drum fill that follows, makes perfect sense in terms of the emotional weight of the song: it’s the explosive summit of a three-minute crescendo, a gradual increase of tension until it shatters stupendously into relief. Shakespeare could not have scripted it better.

Forgetting boring discussion involving Ahmet Ertegun and overdubs, Phil was dead brave to release this as a single. Radio was brave to play it. The public was brave to love it. It was an amazing moment when Phil suddenly looked like the Genesis member to beat, artistically.

And in history’s most lunk-headed move, he proceeded to follow it up with the faux-cheery “I Missed Again”, the first in a long string of grandma-rock ‘classics’.

But if you close your eyes and just wait for that drum break, you can picture Phil Collins as the coolest man in history.
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Saturday, November 7, 2009

"Lodi" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

Creedence Clearwater Revival holds a strange place in history. Burning bright and quick, they left their legacy in a period of tremendous creativity measurable in months. Yet most similar ‘flashes in the pan’ blaze a revolutionary trail across history. CCR were hardly revolutionary; if anything, they’re reactionary. So why should we care about them all these years later?

It’s strange. They single-handedly created the genre of beer-commercial music. Those who follow in their footsteps tend to be agonizingly dull. On occasion they stumble into hokeyness, and frankly they never stray very far from it. John Fogerty sings all his songs in a hokey fake Southern accent and half of the time his lyrics seem like a Mark Twain book, or that painting with the old farmer couple and the pitchfork, set to music.

Yet they have a pure simplicity, devoid of any nonsense or pretense, that makes them actually quite nice to listen to. More importantly than that, they exhibit an instinctive sense of what pop music is and contain melodies that can stick in your head for ages.

“Lodi”, precisely nobody’s favourite CCR song, is such an example. Its melody is actually generated entirely by its chord pattern, and its chord pattern is practically twelve-bar it’s so generic. The melody ought to suck. Yet somehow, it doesn’t. The melody fits the chord pattern like a glove, the words fit the melody like a gloved-glove, and the whole thing chugs along with a curious combination of melancholy and breeziness. “Chug” is an important point. It doesn’t exactly “choogle”, which is a good thing since that’s such a terrible word, but its forward dynamics (which, incidentally, give the impression of constantly getting slightly faster – perhaps they do) push you headlong into the song and keep you there until it finishes.

Complaining about the life of a traveling band always seems a little bit too precious in rock music. What’s nice about “Lodi” is, while Fogerty’s clearly complaining, he’s doing it without pettiness but with a forlorn acceptance. It’s a curious emotional weight, especially for a b-side.

Which it is. “Lodi” was the b-side of “Bad Moon Rising”, also a great (and history will tell us ‘more significant’) song. The amazing rate at which Creedence was putting out great music during their two-and-a-half-year blaze of glory meant that songs as wonderful as this were getting chucked out on b-sides.

Amazing. Though nobody else on the planet will make this comparison, that rate of productivity recalls the Smiths. As does the commitment to ‘pop’ music at its purest.

And pretense, too.
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Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Someone Saved My Life Tonight" by Elton John (1975)

“There was once a time when Elton John was wonderful – putting out amazing songs that weren’t in the least contrived and hackneyed at a rate of two albums a year or more.” Tell it to the kids of today and they won’t believe you…

Hell, tell it to the parents of the kids of today and they’ll have no reason to believe you. The Elton John I grew up with was a terrible embarrassment, chirping out meaningless drivel like “I’m Still Standing” or – gag – “Nikita”. He just seemed to get worse and worse. So logically, I presumed he had always sucked.

Not so, as present evidence can confirm. I may have heard this song a million times, yet every time it manages to take me by surprise. The emotional depth it presents still continues to stun. The dynamics it possesses, the tension and release. Elton sings it like he means it, and as far as I knew in the 80s, Elton didn’t mean anything. To anyone.

Elton was not completely innocent of suckage in his glory years. (“Bennie and the Jets”, anyone?) This song comes from an album that apparently is a ‘semi-autobiographical account of he and his songwriting partner’s lives’. The cover is all done up to look like a superhero comic and it has a similarly crap title that I can’t be bothered to Google at the moment. It didn’t have any ‘hits’ on it, so I never gave it a second thought. I don’t even know under what circumstances I first heard this song, but it left such an impression that I immediately hunted it down. Apparently, I have since learnt, it’s based on a true story in which Elton’s life was saved, from a suicide attempt or an overdose or something, by his brave and gallant lyricist Bernie Taupin (the songwriting partner I mentioned above).

