Monthly Archives: August, 2014

10 Albums That Seem Really Overrated

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I thought about calling this entry “the 10 most overrated albums ever,” but that would be stupid, because, as Kip would say, “like anyone could even know that.” Understanding why someone else like something and liking it yourself are two totally different things, meaning that an album, book, movie, whatever could be “great” to critics (who are people, too, remember) while being dead to any given person. I first felt the disconnect with books, when I felt nothing but indifference to Infinite Jest (I liked some of Wallace’s other works), William T. Vollmann, or Amy Tan. With film, my feelings were less strong, so no lists of “most overrated/underrated/best ever” will be forthcoming.

Music has such a low bar to entry for criticism, though, that it’s as easy to slaughter sacred cows as it is erect them in the first place as monuments to one’s own demographic, historical and stylistic biases. Publications like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork have each single-handedly created pantheons around middling albums from Slanted & Enchanted to Neon Bible, without discussing much other than the cultural contexts in which these works were created. I came up with a list of the albums with critical reputations out of line with their music, at least to my ears. As always, a reminder that “overrated” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.”

Nirvana – Nevermind
Smoothing over 1980s punk and indie with 1970s production and commercialism was the most cliched move possible at Nirvana’s time, but they did it anyway, following the example of the Pixies, Soul Asylum, Goo Goo Dolls and many others. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is not only a copy of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” but also the basis for “Drain You” and “On a Plain,” making the latter two copies of a copy. The band is musically limited and its song structures conventional; hard to tell why they were picked out of the sea of bands that had all the same tricks. 

Radiohead – Kid A
Reviews and retrospectives of this album are given to ridiculous hyperbole about its Importance as well as pearl-clutching about the decline of the album, 9/11…everything. The music itself? Sloppily produced folktronica, the obvious result of a rock band listening to the Warp catalog a few times and feeling like it had loops, textures, and sampling down pat. Much of it – the title track, “Treefingers,” “Morning Bell” – sound like 1970s acts such as Mike Oldfield or Klaus Schulze, except produced with a harsh commercial sheen 30 years after the fact – what’s so great about that? Every Radiohead album has been worse than its predecessor.

My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
Whale sounds, gossamer, whatever – reading writing about this album is like reading a wine reviewer’s notes. MBV was heavily reliant on volume and production, which means that the group’s sporadic output and epic hiatus aren’t hard to understand – there’s not much in the songwriting well. This album sounds like a noisy take on the Cocteau Twins more than it does any of the outre sounds ascribed to it.

Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
Does anyone listen to this anymore? It always felt like an obligatory influence or touch point to cite, but listening to it start to finish was an afterthought. It’s not even that edgey – The Clash were more political, American acts like Blondie and Television were more forward-looking and ultimately more influential, and even Stones records like Sticky Fingers and Let it Bleed were full of references to drugs and violence years before. Anyone going to argue that “God Save the Queen” has aged well, or “EMI” for that matter?

Sufjan Stevens – Illinoise
In 2005, I was baffled by the almost universal acclaim that this record received, figuring that they might just be admirations of its cute artwork and super-long song titles (which indicate quirkiness AND importance). It’s way too long and keeps an even tone almost the whole way, with busy but uninteresting arrangements, tiresome lyrics, and flat production that between them add up to something that can maybe listened to one or twice before moving on. As an Illinoisan, this hurts.

The Strokes – Is This It
Indeed, was that it? As a 15-year old, I remember disliking this album for its grating, filtered vocals. I gave it a second shot recently and was surprised that my reaction hadn’t really changed in a decade plus. They’re not cosmopolitan enough to sound quite like The Velvet Underground, and the results instead are repetitive guitar lines mastered and done much better years before by The Cars and Blondie. Like Nevermind, it is a record heavily dependent on its production. Not bad, really, but nowhere near the masterpiece it was hailed as.

Tom Waits – Rain Dogs
I first heard Tom Waits as an 18-year old, and I didn’t get him at the time. I later got into Mule Variations, which was full of varied yet coherent and tuneful songs given gorgeous production and lyrical wit, but I never warmed to this record. It repeated the innovations of Swordfishtrombones, albeit across an exhausting 19 songs of screaming, yelling, and other vocal interpretations that are just takes on the Howlin Wolf’ blues tradition filtered through Captain Beefheart – it’s only “weird” to sheltered boomers or lily-white indie critics. The one song I kept listening to again – “Hang Down Your Head” – is just the old standard “Tom Dooley” reconfigured.

