About six or seven years ago, for reasons I can’t begin to remember, Pete and I decided to watch Three Men and a Little Lady, the 1990 major motion picture and sequel to Three Men and a Baby. It was a weird situation; I remember it specifically being a weeknight. We don’t usually watch bad movies on weeknights, but I’m almost certain this was the case because as the movie ended, Pete went to the kitchen to make coffee for the next morning, which he does every night right before we go to bed. I was distracted by something as the credits rolled and the most intense sense of comfort and familiarity came over me as I heard the words “I hear your name whispered on the wind, it's a soooooound that makes me cryyyyyy.” I snapped to attention and stared incredulously at the TV as I struggled to understand how on earth I’d forgotten about this song for at least 25 years. It hadn’t entered my mind once. And now here it was. Back in my life. For good.
“Waiting for a Star to Fall” was my absolute favorite song in the world when it was released. The experience of having a favorite song for a nine-year-old was very different in 1988 than it is for anyone of any age in 2020. This is particularly true if the favorite song is performed by NOBODY. Because they were ostensibly a one-hit-wonder who were on the radio constantly, I never considered getting the album and didn’t yet know of cassette singles, but it was ok because the song was on the radio CONSTANTLY. But because I never possessed any physical evidence of this song, it was able to leave my consciousness completely until we watched Three Men and a Little Lady on a weeknight for whatever reason.
Boy Meets Girl was first a married-couple songwriting duo who put together some of Whitney Houston’s best early tunes, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “How Will I Know.” They were inspired to write “Waiting for a Star to Fall” while watching a shooting star at an outdoor--that’s right--Whitney Houston concert. Knowing they had a pop classic on their hands, they tirelessly shopped the song around, first to their inspiration and best client Whitney, then to others, including Belinda Carlisle, who actually recorded it for an album, but didn’t end up including it. You can listen to THAT abomination here. Out of options, the duo formed their own group and put out an entire album just to include “Waiting for a Star to Fall” and the rest is history.
That last part isn’t true. “Waiting” appeared on their second album, but in my mind this is how it went. These two are not rock stars. The guy looks like Michael Bolton and until 30 seconds ago, I’d assumed he was bald in 1988 because despite having the long curly blond hair, he always wore a baseball cap. And not like an Athletics or Cowboys hat or whatever kind of hat white guys wore in 1988, it looks like the kind of hat you would get free from an insurance company. His partner is beautiful, but looks like the second-grade teacher your kids would like best because she’s “nice and really pretty.” Dresses accordingly, too. She completely lacks confidence and charisma. In the video for “Waiting” you can tell she’s really trying, but she looks like a robot doing an impression of Tiffany. It’s bad.
In the best possible way, though. I love this video. There are three settings: wheatfield with bubbles and children, the shoreline, and in a beach house with a bicycle. The children in the wheatfield seem random. Like, children aren’t the couple’s children. They’re just children. On the beach they’re frolicking and having a lovely time. In the beach house, when not riding the bicycle in the living room, they seem to be writing the song they’re performing in the video, which seems both high- and low-concept at the same time. They’re doing a passable job at looking like they’re having a good time while oozing stiff awkwardness. I love it because they’re clearly EXTREMELY talented songwriters, but performing just isn’t their thing. They’re fighting through it and it’s inspiring. I’m not a songwriter. I don’t think I could fight my way through writing a song.
Adding to my attachment to this song and this story, how cute is it that these geeks were married to each other? They seemed like the kind of married-couple business-partners who really bonded over collaboration. I love that. It’s really fun when you and your best friend/sexy-time partner can click on a creative level. I bet they were creative partners first and then one late night, they broke through their nervous awkwardness over a bottle of wine and well, the rest of this story writes itself. Until of course, they divorced in 2000. I’m surprised they didn’t divorce on 9/11. That’s the only other edit I’d make to this story.
I was so obsessed with this song that I made plans to produce a music video inspired by this one and “Baby Baby” by Amy Grant, another favorite song of mine from that general era (which will not appear on this list because it is not at all timeless, sounds too much like early 1991). The song was “We Threw Up on Nuns,” an underrated tune from our (not Whitney’s) Bodyguard Soundtrack, which has nothing to do with the beach. Nor is explicitly a love song, but has the bouncy, deliriously happy spirit of a late-80s/early-90s adult contemporary love song, despite being literally about throwing up on nuns. We were going to shoot it in Rehoboth in late September of 2014 when there wouldn’t be so many bozos around to crowd our shots, but we ran into budget and scheduling issues. I would still like to do this someday.
I can’t state enough how much I feel this song is a unique, forgotten masterpiece. Occasionally a song from my childhood will unearth itself and I’ll be magically taken back to that time because I hadn’t heard or thought about it in SO long. “We’re All Alone”by Rita Coolidge comes close but that wasn’t nearly as much of a soundtrack-of-my-life track. The first time I heard “Everything About You” by Ugly Kid Joe in 15-odd years was cool, but I hadn’t completely forgotten about it. I was delighted to share this fixation with Josie. I never got the long-form story of Josie and “Waiting for a Star to Fall,” but evidently she hadn’t forgotten about it like I had, and would occasionally--out of nowhere--think about how good the song was. When she told me this, I’d never felt so close to anyone, ever.
I saw Stop Making Sense for the first time at a house that Eric and Brandt lived very close to campus in during college. I’m pretty sure it was on my grad school visit to Ohio State when they were recruiting my cohort. What a weird trip that was. I recall on my last day there, Eric, Mike, Heather, and I made a special trip to Used Kids (iconic record store across from campus) and parked near the then-notorious and now-departed 4 Kegs. It is the Frat Boy Bar to end all Frat Boy Bars. I remember this because as we were getting out of the car Eric took stock of the spring-feverish mass of drinking-age Ohio State students and “charming,” a word Pete and I use to describe aggressive drunken college antics to this day.
All that said, Stop Making Sense didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but fitting that the introduction was in such a collegey atmosphere. I of course knew of Talking Heads from the well-played video for “Once in a Lifetime” as well as a song of theirs being featured prominently in Revenge of the Nerds. The Alpha Betas were rocking out to “Burning Down the House” when they set their house on fire. This is both ironic and appropriate. Appropriate of course because they burnt their own house down, but also, why were the jocks and face men listening to Talking Heads? I wasn’t in college in 1984 so I don’t know, but this does not seem right. Talking Heads are a band full of exceptionally good-looking geeks and their music does not attempt to cover this up, quite the opposite.
