Ultra Mono, by IDLES 2020, Partisan Records. Producer: Adam Greenspan and Nick Launay
(2 minute read)
After Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Boltcutters and Naomi Wolfe’s Uncomfortable, this record was my favorite of 2020. IDLES is a British punk rock act called the most aggressively positive band around, and they make loud, violent songs in which singer Joe Talbot sings (shouts?) about peace and kindness and acceptance and love. It’s a juxtaposition that, surprisingly, works really well!
I first caught them on YouTube as part of NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series, and they were unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard. I immediately identified them as right up my alley. The belligerent tone, the pounding beat, the cool guitars … I wanted more. Then I looked up their lyrics and found they align quite nicely with my own UU-ish ethos, and, well, I was on board. IDLES takes on hatefulness, toxic masculinity, class, immigrant rights, and other social topics, and on Ultra Mono they pound the ideals of love and kindness into your head with ferocity.
A perfect example is “Kill Them With Kindness,” a song espousing radical caring of others set to a smashing thump. On “The Lover,” the band comes close to a dance beat while Talbot defends his compassion with the words “Fuck You! I’m a lover!” He stated, “It’s like a defiant smile in the face of assholes who can’t just accept that your love is real. It’s like, ‘I’m not lying. I am full of love and you’re a prick.’” IDLES want to turn this aggressive positivity into action, too. “Mr. Motivator” implores us to “all hold hands/ chase the pricks away!”
Many songs on Ultra Mono make the case for change. “Carcinogenic,” an infectious groove, shines a light on the plight of the working poor. “Model Village,” another bouncy number, takes a close look at the social tyranny of conformity and hatred in small town life. “Ne Touche Pas Moi,” with guest Jehnny Beth, attacks misogyny and sexual harassment, particularly in the mosh pit at shows. IDLES slow things down a bit with “A Hymn,” another ode to love and kindness. Other songs include “War,” “Grounds,” “Anxiety,” “Reigns,” and “Danke.”
It might sound from my description that the songs are very heavy, or emotionally taxing, but drummer John Beavis keeps things moving and danceable, while guitarists Mark Bowen (a practicing dentist in his spare time) and Lee Kiernan are as inventive as they are aggressive. Bassist Adam Devonshire provides terrific low-end support, and together IDLES sounds like a sonic force. Why not shake your fist and dance and rage about love and kindness? Ultra Mono makes it happen.
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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I am not generally much of a lyrics-guy. I’d guess that for each high-end-lyricist on my 100 Fave Albums list, like The Replacements or Elvis Costello, there are twice as many lyrics-aren’t-really-the-point acts, like Van Halen, R.E.M., Jimi Hendrix or Belly. If lyrics are meaningful or clever that’s cool, but it’s not a characteristic I seek out in music. But in rare cases, like with “Freedom ’90,” the lyrics of a song are what draw me in. This is 100% the case with “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.”
I’m not an expert on the band, which has been around for thirty years, but I know that they’re basically one guy: John Darnielle. For years he released acoustic albums as The Mountain Goats that he recorded directly into his boombox. Eventually he got a band and toured extensively, and they’ve remained active, releasing two albums in 20201. I also know that people are usually in one of two camps regarding The Mountain Goats. Camp One is “Who are The Mountain Goats?” Camp Two is “I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats.” I’m between camps. I like a lot of what I’ve heard, but for me a little goes a long way.
Darnielle is also a respected novelist, with a National Book Award nomination and a gig as National Book Award judge to his credit2. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is actually a micro-short story set to music. In three brief verses it grabs you by the collar and shakes you up, then leaves you to think about the consequences in its coda.
I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll just say this: in the song, two (perhaps) Bevis and Butthead types are punished for dreaming a dream of death metal stardom. In the end, the fears of the adults come true, not because of the death metal, but because of the punishment. Darnielle weaves the story with minimal words. The (perhaps) shocking “Hail Satan!” coda speaks volumes in two words. The brilliance of it all is that the story doesn’t turn to violence or spectacle to make the point. But it definitely makes the point that children will carry with them the scars of childhood in ways we may never expect. (By the way – Martin Seay, in Believer, wrote about this song far more eloquently than I could!)
The music is just a scratchy recording of an acoustic guitar, with Darnielle’s thin voice over top. His nasally voice is, I think, the reason I’m not more into the band. But as this live version of the song shows, he is a very compelling performer. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” has stuck with me since I first heard it 15 years ago. Just like a good novel should.
Don’t Say No, by Billy Squier 1981, Capitol Records. Producer: Mack and Billy In My Collection: Album, 1988.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL:Don’t Say No, the 1981 album from Billy Squier, is a fun rock record and The Sound of Entering High School for this writer. The songs are catchy, and Squier and guitarist Cary Sharaf create Grade A Arena Rock music. Squier doesn’t shy away from flaunting his influences, with sounds of all the hard rock heavy-hitters of the 70s sprinkled throughout. There’s not much original on the record, but there’s a whole lot of good sounds and cool riffs, and sometimes that’s just enough.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 80.
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When I wrote about the Yes album 90125, and my love for it despite many of my peers’ disdain, I mentioned that it was hard to divorce my current ears from the memories my brain holds of my teenaged ears. Records like 90125, Rush’s Fly By Night, U2’s War and Van Halen still sound great to me, and a big reason is that they transport me and make me feel young. Not all records of my youth hold up. For this project I went out and bought Asia’s self-titled debut, a favorite of my teen years, and boy, it sucked. Don’t Say No does not suck.