To write a song, and a magnificently beautiful one, as thanks is a lovely gesture, except… well, Bernie Taupin is the lyricist. So if this is true, then Mr. Taupin saved his famous friend’s life and then composed a song of gratitude about it for that friend to sing back to him… masturbatory, anyone?

Doesn’t matter. If it is a true story, perhaps it cuts deep, and perhaps that explains why Elton here managed such a bravura performance, making you feel both the desperation and the gratitude. Or perhaps it’s just that Elton had yet to blow his emotional depth away with mountains of cocaine. Who can be sure?

In the end, what matters is this seven-minute slab of beauty and the emotional weight and ense of drama it carries. If it took Bernie Taupin saving Mr. Reg “Elton John” Dwight from an early death to bring that to life, then I guess the 30+ years of maudlin ick that followed it are worth it.
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Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Temptation" by New Order (1982)

At this point in this project, I’m planning on not duplicating artists. Sooner or later I’ll have to get over that – I mean, when it comes to sacred cows like Bob Dylan or the Beatles, you can’t just throw in one song as representative of them and be done with it. Certainly each of them have quite a few songs worthy of being considered among the ‘best ever’.

I mention those two ‘golden-age’ performers, but I haven’t gotten around to either of them yet. As strange as it may seem, at this point the artist I’ve had the hardest time narrowing down to a single song has been New Order.

Their modish design ethic on a chic boutique indie back in the 80s may have obscured the point, but New Order were shockingly consistent. Listening to their singles collection “Substance” reveals not a single song that couldn’t by rights appear here on this list. Their approach was so assured that they were pretty much guaranteed of quality each time out.

They’re an interesting band, New Order. The path they took from generic punk on “Warsaw” (recorded with Ian Curtis as Joy Division) to guitarless rave on “Fine Time” in less than ten years might not seem all that plausible except that each step of that journey was a completely logical product of the previous step. Their trajectory would have been chess-like methodical if it weren’t so plainly the result of blind flying. What made New Order’s halting journey to the dancefloor believable was the fact that, even when surrounded by Balearic beats and building up an ecstatic trance, they still seemed like outsiders, gazing at their shoes and vaguely embarrassed by it all. As a wallflower in need of deliberate coaxing myself, I could see in New Order kindred spirits on the dance floor.

Through it all, the main constant in Joy Division and New Order has always been Peter Hook. It is his bass playing that makes a New Order song, and whatever else it sounds like, if he is on bass, it’s genuine. “Temptation” has great lead bass lines, but what it also has is both melodic guitars and punchy drums. In other words, it’s an intermediate step in their journey, and being the single coming immediately before the iconic “Blue Monday” is the last time that they were truly stumbling in the dark, holding onto Joy Division’s residual audience without truly finding a new one of their own. They were soon to be heroes, but weren’t yet.

Which is remarkable, because Bernard Sumner’s amazing lead vocals (who says this man can’t sing?) on wonderfully enigmatic lyrics (who says this man can’t write?) pull you in, but the amazing, glorious never-ending mess of a groove that the band concocts behind him is truly what makes it worthwhile. At 7:00, it’s quite short by New Order single standards, but it’s not merely a generic dance-remix extension. It’s seven minutes long because it has seven minutes’ worth of things to say – disjointed things that might not have coalesced, but somehow do. Chorus? Verse? Bridge? Doesn’t matter. I recently read a comparison between New Order’s song structures and Pink Floyd’s. After initially scoffing, I thought about it, and there is some truth to it. Both of them write epics. But Pink Floyd’s epics don’t inspire careless abandon on the dancefloor. And are that much there worse for it.
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Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Troy" by Sinéad O'Connor (1987)

I remember it. Toronto in a... well, I don't remember the weather. I do remember being a kid and playing hooky from school. I remember watching MuchMusic and seeing the VJ introduce some woman with a funny name and a funny accent. She was bald, which, to my twelve-year-old mind, was absolutely hysterical. I was only half-watching as whatever banal questions were met with whatever banal answers. So far, so irrelevant.

Until they played the video.

I don't recall when else I have been so utterly captivated. There's not much to the video except her naked and in gold paint. Yet somehow the video perfectly complemented the song. Which was...

It was...

Twenty years later I still can't explain why this song effects me the way it does. Something about it just pierces through my (admittedly thick) armour and slays me. Every time.

Maybe it's the way she effortlessly goes from whisper to scream, all the time in perfect control, with a searing heat, both of passion and of anger. Maybe it's the way those strings create a perfect vessel on which to navigate the stormy seas - tiny and plain but never capsizing.

Maybe it's just how completely and utterly new this strange creation was; how it was able to take my prematurely-wizened "been there, done that" twelve-year-old mind and slap it out of complacency, saying "There is much more out there that you still have no idea of".

