My Year in Lists
Week Twenty Five

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.

"With its goofy charm, gleeful swing and sway, and subtle yet compelling libertarian feminism, this is one of the best records of the era."-John Dougan, Allmusic.com on Cut

"This is what it sounds like when doves cry."-Prince, "When Doves Cry"

One question has dominated my mind as I listened to the music for this week. One question about one album, which has lead me to spend more time thinking about that particular album than about the other two (both of which have their merits, to be sure, but we'll get to that in time). Because I'm more than slightly OCD and because I have a pathological desire to experience things in chronological order, whether they require it or not (I watched every James Bond movie in order of release in spite of their almost complete lack of serialization and have heretofore avoided Doctor Who, a show I am often assured I would love, because there is no way for me to watch every episode from the show's premiere decades ago), each installment of My Year in Lists tends to discuss the albums in order of their release. Sometimes this is actually helpful, as it is possible to trace the ways that music evolved over time even within the microcosm of one column; sometimes it's just the way I do things because I'm kind of insane. This week, however, we will deviate from that pattern to begin by addressing that question that keeps plaguing me: What the fuck is the deal with Prince?

I don't mean this question in a derogatory sense. I completely understand that people like Prince (And in fact, I learned this week that I quite like him, at least on Purple Rain), but I found myself beguiled at first as to why people like Prince (beyond the pat answer that "he makes good music." I like to go a little more in-depth about these things, and if you're still reading this, I assume you'll humor me on this front). At first blush, his music is shockingly "˜80s (read: cheesy and glitzy, with a sheen that borders on the overproduced and over the top), a descriptor I tend to lob at things I dislike. While this column has taught me that a lot of good came out of the "˜80s musically, I still view it as the time of WHAM!, REO Speedwagon, Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News and other such musical atrocities (not to mention cinematic atrocities, televised atrocities, and political atrocities. Mostly, it seems to me the "˜80s were kind of a terrible time to be alive, though I made it through the final year of that decade intact, mostly because I don't think I developed object permanence until the year was almost over).

So Prince is something of a paradox to me, because he is simultaneously a creature of the "˜80s (again, I'm focusing only on Purple Rain, not on his career as a whole) with all of the glitz, glamour, synthesizers and cheese factor that implies, and one smooth motherfucker. He managed to make "˜80s pop, and also managed to make it cool. For much of the run time of Purple Rain he is straddling the line between the music I hate most from that decade, and the sort of sonic sex that forebears like Marvin Gaye and Al Green turned out a decade before this album dropped. Yet somehow, even with annoyingly saccharine track titles like "I Would Die 4 U" and "When Doves Cry," he manages to stay on the right side of that line and turn out the only "˜80s pop album I've ever heard that I would honestly classify as cool (there are several others I enjoy either because of how little they even attempt to be cool, or because they somehow manage to be so ridiculous its hard not to marvel at them).

The reason behind this, I think, is just how weird Purple Rain can be at times. It's a pop album of a rare breed that can inject just enough experimentation to seem daring and a little avant garde while also being massively successful on a level that gives it the kind of cultural currency most truly experimental stuff never manages to attain (the most recent album to pull off this trick, though less successfully, was Lady Gaga's The Fame Monster). Pop music is, as a rule, pretty dumb, or at least dumber than a lot of music that sells to smaller audiences and niche groups. This doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing; the first five Beatles albums are for the most part pretty dumb, and they're also some of the best music ever recorded. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy of the genre: to reach the largest possible audience (as a pop album is wont by its very nature to do), most pop music is dumbed down for mass consumption. So when something as strange as Purple Rain (which, to clarify, is strange only by pop music standards, not when considered next to something like Trout Mask Replica or Meet the Residents) makes it into the popular consciousness and finds mass success, its bound to be pretty damn interesting, if only because its managed to capture the attention of large groups while also doing something interesting.

The album opens with "Let's Go Crazy," which begins with a funeral-esque organ solo in which Prince exhorts us to get through "this thing called life" so that we can make it to the afterlife. The song becomes a fairly standard pop rock song from there out (albeit a very catchy and fun one), but this little touch makes "Let's Go Crazy" stick out as something difference. While I personally disagree with Prince's religious views, I champion his ability to communicate them in a way that both reaches a large audience and allows that large audience to rock out whether or not they agree (this is the problem that most Christian rock bands have, but that's a rant for another column).

Similarly, "Computer Blue" opens with a spoken word intro between Wendy and Lisa which has sexual overtones and strongly hints at a dom-sub relationship; the idea of dominance in sexual relationships is hardly new to pop music, but the way that these words, and the slightly creepy riff that follows them, set a decidedly dark tone is different from almost anything else I've seen in pop music. The song is immediately followed by "Darling Nikki," a song I am sort of amazed Prince got away with recording in the generally somewhat repressed "˜80s. One of the songs that convinced Tipper Gore to found the Parents Music Resource Center, "Darline Nikki" is unabashedly sexual, a dark funk rock song that is simply a blast from start to finish.

That song is followed up by perhaps the biggest hit off the album, "When Doves Cry," another song that manages to overcome a title that should make any sensible music fan snigger by just being too damn good to laugh at. The song deals simultaneously with a tumultuous love affair and the singer's long-term difficulties with his parents, making it shockingly lyrically dense for a song that's so catchy. It also lacks a bass line, which is almost unheard of for a dance song, yet it managed to be a smash hit anyway, spending five weeks during the summer of 1984 at number one.

The title track, an almost nine minute power ballad that manages to mix pop with rock, gospel and even orchestral influences, is a tour de force to close the album on. I had honestly never listened to Prince prior to playing this album for the first time in preparation for this column (though I did once hear a particularly moving cover of "Purple Rain" performed by two of my high school mock trial coaches, one of whom was dressed as a centaur at the time), but if forced to wager my response before listening at all, I would have laid great odds against my ever writing the phrase "tour de force" about one of his songs, but calling "Purple Rain" anything less would be a lie.

Taken as a whole, Purple Rain may be a bit silly at times (ok, it is silly a fair amount of the time), but that's pop music, especially in the period in which the album was released. And the fact that it manages to be as silly as was necessary to find widespread success on the pop charts at the time while also being as weird and experimental and, yes, powerful as it remains throughout is damn impressive. This is, for lack of a better term, a joke to be taken seriously, and if you can find it in yourself to stop snarking at the sheen, you may be as surprised as I was at the depth that lies beneath the surfaces of the album.

Jumping back a few years, we'll look at a band that would have been influential even if they were terrible (fortunately, though, they aren't). Formed in 1976 by members of The Flowers of Romance and The Castrators, The Slits are one of the few bands from the golden age of punk rock to be comprised entirely of females; in short, they were the first vanguard of girl-punk, which guarantees them a spot in the musical history books even if its unfortunately mostly a footnote.

Punk rock, and the music industry in general, tended and still to some extent tends to be a boys club. For The Slits this wasn't so much a disadvantage as a call to arms and a chance to prove to the world that women can rock just as hard (and sometimes quite a lot harder) than any man. It's impossible to talk about The Slits without talking about feminism and the place of women in punk rock, which is at least a bit unfortunate, as the band stands on their own as great forward thinking punk rock regardless of gender. But at the same time, gender is quite clearly the band's central concern, from their darkly evocative and obviously vaginal name to the cover of their debut album, and Tab's pick this week, Cut, which shows the women wearing only loin clothes and smeared in mud. Everything about the band's image seemed to scream "We're here! We're girls! We want to rock out! Get used to it!"

The album is heavily reggae influenced but still undeniably a punk release. From the opening track, "Instant Hit," it's clear that The Slits are doing something that was fairly unheard of in punk at the time (outside of The Buzzcocks, who we discussed last week and a few other groups): experimenting with outside influences and combining their punk vocals and mentality with outside musical influences. "So Tough" directly calls out men for faux masculinity, bravado, and overthinking romantic entanglements.