Given all this would you honestly believe that I never really got into Talking Heads until two or three years ago? This is a source of shame for me, particularly given that at this point in history, they’re as much on my regular rotation as the Ramones. They just clicked for some reason. The start of this Talking Heads kick coincided with David Byrne’s American Utopia tour. The day of the show was--not an ideal day for a big-deal concert. It was the same day we adopted Halloween Jack, so we were kind of tired and stressed out, since he immediately didn’t get along with our girl Betty. It was HOT AS A BITCH for mid-May. There was some crazy Metro closure situation we didn’t anticipate and then had a hard time getting a car and were running late. I didn’t make reservations at the only solidly vegetarian-friendly at the newly revitalized Wharf and we waited forever for a table and then for our food.It did end up being a lovely dinner with our buddy Jeff who was also on his way to the show. Walking to the venue, the sky opened up and we were treated to a signature Mid-Atlantic thunderstorm. I’d paid extra for floor tickets, which I thought would be ok because they’d put seats in, but of course everyone stood so as a short person I was miserable on the floor. The seats were also too close together and bolted together in each row. Ugh, it was rough. David Byrne was great, but I just wish it was a more normal day.
I started this detour with mention of Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads’ absolutely legendary concert film. Along with its soundtrack, it is one of the productions for which Talking Heads is best known and deservedly so. I think what disappointed me when I first saw it was that there isn’t much to it. I guess I expected there to be more frills, but now I see that the lack of frills and the power of the performance is what makes it so special. Stop Making Sense is completely relevant to a discussion of “Girlfriend Is Better” because the enduring image of Stop Making Sense is David Byrne’s oversized suit, which he puts on leading up to “Girlfriend.” He used the giant suit for two major visual tricks. It enhanced that shadow effect Byrne still uses, where a spotlight is put right in front of him and projects this giant shadow on the wall behind him. He also uses it as a prop to enhance the herky-jerky style he appropriately uses when dancing to this song. The motion of the fabric draped over his thin frame is part of the dance. Genius. They’re so good.
I bring all of this up because I have to. When this song comes up, people visualize Byrne’s suit (hahaha) and the legendary concert film, but I fell in love with the album version of this song, net of the truly excellent performance. Bands from the 70s and 80s are often really upfront about the debt they owe to Motown-era R&B and later funk, but this influence was never on display more skillfully and artfully than it was on this track. It’s SO GROOVY. I’m going to credit Tina Weymouth’s bass for this and she DESERVES IT. Most rock n’ roll songs with a bassline as obtuse as it is on this track (and I think other Talking Heads songs as well) fail to balance very well with other elements. You’re left with just a strong impression of bass. It’s here where I think the entire band takes their best cue from funk. Bass leads, but it’s a coordinated effort.
God help me if I don’t also love Byrne’s atypically effortless vocal performance on this song. This is weird to say about a legend like David Byrne, but he very rarely sounds solidly *cool.* He’s great at sounding agitated, frazzled, forceful, and even frequently vulnerable and sweet. But rarely cool like he does on “Girlfriend.” Thematically, it’s also off-brand. It’s from the perspective of a man in a committed relationship internally debating taking the opportunity to cheat. David! You can’t see me, but I’m clutching my pearls. He transformed himself completely to fit the song. That’s David Byrne magic for you.
I went to an urban high school, lived in a suburb and commuted an hour and a half by bus to get home every day. Kids would commute from all over the island to get to and from school and those of us who would use the same bus routes often defaulted to being friends because we had to spend 10 hours a week on public transportation. You could easily spot Maryknollers on the bus by their uniforms. I rode with my two best friends from junior high and because we lived particularly far out, there weren’t a ton of other schoolmates on our bus route, but one such person can be directly linked to our bridge from alternative music to punk rock.
I doubt anyone remembers this conversation besides me, but it was the very first time Cybil, Alison and I chatted Lisa up on the bus. As kids do, we practically opened the conversation with “so….what kind of music do you listen to?” This was freshman year and my prepared response included Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins. She shocked us by responding that she listened to punk rock. Confused, I was like “You...mean...like...the Sex Pistols or something?” No, she was into Bad Religion.
At the time I’d never heard of them but over the ensuing months and years picked up “American Jesus” on MTV and certainly heard quite a bit of “Infected” and “20th Century Digital Boy” on the radio. I got copies of Stranger Than Fiction and (eventually) The Gray Race because they were available on Columbia House.*
*It never hit me until I started writing these things how much the economics of music collecting impacted what I listened to. Things are so different now.
In short, I am and always was an extremely casual Bad Religion fan. I remember leading up to “American Jesus” on Alternative Nation one time, Steve Isaacs said something to the effect of “people say all Bad Religion songs sound the same, but you know? It’s a really good song.” This is true, and is a consequence of Bad Religion having such a distinct signature sound. The other thing about Bad Religion is that their songs are so topical. They’re like Dead Kennedys without the sense of humor. This is unique and a cool idea but not 100% my bag. There’s often very little art and mystery and I feel like I’m being educated more than I’m being entertained.
Then, there’s “Don’t Pray on Me,” to my ear the most distinct and by far my favorite tune by them. The guitar melody is more traditionally sing-songy than what Bad Religion usually puts out. I usually think of Bad Religion melodies being like a fuzzed out crank that’s moving the song along. The guitar in “Don’t” is more fun. It’s almost jovial. There are detours. It’s less *practical.*
Lyrically and thematically, the song is really fucking complicated, which is not a departure, but I feel like this one engages a little more artistry than usual? The first verse is about Rodney King and the LA Rebellion (who went 73 and 14 this season they had a great year). This is something I discovered today, which makes total sense given the timing of the release and Bad Religion being who they are. But in subsequent verses, they link together other parallel historical events in which (loosely) the media has obscured the relevant nugget of the story itself (i.e., the impact JFK’s possible affair with Marilyn Monroe on his legacy as compared with his being largely responsible for the Vietnam War)! Then, we get to talk about reproductive choice and my favorite verse of any Bad Religion song:
A bitter debate and a feminine fate
Fly in tandem like two precious babes
While the former gets warmer it's the latter that matters
Except on the nation's airwaves
And custodians of public opinion stay back after vainly discussing her rights
Lay hands off her body
It's not your fucking life
I always sing this out loud and in spite of myself always get goosebumps.
Give me a sec, I need to catch my breath.
And of course we need to bring it back to religion in the final verse because it’s Bad Religion and this time I get it because to review:
The media totally obscured the point of the uprising following the Rodney King verdict, failed to emphasize the human-rights relevance, which made the whole thing televised sound and fury signifying nothing.
This isn’t new; media sensationalism has always done a disservice to the actual truth.
For example in the reproductive-health arena, the focus is on the debate and not on structures that undermine equality.
IT ALL GOES BACK TO THE GODDAMNED BIBLE.
I also think of my brother when I think of this song. We shared it. I think one of his email addresses was firstname.lastname@example.org somewhere along that line. Or maybe it was a screen name. He was very much into Being an Atheist as a teenager than I ever was, which is I think why he got off on BR so much more than I did. While he was like “yeah! Fuck you, Bible!” I was like “hey, a Bad Religion song I can dance to!” I was really mad at Bad Religion for a time. I’d heard somewhere along the line that they were no longer a functioning band, didn’t travel together, and kind of just kept the machine going because they gotta eat. Some bands can get away with this, but if you’re trying to Tell It Like It Is and change minds, you absolutely cannot. Also kind of highlights the dangers of commodifying rebellious music. I know we loosened restrictions on this since Kurt Died, but come on.
