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.
"Existence is.. well.. what does it matter? I exist on the best terms I can. The past is now part of my future. The present is well out of hand."-Ian Curtis, "Heart and Soul"
Well, we've reached the halfway point. Ok, technically you as a reader have to finish this column before you are half way through My Year in Lists, but as a listener, I have now listened to half a year's worth of music and put my thoughts about it on paper (ok, technically on computer screen. God you readers are persnickety today). So as we dive into the music for this week (which includes two well deserved re-visits and one new band), I want to look not only at this week's individual music, but also at this feature as a whole, and at how I have changed as both a music writer and a music fan in the last six months.
When we began this journey, I said that one of my major reasons for undertaking this column was to develop musically, both as a critic and a fan. I have talked often in the last six months about my previous views on music and my previous experiences with it, yet I was clear to state at the beginning of the column that, "I would hardly call myself an expert." Now I want to question what exactly that should mean for a moment. I've listened to music pretty consistently over the course of my life. I've had good taste in music for at least 8 years at this point (this is of course a subjective statement, but since you're reading my opinions at the moment, I assume you'll trust my judgment when I say how long I've been listening to music intelligently), and much longer if you consider my Beatles awakening at age 9 to be the beginning of my career as a music fan. So clearly, when I said I wasn't an expert in music, I didn't mean I had never put on headphones before.I think part of what I was trying to imply with that statement (and reading Week One at this point is a painful exercise, which should mean something about how far I've come over the course of this feature to date) is that I hadn't spent very much time thinking critically about music. When I watch a movie (and this has been true for many, many years, though I have gotten better at it with age and experience), I don't do so just to fill my time. I don't watch movies just because I'm bored or simply to fill hours of the day (though watching movies can serve both functions in my life, I simply mean that I don't use movies for only that function). I watch movies because I am fascinated by the medium, enthralled by films on a thematic, technical, mechanical, and even a visceral level. I have done that with movies and with television for many years, and that has given me greater confidence in my ability to say I am (At least somewhat, and at least when compared with the general populace) an expert. I haven't seen every movie or television show, and I never will. I haven't even seen every movie and television show that people might deem essential viewing for someone calling themselves an expert, but I do make a concerted effort to fill any voids, and at this point I think my background in both fields is strong enough to call myself an expert.
Yet simply listening to music would hardly make me an expert. Expertise implies a working knowledge of something, so then the question becomes what level of working knowledge is required to call oneself an expert? As I just said, I am sure if I looked over a list of "essential movies everyone must see" in one of those damnable 1,001 Movies to See Before You Die books I would find some movies I have yet to see, but I feel few qualms about asserting my relative expertise in that field. I guess the way I draw the line personally (and I would never assert that this is where the line should be drawn empirically) is that I can discuss film in both its historical and cultural developments, and I almost always know what movie someone is talking about when they raise an "essential" movie I have yet to see.
Is that now the case with music? When I first discussed Joy Division, I made a pun about how their influence was titanic, but I'm not sure I really could have told you how. My description of their influence reads, to my eyes, like someone who Wikipedia'd Joy Division and clicked on the "Legacy" section, which, having just done that, I can almost assure you is exactly what I did six months ago while trying to describe the importance of the band. This is something I still do on a fairly regular basis for this column, but now, rather than assuming bands listed in a section like this were really influenced by the band I am researching, I have a much better grasp of what sort of influence a band has had; at this point, I can generally conjure a few bands that have been influenced by a prior act and if I can't, I tend to leave that sentence out of the column.An Ideal for Living, the first of several Joy Division releases Tab selected for this week, was released the year before the band's debut album Unknown Pleasures, and it feels, if not less finished, then at least different than the sound the band would be pursuing by the time of their debut. Here is how I described Joy Division back in Week One: "Joy Division were among the pioneers of post-punk, which took the rebellious, outsider vibe that drove punk music and turned all of that anger and loathing inward, creating a much more introspective sound and paving the way for the alternative movement that was to come ["¦]" from there I made a comment about how I would eventually deal with whether the term "alternative" is valid, which readers of this week's My Year in Lists: Interlude know I have finally gotten around to.
