17
Feb
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Seven
Jordan
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.

"People are still looking at Picasso"¦ At artists who broke through the constraints of their time period to come up with something that was unique and original. In the form that they worked in, in the form of popular music, no one will ever be more revolutionary, more creative, and more distinctive than The Beatles."-Robert Greenfield, former Rolling Stone associate editor

"Everyone should own a copy of that album."-Henry Rollins, on Fun House

"They'd showed how far an underground, punk-inspired rock band could go within the industry without whoring out its artistic integrity in any obvious way. They'd figured out how to buy in, not sell out"”in other words, they'd achieved the American Bohemian Dream."-Charles Aaron, Spin Magazine on R.E.M.

"R.E.M. mark the point when post-punk turned into alternative rock."-Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Allmusic

Opinions are, by their nature, singular and in a way infallible. If you tell me that vanilla ice cream is your favorite flavor, that's an immutable fact I'm faced with. I can't convince you that chocolate is better (though, come on. It is.), because you like what you like, and there's nothing anyone can do to change that fact. When it comes to matters of opinion, I fully recognize that there is no right and there is no wrong. An opinion is someone's personal outlook; it will always be correct to them, regardless of how you feel about it.

That being said, some opinions are better than others. If you tell me that Crossroads is your favorite movie, you may have very good reasons for holding that opinion. Maybe you think it's the perfect metaphor for the ascendance of bubble gum pop or an ideal picture of a certain moment in American history (the time when Britney Spears was Queen of teen Pop, and thus before she became a bald crazy lady we were forced to worry about as a culture), or maybe you just think it's so bad it's good and you can laugh at its failings. All of these are defensible reasons for enjoying something, but the point is that Crossroads requires a defense. It is clear that what you like is of much less importance than why you like it; I think a defense can be made for enjoying almost anything that would allow me to accept the person's taste, even if it seems ludicrous to me on the surface.

Some opinions, however, don't need a defense. If you think Citizen Kane or The Godfather are greatest movies of all time, I get that. They are of such high quality and contribute so much on so many levels that I don't think twice about whether someone should call that their favorite movie of all time. My dear friend Ashley, a contributor to this blog and to this feature as one of the three list-makers at its center, has commented before that The Godfather is her favorite movie, but that sometimes she feels the choice is cliché. I maintain that it doesn't matter; when something is at a certain level of excellence, calling it your favorite is totally defensible even if that's what the rest of the unwashed masses are doing.

This is why I feel no shame when I say that The Beatles are my favorite band of all time. How could I? Over the course of the "˜60s the band changed the face of rock and roll, releasing masterpiece after masterpiece and creating such an expansive, prolific catalogue of songs that there's a Beatles song for every mood, every style, and every moment of any given day. They are the band that was quite literally bigger than Jesus Christ (even if John did have to apologize for saying it) and pretty much every band that came after is lying if they claim to not owe an unpayable debt to the Fab Four. Every rock band, pop sensation, politically motivated singer-songwriter and person who thinks about picking up a guitar owes a debt to The Beatles. Even those at the most experimental fringes of music have to look at "Revolution No. 9" as a source of inspiration.

So it would be impossible for me to do the band justice in the few hundred words I can reserve for them. If you don't know the story of The Beatles, from their rise out of Liverpool to their fall after that last set played on the roof of the studio on Abbey Road, there are about a billion books, articles, movies and TV specials that will tell it to you in greater detail and with more poise and ability than I can attempt. I will confine myself, therefore to an examination of just the album at hand, Collin's pick for this week, the band's fifth British album (and ninth American album, due to all the creative rereleases), Help!

Fit between my least favorite Beatles album, Beatles For Sale, and Rubber Soul, this album can be considered the last of the band's early period, when they were still writing exclusively pop-rock songs about love, and the quiet beginnings of where they would be heading starting with their next album. Written as a soundtrack to their second feature film (following 1964's A Hard Day's Night) the album finds the band at the height of their early period game, riding high on Beatlesmania and a continuous stream of #1 hits that seemed like it might never end.