Don’t Say No, by Billy Squier, is what my freshman year of high school sounded like, but only the good parts. There is much about being 14 years old and among the most immature fish in a brand new Little Pond of High School Society that really sucks. For example, the scary senior with a beard who forced me to return his cafeteria tray for a few days, until I switched lunch tables then worried for a week that he’d come beat me up. Or the upperclassmen who suggested I wear a bra when I had on what I’d presumed was a fashionable velour shirt. Or the older kid who saw me reading A Separate Peace for Language Arts class and announced to the whole bus, “Hey! This kid’s reading a romance novel!”
Don’t Say No sounds like none of that bullshit. It sounds like hanging with friends, laughing together, and looking at cute, older girls. It’s teachers who expected more, classes with kids older than me, and hearing about (though not getting invited to) parties with beer3. It sounds like what I thought being a teenager in 1981 & 1982 should sound like: rockin’, catchy, cool guitars, a touch of keyboards and MTV.
As I’ve written many times, MTV began airing my freshman year of high school, and by a fluke my family got the channel almost immediately. Don’t Say No has a particular guitar-guy-rock/pop sound that was all over that channel at the very beginning. Some had big hits, like Rick Springfield and Tommy Tutone, and lesser-knowns, like Donnie Iris and Greg Kihn, got lots of screen time. The channel even tried to wedge Tom Petty and Elvis Costello into that presentation, but they didn’t really fit. I loved all of them. Then I noticed my sister had the vinyl Don’t Say No in her Milk Crate of Classic RockTM. I played it a lot.
What I love about Don’t Say No are the pop melodies combined with the guitar crunch. There’s nothing particularly new or inventive about the album. It has solid, workmanlike songwriting and performances. However, Squier was on MTV and my turntable a lot that fall, and the songs have a sound and style that takes me back in time. That 1981 feeling starts immediately with “In The Dark,” and a shimmering, UFO-sounding note that sets the scene for drums and wailing guitar to enter.
The 14-year-old in me pumps his fist every time, feeling like the guy who announces the band in this clip. The lead guitar throughout the song, by Cary Sharaf, is classic Classic Rock, with little fills accenting the lyrics. Squier has the typical Robert-Plant-esque hard-rock tenor, and he sells every song he sings. In this case, he’s trying to convince a would-be lover to stealthily come meet him. Mark Clarke’s bass guitar and harmony vocals sound cool, and the boopity-boop organ in the chorus is a heckuva hook. At 2:41 Sharaf plays a solo that ends in a weird sound that would make Lee Ranaldo smile. There’s nothing Earth-shattering about it, but man it takes me back.
Perhaps more original and memorable is the album’s big smash “The Stroke.” It’s a simple, chant-along song, with a “We Will Rock You” vibe, and it ruled MTV that first year.
Actually, the guitars after the verses (0:27) sound pretty cool. And while the song does seem to be an ode to masturbation, actually, as a poster on Lyrics Genius points out, it’s a song about the industry-wide open secret of trading sexual favors to get ahead in the entertainment business. Whatever the meaning, the principal at a local Middle School where I grew up canceled dances for the year after he heard this song being played at one. I guess he wasn’t paying close attention to the lyrical nuance. Big props to Billy, however, for incorporating the Russian folksong “Song of the Volga Boatmen” into a Top 20 hit for the first time since Glenn Miller reached Number 1 forty years before. (By the way, the song was sampled on Eminem’s top-five hit “Berzerk” in 2013.)
Don’t Say No keeps bopping along in this Classic Rock, guitar pop fashion with the catchy “My Kinda Lover.”
Once again, it’s nothing spectacular, but man it still sounds good to my ears. I love songs that open with a riff that’s hard to place on a beat. You can’t tell if it’s the upbeat, the downbeat, syncopated, until the rest of the singer enters. It’s got some of those swirly-whirly 70s synth sounds (0:27), with great drum and bass work in the chorus. In the second verse, the bass and organ play a counter-melody, supported by more 70s video game noises. But bottom line, it’s a catchy song about connecting with a partner. The bridge, at 1:47, is super great, with Clarke’s bass noodling and fake horns blaring, building to Billy’s falsetto croon. It’s probably my favorite song on the record.
I don’t love everything about the album. Don’t Say No is a record that definitely has some filler. “You Know What I Like” has a sort of Sammy Hagar feel in sound (and lyrics) that doesn’t connect with me, although it does have a weird guitar solo at 1:12. It also shows off Squier’s penchant for singing a bit beyond his range. He also does it on the ballad “Nobody Knows.” It’s dedicated to John Lennon, which is nice, but lovely as it is the vocals sound very strained. “I Need You” is pretty standard mid-tempo, Arena Rock fare, albeit with nice harmonies.
Don’t Say No wears its influences conspicuously. Many songs sound like they were written to capture the spirit of other, more well-known acts. But when Squier sets a catchy melody to a song made for his voice, and Sharaf adds a ferocious riff, the band knocks it out of the park. Such is the case with the Led-Zeppelin-lite “Lonely Is The Night.”
The first 35 seconds of this song are totally Freshman Year me, and I can almost taste the cafeteria pizza and lima beans. (In a good way.) That riff, that voice, the harmony vocals … Then the drums crash in playing that John Bonham shuffle and I’m banging my head. Squier has a knack for building a song, and in the choruses (1:10) the band ratchets up the tension. The vocals, about desire, are great, and the guitars and the bass throughout the song really rock. At 2:37 the bridge begins a cool section that features a nifty guitar solo (in which the band definitely tries out some Led Zep sounds) and leads to a cool breakdown (3:47). Look, bands could do far worse than emulating Led Zeppelin.
In some ways, “Too Daze Gone” sounds a bit like AC/DC-lite, but again, not in a bad way. I think this was my favorite song on the record back in 1981. It’s a bluesy, riffy number about life on the road. Squier may have known he was emulating classic rockers, but I wonder if he knew that “Whadda You Want From Me” sounds a bit like early Replacements? It’s gussied up a bit, with slide guitar, and the snide lyrics aren’t as clever as Paul Westerberg’s. But still, it’s a rockin’ fun song with a nifty dual guitar solo (1:15).