But these motherfuckers are STILL GOING. That anecdote about their not speaking to each other is like 20 years old. If it were true, or like, even important, they wouldn’t have literally put out like SEVEN albums since 2000. I haven’t listened to any of them and I’m having trouble wrapping my head around who on earth needs MORE BAD RELIGION ALBUMS, but someone must be buying them. I can see there being a greater market for them in the Age of Trump. I’m not really craving them so much as I am a Devo these days. Bad Religion kind of only makes me nostalgic for there being some reason in the opposition.
Since starting this list, I’ve been struggling with what to do with the #47 spot. I’d initially had Michael Jackson by himself here but have been really thinking carefully about whether or not he belongs on this list. I can easily separate the art from the artist because Michael’s crimes are so grotesque, it takes effort to connect them to connect them to his staggeringly excellent musical output. However, I am not a victim of child sex abuse, so it is unfair of me to assume that everyone else should be able to do the same. I know I could have just switched out another tune for his, but I kind of wanted to address this because I do so love “Don’t Stop.” I want to credit Emily McGlynn (not on Facebook, also mentioned in the ABBA post) for kicking my ass about this. I put it on a jukebox in a bar in San Francisco when we visited last summer and she was like “What the fuck are you doing?” We argued about it for a bit before she finally said “oh, you’re separating the art from the artist?” I was like “well--yes?” I think she just wanted to stop arguing about it. She even apologized for picking a fight, but I want to say here and now that she’s absolutely right. It’s one thing to enjoy his tunes in the privacy of my own home. It’s quite another thing to play it in a public bar, where someone more deserving of support than Michael would hear it and associate it with a traumatic experience. The same goes for social media, so that’s that.
I’m happy I am able to remedy this issue by slipping this tune by Bratmobile in. I totally forgot about it when making the list and it certainly deserves a spot. I learned of Bratmobile in college. Pete had the Kill Rock Stars compilation which featured “Girl Germs” which was on Bratmobile’s 1994 EP, The Real Janelle, which if memory serves, Pete subsequently got me a copy of for Christmas or something. Their first album and the Real Janelle EP are great, but sound really different than their two later albums, on which I think they really came into their own. It’s the classic template for a lo-fi indie/feminist outfit of its time. It’s great and I love it, but my favorite stuff of theirs is the more later, denser, more filled-out efforts.
Ladies, Women, and Girls and Girls Get Busy are both really excellent albums, but I love Girls Get Busy best. Much of it is a response to 9/11 and the culturally and politically conservative wave that followed. As an aside, post-9/11 music has a deservedly cringy reputation, but it was possible to do great, on-topic post-9/11 albums. Particularly Girls Get Busy and One Beat by Sleater-Kinney. Songs like “Combat Rock” and “Far Away” from Sleater Kinney are squarely on-topic and most of the time, pull it off gracefully. For Bratmobile, “Shop for America” and “United We Don’t” are adequately contrarian responses to a troubling time. I haven’t seen anything that responds to the Trump presidency that fits the mood quite so well (except of COURSE Cancelled, by us).
“Shut Your Face” didn’t strike me at first until Pete told me to take a listen and tell him whether it’s about the Green River killer. I did, didn’t know, but looked it up and found to my delight/horror that it’s about CHANDRA LEVY. I love this for so many reasons. It’s a response to progressive men’s dismissal of media coverage being a distraction from war and presumably other “important” things. After reviewing the lyrics now, they also seem to take aim at conservative talking heads who used her death as a strategy in the context of Gary Condit’s misconduct.
Political/feminist music is intended to make you think about things another way and I’m pleased to admit that this one really worked on me. Like a lot of people, I felt like Chandra Levy’s story got the cable-news gossip-rag treatment because it was scandalous and I was guilty of having gotten tired of it, thinking that there were more important things. I didn’t think of Chandra as having lived a life of value. She was just a name in a news story that made me uncomfortable. Put another way, I didn’t think of her murder as violence against women. I thought of it as a thing that happened which CAUSED a media blitz. I don’t think about such things this way anymore. So, full circle: Emily’s calling me out about Michael Jackson fits well into this story.
I would guess that Bratmobile’s unique perspective is due in part to the case being semi-local to them. Just knowing now that Gary Condit’s DC apartment was in Adams Morgan makes the whole thing seem a lot more real to me, at least. I looked this up because the Washington Post had this interactive feature where you could look for all the homicides reported in your zip code within the District. I discovered this fun game shortly after we moved to town, back when we lived in the frou-frou, Forest Hills section of town. I had a moment when I searched for the previous 10 years (so 2001-2011). There was one pin identified on the map, waaaaay on the east end, right in Rock Creek Park. I clicked on the pin and seeing the name Chandra Levy made the hair on my neck stand on end.
I did another switcheroo today for a song I’d forgotten about. Today’s was supposed to be “Alone Again, Or” by the Damned, but I didn’t feel like diving deep on that one. It’s a cover, there is not a lot to say. I did NOT forget “The Card Cheat” (how could I?), but shuffled things around a bit to accommodate a grave error closer to the top.
Is it a meme to have multiple copies of London Calling or is that just in my house? We have three CD copies and somehow four on vinyl. I don’t know where the vinyl came from and the CDs are the result of my husband’s policy to never get rid of any tangible copies of beloved recordings. Even though neither of us would cite it as our favorite, it’s generally regarded as Everyone’s Favorite Clash album. It’s also the most iconic. I feel like it’s the perennial album cover to show up in music snobs’ record collections in movies like Singles and High Fidelity. All of those copies of records have to end up somewhere. I guess they landed in my record collection.
It was at one time my favorite Clash album, but I hated how predictable that sounded coming out of my mouth. And in terms of quality, it’s so close to the self-titled and Give ‘Em Enough Rope, that I just went with the latter because I love it too, and it sounds so much more thoughtful. When I discovered the Clash, ska was still my main thing, which kind of explains why London Calling appealed so much. All Clash albums have reggae influence to varying degrees. Eliminating the (still truly great but) lawless chaos that is Sandinista!, London Calling is the most unabashedly reggae-influenced of the Clash’s great albums. Though that also oversimplifies some of the crazy, genre-colliding experimentation done on this record, exemplified well on “The Card Cheat.”