It was just as mythical as the phoenix she sings about.

It seemed to show that there were entirely new modes of expression I was unaware of. Entirely new definitions of beauty and of power. I was completely floored. Transfixed, silent, mouth agape for the six-plus minutes of the song.

Turns out after the video, when they cut back to the studio, the entire working staff of MuchMusic was as shocked and transfixed as I was. There was the kind of reverent silence you probably get when a statue of the Virgin Mary starts crying. Then there was just this applause all round. It was so intriguing to me to see people spontaneously react that way on TV (remember that in the 80s, spontaneity on TV was a bad thing). Especially seeing people spontaneously react the same way I just had. It was truly wonderful.

Then, of course, Sinéad O'Connor became superhuge with a Prince cover, tried to continue pushing the envelope while under the spotlight of fame, messed up tragically, became a punchline, then, after all that... recorded a reggae album.


Still, before becoming a parody, she was the future of music. Hell, perhaps she was the future of Western Civilisation.

And after this accomplishment, a million punchlines are irrelevant.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" by Public Enemy (1989)

Being the age that I am, I missed several key 'Year Zeroes'. I wasn't born when Elvis, or Chuck Berry, or Ike Turner, or whoever it was who somehow magically 'birthed' rock and roll came out with whichever magnum opus was 'the first rock and roll song'. I wasn't alive for "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag". I was alive for "I Feel Love", "God Save the Queen" and "Rapper's Delight", but just barely - and more interested in Ernie singing "Rubber Duckie" than any of the above.

One of the few true "Everything you knew is wrong" moments in music history that I can actually say I've witnessed is the release in 1988 of Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back".

I think one of the main reasons I was slow to warm to rap music was that the early era of rap music was, let's face it, decidedly light on meaningful lyrical content. The music was great, the verbal dexterity was impressive, sure. But lyrically most of the rap that was on the radio in the mid-eighties was pretty vapid lyrically.

Or, more to the point, if there was any depth I wasn't hearing it. Rap was okay, but it wasn't compelling. Chick D, on the other hand, had both a voice that pulled you in and the lyrics to make you shut up and listen. Hanging out with my friends and a boombox, I can only remember once being absolutely stunned into silence with a rap song. It was this particular one, though it could have been almost any on this album.

It wasn't just that piano riff (sampled apparently from Isaac Hayes). Like so much of the Bomb Squad's work, it seemed annoyingly compelling, or else compellingly annoying at the time, but years later I see it as a great exercise in tension and release. More specifically, each of those repeated clashing chords steps up the tension, until the bar-ending piano line lets it out. And then over and over again.

And over again.

Six and a half minutes is crazy long for a mid-tempo rap song. The only real reason this song can go on so long is that Chuck D is telling a great story. Hell, it was revolutionary enough that he was telling a story at all, but this noir tale of a draft dodger breaking out of prison is just a good story. The black power rhetoric (here is a land that never gave a damn...) stunned me but in a way that somehow felt refreshing, exciting. It set up a tale that, while bloody and subversive, was profoundly righteous. Going through idealisms at a teenage rate as I was, that was highly impressive.

Lastly, sorry to say, "Black Steel" is brilliant because Flavor Flav's role is minimal. One of the more frustrating people in hip hop, Flavor Flav took solo pieces like "911 is a Joke" and made them compelling. He was a good rapper. Yet so much of his "Yeah boy-eee" shtick was tired that it actually regularly served to bring down everything Chuck D had built up. So here, absent except for verse-delineating 'phone calls', Flavor Flav is exactly as present as he ought to be.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians (1966)

This tinny little recording is iconic for oh, so many reasons. They talk about how it started 'garage rock', or even punk rock. It gave a generation of people something to play in organ showrooms, and ? himself is even lauded as an early Hispanic American role model.

All of which is good and well. For me, though, the thing that's wonderful about "96 Tears" is how truly democratic it is. It's completely anonymous, so simple that anyone can play it, utterly devoid of alienating showboating or anything that a musical education could give you.

Yet it's indelible and it's immediate. It doesn't tell you the meaning of life, but it does lift your spirits. It's just fun. The fact that it's so anonymous that the band name is deliberately so is exactly the pont (as is their status as 'one-hit wonders'). There's a famous line that not many people bought the Velvet Underground's albums but all those who did started bands. I love VU, but I wonder if their intellectual freak-outs actually convinced as many people to think, "Hey, I can do this too" as this little ditty. It is easy to imagine this being the sound of any amateur band in any city in the world at any time since the 1960s. There are hundreds of bands in the world that sound exactly like this. Some will get better. Many won't. It doesn't matter because if ? and the Mysterians (whoever they even are) can come up with something lieke this, so can they.

