As some of you may have noticed, music defines my life for me. Over at Running on Sober they took that concept to a whole new level with her “Life in 6 Songs” series, which is a little slice of awesome. I’m one of the featured guests over there this week, but I highly recommend checking out the whole series. You’ll get some great stories and some great music. Thanks for having me!
*Note to friends and family: this one gets a little raw. You have been warned.
“I know nothing stays the same, but if you’re willing to play the game, it will be coming around again.”
Carly Simon, “Coming Around Again”
By this point I’ve pretty well established I have eclectic taste in music, but there are some artists who I just can’t get enough of. Whether it’s because they have an iconic sound, their ability to weave an amazing story, or just because they captured my imagination and never let it go, these are the artists that tend to dominate my mindscape when I think about music.
Billy Joel – The Stranger: One of (if not the) most successful albums by Billy Joel, it actually took me a while to warm up to this one at first. There’s a certain complexity to it, both lyrically and musically, that he doesn’t quite have on Piano Man or Glass Houses, and I didn’t quite gravitate to it as much as I did those albums. I also didn’t really “discover” it until I was much older and had listened to the Greatest Hits Vol. I & II ad nauseum, so about half the album was old hat to me. All of that being said I think it’s worth noting that, as I just mentioned, about half of this album is comprised of songs Joel is famous for, including “Moving Out (Anthony’s Song)”, “Just the Way You Are”, “Only the Good Die Young”, and “She’s Always a Woman”. These are all great songs, but my favorites also include the slightly less well known “The Stranger”, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, and “Vienna”. I think these tracks are a bit more complex, but they also bring a lot more to the discerning listener.
Pink Floyd – A Momentary Lapse of Reason: As I mentioned previously, this album was my first exposure to Pink Floyd, and as such it will always hold a special place in my heart (although in full honesty I’ve since become more a fan of the Roger Waters era; sorry, David!). There’s no denying the rich beauty and soaring magnificence of this album. While there is definitely the distinct “Pink Floyd sound” to it, this album is a clear change point from the earlier albums, and overall a fantastic work. In some ways I feel like it may have been the perfect entry point for a new Pink Floyd fan, and I might even recommend it to this day. While the lead vocals might not be quite comparable, there’s a certain optimism (or at least a lack of bleak cynicism) that’s not present on many of the Waters-era albums, while much of the storytelling and poeticism of the earlier works is still strong. Oh, and the music is absolutely brilliant. For my money the best tracks on the album are “Learning to Fly” (the first Pink Floyd song I ever heard), “One Slip”, “On the Turning Away”, “A New Machine (Part 1)”, and “Terminal Frost”.
Queensryche – Empire: Speaking of those surprising first albums, here’s another one that got me a lesson in music history. My first exposure to Queensryche was this brilliant, off-beat mélange of hard rock. Each song is like a vignette from a completely different book, complete in and of itself, telling a powerful and moving story that at the same time has nothing whatsoever to do with the previous, the next, or any other song on the album. Add to that the fact my initial introduction was through the power ballad “Silent Lucidity” (it was the end of the 80s, don’t judge me) and you can see why I was completely gob smacked when I heard the entire album. There is a brilliance at work here, a mad genius akin to Scheherazade’s one thousand and one nights, as each story captivates and spins a complete worlds before moving on to the next. Some of the most compelling are “Jet City Woman”, “Della Brown”, “Another Rainy Night (Without You)”, “Empire”, and “Silent Lucidity”.
Jimmy Buffett – Living and Dying in ¾ Time: This is the album I am most ambivalent about in my whole Jimmy Buffett collection (and I actually have quite a few). There are some songs on this album that I listen to because, eh, they’re okay, and there are other songs on this album that I think are so amazing they stop me in my tracks every time I hear them. Surprisingly, the couple of tracks from this album that appear on Songs You Know by Heart fall into neither category (they’re both good, but not that good). Where Buffett really shines on this album is when he stops trying to make music and starts telling stories (in one case quite literally). Some of the most powerful, moving, beautiful and heart-wrenching music I have ever heard appears on this album, along with what has to be one of the funniest comedic monologues ever recorded. There are no bad songs here, but the truly great ones are “Livingston’s Gone to Texas”, “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown”, and “The Ballad of Spider John”. After all that (each song is sadder than the next), help yourself to “God’s Own Drunk”. It’s a hoot and a half.Related Posts:
There are some albums that for me not only define a point in my life but also define the artist or artists who made them. While there may be other albums I love by that artist, that specific album will always be the one I point to when I say “This is what they sound like.” Here are a few of those albums.