None of what I said about the band is technically wrong, though I do feel I missed some of their spirit in my first description, likely at least in part because I was not yet equipped to tackle a band as important as Joy Division. If Unknown Pleasures took the anger and loathing of punk music and turned it inward, then An Ideal for Living has all the anger and loathing, but has yet to get introspective with it. In other words, this early release sounds more like punk rock than much of their later stuff. This is both good and bad, as I love great punk rock (and this EP is very solid), but also love what the band would become, and I think that the reason I can say Joy Division has had such an enormous influence on music over the last three decades is because of what they became. Songs like "Warsaw" (which was the band's name until just before this release) and "No Love Lost" are great punk, but if Joy Division had been just a great punk band, I don't think they'd be remembered as fondly, or recognized as a band of great musical importance in the way that they are now.
"Transmission" is a pretty standard alternative anthem except for the fact that it was written at least 5 years before the idea of an alternative anthem would have been commonplace. As such, while it's a great song taken at face value, it is also a tremendously influential song for the alternative movement that was to follow.
By the time Joy Division released their best-known single, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," they had found their footing and were blazing the post-punk trails that would guarantee them a place in musical history. The lyrics reflect the problems within Ian Curtis' marriage and, more generally, his mindset in the months before his suicide in May of 1980 (the song was written in August and September of 1979). The song is beautiful and tragic, with a deeply introspective viewpoint and a sound that has left behind the band's punk influences and can only be described (for both its darker tone and for its comparative musical complexity) as post-punk. Of the two versions of the song included in the single (along with the also solid, though less remembered "These Days"), I prefer the second, which was recorded two months earlier, in January of 1980, and was reportedly taken from a take in which Curtis' band mates told him to sing more like Frank Sinatra. Whichever version of the song you prefer, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is a post-punk landmark, a song that gave direction to an entire wave of bands forming out of the detritus left behind by punk's self-destruction.
Following the successful release of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" as a single, the band released "Atmosphere/She's Lost Control," just months after Curtis' death. "Atmosphere" is a beautiful, if tragic coda to Curtis' all too brief career (it was released after the band's second album, Closer, which we will look at next week), considered by Peter Hook to be the band's greatest song, and voted by John Peel's radio show as the greatest song of the millennium. While that latter honor might be giving the band just a little too much credit, "Atmosphere" certainly stands near, if not at, the very top of my list of greatest Joy Division songs. The alternate version of "She's Lost Control" included with it is rawer than the one included on Unknown Pleasures, and while I prefer the album version, there is a lot of depressive charm to the song, which was also obliquely about Curtis' struggle with epilepsy, just one of the issues that drove him to suicide. I will give Joy Division much well deserved praise as we conclude our re-examination of the band next week, but for now I will simply say that these releases track a band from its infancy as a punk outfit into its stridently confident adolescence as a post-punk prophet foretelling the direction of music for decades to come, and it is a musical tragedy that we never got to watch Joy Division develop further. I imagine what they would have done if Curtis had survived would have knocked all of our socks off (though New Order gives us at least a little glimpse into what they might have become, I think that Curtis' influence would have meant much to where the band was headed).
Last time we discussed The Replacements ] I talked about their journey from punk band to pioneer of alternative rock and discussed how their refusal to fit into the set rules that defined punk rock actually made them one of the most "punk rock" bands around even while they were playing alternative rock. They continued the trend of bucking expectations when the band signed to a major label (widely seen as a move bands made when they were "selling out) and released Collin's pick this week, Tim in 1986.
The album shows singer-songwriter Paul Westerburg's unwillingness to be pigeonholed in any way shape or form. The opening track "Hold My Life" is a Big Star homage, while "Kiss Me On The Bus" is a pretty clear Chuck Berry homage.
The diversity of Tim is a testament to the talent of The Replacements and their front man in particular. Westerberg is able to belt out a self-assured rock anthem like "Dose of Thunder," follow it up immediately with the folksy, tongue-in-cheek "Waitress in the Sky," and then switch things up again for the Roy Orbison-influenced "Swingin' Party," a slow and mournful ballad about a couple who feel (unsurprisingly, considering this is a song by The Replacements) alienated at a party.
The band never lost their edge, though, even as they experimented with a wider array of musical styles. During a January 18,1986 performance on Saturday Night Live, the band played "Bastards of Young" (one of my two picks for best song on the album) and "Kiss Me on The Bus" and, due in part to their swearing during the live broadcast received a lifetime ban from SNL (Westerberg has since been allowed to return as a solo artist). The video for "Bastards of Young" also gained fame for being subversive, as the video is mostly an unbroken a black and white shot of a speaker until, at the end of the song, the speaker is kicked in by the person who has been listening to it. "Here Comes A Regular" (my other pick for best song on the album" is another ballad, a slow and sorrowful song about how "a person can work up a mean mean thirst after a hard day of nothing much at all."