In doing my pre-post reading, I’ve realized that there’s no guitar in this song. Son of a bitch! I never noticed in 25-odd years of listening to London Calling. Or maybe I just never conceptualized it. I guess I can be excused. There was slight-of-hand in the production. They were going for a big, loud, wall-of-sound effect and recorded the track twice. Pete does this. He tells me it’s ok because Kurt Cobain thought it was ok, reasoning that John Lennon thought it was ok. And now “The Card Cheat.” Why doesn’t everyone do this all the time? It’s so effective! Particularly on “The Card Cheat.” Big bass, big piano, big horns. It’s rich and it’s wonderful. Guitar would just dilute it.
Other notable factoids I’m putting here because there’s nowhere else to put them: this song has no chorus and it has never been played live.
As it is, this song is so majestic. It sounds like it could be a national anthem for some obscure European monarchy. I think that’s the intended effect. The lyrics take you through the story of a sad/lonely gambler cheating at cards (as the title would suggest). The dealer catches and shoots him. I’ve read a handful of armchair analyses of this song and it’s clear to me we all agree there’s subtext. Others seem to think it’s about mortality? Like, an everything-ends kind of thing, whether it’s life or love. I mean, maybe. But I took a lot from the SIXTH VERSE:
From the Hundred Year War to the Crimea
With a lance and a musket and a Roman spear
To all of the men who have stood with no fear
In the service of the King
That would suggest that all of this is a metaphor for the crumbling British empire, no? Gambling is in place for colonial occupation/control? Every empire’s rise has a fall? It’s not just me, I discussed this with someone else who cited “The Card Cheat” as their favorite Clash song. I was like “Colonialism!” and he was like “YES THANK YOU!” On longform analyses of the human mortality interpretation, I’ve seen responses echoing my own thoughts: “yeah but what about the British empire’s fall?”
I was surprised by how little beard-stroking about this song I was able to find. It seems like it would invite 1,000 pontificators to write pages and pages on it. I’ve also read it referred to as a throwaway-track? I don’t think there *is* a throwaway track on London Calling. If there were, they could have cut them and not released a double album! Natalie recently shared an anniversary retrospective on London Calling which effectively referred to “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” as unlovable, which is incorrect, but I’d also go to the mat for any of these songs besides maybe “Koka Kola.” How much do you want to bet, though, that there’s someone out there that would get into a fist fight with the Independent about “Koka Kola?” That’s probably why London Calling is so enduring. It’s uniquely personal to a lot of people.
I took yesterday off because I didn’t have my thoughts 100% together and just needed a break. What is there to say about “Israelites?” It’s a perfect song. It swings, it’s performed with intensity and conviction, it’s the exact right length. I have nothing of substance to add, so my focus here is just going to be on my personal relationship with it.
I learned of “Israelites” in the late 90s because of the TV ads for the Pure Reggae compilation. I don’t mind admitting this because it’s hilarious. Pure Reggae was one of the very last iconic compilations with a strong television marketing campaign behind it. It frightens me to think about how some on my friends list are too young to remember when this was a Thing but in its day, televised ads for these kinds of compilations were so repetitive that out of nowhere you could have a handful of lines from Tears for Fears’ “Shout” in your head before you’d get mental whiplash and it would switch to “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins just because of these commercials. The compilations were often time- and/or theme-specific. I think there were a variety of publishing houses that would put these out, but the best-known was Time-Life. Sometimes they’d just be a standard-length album and other times they’d include like 10 LPs or 8 cassettes (your choice). If you’re interested the Time-Life website still has these sets and they’re absurdly expensive.
The ubiquity of the TV ads was pre-internet, of course. Spotify has thousands of playlists with similar time and genre parameters that you can listen to any time, for free. One weird footnote of this historical-cultural curiosity is the mind-boggling success of the Now That’s What I Call Music series. I was shocked to learn that Volume 1 was released in 1983 (???!!!!), but I associate them with the fall of civilization, c. late-90s, early-2000s, CE. Of the official volumes, the most recent is #106, which was released last month. These are compilations that had a strong TV-advertising presence but were also found in stores. The degree to which these compilations have been certified platinum multiple times is STAGGERING and a little sickening and has continued while most of the rest of the tangible-media music market flounders. Look at the Wikipedia page; it’s crazy.
I digress. The TV ads for Pure Reggae coincided with my TV-watching peak, during college, when Pete and I had a lot of time, cable TV, and very little money. As such our Pure Reggae consciousness saturation was 100%. We shared our interest in the compilation with my mom, who also watched a lot of cable TV (in her case it was watching the Food Network or ironically watching Fox News as opposed to MTV2 and Golden Girls on Lifetime in our case). We each got a copy. I believe my mom ordered it from TV and I *think* I bought Pete a copy on Amazon, back when Jeff Bezos was but a multi-millionaire. I used my very first credit card, a student Capital One card that had a $200 limit, which was still enough to ruin my life for a little while.
I regret to inform you that Pure Reggae Volume 1 is NOT available on Spotify. There’s some imposter, which includes “Israelites,” is not the correct compilation and is fortunately/unfortunately far more high-brow than the old favorite edition. For reference, here is the tracklisting:
1 Bob Marley & The Wailers - Stir it Up
2 Aswad - Don't Turn Around
3 Arrow - Hot Hot Hot
4 Third World - Now That We Found Love
5 Inner Circle - Bad Boys
6 Eric Clapton - I Shot the Sheriff
7 Desmond Dekker - Israelites
8 The Melodians - Rivers of Babylon
9 Jimmy Cliff - Many Rivers to Cross
10 Chaka Demus & Pliers - Tease Me
11 Freddie Notes & The Rudies - Montego Bay
12 Lord Creator - Kingston Town
13 Millie Small - My Boy Lollipop
14 Apache Indian - Boom Shakalak
15 Eddy Grant - Electric Avenue
16 Big Mountain - Baby, I Love Your Way
17 Dawn Penn - You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)
18 Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus
Part of the miracle of this compilation is that there’s a lot of fun trash on it, but there’s a lot of really, REALLY great stuff here, too. I wouldn’t think it was medically possible, but I love hearing “Bad Boys” in non-COPS contexts (which is now the only way to hear it; RIP COPS). Can anyone listen to “Tease Me” without doing the “meow” in the chorus? “Baby I Love Your Way,” which is Frampton trash to begin with, was given the reggae treatment by an otherwise excellent artist and then was drilled into the ground by the Reality Bites soundtrack and received an exhausting amount of play on alternative radio in the mid-90s. I legitimately hate it. However, hearing this compilation was also my introduction to the original version of “Rivers of Babylon” and easily my second favorite on the collection, “Montego Bay,” which I can’t wait to hear again when I dig out our CD after I’m done writing this up. THIS IS A GREAT COLLECTION.
ANYway, as mentioned, Pete and I loved “Israelites” best and picked up a number of Desmond Dekker’s collections and his entire repertoire is fucking solid. “007 (Shanty Town)” is another stone-cold classic and appears on the soundtrack album to The Harder They Come, which is Pete’s current favorite morning listen. We watched the film for the first time recently and it wasn’t High Cinema, but both fun and bad-ass. I hope this isn’t too white-girl of me, but Jimmy Cliff was a hottie back in the day, too. “Honour Your Mother and Father” also slaps, despite the wholly unappealing title and “It Mek” is groovy as hell. He’s just the best. DEFINITELY check out the unofficial video I’ve linked here. He was a killer performer.