Queen – A Kind of Magic: It almost seems offensive to pick just one album to “define” Queen. Freddy Mercury was truly mercurial, reinventing himself (quite successfully) almost on a whim. And yet the powerful, soulful, and almost operatic performances that he and the rest of the band brought to rock and roll are undeniable, and the entire range and depth of their considerable ability is on display in this one compact album. Granted, I have a special love for it in that it encompasses not only the soundtrack for one of the greatest movies of all time (seriously, I once wrote a class paper on just one scene from this film), but also includes the themes song from one of the other greatest movies of all time. All that having been said though, this is still an amazing work of art on its own. To truly appreciate the range and scope of this album, check out “One Vision”, “A Kind of Magic”, “Who Wants to Live Forever” (one of the most beautiful and poignant songs I have ever heard), “Gimme the Prize (Kurgan’s Theme)”, and “Princes of the Universe”. You won’t be disappointed.
Genesis – Invisible Touch: The first Genesis album I remember being old enough to really appreciate, this one absolutely floored me. From the first time I heard “Land of Confusion” I was hooked. Granted the video was pretty cool, but that was just a bonus. When I listened to the entire album I became obsessed. I would literally spend hours listening to it (no, it wasn’t healthy, but this isn’t about me, this is about Phil Collins… and my obsession with him… shut up.) Three amazing musicians explored all kinds of new territory, including a practically unheard of (at the time) nearly 11 min. long song, as well as a nearly five minute long instrumental piece that is absolutely amazing. The best songs on the album for my money are “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, “Land of Confusion”, “In Too Deep”, “Domino” (the aforementioned 11 min. song, so brace yourself), “Throwing It All Away”, and “The Brazilian” (the instrumental piece). Give it a try; it’s a lot more than just a pop rock fixture.
Jimmy Buffett – Last Mango in Paris: I first got exposed to Jimmy Buffett the same way lots of fans did: someone I knew (in my case my Dad) owned a copy of Songs You Know by Heart, and I listened to it incessantly. Eventually after several years I decided to take a risk and venture out into, you know, actual albums (instead of just the “greatest hits”) and this was one of the first I stumbled across. Johnny Loftus of allmusic nailed it for me when he wrote that “Last Mango in Paris’ host of high points make it essential for anyone enamored of Buffett’s live shows, or even the casual fan looking to expand beyond Songs You Know by Heart.” While the songs all had the same wry wit and fun I had come to expect from Jimmy Buffett, there was also something fresh and unexpected in some of them. In particular I recommend “Please Bypass This Heart” and “If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me” for the sound and texture of them, “Gypsies in the Palace” and “Jolly Mon Sing” for the storytelling, and “Desperation Samba (Halloween in Tijuana)” just because it’s a fun, different sound from this versatile artist.
Billy Joel – Piano Man: As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been a lifelong Billy Joel fan, and it started with Glass Houses. The defining album for me when I think of Mr. Joel’s work however (I’m sorry, I just can’t call him Billy, it just feels too informal; we’ve never even been introduced) is Piano Man. It’s more than the storytelling that is evident not only here but throughout his career, and it’s not just the title track that (admittedly) had such a strong influence on my perception of him for decades to come. There’s a passion and theatricality to the songs on this album, as well as a certain gritty realism, that defies simple classification as “pop music” or “soft rock”. The soaring vocals are matched by Mr. Joel’s earnest and full-bodied compositions. The stand-out tracks on this album are “Piano Man” (obviously), “You’re My Home”, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” (which I always silently dedicate to my family in Long Island), “Somewhere Along the Line”, and “Captain Jack”.
Oh, and Mr. Joel, feel free to call me Bobby.Related Posts:
Sometimes it seems as if my life is less a continuous journey from one point to another and more a disjointed, constantly interrupted bashing about through random stops in time. This is particularly the case when I look back on my teens and early twenties, when I managed to find every way to creatively screw up that I could that didn’t involve drugs, violence, or jail (although I may have flirted with all three at some point, Your Honor). Among the few signposts I have as I journey back through those tumultuous memories are the songs I listened to, the soundtrack that accompanied my foolish decisions and what seemed to me at the time to be heroic deeds.
