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.
"It never matters what you like; what matters is why you like it."-Chuck Klosterman
"Outside there's a boxcar waiting"¦"-Pixies, "Here Comes Your Man"
My feelings on the term "guilty pleasure" are incredibly complicated, I've found. Ostensibly, I agree with Chuck Klosterman's thoughts on the term. I don't think that I should feel guilty for liking the things that I like. I also don't ascribe to the idea that there is some sort of universal taste that tells me what is good and what is terrible, and forces me to feel shame for enjoying things that have been deemed terrible. In the essay, Klosterman discusses his love of the movie Road House for completely legitimate reasons, and ponders whether the term guilty pleasure implies that "if these same people were not somehow coerced into watching Road House every time it's on TBS, they'd probably be reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."
I've read James Joyce, and I've seen Road House, and I enjoyed both for very different reasons and at very different moments in my life. If I hadn't watched the entire first season of True Blood in a giant block, I might have been able to finish Pynchon's Against the Day earlier, but I'm pretty sure doing that instead wouldn't make me a better person. So as a rule I hate the term "guilty pleasures," but my problem is that I also think the term has its use. Some things that I enjoy are constantly at war in my pop culture heart. Some things I recognize are terrible, not for universal, provable reason but for personal reasons. Yet I still enjoy some of these things. The easy answer to this would be to claim I enjoy them ironically, but that isn't always the case. Look, when I watch Batman and Robin, its because that movie is fucking terrible and I find the gross miscalculations that went into its creation fascinating and hilarious. I watch that movie ironically because it provides a great time but in none of the ways it was intended to.
Yet there are some things I enjoy unironically while also being shocked at how terrible they are. When I was trying to put my feelings about Fleetwood Mac, and specifically the song "Go Your Own Way" into some sort of context, I recalled the night last summer when I was returning from a celebratory dinner after taking the LSAT. The song "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler came on the radio in the cab I was in, and my friend and I started belting it out. I went home and bought the song immediately. I hadn't listened to it since, until this morning when I realized my feelings toward it are nearly identical to my feelings for the Fleetwood Mac song, which we will discuss in a moment. I think "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is pretty terrible: it's over-the-top, hilariously melodramatic, epic in scope in an exaggerated way that only feels at home in bad "˜80s music videos, and its fucking seven minutes long to boot. But I also think it's really, really, incredibly catchy, the kind of song I want to listen to, not because it's really funny how bad it is, but because I find the activity enjoyable. So while I disagree with the term "guilty pleasure" as it is usually applied, I can't help but feel it's accurate for this sort of phenomenon where I can simultaneously loathe and love something in nearly equal measures. I don't feel guilty for listening to "Total Eclipse of the Heart" four times while I wrote this column, nor do I feel guilty about the fact that I'll probably listen to it again right now. But I wouldn't hold it up as an example of great music, nor as one of my favorite songs. I would say, in fact, that it is a terrible song that for some reason appeals to me.
Now to Fleetwood Mac, a pretty awful band that has turned out a few songs that fit comfortably into the above category. The band was initially formed as a blues outfit in London in 1967 by Peter Green, drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. Green enticed McVie to join by naming the band Fleetwood Mac after the drummer and the bassist. During their early years the band was a straight blues outfit that achieved moderate success in England. Over the course of the band's first three years, Green experimented with LSD, which contributed to the onset of schizophrenia. By early 1970, Green's mental state had deteriorated and he recommended giving all of the band's profits to charity. The rest of the band respectfully disagreed, and Green left in May of 1970.
After five years in which the band shuffled through several members, they met guitarist Lindsay Buckingham, who was currently heading American band Buckingham Nicks. The band asked him to join and he agreed, so long as his partner and girlfriend (and, if South Park is to be trusted, professional goat look-alike) Stevie Nicks could come along. This new line-up became the iconic incarnation of the band and released a self-titled album in 1975.
The next year, John and Christine McVie got divorced, Buckingham and Nicks ended their relationship and Fleetwood entered divorce proceedings as well (presumably because everyone in the band was a terrible human being and wanted to keep from being privately associated with one another before they released their next shitshow of an album). All of the emotional turmoil was laid bare (read: sung out over melodies so upbeat they begin to feel almost as soulless as Boston) on the group's eleventh studio album, and Collin's pick this week, Rumors. The album is by far the band's most successful release, selling over 40 million copies and peaking at the top of the charts in the U.S. and the U.K.
