4
Jan
2013
My Year in Lists: Volume II
Week One
Jordan
My Year in Lists: Volume II chronicles one blogger's masochistic return to the feature that got him hooked on sonics. This time around, the feature will focus on three genres that got short shrift during the original feature: country, hip hop, and jazz. All three are oft-dismissed genres this feature plans to grant a second chance at a first impression.

"Move over little dog, "˜cause the big dog's movin' in."-Hank Williams, "Move It on Over"

"You got to have a con in this Land of Milk and Honey."-Melle Mel, "The Message"

I am, at heart, a creature of habit. I like what I like, and am pretty much ok sticking with that until I finally succumb to death. If sitting on my couch, absorbing pop culture with a few close friends every night for the rest of my life was a realistic option, there is a chance I would just do that, forever, and probably be pretty satisfied. Yet I'm too young (and, if we're being honest, too single) to resign myself to a life on the couch just yet, and so I am trying to change something fundamental about myself. This is never an easy process; there is a stasis to day-to-day living that is easy to get caught up in. Change is hard, and to effect real change in your life, you have to want it. So I am trying to push myself out of my comfort zone, to get out of my wheelhouse and try to do different things. This feature is an outgrowth of that very real impulse. If your first thought upon reading that sentence is to wonder whether pushing myself out of my wheelhouse by experiencing different pop culture really counts, you aren't wrong. But I hope to change my habits in other ways over the next 52 weeks, and over the course of this year, my efforts to effectuate change in my life will bleed into this feature.

As a gateway into a foreign genre, you could do worse than Hank Williams. Nothing less than an American legend, Williams is more than just a country star; he's a god-damn national treasure. He is the sort of figure that most musicians in any genre will speak of in hushed tones. His influence is so titanic that not one, but two generations of country singers have gotten by on little more than sharing a name with the man (we will be looking into both Hank Williams Jr. and Hank Williams III later in this feature, but for now, let's just marvel at that fact). There is always something overwhelming about trying to reduce a person of such mammoth stature into a few hundred words dashed off for a little read blog in a dusty corner of the internet, and yet writing about Williams is also comforting in a way that is hard to describe. I had never sought out his music before this week, and yet I felt like I had known it all for years from the first listen.

Few artists can pull off that kind of trick, that sort of faux-omnipresence that leads a familiarity to even their more obscure tracks. Everyone you know probably knows the lyrics (or at least the chorus) to a dozen or so Beatles songs, even if they profess to hate the band. Similarly, though many people would claim, either with a sense of pride or professed ignorance, to be completely unfamiliar with Williams' work, if you put on a few of his bigger hits, most would be able to sing along whether they would openly admit it or not. I was surprised by just how many of his songs were familiar to me, by the sheer number that had sunk so deeply into the American consciousness that I knew them without ever even considering who wrote or sang them.

Williams died at 29, on the road to a show in West Virginia, of heart failure that was likely precipitated by years of hard drinking and the binging he had done earlier in the evening. He was on his way to a show when he died, and when his death was announced to the assembled crowd that evening, the audience audibly laughed. To them, this was just another excuse from Williams, who notoriously missed shows due to his heavy drinking. They only realized the truth of the news when the rest of the evening's performers took to the stage and began singing Williams' spiritual "I Saw the Light." The audience began singing along in tribute to the man who was no less than the Godfather of Country. The life of Hank Williams is peppered with these sorts of seemingly-apocryphal tales. The man was a larger than life figure, so much so that he died far before his time. Yet before we can mourn his death, we must examine his life, and due to his tendency to record singles rather than albums, the best way I found to do this is through the posthumous anthology 40 Greatest Hits

"Move It on Over," the opening track on that compilation and Williams' first hit single, is a rousing bluegrass track that influenced the burgeoning rock and roll genre as much as it did country. The song was released in 1948, yet listening to it, one can easily hear its influence echo through such early rock and roll staples as "Rock Around the Clock" and "Rollover Beethoven." While Williams' original version turns the twang dial up to 11 and contracts and contorts its lyrics in a way that can only be described as country, the song has a core melody that will win over any rock and roll fan honest with themselves enough to give the song a chance. While this song would ultimately become more influential, it was Williams' cover of the Tin Pan Alley classic "Lovesick Blues" that rocketed him into mainstream success. The song is a blues classic, but in Williams' hands, it manages to be both evocative and painfully earnest in a way that makes the song his own. His voice cracks as he croons; yet if anything, that makes his version all the more iconic. Williams is just that kind of guy"”even when he is fucking up, he does so in such an unabashed, straightforward way that it becomes heartwarming and ultimately winning.





