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.
"Here we are living in Paradise"¦"-Elvis Costello, "Living in Paradise"
"My interests were not necessarily to be in a band, but to be with people who wanted to play music with me."-Ian MacKaye
There is a tough lesson that we all must learn in our lives, some of us sooner, some of us later: change is inevitable. For some, change comes naturally, as an expected part of life; for others, every change, no matter how large or how small, is a battle to be waged, a war against the fates to just allow everything to stay they same. I would like to consider myself somewhere between these two extremes, but anyone who knows me would say I am the latter, a person that loathes and fears change in equal measures. A lot of weeks in this column, you'll see some variation on the theme that music has a lot in common with life in general, which is either a lazy attempt to ascribe greater meaning to the pop culture I'm writing thousands of words about every week or a simple truism that appears in various permutations throughout this ongoing examination. This week, I want to examine the idea that change, in life as in music, can be good or bad, but is ever present regardless of your feelings.
Very few bands stay exactly the same over the course of an entire career, and those that do tend to be criticized for failing to evolve. I understand this, and I agree with it, but the change-a-phobic in me has to point out that not all change is good change. Take, for example, a few examples from indie rock in the last few years. Death Cab For Cutie were champions of melancholic rock, but then Ben Gibbard had to go and fall in love and get married to Zooey Deschanel, and leave us with Narrow Stairs, an album that is so much more upbeat than the rest of the band's discography it is downright disconcerting. I've talked about Stars before in this space as a band I related to deeply in high school, but their constant evolution has so far culminated in The Five Ghosts, an album that left me wondering if we could just step back a bit and stick with the Set Yourself on Fire era of the band's music. The urge to evolve is a powerful one, and a lot of bands do it in a way that keeps them interesting and engaging, even if they become harder to pin down (Talking Heads are a perfect example of a band that evolves but manages to stay great). It's difficult to pin down the difference between a positive evolution in music and a negative one (except for to use the obvious "the good bands evolve well" argument, which is reductive and useless), and I think there would be disagreements even if I tried (if any of you out there want to defend Narrow Stairs or The Five Ghosts, or any other evolutions you think are great that people tend to hate, feel free to comment below). So before I even attempt to wrap my head around the difference, let's look at a case study in each.
Elvis Costello is cool. Let's start this thing right there. We could get into what exactly "cool" means, or whether a musician should even endeavor to be cool, but let's not waste the words on that. This column is going to be long enough as it is, so I'll save us some debate and just operate on the premise that Costello is cool. His first album, My Aim Is True is the kind of debut that makes people stand up and take notice. Confident, creative, and unique in the self-possessed sort of way that indicates the emergence of a great artist, the album got Costello a lot of attention right from the start, but no one is done developing on their debut.
After the release of that album, Costello decided to form a permanent backup band in The Attractions, made up of Steve Nieve on piano, Bruce Thomas on bass guitar and the unrelated Peter Thomas on drums. Costello's second album and his first with The Attractions, This Year's Model, is Collin's pick this week. The album opens with the explosively catchy "No Action," and follows it up with "This Year's Girl," an ode to trendy celebrities who tend to burn out or lose the public's attention (Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber come immediately to mind, though I may make people angry saying that, and it may just be wishful thinking on my part). "Pump it up" is an excellent example of Costello's wordplay, rife with double entendres (the title being both a reference to the volume of the song and to masturbation"¦get it?) and telling of the narrator's frustration at the hands of a femme fatale. Costello wrote the song in response to the excesses of his first tour.
"Little Triggers" is an early example of where Costello would be heading in the years to come, an effortlessly catchy and contemplative song that shows early evidence of his forthcoming lyrical mastery. "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" is a rejection of much of the mainstream upper class English culture at the time, and was left off the original US release of the album (along with "Night Rally") for being "too English." "Living in Paradise" is also full of Costello's clever lyrics and oozes the cool at the center of his persona.
It would also be difficult to discuss This Year's Model without mentioning "Radio Radio" which didn't make the UK release of the album (and was released as a single there later that year), but which replaced "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" on the US version. A fantastically catchy and quippy protest song about the commercialization of radio broadcasting and the power held by record companies and recording studios. "Radio Radio" was also performed by Costello and The Attractions on SNL on December 17, 1977. Though the band was scheduled to play "Less Than Zero" from My Aim is True, Costello stopped that after a few bars and launched into "Radio Radio." This abrupt change lead to Costello being banned from SNL, though the ban was eventually lifted and he returned in 1989.
Costello would evolve into one of my all time favorite lyricists (he regularly makes my top five list when I take the time to think about such things), and evidence of this is apparent on This Year's Model. The album is very solid, but it pales in comparison to some of his later work, especially in terms of lyrical complexity. Costello was good, but with a little change, a little evolution, he would become a musical legend.
Meanwhile, Throbbing Gristle really tried their hardest to be anything but cool. They were trying to do something different, trying to remind all of us about the darkness in our own souls. With that as a mission statement, evolution is likely to look more like devolution, and in fact, I have to say up front that I prefer D.o.A.: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle to any of the onslaught we are about to plow throw. In the case of Throbbing Gristle, I think the band changed what they were doing, and I think their later output works less consistently than their earlier releases.
United/Zyklon B Zombie was released in 1978, before D.o.A., and serves to parody the two prominent forms of rock music at the time. "United" featured a minimal drum loop and synthesizers along with positive lyrics (which is strange for the band), mocking the emerging New Wave sound. "Zyklon B Zombie" features guttural growling, distorted vocals, a strong bass line and a frenetic guitar solo, a parody of punk rock.
After the release of D.o.A. the band releases We Hate You (Little Girls)/ Five Knuckle Shuffle. "We Hate You (Little Girls)" is basically two minutes of anguished screaming with an industrial backing. This makes it somewhat difficult to discuss beyond the description above; there isn't much depth here, only pain. "Five Knuckle Shuffle" is, of course, slang for masturbation (with "Pump it Up" also included, maybe this should have been masturbation week at My Year in Lists. But how silly of me. Every week is masturbation week here at My Year in Lists), but the song sounds less like jerking off than it's predecessor, instead providing almost seven minutes of droning, with a sense of greater complexity and thought than "We Hate You (Little Girls)" ever attempts.
Following those singles, the band released their third album, 20 Jazz Funk Greats. The album's cover is a picture of the band standing in a field of yellow flowers by the sea side, which might make you think Throbbing Gristle was softening up for their third album, unless you discovered that the photo was taken at Beachy Head in southern England, one of the world's most notorious suicide spots. The title track, which opens the album, does in fact mix in some jazz influences into the band's industrial sound, but the album as a whole certainly doesn't soften at all. "Beachy Head" is a subtle industrial track built around a central drone, with subtle sounds filling it out. "Still Walking" is reminiscent of the band's previous album with a strong beat and heavy utilization of found sounds.
"Convincing People" brings back the spoken word aspects of their previous efforts, while "Persuasion" is a darkly melodic discussion of the true nature of seduction. The album's closing track, "Six Six Sixties" is another spoken word piece over a repetitive guitar riff. 20 Jazz Funk Greats is definitely more complex and whole than any of the singles the band released, and feels more thought-out than any of the band's other material outside of D.o.A., yet the darkness continued to encroach on the band in its subsequent releases.
Much like We Hate You (Little Girls)/Five Knuckle Shuffle, the next single, Subhuman/Something Came Over Me opens with the scream heavy "Subhuman" before settling into the more complex and melodic "Something Came Over Me." Released simultaneously, Adrenaline/Distant Dreams (Part Two) follows the exact same pattern, leaving the singles feeling a bit redundant (though "Something Came Over Me" has stuck with me while the others quickly fade).
Finally, Journey Through a Body was released in 1982, after being recorded in Rome in March of 1981, with no pre-planning of the songs. The first track, "Medicine" has a simple melody that is slowly built around with both industrial and found sounds. "Catholic Sex (For Paula)" is a bit too screechy and on the nose for my taste, though it does continue the standard dark themes of the rest of the band's work. Journey Through a Body never escapes the feeling that it is just a jam band record, quite possibly because that's exactly what it is. Yet unlike Amon DÃ¼Ã¼l's Psychedelic Underground, when Throbbing Gristle jams, they go to some very dark places.
Over the course of these several releases, Throbbing Gristle certainly changed, and definitely came closer to achieving their mission statement of communicating the dark side of human nature, but while burrowing deeper into an endless pit of darkness, they lost me a little in terms of effectiveness. Throbbing Gristle said from the beginning they weren't setting out to make "attractive" music, and if that's the case, they certainly got better at that as their career went along.
Finally, we're going to look at a band that is, by its very existence, an evolution of previous ideas. After the dissolution of hardcore punk group Minor Threat, Ian MacKaye decided to form a group that was "like the Stooges with reggae." MacKaye recruited Colin Sears and bass guitarist Joe Lally in September of 1986. MacKaye selected the name Fugazi from a slang term used by Vietnam vets for "Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In" as in into a body bag. Eventually, friends of the band Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty joined the band officially. In June of 1988, the band recorded its debut EP Fugazi (or 7 Songs). Following a tour of Europe, the band recorded songs for a full length album, but was disappointed with several tracks and released the EP Margin Walker instead. The two EPs combined into the band's first album, and Ashley's pick this week, 13 Songs.
The opening track "Waiting Room" opens with a strong guitar solo, a solid introduction to an immediately confident band. "Bulldog Front" has a strong chorus, though it feels sort of lost between hardcore and the post-hardcore sound Fugazi was trying to form. "Suggestion" has the same problem, but benefits from MacKaye's assured vocals, where "Bulldog" fails (when it does) with Picciotto on lead vocals. The closing track "Promises" sounds more assured than most of what came before it, as if the band has finally decided where they are headed in the future. On the whole, 13 Songs feels like every bit the transitional album, even though it is technically a debut. The sound has developed from where Minor Threat left off, but it has yet to become what Fugazi will sound like in a few albums.
Everything changes eventually, whether we like it or not. Sometimes things get richer as the develop more, and we wouldn't have a song like Elvis Costello's "Satellite" without the groundwork laid by This Year's Model. Sometimes things lose their luster with age and a band we once loved becomes something alien to us, making us regret our former devotion. And sometimes change is more ambiguous, its effects more difficult to measure. For better or worse, life, like music, is an endless series of changes, often completely out of our control. We may not be able to define exactly how change effects us, and we certainly can't always control the circumstances we find ourselves in, but we can at least take solace in the fact that sometimes, at least, change is for the better.
Read more My Year in Lists here
Next week on My Year in Lists:
The Clash answers a London Calling, Coil has a hobby in Scatology and hopes to show us Love's Secret Domain, and Depeche Mode warns of a Violator.
Want to keep tabs on all of our updates? follow us on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here).