"Help!" the albums opening track, and the title for both the album and the film, was written primarily by John Lennon, though it was polished by Paul McCartney. Ranked 29 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list, it is also one of John Lennon's favorite songs he ever wrote. Lennon remarked in a 1970 interview that "Help!" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were the most genuine and personal songs he wrote while with The Beatles. The song is also a turning point in the roles of the group, as it is the last of Lennon's five number one hits in a row (on American charts) before Paul McCartney took over as the hit maker, producing eight number ones in a row beginning with "Yesterday."



"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," written and performed by Lennon, was heavily influenced by Bob Dylan. The song is supposedly about the band's manager Brian Epstein a closeted homosexual (seeing as homosexuality was still a criminal offense in Britain at the time). Lennon's singing "two foot small" instead of "two foot tall" was a mistake, but one he decided to leave in because "all those pseuds will really love it."



After two albums in which George Harrison was not able to contribute a single song, Help! Has two Harrison tracks in "I Need You" and "You Like Me Too Much," both of which discuss his building relationship with the woman who would soon be his wife. "Ticket to Ride" was written by Lennon (though McCartney claims he should be given 40% credit for his extensive contributions) and is considered an important step in Lennon's development as a songwriter. The song is considered harder, heavier, and more psychologically complex than what had come before. "I've Just Seen a Face," written and performed by McCartney, is one of the few songs the band ever did with a guitar lead and no bass backing. The song is the closest to a country song the band ever recorded, nearly a bluegrass track in speed and tempo.










Paul McCartney's masterpiece "Yesterday," is the most covered song of all time, being recorded over 3,000 times by different artists. Voted the best song of the 20th Century in a BBC Radio 2 poll in 1999 and voted the #1 pop song of all time by both MTV and Rolling Stone, "Yesterday" is the first song recorded completely by a single member of the band, something that would be done much more often as the group began to have personal problems and divergent artistic tastes in the coming years. McCartney claims to have written the entire melody in a dream, only to wake up and rush to a piano before he forgot it. It was originally called "Scrambled Eggs" and McCartney tinkered with it constantly throughout the filming of Help! and the recording of the album, much to the chagrin of the rest of the band. They may have been upset at his constant tinkering, but the result is undoubtedly one of the greatest songs ever written. The influence of The Beatles is impossible to describe, yet they are arguably the greatest band in history. So they've got that going for them.



Turning our attention to Tab's picks this week, The Stooges and Fun House, we look at a tiny little band with a giant influence on the development of punk rock, The Stooges. Although they were commercially unsuccessful and often performed before indifferent or outright hostile audiences in their heyday, The Stooges are considered instrumental to the rise of punk rock, alternative rock, and heavy metal. Formed by James Newell Osterberg, known as Iggy Pop due to his first band The Iguanas and a local figure he somewhat resembled called "Pop," the band aimed to create a whole new form of blues music.

Their self-titled debut album was focused on replicating the basis of the band's live set at the time, and was recorded as a five song set. When they submitted the album to their label, Elektra, according to Iggy Pop, "We handed (the five song version of the album) in and they refused it. They said, "˜There aren't enough songs!' So we lied and said, "˜That's Ok, we've got lots more songs." Originally mixed and produced by The Velvet Underground's John Cale, the studio rejected the mix and forced the band to remix them with Elektra president Jac Holzman. The album is ranked 185 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list and the opening track "1969," a rollicking celebration of late "˜60s rebellious youth, was included in the magazine's "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time" list.



The album's second song, and my personal favorite Stooges song "I Wannt Be Your Dog" established the band's cutting edge sound at the forefront of the birth of punk rock and heavy metal. The song discusses the singer's willingness to prostrate and degrade himself at the feet of his beloved, and is seen as a self-loathing monument to the state of blue collar tedium and alienation of the late 60's industrial Midwest. "We Will Fall," the epic 10 minute follow up to "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is a darkly melodic, methodically hypnotic prophecy about the downfall of mankind through the lens of a lonely man's attempts to comfort himself to sleep (and possibly into death, the final slumber) while alone in a hotel room.





