My Year in Lists
Week Four
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock 'n' roll. No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Hibbing, Minnesota, would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world's first and greatest rock 'n' roll beatnik bard and then"”having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning"”vanish into a folk tradition of his own making."-J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

"They have taken some important but disparate contemporary trends"”punk minimalism, the labyrinthine synthesizer and guitar textures of art rock, the '50s rockabilly revival and the melodious terseness of power pop"”and mixed them into a personal and appealing blend."-Robert Palmer, music critic for The New York Times and Rolling Stone, on The Cars

To a certain extent, and in my somewhat limited experience both reading it and attempting to carry it out, musical criticism is a vague, elusive practice that much more than film, television, or literary criticism comes down to trying, often in vain, to replicate in words the feeling that a certain song gives you when you hear it. This is not to say (nor do I mean to imply) that there are not absolutes in music criticism and that the entire practice amounts to trying not to sound insanely pretentious while waxing intellectual on lofty ideas like nostalgia, political upheaval, and kick ass guitar solos. While I do agree that musical criticism is a more exact science than I am jokingly giving it credit for and that there are definitive ways to argue that The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is better than N'Sync's No Strings Attached just as there are definitive ways to make the case that Michael Curtiz' Casablanca is slightly more solid than, say Ivan Reitman's No Strings Attached (see what I did there?), I will say that often times music criticism reads as more pretentious and pseudo-intellectual than perhaps it should. That being said, here comes perhaps the most pretentious and pseudo-intellectual installment yet of My Year in Lists.

Both a dedicated and a logical approach to the aims of this column require that at some point I tackle the insanely pretentious and potentially almost silly question that lies dormant at the bedrock of all pursuits into the history of music, its effect on us and the meaning it gives our lives. And that is (bear with me here folks): what is music? What can we call music and what becomes simply sounds recorded? I could spend the entirety of this installment examining the definition of music from an ontological, sociological, philosophical and compositional standpoint and try to come up with a definitive answer to that question. In all honesty, however, I wouldn't say that I am nearly at the level of musical expertise required to tackle that question, and let's not forget, that's not really why we're here. So instead I will examine the question through the lens of the only album I have encountered on this quest so far that actually made me stop and think, "Is this music?" Tab's pick for this week, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's The Black Record.

In his introduction to his list, Tab stated that one of his guiding principles when choosing the music he would subject me to over this year-long quest was picking out essential artists who shaped (or in some cases even created full genres) music as we find it today. Having listened to Tab's music many times before over my life (I'll save some anecdotes for the future, but believe me, they are forthcoming), I knew when I asked him to provide one of the lists for this feature that I would get some things a few steps outside the norm, and if there's one term that can be used to describe The Black Record, it is "outside the norm." If I was about 60 years older, I would probably describe The Black Record as 43 minutes of noise, and older, more crotchety Jordan is essentially right.

The album is composed of only two tracks, that methodically repeat basically the same sounds ad nauseum until the question arises as to whether the track is skipping or you've gone completely insane. At the same time, however, the quiet repetition and soothing structure are actually sort of relaxing, to the point where at about the 17 minute mark I wondered if I had gone insane and then been given some Valium to calm down the effects of my psychosis.

My initial reaction to The Black Record was to scoff. My second reaction was to elevate the scoff to full out laughter and to go off on a rant that, again, probably will sound more age-appropriate in half a century. However, my third reaction was to think about the album and about whether it was music at all. It turns out, that's mostly the point. La Monte Young (Born La Monte Thornton Young, which also made me wonder if Tab, who is actually named Thornton, selected him to get someone with his real name onto the list) studied music at Los Angeles City College, got his B.A. from UCLA and later studied further at Berkeley. So the question of whether this was the work of an idiot locked in a recording studio is pretty much thrown out the window right there. Young was close friends with Yoko Ono in the early "˜60s, and she often hosted concerts for him in lofts around New York City (something tells me the decidedly strange and often atonal Ono enjoyed Young's music on a level I'll never aspire to). In 1964 Young began working with an ensemble including John Cale, who as we discussed last week would later site Young as his primary influence on The Velvet Underground & Nico (a much more enjoyable album than The Black Record, but then, it was intended to be). That group included Marian Zazeela, a light artist who would become so vital to the live performances of The Black Record that she is actually included alongside Young as a collaborator on the album.

