Category Archives: Why Am I Doing This?

“How Long Has This Been Going On?” – Ace

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How Long Has This Been Going On?

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That’s the musical question posed by one-hit-wonder band “Ace,” which featured serial band-jumper (Roxy Music, Squeeze, Mike + The Mechanics) Paul Carrack. For me, the musical answer would come from The Beatles … “It’s been a long time …” Or Boston might have an even better answer … “It’s been such a long time …

The non musical answer is About a Year. That’s how long I’ve been driving around listening to CDs, taking notes, comparing contrasting, thinking. The NHTSA thinks I should be paying better attention to the road. Maybe so. Here’s a picture a friend took of the result of me not paying attention to the car in front of me:

driving distracted

Several months ago I reached a point at which I was no longer sure which CDs I’d listened to, and which were still waiting. Sure, I keep a list, so I could double-check which ones were on it, but I did find myself getting a little overwhelmed.

Plus, it’s getting a little BORING. I love listening to the music, but the whole point of this project has been to make a list, and now it’s been a friggin year, AND I STILL HAVEN’T STARTED MY LIST!!!!! Maybe boredom isn’t the word I’m looking for. Perhaps I meant Frustration!

frustration

Maybe the best musical answer to the musical question “How Long Has This Been Going On?” might come from Gnarls Barkley: “I can die when I’m done … Maybe I’m crazy…

But despite my frustration, to paraphrase The Stone Roses, “I’ll carry on through it all/I’m a waterfall.” And really, I am enjoying it, and I am having some musical revelations, of sorts. Here are some things I have learned:

brain music

1) It is really difficult to judge “Rock Opera” type records, like Tommy, Quadrophenia and The Wall. These albums are impressive in their scope and story-telling. As works of art they are undeniably profound. I find myself listening to them and thinking, “Holy shit. These guys are working at such a different level than all the other pop and rock acts I’m listening to!”

rock opera

But then I hear a song like “Fiddle About,” or “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” (on Tommy) or “Vera,” or “Bring the Boys Back Home” (on The Wall) and I find myself thinking, “Man, this song helps me understand the story, but it SUCKS!!!” So, do I judge the albums as contained works of art and gloss over the fact that there are a few songs that I dislike, since they help accomplish what the writer meant to accomplish? Or do I state – as with other CDs – this album has two, three, whatever, songs that I DISLIKE and adjust my rating accordingly? I’m 319 CDs into my efforts, and I still don’t know how this will shake out …

2) I don’t like records in which all the songs sound very similar.

many notes

I like diversity, different styles, bands trying to do something a little outside their comfort zone. (But just a little …) This is probably why London Calling is destined to sit pretty high on the list. And, going back to Insight #1, it’s generally speaking a positive aspect of the Rock Opera. However, there are some bands/CDs for which I’ve broken this rule. The Stone Roses is an album that many of my friends have complained about, stating all the songs sound alike. This is utter donkey dung, and there is no semblance of truth to the statement … however, if it were true, too fucking bad. That CD is awesome. My distaste for similar sounds in an entire CD is probably why hip-hop isn’t prominently featured. As I wrote several months ago, to my ears a lot of it sounds the same.

3) I need some pep. When too many songs are too slow and/or too soft, it starts to sound like this to me:

I don’t mind a slow, soft song here and there, particularly if it’s got great lyrical content. And such songs help to minimize the “all the songs sound alike” bug from Insight #2. But CDs that are mostly slow songs – whether folky or rock ballads or lowdown blues or love songs or break-up songs – these are CDs I won’t listen to very much. They’ll sink down on the list.

4) I have lots of CDs that I haven’t listened to in a while that I had completely forgotten I really like! Back in SF I had an acquaintance who worked in a record store (note to readers born after 1975: “record stores” were buildings with lights and a cash register and posters on the walls (like this)

record store

where actual physical, (non-virtual) compilations of songs called “records” were sold; the records came in a variety of formats: vinyl (little and big (and before my time, medium);

vinyl records

8-track tape;

8track

cassette tape;

cassette2

compact disc)

compact disc

anyway, this guy said that having any more than 100 records was a waste because there’s no way you could listen to more than that over a given span of time and fully appreciate the content of each. So this guy would cap his collection at 100, and anytime he wanted a new one, he’d get rid of one of the existing 100 – sort of like Relegation Rules in the English Premier League. I think he and I have a different understanding of what it means to appreciate music, but it is true that many of the CDs I’ve bought over the years have remained un-listened-to for years at a time. Some disks that I listened to over the past year that I had forgotten were so good include:

Steve Earle – Jerusalem
Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak
Green Day – Warning
Pearl Jam – Backspacer
Foo Fighters and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – just generally better than I recall.

There were also a couple CDs that weren’t as great as I recall, including Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, by Pavement; Wish You Were Here, by Pink Floyd; and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s eponymous record.

5) The biggest thing I learned is this: I WANT TO START COMPILING THE LIST!!! But I need to be thorough, or I’ll feel like the whole thing was a waste of time. (Which is not to say that an argument for that point couldn’t be mounted right now …) I think I have about 2 months left before I can start. As Tom Petty sang, “The waiting/is the hardest part/every day you see one more card.”

Or in my case, I hear one more CD.

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500 Greatest??? (Part 3)

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Next Van sent me this list, from NME in 2003. This list aligned much more closely with the way that I perceive music and the inherent greatness in certain collections thereof. In other words, a lot of albums that I really like appeared near the top of this list.

This list was significantly different than the Rolling Stone list.

For a while I thought, “Now, THIS is a list I can believe in!! This is MY LIST!” I was happy. I had a list of my very own. “But,” I thought, “how come it doesn’t have Album X, by Band Y, on it? Surely NME overlooked that one! And how come The Smiths and New Order and Joy Division are on there? Doesn’t NME know that they suck??!”

After a while I realized I had as much trouble with this list (Madonna?) as I did with the RS list (The Stone Roses number four-hundred-ninety-fucking-eight???!!!???!!!) as I did with the WSJ dude (Radiohead’s Kid A? Really? That’s the Radiohead album you’ll hang your hat on??)

I spent a lot of time in the course of a week or so thinking about these damned “Greatest” lists. And it made me mad at myself. Mad, I tell you!

Because of course I know that all these lists are just for the sake of marketing. I understand that. I doubt if the editors even think all that much about it. They probably send an email to a hundred people in the music industry, ask “Hey, jot down your favorite 20 or 30 albums,” then just count which albums appeared on the most lists. Really just a Pareto Chart of favorite albums – something to excite the Lean/Six Sigma blackbelts, I guess. Then they call the output “The Greatest.” Sorry, but calling anything “The Greatest” that has not won a contest – or is not Muhammad Ali – is simply inaccurate.

But I still find myself wanting to argue with every list I read, wanting to call up the editors and say, “What are you guys, high??!! FOUR-HUNDRED-NINETY-FUCKING-EIGHT!!!???” (Sorry for the repeat link. But really. FOUR-HUNDRED-NINETY-FUCKING-EIGHT!!!???) So, if I know it’s all just marketing bullshit, why do I seem to care so much? Why do I want these list-makers to know where I think they slipped up? Why do I feel the need to tell them to their face that their lists are bullshit? And why do other people* feel the same way**??

For me, I think it’s because music has been such a big part of my life – I’ve enjoyed listening to and playing music for as long as I can remember. I categorize my life by what music I was listening to, and I categorize music by what was happening in my life. Music is a very personal experience for me, extremely important.

So I want any list of important music to include the music that I found important, otherwise, maybe my life wasn’t all that important … Right? If Works Vol. 2 isn’t on the list, then the nights I spent listening to it when I realized J. wasn’t going to fall in love with me were all for naught, right??? (Oddly enough, it only recently dawned on me that maybe boys in 1985 who listened to 10-year-old prog rock albums just weren’t the type of guys that Homecoming Queens found interesting. Could that be true? That girls just didn’t feel romantic with Tarkus playing softly on cassette through the Ford LTD wagon sound system?)

So clearly, my Greatest Album choices might not align nicely with the magazine lists out there.

So maybe I’d better just make my own!

* – This guy cleverly points out that John Lennon’s Imagine was given middling reviews by the mag when it was released, but still showed up at number 76 on the top 500 list!
** – This guy is just furious. And has listened to WAY more music than I ever have!

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500 Greatest?!? (Continued)

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One easy way to measure “greatness,” a rather ambiguous noun, would be to actually measure things. Say, most albums sold. According to this list (which could have been completely fabricated, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s accurate) the greatest album ever is Thriller, by Michael Jackson. There is no argument – it is a fact. We stated up front “Greatest = Most Sales” and then we figured out which album sold the most. Done.

Such a list may be accurate to accountants and entertainment executives, but for music fans it is just bollocks. The list just doesn’t jibe with what our ears tell us. Sure, there may be some people who truly believe that music-wise (as opposed to sales-wise), Thriller is the greatest album ever, and – since it was a critical and commercial hit, with many hits and cross-market appeal – a rock/pop music fan like me would at least listen and consider such an argument. But is there a music fan out there who really thinks an argument can be made that The Backstreet Boys’ Millennium is the 36th greatest album ever? (Ahead of any albums by the Rolling Stones, by the way, but coming after two different Celine Dion offerings …) I doubt it. (Although, maybe. As I stated previously, it’s all just peoples’ tastes …)

So Van and I discuss this a bit, and at some point he sends me a link to this story. A Wall Street Journal writer complains of “bias” at Rolling Stone. I’m going to ignore, for the purposes of this post, the inherent humor in an accusation of perceived “bias” coming from a publication like the WSJ. The fact is that one should assume that Rolling Stone will be pretty biased, music-wise. I mean, it was started by a hippie almost 50 years ago, to cover rock music – so it shouldn’t be surprising that the albums selected are geared towards 70 year-old hippies today.

But as I read the writer condemning RS for not liking a Bjork record …

as much as The Beatles …

I thought – “This guy’s full of shit, too! He’s just as biased toward his era’s music (apparently the 90s) as RS is toward the 60s and 70s!” (And I wonder if this douchebag* also complains of bias at Metal Hammer magazine, or Vibe??)

Anyway.

The upshot of all this is that it seems really challenging to put together a “Greatest Ever” list. But I figured I’d give it a try.

    • He’s probably a really nice guy, and not a douchebag at all. By I get a little agitated sometimes…
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500 Greatest Albums Ever!! (Really??)

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All of this began with an email from Van.  Several emails, in fact.

Van and I have similar, but diverging, musical tastes, which makes sense because we have similar, but diverging, backgrounds – suburban males of about the same age, but differing in ethnicity and [likely] childhood economic background.  Both of us attended college in the late 80s, both of us play a little bit of guitar (or bass, in my case) and have played with different bands. We tend to like guitar-based rock, although I (being a bit older) seem to have more of a fondness for “Classic Rock,” and Van seems to be more tolerant of non-guitar-based music than I am.

In any case, we are both rather open-minded in our musical tastes as they relate to popular music from the past 60 years or so (although Van – to my mind – really doesn’t worship The Beatles enough, so he can’t be all THAT open-minded).  We’ve enjoyed discussing music over the past 18 months or so in which we’ve gotten to know each other.

One of our favorite topics of discussion is the relationship between music critics and music.  Many of these discussions have originated as talks about the awesomeness of Van Halen. A simple précis of all those discussions would be the following: Music critics are full of shit.  (Interestingly, googling the phrase “music critics are full of shit” only returns 88 results.  Even more interestingly, only 82 of those results are from online forums dedicated to Rush.)

I must confess that the literary genre known as “criticism” has always seemed a bit silly to me.  Whether one writes about art, movies, dance, literature or music, at its core criticism is merely one person’s opinions.  That person may be able to beautifully commit to the page cogent arguments for, and impressive, well-researched defenses of, a position for, or against, the merits of a particular painting/film/ballet/novel or CD, but when it’s all boiled down the only thing a writer can truthfully say about a piece is whether or not they appreciated it.  (I won’t say “liked,” as it is possible, I think, to appreciate something without really liking it.  It’s how I feel about Bruce Springsteen, Derek Jeter, Fiber One bars, etc.)  All the rest is just opinion – no matter how widely shared that opinion is.

So, for example, when all those lists of “Best Ever” are compiled for magazines, newspapers, and an endless string of VH1 programs featuring recycled MTV footage and “experts” no one has ever heard of, they are really just peoples’ opinions. Even if almost everyone agrees on something, there is no way to truly quantitate what makes art “good” or “bad.”  So, the guy who says Kraftwerk is as good as The Beatles isn’t really wrong, he just shares a different opinion than me.  And a billion other people.

So, anyway, back to those emails that started this whole thing.  Earlier this year, Rolling Stone released its 500 Greatest Albums Ever issue. Van and I were unimpressed, to say the least.  “Greatest?  Who says?” (Okay, that question is answered in the introduction to the piece.) And secondly, by what measure?

This is my first post. I’d better stop there. I’ll have more to say later.
Happy MLK Day!
ERM

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