Don’t Say No closes with the title track, a Faces-type number that moves between styles.
It fades in with nice acoustic strumming groove, and switches to all-out Southern boogie at 0:38. The guitars do lots of creative stuff, and by the breakdown at 1:57, we hear a full-on Allmans-y piano and guitar break. Then, at 2:17, it rather psychotically busts back into a last verse, and adds multiple harmony vocals. Throughout it all, Squier’s hard-rock yowl makes that age-old musical plea to his partner: can we have sex? The song turns out to be a pleasant mash-up of multiple genres, and that’s apropos for this record.
Being a young teen in a new school can really suck, and I feel lucky that I had music to help me feel good despite the anxiety and indignity of it all. Albums like Don’t Say No still have a special place, and still can make an older man feel young.
(New Releases is a different feature for 100 Favorite Albums – just a couple paragraphs about some new stuff I’m listening to.)
This was my favorite release of 2020, six indie-pop songs written and sung by Naomi Wolfe. Her producers, Jesse Trepiak (@shedwisemusic) and Williams Goldsmith (@futureartistwilliams), co-wrote some songs and act as her scorching backing band. And while each song has a new take on the term Uncomfortable, Wolfe sounds perfectly at home behind the mic.
“Stop My Heart” is a soulful, upbeat pop song about losing someone. “Favorite Color,” with its 90s alt-rock feel, is an “are we friends, or what?” song. “6 Feet Tall,” an unrequited love song, sounds like it belongs in a smoky jazz club. “Slide,” my favorite on Uncomfortable, is a sparse, funky track with great drums. It’s about moving on if you’re not getting what you need. “Laugh” is a beautiful, soft acoustic number about dealing with heartbreak. “idk,” an epic closer, again oozes heart and soul as it builds to a powerful ending.
Naomi Wolfe is a fresh singer/songwriter who’s made a great EP, and I hope she has more music on the way. Her voice is deep and warm and personable. She really connects with the listener. The backing band is incredibly talented, and the production is great. There’s nothing uncomfortable about Uncomfortable!
But today’s post is even less essential. I’m explaining that I like the Stevie Wonder song “Sir Duke,” which is akin to writing a piece explaining that I like candy. It’s not really going to reach off the screen and grab you, is it? But still, allow me to say that “Sir Duke” is fricking amazing.
I’ve loved this song since the first time I heard it, probably in 1977 sometime near the end of 4th grade. By then I had about a year of trombone lessons under my belt, and as a member of the Ebenezer Elementary School band, I tried desperately to get Mr. Fox, the director, to approve my request for the ensemble to play “Sir Duke” the next year. Mercifully, he did not grant that request.
Listen to the horns throughout the song. That introduction, to the bursts in the pre-chorus (0:40), to the riffs during the chorus (0:52), to the amazing post-chorus run that everyone wishes they could whistle (1:04)4. Please note, that riff is doubled by the bass guitar! Imagine this song played by a bunch of 9- and 10-year olds just learning to play their instruments. (I point out the bass guitar because the trombone is a bass instrument in a tuba-less elementary school band, which means my little right arm would’ve been flailing around like I had St. Vitus’ Dance.)
Imagine beginner percussionists, standing behind snare drums and bass drums, or with cymbals strapped to palms, or dangling a lonely triangle. They couldn’t keep up with that beat that shifts effortlessly from swing to rock. And while a concert band doesn’t have a vocalist, who’s going to play that melody line that ranges so wide, yet has subtleties like the nice descending chromatic scale, for example when he sings “There’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo/ and the king of all Sir Duke!” You think a cornet or clarinet player in braces is going to handle that?
How would this assembly of novices convey the pure joy that is this song? And without even singing! One might imagine a youthful chorus pulling together a passable, abridged version of “Sir Duke.” They’d have to cut out some of those ending “feel it all over” lines, sure. And most of the swinging syncopation would have to be flattened out. It might sound thin, accompanied only by Miss Radocinovich on that clanky upright piano. Still, I think they could pull it off. But “Sir Duke” played by an elementary band?
It all would’ve been horrible, right? I’ve always thought so.
But looking back I think most concert-goers would have enjoyed it. It’s such a beloved, joyful song that most parents and grandparents would be happy to hear it lovingly butchered by their struggling youth. Obviously, the main point of the song is to celebrate and remember the history of jazz and its fabulous musicians. But another point of the song, in both lyrics and sound, is that music itself is a celebration. It’s a world within itself, a language we all understand. An audience at a children’s band concert would be there to hear the new speakers, to watch them begin to enter this world, and to start to form nascent bonds with the pioneers of the past.
“Sir Duke” is amazing. I don’t think it would’ve been harmed at all by the Ebenezer Elementary School band playing a dreadful version of it. I think it would have been wonderful to hear (once). But I’m still glad I didn’t have to learn that trombone part.
Brill Bruisers, by The New Pornographers 2014, Matador Records. Producer: A.C. Newman, John Collins, Howard Redekopp. In My Collection: CD, 2014.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL:Brill Bruisers, the 2014 album from the Canadian collective, is power pop with infectious melodies. Its 80s-style synths are made modern-sounding by pounding drums and vocal hooks. The stars of the record are the multiple singers, particularly Carl Newman and Neko Case, who carry the soaring, swooping melodies from Newman and co-songwriter Dan Bejar. It’s music that sounds modern and classic, even if the lyrics often leave me scratching my head.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 60.