Music is all about dreaming anyway. Bruce Springsteen made a career writing about it. These people probably only made a few hundred bucks but personified it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Pump Up the Volume" by M/A/R/R/S (1987)

When I first heard this song, I was going through some kind of irrational ‘no hip-hop’ phase. I don’t really know why – it was probably hip-hop’s best ever era, and here I was more or less refusing to listen to it (though oddly I seem to know all of the era’s greatest hip-hop tracks – somehow.

What I was listening to was all kinds of arty English music – you know, playing the part of suburban Canadian sophisticate. My wardrobe wasn’t entirely black, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the songs I was listening to.

Anyway, suddenly there was ‘Pump Up the Volume’. To somebody with the musical rigidity of a North American radio station, ‘Pump Up the Volume’ was uncategorisable and thus did not compute. It was on 4AD, home to the artiest of the arty and the Britishest of the British, and had a cover that looked like it. It was by a band that technically didn’t exist (M/A/R/R/S were a one-off collaboration between two bands I’d never heard of and would never hear from again), it had about a million different remixes (okay, probably 5 tops, but that was revolutionary back then), and best of all, it wasn’t really a song at all.

It may not seem like such a big deal now, but that fact that ‘Pump Up the Volume’ was actually bits of a bunch of different songs cobbled on top of each other completely amazed me. I mean, I’d heard plenty of songs with samples and/or with scratches (and I’d heard ‘Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’ and tried – and failed – to me impressed by it), but this was somehow more compelling. I immediately gave myself over to silly rhetoric about how all songs would sound like this in the future (for a brief moment, they did, first and foremost the Coldcut remix of ‘Paid in Full’, which might as well be the same track). What they call the ‘magpie’ aesthetic appealed to me conceptually, while still sounding good. It's a rare beast that, as they say, appeals to the mind as well as to the body.

Now, of course, songs like this are illegal (for the most part)… It’s easy to get overly swept up in the politics of sampling – it is an interesting discussion where things really aren’t clearly black-and-white – but what I miss about song constructions like this is how they manage to be both arty (thus appealing to my teenage self) and undeniably visceral as well. It seemed like people really were pushing the boundaries of what music was, all the while creating product that was genuinely enjoyable and danceable (not that I would have been caught dead dancing back then…). It isn’t often that you hear songs that are genuinely ‘prophetic’ – giving you a sense of what the future will be like – but listening to Ofra Haza trilling exotically over a flood of breakbeats, chants, soundbite phrases, scratches, guitars (how déclassé!) and kitchen sinks back in the day really did give you a sense that music was somehow changing.

Even if it turned out to be a false prophecy in the end…

Incidentally, if you ever doubt the arty credentials of this song, consider this: I have never seen it since or even found reference to it online, but I am absolutely sure that I can remember, when the song was popular, seeing its ‘sheet music’ for sale in a music shop. Picture, if you will, ‘sheet music’ for this song. Has there been a better conceptual-joke objet d’art since the glory days of dada?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"If I Were Your Woman" by Gladys Knight and the Pips (1970)

Okay. I do admit it – my musical tastes have, on more than one occasion, been described as ‘gay’. It’s all good. I don’t happen to be gay, but as there’s no proven link between sexual preference and musical preference, all innuendo just washes off.

See, it’s all about the divas. I, you see, am a bona fide fan of divas. Not Mariah Carey – can’t stand her. Just the old school ones. Even at that, I am rather discerning with my divas. Allow me to elucidate.

I recently saw an ad touting a new season of “Canadian Idol” (the Canadian version of, surprise surprise, “American Idol”). Among the wannabes soundbited on the ad was a particularly histrionic woman screeching (as opposed to singing) “Come on and take it” (presumably to be followed, post-soundbite, by “Piece of My Heart”. We’re meant to watch and say ‘Hey! She can’t sing! She can only screech!’

People worldwide will hate me for saying this, but… That seems like a pretty decent imitation of Janis Joplin. I’ve never understood the appeal of Janis Joplin. She is, to me, what a diva should not be – aggressive, dissonant, indeed histrionic. What a diva should be… I’ve heard it said that power without strength is nothing. Having the pipes is nothing if you don’t know how to use them.

Observe Gladys Knight. With or without the Pips behind her, Gladys Knight can sing (so well, I’m tempted to spell it ‘sang’). To me, that means having a great instrument and having expert control over it. Diana Ross can exude personality, take you on a journey with the way she sells a song. But her pipes are not the most powerful. Aretha Franklin can tear the roof off of a church merely with her voice. But… wait. I can’t criticise Aretha Franklin – that’s a crime in certain jurisdictions. In any case, what Gladys has is the power and the glory. You can hear, or could at one point, an a capella version of this song on YouTube. It is a thing to behold. The girl can sing like hell. She’s broken hearted, she’s triumphant, she’s wilful, she’s dreamy. She sells it all so convincingly that you want to throttle the bugger that’s choosing some other girl over her. I mean, what, is he deaf?