Another quick note about “Israelites.” For some reason Pete and I decided that it was our first cat’s favorite song. He was named Milo after Milo Aukerman of the Descendents. Milo would sing it, we decided, and would change the lyrics to the “Miloites.” We also decided that he loved breakfast best, out of all meals.
So there you have it. DJ on Pure Reggae and “Israelites.”
I think that I’d have to turn in my District of Columbia driver’s license if I didn’t include a Dischord band on this list, so I’m not going to try to be cute. I picked Fugazi. The song isn’t completely obvious though, so give me credit for that at least.
I knew of Fugazi in the mid-90s when “Waiting Room” got some delayed-response alternative radio airplay. I would also see kids wearing the iconic “This is not a Fugazi shirt” tees around town and at shows and such. Shockingly, Fugazi made it out to Hawaii in 1996. A pitfall of growing up in a tropical paradise is that touring bands can’t always come through, but Fugazi made it, playing one show in Honolulu and for some reason TWO in Maui. For whatever reason, I did not go. The Honolulu show was on October 16 (thank you, Discord’s website), which was a Wednesday. There’s always so much going on in Octobers. I remember that was the year that my friends and I went for Halloween dressed as the Seven Deadly Sins and we got as much mileage out of those costumes as we possibly could, but the 16th seems rather early to be going through all of that? I can’t explain this. I do recall that they made good on their infamous $5 admission goal, despite the considerable expense it takes to play in Hawaii.
But I didn’t have an album or really get into them until college. Here’s where I admit that then and ever since, I remain a casual fan. I respect them a lot, but they’re intentionally unflashy and I don’t like unflashy music. They’re like punk granola. So here’s the story of my transition from a person who wanted say she liked Fugazi to a person who likes Fugazi fairly well.
I’ve made mention of the radio show Pete and I hosted during college. KTUH’s primary format was jazz, but they also had genre and freeform slots. We started out in the 3-6:00 AM freeform slot Friday mornings where we could play anything we wanted before graduating to a “rock” show, which ran from 9-midnight on Friday evenings. The rock format was basically freeform. I think one of the rock slots was filled by a techno/house guy at one point. Nobody was watching what we did carefully enough to notice whether we broke format, though. It was very college-radio.
I’ve also mentioned before that we mostly brought our own stuff. Ugh, what shit that was, hauling all of our hard-copy compact discs up those stairs. I had one of those long pine storage crates that held like 70 or 100 discs and just used to bring them all with me every week. Pete would carefully pick old favorites and wildcard selections to mix things up. Some songs albums we’d play from every week. We would always close the show which we called Underground Babylon with the eponymous track by nobody-80s punk band Catholic Discipline, probably only known for their appearance in the Decline of Western Civilization.
ANYWAY. Our tenure was just before digital music was very much a thing. KTUH’s in-house collection was moderate. Moderate, I think for a radio station. They had hundreds (maybe thousands?) of CDs and LPs. There was a tape deck in the studio but I don’t think they had any cassettes. A section of one of the walls in the studio had a floor-to-ceiling rack about four feet wide* with what we referred to as “carts,” the technical term for which I learned just now is the Fidelipac. It was a cartridge that looked a bit like an 8-track cartridge but I think it was a little thicker and maybe more narrow. They were developed especially for radio play which makes total sense to me because if you’re feeling lazy they’re LIFESAVERS. There was no cueing, no rewinding, you just stuck it into the player and it played. It was awesome.
*You can get a visual approximation of this in the 1996 major motion picture, Jingle All the Way. Martin Mull plays a radio DJ who teases giving away a Turbo Man action figure. Sinbad and Arnold Schwarzenegger storm the place, get in a scuffle and slam into the cart rack on the wall, jostling a dozen or so carts off of the rack and on to the floor.
Because these were so convenient, we always ended up grabbing them if we were in a pinch because we’d zoned out and didn’t cue anything else up. Unfortunately, there were just a couple of songs on these carts that fit our general format. It was a blue cart with one of those white file folder labels with the colored stripe across the top. In typewritten letters the label said Fugazi “Merchandise.”
We’d never actually heard the song before playing it and because we eventually played it so frequently, it bore its way into my consciousness. The Christmas after we discovered the song, I got Pete a copy of Repeater +3 Songs, which is still my favorite album by them. Pete took this and ran and eventually collected all of them and became my household’s big Fugazi fan.
All of this seems like a lead-up to a sentimental favorite, but it isn’t because this song stands up to the extent that I’m surprised that it’s not a standout to anyone else besides me, Pete and a couple of dozen 40somethings who lived in KTUH’s broadcast range c. 1998-2001. It has everything a Fugazi song should have. The bass* and guitar almost seem to be competing with each other for your attention which sounds like a criticism but isn’t. This all comes to a head in the bridge when the bass takes the spotlight for a sec before the guitar joins back again as if to say “yeah, that’s it.” Ian is on lead vocals in this one but Guy Picciotto steals the show with his minimal echoing which again seems to say “yeah, that’s it.”
*The bass, which is played by Joe Lally, whose nephew I started work with at Westat on the same day. We are still pals.
The lyrics are what first entranced me so. As the title would suggest, “Merchandise” is an anti-materialist anthem where the lyrics are pretty simple. At the time, I saw the theme of minimalism = freedom to be fairly novel. It’s worth mentioning that before I looked the lyrics up during my pre-post prep I’d misheard the refrain
We owe you nothing
You have no control
We ain’t nothing
You have no control
Which makes no sense but I kind of thought maybe to the second person in the song those who have nothing aren’t anything? I like it better as written.
I’m not sure how unique it is, but as a child and a teenager, I have a long history of enjoying movie soundtrack albums. In my household, that’s a quirk. Pete and I were just talking this morning about how the soundtrack to The Harder They Come is the first one he’s ever really clicked with. That is not the case for me. Here are all the soundtracks I’ve owned and enjoyed in their time, in chronological order:
La Bamba, 1987
Pretty Woman, 1990
Wayne's World, 1992
Last Action Hero, 1993
So I Married an Axe Murderer, 1993
Judgement Night, 1994
Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997
These are better than mere compilations. Compilations are just a pile of songs that are connected by a record label, producer, a genre, or some combination. The best movie soundtracks establish a mood, time, and place. There were several movies I may not have sat down and watched if not for the soundtrack. Angus is a good example. I think I was already older than the protagonists when it came out and it was highly questionable why I’d go out and see a movie about a younger, outcast kid and how he bonded with the popular girl over insecurities? But--alternative rock. I had to. Singles is a very fine film, but if not for the grunge-heavy soundtrack, 13-year-old Mary Alice may not have given it a second thought.
