My Year in Lists
Week Twenty Nine

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.

"I want my career to be The Greatest Show on Earth."-Michael Jackson

"Jackson's lie was that Thriller wasn't a fluke of history, that he really was capable of not only making another album that would go on to sell 29 million copies in the U.S. and tens of millions more overseas, but that he could actually will it to happen. When Bad failed to outdo Thriller, Jackson only amped up the bluster, insisting that the media refer to him by the self-applied moniker "˜The King of Pop' when promoting the release of 1991's Dangerous."-Steve Hyden

"Hippies couldn't understand jealousy because they believed in universal love; punks can't understand it because they believe sex is a doomed reflex of existentially discrete monads ["¦] How often do we get a great love album and a great punk album in the same package?"-Robert Christgau, in his A+ review for Wild Gift

My relationship with Michael Jackson is, like most people's who actually put thought into it, complicated. This is not because of any of the crimes Jackson was accused of; I am of the opinion that Jackson never molested any children, and was instead trying rather desperately to live out the childhood fame robbed him of in ways that can only be described as creepy. And this is not because I see Jackson through rose-tinted glasses since his death in 2009. In fact, quite the contrary.

This is because I think Michael Jackson is overrated (hold off on slamming your laptop shut for a minute and let me qualify this). I think Michael Jackson is one of the greatest dancers in human history, no hyperbole intended, and I think he nearly single handedly revolutionized the music video, showing the potential of the form and creating some of its greatest achievements over the course of his career. That being said, however, I have absolutely no idea how Michael Jackson managed to get people to seriously call him "The King of Pop" (and make no mistake, that was his idea). Jackson was a great dancer, made great music videos, and was fantastic at selling himself. All of this is worth noting and worthy of praise. Yet when I think of great Michael Jackson songs, I don't come up with that many (and if you exclude Thriller from the proceedings and focus only on his solo career, the great songs are even tougher to find).

After he died, people seemed to decide that Michael Jackson was a music legend. I heard many cultural commentators and many friends likening him to The Beatles and Elvis Presley, a claim that I find completely ridiculous. Michael Jackson was a pop culture phenomenon, to be sure, and our nation was obsessed with him culturally long after our obsession with him musically died down. But that's the important thing to remember, I think: Our musical obsession with Michael Jackson was relatively short-lived, and during his heyday, he was mostly struggling (and in my view, failing) to live up to the glory that was his first #1 album: Thriller. Jackson seemed to think, really, truly think that he had another Thriller in him, and it seems like America believed him. Every album he released after Thriller (1987's Bad, 1991's Dangerous, 1995's HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book One and 2001's Invincible) hit number one, but each seemed to have diminishing returns. Thriller is his undisputed masterpiece, and an album that I think is worth mention in the annals of great music (especially in the annals of great "˜80s pop music). Bad is not as good as Thriller, but it still has some pretty high peaks and some undeniably solid songs (for a great consideration of Bad as an album and of Jackson's place in our culture and struggle to replicate Thriller, check out Steve Hyden's column on the album here). Then there's Collin's pick this week, Dangerous. There are no two ways around it, I'm afraid. Dangerous isn't Thriller, and it isn't even Bad. It's just bad.

At 14 songs and 77 minutes long, Dangerous may actually be worse than bad; its painful and borderline torturous at some points. The opening track, "Jam" is fine, which by the standards the rest of the album sets is pretty good. It's a pale imitation of earlier Jackson, but it has a strong beat and even feels like Jackson is stretching himself musically in interesting ways, incorporating hard funk, dance, and a rap bridge performed by Heavy D. It may not be a great Michael Jackson song, but at least it isn't a terrible one. The same can't be said of "Heal the World," an agonizing, nearly seven minute long plea to make the world a better place that is at once painfully obvious, gratingly sentimental, and at least a little bit emotionally manipulative. I have no doubt that Jackson meant well when he wrote this song, but "Heal the World" surpasses even the most annoying U2 songs in its political pandering, and it doesn't even have The Edge on guitar to make up for it. I might buy the message of the song (I am after all in favor of making the world a better place), but that doesn't mean I ever want to listen to it again. And I mean ever.