There might be many out there who deride Motown and say that Gladys was at her best after Motown. I do know, especially from an instrumentation point of view, what they’re saying. But what Motown could do better than anyone out there is chain enough monkeys to typewriters that stunning compositions like this would come along often enough to keep everyone on top of their singles games (albums? Well… that’s what ‘greatest hits’ compilations are for…). In this particular case, the song is heartbreaking. The melody is as evocative as any screenplay and the dynamics tell as much as the words could ever hope to. For anybody suffering from a severe case of Jon-Cryer-as-Duckie-style unrequited love, this song couldn’t ring truer.

Difficult to imagine it happening to Gladys, mind you.

Lastly, the Pips, frankly more often an anchor than a set of wings, are perfectly fine in this song, staying to the background and making the gender-shift a little less annoying than it otherwise might be.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Born Slippy .NUXX" by Underworld (1996)

It’s a funny thing, memory. I was just listening the other day to Black Sabbath, to the Sex Pistols, to Nine Inch Nails. I even tried to listen to Led Zeppelin (couldn’t quite bear it, though). I was struck by the fact that songs that seem in our memories to be hard as nails turn out, listening again, to be soft little lumps of Jello. I mean, Ozzy Osbourne gurgling “I am Iron man!”? That’s comedy, not horror.

Which brings us to the present song, perhaps the only song in history to be harder than memory serves. Unlike so many songs that end by simulating dawn, this one starts in sunshine until the babbling words and thumping drums conspire to slowly drag you down.

Down where? Into hell? No, no, but at least into oblivion. This is a song that makes no sense pouring out of little computer speakers. It can only truly be observed on a crowded dance floor bathed in strobes and sweat. Apparently there are lyrics, though all I’ve ever heard is the words ‘boy’, ‘lager’ and ‘mega mega white thing’ over and over again. Of course, the lyrics aren’t the point at all.

Well, what is the point? Our boys in Underworld insist the song was all a joke. It’s apparently a remix of a song that I’ve never heard called “Born Slippy”. The remix was meant to be preposterous, its shouted vocals and relentless beats meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

Which goes to show you, of course, the truism that it is the people who create art who are least likely to be able to evaluate it. Additionally, it goes to show just how much Underworld themselves have stumbled aimlessly through their career like an escaped mental ward patient.

Underworld started in the early eighties in a group that, years before Prince did it, were known only as a squiggle, though they did relent and allow themselves to be called “Freur”. They then turned themselves into a crap band called Underworld, not to be confused with the middling band in question called Underworld. This one survived for precisely two albums., whose covers make them appear to have been Adam and the Ants or Sigue Sigue Sputnik or some nonsense.

Only after all that did Underworld, like the Bee-Gees before them, realize that they weren’t quite too old to start making the intelligent dance music that the kids were digging. Even at that, of course, though the music’s listenablility improved, they were still pretty much a failure. It took “Trainspotting”, the movie about Scottish junkies whose soundtrack was a defining feature of 90’s British musical ethos, to transform the two-year-old b-side of a flop single into an international hit and slice of ‘zeitgiest’.

Thank God for Scottish junkies.

It’s actually amazing in today’s more conservative musical climate to think that there was once a time when a song as extreme as this could even approach mainstream success. As it was, it was no Christmas number one, but it was ubiquitous enough that your grandmother might have spoke about ‘that strange song about lager’. Almost ten minutes long, largely amelodic thumping, it’s unlikely to inspire a Britney Spears cover. Yet there was a time when this is what radio sounded like.

That time was more than ten years ago now. And yet Underworld, active since the early eighties, are still soldiering on, unaware that they remain a 25-year one-hit-wonder.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"They Don't Know" by Tracey Ullman (1983)