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It’s difficult to pin down when, exactly, my taste in music stopped being “hip,” and frankly, considering some of the albums on my 100 Faves List, I’d understand if you came to the conclusion that it never was. The late 80s and early 90s were probably when my tastes and those of the Music Critterati were most simpatico. However, by the late 90s I was completely unaware of what in-the-know music fans were buying, with one or two exceptions.
In those days I was still listening to the radio before work while I made breakfast and lunches for the kids. On both WXRV, a local independent station, or college station WERS, I began hearing tracks that I really loved from a band whose name I’d heard before. The songs were pop/rock, catchy, memorable, and they were newly released. The fact that I, a man in his mid-40s, was connecting to new music somehow made me feel, well, “hip.” I’d heard a few new records in the past 15 years, mostly from artists I already liked or bands my friends told me about. But hearing Brill Bruisers, by The New Pornographers, on the radio reignited my interest in what was new.
It’s difficult to classify this music. It’s got a bit of XTC, in its knack for melody. Lyrically, it’s got the dreamy quality of some 90s alt-rock, like Belly. Its wall-of-sound production is not very guitar-heavy, but the terrific opening track, “Brill Bruisers,” still packs a wallop.
It’s got a regal bass line, from John Collins, marching drums and a “bo-bah-ba-ba-ba-bo” hook that is as catchy as it is silly. Lead Pornographer Carl Newman handles the hyper-melodic vocals, which describe crowd-surfing at a concert as seen from the stage. It’s got cool booping organ riffs, like at 0:45, and drummer Kurt Dahle adds a few extra beats to his march to keep it interesting. The bridge (1:37) demonstrates the band’s secret weapon: vocalists Neko Case and Kathryn Calder, who perform backup vocals and share lead vocals throughout the record. The New Pornographers’ strength lies in their multiple excellent vocalists. (By the way, here’s a cool performance of the song on Late Night with David Letterman.)
It makes sense the band would have great vocalists, since the entire band is really a collective made up of solo artists. The excellent “Champions of Red Wine” shows off the vocal skills of Neko Case, a very accomplished solo act, as well as the record’s production. The twirling keyboards and faux-voice synth sound great, as does the dreamy, Mamas-and-Papas-y bridge (2:23). The song’s about hooking up with an ex, I think.
Many songs on Brill Bruisers feature driving guitar chords, played cleanly, that if distorted would make killer metal songs. As with “Champions of Red Wine,” the song “Fantasy Fools” fits that mold.
It also includes another prominent feature of Brill Bruiser‘s sound: vocalized sounds, as heard in the opening. But what makes this one of my favorites is the hook-heavy chorus (0:45). The shimmery keyboards behind the heavy drums are terrific. Newman sings confidently lyrics that I don’t know what they mean. Bedspreads? Rapture? Hang bells on your daylights? I don’t know, man, but that’s okay. I’m a fan of Steely Dan, Yes, R.E.M. … I don’t necessarily need to know what it all means, especially when it sounds this good!
AC Newman isn’t the only songwriter for the band. At this time, Dan Bejar was also contributing songs, and “War on the East Coast” is a good one. It’s got a driving beat, is packed with imagery, and – as usual – is catchy as heck. “Backstairs” is an 80s pop song, complete with synth-vocals, and boopity-beeps, but it doesn’t do much for me. (Apart from the Brian Wilson-y vocals.)
Bejar shows off his songwriting chops once again on “Born With a Sound.”
The song builds slowly, with a driving guitar and Bejar’s voice. Guest artist Amber Webber takes co-lead vocals, and the pair’s voices blend beautifully. At about 1:16, it starts to sound very 80s, with some Mr. Roboto-esque vocal tricks and New Order-ish keyboards. Of course, the melody is top-notch, and the lyrics are … well, I think they’re about how love is like a personal song that stays stuck in one’s head? “Spidyr” is a bloopy number from Bejar, also inscrutable, but with a nice harmonica solo, but doesn’t do much for me.
“Wide Eyes” also has 80s style synths, but even though I didn’t really like that sound back then, this song is one of my favorites.
Newman takes on another rangey melody, on a number that sounds very Shins-like. Case joins him on the chorus, and nails it. The drums throw in a few extra beats throughout, which are nice. The song also features the vocalizations that are common on Brill Bruisers, and builds with some subtle orchestration. The song seems to be about taking on challenges, as seen (perhaps) through Evel Knievel’s famous (for Gen-Xers) sky-cycle jump over Snake River Canyon. “Hi-Rise” is similar in its vocalizations and synth-y feel. It’s airy and light, and seems to be about a fear of heights?
My favorite song on Brill Bruisers combines the band’s great sounds and melodies, and puts them together with a dance beat to produce the LCD Soundsystem-esque “Dancehall Domine.”
The drums are pounding, and Calder takes co-lead vocals, her voice fitting perfectly with Newman’s. The chorus (0:45) is just great, and it again uses a nonsense verbal hook. It really shines when it gets to the “I, I’ve got the floor” chorus. (Here’s a trippy video for the song.) It’s pretty much a straight-up song about dancing, with more of the arcade sounds of synth chirping along. The instrumental break at 2:11 is weird and fun. This song is just terrific.
The album closes with “You Tell Me Where,” which might be about an angry guy who decides he wants his girlfriend back?
It’s classic Brill Bruisers. Driving guitars, winding melody, multiple voices … The song breaks down at about 2:00, then builds back to 2:34, where it breaks again. Then at 3:01 to the end it’s a sing-along song. It’s a song of two people coming together, and it’s a great album closer.
The more I listen to this record the more I realize that it’s probably not very hip, and it was probably never hip. But it’s got a sound I love, and maybe at a certain point keeping up with the latest sounds isn’t really a worthwhile pursuit. As long as I can find records like Brill Bruisers that I like, I’ll be a happy music listener. And maybe that keeps me hip6?
