The Soundtrack of My Life: LOL Albums

Music can be a lot of things: socially relevant, brain candy, the voice of a generation, or just an excuse to sit back and chill. One of the rarest things to find in music is humor. There’s an old saying that dates all the way back to vaudeville days: “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” I’ve made no secret of my love for good comedy, and there’s a handful of artists who have raised it beyond mere shtick to an art form (although in at least one case I’m sure there are those who would disagree with me).

“Weird” Al Yankovic – In 3-D: Let’s just deal with the elephant in the room first, shall we? My Not So Humble Sister hates “Weird” Al for much the same reason I hate Madonna: being exposed ad nauseum at a tender age. That and she just doesn’t get his humor. Admittedly he is best known for his satire, which compared to many satirists is surprisingly gentle (although I really don’t get his obsession with food), but for me some of his best work is his original songs. This was the first “Weird” Al album I ever owned, owing to the smash success of “Eat It”, and I listened to it constantly. I even auditioned for a high school musical with the song “Nature Trail to Hell” one year (yes, I got the part, no I don’t know why). “Weird” Al manages to be sharp, funny, and light without ever being vulgar, a fact which likely was a contributing factor to Michael Jackson giving him permission to use the same set from “Bad” for his parody “Fat” from a later album (and again with the eating obsession). While he’s not everyone’s cup of tea (sorry, couldn’t resist a food joke of my own), I still think this is arguably his best work. Be sure to check out “Midnight Star”, “Polkas on 45”, “King of Suede”, and of course “Nature Trail to Hell”.

They Might Be Giants – Flood: If you prefer your humor a little more highbrow (and perhaps a bit incomprehensible), I suggest They Might Be Giants. I’ll be the first to admit that it took me a while to warm up to this band. Yes, I was that guy. It seemed like every TMBG album I heard I had to listen to at least three times before I liked it or even got the joke. When it finally clicked for me, I couldn’t get enough. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about their music that can’t really be defined. Some of it is clearly brilliant satire (“Particle Man” in particular) while other songs are either so deep they’re funny or so funny they’re deep (“Dead”). They even manage to get some social relevance into the mix with songs like “Your Racist Friend” and “Minimum Wage” while still maintaining a charming and offbeat style that I can’t define and absolutely love. In addition to the songs I already mentioned, I highly recommend the famous “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, “Women and Men”, and “Road Movie to Berlin”.

King Missile – The Way to Salvation: If They Might Be Giants isn’t incomprehensible enough for you, may I suggest King Missile? Where TMBG flirts with surrealism, King Missile seduces it, takes it to bed and calls it a dirty girl. To me, The Way to Salvation is to rock and roll what Andy Warhol was to art. Different? Sure. Strange? Arguably. Self-referential? On occasion. But undeniably brilliant. This album takes all kinds of tropes and inverts them back on themselves, playing with content, form and medium to create a sonic interpretation that ranges over a wide field of intellectual work. The end result is a mish-mash of different styles that somehow forms a novel, coherent album stronger than any one song would suggest. I’m particularly fond of the way they deliberately separated the two parts of “The Boy Who Ate Lasagna and Could Jump Over a Church”, creating a bifurcated narrative that is stronger thereby. Some of my other favorite tracks are “The Story of Willy”, “I Wish”, “The Indians”, “Sex With You”, and “Scotland”.

Tom Lehrer – That Was the Year That Was: Moving away from surrealism and squarely into the realm of “thinking man’s humor”, there’s Tom Lehrer. Lehrer has taught political science at MIT and mathematics at the University of California. Despite that, he’s actually a fair hand at the piano. While That Was the Year That Was as recorded live in 1965 and addressed news items of the day, the songs are still in many cases  (sadly) relevant. He may be best known for his satirical “The Elements”, wherein he recites the elemental table to the tune of the “Major-General’s Song” from The Pirates of Penzance but, much like “Weird” Al after him, I much prefer his original work. While some of the songs are a bit dated, with a bit of imagination their key themes can be seen reflected in modern events, and others are still issues that are with us today. My personal favorites are “The Folk Song Army” (themes of which I can see reflected in the Occupy movement today), “Smut” (SOPA/CISPA and other attempts at regulating free speech), “Who’s Next?” (North Korea, Iran, and other countries that are actually name-checked in this song about nuclear proliferation), and “National Brotherhood Week” (a song about racism, religious intolerance, and other forms of social intolerance).


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