Dire Straits – Making Movies: I love this album for a lot of reasons, some of which are personal memories from my senior year of high school (and if My Not So Humble Wife is reading this, let me remind you honey that was about fifteen years before I met you, so you don’t get to hold it against me), and some of it is because the song “Romeo and Juliet” was indirectly referenced by Douglas Adams in So Long and Thanks For All The Fish (it would be the song with the really good guitar bit when Arthur goes flying), or so I was told when a friend first introduced me to the album. Having listened to the song many times, I have no reason to doubt his word on this. It really is an excellent guitar bit. The album covers a fair bit of terrain artistically, more I dare say than on most other albums from Dire Straits (except possibly Brothers in Arms), and while the expected jazz-rock fusion is there for the entirety of the album they manage to find a lot of room to experiment. In addition to the aforementioned “Romeo and Juliet”, I highly recommend “Tunnel of Love”, “Expresso Love”, and “Hand in Hand”.
Bruce Willis – The Return of Bruno: This album will always hold a special place in my heart for two reasons. First because it’s one of the first real records I ever owned that I bought just for me. Second because it’s one of the first records I played so much that just the mention of it is enough to make My Not So Humble Sister want to throw something heavy at my head. Ah, memories. So why do I enjoy this album so much? Is it because Bruce Willis is a great singer? No. But let’s not kid ourselves; neither is David Lee Roth, and everybody howled for his return to Van Halen. What Willis does do is attack the songs on this album with a passion and an honest love that you just don’t find in most singers today. What he may lack in technical performance is more than made up for in his virtue of an indescribable fun and joy. It’s clear that this is exactly what he wants to be doing, and he has the charisma to transmit some of that sense of fun to the listener as well. In addition to that, as I’ve previously mentioned I really do enjoy a good bit of harmonica playing. He may not be a virtuoso, but just because not every guitar player is Jimi Hendrix doesn’t mean we say they are somehow lacking, we just enjoy what they bring as long as they bring enough, and Bruce Willis brings more than enough. This album would be enjoyable enough on its own merits, and it’s doubly so considering it came out in an era of vanity albums being produced on behalf of other actors who didn’t understand they should have stayed actors. The best tracks off this album are “Young Blood”, “Under the Boardwalk”, “Secret Agent Man/James Bond Is Back”, and “Jackpot (Bruno’s Bop)”.
Sponge – Rotting Piñata: This is another album that I love as much for the memories (good and bad) that it invokes as much as for the music. It reminds me of a time in my life when I made some of the worst choices and best mistakes, and I ended up with some great stories if nothing else. I also learned some of the most important lessons, although I didn’t appreciate most of them until much later. Things like who truly cared about me and who didn’t; who I could trust, and how to figure it out fast enough not to get burned too badly; and exactly how much my family really means to me, and just how much they’ll forgive. Vinnie Dombrowski’s vocals, which sound like he regularly gargles with straight whiskey, blended with the gritty post-grunge sound of the instrumentals on the album immediately bring me right back to that place, and the shadowy (or at best semi-bitter) lyrics remind me again of all the damn fool things I’ve done, enjoyed, survived, regretted, and come out the other end of, hopefully better than I went in. Top tracks on this album are “Pennywheels”, “Miles”, “Plowed”, “Drownin’”, and “Molly (Sixteen Candles)”.
R.E.M. – Out of Time: This is another album that was pretty big my senior year of high school. Ironically this album starts off with “Radio Song”, a song about music on the radio controlling the tastes of the masses, which is kind of appropriate, since I feel like a lot of the best music on this album never got the airplay it deserved. I also seem to remember most of the R.E.M. fans I knew at the time being disappointed (if not outright horrified) by this album, which I find to be rather ironic as well, since this is the first album of theirs I loved from start to finish. Despite the two biggest songs on this album being “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”, I personally feel like those are the least representative tracks for the album as a whole. For my money “Low”, “Near Wild Heaven”, “Belong”, “Half a World Away”, “Country Feedback”, and “Me In Honey” are a better sample of what the album is about.Related Posts:
There are some bands, some performers that utterly transcend the genre of music, who go on to become legends. Time after time, album after album, they continue to produce world-changing music that inspires generations of listeners to either become performers themselves or, if not, to at least seek to their own form of achievement in whatever field suits them.
Sadly, these are not among those few.