"Black or White" begins with a spoken piece by Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt, before becoming a pandering and fairly reductive anti-racism anthem. Its unfortunate that Jackson's intended message is mostly obscured by the fact that its kind of impossible not to treat the song's title as a punch line about Jackson's physical transformation, but I don't feel too guilty, because "Black or White" was bound to be some sort of punch line regardless. Perhaps the best thing about "Black or White" is the presence of Jackson's now signature "hee-hee," a sonic sound effect that has become basically synonymous with his name (thanks in no small part to South Park), though that is also present in "Who Is It," a song whose only real crime is being almost seven minutes long when less than half the runtime would have sufficed.

"Give In to Me," which features Slash on guitar, is easily the best song on the album, and one of the few that, in spite of a relatively long runtime, doesn't feel needlessly bloated by sonic excess. The title track, which was never released as a single due to the recent allegations against Jackson (And thus, the idea that he might not want to be associated with the word "Dangerous" for a bit) is also a decent song, but again, at 7 minutes long, the song feels needlessly drawn out. It's almost as if Jackson wanted Dangerous to feel epic so badly that he just made every song on it long as if that would do the trick (the shortest track on the album, "Gone Too Soon," is 3:24, which isn't too long by itself, but taken in context makes this an album of extremely overlong songs). Michael Jackson has taken on legendary status, and in some ways, that status is deserved. Musically, however, I maintain that Jackson is overrated, and that Dangerous is less sonically risky than it is hazardous to your health.

Fourteen years before Dangerous was released, and a million musical genres away, bassist and singer John Doe (born John Nommensen Duchac) and guitarist Billy Zoom (born Tyson Kindell) decided to form a punk rock band. Doe brought his girlfriend, poet Exene Cervenka (born Christine Cervenka) to practices, and she soon joined up as another vocalist. When drummer DJ Bonebrake joined the group, the original lineup was complete. They decided to call themselves X, and the music they made changed the face of not just the LA punk scene, but of rock and roll in general.

Much like The Buzzcocks and The Slits, X made music during the punk rock era, but refused to disregard the past or ignore the future like most of their punk counterparts. There's no denying that X has a punk rock sound, especially in their vocals, but unlike other punk bands at the time, X knew how to play their instruments, and used their inherent musical abilities to create melodically complex punk. Basically, while most of punk rock was out burning down the house rock and roll had built and rebelling against a genre they felt was dead, X was pulling out the fire extinguisher and refusing to give up hope. I don't think it's too bold to say that X was making the best rock and roll music of the punk rock era.

X released their debut album, and Tab's pick this week, Los Angeles in 1980. The opening track, "Your Phone's Off The Hook, But You're Not" opens with such a strongly constructed guitar riff it had to shock anyone who had been living on a diet of punk rock for the past several years. Similarly, "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline" opens up with a riff that would feel right at home in the work of Chuck Berry or The Beach Boys, and while the lyrics that follow are fairly standard punk rock fare (the song details a hit and run accident), the guitar throughout has a very "˜50s rockabilly edge.

The band follows up that song with a cover of The Doors "Soul Kitchen," freely displaying their strong rock and roll influences (ex-Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek produced the album). The title track is another rousing rock and roll number that focuses on melody without eschewing the speed of punk rock.

The following year, X released their second album, Wild Gift. The opening track, "The Once Over Twice" features a rocking guitar riff and a full on solo, as well as dealing with the idea of love, all rarities in punk rock. "We're Desperate" is maybe the most straightforward punk rock song at the album, a slight, speedy tour de force about frustration.

"Adult Books," with its crooning vocals and strummed guitar, feels like a song you might have heard at a sock hop back in the "˜50s, and I mean that in the best way possible. Something tells me, though, that the subject matter of the song (take a guess based on the title) wouldn't have flown in the repressive "˜50s, but as it stands, it's a near perfect piece of retro rock and roll. "In This House That I Call Home" meanwhile seems to fuse punk and pop so fluidly it almost makes you forget how divergent the two genres generally are. While most punk rock bands were creating an alternative to rock and roll, a genre many of them considered dead, X was proving that rock music still had vitality and reviving the genre within a punk rock context.

The year 1993 was big for Chicago. Over the last several years, Seattle had been the hotspot for the alternative rock movement due to the grunge explosion, but in 1993, Chicago struck back, producing Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, Urge Overkill's Saturation and Ashley's pick this week, The Smashing Pumpkins' second album Siamese Dream, which became a landmark record both in the band's career and in the alternative rock movement.

Over the course of the "˜80s, alternative rock had been just that: an alternative to mainstream music. Yet Nirvana had changed all that, making "alternative rock" the best selling genre of the early "˜90s. This allowed bands that otherwise would have been ghettoized as alternative to seek out mass audiences, but it also created a conflict for these bands. Their predecessors in the alternative movement had seen signing to major labels, engaging with the record industry's hype machine and aiming for a mass audience as "selling out," and while that view was clearly becoming outdated, it was still clung to by much of the music-savvy audience these bands hoped to reach. Yet Smashing Pumpkins didn't really care if they were seen as selling out; in fact, some might say they liked it that way.

That Billy Corgan is an arrogant, self-obsessed asshole isn't just a fact, it's part of the Smashing Pumpkins mythos. Corgan also openly sold himself as a tortured genius, which made him come off as even more arrogant, and angered detractors even further because it was a little hard to argue with. Corgan not only wrote all of the songs on Siamese Dream and served as the band's vocalist, he also handled virtually all of the guitar and bass work on the band's early albums, quite the achievement considering that some of the songs on the album have more than 50 different guitar tracks. The album's opening track "Cherub Rock" deals with Corgan's perceptions of the alternative rock community, from which he declares his independence early and often. If, as Corgan often claims, he was always scorned by the "cool" kids when he was younger, this is his full throated rejection of everything those kids ever stood for.

The band's first big hit, "Today" is a great grunge rock song about a day in which Corgan contemplated suicide while experiencing writer's block during the writing of Siamese Dream. "Today" smartly pairs its dark lyrics with a relatively upbeat melody that still fits into the standard quiet verse/loud chorus template for grunge rock. Corgan calls "Disarm" the most personally important song on the album, and he sings it like he means it. Some have interpreted the song as a pro-life screed, but Corgan insists that it is about his shaky relationship with his parents while growing up. The song is a tour de force of pain, overflowing with emotion and a swelling melody. Again, the song fits the basic grunge template but manages to transcend it through melodic complexity and sheer force of emotion. "Soma" meanwhile displays Corgan's ambition, including well over 40 different guitar tracks over the course of its nearly seven minute runtime.

The Smashing Pumpkins would eventually be felled by the backlash against grunge at the end of the "˜90s, yet Corgan keeps some version of the band afloat to this day (though he is, at the moment, the only original member still playing with the band) through sheer force of will. Corgan's bitterness, willingness to hold a grudge seemingly eternally, and arrogant rants alienate most people these days, but for a while in the early "˜90s, he was the "tortured genius" at the front of The Smashing Pumpkins, one of the greatest bands of the grunge era.

I may never agree that Michael Jackson deserves his legacy as "The King of Pop," or that Dangerous is anything other than a ramshackle carcass of an album reeking of desperation and a sad, failed attempt at the epic, but I can see why some people might want to argue for his musical significance (mostly it seems like this is because "The King of Music Videos" doesn't sound as cool and "Lord of the Dance" is already taken). My relationship with X is much less complicated, though; they seem to me to be the one band keeping rock and roll truly alive throughout the punk era, and combining rock and roll with punk so fluidly that they gave the faltering genre some much needed credibility in a time where most were celebrating its demise. And while I can't really get past my view of Billy Corgan as a self-centered, vengeful bastard, I can't help but admit that The Smashing Pumpkins were pretty great in their day, and that Siamese Dream is a solid album.

Ultimately, I think what we can draw from this is that reputation very often has little to do with quality. When Michael Jackson released Dangerous, he was considered a great pop performer (maybe even the best), yet the album is not very good. Soon after its release, he was accused of child molestation, yet HIStory still opened at #1 (and still wasn't very good). X had pretty much no reputation when they started making music, but they quickly became known as one of the greatest LA punk bands, in spite of a pretty far rift between a lot of their music and what we would traditionally consider punk rock. And everyone hated Billy Corgan even before he formed The Smashing Pumpkins, but that didn't stop a whole lot of them from buying, and loving, several of his "masterworks." Whether we love a musician, hate them, or have no idea who they are should have no effect on how we judge their music. In an ideal world, music should be judged absent any preconceived notions about the people behind it. We certainly don't live in that world yet, and my guess is we won't anytime soon. But it's a nice thought anyway.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We begin a two week look at Minutemen, examining Paranoid Time, Joy, Bean Spill EP, The Punchline and What Makes a Man Start Fires?, analyze Pavement's Slanted & Enchanted and take a look at The Breeders Last Splash.

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