The Replacements never made it to the big time, but their influence is widespread, and their willingness to experiment and to vary their style wildly from song to song became hugely influential in alternative music, in grunge, and in the indie rock of the last decade.
Pearl Jam exploded out of Seattle and the was an essential part of the quickly growing grunge scene when they released Ashley's pick this week, Ten in 1991. To a certain extent, the album did exactly what it needed to in order to briefly make Pearl Jam the biggest rock band in the world: it made alienated teenagers feel like someone understood what they were going through. While Ten is an intensely personal album, its never subtle and rarely even tries to be all that cool, which of course means it almost immediately became immensely popular and remains one of the most influential rock albums of the last two decades.
The opening track, "Once" (with lyrics by Eddie Vedder and music by guitarist Stone Gossard) tells the tale of a man's descent into madness, which eventually leads him to become a serial killer (as it always does"¦right?). It is ostensibly the middle song of a trilogy, preceded by "Alive" and followed by "Footsteps," though why the songs are out of order and the final song in the cycle isn't even present on the album is anyone's guess. "Alive" is a pretty great grunge-rock song, though, a fictionalized account of the time when Vedder was told the man he thought was his father was not actually his biological parent, and that his real dad had recently died. Along with the rest of the music on Ten, Vedder listened to a demo tape given to him by Gossard right before he went surfing, and supposedly came up with the lyrics to all of the songs while out in the water. In spite of the song's seemingly inspirational title, Vedder insists that the life of the song's protagonist should be read as more of a burden than a privilege. Either way, the song is a stellar mix of grunge-y introspection and a rocking guitar solo that raises the material up and turns it into an early-"˜90s classic.
"Alive" sounds like a serious rock song, even if it has heavy grunge overtones, but "Jeremy" is a grunge ballad through and through. Sung from the perspective of the titular teen's classmates, the song fallows the standard grunge format of wallowing and introspective verses building to sweeping, epic shouted choruses. This is a format that can work quite well when executed properly, but its also one that's fairly easy to see through, and "Jeremy" seems a tad too calculated to fit into this template to land as powerfully as other songs on the album. "Black," meanwhile, lead to a struggle between the band and their label, Epic Records. Epic wanted to release the song as a single, but Vedder, who was quickly becoming the preeminent diva of the grunge scene, refused, citing the personal nature of the song. "Black" is, like most songs on the album, about a broken hearted outsider, this time remembering his absent lover. "Black" strikes the perfect balance between "Alive" and "Jeremy" on the grunge scale: it fits into the grunge template like the latter but manages to retain the power and classic rock sensibilities that make the former so imminently listenable.
Nirvana may have helped to create the grunge sound and certainly brought it to the mainstream with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Pearl Jam was far more commercially successful than their hometown rivals. In the cultural memory, this means that Nirvana retains all of the artistic credibility while Pearl Jam comes across as calculated to maximize their success. To some extent, I think this collective remembrance is accurate; I think that Nevermind is a better album than Ten, and that Nirvana's discography as a whole is more influential and artistically noteworthy than Pearl Jam's. Yet to compare the two and force one into the spotlight as a synthetic greed-driven machine is trying to make musical history fit into a familiar narrative that doesn't really bear out under close examination. On its own merits, Ten is a classic of grunge, merging the nascent genre's sound with more established arena rock, which was, yes, a brilliant marketing move but also seems to fit into Pearl Jam's artistic aesthetic. Ultimately, the band should not be punished for producing more marketable music than their contemporaries. Absent considerations of their success (and the fact that this is so often held up as evidence of their lack of quality is mystifying to me), Pearl Jam emerged as a great grunge band and has carried the torch into the new millennium when so many of their contemporaries have fallen apart (even as a few have since reassembled).
So, to return to the question I posed earlier in this installment, do I now consider myself an expert on music? I certainly listen to more music now, and my listening habits are far more diverse than they were six months ago. I consider myself capable of engaging in a conversation about the cultural and historical development of music, citing antecedents and influences more assuredly than ever before. But the simple answer, the answer I shall give for now, and the truest answer I can currently muster is just this: ask me again in six months.Read more My Year in Lists here
We conclude our examination of Joy Division with Closer, watch Run-DMC Raising Hell, and revisit REM to look at their seminal Automatic for the People.
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