While they each have managed to go beyond the level of “one hit wonder” in my own personal estimation, in the pantheon of music greatness they will never rise above the level of once-was or might-have-been. That’s not to say they didn’t make more than one album, just that they never managed to make another album I could get behind. They never quite hit it, they veered off in the wrong direction, or they petered out almost before they started, but at least each one managed to leave behind one album I could love forever before vanishing into the night.
Spin Doctors – Pocket Full of Kryptonite: Despite having produced one of the most execrable earworms of the 90s (“Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” – it’s stuck in your head just reading the name, isn’t it?), this was actually a fantastic album. The sound was something fresh and jazzy, a welcome change from both the pop ballads and the grunge invasion that were vying for control of the airwaves. The lyrics on this album tend toward to be sharp and clever, although sometimes a bit too clever for their own good. My personal favorite song is (arguably) the title track “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues”, from which the line “I’ve got a pocket full of kryptonite” originates. Other great tracks (that haven’t been overplayed on the radio) are “Forty or Fifty”, “Refrigerator Car”, “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me?)”, and “Shinbone Alley/Hard to Exist”.
Martika – Martika: O.K., true confession time. I was first drawn to this album because I had a huge crush on Martika back when she was on the kid’s show Kids Incorporated (I was a kid myself at the time). When I found out she was all grown up and had an album out, of course I went out and bought it immediately. I listened to it over and over, and fortunately for me I was at exactly the right age to enjoy it, considering the album was basically an average teen pop album and I was a teenager who liked pop music. Listening to it now, it’s pretty good for teen pop music; Martika has a strong voice, and the production values are pretty good. I think most of the enjoyment I get out of it is nostalgia, although actually hearing a good alto in pop music is so rare I’m almost ready to take it at any cost. If you decide to give it a try, I would suggest her big radio hit “Toy Soldiers”, her cover of Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move”, and “You Got Me Into This”. If you don’t like those, you won’t like the rest.
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – God Fodder: I don’t really remember when I first heard this album; it was sometime in high school and I just fell in love with it. Everything about it just says punk to me in a way few other bands do, especially bands that explicitly proclaim themselves punk. Maybe it’s the extra bass. What I love most about Ned’s is that they do what they do without being just like everyone else: the guitar lines are power-driven without being the standard “power rock” lines, the drums are hard hitting without feeling like the drummer is coked out, and the lyrics are rebellious and strong without needing to be screamed or merciless. There’s a beauty here that belies the notion punk has to be ugly in order to be raw. For a taste of what I mean, check out “Kill Your Television”, “Less Than Useful”, “Grey Cell Green”, “Capital Letters”, and “What Gives My Son?”
Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes: This is the one I expect to get the most pushback (read: blast of shit) from my friends about, but I’m not going to qualify it in any way. The simple fact is, this is a great album, and as far as I’m concerned the Femmes never lived up to it ever again. They had a few songs I liked after this, but it was never the same or even close. That having been said, when you set the bar so high on your freshman effort, it really is near-impossible to live up to it on any subsequent try, although their drift to different sounds (notably in country and deep alternative direction) didn’t help any either. All that having been said, it takes nothing away from the stripped down, severe beauty of this album, and if you haven’t taken the time to enjoy it in its entirety I strongly recommend doing so. Most of the songs on this album that are most worth listening to have become radio standards, so I’ll pick out the ones that tend not to get airtime that I think are worth extra attention: “Please Do Not Go”, “Prove My Love”, “To the Kill”, “Ugly”, and “Gimme the Car”.Other posts you might like:
One of the funny things about going through the dustbin of your own history is that you will occasionally discover odd synchronicities that you had never been aware of before. There are three great bands with three great albums that I never realized all released in the same year, although considering everything else that failed to happen in that year, I suppose it’s not surprising I didn’t notice all the great music that was going on all around me at the time.
Wheatus – Wheatus: Anyone over a certain age knows the song “Teenage Dirtbag”, which is almost a shame, because I think that’s what doomed this fantastic band. While it’s not unusual for a band to be a one-hit wonder (particularly when their one hit is nothing like the rest of their music), Wheatus got doomed for the opposite reason. Their one hit was too clever by half; it seemed like there was no way the rest of their music could possibly be that sharp, could hit that same note of teen angst so accurately, with just the right blend of sympathy and gentle poking of fun. Truth is, the rest of the album may not be in the same character of “teen angstyness”, but it is sharp, witty, and powerful. Lyrically the tracks range wildly, and the music varies between alt-rock and just this side of experimental in some places. Some of the songs may sound like typical pop fluff on first listen, but there’s a lot of substance underneath, and the album is worth more than a few listens. I highly recommend “Sunshine”, “Hump ‘em N’ Dump’em”, “Leroy”, “Love Is A Mutt From Hell”, “Punk Ass Bitch”, and the awesome cover of “A Little Respect”.
