14
Apr
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Fifteen
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.

"The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older, shorter of breath, and one day closer to death."-Pink Floyd, "Time"

"You'd be hard pressed to find many fans of indie rock who don't have some love for this record. That's partly because this record is great, sure"”that's one boring reason"”but it's also because this record is one of a handful that helped shape the notion of what American indie rock can potentially mean. It's almost a tautology: Indie fans love Daydream Nation because loving stuff like Daydream Nation is part of how we define what indie fans are."-Nitsuh Abebe, Pitchfork

How long does it take you to "get" an album? This is a question that has been tackled many times before, and usually by people far wiser than me. Yet it is something I struggle with, at least nominally, on a weekly basis while preparing for this column. As a rule, I try to listen to each album as many times as possible before sitting down to write about it at the end of the week. I try to listen to it while in different places, in different moods, and in different formats (Through my headphones, through my computer's shitty speakers, through good speakers) to really get a feel for the work before I try to put down any words on it. Certain albums I think can be understood right away. Others may take multiple listens over a long period of time to fully sink in. Some albums are growers for me over a very long period of time (when I first heard The National's Boxer it didn't do much for me, and I would now list it among my favorite albums at the moment), others I love from the first (I knew that The Fleet Foxes new album Helplessness Blues was stellar the second I finished listening to it).

Time, though, is not a luxury I have afforded myself on this project. Whatever the album's accessibility, I have given myself one week to unlock it in all of its glory (or at least as much as is humanly possible), to understand it and to evaluate it as completely as possible. Doing so means that I have to listen to the more complex albums a lot more than I might listen to the simpler ones. A large goal of mine in this column is to express my changing views about music and how we experience it in real time. One week I may feel one way, only to discover that view has evolved as I have experienced more musically and come to better understandings. As part of that process, I occasionally aim to look back at the views I have previously held about music and to debunk or modify them as I see fit.

When I was younger (and I think this is true of a lot of young people when it comes to music) I didn't really understand the album as a coherent unit. I saw it more as a few singles and a lot of filler in between them. This is pretty much how the music industry saw albums too for a very long time until it grew up and recognized the potential of the album, so I don't feel too bad about having held that view in middle school (and even more recently I'm sure). Whenever I would hear a band say "we don't make singles" I would roll my eyes. I used to think that an album with no great singles was an album with no great songs. I now see, though, that an album with no great singles may flow together too beautifully, too seamlessly, to have any portion of it extracted. Instead of looking at the track list on an album and seeing how many famous or recognizable songs are on it (something I absolutely did when shopping for music in my younger years) I now understand that an album can be a singular entity that transcends single songs and individual moments, forming a coherent mix of emotions and meanings only when experienced as a whole.

All of this is prelude to the discussion of two such albums that I listened to this week. I should confess that this column is being prepared several days earlier than I would usually write it, in preparation for my trip to the Coachella music festival, where I will be by the time you read this (you can also look forward to a My Year in Lists: Interlude on my time there next Wednesday). Due to the fact that I will be travelling and otherwise occupied, and because I intend to spend several days prior to the festival gorging myself on music by the bands I will be seeing there, this column is being written in advance, which means that I was able to spend fewer days with the albums for this week than I would have preferred. I solved this problem, as any great problem solver would, by listening to this week's music almost non-stop in order to access it as much as possible before writing this.

Pink Floyd is a band about which I've often said "I just haven't gotten into them yet." This is a statement I reserve for bands I recognize are great, yet just haven't devoted the necessary time to unpacking to fully appreciate the genius yet (another band I have said this about is the heavily Pink Floyd-influenced Radiohead, but we'll get to them later this year). Over the course of this last week, I have finally taken the time to consider them properly, to unpack them in all of their glory (ok, only one album's worth of glory) and finally revel in their brilliance. Pink Floyd's eighth studio album, The Dark Side of the Moon, Collin's pick this week, was released in 1973. It is a concept album (though it focuses on themes rather than a narrative) examining conflict, greed, the passage of time, and mental illness. The album used some of the most advanced recording techniques available at the time, including multi-track recording and tape loops. The group also recorded interviews with staff and band personnel which provided source material for a range of philosophical quotations used throughout the album.

