18
Mar
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Eleven
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.

"Unlike books, movies, or TV shows, songs are supposed to be experienced many, many times. It's unlikely that you've read any book outside a small handful of favorites more than once, and you probably haven't read those favorites dozens of times. It's possible you've given your favorite movie 100 viewings, but that still pales in comparison to how often you're supposed to hit a pop song or a deathless golden oldie on the radio. Music by nature is a slow burn, parsing out its charms in increments over the course of weeks, years, or even decades. Music can be the focus of your attention, but it often fades into the background, only to reemerge when you least expect it and reveal a whole other dimension. No other art form weaves its way into the fabric of your life like music, and this inevitably shapes our feelings about it."-Steve Hyden, AV Club

There's a chance that the quote I chose to open this week's column is too long to be a reasonable opener. In fact, it almost definitely is. Yet if you make a habit of reading this column and skipping over the quotes I use to open it (a habit I suggest you break, considering most people I quote say things better than I could hope to), I would suggest that this week, of all weeks, you take the time to read the opening quote. I thought about shortening it in some way, but I would just end up trying to summarize the point he's making Hyden is making there, and inevitably something would be lost in my less eloquent translation. In those few sentences, he summarizes much of what I've been trying to get my head around so far in My Year in Lists: the way music differs from other art forms, and what that means for the way we approach, appreciate, and analyze it.

Music has always seemed less integral to my pop culture obsession than any other medium, simply because it does so often fade into the background of my life. I love The Beatles, but I've never really thought about them the same way I think about a Coen Brothers movie or a Joss Whedon show or a Kurt Vonnegut book. And if I have learned anything over the course of this column so far, it's that this is a huge pop culture flaw of mine, one that I hope to rectify by the end of this year. Looking at the play count on my ipod, there are songs I've listened to well over a hundred times, more than I've seen probably any movie ever (possible exceptions include A Night at the Roxbury which I watched pretty much every weekend in the fourth grade, and have regretted painfully ever since). I have watched favorite shows of mine, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The West Wing numerous times (I've seen every episode of Buffy at least four times, and the early ones a lot more than that). I've read To Kill a Mockingbird at least five times, Catch-22 three or four, and A Clockwork Orange twice, but that's probably the most often I've read a book in my adult life (again, I'm discounting childhood, where I read James and the Giant Peach until my copy fell apart and The BFG around 32 times in the second grade). But I've listened to some Beatles songs (hell, from the looks of it, some full Beatles albums) over 50 times, and that's just looking at one band and only counting the times I've played it on this ipod. Music plays a titanic role in my life, and while since entering high school I have become much better at evaluating the music I listen to and developing actual taste, I'd be lying if I called myself anything more than a music novice. How is it possible that I have listened to THOUSANDS of songs in my life (my ipod currently has 13,423 songs on it, all of which I've heard at least once, and some of which I have heard dozens or hundreds of times. And this isn't even counting songs I've heard through friends and on the radio many times without ever putting on my own ipod) and yet spent a fraction of my pop culture time thinking about and talking about music, especially compared to how much I think and talk about movies, television, books, and art.

This screed is all an epiphany of sorts, and one that has been dawning on me for the last several weeks, as I have dug into music more deeply, and with more variety, than I ever have before. I knew all the idiosyncratic stories about The Beatles, and I could tell you a lot about the making of some of my favorite albums, but I couldn't have named a single song by Captain Beefheart or even began to understood the influence of Howlin' Wolf before I started writing this column. This is something I imagine I'll come back to often (and hopefully not beat to death) before this column reaches its end, but I have begun to truly appreciate music as an art form in a way that I had never even thought to think of it before.

Which brings us to a band I knew quite well before starting to write this column, and an album I'd heard several times before, one that is heralded as a masterpiece of rock and roll, Collin's pick this week, The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed. By the time Let it Bleed was released, The Rolling Stones were already superstars in the UK and the United States. The album is their last in the "˜60s, the last to feature founding member Brian Jones (who would leave the band and subsequently drown soon after), and the first to feature Mick Taylor. Let it Bleed reached #1 in the UK, temporarily unseating Abbey Road from the top spot (and more on the Beatles/Stones rivalry in a moment). It is considered the second album in their run of four masterpieces that make up arguably their greatest achievements, following 1968's Beggars Banquet, and preceding 1971's Sticky Fingers and 1972's Exile on Main Street. Ranked 32 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time List," Let it Bleed is, in a word, a masterpiece.

