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've pretty much summed up everything I wanted to say in "˜Rock "˜N' Roll Star,' "˜Live Forever,' and "˜Cigarettes and Alcohol,' after that I'm just repeating myself, but in a different way."-Noel Gallagher.
""˜B.O.B.' is not just the song of the decade"”it is the decade."-Stuart Berman, Pitchfork MediaAnd then there was Oasis. The Britpop movement began in earnest with Suede, though they rarely get the credit for it. Early examples can be seen in the first two Radiohead albums, Blur's Parklife and Pulp's Different Class (which we will discuss in two weeks). Yet from a tradition of "high art" pop music dedicated to referencing the classics and merging them with a brand new sound came a band that didn't give a shit about any of that. From day one, Oasis was a band about attaining the perks of being in a rock band. Oasis wanted fame, money, and as many blowjobs as they could get out of those things.
This probably explains why the first song on their first album, and Ashley's pick this week, Definitely Maybe is "Rock "˜N' Roll Star," a song about all of the perks that come along with the titular position. It can be hard to separate Oasis from the outsized personalities, and yes, the dickishness of front-men Noel and Liam Gallagher at times. At this point, whenever a news story or a review mentions Oasis, it usually comes along with details about one of the Gallagher's latest stunts, whether they are just being pricks to other people in the music industry or causing some form of mayhem. But "Rock "˜N' Roll Star" is actually more than meets the eye. On the surface, its just foreshadowing what the rock star version of Oasis would look like once they achieved fame (and that turned out to be true), but looking at its history, there's a bit more there.
See, when the song was written, Noel Gallagher wasn't an asshole rock star. He was a failed criminal and a former roadie of the Madchester scene that gave us The Stone Roses and served as the direct ancestor to the Britpop scene. "Rock "˜N' Roll Star" is a song about the dream of being famous, a dream of wealth that must seem distant and insanely appealing to a man stuck in poverty. Noel Gallagher was a poor dyslexic when he tried to break into a house in Manchester; meanwhile his brother Liam was earning $100 a week painting fences. To them, wealth must have seemed completely freeing, and with that in mind, its little wonder that they used (and some would say abused) that freedom once they attained it.
"Live Forever" sounds a lot like a prototype for "Wonderwall," which would soon become Oasis' biggest hit, and not just because it has Gallagher singing "I said maybe"¦" The song was also written by Gallagher before the formation of Oasis, and takes on a similar feeling of a dreamer, a person willing to hope when that might seem like a stupid thing to do. The song is about a person who wants to attain immortality through his work, shedding all the things that keep him back because "you and I are gonna live forever." While Gallagher is a widely professed fan of Nirvana, he says he wrote the song after hearing the band's "I Hate Myself and Want To Die." As he puts it, "As much as I fucking like [Kurt Cobain] and all that shit, I'm not having that. I can't have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die ["¦] Seems to me that here was a guy who had everything and was miserable about it. And we had fuck-all, and I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest fuckin' thing ever, "˜cause you didn't know where you'd end up at night. And we didn't have a pot to piss in, but it was fuckin' great, man."
"Supersonic," which became the band's first single, was written in 30 minutes when the band realized they had failed to record a demo of "Bring it on Down." Noel Gallagher has said that many of the song's lyrics are nonsense, yet everyone was so impressed with the song it quickly became the band's debut single.
While "Rock "˜N' Roll Star" and "Live Forever" present a more earnest, hopeful Gallagher, "Cigarettes and Alcohol" is a much more standard example of the wild lifestyle the band hoped to live. The song talks about the inherent appeal of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs to escape the banality of day-to-day life, especially in the working class. Oasis quickly set themselves up as the "rivals" of fellow brit-pop outfits like Blur, and its easy to see why this might be the case. I think both Parklife and Definitely Maybe are great albums, but they certainly come from completely different viewpoints. Both exhibit dissatisfaction, disenchantment and malaise that was endemic in the mid-"˜90s, yet Blur does so with a look toward the cultural meaning of it all, taking on the burden of examining the issue and turning it into high art. Oasis never tries anything like that, and in fact often derided Blur as "pretentious." To Oasis, the deeper meaning didn't matter nearly as much as the sound, and the feeling. Oasis didn't need to think about the plight of the working class and its disenchantment with British society; they had lived it, and were tired of belaboring the point. Once they made it out of the working class, Oasis never wanted to look back. They just wanted to party like their new wealth and fame would allow them to.