Music tends to be, in my experience, a struggle between irony and sincerity. With the advantage of added-on hipness, usually irony-mongers dominate the FM dial and critical opinion. Sincerity-mongers, on the other hand, often dominate the AM dial and are sneered at.
Music can bring you down or lift you up. It’s your choice as a listener, frankly. Which doesn’t explain this song at all. Tracey Ullman, most famous as the person who midwifed the birth of the Simpsons, is a comedian. Out for yuks. She made one album, “You Broke My Heart in 17 Places”, where she tarted up a handful of covers in a kind of 60’s girl-group fashion. The whole thing screams ‘conceptual joke’. It screams ‘artifice.’ It has no right to be any good.
Yet it is. It’s utterly fabulous. I was 8 when it was released, too young to understand irony. I just fell utterly in love with the song, with the Farfisa, with the church bells, with the harmonies and, of course, with the ‘bay-bay’ squawked 1:51 into the song. I would never have questioned its sincerity, having had precisely the sincerity of an 8-year-old at the time. Even the obvious piss-take video, with our girl Tracey living up to her name in slippers and face mask (and Paul McCartney, for some reason).
It’s all heart-breaking, really. Taking advantage of a wide-eyed child like that, making him fall head over heels in love with the ‘poetry’ of a song that is ultimately a punch-line. Once more the cruel forces of fate take the beauty out of something and replace it with grim reality.
Except that whenever I play the song I immediately become that 8-year-old again, forgetting everything and instantly wide-eyed and in love with the world again. I am completely unable to listen to this song in public, even through headphones, because it inspires in me nothing so much as an uncontrollable desire to spaz-dance around the world yelping out the lyrics like a basset hound.
And then, it doesn’t really matter who Tracey Ullman is or how she earns her living. I’ve seen a fair amount of Ullman comedy. I see it as occasionally hilarious and frequently ha-ha half-funny. She is, ultimately, a footnote in history to me.
Yet on precisely one occasion she tapped into that spirit that animates all that is great in the universe and recorded three minutes of wistful hope and defiant joy that illuminates all that is great in the universe.
And a quick note concerning the songwriter, the late great Kirsty MacColl, who had regular access to this spirit-tap and used it to make wonderful and wonder-filled music right up until her tragic drowning death. Perhaps her version is even better. Unfortunately, I’ve never heard it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows (1994)

1994. My last year of high school and first year of university. "Alternative" music is as popular as it has ever been and ever will be. Kurt Cobain has just killed himself but Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and God knows who else from Seattle are still there to keep up the overly serious moping.

I had spent my whole life listening to 'alternative' radio stations and watching 'alternative' video shows (yes, there was a time when non-music TV channels had 'video shows', just like they'd have a 'news broadcast'). This was a time for redemption! A time when my musical tastes were vindicated!

I was bored out of my mind.

Stuck in my university dorm with whiny white males shrieking at me on all sides, I became about as contrary as I could be. I responded by blasting out Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash - before they became cool, mind you, before Rick Rubin had 'rehabilitated' both of them in the minds of 'cool kids'.

I get no credit for my progressive music tastes...

Anyway, I was still very much into new music. There was a lot of new stuff I was digging and exploring at the time - both inside and outside the mainstream. Well, in any case, the 'mainstream/alternative' spectrum had been altered, and first-year university students are obsessed with being as 'alternative' as they can be (not just musically, of course), yet within that range I found myself with pretty catholic musical tastes.

Adam Duritz has found plenty of ways in the years since to annoy the bollocks off of me (dating Jennifer Aniston, for example). Yet this initial volley still inspires me. It's almost Dave Matthews Band or even Spin Doctors, and sooner or later it's bound to soundtrack a beer commercial, yet there is something real and genuine here. Wikipedia claims that Duritz suffers from dissociative disorder. I would have no idea about that, but if it's true, it would make a more than a little sense - or rather, this song might make a little more sense. I've never seen Counting Crows live, and if I've seen a video for this song it doesn't stick in my mind, but I imagine Duritz singing it in a kind of spaced-out reverie. He seems to be well in his own world here, emoting to and about his Dylan-rip-off acquaintance (note: if you're stealing your signature song's archetype from a Bob Dylan song, you might not want to actually say "I want to be Bob Dylan" in your lyrics). He doesn't quite take flight, but you sense that he performs this song without really any awareness of the people around him.

If it's so, that might be creepy, but it taps into something transportative about the best music that I constantly find myself looking for. Music should send the listener somewhere. It needn't send the performer somewhere, but if it does, it can create a bond between listener and performer - a bond, of course, later undone if the performer happens to be kind of a wanker. Adam Duritz is, clearly, speaking a load of rubbish here about whatever comes into his head ("Grey is my favourite colour; I felt so symbolic yesterday. If I knew Picasso, I would find myself a grey guitar and play") and I imagine listening to a dozen songs just like "Mr. Jones" would be a fresh hell. Yet as a one-off, as a novelty, "Mr. Jones" still works.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Marquee Moon" by Television (1977)

Have you ever met the kind of music obsessive who seems dedicated to liking whatever critics like and hating whatever they don't? I've met a million of them - gritting their teeth while pretending to love Ornette Coleman, instinctively dissing anything by Britney Spears (some of whose songs are, in my opinion, great). I don't really get it, to be honest. I mean, just like what you like, right?