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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Some songs require one listen – perhaps not even a full listen – for them to become a Favorite Song. It doesn’t happen very often nowadays. Frankly, I’m 53 now, and the older I get the less absorbent my brain seems to be to new songs. I recently heard “Nigel Hitter,” by the UK band shame, and immediately loved it. (The new album Drunk Tank Pink is great.) But I do know that rarely since 1992 has a song struck me as immediately as “Seasons.”
I didn’t know much about Chris Cornell or Soundgarden then. An old roommate had invited me to see them live once, in 1990, but I wasn’t very adventurous at that time. I wish I’d gone, because it turns out that Chris Cornell is one of my favorite singers ever! I like Soundgarden, and I love Cornell’s voice.
But what hooked me on “Seasons” wasn’t Cornell’s voice as much as his acoustic guitar. There’s not much going on in the song, just that guitar and voice (I think there may be an overdubbed guitar or two at some points), but it’s plenty. An acoustic song can be tricky to pull off. For every great, moving, acousticpop song that’s been released over the years, there are severalreallylame ones. It’s difficult to be heartfelt, but not sappy; subtle, not boring; meaningful, not obvious. In “Seasons,” Cornell pulls it all off beautifully.
Cornell’s guitar work is deft and interesting, and holds one’s ear even as it repeats – which it does, but in a good, mesmerizing way. The song opens with some strange chords and a twisty acoustic hook.
At 0:29 he plays the backing riff, and his voice takes over. Cornell sings with power and authority, yet there’s a depth of feeling he conveys that’s beyond what most other rock singers possess. His voice has the same quality that a great soul singer has, like Aretha Franklin or Marvin Gaye. It’s not just technical ability, but a capacity for personal connection and vulnerability. The lyrics are a bit obscure, but they convey a feeling of life moving so quickly that you find yourself falling behind.
On first listen, the song seems repetitive. But actually, it has many subtle changes throughout. At 1:15 he sings the first chorus, “And I’m lost behind …” over the continued guitar riff. But at the second chorus, 2:10, he adds a new guitar riff, running up the neck, giving the song an urgency. At 2:47, over a third riff, he shows off his belting voice, but he easily goes back to the gentle croon. The bridge section, from 3:44 to 4:30, is lovely and ends in yet another lovely display of acoustic chords and strumming. It all finally gives way to a reprise of the opening. It’s a beautiful song.
Peter Gabriel (Melt) 1980, Geffen Records. Producer: Steve Lillywhite. In My Collection: Vinyl, 1988.
(Five Minute Read)
IN A NUTSHELL:Peter Gabriel, the 1980 album often called “Melt,” is an artistic statement that owes as much to Hitchcock as Western rock and pop. Its dark stories of assassins, burglars, obsessives, and psychotics are menacing, suspenseful, and great fun. And when he gets serious, as on the epic closer “Biko,” it delivers devastating emotion. The instrumentation and musicians, including Robert Fripp, Dave Gregory and Phil Collins, create unusual sounds that make the album too weird for pop, too smart for rock, but just perfect for me.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20
Peter Gabriel was all over MTV with “Shock the Monkey,” a strange, cold, yet oddly danceable track that sounded cool and looked like a horror movie. He ran through the forest in a suit. He wore weird makeup, played the claves among dancing floor lamps, and then got crushed in a room. Three little people even attacked him! Meanwhile, cute monkeys made frightened, frightening faces. Whether you loved the song or hated it (I loved it), it was unforgettable. But it was shocking, too. It was an old (at least 30!) guy I’d never heard of who seemed to be legitimately creepy, unlike all those acts that had come to seem weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness.
And the MTV VJs talked about him like we all should know him. It was as if he’d been around for 10 years, another Elton John or David Bowie, yet the name meant nothing to me. Of course, Gabriel was well-known, just not by me. He’d been the leader of Genesis back when they made intricate prog-rock music instead of mainstream pop, dressing as a flower or a fox in a dress or a disturbing bubble-covered “Slipperman” thing. He also made songs I’d heard on rock radio, like “Solsbury Hill,” that I didn’t know were his. His 1986 record So eventually made him one of the biggest stars of the decade. At that point, having been convinced by my friend Josh that I wouldn’t be disappointed, I went out and got some early records, each one, confusingly, titled Peter Gabriel.
His 1980 release, often called “Melt” because of the cover, is one of my favorite records ever. It didn’t make my original list, as I mentioned in my intermission post, because I’d forgotten to listen to it when I put the list together! (I’m not the most organized writer.) But it would have elbowed its way into top 20 territory, I’m sure.
(Melt) opens with the dark, desperate “Intruder.”
It’s like a Hitchcock movie put to song. On top of a sinister drum beat, strange piano and whirring noises, Gabriel takes on the persona of a creeping home invader. That drum sound would become the sound of the ’80s, as it is the first recorded use of drummer Phil Collins’ “gated drum8” sound. Together, the instrumentation and unceasing drum beat, the haunting backing whines, and Gabriel’s ability to inhabit the part like a brilliant actor make it one of the creepiest songs around. (Oh, and at 2:20 there’s a scary xylophone solo!)
“No Self Control” continues that xylophone sound, layering it over guitar wizard Robert Fripp’s distorted, mechanical guitar. At 1:30 the song changes, and Collins adds some signature drum fills (1:46, 2:02). Gabriel’s vocals are the star, as he sings about obsession that turns violent. It’s a very cool, very strange song. The instrumental “Start” is basically an introduction to one of (Melt)’s most popular songs, “I Don’t Remember.”