Young focused throughout most of his career on forcing audiences to examine their preconceived notions about the nature and definition of music, and stressed elements of performance art much more heavily than his actual sound. To a certain extent this means that listening to The Black Record without seeing Young and Zazeela live is kind of like trying to write about the scores of Nino Rota without having seen the films he was scoring (which means, though it may be unwise, I'll do it anyway). However, unlike Rota, Young tried to be purposefully obtuse, atonal and minimalist throughout his career. Which means, again, that Nino Rota is a whole lot more enjoyable than La Monte Young, who nevertheless is considered one of the most important and radical creators of post-World War II avante garde, experimental and drone music and is generally recognized as the first true minimalist composer. So is The Black Record music? Is it art? Or is it an incredibly high minded practical joke from the mind of an anarchic madman who wandered out of some of the most prestigious music programs in this country and just ran wild? Perhaps the more important question is, can it be all of the above? It almost goes without saying that writing about The Black Record has been infinitely more enjoyable than actually listening to it, but that doesn't make the album any less important, nor does it necessarily mean that droning into a speaker for 23 minutes isn't music of some sort.

Turning now to another who combines music and art (though makes something much more easily definable as "music" in the process), we look now to Collin's pick for this week, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The album is Dylan's second, but the first composed entirely of songs he wrote himself, and thus effectively the debut of perhaps the greatest lyricist of all time (to be fair, he wrote two songs on his previous self-titled album, but as it had sold 5,000 copies when this follow-up was released, this is more realistically his songwriting debut). Bob Dylan's greatness has been explored so widely and written about so thoroughly that it seems a waste to try and add much to the cacophony of praise that has been rightly heaped on him over the last 50 years. I think we can all agree that Bob Dylan is one of the all time greats (except for my father, who prefers the soothing beats of Phil Collins and the dance tunes of Donna Summers, and who once entered my car while I was playing "It Ain't Me" and politely asked me what the hell I was listening to and if I could please make it stop) and so I will spend little time on the legacy of the legend, and instead focus on the album that is arguably his inception as one of the masters of his craft.

Dylan became a prolific songwriter in 1962, after moving in with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo in January and beginning to spend more time with her and her strongly left-wing family. During the writing of Freewheelin', Rotolo was studying art in Italy and continuously postponed her return home in spite of long letters Dylan wrote to her (she eventually returned in January of 1963, and the two were together for long enough to take the picture that became this albums cover before she left him, claiming he referred to her as his "chick" and she felt more like a groupie than an equal). He began recording what would become Freewheelin' on April 24, 1962, but was developing as a songwriter so quickly that he recorded 14 songs in those April sessions (some of which were covers) and only one would eventually go on to find a place on the album, albeit in a different form.

The album opens with "Blowin' in the Wind," one of Dylan's most celebrated and enduring songs, a powerful protest that asks questions about our efforts to find peace, avoid war, and ensure freedom for all. Ranked #14 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list, it has been covered by Peter, Paul and Mary; Judy Collins; Etta James; Duke Ellington; Neil Young; Marlene Dietrich; Bruce Springsteen; Elvis Presely; Stevie Wonder; and Joan Baez. Oh yeah, and it's pretty great, too.

"Girl from the North Country" is a beautiful, ethereal, and nostalgic ode to a lost love written about an ex-girlfriend of Dylan's while he was traveling Italy, looking for his current girlfriend, Suze Rotolo (who had actually already returned to the United States as he arrived in Italy. Oh, how I don't pine for the days before e-mail). Dylan borrowed lyrics from the English ballad "Scarborough Fair" (later covered itself by Simon and Garfunkel), including the refrain, "remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine." The next song, "Masters of War" is a scathing anti-war song and Dylan's personal protest against the arms buildup of the Cold War.