The album opens with the song that has given Martin Scorsese a soundtrack to much of his career (he has used it in Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, and, I assume, every time he enters a room), "Gimme Shelter." Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song is an apocalyptic prayer for sanctuary from a coming storm and an ode to the power of love even through the darkness. The song, and really, much of the album gains even more power when read as the band's commentary on the decade that was coming to a close before their eyes.



The female voice on the track is Merry Clayton, who was brought in to spice up the track at the insistence of producer Jimmy Miller. Clayton's singing is so powerful throughout that after one of her strongest moments Jagger can be heard saying "Woo!" in response to her full throttle delivery. Clayton suffered a miscarriage soon after recording her part, apparently due to the strain she put on herself reaching the song's high notes.

"Country Honk" is a country version of the band's hit single "Honky Tonk Women," recorded for the album five months after the single hit big. Keith Richards has said that "Country Honk" is recorded the way "Honky Tonk Women" was originally written. The album's title track deals with highly suggestive material (like the sex and the drugs) and is widely believed to be a take on The Beatles song/album Let it Be. While Let it Bleed was actually released months before Let it Be came out in the spring of 1970, most of the songs on the latter album, including its title track, had already been recorded when The Rolling Stones recorded Let it Bleed. Considering the running "rivalry" between The Beatles and The Stones, it is possible that the song was a take on The Beatles, though this has never been confirmed.







The album's closing track, "You Can't Always Get What You Want," is easily one of the band's masterpieces. Written primarily by Jagger, the song opens (and closes) with a performance by the London Bach Choir. Continuing the idea of the rivalry between The Beatles and The Stones, John Lennon once said (and I tend to agree, hence my preference for The Beatles) that The Stones were apt to copy The Beatles innovations within a few months. Even Mick Jagger freely admits that this song is his take on "Hey Jude," which doesn't really bother me because with the amazing quality of both songs, who really cares at the end of the day?



Each verse of the song addresses a major topic of the "˜60s, from love to political strife to drugs, beginning optimistically, detailing disillusionment and being followed by the pragmatic conclusion of the chorus. Closing out the album with what can only be described as a look at the evolving attitudes of the "˜60s, The Rolling Stones closed out the decade understanding the disillusionment that would follow, but preaching pragmatically that while the decade didn't give people exactly what they thought it might, it may in fact have given them what they needed.

There's no need for me to list the bands influenced by The Rolling Stones, and if I tried, it would take far longer than the space I allot for this column every week. Needless to say, they are one of the greatest band's of all time, and their power and their influence is felt still today, even if they did give a kind of shitty performance at the Superbowl a few years back.

Part of my music related epiphany is a greater ability to appreciate the idea behind some music while still not enjoying it the way I tend to appreciate music. This brings us to our continuing examination of krautrock, courtesy of Tab, and his pick(s) for this week: Faust's self titled debut and their sophomore effort Faust So Far. Formed in 1971 in rural Wümme, Germany, the band quickly became a premier outfit in the krautrock movement. Their self titled debut contains three highly experimental songs that introduced them to the world.

"Why Don't You Eat Carrots?" the opening track is a cacophonous mixture of rock and jazz rhythms, discordant instrumentations, random sounds and vocal interludes. The second track, "Meadow Meal" continues this mixture, focusing on industrial sounds and a slightly more melodic, piano based center before becoming a straighter rock track. The final song, "Miss Fortune" opens on a more psychedelic note, before quieting into a more haunting melody, doubling back into psychedelia and concluding with haunting, guttural sounds and finally a spoken interlude that sounds like it came from the deep recesses of David Lynch's mind. All in all, Faust doesn't do much for me on a strictly musical level. Intellectually, I appreciate that they are melding various styles and experimenting with form, construct, and sound mixing techniques, and I can appreciate all of that from a technical perspective, but at the end of the day, their debut effort sounds too muddled to be truly successful.







Their second album, Faust So Far has a slightly more commercial sound, and ends up being much more palatable, even in its more experimental segments. The opening track, "It's a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl" actually works as a rock song, and is the one song of the band's I can imagine myself returning to in the months to come. "No Harm" also comes off as a legitimate rock song more than an experimental lark, though that eventually devolves into a jam session complete with screaming. The title track is a smooth and jazzy rock song with a repetitive melody that never falls into the cacophonic sound that characterizes much of the band's early work.