SR-71 – Now You See Inside: Okay, so I’ll be honest, I have no reason to be proud of discovering this band earlier than most folks did. It’s not like I knew them back when they were Honor Among Thieves, nor did I ever go see them live even though they were right up in Baltimore (which isn’t all that far away). So what pulled me in? The song “Right Now”. Yeah, I was that shallow. Or rather I’d at least like to establish that, at the time, I was very much between relationships and… you know what, I can’t even defend this one. Yes, it was sad that this song is what grabbed my attention, but I didn’t pick up the album until after I heard “Politically Correct”. That was the song that made me realize these guys were more than a one trick pony. The lyrics were just as clever on both songs but went in totally different directions. The music was the sort of solid rock I had been missing for a long time, with driving rhythms, strong guitars, and a lead vocalist who has what I can only describe as an acid-washed whiskey voice. IN addition to the two I mentioned above, to get a good sample of the range on this album, I would suggest checking out “What a Mess”, “Last Man on the Moon”, “Fame (What She’s Wanting)”, “Non-Toxic”, and “Paul McCartney”.
Snake River Conspiracy – Sonic Jihad: Possibly the only time I can remember MTV doing anything for me since the mid-1980s (and this is not because of me, this is because I can’t stand “The Real World”), I accidentally turned on the falsely named Music Television one day when they left an intern in charge and he (or she, I won’t be sexist) and this fool unknowingly played music videos. I was so stunned I actually sat and watched them for the whole half hour they were on before cooler heads prevailed and put on a three hour marathon of Road Rules: Say Goodbye to Good Taste. In the midst of this accidental bonanza, I saw a video for Snake River Conspiracy’s cover of “How Soon Is Now?” by the Smiths. The secret to a good cover is to find something in the original that you can reference while making the song your own, which SRC does beautifully here. They take the lush, deep, symphonic sound of the original and bring the tempo up just slightly to make it feel a little more rushed, a bit more like a dance tune. Tobey Torres’ vocals strike a unique counterpoint to Morrissey’s somber tone from the original, and they go in a playful direction where the original goes more serious and (dare I say it) full of itself. They bring this same fun, playful energy to many of the other tracks on the album, including a great cover of “Lovesong” by the Cure, although there are more than a few harder, more industrial-influenced moments as well. Overall there’s a lot to like here, including “Breed”, “You and Your Friend”, “More Than Love”, and “Somebody Hates You”.
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As I look back on this series so far, it’s occurred to me that I may seem to be stuck in the 80s. There’s a reason for that.
I am (just ask my wife).
But seriously, it’s not like all the music I listen to came out in the 80s (or before then…), it’s just that shortly after high school I started listening to a wider variety of music, but I also found fewer albums that I really enjoyed all the way through. I think there may have also been a drift away from the idea of albums sometime in there, and more towards singles, such that it became easier to care passionately about a song but not a band. Fortunately there were still a few bands creating great records all the way through, and I still listen to them today.
Stone Temple Pilots – Core: If I had to pick one phrase to describe this album, I’m afraid it would have to be “bad timing”. Caught right in the middle of the grunge explosion, squarely between Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero on the one hand and Pearl Jam’s Ten and Vs. on the other, and releasing basically the same day as Alice in Chains’ Dirt, being seen as anything other than a “me too” would be damn near impossible for anyone. Which is too bad, because if any album could stand tall among these giants, this would be it. For my money this album is every bit as good as Nevermind and Ten (although it’s well known among my friends that I’ve never been a huge Nirvana or Pearl Jam fan, I still acknowledge those are amazing albums), and it comes pretty close to Dirt (“Would” and “Rooster” alone are enough to put Dirt over the top in that contest). If you’re a grunge fan who somehow missed this one, pick it up, and if you never got into the grunge scene, this is a great place to start. Best tracks are “Sex Type Thing”, “Wicked Garden”, “Creep”, “Plush”, and “Where the River Goes”.