And sometimes insanely good songs that were for whatever reason not included on albums land here. Singles has so many of these, it’s kind of baffling. “Breath” is one of the best songs by Pearl Jam, so true with “Drown” by Smashing Pumpkins, both of which appear on Singles. “JAR” by Green Day appears on the Angus soundtrack and it’s so, so good. On Grosse Pointe Blank, that Specials cover of “Pressure Drop” is outstanding. I enjoy that acoustic version of “Fake Plastic Trees” on the Clueless soundtrack possibly more than the album version. It could have made this list. I don’t think I ever would have given Luscious Jackson a second look if not for “Naked Eye,” also on Clueless.
This was never more true than it is with “Soul to Squeeze” by Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was recorded during the Blood Sugar Sex Magik sessions, but was cut and thrown on to the Coneheads soundtrack.* I think and hope this has nothing to do with the quality of the song, but can fully see why it was cut. It doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the album. It felt really distinct at the time and listening to it now, it’s hard to imagine it fitting into the album in any remotely cohesive way. Most of BSSM is funky and uptempo. With the exception of “Under the Bridge,” which I can only describe as *grand*, the down-tempo songs like “My Lovely Man” and “I Could Have Lied” are stripped-down and atmospherically glum. “Soul to Squeeze” is rich and contemplative. The bass leads in the verses and John Frusciante’s guitar stands back but is as-ever talking to you in a related sidebar in the background.
*According to Wikipedia, etc., “Soul to Squeeze” was included on the “Under the Bridge” single as a B-side. I don’t know what edition they’re talking about. I had the “Under the Bridge” cassingle and the B-side was “The Righteous and the Wicked,” a fine song, but just another one on BSSM, not some fun rarity. God Bless Coneheads.**
**I also would like to point out that the rest of the Coneheads soundtrack overall is not terribly strong. An inferior and unnecessary cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” as well as the aforementioned Barenaked Ladies’ “Fight the Power,” a certified abomination, appear alongside “Kodachrome” by Simon and Garfunkel. It’s filled out by a small handful of excellent, then-contemporary artists like REM and Digable Planets with no-account singles. And then there’s “Soul.” It’s such a weird assortment and pales significantly compared to So I Married an Axe Murderer’s soundtrack, which is thematically pretty similar, but much, much better. I associate the two because they were released the same summer and both had obvious SNL ties. ANYWAY -
Oh man, do I love “Soul to Squeeze.” I feel like I very much *get* the mood of it, even though the lyrics are typical Kiedis gobbledegook non-poetry. I honestly have no idea what it’s about. For me as a teenager, it was the perfect (late) song-of-summer in 1993. I was 14 and taking buses all over town, getting drunk for the first time, hanging with friends and boys, about to start high school. It was great times. For me, “Soul to Squeeze” told my story about being bored and active at the same time. Very leisurely being extremely busy. Kiedis was probably singing about heroin, but I associate it with missing the bus that took me and Cybil far enough to get home and waiting 45 for a bus transfer. The connecting stop was at the infamous Kahaluu Texaco station. So when Kedis sang “I might end up somewhere in Mexico,” we’d sing “We might end up somewhere near Texaco.”
My parents graduated college in 1969, got immediately married, and went into the Peace Corps. Once their tour was over, they moved to Hawaii to attend graduate school. My dad did some of his PhD field work in New Guinea, so in the mid-70s my parents dropped out of society a second time. Upon returning to the US, my mom started graduate school and concluded the 70s by becoming pregnant with her first child, me. All this is to say that these early influencers of my musical taste spent their 20s during the 70s dropping in and out of pop culture, picking up the least-challenging trends of the day, which mostly includes singer-songwriter stuff in the years where their lifelong musical tastes gelled.
Pete recently asked me what the most “rockin’” music my parents listened to was and the best I could come up with is Billy Joel. He questioned this, all “they didn’t like the Beatles or anything?” I explained to him that they did, but that was kid stuff. Like, I might occasionally put Dookie on, but my adult tastes aren’t exactly the same as they were when I was in high school. Similarly, my parents’ repertoire as 30- and 40-somethings looked more like those patchy years in the 70s when they were picking up stuff here and there but not following music very closely. It follows, then*, that as a young child, my primary exposure to pop music included Cat Stephens, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart (oddly), and the Carpenters.
*So yeah, it makes sense to me why they hit the Wimp Rock so hard, but they couldn’t get interested in David Bowie or Cheap Trick? Frustrating.
This early exposure to the Carpenters in particular was aided by the Sesame Street connection. I found out today that “Sing” was originally written for Sesame Street! The Carpenters performed and released it after the fact as a fairly successful pop single. I recall very clearly knowing every word to “Sing” through repetition and my mom knew it from the radio and we would sing it together, particularly the “la, la-la, la, la” parts.
In the 90s the Carpenters became briefly trendy I think due mostly to the release of If I Were a Carpenter, the tribute album featuring Shonen Knife, Sonic Youth, the Cranberries, Cracker, Dishwalla, and Matthew Sweet and wow, it’s better than I remember! That Shonen Knife version of “Top of the World” holds a permanent spot in my brain because of the awkward cadence, but the enduring hit from this collection was “Superstar” as performed by Sonic Youth and rightfully so because it’s incredible. The video is really amazing too. Kim is wearing this floor-length red dress and Thurston’s in a tuxedo and it’s a pretty Sonic Youthy backhanded tribute and I love it. I’ve mentioned before that you shouldn’t read Kim Gordon’s memoir. One reason for that is her inability to describe why she’s so fascinated by Karen Carpenter, which basically comes down to “it sucks that she experienced so much abuse from her family and society,” which I don’t even think is what she means. I get it, it’s a hard thing to explain, but I’m also not including a chapter in my memoir about it.
It was also during this period that I picked up a copy of the Carpenters’ greatest hits collection from Columbia House. As a teenager, I was struck by how easy it is to love every one of their songs. They somehow avoid being boring while at the same time being aggressively mellow. It’s not just Karen’s voice. The songwriting is great but credits are all over the place. They performed a ton of covers and worked a lot with professional songwriters. Most frequently, Burt Bacharach and Hal David (previously gushed about in the “I Say a Little Prayer” post), but so did a lot of recording artists. Richard Carpenter’s songwriting is ok, but I think the magic of the Carpenters comes from his arrangements. They’re kind of old-fashioned even for the 70s. The backup vocals feel pre-rock n’ roll and the instrumentation feels orchestral, but with only ⅓ of the effort. It’s very unique and very satisfying.
“Rainy Days and Mondays” isn’t a super standout track, but it is my current favorite. Ask me again in a couple of months and I might give you another answer. This one happened to be written by my good friend PAUL WILLIAMS who is responsible for some of my favorite songs of all time, Cornball Category (see: “Rainbow Connection” and “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song”) but more importantly starred as Swan in one of the weirdest, most compelling movies I’ve only managed to see once, The Phantom of the Paradise. Gotta fix that.
Thematically, the song can only be described as melancholy. The mood is accomplished lyrically in a somehow novel but relatable way. A few snippets: “talking to myself and feeling old,” “walkin’ around, some kind of lonely clown,” “no need to talk it out, we know what it’s all about.” Musically, it’s enhanced by the notably atypical presence of a harmonica in Carpenters songs. It makes sense that the harmonica would show up in the Carpenters’ moodiest song. The backup vocals are old-fashioned and recording-studioey as always. Karen’s drums are soft and played with intention and great care. It all just comes together in a very precise equation of sweetness and a big fat bummer.
Pete does not share my love of this kind of music, but he is kind of fascinated by my insistence upon it. He was also good enough to buy me another copy of the Carpenters’ hit collection, years after I’d lost track of my old Columbia House copy (again, I likely unloaded it in a used record store when I needed cash in college or something). He’ll even cue it up for me if I’m clearly in need of cheering up.
I’ve written before about the early 2000s’ post-punk revival before in my posts about “Float On” by Modest Mouse and “Hard to Explain” by the Strokes. For me, the era was ushered in by the Strokes,* whose “Last Night” was the first of the The Bands (™ Lilly) I heard, but the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” could not have been very far behind it. Among the The Bands, the White Stripes were by far my favorite. I almost instantly became a very, very rabid fan.
*In researching for this post, I have learned that the White Stripes’ breakthrough album White Blood Cells was released on July 3, 2001 and The Strokes’ Is This It was released on July 30, 2001. Yes, that’s just as it should be.
The White Stripes got a lot of attention initially for “Fell in Love with a Girl,” to the extent that I was shocked to see that “Hotel Yorba” was actually released as a single before it. The music video for “Fell” is probably largely responsible for this. The song itself feels to me like the very definition of a “fun little ditty.” It’s much more straight garage-rock than most of the rest of White Blood Cells which is a lot bluesier. The guitar is obtuse and the lyrics are repetitive, but it’s a very strong single. The video is inspired, though. It’s a legit stop-motion work (near and dear to my heart) with legos, to even include little approximate Jack and Meg figures. Amazing and very, very cute.
With few exceptions, White Blood Cells is packed with total bangers, but “Hotel Yorba” is an easy favorite of mine. It’s a swingy, sweet, and simple love song. I associate it strongly with the summer of 2002. Pete and I moved in together the previous summer. We’d relocated together from Hawaii to Columbus and our apartment was my first time living away from my parents. By the following summer, we were humming. Pete was about to go back to school, I was getting used to being a grad student, we loved our little home together. We talked abstractly about getting married (and did the following summer), which appealed because it seemed rebellious, leaning in to that level of commitment even though we didn’t have to. We took our first vacation together (a road trip to DC!) and I remember very clearly scaling those ridiculous mountains along Interstate 68 in West Virginia, following along with my Yahoo! Maps printout, the two of us singing “Hotel Yorba” at the top of our lungs in my little Corolla. Oh those sweet, sepia-toned days. “Hotel” was the perfect soundtrack to it.
The weirdest thing about the White Stripes is that they presented themselves with every gimmick they could think of, but probably didn’t actually have to. At their peak, they were amazing talents, mesmerizing performers who wrote heady, infectious songs--they were just--really incredible artists. Initially, they’d only wear red and white inspired by those gross peppermint candies that Meg supposedly loved best.* They never took interviews separately and despite being married, lied and told everyone that they were brother and sister. Jack would talk in the hipster dude equivalent of baby talk, like a 10 year old character from some 19th century novel. Meg rarely spoke. I mean. This was firmly effective in developing a shitton of mystique and I think what elevated my interest from typical to obsessive. I feel like when they abandoned the aesthetic, I got a little bored with them.
*I suspect this is another gimmick because nobody loves those peppermint candies. We all just put up with them.
Why was Jack so handsome until he wasn’t? I watched the “Hotel Yorba” video this morning (which is almost as charming as the song itself). Holy balls, what a piece of ass. It was around this period that Pete (of his own accord) started dying his hair black and the longer style he wore it in definitely seemed inspired by Jack White’s, but really wasn’t and it gave me a small thrill every time someone would comment, unprovoked that he looked like Jack White. By the time they released Elephant (also an excellent album), he was all emaciated and dating models and the thrill was gone.
I think I only saw them play once, at the then-Promowest Pavilion. I remember it really well. It was the same day I’d passed my thesis defense at some point in November, 2003. We lived out in the suburbs at the time, so we didn’t go home between school and the concert. We got dinner at the Mongolian BBQ place and for some reason I changed out of my conservative brown turtleneck in the car into more appropriate concert attire. It was *so cold* that day and walking across the parking lot without my coat was hellish. The show itself was long and it was so packed inside. I think I was stuck standing next to a pole the whole time, but I didn’t care. They were my very favorite band at the time.
I can’t remember the last time I put the White Stripes on before listening this morning. I’d estimate it’s been more than five years. As I mentioned, by the time Get Behind Me Satan came around, I was done. Jack seemed too far up his own ass by that time and the writing seemed more like imitations of their influences instead of a contemporary take on rock n’ blues. Jack also seemed to be dressing up like an old-timey villain. That shouldn’t be as important to me as it is. If they were still playing good music, I wouldn’t have cared. It’s like the inverse of their not needing to pile gimmick upon gimmick to get initial attention. But after whetting my appetite on a couple of tracks to refresh my memory, I’m super excited to listen to White Blood Cells in its entirety after Golden Girls is over.
Sometimes I really wonder about my methodology in ranking these songs. By the time I got to putting them in order, my goal was to just get it done. I think it would be a lie to say that I like “Doowutchyalike” better than “Hotel Yorba.” I guess this makes me a liar. I guess maybe I weighted the former a little more because it’s really the only song I really get off on by Digital Underground, whereas there are other songs by the White Stripes I like better?
All of this is to say that I’ve never seen Digital Underground perform, I don’t have any weighty personal stories about Digital Underground. I don’t think I even own a copy of Sex Packets (I should). This is a fine pick, but I don’t have a lot to say and I cannot defend it in any meaningful way. It’s just a great song. So, here goes.