This song demonstrates the mad alchemy of Peter Gabriel and producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham. Its pounding drums, this time from Jerry Marotta, paired with Tony Levin’s Chapman stick, a wonderful bass instrument, give the song the feel of a dance club track. But underneath it, Fripp and XTC man Dave Gregory wage a wicked guitar duel on opposite speakers. Gabriel again takes the persona of a man with severe mental issues, this time under duress and finding pure amnesia. It ends with a full 50 seconds of noise, but remains my second favorite song on the album.
“Family Snapshot” is the most disturbing song on the album, a first-person account by an assassin9. Its 80s yacht-rock sax and ballad-y instrumentation don’t make it more listenable, but the song keeps the record interesting. By the way, while listening to (Melt), see if you can hear any cymbals. Hint: you won’t. Gabriel forbid Collins and Marotta from using any cymbals. Just a fun fact!
However, I think I hear some hi-hat from Collins in “And Through the Wire.” The bass from John Giblin is bright, and he and Collins master the tricky time signature in the verses. The guitar here is from The Jam‘s Paul Weller, and it sounds new-wave-cool, as at 3:10. It seems to be a song about long-distance love, and Gabriel sings it with high energy. The song falls apart brilliantly around 4:20. But precision is restored on the next track, the very popular “Games Without Frontiers.”
I knew that Robert Fripp played on (Melt), and for years I thought he played the sinewy guitar line that carves its way through the song. However, that’s David Rhodes doing a great Fripp impression. It’s one of the catchiest songs around, so catchy that even annoying whistling doesn’t damage it. Kate Bush sings the title in French, “Jeux Sans Frontieres,” a title taken from an old European game show, which was called “It’s a Knockout” in the UK. It’s a song about global politics, and Gabriel again demonstrates the versatility of his voice, sneering and chiding.
On “Not One of Us,” Fripp’s strange guitar gets another chance to shine.
The lyrics are about accepting others. “It’s only water/ In a stranger’s tear,” Gabriel sings. Musically, the song is dominated by Giblin’s skronky bass line and Marotta’s drums. The chorus is super catchy, sung in Gabriel’s infectious, electric tone. After 3:22 there’s a cool ending that allows Marotta to shine some more (without cymbals.) “Lead a Normal Life” brings back the xylophone sound, pairs it with suspenseful movie music and a few lines about living in an asylum. I don’t love it.
However, I do love “Biko,” one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard from the past fifty years. It’s amazing.
So many people have written so much about Apartheid and Apartheid-era South Africa, and I can’t add anything, except to say it was horrible. “Biko” is ostensibly about Stephen Biko, an anti-Apartheid activist murdered by police in 1977. But it’s really about strength and fighting against injustice. The song opens with a recording of an anti-Apartheid folk song, “Ngomhla Sibuyayo.” African drums give way to a buzzing guitar and an agonizing scream, and the lyrics begin as a news report of the day. It’s an extremely simple song, with minimal instrumentation, and that gives it great power. Similarly, the lyrics are sparse – relying on the listener’s knowledge of events to fill in the story. But it’s so memorable that if, like me when I first heard it, you had no idea who Biko is, it makes you want to find out what it’s about. “Biko, because.” What does that mean?
Each of the three verses can be neatly summarized as follows: this feels normal; this is actually terrible; we must work together to change it. Synthesized, keening bagpipes add to the feeling, as does Gabriel’s repeated wail, “Yihla moja! The man is dead …” It builds steadily, growing in force, and by the time he sings “Once the flame begins to catch/ The wind will blow it higher,” I always have chills, I usually have a tear. Then voices join in a singalong vocalization. It is wonderful. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs.
And it comes from someone who I thought was the weirdest guy among a collection of weirdos. I’m glad I gave him a chance.
“Heartless,” 1978 single from the 1977 Heart album Magazine. Power, musicianship, vocals.
(4 minute read)
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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I spent my teenage years, 1980 – 1986, listening to Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) radio. The 70s Classic Rock era is often reviled, only a bit less-so than the ridiculous 80s hair metal era that followed. This “Arena Rock” music featured bands with high-pitched singers, sound-alike guitar solos, pounding drums, and at least one tear-jerking, Bic-lighter-held-aloft-inspiring ballad that had all the same sounds as the other songs, only played slower.
It seems like the disdain for Arena Rock began in the 90s, when grunge and alt-rock were taking over. The artists themselves didn’t necessarily dislike classic rock sounds. Grunge stars Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and even Kurt Cobain all expressed an appreciation of bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. But the tastemakers of the era decided that only a few bands didn’t suck, and for many the attitude took hold. It’s true that Arena Rock included some less-than-original10 artists – bands like Styx, Journey, Foreigner – but a great song is a great song, no matter the genre.
But the one that tops my list, and to me demonstrates what’s so great about Arena Rock, is “Heartless.” I love the fact that on a cursory listen it’s basic, but when you listen closely you hear the tremendous musicianship and creativity that went into it. Plus Ann Wilson has one of the greatest voices in rock history, so there’s that, too.
The song starts with a short introduction, a preview of the chorus, and even in those few seconds there’s a lot going on. Two guitars, synth, culminating in a strange, watery chord at 0:10. Then the main riff starts.
The thing about Heart from this era is that they had 3 guitar players. Nancy Wilson mainly played rhythm, but also took some leads11. Roger Fisher was a creative beast of a lead guitarist. And Howard Leeds played guitar when he wasn’t playing keyboards. If you listen closely to the riff section, you’ll hear all three doing different things in different speakers. On the left is some twangy plucking, on the right are some crunchy chords, and the main riff is centered. It’s a cool sound that’s easy to miss. Then check out Michael Derosier’s drum fill at 0:29! (He plays a lot of great fills throughout.)