In hindsight, the path Oasis took from anonymous working class boys in Manchester to beloved Rock Gods, to hated hedonists is pretty easy to predict from their first album. Definitely Maybe is about the dream of being a rock and roll star and what that would mean to the Gallaghers. Their follow-up, (What's The Story) Morning Glory is about the reality of being a rock and roll star and what it did mean to them. And their third album, Be Here Now is, as Noel put it, ""¦the sound of a bunch of guys on coke, in the studio, not giving a fuck." Definitely Maybe and (What's The Story) Morning Glory are great albums, but that may have been almost incidental to the Gallaghers. In order to make the money and get the fame they desired, they had to produce albums worth listening to, and so they did. Once they had achieved their dreams, they lost a lot of their incentive to create great music. The boys had won, and they didn't need to bother to keep on winning. Now was the time to enjoy their victory.
It may seem like I dislike Oasis or disapprove of the motivations behind their music, but neither of those things is true. Oasis never wanted to be musicians, they wanted to be Rock Stars, and I see nothing wrong with using that as the motivation behind making music, especially if the music you make is as good as their first two albums are. A lot of people have done a lot fewer wonderful things just for the money, and I don't for a second begrudge the Gallaghers for getting exactly what they wanted, nor can I judge them for being huge dicks a lot of the time. A lot of rich people are huge dicks, but few of them wrote songs as good as "Live Forever," "Cigarettes and Alcohol," "Wonderwall," "Don't Look Back in Anger," and "Champagne Supernova." So, yes, Noel and Liam Gallagher are less than perfect, but you can't really say they did anything other than they promised to. If "Rock "˜N' Roll Star" was their promise to themselves, they kept it to the tee, and if we expected anything more from them, that is probably our own faults.
Rudimentary Peni formed in 1980, as punk was quickly becoming hardcore, or if you lived in the right part of Britain, Anarcho-punk. Formed by Nick Blinko, Grant Matthews and Jon Grenville, the group released Tab's picks this week, Rudimentary Peni EP, Farce and Death Church between 1981 and 1983, quickly gaining a reputation for witty and macabre lyrics, as well as for Blinko's artwork which is featured on every release by the group.
Both Rudimentary Peni Ep and Farce are fine pieces of anarcho-punk, but the band clearly hit its stride on Death Church, balancing the darkness and the wit at near perfect levels, so at the risk of seeming like I'm ignoring the group's evolution, I want to focus on Death Church. "Rotten to the Core" is a direct attack on Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer of The Clash, accusing them of being hypocrites who "once said he cared, but he never really gave a fuck." The anger remains, but the wit increases on "Cosmic Hearse," a 38 second song about travelling around an infinite universe bringing death.
"Vampire State Building," mixes a foreboding overdub with the fun, pun-y title to create an amusing dissonance. "When You Are A Martian Church" is another example of a song with a clever, absurd title that carries it for its runtime of little more than a minute. "Love is Not" is a slightly more substantial song, attempting to debunk misconceptions about love, explaining that love is not "your parents lies," and arguing that we should struggle against their attempts to use love to imprison us.
Rudimentary Peni sounds like pretty standard anarcho-punk, an angrier, more rebellious and darker stepbrother to hardcore. What sets the band apart, however, and makes them worth the listen, is their abiding wit and willingness to have fun with words and concepts even as they advocate total anarchy and the breakdown of society. It makes for fun dissonance, and more than a few chuckles as the group paves the sonic road to hell with, if not good intentions, then at least witty ones.
When Big Boi and Andre 3000 released Outkast's fourth studio album, Stankonia in 2000, there is very little chance that they knew what the next decade would hold. I have much faith in the music ability (even genius) of both parties, but I have my doubts that either possesses the ability to foretell the future. Yet, at times throughout the album, it is hard to believe that the songs were written in 2000.
"Gasoline Dreams" is about the problems inherent in the American Dream, from our dependence on oil, to the requirement that people must degrade themselves for "taste of apple pie" to the fact that the passion of youth in America has nowhere to direct itself. It's possible that I'm reading more into the song in hindsight than was originally intended, but from this vantage point it's hard to see "Gasoline Dreams" as anything other than a warning about where America was headed if it didn't change paths. "So Fresh, So Clean" is a more standard funk/hip-hop jam, yet it displays just as well the mastery of Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Both contribute to the song equally, with Andre handling the smooth, catchy-as-hell chorus and Big Boi taking the hip-hop heavy verses, and both nail their respective portions.
"Ms. Jackson," easily one of my favorite Outkast songs, lays out the problems Andre 3000 had with the mother of his ex-girlfriend Erykah Badu, the mother of his son Seven. A heartfelt, powerful, and still incredibly catchy song, "Ms. Jackson" discusses the problems that break-ups can have both for the children of the couple and for the mother of a girl whose heart is broken by a man. Part apology and part staking out of a position (after having apologized "a million times" and agreeing to pay for raising the child as well as wanting to be a part of its life), the song is an emotional tour de force that never loses sight of its captivating beat.
As hard as it is to picture "Gasoline Dreams" being written in 2000, it's almost inconceivable that "B.O.B." (more often known as "Bombs Over Baghdad") was written almost a year before 9/11 and around three years before America invaded Iraq. While I may disagree with Pitchfork's contention that it is the greatest song of the last decade, I would be hard-pressed to select a single song that was more important in the last decade. Propulsive and lightning fast, "B.O.B." almost serves as a prophetic highlight year of the ten years that would follow its release. The title alone would lend credence to this argument, but the song is also a sonic tour through much of what would happen in popular music and mainstream hip hop over the decade, obliterating many of the dividing lines between hip-hop and electronic dance music, and setting the stage for a decade full of cross-overs that would appeal to both dance fans and pop music listeners (including the group's own biggest hit, 2004's "Hey Ya").
Big Boi basically inaugurates a new conservative, evangelical president who would be a warmonger, and Andre 3000 rattles off pop culture references so quick he might as well have been calling out our increased cultural ADD, or prophesizing the rise of meta-textual humor in mainstream entertainment. Yet unlike the group's bigger hits "Ms. Jackson" and "Hey Ya" ("B.O.B." was both a critical success and a commercial failure upon its initial release), the song has never succumbed to overplay (while I still love both "Ms. Jackson" and "Hey Ya," I've heard each about 5 million times at this point) and remains somehow unique. When I discussed Jean-Luc Godard over in Whose Film Is It Anyway?, I mentioned that he was arguably the most unique filmmaker of all time and that in spite of the near universal reverence in which he is held, no one ever really tries to imitate his greatest work. The same can be said of "B.O.B." While "Ms. Jackson" and "Hey Ya" have been endlessly imitated in the years since their release, no one has ever quite been able to capture the sound, nor the feeling present in "B.O.B."
In one way or another, each of the artists we looked at this week was a prophet. For Oasis, the prophecy foretold of their future as famous and wealthy rock stars living a life of unapologetic excess. For Rudimentary Peni, the future was going to be a place of freedom from rules or oppression, a place where true anarchy (and a little wit to boot) could provide peace and even prosperity (their prophecy has failed to come true, and as I am not an anarchist, I will admit to relief on that front). And as for Outkast, well, if the men weren't prophets warning us of the decade to come and showing us the sonic way forward they sure could have fooled me. Their album was ahead of its time both lyrically and sonically; in the previous decade many have tried, and most have failed, to catch up. Whether spreading messages of the future they wanted for themselves, the ideal future as they saw it, or the future that would be even if they didn't yet know it, each of these bands offered a glimpse of a way forward, a brief vision of what we could be, what we should be, and what we would be respectively. And once you've seen the future, there's no going back.Read more My Year in Lists here
Next week on My Year in Lists:
We look at three releases by avante garde German composer Asmus Tietchens, examining Spat Europa, Rattenheu, and Aus Freude Am Elend, analyze Tricky's Maxinquaye, and follow Daft Punk as he makes a Discovery.