2004 seems longer ago than any other year to me, which I understand makes no sense. How can it seem longer ago than 1999, or 1991, or even 1989 – all years I remember, at least in bits and chunks? Maybe because 2004 felt like a bridge, some convergence of the analog past and the digital future. It was the year I graduated high school and started college. It was the year Facebook was invented, the peak of Windows dominance, the calm before the Apple-Google-let-me-check-my-phone storm. It was a time when there was still hope that George W. Bush wouldn’t be reelected. It was a moment at which I could feel the changes on horizon while being able to look into the past and realize how far away it would soon feel.
It was also the year that Above & Beyond launched their massively successful radio show/podcast Trance Around the World. The show ran for 450 episodes until 2012, when it was rebranded as Group Therapy, after their sophomore album. In 2004, A&B was on fire with songs like “No One On Earth” and “Satellite” (by OceanLab, the combination of A&B + Justine Suissa) that mixed drama and unshakable melodies with EDM churn. 10 years later, they’re more popular than ever – the 100th episode of Group Therapy (and the 550th episode of the radio show overall) was a live set in a sold out Madison Square Garden.
I’ve been fascinated with issues of EDM criticism and have even compiled my own list of A&B’s best singles. ABGT 100 didn’t seem like a time for critical reflection, but in the relatively quiet spot I found at the back of the floor, there was time to think. I appreciated how strands of Cygnus X were woven into Mat Zo, how Andrew Bayer unfurled one vocal masterpiece after another, and A&B’s integration of “These Shoulders,” perhaps Julie Thompson’s finest moment on Anjunabeats. I also got this great photo which looks kinda like Deadmau5 lost in a crowd of ABGT partygoers:
It was all so harsh, yet so gentle. All new, yet so old.
“Somewhere, out in America, it’s just starting to rain”
I didn’t get much reading done today, but I heard that lyric in a live version of a Counting Crows song from 1998. The words are originally from 1996’s”Have You Seen Me Lately” and in this were inserted into 1993’s “Round Here.” The former song is a decent cut from the band’s sophomore album, Recovering the Satellites, while the latter is the stormy opener off of their debut, August & Everything After, which I mentioned in my previous entry about “One for Sorrow.”
Copying that line from a good song and pasting it into a great song made me hear the poetry in a fresh way. The image of rain just starting – “somewhere,” perhaps out in Nebraska or elsewhere in rural America – amplifies all the small town ennui of “Round Here,” where the townsfolk described in the lyric aren’t merely bored or suicidal (as in the original album version), but now confronted with overcast skies and downpours. The verse found a new home, better than its original one.
What struck me about the lyrical transplant here was the continuity of the band’s songs (even across albums and styles) and how it was a literal literary cut and paste that worked. The idea of lifting portions of one’s old writing – an email, a draft that never really worked out, or even a nonsensical piece of business writing – and dropping it into a creative piece is hardly a new idea. Entire novels like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (described by one reviewer as “Eisensteinian“) and Will Self’s Umbrella seem predicated on cut-and-paste logic, with sequencing only barely mattering and scenes of violence and alienation opportunely cutting through the head-in-the-clouds narrative.
I’ve tried this technique before, throwing around passages from traditional folk songs, early versions of white papers, loosely transcribed podcast monologues, and lightly rewritten website copy. It’s hit or miss for me, but it’s a lot of fun trying to write around the insertion so that it (kinda) makes sense. I think cut and paste can work if you let yourself be led, rather than trying to lead and find the perfect quote/passage-to-imitate. Basically, it’s the opposite of doing research, which is good enough for me.
There’s an English nursery rhyme called “One for Sorrow” that is about the superstitions associated with watching magpies. If you haven’t read it, it is simplicity itself:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
The rhyme is strange, only hitting at “joy/boy” and “gold/told.” It doesn’t put on the airs of high poetry, but it succinctly covers a vast range of the human experience, including feelings, both genders (one more than many novels, poems, or short stories deal with), money, and uncertainty. Moreover, its superstitiousness masquerades as the domain of children – e.g., “if don’t go to bed early, Santa Claus won’t come,” likewise if I look at the magpies the wrong way there won’t be the number I want to see,” a feeling that every neurotic knows – yet it is of a piece with the arbitrary customs, symbols, and religious rituals of say the Book of Leviticus, making it as mature a piece as possible. It distills the idea of a world beyond willpower and an unknowable afterlife.
“One for Sorrow” was written around 1780, more than decade before the first experimentations with telegraphy, which would lead to the telephone and then the Internet, unlocking the poetic potential of the phrase “bird on a wire” along the way. It also came on the heels of Samuel Richardson’s innovations in the novel through in his epistolary works Clarissa and Pamela. More than 200 years later, though, this little nursery rhyme has long since outlived the telegraph’s relevance, will outlive the declining landline telephone, and now has more popular culture relevance than any of Richardson’s catalog.
At least two fantastic songs, both more than 200 years the rhyme’s junior, have used this song to tremendous effect, as the centerpiece to their dark poetry. Counting Crows, on “A Murder of One” from their extraordinary debut album August & Everything After, used “One For Sorrow,” with minor changes, to flesh out an image of, well “as you stood there, counting crows.” It’s the heart of the song and an explanation of a the band’s name in one package. Patrick Wolf, in “Magpie” from his The Magic Position, enlists Marianne Faithfull to give a haunting reading of the old poem. Having listened to the Counting Crows song so many times, it’s easy for me to imagine Faithfull as the female lead in the story of “A Murder of One,” reciting her side of the view.
The rhyme is beautiful and bewildering. It’s enough to make writer throw up his hands and wonder why she couldn’t just write something as straightforward and be immortalized, instead of toiling on a complex novel or paper that no one will read. If anything, the insane instant gratification culture enabled by smartphones et al makes these nursery rhymes, with their snappy conclusions and showy phrasing, more relevant than ever.
“Little Miss Muffet” and “One For Sorrow,” to name but two, will be with us long after “Infinite Jest,” but creating something similarly universal and monocultural will be so hard, if only because of the current media saturation (ok, I’ll stop with the dairy puns). “One for Sorrow” was a brilliant foil to the excessive art and writing that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries – a mere nursery rhyme, going up against complex novels, albums, and films. But with all those latter forms seeming in decline thanks to the “too busy” mindset of today, its shortness is still a virtue but in a fresh new way, as philosophy condensed for pop music and bite-size attention spans.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.