The lyrics are, frankly, a bit mysterious. I’d be even more frank and say “dumb,” but I’ll give Ann Wilson the benefit of the doubt. I mean, she has the kind of pipes that she could sing my blog posts and it would sound good, so I’m not too concerned about meaning. Clearly, the verses are about some asshole dude who’s nailing a bunch of chicks without considering consequences. The first verse involves an unwanted pregnancy, the second a woman who’s bought the Lothario’s lies.
The mysterious part comes in the “Heartless! Heartless!” verses, in which she calls out this jerk, who seems to be a rock star himself, staying in a penthouse, and “sinning in the name of rock and roll.” (It’s fun to think of what handsome 70s ape she may be talking about. Robert Plant? Steven Tyler? Lemmy?) At the end of each verse she gravely chastises him with the phrase “you never realize/ the way love dies/ when you crucify its soul.” I feel he’ll be too confused to really take that admonishment to heart (no pun intended.) Is he crucifying the women’s souls? Or love’s soul? And if he did the crucifying, wouldn’t he expect it to die?
But who gives a shit, because the guitar throughout the verse is one of my favorite aspects of the song! It’s a wide-ranging riff that kind of sounds off, in that good way that great guitarists sometimes play. Plus there’s a little glissando on the second “heartless” that also wouldn’t have to be there, but just adds a cool touch to the song. I think that’s really Arena Rock’s gift to music: the nifty, multiple backing guitars. They’re not noticeable at first, but once you hear them become a necessary component of a song. When done right, it sounds amazing.
After the second chorus, at 2:27, the song takes a very 70s Rock turn for its bridge. As a variation on the main riff is plucked, mellow guitar chords swirl and an “oooo” is vocalized. The organ shimmers along, then at 2:53 provides a quick hit of the most-70s-Rock-sound ever – a Moog synth. It pops up again at 3:23, then fully rears its head at 3:36, just before the brief dual guitar solo that brings us back to the verse at 3:49. I always feel like these types of 70s breakdowns – that minute and twenty-two seconds of repetitive mellow chords and hooting curlicues – was where the listener and radio DJ would both fire up a doobie to really lose themselves in the song.
Those multiple guitars come back to support Ann’s powerful voice on a final chorus, then the last 30 seconds provide another 70s Classic Rock moment: the show-off ending. I’m not dissing it – I’m a big fan! The last 40 seconds are packed with all those guitars, and a piano, and even Ann, playing off each other and having fun. Then Derosier does a cool fill at 4:49, and the band plays a weirdly-timed variation on the main theme to end it. It’s something that makes listeners go, “wait, what was that?” and play it back. It’s a bit self-indulgent, but only mildly so, and basically demonstrates that these folks can play.
The Low End Theory 1991, Jive Records. Producers: A Tribe Called Quest and Skeff Anselm. In My Collection: CD, 1991.
(Five Minute Read)
IN A NUTSHELL:The Low End Theory is a record that is inventive and fun and makes me feel like a young man. A Tribe Called Quest use many jazz samples, which DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad mold and distort into fresh sounds. The raps are funny and smart and invite the listener into a world where beats and snippets of melody reign. Q-Tip’s smooth, laid-back flow melds beautifully with Phife’s rapid patter, and the result is a hip-hop record that I return to again and again.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20
Hip-hop is a genre that’s grown up alongside me. “Rapper’s Delight” came out when I was in 7th grade, just as I was starting to care about music. I liked that song a lot, and I still know a couple of the verses. But I eventually lost touch with hip-hop, just as I did with the middle school kids I knew then. We just didn’t have a lot in common. By college, “Yo! MTV Raps” ruled the airwaves, and white folks my age and younger immersed themselves in the music. However, my caucasian ears were conditioned by years of classic rock, guitars and the tribal mentality of 70s-80s music, and they didn’t easily adapt to the repetition and lack of melody in most hip-hop songs.
Because my appreciation of the genre is so limited, it’s hard for me to write about hip-hop. Truth is, I feel like a fraud writing about any music that isn’t guitar-based rock music. I listen to classic jazz quite a bit, but other styles are mostly background music for me. I’ll listen closely to some things13, but I don’t tend to dive in like I do with rock. But The Low End Theory is a record I really love, and so I’ll just try to explain why.
Right off the bat, the record sounds unique for pop music, sampling Art Blakey’s “A Chant for Bu” on the lead track “Excursions.”
I really enjoy jazz, and in 1991 a hip-hop act rapping over jazz samples was fairly unprecedented, to my (limited) knowledge. Rapper Q-Tip’s lyrics and flow set the stage for the album. His nickname is “The Abstract Poet,” but this rhyme is fairly direct. It describes his dad comparing hip-hop to bebop, then lays out the Tribe’s ethos of Afrocentrism and Black positivity. A sample of The Last Poets’ “Time” (2:00) acts as a bridge, but the beat keeps moving things forward. Q-Tip raps in a smooth, nasally tenor. It’s distinctive and sounds especially good next to his rapping partner Phife Dawg, who leads off on “Buggin’ Out.”
It opens with a downbeat bass line from “Minya’s the Mooch,” by Jack DeJohnnette’s Directions, but Phife (so-called because the late rapper stood 5’3″, and so was called “the five-footer”) makes it upbeat. He and Q-Tip trade verses all about what great rappers they are. And they do sound great together. They were friends since age 2 (Phife died in 2016 of complications from diabetes), and their playfulness always shines through.
So, when writing about hip-hop, am I supposed to name the samples? That will get overwhelming, and there are so many songs to mention. It is fun to hear the originals, however. Listening to them truly demonstrates the artistry of sampling, as they’re tweaked and distorted into new sounds. It’s worlds away from Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer rapping over a Queen or Rick James song. The third member of A Tribe Called Quest, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, is the DJ who put all the sounds together. Q-Tip has a massive record collection to draw from, and some of the fun for me when listening to hip-hop from this era (i.e. the five CDs I own) is knowing what the samples are. If you’re wondering, this site has an extensive list (that may be incomplete).