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Arcade Fire do very little with a whole lot. They use tons of instruments to cover up for straightforward chord-progressions and plodding tempos. Win Butler’s voice is screechy and the lyrics strive hard for Seriousness but in the musical context end up wearing me out. I remember hearing “Keep the Car Running” while in a car in 2007 and thinking of how it seemed endless despite its 3:28 running time, probably because of the repetitive musicianship.

Led Zeppelin – IV
I never got into Led Zeppelin, so take that into account. They seemed too masculine, too self-regarding, too blues-masters-y to really connect with me. However, thank to my sister’s Zep phase, I listened to this album many times in car trips. It’s strong in the first half, with “Rock N Roll” and “Black Dog” and “Stairway to Heaven.” But Side 2 is like a joke – the pointless hippie paean “Going to California” and especially the turgid blues rip off “When the Levee Breaks.” Zep always seemed like a consolidation of the past (Cream, Hendrix, Robert Johnson) than something really new.

Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
This record’s backstory and accidental 9/11 relevance totally overshadowed its content. There are some nice, catchy songs here – “Kamera,” “Jesus Etc.,” “Heavy Metal Drummer” – but there are also heavy-handed touches like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Poor Places.” It’s a record that feels like it badly wants to be experimental, but can’t make the leap. Still, “I Am the Man Who Loves You” is better than anything Pavement ever did.

 

The Comfort Zone, pt. 2

I’ve written about the “comfort zone” a few times, once as the subject of its own entry and another time in the context of my decision to leave a programming boot camp. But I don’t think my arguments against it were that well-formed. It’s a cliche, yes, and one ought to be skeptical of all such constructions since they imply political view points that have been systematized and turned into placeholders for original thought. Beyond that, I struggled to articulate my reasons for disliking this mantra in particular.

After thinking about it, I feel like I’ve arrived at a clearer reason for my distaste:

Habits aren’t necessarily the results of comfort

Think about a daily routine such as getting up (despite feeling groggy), dreading work (not all people “love what they do”), cooking breakfast, setting out on a long commute, putting in a few hours, and then going home. Consider also the effects of this regimen, from feeling tired to wanting to avoid conflict and distraction that would add to the stress. Do any of these behaviors sound like they were caused by “comfort?” What if they were instead the products of pressures that the individual couldn’t control, forces that had made unhappiness instead of comfort the main form of stasis?

In popular imagination, stepping out of the “comfort zone” is often a low stakes, recreational endeavor – trying out for a sports team or doing an improv routine – or one that is decidedly upper-middle class (asking for a raise). Other actions such as entering an immersive language environment might also qualify, but could just as easily be framed as necessities driven by motives other than the voluntary maneuver of moving past the artificial confines of the “comfort zone.” For example, was learning it necessary to get a visa or reunite with a family member? These motives would potentially extend beyond her own aspirations and encompass restrictions, rules, and regulations that she could not shape to her own ends. In contrast, Being nudged to step outside the “comfort zone” assumes that the subject has some level of luxury, i.e., that her problems, as they were, consist mostly in habits that are formed of her volition and easily changed. That’s not realistic for a lot of people.

Like so many cliches – “think outside the box” also comes to mind – the “comfort zone” is propaganda that promises freedom while papering over the confines that are being ever-extended around the subject by mechanisms including its own dishonest words. “I was in a zone? I was in a box? No matter, with some solutionizing language I can escape!” They create a weak, artificial barrier that can be broken with a superficial solution (there’s that word again).

The Internet vs. the washing machine

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The washing machine – a force for good.

In his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang makes one of the best contrarian arguments of all time – that the washing machine is a more important invention than the Internet. Like Parmenides’ contention that motion doesn’t exist or Hobbes’ assertion that absolute monarchy is the ideal form of government, it is more convincing that one might think upon first hearing its thesis. It’s really not even that radical:

  1. The Internet has mostly impacted our leisure lives. When someone talks about “disruption,” she is referring to relatively low stakes changes such as getting celebrity news from Facebook rather than Entertainment Tonight, or reading the same stories that The New York Times breaks, only on Gawker rather than in the physical NYT or the NYT website.
  2. The washing machine eliminated an unfathomable amount of rote labor, much of which was done by women. It accelerated the entry of women into the workforce. In contrast, the Internet has eliminated…going to the store to buy a CD?

Moreover, it’s a striking argument for its demographic contours. I sometimes put “the Internet” in quotes because of the common portrayal of IP connectivity as an unfettered force for good, even as it primarily confers wealth on white men and is filtered through personality control mechanisms (“privacy” is the wrong word) like Facebook. (I didn’t do so above, since Chang doesn’t seem to politicize the term. Also, the linked with my first quoted instance provides more context on this practice, which isn’t original to me).