Having said that, however, I've been guilty in the past of taking critics too seriously - on more than one occasion buying an album without having heard a note just because critics seemed to like it. I have my requisite Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth CDs as well...

So, even though I would have been an infant and/or foetus at the time, I had, by my teenage years, educated myself enough about the CBGB 'scene' in New York to be able to fake it. I allowed myself to truly believe that a band like Blondie were in any way 'punk' (because CBGB was a proto-punk scene, right?)

I heard and loved the Talking Heads. I heard and liked Blondie and the Ramones. I heard and tried to like Patti Smith. I got the "New York 1970s" badge sewn onto my hipster-cred blanket. I knew, man.

Yet somehow Television eluded me. I mean, I'd read the magazines, so I knew who they were, but I'd never heard a song by them. Not until just a year or two ago, when finally I had the chance to hear this song.

By that point in my life, I was feeling rather bored with a lot of music. I found that, among current music, very little outside of the most mainstream pop moved me at all, and I found that I had pretty much no patience whatsoever for two-guitars-bass-and-drums - whatever the genre, if that was the instrumentation, it bored me.

Long wanking guitar solos bored me. Adenoidal male singers bored me.

Frankly, I wouldn't have expected to do anything but hate Television, even though the knee-jerk impulse to respect them because they were 'formative' or 'seminal' or whatever still remained. I won't say anything as banal as "they showed me the light" or whatever. After all, it was still just a song. Yet somehow, "Marquee Moon", two guitars, bass, drums, bad male singer, eleven minutes long, guitar solo more than four minutes long... somehow, unlikely as it is, moved me. Thirty years old, yet it still felt new. Seemed to suggest to me that you can do different things with two guitars, a bass and drums.

I'm not sure what it is actually. I'm not sure what seems so new or fresh. Perhaps it's the lack of pretense: the guitar solo goes on for minutes, but you never sense that the guitar player is arching his back and scrunching up his face like guitarists who are just so into the moment do. Perhaps it's the song's dynamics: the way it builds up and breaks down in a way that makes the minutes seem way, way less agonising than 10 minutes 40 seconds of, say, Phish would be. It could very well be that bass, flying all over the place unexpectedly (I love creative bass lines). Whatever it is, it hooked me. And it had been a long time since anything, especially guitar-based 'rock', had done that.

Although I still can't even begin to comprehend what on earth this possibly has to do with 'punk'.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Groove is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite (1990)

In deciding to make this list, I had originally toyed with the idea of itemising the 500 best songs ever, or something like that. I soon realised that that was a pretty bad idea, since it would involve major planning and organisation, and in the end, who cares if a song is 172nd best or 173rd best, right? So I decided not to list them in order.

Having said that, though, for this, my inaugural entry, I am including what I believe to be, without hyperbole, the best song ever. In any case, I’ve come to realise it’s my favourite song. And, at the end of the day, those are synonymous, right? I mean, you can’t really consider art and entertainment ‘objectively’ (try as you might). Roger Ebert may be able to justify his decisions till he’s blue in the face, but in the end a ‘thumbs up’ really just means that he liked the movie.

I like this song. Very, very much. For me, I think what is most wonderful about the song ‘Groove is in the Heart’ is its very generosity. There was something very giving and genuine about this song; not just the message of its lyrics but the ‘message’ of its music, its ‘feel’. The song, the band, the video… everything just seemed so completely accepting and open-minded. So much music, particularly ‘cool’ music, is filled with sneering and exclusion. With Deee-Lite, it really seemed like ‘coolness’ was being redefined to be as inclusive as possible. To cite a cliché, it was a party and everyone was invited.

And literally everyone… The band themselves were a slightly geeky Japanese-American, a slightly geeky Ukrainian-American and a glamorous American-born American. At a time when both Japan and the decaying Soviet Union were being cast by many Americans in the most xenophobic fashion possible, the simple image of these three people mixing it up together, not political in the ivory-tower sense but completely political in the personal-is-political sense. Special guests at their party included Q-Tip, leading light of the positivity style of hip-hop at the time and Bootsy Collins, funk bassist and over-the-top dresser extraordinaire. Special guest appearance, of course, by Herbie Hancock on exquisitely-utilised sample.

Except among true club kids and devotees, Deee-Lite were, for all intents and purposes, one-hit wonders. It’s amazing to shine this brightly this briefly. But perhaps it’s to be expected: they truly did throw everything they had into a single track. What remained to be said after this?