The Dark Side of the Moon spent a record 741 weeks on the Billboard charts, longer than any other album in history. From 1973 until 1988, this album was literally always among the best selling albums. To emphasize, if you were one when the album was released, you would be able to drive a car before it had slipped off the charts. The album's title is a reference to madness rather than astronomy and was selected to express the band's desire to explore the mental strain that had plagued former band member Syd Barrett.

The album explores the stages of life, beginning and ending with a heartbeat. Each side of the album is a continuous piece of music exploring various facets of life, the threat of madness, and the importance of controlling one's own destiny. The first side begins with "Speak to Me," an overture that samples sound effects that will be heard throughout the album (making it a piece that can only truly be appreciated once the entire album has unfurled itself. As such, "Speak to Me" did little for me the first time I listened to the album and blew me away on subsequent listens). The song that forms the centerpiece of the first side is "Time," an epic memento mori describing the phenomenon by which time seems to pass more quickly as we age, and the regret we often feel for missed opportunities.





Side two begins with the album's most (ironically) successful track, "Money," a condemnation of greed, and an examination of the drive to earn and the power of money to corrupt. The song is followed by "Us and Them," the longest song on the album at nearly eight minutes. A quiet, jazz influenced exploration of the divisive forces in life that lead people to feel isolated and, alternatively, the forces that can bind us to one another. "Brain Damage," the album's penultimate track that leads directly into the closing track "Eclipse," is about insanity and the way society defines sanity. Repeated references to the idea that cultural customs tell us to "keep off the grass" when staying off beautiful grass is itself kind of insane implies that Roger Waters, who wrote and sings the song, was dubious about society's views of mental stability and also supportive of former band member Syd Barrett, who had experienced a breakdown.



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlY-JlE5ZCo



The success of the album brought great wealth to the whole band, which lead to Richard Wright and Roger Waters buying large country houses, Nick Mason collecting cars, and the group investing in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, allowing great art to beget great art. The album is frequently cited as one of the greatest albums of all time and seen as a huge influence on virtually every rock band to follow, including David Bowie, The Edge, Pet Shop Boys, Foo Fighters, Gorillaz, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, and especially Radiohead, whose OK Computer has been called The Dark Side of The Moon of the "˜90s (I'll evaluate that claim later this year when I look at that album).

Most of this column so far has been focused on the indeterminate amount of time it can take to evaluate an album and fully understand it, but as we conclude our examination of The Residents, I want to posit that it took a lot of listening and a lot of evaluating for me to really "get" them as a band. The first album we'll look at of theirs this week is Diskomo/Goosebumps, which was released in 1980 and, like Duck Stab/Buster & Glen (which we discussed last week is really two EPs, each released as one side of an album. The Diskomo side contains elements of the band's previous album, Eskimo, put to a disco beat. Goosebumps is a suite of the band's takes on nursery rhymes. Much like The Third Reich "˜N' Roll, Diskomo/Goosebumps is an interesting recasting of familiar pop culture touchstones, but it doesn't fit together as well as the albums where The Residents endeavor to create original material. I enjoy The Residents sonic experiments more than I would have expected at the start of this column, but for me, their real strength as a band comes from their willingness to completely ignore all that had come before and just make their own, completely unique music.





The band's most critically lauded album, and to my mind for good reason, God in Three Persons is a narrative concept album/experimental rock opera done in a rhythmic spoken word fashion, much like talking blues. Released in 1988, the album is narrated by Mr. X, who finds a pair of Siamese twins with healing powers. He convinces them to take him on as manager and begins touring them as holy healers. He begins lusting after the "female" twin, but comes to realize the twins' sexes are fluid, not fixed. He comes to realize that the twins are much more intelligent and capable than he had assumed, and ultimately plots a vicious rape in which he separates the two permanently.

As the album tells one long story, and does so far more directly than most concept albums manage, it is difficult to pull out single tracks for discussion. The opening track, "Main Title from "˜God in 3 Persons'" introduces the album's version of a Greek Chorus in the form of Laurie Amat, and tells us we are about to experience a story brought to us by The Cryptic Corporation and created by The Residents. "Their Early Years" tells of the twins' young lives and the troubles they had to endure. The epic, ten minute long penultimate track "Kiss of Flesh" features the seduction of Mr. X and the brutal rape he commits. The final track, "Pain and Pleasure" sums up the major themes of the story and concludes the proceedings. The album hangs together far better than the standard concept album, working more as a lyrical book on tape than a standard album, and I mean that in the best way possible.









The final album by the band we will examine is 1998's Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, another concept album, albeit one tied together more by its intent than by an ongoing narrative. The album aims to retell some of the stranger stories from the Bible. Though the purpose is not religious, the band has also made clear that the goal is not satirical. The Residents simply aimed to create a better understanding of some stories from the Bible, allowing listeners to draw what conclusions they will.

"In the Beginning," the opening track focuses on the creation of the Earth through powerful instrumentals. "They Are The Meat" is about Ezekiel's visions while he is forced to eat only bread. "God's Magic Finger" is the story of King Belshazzar and the mysterious message left for him that leads to his downfall (I should here note that Tab played this album for me when I was about 9, upon the album's release, and "God's Magic Finger" scared the bejeezus out of me. Hearing it again now and better understanding the context, it's actually one of the best songs on the album and very catchy, even though it is still creepy). "I Hate Heaven" is based on the Song of Solomon and is probably the most traditionally catchy song on the album. The final track, "Revelation" is an instrumental tour de force inspired by the Book of Revelation.











Coming to the end of our examination of The Residents, I feel compelled to say a few words about the band. Far from accessible, The Residents still manage to turn out music that is ultimately compelling, even when I don't think it's very good. More impressively, though, over their four decades together, the band has turned out some great albums that stand on their own as stellar contributions to musical history. Pop music buffs will get a kick out of The Third Reich "˜N' Roll and Diskomo/Goosebumps, but of the seven albums I covered these last three weeks, I would say that Meet the Residents, God in Three Persons and Wormwood are the ones I'll remember fondly months down the road.

While The Dark Side of the Moon and The Residents as a whole took me a while to fully understand, Sonic Youth is one of those bands that, for me at least, clicked the first time around. This shouldn't imply that they are a shallow band, nor should it give more credit to Pink Floyd for being more complex. Rather, Sonic Youth managed to hit me on my wavelength from the get go. Daydream Nation, Ashley's pick this week, is the band's fifth studio album. Released in 1988, the album is widely considered the band's magnum opus and a seminal influence on alternative rock. The band, at the time consisting of Lee Ranaldo on guitar and vocals, Kim Gordon on bass and vocals, Thurston Moore on guitar, vocals, and piano and Steve Shelley on drums recorded the album at New York's Greene Street basement studio. The studio's engineer Nick Sansano was used to working with hip hop artists and did not know anything about the band's sound except that it was "aggressive." The album cost $30,000 making it by far the band's most expensive album at that point.

Daydream Nation quickly expanded to a double album as the band began constructing the songs and wound up jamming for half hour long sessions instead of cutting the melodies down as was their custom. Several friends of the band, including Black Flag's Henry Rollins, praised the band's live improvisations but told the group that their albums never captured that same spirit, leading the band to attempt to do just that.

The album opens with "Teen Age Riot" a song about an alternate universe where J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. is president. "Silver Rocket," is known for its great guitar solo, while "The Sprawl" is inspired by science fiction writer William Gibson, who used the term in reference to a mega-city stretching from Boston to Atlanta.





"Eric's Trip" is about Eric Emerson's LSD-fueled monologue in Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls. "Hey Joni" is a tribute to Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe," named for Joni Mitchell. The album closes with the 14 minute long "Trilogy" which consists of "The Wonder," "Hyperstation," (a line from which gave the album its title), and "Eliminator Jr." (so named because the band considered it a cross between Dinosaur Jr. and ZZ Top's Eliminator). Daydream Nation ranked #1 on Pitchfork's "Top 100 Albums of the 1980's" list and is widely considered to be one of the greatest albums of not just that decade, but of all time. The band is considered one of the founding members of the modern alternative rock movement and have remained active ever since the album's release, continuing to turn out well regarded albums that influence the direction of alternative rock ever since.







That some music takes longer to fully process than other music should not deter you from diving in. Some of the greatest art ever produced takes serious time and effort to fully appreciate, and can only be seen for its full splendor once the ascent is complete. This is a lesson I learn over and over again in my pop culture exploration, and the better I know it, the more I have come to appreciate growers in my entertainment. Just because an album or a band doesn't do it for you on first listen, don't give up. There may just be a masterpiece buried somewhere in there, waiting for you to be patient enough to find it.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We'll look at the theatricality of Kiss and their self title debut, examine the live album with The Ramones' It's Alive and learn from Jane's Addiction that Nothing's Shocking.

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