But isn’t “the Internet” an enabler of that other great transformative force, “globalization?” For now, the Internet is somewhat standard from one country to the next, although that could change especially in the wake of Edward Snowden. Still, it’s debatable whether globalization via “the Internet” has had anywhere near the emancipatory effect achieved by the humble washing machine.

[G]lobalization is not homogenization,” wrote Pierre Bourdieu in Acts of Resistance. “[I]t is, instead, continuation of the power and influence of a small number of the dominant nations over the totality of the national stock exchanges.”

One could make a similar assessment about “the Internet.” Let’s play a game, changing buzzwords into alternate lingo:

  • “openness” -> “largely unregulated commerce”
  • open source” -> “free software without ethical or philosophical concerns (so corporations can extract profit from it)”
  • “dialogue” -> “agenda-pushing with the formality of feedback”
  • “platform” -> “political action committee”
  • “disruption” -> “papering-over the ongoing domination of huge companies

It’s not hard to see that just as globalization has empowered the United States, China, and big business at the expense of seemingly everyone else, “the Internet” has enriched a handful of (mostly American) private sector companies while contributing little to public infrastructure. The trumpeted “disruption” of news media by Google or of the taxi and limousine industry by Uber pinpoint the intersection of the similar brands of domination behind globalization and “the Internet.”

The immense political weight of”the Internet” makes it seems much more important than mostly apolitical machines like washers and dryers, which aren’t terribly useful for dominating stock exchanges from New York to Buenos Aires. The gargantuan likes of Google and Facebook, with their poor track records on diversity, are representative effects of “the Internet”‘s ultimate perpetuation of entrenched interests rather than its illusory uplift of underdogs.

Washing machines, microwaves, and other household appliances, though? They empowered those without means. No wonder “the Internet” is out for them, too, in the form of the so-called Internet of Things. Think about your that the next time you throw in a load.

Fear of a blank page planet

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Inspiration to end “writer’s block”?

After more than 15 years and literally millions of words written between day jobs and school assignments, the fog of writing anxiety hasn’t lifted for me. It shrouds much of this blog, if not this dashed-off entry.

The most obnoxious writing advice I ever got was from another student at university, who said that I should write “as if a reader were always looking over your shoulder.” Terrifying! But this reader-telescreen sticks around, like Bay Area fog obstructing the vistas beyond. 

Is it a good thing, though? Staring at a blank page gives me heartburn, but the anxiety pushes me toward the metaphorical antacids, by making me go back and yank a word for a synonym (having to do this during the day has given me a new perspective on the usefulness of nouns like “setups” are “arrangements” as generic stand-ins for many words) or retool phrasing for smoothness so that I can feel better about what emerges. “I don’t like writing, but I like having written” – yes.

Maybe anxious handwringing over word choice and style is preferable to the alternative – pure freedom, which philosophers from Hobbes to Sartre have characterized as actually frightening. For me, the “writer’s block” cliche seems more grounded in not knowing how to pick one out of many tantalizing options, rather than being stuck trying to rework a section or idea (though that happens). Having to produce enormous volume on schedule helps with the latter issue, but the first one is still painful, like a feeling of “which of 1,000 different ways will I pick to fail?”

This naysayer voice fortunately doesn’t linger forever. Naysayers don’t see opportunities, no more than grammar-hounds see style or originality – reason enough to nudge them to the sidelines. Many times, a piece will end up as something with no resemblance to its original germ, which seems so much more satisfying than just adding, using and then rolling away the scaffolding for something that’s been taking shape in your mind for some time (though that’s a great feeling, too). Where did that come from? That was inside the whole time?

I’m not a fan of “spotaneity,” a word that implies almost sociopathic negligence of purpose, friends and family. But I do like the idea of setting down an idea and then trying to either build around it or demolish it outright – a win-win for a writer who can bring curiosity, thinking, and patience to the game.  It’s why when I work on short stories, I often pick an author and then imitate his style at first and then add my own flourishes to see if it either enhances or engages what made Hemingway, Joyce, or others so fun to read in the first place. That’s the start of alleviating fear of a blank page planet, even if the lesser anxiety of retooling structures and word choice await. That’s good anxiety.

The greatest American bands

Talking Points Memo recently began a discussion of the greatest American bands, a contentious subject given how many of rock’s canonical bands are from the U.K. (e.g., The Beatles, The Rolling Stones) or have Anglo-American membership (e.g., The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Fleetwood Mac). I was reminded of Simon Kuper’s quip in Soccernomics that the British Empire was alive and well while the American Empire may have never existed. Britain’s exports, particularly soccer and popular rock music, remain way ahead of American equivalents football and jazz/country/blues.