Garbage – Garbage: On a slightly different note, there’s the self-titled debut release from Garbage. Shirley Manson captivated me immediately with her dark, smoky vocals, and the heavy, almost goth/grunge sound of the music hit the sweet spot for me. There also seemed to be a certain tongue-in-cheek humor to it, as the first single I remember hearing off the album was “Only Happy When It Rains”, which has a healthy dose of self-mockery that was sorely lacking in the goth scene I found myself escaping at the time. While the album tends toward an alt-rock/grunge sound, the instrumentals are a bit too clean and sharp to really fit neatly into the grunge category, and the vocals manage to soar past most of what I generally think of as grunge (although whether that’s because of Manson’s skill or just because I haven’t heard any hardcore female grunge bands is hard to say). All around a great album, and in addition to “Only Happy When It Rains” I would suggest checking out “As Heaven Is Wide”, “Stupid Girl”, and “Milk”.
Blues Traveler – four: And now for something completely different… It’s a little known fact, but I absolutely love good harmonica playing. I don’t know why, but I’m a total sucker for good harmonica, especially when it’s blues or rock style. Small wonder then that I should get sucked in by the likes of John Popper, harmonica virtuoso, fronting up a band called Blues Traveler. What I particularly liked about this album was that they managed to range over a wide area both thematically and musically, being everywhere from up tempo to down tempo and inspiring to… well, to be perfectly honest there’s some out and out depressing moments in this album, as well. But taken as a whole it feels like life. This is a serious and mature album from a band that has had time to get a sense of who they are and what they can achieve, and they bring a great sound together with brilliant lyrics. My favorite tracks include “Run-Around”, “The Mountains Win Again”, “Crash & Burn”, “Price to Pay”, “Hook”, “Just Wait”, and “Brother John”.
Adrian Belew – Young Lions: While it seems like the odd duck out in my collection of music in many ways, this album always puts a smile on my face. Adrian Belew first came to my attention with his hit single “Oh Daddy” off his album Mr. Music Head, and although I was never a big fan of that one, I latched onto this album immediately. Something about the title track just grabbed me, and even to this fay every time I hear it I am inspired with wild ideas of artistic works I will never complete, but at least it gets me started. There’s a few more experimental tracks on this album that also inspire me to just let loose and go with whatever crazy new artistic venture I’ve been holding back on, although I usually abandon them by the time the album is over. The rest of the tracks are more standard pop-like fare, which is not a bad thing, because they’re all executed exceptionally well, with guest appearances on a couple of tracks by David Bowie. “Young Lions” is not to be missed, “Pretty Pink Rose” is great for Bowie fans, “I Am What I Am” is just a trip, and “Men in Helicopters” is another good all-around song.
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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).
Hard as it may be to believe, not all of the music I’ve listened to over the years has been what you might call “family friendly”. In fact, some of it crosses the line into downright offensive. Not in the sense of “it all depends on your taste”, but rather in the sense of “by any societal norm this is beyond the standards of appropriate”. That’s not to say I believe in censorship (obviously), but rather I at least acknowledge that I wouldn’t want children or my mother to listen to it (Mom, please take the hint. No, seriously. Stop reading. Like, right now.)
That having been said, I still love these albums. Some of them for their musical style, some of them for their social importance (and sometimes both), and some… well, I just have a sick sense of humor. Let’s just get it out there. I won’t laugh at just anything (Jimmy Fallon, this means you), but some kinds of vile humor when presented well can be so over-the-top that it’s actually entertaining. It’s not for everybody, but it works for me. (Seriously Mom, you can stop reading now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
So here’s some of my all-time favorite albums that push the boundaries and go places few others would dare.
N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton: Let’s just get the big one out of the way first, shall we? This is arguably the most important album in rap and hip-hop history, and certainly the most important album in gangsta rap. It launched the careers of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E. While you can as easily make an argument that this album glamorizes the gangster lifestyle as it does making a realistic portrayal of it, for myself I have heard few (if any) later albums that have presented as honest and raw a depiction of life in a gang. With such lyrics as “I might stumble but I still won’t lose/now I’m dressed in the county blues” there is at least a cursory acknowledgement contained within the otherwise violent and misogynistic lyrics that this is not a lifestyle that has good long-term options. It is a brutal portrayal of a brutal situation, and one that, while not completely absent of humor, also does not completely shy away from boldly expressing an anger and frustration that did not have a clear voice up to that time in the music industry. Some of the key tracks I would recommend are the titular “Straight Outta Compton”, “Gangsta Gangsta”, “I Ain’t Tha 1”, “Dope Man”, and of course the famous “Fuck the Police”.