Moving north, and into the future (we can travel through both time and space here, folks), we'll find at The Jesus and Mary Chain, whose debut album, Psychocandy is Ashley's pick this week. Formed in Kilbride, Glasgow in 1983, the band revolves around the songwriting partnership of brothers Jim and William Reid. They originally claimed to have taken the band's name from a line in a Bing Crosby movie, though they later admitted that was not true. Influenced by The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and The Sex Pistols, they began using noise and feedback in order to make their sound different than their influences.

Like Ashley's pick last week The Replacements, The Jesus and Mary Chain are a band who seem caught half way between the punk movement and the alt-rock it birthed, which makes them all the more fascinating. When they started playing in the spring of 1984, Jim Reid would leave his guar out of tune, drummer Murray Daglish was playing with only two drums, and bassist Douglas Hart had only three strings on his bass guitar. By 1985, he would be down to two strings because, as he put it, "that's the two I use, I mean what's the fucking point spending money on the other two? Two is enough."

Struggling to get booked, the band began turning up at clubs claiming to be the opening act, playing a short set, and then fleeing quickly. Failing to generate interest in Scotland, the band moved to Fulham, London in May of 1984, landing a gig by June. After finishing their first single, the band was gaining increasing attention from the music press, with Neil Taylor of NME describing them (perhaps hyperbolically) as "the best band in the world."

The band generally played in front of small audiences, fueled by amphetamines and usually playing only 20 minute sets, all while facing away from the audience and not speaking a word to them. After struggling to get their song "Jesus Fuck" released as a b-side to their next single (apparently this is controversial for some reason?) the band planned to open for Sonic Youth, but abandoned this idea when plans were leaked, so as not to excite their fans. All of this is pretty damn punk rock. Influenced by The Sex Pistols, playing broken down instruments half heartedly while out of their minds on drugs, playing venues they were never booked at, refusing to face or speak to their audience and seemingly doing their best to alienate their fan base all sounds pretty punk rock to me.

What doesn't sound all that punk rock is the music of The Jesus and Mary Chain. Here is where we see the band as an integral part of the development of alternative rock, keeping the punk attitude alive even as the sound evolved into something less angry and more quietly emotional and intuitive. In November of 1985, the band released their debut album, Psychocandy, which Allmusic described as an album that "created a movement without meaning to."

The opening track, "Just Like Honey" was released as the band's third single. I was first introduced to it as my heart slowly broke at the end of Lost in Translation, and the song retains that power in my mind to this day. Maybe I wouldn't find it so bittersweet if it wasn't constantly associated in my mind with loss, regret, and ennui. "Never Understand," became the band's first single to chart in the UK, an upbeat and almost punkish sound that still maintains the band's quiet sense of whimsy.





"You Trip Me Up" captures the same sense of quiet introspection that permeates the entire album. The band manages to sound downbeat and, for lack of a better, less awful word, chill even when singing what would otherwise be a fairly standard pop/rock song. The Jesus and Mary Chain emerged as alt rock was picking up steam, and with punk roots as their inspiration managed to fuse their influences with their musical environment to create something wholly new and entirely excellent. With a punk attitude and an alternative rock sound that is so ahead of its time it sound fresh even today, The Jesus and Mary Chain came forth, showed us what was next for music, and didn't give a shit about how much they changed everything.



As I warned when I first started writing this column, my musical opinions and my ability to write about music are bound to evolve and change throughout this column. That's sort of the point of the whole thing. As this year continues I hope to learn much more about music and to better understand and more eloquently explain it as both an art form and an aspect of our daily lives. Music is difficult to wrap your head around, I've found, but as I have begun to try I have learned a lot about the flaws in my prior views of music and, I would say, become a much more serious listener already. I see music as more of an art form than ever before, and I recognize the ideas that shape it (even if I don't always agree that they make great music) and the movements that push it ever forward (or occasionally backwards. Remember when swing dancing was a thing again in the "˜90s? Me either). I better understand now why Let it Bleed is a masterpiece of its form. I recognize the intelligent and forward thinking ideas behind Faust and So Far even if I still don't enjoy them as much as I might. And I see the sea change that is Psychocandy for the musical gem that it is. This is a long (and winding) road we travel on this year, but I'm starting to think we might be headed somewhere great.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next Week on My Year in Lists:

The Grateful Dead believe in American Beauty, we conclude our German jaunt by looking at Neu's simplistically titled Neu and Neu 2, and find a dark, whiskey soaked corner somewhere to sit down with Tom Waits and look at some Rain Dogs.

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