"Dreams," the second track on the album, was written by sentient goat Stevie Nicks as an optimistic look back at the dissolution of her relationship with Buckingham. Nicks bleats through an endless series of clichÃ©s (you see, "players only love you when they're playing") and less than subtle digs at Buckingham for an interminable four minutes of faux-folk-pop. "Women they will come and they will go," to be sure, but at times during "Dreams" I wondered when, if ever, the song would follow suit and get the hell out of my ear canal. "Don't Stop" is a slightly better song, reflecting Christine McVie's feelings after her separation from John following eight years of marriage. The song is relentlessly optimistic, to the point where it feels more like McVie was putting on a happy face to get at her ex-husband, while secretly taking several trips a day to the ladies room to ball her eyes out. Her pain was probably very real, but none of that makes it into this song, a standard "tomorrow's another day" ditty that rings completely hollow. At least to my ears. Bill Clinton really likes this song, at least if nearly all of his campaign appearances over the last two decades are to be believed. And we all know that Bill Clinton's taste in music, like his taste in women, is unimpeachable (couldn't be helped).
"Go Your Own Way" was written by Lindsay Buckingham and was the first single off the album. Just like every other song on Rumors, it is about a break up, with Buckingham seemingly more pessimistic than Nicks about the future of their relationship. "Go Your Own Way" is definitely the best song on the album by far, which is kind of like calling it the skinniest kid at fat camp. I can't help but think of the song as a punchline, the "driving off into the sunset" song at the end of a terrible movie, but at the same time, I have to admit that my enjoyment of it isn't ironic, at least not entirely. Like "Total Eclipse of the Heart," it is a god damn catchy song, fun to belt out, especially while drinking heavily to mask the fact that the song isn't particularly good. The less we say about "Songbird," the better, which brings us to "The Chain," the only song on the album written by all five members of the band at the time, a song with a basic rock structure and folk influences. In some ways it feels like the most meaningful song on the album, mostly because it is obviously pretty meaningless, a string of "let's stay together" gobbledygook sung over strumming guitars. By writing a completely meaningless song, Fleetwood Mac was able to find a shred of meaning to throw into an album that, from the circumstances that created it should have been chock full of authentic pain.
Following a discussion of Fleetwood Mac and "guilty pleasures" with a look at Throbbing Gristle and industrial music is like doing a double feature of Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Ichi the Killer, which is to say, the kids should leave at this point unless they want to see a man dangling on hooks. Throbbing Gristle evolved out of the performance art group COUM Transmissions and in fact, the last performance of COUM Transmissions was also the debut of Throbbing Gristle. The band is known for their confrontational live performances using disturbing images including pornography and pictures of concentration camps to rile up the crowd. The group maintained that their mission was to challenge audiences while exploring the darker, more obsessive side of human nature, rather than make attractive music. Basically, Throbbing Gristle is the anti-Fleetwood Mac. They pioneered the use of pre-recorded samples and made extensive use of special effects to produce a distinct, highly distorted background, which was generally accompanied by lyrics or spoken word pieces. Their first album, Second Annual Report, was released in an initial run of 786 copies. When that sold out and demand remained high, the group did a re-release, reversing the track order and playing each track backwards.
The band's second album, and Tab's pick this week, D.o.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle was released in 1978, just one year after Rumors and a sonic universe apart. "United," the album's third track, is a 16 second version of the song from an earlier EP (which we will look at next week). The original song runs five minutes, and is simply sped up to fit within the time allotted. "Weeping" uses four types of acoustic violin, is played through a space-echo and is a song about crushing defeat.
"Hamburger Lady" was inspired by a letter from Dr. Al Ackerman, the mail artist, and discusses a deeply scarred and mutilated woman. "AB7/A" is by far the most melodic song on the album, a reprieve from all of the darkness and depression that surrounds it. We will discuss several more Throbbing Gristle releases next week, but for now it must be said that the band's sonic experiments on their second album are largely successful, and that the work exists as a fully realized journey into the dark side of man's soul.