Faith No More – Angel Dust: I’ll be honest, I was never a big fan of Faith No More, in spite of their popular album The Real Thing (which contained the hit song “Epic”). Then they released Angel Dust and that all changed. “A Small Victory” completely rocked my world, and I decided to listen to the rest of the album (a friend had already bought it; this was back before downloads, even the illegal kind). The music was a wild ride, ranging back and forth from sedate and sedating to brutal and breathtaking, while the lyrics where hypnotic and disturbing all at once. This album came along at a time in my life when I was unsure about my direction, and the disjointed themes and mismatch between many of the lyrics and musical movements fit my mood perfectly; listening to it now takes me back to that time and helps remind me how far I’ve come. Some of my favorite tracks include the aforementioned “A Small Victory”, as well as “Midlife Crisis”, “Kindergarten”, “Crack Hitler”, and “Midnight Cowboy”.
Lords of Acid – Lust: This was one of the first techno albums I was ever introduced to, and to this day it remains one of my favorites. (That having been said, if you think you like techno and you don’t already own Pretty Hate Machine, hang your head in shame and then go educate yourself.) I remember the day I first heard it (this is going to sound strange, but bear with me). I was in a friend’s basement for our weekly gaming night (as I’ve already mentioned, I’m an RPG geek from way back) and he had invited a new guy to join our group. I don’t remember the guy’s name (sorry, guy) but he brought some music with him, and I do remember this. It was like a revelation for me. The bass that pumped right through me, the beats that got my heart pumping, and the vocals… well… Mom, if you’re still reading this despite all my warnings, just stop now. I’ll wait.
I swear to you now, it was like aural sex. There’s just no other way to describe it. With an album title like Lust I suppose that’s to be expected, and it’s definitely a theme album, but just wow. Did they ever nail it. It’s dirty, it’s rough, and it’s got it all down. I’ve heard more than one person say this is the best album ever to have sex to, and I can’t disagree. This isn’t an album for or about making love, this is about getting your freak on, and for that purpose there is no substitute. If you’re up to it, the best tracks on the album would be “Take Control”, “Rough Sex”, “I Sit On Acid”, “Lessons In Love”, and “Hey Ho!”, although really it’s best experienced as a whole.
Gwar – Scumdogs of the Universe and America Must Be Destroyed: And at last we come to the grand finale. Gwar is a band that truly has no redeeming features. You either love them or you are completely repulsed by them. A satirical heavy metal band that goes beyond pushing the envelope and moves straight into ripping it to shreds, they use elaborate props and costumes as part of a stage show that violates every possible obscenity law… on purpose. These guys go out of their way to offend. They’ve been banned in at least one state that I know of, and they’ve also been nominated for at least one Grammy (long form video for Phallus In Wonderland, based off the album America Must Be Destroyed). While there have been other attempts to do revolting satire of metal, I haven’t found one yet that quite strikes the balance between musicality (yes, they do actually manage to play their instruments passably well), surprisingly intelligent and socially relevant lyrics (if you can get past all of the offensiveness), and brilliantly raunchy humor. The tracks that I would recommend trying to see if you can appreciate their unique brand of satire would be “The Salamanizer”, “Slaughterama”, “Vlad the Impaler”, “Sexecutioner”, “Have You Seen Me?”, “The Morality Squad”, “America Must Be Destroyed”, “Blimey”, and “The Road Behind”. Just make sure you have a strong stomach.
Shortly after I left high school, in that nebulous period I best define as somewhere between “I wasn’t in college” and “I didn’t have a job” (my parents were so proud), there was a coffee house my friends and I would hang out at in the evenings. By evenings I mean usually after 9 PM, for reasons I can’t quite define except for perhaps that some of them were in fact in school or had jobs, and other than that it just seemed like a good idea at the time.
Anyway, this wasn’t some Starbucks-clone or even a tragically hip hangout where all the cool kids went (although it eventually ended up being somewhat of the latter). It was a strange oasis, a place where everyone was equally welcome (or unwelcome, considering the surliness of the staff and the regulars). Once you became known and established you were accepted as a part of… something. Not the family, because it wasn’t as closely-knit as a family, although there were some sub-groups that did become that close. Nor was it a club or a clique, because most people didn’t care that much, although some people did. In the end I guess you could say you were just accepted as part of the group, the zeitgeist that simply was the experience of being there. That’s not to say they wouldn’t still hurt you or take advantage of you (if they were the kind of people who would do that in the first place), but at least they would protect you from outsiders who would try to.