“Rap Promoter,” has the longstanding pop/rock lyrical theme of wanting to get paid. Q-Tip interpolates Peter, Paul and Mary in his fantastic rhymes about fat promoters shorting him, something he won’t stand for anymore. “Butter” features Phife describing his life as a lothario in high school (with “Tonya, Tamika, Sharon, Karen/ Tina, Stacy, Julie, Tracy”), until he met his match in Flo. It’s a crazy-good verbal display, and it reaches a highlight as he complains about girls changing their looks so much they’re like The Bionic Woman. “Trying hard to look fly, but yo, you’re looking dumber/ If I wanted someone like you I woulda swung with Jamie Sommer.”
The Low End Theory isn’t only built on samples. “Verses From the Abstract” features jazz bassist Ron Carter and vocalist Vinia Mojica.
Carter kills it. His bass enters at 0:17, and throughout the song plays off Q-Tips vocals. It clearly demonstrates Q-Tip’s dad’s assertion of the connection between jazz and hip-hop. These rhymes are indeed quite abstract, stream-of-consciousness that sound dreamy in Q-Tip’s thick, precise voice. I love the “in the house” chorus, when Mojica sings (for example, 1:40), and Carter plays a descending run that sounds like his bass is chuckling. This is one of my favorites on the album.
So far, The Low End Theory has been rather laid-back, but A Tribe Called Quest pick things up on “Show Business.”
The drums (from drummer Allen Schwartzberg on James Brown’s “Funky President“) and all the samples (“Wicky Wacky,” “Mandementos Black“) are super funky and sound great together. The song is about the trials and tribulations of a performer’s life, and the band invites hip-hop friends from Brand Nubian and D.I.T.C. to help out. The rhymes are funny (“they lyrics is played like 8-ball jackets;” “eat from the tree of life and throw away the verbal ham”) and together they offer a view of The Business that isn’t pretty. (But it’s funky as anything!)
“Vibes and Stuff” is a mellow, positive track about hip-hop, and it includes Phife’s funny reference to himself, “Hair is crazy curly/ flip like Mr. Furley.” “Infamous Date Rape” is a rather progressive-for-its-time song about treating women with respect, although it does make some dubious claims about a serious issue. (Making a woman’s menstrual cycle a key reason to ask for consent is, you know, problematic, but I guess if it made some man think a little about his actions we could call it a win?)
I love when childhood friends Q-Tip and Phife are rapping together about their past, and the best example of this is “Check the Rhime.”
The band uses a wickedly cool sample of the Average White Band song “Love Your Life” as the hook, and trade verses over Minnie Riperton’s “Baby This Love I Have.” Tip and Phife reminisce about the early days, and sound like they’re having a blast. The hooky chorus (“You on point, Tip?” “All the time, Phife”) is super catchy. This song also has one of my favorite rhymes in (my admittedly minuscule knowledge of) hip-hop: “Industry rule number four-thousand-and-eighty/ Record company people are shady.”
My favorite track on The Low End Theory is the closer, “Scenario,”a fun, infectious verbal free-for-all, a “posse cut,” featuring collaborators from fellow hip-hoppers Leaders of the New School. It’s a song that’s so fun and inventive, it’s remained on my playlists for 30 years.
The song’s a bouncy jam, and has an infectious jump-around beat. Its shout-along chorus (“Here we go, yo! Here we go, yo! What’s the what’s the what’s the Scenario?”) is pure party. The raps are amazing, with Phife (“all that and then some/ tall, dark and handsome”) leading things off. (“Bo knows this/ And Bo knows that/ But Bo don’t know jack/ Cuz Bo can’t rap.”) Leaders of the New School trade verses that are catchy and inventive, “from New York, North Kackalacka and Compton,” then the star of the song appears. The group featured a then-unknown 19-year-old Busta Rhymes, and his verse, introduced by Q-Tip at 2:49, is like a terrific guitar solo. It changes and builds, has a texture that’s different from the song but fits perfectly. By the time he roars “like a dungeon dragon,” I’m usually dancing around the room.
The Low End Theory is a fun record that I still listen to. I don’t know much about hip-hop and rap, but I know what I like. It’s 30 years old, but still sounds fresh to me, which is the most elderly thing I’ve ever written. Hip-hop and I have grown apart over the years, sure, but we still share some great memories!
That article calls Darnielle a “rock star,” and that seems a bit much? Then again, rock music is so niche these days that maybe that description fits.
In a way, not getting invited was a blessing. I’d have been far too chicken to go anyway, so it saved me the embarrassment of declining. (Not that an invitation was actually required.)
The trick is that after you get to the top of that first ascending run (1:08), you have to drop down an octave to hit the next note, which is a few notes higher, and whistle the descending run down there. But for the next descending run (at 1:13, just after that incredible laugh) you have to start it by jumping back up an octave. Please do not inquire as to how lonely I was as a youth to figure all this out.
In their’ pre-teen years, I always let the kids listen to the Top 40 radio station in the car, which meant I heard the most lame, dumb, painful songs imaginable. (And one or two I liked.) My reasoning was that if they listened to what they liked, they’d become music fans. I mean, I listened to allthat70sschlock in my youth, and the only drawback is that I became a lifelong Seals & Crofts fan. A small price to pay for a lifetime of joy.
At least as hip as anyone who uses the term “hip” can be.
It was actually about having an experience that shook you to your core, that touched the basic animal in you, that, you know, shocked your monkey.