Jumping forward again, we turn now to the formation of Pixies in Boston, Massachusetts in 1986. The band consists of Black Francis on vocals and rhythm guitar, Joey Santiago on lead guitar, Kim Deal on bass and vocals and David Lovering on drums. Santiago and Francis first met at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Francis eventually dropped out and the two formed a band in January of 1986. Kim Deal joined the band two weeks later in answer to an ad seeking a female bassist who liked Peter, Paul, and Mary and Husker DU. Deal was the only person to respond, but arrived without a bass guitar, as she had never played the instrument before. The band's name was chosen at random from a dictionary.
As this year winds down we will revisit Pixies and look at several of their other releases, but this week we will examine the band's second full album, and Ashley's pick, Doolittle. The album's working title was Whore, though when the cover art was revealed to be a depiction of a monkey with a halo around it's head, Francis decided he did not want to be pinned down as anti-Catholic and changed the name to Doolittle from a lyric in "Mr. Grieves."
"Debaser," the album's opening track, is based around the Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali film Un Chien Andalou (known to those who have seen it as the "HOLY SHIT! That woman's eye just got slit open by a razor!" movie). The song's title is a reference to the film as a debasement of morality and artistic standards, but also to Amherst film studies professor Don Eric Levine, who screened the film for Black and was known as "the debaser" because he often spoiled the endings of films.
"Here Comes Your Man" is one of those songs that you know is great from the opening riff. By the first lyric, you're completely in love and by the chorus on a different place of awesome. In other words, it's a very good song. Originally written by Black Francis when he was a teenager but not included on earlier releases due to his reluctance and fears about its quality, Jon Dolan of Spin magazine called it, "the most accessible song ever by an underground-type band." While I wouldn't say I have the authority to make that assertion, "Here Comes Your Man" is an amazing song, catchy without lapsing into bubble gum pop, grungy without losing its upbeat whimsy and imminently listenable, the type of song I imagine will rack up hundreds of plays on my ipod without me ever getting tired of it.
"Monkey Gone to Heaven" references environmentalism and biblical numerology, a song Rolling Stone's David Fricke called "a corrosive, compelling meditation on God and garbage." The song simultaneously deals with man's destruction of the environment and confusion about man's place in the universe, two potentially heady ideas that should feel at odds packed into less than three minutes of music, and yet somehow work well together, even complementing each other. If you had told me prior to my first listen that a song on the album dealt with the environment, confusion about man's purpose, and biblical numerology, I would have believed you (you are, after all, a trustworthy source), but I would have expected it to be a total mess. Instead, "Monkey Gone to Heaven" is sonically clean, with a clear message behind each of its several themes, never sacrificing clarity yet always remaining interesting and entertaining. In other words, it's awesome. "Crackity Jones" describes a crazy roommate, and is a propulsive roller coaster ride of a song, clocking in at 1:24. The song is a rocket powered, punk-ish discourse wish a distinctly Spanish sound.
We will look more into the legacy of Pixies later this year, but the band, and this album in particular, were instrumental to the alt-explosion of the "˜90s and the beginning of the grunge movement. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan and feared that people would criticize "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (which we'll talk about next month) as derivative of Pixies' sound. Spoiler alert: they didn't. The Smashing Pumpkins and PJ Harvey also cite Doolittle as a huge influence on the shape of music as the "˜90s prepared to dawn. The album is a near-perfect collection of songs, pulled together by recurring themes and a consistent sound, and hearkening toward what the alternative movement would become over the next several years, making it an absolutely essential listen for fans of the "˜90s, or of music in general.
Ultimately, Fleetwood Mac, like Boston before them, feels like a band that was more a part of tearing down the old musical system than a force for driving music forward. Where Throbbing Gristle and Pixies both experimented and helped to shape the musical landscape that would follow them, Fleetwood Mac seems mostly to be gnawing on the corpse of "classic rock," hoping to get a few more bucks before their teeth hits bone. Still, though, there's a pretty good chance I'll listen to "Go Your Own Way" again before the day is out. That is, if I can stop listening to "Here Comes Your Man" for long enough to fit it in.
Read more My Year in Lists here
Next week on My Year in Lists:
Elvis Costello and the Attractions display This Year's Model, we take a crash course in Throbbing Gristle with United/Zyklon B Zombie, We Hate You (Little Girls)/ Five Knuckle Shuffle, Journey Through a Body, Subhuman/Something Came Over Me, Adrenalin/Distant Dreams (Part Two) and 20 Jazz Funk Greats, and close out Ashley's examination of the "˜80s with Fugazi's 13 Songs.
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