The rest of 40 Greatest Hits tries, and mostly succeeds, at summing up the full career of a legend in less than two hours. There are the songs that are so ingrained in our society that it almost feels as if they emerged out of our collective consciousness, like "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Hey Good Lookin'" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." These fit into the rare category of song that is so simple and perfect it almost feels like anyone could have written it; in my experience, those are the songs that only the rarest person can create.





The album also has plenty of the silly, wayward man songs that country would become known for, from Williams' cover of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" to the wry, tragic "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy," to the patently offensive (but still pretty enjoyable) novelty song "Kaw-Liga," which draws a horribly stereotypical picture of a mournful Native American (turns out, Hank Williams even knows why their skin is so red!). The album even includes a few songs to highlight Williams' spiritual side, most notably "I Saw the Light," though his material as Luke the Drifter (his righteous alter-ego) is absent, perhaps for the better.



It would be impossible to encapsulate Williams in such a short space, and I won't try to. He is a vastly influential figure, and his shadow will hang over much of what is to come in our exploration of country. He lived briefly, but made every second count, changing the course of country music and even giving some pointers to what would become rock and roll along the way. He has served as a sort of Virgil, guiding me into the realm of country music. To use a term he might have preferred, Hank Williams has acted as a sort of gateway drug into this genre, and while I'm not yet desperate for that next fix, I am certainly more receptive to the genre's charms than I was even a week ago. For millions, Williams is one of the greatest musicians who ever lived. I can hardly disagree with that assessment, and for me, Williams will also always hold a special place as the man who softened my icy views toward the genre. Even 60 years dead, Williams music is vibrant, enthralling, and a toe-tapping good time.

Speaking of a good time (the segues will never get better, I assure you), let's turn our attention to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who formed in the Bronx in 1978 and went on to be among the most influential artists in the early hip hop movement, even eventually being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which, strangely, is still a symbol of "making it," even in genres that couldn't be more dissimilar from rock and roll). The group's debut album, and Alex's pick this week, The Message, is fun in a way I rarely associate with my knowledge of hip hop. Hip hop's beginnings as a genre built on freestyle silliness and bravado appeal to me in ways a lot of the later darkness and excess do not (I am sure we will address that later), and the group uses these early tropes (which they, for the most part, brought into the mainstream) to their advantage. The Message is bawdy, raucuous, and messy in the best of ways, and album clearly made by a group of people who were dedicated to having a good time as much as to creating anything approximating art.

The opening track "She's So Fresh" is ostensibly about a lady who the boys find appealing, yet is mostly a way to introduce the members of the group to the world, allowing each a moment to shine. The bravado increases on "It's Nasty," which utilizes DJ Grandmaster Flash for his sampling ability. The gentlemen may or may not be exaggerating when they refer to their platinum vocal chords, but if they are serious, I am sure our thoughts go out to them for what must have been an incredibly painful recording experience. The song is little more than a kiss-off to those who dismiss hip hop as a genre, and yet the confidence with which it is presented makes it work.



"Dreamin'" is the type of song that simply could not be recorded today, for all of the good and bad things that implies. The song is dedicated to Stevie Wonder because he is "the greatest." The boys do not seem to be kidding, and there is no sense of shame in the song, which apes Wonder's style and sings about him in ways that occasionally border on the romantic. It is a bit reminiscent of the South Park episode when the boys form a Christian Rock band and are confused when people are put off by their songs about being in love with Jesus. When the song pauses for a conversational interlude in which the guys wonder if they will ever meet their (apparent) hero, it is the sort of moment that is so earnest and open, it feels like a completely different genre than most modern hip hop. Loving Stevie Wonder isn't cool in any world I know of, but that never bothers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. These guys are cool enough that they needn't worry about whether what they are doing is cool.