Defiantly optimistic, defiantly open-minded, defiantly sincere and defiantly ‘progressive’, I don’t think it’s possible to listen to this song and not feel uplifted. It’s 18 years later now, and the future they appeared to embody… well, it doesn’t really seem to have arrived yet. Still, though, listening to this song or watching the video gives you the sense – or perhaps merely the dream – that the better world they seem to represent is still coming. Sooner or later. One day…

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

God the Musician

It might be said that the vast majority of music is neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad: most of it is merely mundane. What really matters, of course, are those songs that truly stand out - the ones that make a difference in your life.

Can a song really do that? I believe it can. This blog is a testament to those songs that have made a difference in my life, and as such have the power to make a difference in other people's lives too.

Pretentious? Well, yes. Guilty as charged... But pretentions are born of convictions. And it is my personal conviction that these are the best songs ever since Thomas Edison first scraped "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into a wax cylinder.
  1. "Everyday" by Buddy Holly (1957)
  2. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" by the Shirelles (1960)
  3. "You Don't Own Me" by Lesley Gore (1964)
  4. "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians (1966)  
  5. "Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles (1966)
  6. "Hot Burrito #1" by the Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)
  7. "Lodi" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
  8. "If I Were Your Woman" by Gladys Knight and the Pips (1970)
  9. "A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell (1971)
  10. "Thank You for Talking to Me, Africa" by Sly and the Family Stone (1971) 
  11. "Curley Locks" by Junior Byles (1974) 
  12. "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" by Elton John (1975)
  13. "Marquee Moon" by Television (1977) 
  14. "Brass in Pocket" by the Pretenders (1979)
  15. "Funkytown" by Lipps, Inc. (1980)
  16. "High School Confidential" by Rough Trade (1980)
  17. "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins (1981)
  18. "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners (1982)
  19. "Temptation" by New Order (1982) 
  20. "They Don't Know" by Tracey Ullman (1983)
  21. "Birthday" by the Sugarcubes (1987) 
  22. "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues (1987)  
  23. "Luka" by Suzanne Vega (1987)
  24. "Pump Up the Volume" by M/A/R/R/S (1987)
  25. "Troy" by Sinéad O'Connor (1987)
  26. "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" by Public Enemy (1989)
  27. "Fool's Gold" by the Stone Roses (1989)
  28. "My Jolie Louise" by Daniel Lanois (1989)
  29. "Being Boring" by the Pet Shop Boys (1990)
  30. "Groove is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite (1990)
  31. "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" by P.M. Dawn (1991)
  32. "Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows (1994)
  33. "All that I Got is You" by Ghostface Killah feat. Mary J. Blige (1996)
  34. "Born Slippy .NUXX" by Underworld (1996)
  35. "Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space" by Spiritualized (1997)  
  36. "Präludium" by Jay (1997)
  37. "Ojos Asi" by Shakira (1999)
  38. "Can't Get You Out of My Head" by Kylie Minogue (2001) 
  39. "Crazy in Love" by Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z (2003)
If your particular take on the nature of the universe happens to include God, it just might be that you can find the Big Man himself located somewhere within these particular tracks.

Note: I also keep a blog devoted to the worst songs ever: the yang to this blog's yin. Its hall of shame smells like this:

  1. "Johnny Get Angry" by Joanie Sommers (1962)
  2. "Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys (1965)
  3. "Iko Iko" by the Dixie Cups (1965)
  4. "Helter Skelter" by the Beatles (1968)
  5. "Young Girl" by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (1968)
  6. "Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow" by Funkadelic (1970)
  7. "Coconut" by Harry Nilsson (1971)
  8. "Mercedes Benz" by Janis Joplin (1971)
  9. "My Ding-a-Ling" by Chuck Berry (1972)
  10. "Squeeze Box" by the Who (1975)
  11. "Lay Down Sally" by Eric Clapton (1977)
  12. "Dreadlock Holiday" by 10cc (1978)
  13. "No One is Innocent" by Ronnie Biggs and the Sex Pistols (1978)
  14. "What's Your Name?" by Depeche Mode (1981)
  15. "China Girl" by David Bowie (1983)
  16. "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen (1984)
  17. "Illegal Alien" by Genesis (1984)
  18. "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer (1985)
  19. "Tears are Not Enough" by Northern Lights (1985)
  20. "Walk of Life" by Dire Straits (1985)
  21. "Hip to be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News (1986)
  22. "Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin (1988)
  23. "I Love You" by Vanilla Ice (1990)
  24. "Barbie Girl" by Aqua (1997)
  25. "Hollaback Girl" by Gwen Stefani (2005)
  26. "We are the World 25 for Haiti" by Artists for Haiti (2010)