If I sound nostalgic for that time and place, it’s only because I am. I wouldn’t go back to it now if I could, because I made a lot of mistakes there, and I know better now. But to be young enough, vibrant enough, and innocent enough to make those mistakes is something I occasionally miss. And I miss having a place I can go, have a cup of coffee, hang out with some friends, play cards, and listen to music like this.
The Cure – Disintegration: If you don’t know who the Cure are, chances are you are either over the age of 60, under the age of 20, or have lived in a cave. This is one of the defining albums of the goth movement (emo kids, pay attention, this is where you came from), and a landmark album in rock and roll history. Not only does Robert Smith have a uniquely breathy, seductive voice, but the instrumental work on the record goes far beyond anything that is traditionally thought of as “pop music”. Dark without being depressing, sexy without being explicit, this is a fantastic example of how to make subtle yet powerful music. Possibly the most famous track from the album, “Lovesong”, has been covered by such notables as 311 and Adele, as well as a host of other bands. “Pictures of You” is another famous track off this album, although I would highly recommend checking out the less well-known “Fascination Street” and my personal favorite “Lullaby”, which is probably the sexiest, most disturbing song I have ever heard.
The Pixies – Doolittle: Whenever I mention the Pixies, someone invariably brings up Surfer Rosa. Okay, I’m going to admit it upfront. I must not be much of a Pixies fan, because the truth is I thought that album sucked. It sucked the big one. Boring with a capital “OH DEAR GOD MAKE IT STOP.” Which surprised me a great deal, since my only previous exposure to the Pixies had been through the soundtrack to Pump Up the Volume, on which they had the UK Surf mix of their classic “Wave of Mutilation”, and Doolittle, the album on which that song originated. I had to get that out there, because as much as I don’t like Surfer Rosa, I do like Doolittle. It’s offbeat, quirky, it’s got a unique, almost-but-not-quite punk sound to it that I’m sure someone can define but I can’t, and it just works for me. In addition to “Wave of Mutilation” (which I really can’t recommend highly enough), my other favorite tracks off this one are “Here Comes Your Man” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven”. If you want something well out of the mainstream that still has a good strong rhythm, give this a try.
Counting Crows – August & Everything After: For a long time after this album became big, it wasn’t unusual for my friends and I to sit around playing cards and drinking coffee just about every night up at Dharma. Inevitably, this album would come on, and inevitably, one of my friends (and he knows who he is) would wail along in a caterwauling screech “ROOOOOOUND HERE!” Yes, we got looks from the other patrons, and as I recall more than once the staff asked us to shut him up. Ah, good times. To this day I can’t listen to that song without hearing his voice in my head (although if he’s in hearing distance that’s because he still does it). The truth is though that I loved this album from the very first time I heard “Mr. Jones”, and every song on the album is a winner for me. It’s sad, poignant, melancholy, and beautiful. If there’s hopefulness in this album, it’s tempered with a sense of realism that change isn’t easy and it always comes at a cost, and sometimes that cost is too high. While “Round Here”, “Rain King”, and “Murder of One” are probably the best known tracks, be sure to check out “Perfect Blue Buildings”, “Anna Begins”, and “Raining in Baltimore” if you’ve never heard them.
emmet swimming – Arlington to Boston: Although I rarely if ever heard emmet swimming played inside Dharma, it wasn’t unusual to hear them being played on someone’s car stereo outside. You could also hear them playing live from the next bar over, as they were regulars at the place next door, and I did get to see them live once at Dharma (I was just never a bar kind of guy back then). This is one of those bands that I was late to the party on, and I regret it, because had I realized at the time how great they are I would have gotten to see them a lot more. They still play live from time to time (if you’re in the DC Metro area I highly suggest checking out their website at http://www.emmetswimming.com), and I have seen them a few times in the last few years. While I can easily recommend any of their albums, this remains one of my favorites. While their big radio hit was “Arlington”, I actually feel like it may ironically be the weakest track on the album (not that it’s bad, just that there are so many great songs). Picking out favorites is tough, but My Not So Humble Wife loves “Bullet In Your Hand”, so that one’s easy. “Fake Wood Trim”, “Living Room”, and “8:45” are also not to be missed, but really, the whole record is not to be missed, so there you go.
That’s it for tonight. Time to put up the chairs and turn out the lights.Related Posts: