My Year in Lists
Week Twenty Seven

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.

"Closer is even more austere, more claustrophobic, more inventive, more beautiful, and more haunting than its predecessor. It's also Joy Division's start-to-finish masterpiece, a flawless encapsulation of everything the group sought to achieve."-Pitchfork media.

"We wanted to be the Dynamic Two, the Treacherous Two"”when we heard that shit, we was like, "˜We're gonna be ruined!"-DMC, on hearing the proposal of the name Run-DMC

"The world that we'd been involved in had disappeared, the world of Husker Du and The Replacements, all that had gone ["¦] We were just in a different place, and that worked itself out musically and lyrically."-Peter Buck

James Dean appeared in seven movies, but you've only heard of three (his first four roles were as extras). He died at 24 years old and mostly because of that has become permanently engrained in our cultural consciousness. A lot of people will tell you that Dean wasn't a very good actor, and that he didn't even make very good movies, but that was never the point of James Dean. He lived fast and died young and will forever embody 1950's youth culture as a result. His fame has little to do with what he actually did; James Dean is famous because of what he meant.

My point is this: fame, real lasting fame (not the 15 minutes in the spotlight we afford to Disney channel kids and heiresses because watching the fallout entertains us) is a complicated beast. Clearly it isn't tied to longevity. Many who have attained eternal fame have relatively small bodies of work, or were only around for a very short amount of time. And many people who have been around for decades, turning out good work all the while, have never and likely will never attain the sort of fame that others have handed to them for little work. So neither, then, is fame tied to output.

For the moment, then, I will forward the theory that fame is tied not to longevity or to output but to influence. James Dean made three movies, but he influenced ideas about teen angst and youth culture forever. Sid Vicious (who died at a scant 21) could barely play bass, but he will always represent the violent ideals of English punk (as well as a certain form of completely, desperately self destructive romance for those who are into that sort of thing). And Ian Curtis, who died at 23, was the front man of Joy Division for just two albums, an EP and a few singles, yet in that short time he solidified the post-punk movement and laid forth a perfect example of what somber, depressive introspection would look like for the rest of time (Elliott Smith, who we will look at later this year, is a clear example of the influence Curtis has had on music by and for the depressed).

Closer, Joy Division's final album and Tab's pick this week, was released just two months after Curtis' suicide and features a sound that is simultaneously more melodically complex and more somber than the band's previous efforts. The album also includes a larger use of synthesizers and studio effects, both of which would become central to the New Wave movement that was formed largely out of the ashes of Joy Division.

It's impossible not to listen to Closer and think that much of it sounds downright funereal. I have no evidence that Curtis knew he was living his last days during the writing and recording of the album, but it certainly sounds like the sort of album he would have created while on his way out the door. The opening track "Atrocity Exhibition" shares its name with a "condensed novel" by J.G. Ballard, though most of the song was written before Curtis had read the novel. The song feels as if Curtis is leading us forward, down the rabbit hole into his headspace. "Isolation," which is a quintessential Joy Division song-title, is built around an industrial beat by Stephen Morris, accompanied by a high pitch keyboard line by Bernard Sumner and becomes sort of a clarion call by Curtis towards seclusion and loneliness, a love song to isolation itself in many ways, saying as the song ends, "This is my one lucky prize."

"Heart and Soul" features some of Curtis' best, most insightful lyrics (one of which I used to open last week's column. Technically cheating, sure, but it seemed like a fitting remark for a halfway point), and is also one of the few Joy Division songs on which he played guitar. He also displays a greater vocal range than usual throughout the song, beginning each verse in a higher octave and slowly lowering to his standard baritone by the end of each verse. "The Eternal" is a slow, ponderous and deeply moving song about the passage of time and mortality, one of the many instances throughout Closer where Curtis' upcoming suicide seems obvious, almost palpable, if still impossible to avoid.

Closer is nothing short of a masterpiece, an album so fantastic it is a tragedy that it was destined to be their last, but also an album so rich, detailed, accomplished and conclusive that it almost seems like it was intended to be Joy Division's final bow. Monumentally influential to New Wave and to roughly all of alternative music that followed, Joy Division are titans of music history, a band who shone too briefly and too brightly to be contained, but one it is a pleasure (and even an honor) to experience at all.

Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell grew up in Queens, hitting their formative years just as hip hop was emerging as a movement. Simmons' older brother Russell, a hip hop promoter, recruited him to DJ for rapper Kurtis Blow, who Russell managed. Soon, Simmons began performing as "DJ Run, Son of Kurtis Blow," trading rhymes with Blow and beat boxing during shows. He would often come home and play tapes of his shows for McDaniels, who soon began DJ-ing, but refused to rap in public due to crippling stage fright. He quickly began writing fantastic rhymes and calling himself "Easy D." After overcoming his stage fright, McDaniels and Simmons would hang around Two-Fifths Park in the fall of 1980, hoping to rap for the locl DJS who performed and competed in the area. The most popular performer in the area at the time was Mizell, who performed as "Jazzy Jase."

Run released his first single, "Street Kid" by himself, as his brother didn't like McDaniels rapping style. But after the two started college in 1982, they finally convinced Russell to let them record as a duo, and recruited Mizell, who was now going by Jam-Master Jay, to be their official DJ. IN 1983, Russell agreed to help them record a new single and land a record deal, but only if McDaniels would change his stage name to DMC and the group would market itself as Run-DMC.

The group released their third album, Raising Hell, their breakout hit and Collin's pick this week, in 1986. It is difficult for me to accurately place Run-DMC in a hip-hop context; while just last week I was questioning my level of music expertise, I can easily admit that when it comes to hip hop, I'm a novice (in fact, there has been talk already of following up My Year in Lists, provided I survive this year, with a similar feature that would allow me to track the development of hip hop, country, and classical music, three genres that received little attention in this feature. Feel free to comment on your interest level). Yet it is not difficult to say that Raising Hell is one of the first great hip hop albums, combining the burgeoning genre with rock influences to create an early example of hip hop that could also be marketed to the masses. Basically, as best I can make out, Raising Hell was a bit of a gateway drug to the world of hip hop.

Perhaps the group's most famous song (or at least the one I knew best prior to listening to this album. Again, I'm a hip hop novice), "It's Tricky" is an amazingly catchy and rocking song that also centers on hip hop stylings. The music video for the song features Penn and Teller, which can be seen as another attempt by the group to reach out to the mainstream and introduce (and if possible, indoctrinate) them to the world of hip hop. "My Adidas" is a song that is brilliant in its simplicity, showing the vast potential for hip hop to be a genre that could explore literally anything, even something as seemingly insignificant as a pair of shoes.

The group's cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" again indicates their attempts to break into the mainstream. It worked, and the song was the first ever hip hop song to break the top five in the Billboard 100. The song blazed the trail for both pop musicians looking to incorporate hip hop influences into their music and for rappers to bring singers into the studio for collaborations, a trend that exploded in the "˜90s and over the course of the last decade. Following the success of "Walk this Way," the group released "You Be Illin" as their next single. The song is basically a long list of things a person might do to be "illin," allowing the band to trade on their newfound mainstream success to establish the beginnings of a culture of cool within hip hop.

Stephen Erlewine of Allmusic.com once said that, "More than any other hip hop group, Run-DMC are responsible for the sound and style of the music." While, as I've said many time before, I would have trouble verifying that claim, I see a lot of the beginnings of where hip hop was headed throughout Raising Hell.

When we last discussed REM, we were looking at their debut album and the way that their timeless feel, cryptic lyrics, and refusal to give up any of their artistic integrity helped to blaze trails for alternative artists across the board. By the time they released their eighth album, and Ashley's pick this week, Automatic for the People, they were already a mammoth success, enjoying a creative and commercial peak. Having just finished the heavily acoustic Out of Time, the band hoped to make their next album have a harder rock edge. After the release of Out of Time in May of 1991, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Perry began meeting several times a week to write harder, more rock-based music. They ended up with fewer than six workable songs in this vein and quickly abandoned their original intentions. Instead, Automatic for the People became a subdued meditation on mortality and the passage of time, with the group entering their 30s and realizing that many of their original contemporaries were no longer around.

The opening track, "Drive" is derived from the band's support for the Moter Voter Act, which allowed for voter registration at the time of obtaining or renewing a drivers license. "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" is the band's attempt at an homage to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," including singer Michael Stipe's opening screech. The song is actually about a refusal to answer the phone, with the sidewinder referring to the cord that resembles a snake. Throughout the song, a caller is attempting to reach the singer, yet he refuses to answer.

One of the band's most famous and enduring songs, "Everybody Hurts" is actually a departure from the band's cryptic lyrical style, because, as Peter Buck explains, "it was aimed at teenagers" who are of course too dumb to interpret opaque lyrics. The song is a straightforward affirmation that while every person experiences pain, we should all hang on because good things will happen eventually. While it is not complex, either lyrically or emotionally, "Everybody Hurts" retains power in its simplicity. Plus, it's an easy song to plug in over a montage of various people who are upset, so it will likely remain in our cultural lexicon until the sun explodes.

Another of the band's most popular songs, "Man on the Moon" is simultaneously about Andy Kaufman and the theory that he faked his death as an elaborate gag, and about the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked. Clever, more lyrically dense than "Everybody Hurts" but still catchy and compelling, "Man on the Moon" is vintage REM, a fun alternative rock song that, like the song says of Kaufman, cannot be seen to have "nothing up its sleeve."

"Nightswimming" consists only of Michael Stipe and Mike Mills, with Stipe singing and Mills playing piano. Peter Buck claims that the song is about the band's early days in Athens, Georgia, when parties would often end with a small group of people breaking into a country club to go swimming, but Michael Stipe disregards that interpretation, saying the song is about a "kind of an innocence that's either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost." Automatic for the People is widely considered to be the greatest REM record ever released, and its surely a classic for the band with just the perfect mix of melancholy, insight, and catchiness to ensure that it will stick with you and also make you think.

The careers of Joy Division, Run-DMC, and REM are all vastly different. They are completely divergent bands with careers of different lengths and styles that are disparate to say the least. Yet each of them has attained fame, not only because they created great music, but because they had great influence, shaping music in different but equally important ways and forever leaving their marks on our cultural consciousness.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

The Germs are MIA, U2 is headed for The Joshua Tree and Liz Phair experiences an Exile in Guyville.

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