"Bob Dylan's Blues" introduces Dylan's satirical surrealism, riffing on conceptions of folk and blues music with a bit of absurdist humor thrown in for good measure. "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," is a complex and powerful song built on a question and answer refrain, one of Dylan's most complex songs and one that would become considered an anthem of the Cuban Missile Crisis, despite the fact that Dylan wrote the song before the crisis began and it was released after the crisis had ended. Dylan once claimed that, "Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs, so I put all I could into this one." That mentality might explain why it is often associated with the anxiety and apocalyptic despair that surrounded the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it also made for one of Dylan's greatest compositions.

"Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," Dylan's half nostalgic, half ambivalent kiss-off was written when he thought that Rotolo was going to stay in Italy indefinitely and might never return to him. As such, it recounts the end of an affair, and the protagonist's attempts to convince himself that he is fine with thoughtlessly parting ways. "Oxford Town" is Dylan's cynical, sarcastic take on the events at the University of Mississippi in September 1962 when Air Force Veteran James Meredith became the first black student to enroll. "Talkin' World War III Blues" was a spontaneous composition Dylan created in the studio during the last session for the album. Dylan recorded just five takes, without having written anything, and just let loose on his fears of nuclear annihilation, the apocalypse, and the merits (or lack thereof) of therapy, all with dark humor that keeps the song from receding too far into pitch black nihilism.

Bob Dylan is credited with bringing intellectual ambition to popular music for the first time. In that way, he possibly invented the concept of the "idea band" that I previously (maybe) coined, paving the way for any artists who wanted to communicate a political or philosophical message with their music. Needless to say, Dylan's influence is gigantic, with figures as large as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Brian Ferry, Nick Cave, Cat Stevens and Tom Waits claiming him as a great inspiration to them. If you're curious how far his influence reaches, just youtube ANY of the songs I've talked about today and try to find a version that isn't someone covering the song. Trust me, it isn't easy.

Dylan pioneered the combinations of diverse musical genres, but at the dawn of the "˜80's, The Cars continued the trend, becoming one of the first bands to merge the new synth oriented pop that was becoming popular (with the help of Devo and Gang of Four, Ashley's last two picks) with the more standard guitar oriented rock of the previous decade. The Cars emerged from the early New Wave scene in the late "˜70's, and released their second album, and Ashley's pick this week, Candy-O in 1979. The opening track and the album's first single, "Let's Go," tells the story of a 17-year-old girl whose budding interest in something called "the nightlife" is not strong enough for her to acquiesce to accompany the song's narrator on a date.

"It's All I Can Do" aims to combine the ideas of romantic pop music with a more classic rock sound. "Double Life" attempts the same, with a pop sound and a refrain sung by the whole band, combined with a classic rock guitar solo. "Shoo Be Doo," at a slight 1:36 feels like a brief interlude in which The Cars allow the sound of their contemporaries like Devo and Gang of Four to overtake their attempts to combine synth sounds and rock intentions. It doesn't fit with the rest of the album in sound or context and seems instead to reveal The Cars anxiety that they are stuck between the more traditional music of the past (implied in the "˜50s callback of the title) and a futuristic sound they are unsure they can master. The song ends with a plea for someone to "just tell me what to do!" The album's title track is more of a standard rock song with a darker, less pop influenced feel.

So what is music, then? Is it a way to forward ideas? Is it a way to combine melody with thought, or failing that, noise with a powerful notion? Is it a way to look forward, or a lens through which to analyze the past? Is it a document of our time, or just a source of mindless entertainment? In short, music is all of the above. At its best, music can present a coherent view of the world, presenting a new idea or allowing listeners to relate to a universal experience. It's inevitable that we will return to this question, and examine others over the course of this year, but for now, suffice to say that music is melodious meaning, one of the greatest tools we have to communicate something as powerful and intangible as emotion, or as bold and innovative as a political, artistic, or philosophical movement. More than any other medium, music can make us feel and understand things that would otherwise remain ever elusive, and can bring us as thinkers, dreamers, and lovers, closer together than anything else.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We'll take a look at the only band to appear with a different album on all three lists in an all Talking Heads edition, examining the importance of the band through analysis of More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, Remain in Light, and Speaking in Tongues. Everything will not be "same as it ever was."
comments powered by Disqus