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.
"They're not an emo band in any sonic respect, yet they're the most important group the genre has ever produced. Weezer defines what emo music is supposed to do"”if Sunny Day Real Estate's "˜Seven' is the emo "˜Rock Around the Clock,' then Weezer's 1996 sophomore effort Pinkerton is the emo Sgt. Pepper."-Chuck Klosterman.
"Pinkerton is a surprisingly dark ode to the romance of distance and detachment, which Rivers Cuomo seems to believe is embodied in underage Japanese chicks."-Ashley Joyce, in conversation.
Some music can be difficult to approach objectively. When you really love something at the right time in your life (usually when you're a teenager and getting your heart broken for the first time), quality isn't really an issue. It all becomes about relatability, and the band that gets you is your God, with their best album serving as greater gospel than any holy book you might devote yourself too. Nostalgia colors few things as fully as it does music, and the music you loved in your formative years will likely always have a place in your heart.
That being said, if you come to the table late on a band that is beloved as much for the nostalgia they conjure as for their actual musical ability, it can be tough to understand what all the fuss is about. I've written before (and with little shame) about how Stars Set Yourself on Fire is a very personally important album for me, mostly because it seemed to be emanating directly from my teenage soul and was released right around the same time I first got my heart broken. From an objective critical standpoint, Set Yourself on Fire is not a particularly well known, lauded, or important album, but none of that matters to me. When I think about Set Yourself on Fire, all of my thoughts are tied to my own personal experience, which means the album's objective qualities are almost irrelevant. To me, Set Yourself on Fire is one of the most important albums of the last decade, personally if not sonically.
So I understand the idea that some bands are beloved in a way that I will never understand, having come to the table late. This has always been the case for me with Weezer. I have four Weezer albums on my ipod, but I can honestly count on one hand the number of times I listened to any of them all the way through prior to this week. I've never found the band all that sonically interesting, and I've never connected to any of their work emotionally. I like "Buddy Holly," sure, but most of the other Weezer songs I can say I've listened to more than a slight handful of times are from the period after every Weezer fan I know decided the band sucked (I can't say I like "Beverly Hills" that much, but I don't hate it like Weezer fans seem to, and I always thought "We Are All on Drugs" was a mildly clever song).
When I first listened to the band's second album, and Ashley's pick this week, Pinkerton I felt incredibly ambivalent about it. Mostly I still do. Yet I understood that this is one of those albums that is incredibly important to a vast number of people (Ashley included), and so for the first time in this feature, I sought out one of the contributors and asked them to talk to me about the album. Ashley told me that she viewed Weezer like she might an ex-boyfriend who became an Evangelical Christian; it's sad, she doesn't really talk about it anymore, but she has some good memories. It was then that I started to understand Weezer. Rivers Cuomo is an unabashedly honest songwriter, divulging things that most other musicians obscure behind metaphor in a very straightforward fashion. I can see why that would appeal to people in their youth, and also why it would anger or embarrass them as they grew up (just as Stars penchant for angst and melodrama was appealing to me on Set Yourself on Fire and eye-rolling when it wasn't angering on their last album, The Five Ghosts).
"Tired of Sex" is ostensibly about Cuomo's distaste for the random sex that comes along with being the frontman for a band. Cuomo asks, "why can't I be making love?" a sentiment which was possibly true but comes across as a backdoor compliment, the sort of disingenuous bragging I often hear from people I never want to hang out with again (as Jenna Maroni on 30 Rock puts it, "I can't watch American Idol because I have perfect pitch."). It's the type of song that seems more clever than honest to me, but I can also understand how angsty teenage Jordan would have understood where Cuomo was coming from (except that I'm pretty sure you have to be having sex to get tired of it).
"Across the Sea," details a letter Cuomo received from a Japanese fan that led to him falling in love with the idea of the girl. This also feels like something I would have jumped on as a teenager, but seems somewhat immature in hindsight. One of the hardest lessons I've ever had to learn (And sometimes relearn) is that you cannot make people be who you want them to be; Cuomo either never learned this or forgot it during the period he wrote the song. That being said, "Across the Sea" is an incredibly catchy song. I may not relate to it emotionally, but I can imagine listening to it again and not minding. The reference in the chorus of "The Good Life" to "shakin' booty" is about as emblematic of my feelings on Weezer as any one line could be. Cuomo either uses that line out of a sense of earnestness or a sense of ironic detachment. I can't relate to either of those, and so mostly it just makes me cringe.
"Pink Triangle" is about a sexually ambiguous guy (presumably Cuomo) falling in love with a lesbian who thinks he's gay. I prefer my "man-falling-in-love-with-lesbian" entertainment to be Chasing Amy flavored, but again I suppose this earnestness was appealing to people in the right age group at the time.
Ultimately, I think part of my problem with Weezer can be traced to my cultural confusion over the term "hipster." Weezer is defined as playing "nerd rock," and Rivers Cuomo is very often cited as an example of a hipster. This may in fact be the case, and perhaps if I understood exactly what the term meant, I would understand more of where Cuomo is coming from. Whenever I've asked people who drop the term to try to define it for me, it tends to lead to a debate (including one time where Ashley tried to explain it to me for a good hour before finally giving up) and the person claiming, "I know it when I see it," an argument I fail to accept for pornography (and if I don't accept something in my pornography, I'm certainly not going to accept it in any other area of my life). It seems to me that people call someone a "hipster" if they do everything the person likes to do but the person does not enjoy their company. Either way, a full discussion of the term "hipster" is probably better-served elsewhere, but I feel that if I had a handle on the term, I might get the appeal of Pinkerton more. As it stands, I can see why Weezer would appeal to a certain age group and how nostalgia would color the band for many, but Pinkerton is unlikely to enter heavy rotation on my ipod anytime soon.