The band's second album, Fun House, was also a commercial failure, but has been considered deeply influential on the development of punk rock. Iggy Pop has said that the album is greatly influenced by the sound of Howlin' Wolf, saying, "That stuff is Wolfy, at least as I could do it." The album's opening track "Down on the Street" was recorded when Elektra suggested that "Loose," the intended album opener was a weak opening track. "Loose" then became the album's second track, and it features a simple guitar line and a pretty obvious innuendo. When you hear the line "I'll stick it deep inside" in a song called "Loose" you more likely than not understand that the band is referring to attempts to plug the drain on a shower, and nothing else. Nothing else.





"1970" is a spiritual sequel to the previous album's "1969," aiming to capture the feeling of that year just as the previous song had. As such, the song is about being quite intoxicated and feeling all right, which is exactly where the whole of America was in 1970 if my history lessons were accurate. The Stooges are credited with creating, or at least largely influencing, the genre of punk rock, and have been cited as major influences by Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth, Kurt Cobain, Jack White, Gogol Bordello and Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others. Punk writers Legs Mcneil was a champion of the band, and Henry Rollins called Fun House and The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat the two greatest rock records ever made.



Slightly a decade after the emergence of punk rock, R.E.M. emerged from the end of post-punk and became the first major band of the alternative rock movement. Formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980 by Michael Stipe on lead vocals, Peter Buck on guitar, Mike Mills on bass and backing vocals and Bill Berry on drums and percussion, R.E.M. is considered the first great alternative rock bands. Murmur, the band's debut album and Ashley's pick this week, was released in 1983 and built a reputation over the next few years as the band released more albums and toured constantly.

Upon its release, the album was lauded for its unique sound, Stipe's cryptic lyrics and Buck's "jangly" guitar style. The band's label I.R.S. refused to let the band's producer Mitch Easter produce the album and forced them to work with Stephen Hague instead. Hague made the group do multiple takes and demoralized them with constant criticism. He then took their first completed track "Catapault" to a different studio and added keyboard without the band's permission and to their dismay. The band asked I.R.S. to let them record with Mitch Easter, and due to the bad experience with Hague, the band recorded through a process of negation, refusing to incorporate rock clichés like guitar solos and synthesizers, aiming for a more timeless feel. In this respect the band was successful, as Murmur sounds like it could have been recorded at pretty much any period in time, and still be a solid rock album.



"Radio Free Europe," the opening track and the band's first single, features the soon-to-be-trademark unintelligible lyrics. When the band first began playing the song live before signing with a label, Stipe would just improvise different lyrics every time the song was played. While he has rejected the claim that the lyrics on Murmur are indecipherable, he acknowledges that "Radio Free Europe" is "complete babbling." The band's second single, "Talking About Passion" has been called a "hunger song" by Stipe though the only clear reference to this in the song is a single lyric about "empty mouths."





My favorite song on the album, "Perfect Circles" is purposefully opaque and can be interpreted in many different ways. Peter Buck says the song reminds him of children playing football in the evening. Michael Stipe calls it a song about longing in a relationship, though he says "It was an intensely personal song for me. I really like that it can mean two different things"¦ It has the exact same feeling, but the details are different." R.E.M. would go on to achieve mammoth success (and we will revisit the band at a point of huge success when we talk about Automatic for the People later this year), and laid out the path to similar success in alternative music that would be followed by Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Nirvana, Butthole Surfers, Pavement, Live, Dream Syndicate and dozens of others in the decades after the band's debut. Most recently, The Decemberists new album The King is Dead has been heavily influenced by the band, with Peter Buck contributing to several tracks. Colin Meloy, The Decemberist's lead singer, has said, "I've basically been writing fake R.E.M. songs my whole career. And I don't think I'm alone there."



So yes, opinions are individual, singular, and in a way infallible. You can love The Beatles, The Stooges, and R.E.M. or you can wish you'd never heard them and that this column didn't even exist. What is tougher to do is to deny the vast influence each of these bands has had on music in the last several decades. R.E.M. created alternative rock as we think of it today and blazed the trail that dozens of indie bands would follow in the years to come. The Stooges created punk rock and heavy metal, paving the way for R.E.M and countless other bands. And The Beatles? The Beatles changed everything.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next on My Year in Lists:

We look at the old guard with The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, examine the New Order with Power, Corruption, and Lies, and travel with Amon Duul to a Psychedelic Underground.


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