"Love und Romance" is a fairly standard punk love song, but still makes a point of just who is in charge, with lyrics like "I own you" and "I'm so glad that you belong to me" simultaneously coming off as words of devotion and of empowerment. Again, I find it kind of sad that while countless male-centric groups can sing songs about how a girl is "mine" or "belongs to me" it bears pointing out when a woman does the same, but in the punk rock setting this was a powerful statement to be making and a strong one to stand behind. "Typical Girls," with its fast paced and catchy piano-centric riff, is another take-down of the image of women at the time. The opening lines, "Don't create, don't rebel, have intuition, cant decide," and the later refrain, "Don't create, don't rebel, have intuition, cant drive well" seem to illustrate the stereotypes about women that permeate society, and the final verse, "Who invented the typical girl? Who's bringing out the new improved model? And there's another marketing ploy, Typical girl gets the typical boy" is a full-throated condemnation of the idea that women should fit into a male created mold in order to end up with a man who is just fitting into society's conception of his role.

The Slits are a very solid band and Cut manages to be interesting and catchy even while making a bold statement in favor of feminism and against the sexism that ran rampant throughout the punk scene. That girls can rock just as hard, and just as intelligently as any man seems obvious from my vantage point, but The Slits felt (and probably correctly) that they had something to prove, and I think they made their point quite well.

Superchunk, meanwhile, seems like a band out of time. Formed in 1989 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and releasing their second album, and Ashley's pick this week, No Pocky For Kitty, in 1991, the band plays like an alternative rock band, but writes and sings like a punk rock group. Had No Pocky For Kitty been recorded twelve years earlier, every song would have been played just a little bit faster and would be slightly less melodic, and Superchunk would have been a pretty standard punk rock outfit.

"Skip Steps 1 & 3" could almost be an early-"˜90s cover of a punk classic, while "Seed Toss" wouldn't feel out of place on an early "˜80s post-punk album. Both are very solid, fun songs, but they are undeniably throwbacks of as certain sort to the immediately prior music generation.

"Tie a Rope to the Back of the Bus" is anthemic in a punk sort of way, and the penultimate track, "Creek," with its slight, 1:40 runtime is played at a punkish speed, only distinguished (like most of this album) by the superior musicianship on display.

Basically, Superchunk sounds like a punk band that learned how to play their instruments, which I think is illustrative of the change in the music scene between, say, 1977 and 1991. It wasn't impossible to play punk (or, more accurately, punk-ish) music in 1991, but you couldn't get away with the amateurishness that was a central tenet of punk rock anymore. To be taken seriously in the golden age of punk rock, you were almost required to be a shitty musician; by 1991, no one was going to take any of that shit. If you wanted to be in a band, you had to learn how to play an instrument, plain and simple (unless of course you were a good singer, another quality that was not required even of the vocalists in the punk era). I don't know that No Pocky For Kitty is a particularly influential album (though devotees of the Chapel Hill indie scene of the "˜90s would call it essential), and in fact much of it is fairly forgettable stuff. But I do think its important, if only to draw distinctions and show the ways that music had evolved. Alternative rock was born out of the death of punk rock and the resultant schism, but a decade after its inception, the genre had moved beyond its roots and come fully into its own. Debts were owed, to be sure, but alternative rock had moved out of its parents house, and while it might come home for the holidays, things would never be the same.

My thoughts on Prince dominated this last week, largely because he represented a paradox in my mind, standing as a figure of both "˜80s pop (which I find, in large part, to be sort of repulsive, though there are of course several exceptions) and of cool, somewhat experimental rock. Reconciling these divergent views took some time, for me, though I think most of the music community got over any Prince-related apprehensions decades ago. Yet, in spite of the greater attention I paid to Purple Rain, all three albums this week were important in their own way. Cut was a bold, feminist statement in the male-centric world of punk rock and an important step forward into allowing other influences to bleed into the genre, a step that would be vital to punk's transformation into post-punk, New Wave, and hardcore as the "˜70s drew to a close and the "˜80s dawned. And No Pocky For Kitty was in many ways a throwback that simultaneously indicated just how far music had come in the previous decade, and reminded us just how far alternative rock had to go. We're not there yet, but we will be soon.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We reach the halfway point of our journey and, somewhat fittingly, return to just where we started, taking a second look at Joy Division through An Ideal for Living, Transmission, Love Will Tear Us Apart and She's Lost Control/Atmosphere, examining The Replacements once more with Tim, and looking forward as Pearl Jam counts to Ten.

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