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So who are the great American bands? TPM’s criteria are broad, with an emphasis on Importance to rock/pop (so no country and western bands). The usual suspects are The Beach Boys, REM, The Grateful Dead, The Eagles, The Ramones, et all. Strict solo acts and solo vehicles are out, so no Dylan, Springsteen or Zappa. I consider The Velvet Underground to be off-limits, too, since they were at times a vehicle (for Lou Reed) and weren’t entirely American (Nico and John Cale were not American).

In coming up with my list, I thought of how young rock/pop music is (60 years or so), and how great American artists in other fields took ages to be recognized (Melville is the best example). The latter point holds for artists from other countries, too, despite the instant canonization of The Beatles. Who will be today’s Marlowe – popular now but second-tier later – and who will be Shakespeare – a big deal but underestimated in the moment – in comparison?

I’m skeptical of all of the usual suspects, many of whom were very one-dimensional, other than The Beach Boys. I looked for artists that were historically, culturally and to a lesser degree commercially significant.

The Beach Boys
Brian Wilson et al would have been a consensus pick were it not for the post Pet Sounds meltdown that resulted in Smile being shelved for years and the band’s legacy tarnished by never-ending reunions and “Kokomo.” Still, the band has a body of work that traces the commercial and artistic evolution of American music at a critical time (the early to mid 1960s). The band’s singles show an impressive assimilation of 1950s styles (Chuck Berry and surf) with 1960s artistry and they culminate with 1966’s Pet Sounds and its unique combination of early orchestration – which predicts everything from prog rock to indie pocket symphonies – and lyrical introspection. Smile, while never completed at a time when it would have mattered, nevertheless produced “Good Vibrations” and, from the sessions we did get, showed musical imagination approaching Sgt. Pepper.

Parliament-Funkadelic
P-Funk owned the 1970s. They produced rock records – Maggot Brain, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow – that were as good as or even superior to the output of Led Zeppelin, while pioneering an entire genre – funk – with first-rate musicianship and innovative use of synthesizer and bass. Parliament classics like Mothership Connection and The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein predicted hip-hop and EDM. While personnel varied widely from one record to the next, the vision of George Clinton kept it all together but never reduced the proceedings to a solo act.

Simon & Garfunkel
It’s possible to hear Simon & Garfunkel very differently depending on when you came of age. To a baby boomer, S&G captured the folk renaissance of the late 1960s and “The Graduate.” For a millennial like me, S&G are the godfathers of indie rock – just look at their inclusion on the seminal Garden State soundtrack, the 2004 landmark that introduced millions to the burgeoning low-key indie scene. Their “The Last Living Boy in New York” is a perfect complement to The Shins and Iron & Wine songs on that disc, underscoring their enormous influence. They were commercially successful, with a ton of hits at their peak, and their best work – 1968’s Bookends – has ambition to rival The Beatles or Beach Boys’s most daring projects from the same period.

Blondie
Blondie had the grit to match any punk act from the 1970s, but the versatility to endure much longer than any of them. Their debut was a sublime mixture of 1950s rock n’ roll and New Wave, and it pointed the way to all the skinny-ties and taut guitar lines that would be synonymous with cool for the next 25 years. The classic Parallel Lines perfected this mixture while demonstrating the band’s incredible attention to production (“Heart of Glass”) and a cosmopolitan style that drew upon the best of disco. Autoamerican is one of the most stylistically diverse records in American history, containing early rap (“Rapture”), reggae (“The Tide is High”) and Europop (“Europa”) – all of which would become part and parcel of so many latter-day mainstream and indie artists alike eager to prove that they weren’t one-trick ponies. Even Blondie’s latter-day work is remarkable – they penned one of their best singles – “Maria” – in 1999, and 2014’s double album Blondie 40/Ghosts of Download is important due to its novel approach to the greatest hits format (rerecording the classics) and its deft exploration of contemporary R&B, dance music, and those genres’ guest-heavy formulas.

Sleater-Kinney
For some reason, “saving” rock music became an enormous concern for critics in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes that were commercially minor but darlings with critics became inordinately prominent. Sleater-Kinney was well ahead of this trend with its two guitars + drums setup and short, snappy tunes. The band never produced a bad album, and its run from Call the Doctor to All Hands on the Bad One is as extraordinary, with the latter being one of the most overlooked classics since the grunge era. They were never huge sellers, but culturally their politics showed the way to the Obama era, plus their economy, dueling lead vocals, and self-contained nature (no overdubs or outside musicians) makes them a “band” in every sense of the word.