The Legendary Pink Dots formed in London in 1980, transplanting themselves to Amsterdam in 1984. The band is an experimental rock outfit that focuses on neo-psychedelia, avante garde rock and synthpop. If that all sounds alienating, it isn't; in fact, The Legendary Pink Dots are the most accessible band from Tab's list in months, a band with a unique sound that seems to merge New Wave with psychedelia and some of the gentler experimental trends creating an imminently listenable blend that sounds like a lot of bands and unlike anything else I've ever heard simultaneously.
The group released the Faces in the Fire EP in 1984. The opening track "Blasto" seems to be a microcosm for the whole album in a way, with frontman Edward Ka-Spel's voice running the gamut from detachment to torment and a guitar wail that breaks up the synthesized track as if to point out how hollow synthesized sounds can be. "Love in a Plain Brown Envelope" features some excellent violin, and just to make sure things don't get too "high art" the panting sounds of Ka-Spel and a woman engaged in some passionate activities filling out the middle of the track. "Sleezo" has an opening riff that sounds like a synthesized version of a classic rock song, quickly devolving into a more balladic vocal performance from Ka-Spel, who plays the overwrought lamentation of a man unfulfilled in love perfectly before the song becomes a spoken word advertisement for a company specializing in manufacturing adult products.
The band also released a full album in 1984 called The Tower, which explores the titular structure (a motif in the work of the Pink Dots) throughout. "Black Zone" has a looping synthetic melody behind a more conventionally melodic song structure. "Tower One" opens with a strong percussive beat before the darkly melodic and foreboding song kicks in. "Astrid" uses a dark carnival melody to back a deeply creepy song that manages to be just a little bit fun at the same time.
The Legendary Pink Dots are the most conventionally fun band we've had from Tab in a while, taking some of the principles from their experimental colleagues who go further off the beaten path (like, say, Nurse With Wound) while staying firmly rooted in mainstream musical structures and sounds.
Kieran Hebden came up as a member of the band Fridge before establishing himself as a solo act under the moniker Four Tet. Before discussing his third album, and Collin's pick this week, Rounds, I have to make a confession about electronic music. I've discussed before the potential problems inherent to the genre of electronic music, but also admitted that I think good electronic music surpasses that. Whenever I hear electronic music that I can get really into, though, I tend to automatically think, "This is the music that would be playing in the trendy bar I hope to someday frequent." Something about electronic, when done well, makes me feel like I'm in a dimly lit place, consuming a troubling amount of alcohol while trying to appear charming, or at least charmingly aloof (but usually actually appearing standoffish and occasionally terrifying), and I think that a great electronic album would be the perfect backup to cement my image.
I confess this mostly because that approach to electronic art colors my perception of Rounds, which is undoubtedly excellent, and hopefully not only because I could swig a martini while leaning against a bar with this as background music. The opening track, "Hands" is a simplistic triumph, low key but compelling and dark in the way the best nightlife always is. "She Moves She" is less appealing, mostly because the heavy, skipping sound that permeates the track gets in the way of the mysterious vibe the song could otherwise cultivate.
"My Angel Rocks Back and Forth" is a masterful slow burn of a song, beginning with heavy percussion before bringing in a more ethereal feel that draws you in and lulls you at the same time (this one is probably best for after I've had a few drinks. The sleepy sound will match the drooping eyelids quite well, methinks). "Spirit Fingers" breaks with the vibe the rest of the album cultivates so well by drastically speeding up the beat, coming across as frantic where the rest of the songs tend to go more fore elusive (listening to this song, I can't help but imagine watching a videotape of people salsa dancing on fast forward).
The inherent emotional ties we form to the music that defines periods of our life can be hard to overcome, which explains (in my mind at least) why great music writing is so difficult to pull off. Looking at music objectively can get difficult when you develop an emotional connection with the work, and if that connection is particularly strong it can be damn near impossible. The best music writers (and I am very, very far from among their ranks) manage to universalize the way an album makes them feel, mixing the contextual elements necessary to enjoy the music intellectually with the more fluid, elusive elements that make up our emotional reaction to the medium. To me, Weezer feels like an adolescence I never had (but easily could have if I had been a teenage in the mid-"˜90s or more into music when I was that age"¦or less melodramatic). The Legendary Pink Dots sound like New Wave from an alternate dimension, experimenting widely but never going too far afield. Four Tet is a great evening at a great bar, cultivating an air of mystery that leaves you curious enough to look just a bit harder at your surroundings. These are inherently personal emotional reactions, which probably makes them bad musical criticism. Yet I hope they get at a deeper truth within each of these albums, or, if nothing else, within myself. I've been feeling my way through a lot of these lists, trying to put into words the way the music makes me feel and slowly wrap my head around what this means for my day to day life. Ideally, this has been a collective journey for those of you who have read this feature regularly since it's inception. If so, we've got a whole lot more coming down the pipeline over the last eleven installments of My Year in Lists. And if not, hey, the year is going by pretty quickly, right?
Next week on My Year in Lists:
We look at what The Legendary Pink Dots front man Edward Ka-Spel was up to in his solo career while the albums we examined this week were released, taking a peek at Laugh, China Doll, join Belle and Sebastian for a glass of Tigermilk, and help Madvillain define Madvillainy.