In the early days, hip hop was mostly a genre composed of groups who sang exclusively about how they were superior to other groups, yet "The Message" changed all that in one seven minute opus. Single-handedly birthing the more politically conscious side of rap, the song is a narrative that details the struggles that come along with growing up in poverty. The song embodies the anger, desperation and sadness involved in inner-city life. It is a marked departure from the frivolity of the rest of the album, yet the tonal shift makes it all the more effective. In an album that primarily showcases the massive egos of its performers, "The Message" indicates that there are depths beneath the album's bubblegum surfaces. The song was recorded by session musician Ed "Duke Bootee" Fletcher and Furious Five MC Melle Mel; the rest of the group had no interest in recording such a "serious" song. It makes sense that most of the group would reject this down-beat, truthful track on an album that is all about obscuring behind a veil of bravado, yet "The Message" has endured as an influence while the rest of early hip-hop's sense of fun has mostly changed in the ensuing decades.



It's hard to take the rest of The Message, or, for the most part, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five seriously, but then it never seems like that's what they're going for. This group has more in common with the R&B of the "˜70s than the hip hop of the "˜90s, and from my current vantage point as an R&B fan who has avoided hip hop for most of my life, this is a compliment. The whole album seems like a lark, as if the group got together in the studio and just had a good time. That palpable sense of fun carries over into the album, which is a sheer blast without an ounce of pretension. There are traces of what hip hop would become here, both in the shameless bravado and the social consciousness of the title track, yet as a gateway to the genre, this seems to stand as a relic more than an indication of where things were headed. And, considering the slight bias with which I enter this feature, that is a pretty high compliment. I imagine the next few weeks and months will make me confront my issues with the genre more directly, but for now, I am happy to sit back and listen to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five shoot the shit about how they are the greatest human beings to ever walk the earth.

Ryan's initial offering, the Sarah Vaughan album that has been both self titled and demarcated as Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown is the only collaboration between the singer and the influential trumpeter. Like the other two albums we have looked at this week, it is a near-perfect gateway into the genre, a winning combination of Vaughan's crisp, crooning vocals and Brown's brilliant, virtuousic trumpeting. Opening track "Lullaby of Birdland" is an ode to Charlie "Bird" Parker and the jazz club, Birdland, named after him. "April in Paris" is a piano-driven showcase for Vaughan's vocal stylings, an argument of sorts for her version's supremacy. The song, originally written for the Broadway musical Walk a Little Faster was once called "a perfect theater song" by composer Alec Wilder, but in Vaughan's hands, the piece feels more like the perfect jazz club moment. It is easy to picture yourself in a dark, smoky venue in the mid-"˜50s, sipping a martini and letting Vaughan carry you across the Atlantic and back into your glass. Slow, somber, and gorgeous, "April in Paris" is, in a word, sublime.



"Embraceable You," originally written by the Gershwin brothers, and eventually appearing in the musical Girl Crazy, is another example of Vaughan taking a standard and making it her own. There is a showmanship to her vocals that manages to act as a showcase to her near perfect performance while also lulling the listener into the moment. I will freely admit that Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown is the album I listened to the most out of the three I am writing about this week. That happened for two reasons: at first, because I did not know what to say about it, and eventually because I got swept up in it. It quickly became the perfect album to put on while I was reading, while I was writing, while I was preparing to drift off to sleep. This album worked its way into my life in a way that surprised me and delighted me over the course of this week.



It is too early to say nearly anything about the genres I am exploring after only one week of listening. Yet each list had a strong opening. I have always treated country and hip hop with an air of disdain, and for much of my life have associated jazz with my grandfather. While we will explore my formative feelings on each genres in weeks to come, for now, it is important only to note that where a few weeks ago this project filled me with equal parts anticipation and dread, I now feel more excitement than fear. There's a long road ahead, but if Hank Williams, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Sarah Vaughan are at all indicative of what's to come, things may be a good deal less bumpy than I imagined.

Next week on My Year in Lists:

Marty Robbins sings Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, LL Cool J has a Radio and Errol Garner gives a Concert by the Sea.

Read more My Year in Lists here
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