I knew of Digital Underground first from “The Humpty Dance,” a single released several months after “Doowutchyalike” It is a novelty song about founding member Shock G’s alter ego, Humpty Hump. I think given the time and context, I could very well have come up with the idea for Humpty Hump. Shock G was inspired to invent the character when they went to a party supply store *the day of the “Doowutchyalike” video shoot* and found the Groucho glasses with plastic nose, inventing Humpty on the spot. This is the exact method I use for coming up with stuff. It’s a math equation:
(Structure/Functional Necessity) + Situational Inspiration = New Idea
In this case
(Same-Day Video Shoot/Prop shopping) + funny glasses = an enduring feature of hip hop history
So too in my case:
(Album release/COVID-19) + that paper skeleton on our living room wall = stop-motion animation project featuring handmade paper dolls
See? I get this. The other thing that’s very Mary Alice about Humpty Hump as an idea is that Shock G came up with a whole invented biography for Humpty. A fucking plus. He’s not just a funny man with novelty nose and glasses, there’s a *reason* for the nose. The story was that his nose was burned off in a grease fire, which also somehow is the reason he became a rapper. I like that Shock G also alters his voice so that it’s more nasal when he’s rapping as Humpty. Because he doesn’t have a nose. Obviously. If memory serves, we had no reason to believe that this wasn’t mostly true. That Humpty was at minimum a separate person from Shock G, even if that implausible grease fire story wasn’t true. I think some people may have suggested we tried to pull a Humpty situation with Super Steve, but that’s ridiculous. Pete and Super Steve have appeared in the same room together. We have dozens of witnesses.
Here’s another completely insane thing about Digital Underground: they appeared in one of history’s absolutely worst major motion pictures. When we were in college and completely broke, Pete and I used to treat ourselves to bargain basement pay-per-view movies, which were at the time a fairly novel thing. Previously, only films that were no longer in theaters but yet to be released on VHS, but Oceanic Cable seemed to be trying something new, by putting older movies of varying quality on pay per view and charging like $3 instead of $10. We would only occasionally *treat* ourselves to a $3 pay per view movie and it would usually work out fairly well. We first saw now-beloved holiday favorite Funny Farm starring Chevy Chase this way. Never having previously heard of it, we took a chance and were richly rewarded. We took *another* chance shortly thereafter on something called Nothing But Trouble, starring yes, Chevy Chase but also Dan Aykroyd, fucking John Candy, and Demi Moore. We didn’t think we could lose with that case. We lost. We lost by a lot. I guess we should have known given the strength of the cast AND the fact that we’d never heard of it. The Digital Underground cameo is so weird, so unnecessary, and totally unrelated to the plot. Also, they were never really famous enough to make this kind of cameo? The film was released in 1991, so I’m thinking maybe a Hammer would qualify, but while Digital Underground was much beloved by America’s youth, they weren’t cultural-icon level. Nothing but Trouble wasn’t a kids’ movie and--I don’t know--the whole thing is a mysterious mess. At least *everyone* lost in this scenario. Digital Underground weren’t the only hapless victims.
“Doowutchyalike” was released initially as a single, well in advance of DU’s debut album Sex Packets*. I don’t know when I heard “Doowutchyalike” the first time, but I know it was after “The Humpty Dance” and possibly even after “No Nose Job” and “Kiss You Back,” fairly successful singles released on their 1991 album, Sons of the P. In the YouTube era, however, “Doowutchyalike” has become my favorite by Digital Underground. I can’t separate it from the music video, which is just pure, distilled fun. It’s your standard party-rap video format, but 90% of notable hip-hop artists of the time make cameos in it. Combine that template with the theme of the song, which is essentially that you should do what you like, and it’s celebration of confident, unified individuality. I feel like I can again relate to this low-judgement approach to relationships, particularly in the context of relationships with other musicians. It is the way to be. I love it. It’s a gift to humanity. And with that, I have nothing more to say about this song.
*I have always been completely tickled by the name of this album, not knowing what a sex packet actually is. In pre-post reading, I’ve found out that it is a concept album about--well, I’ll let Wikipedia take the wheel here: “‘G.S.R.A.’ (Genetic Suppression Relief Antidotes), a pharmaceutical substance that is produced in the form of a large glowing pill about the size of a quarter, which comes in a condom-sized package and is allegedly developed by the government to provide its intended users such as astronauts with a satisfying sexual experience in situations where the normal attainment of such experiences would be counter-productive to the mission at hand.” Holy shit, man.
I want to begin this post by welcoming my friend Matt to the fold, since he’s started posting his top 100 favorite songs every day, along with these write-ups. He’ll learn that 90% of people just skim it, but that’s ok, these brain- and heart-dumps are mostly for me. Now our team is strong with myself, Matt, and Kelly, who is just a couple of weeks behind me.
I wanted to bring this up because this song naturally prompts a compare-and-contrast with Kelly’s list and mine. It’s an interesting comparison because before we launched this endeavor, I think we both thought that our tastes in music were pretty similar. I think she’s realizing that her taste in music is even quirkier* than she thought as her choices are often deep cuts on albums. That wasn’t really true with her Go-Go’s pick, “This Town,” which wasn’t a single, but definitely an album standout on their first and most successful record, Beauty and the Beat. She said in her write-up that she could have gone with an “Our Lips Are Sealed”-type pick. I am learning that I REALLY DIG THE BANGERS and once again am going on brand and picking the obvious Go-Go’s. OK, but this song is incredible.
*Quirky to the extent that whenever an excessively weird 80s/new wave song comes on a Spotify playlist, Pete will say “this is Kelly Stitzel music.”
I was kind of too young for the Go-Go’s in their time. They broke up when I was 6 years old and by the time I had the juice to transcend passive music discovery, I was into punk, which typically strictly forbids intermingling in your record collection with pop music. Such was actually not the case with the Go-Go’s and others such as Blondie, bands that history recognizes for their pop output but for whom the lines were super blurry early on. It’s no longer a well-kept secret that the Go-Go’s were originally a legitimate LA punk band and that Belinda actually played with the Germs, a band with more of a reputation for being punk than being good. The inverse of the Go-Go’s for a long time.
Beauty and the Beat is an excellent record, beginning to end. Kelly is not wrong about “This Town,” but my “This Town” pick would be “Can’t Stop the World,” which bookends the album as the last track, opposite “Our Lips Are Sealed.” A jarringly upbeat breakup song, it’s sunny and exuberant in signature Go-Go’s style. It also includes probably their best-known-song “We Got the Beat,” which feels like “Can’t Stop the World’s” more successful cousin.
“Our Lips Are Sealed” is just a classic, enduring track. In the recent Go-Go’s documentary, they talked about how songwriter Jane Wiedlin is not a trained musician, so the song structure is unusual in an infectious way. I’m much less of a trained musician, so even having heard this and listening to the song a couple of times now, I’m not sure what they were talking about. I think what’s appealing about the song is the change from the verses to the hook? It’s an abrupt but harmonious change. The melody in the chorus is simple and repetitive but builds to this really really logical but sharp right turn. I think the first thing that comes to mind regarding this song is Jane’s ethereal vocals in the bridge that contrasts sharply with Belinda’s bubbly, playful lead vocals.
THEN, consider that Jane wrote it about a scandalous affair she had with Terry Hall of the Specials during their joint European tour and oh, it’s so good! According to the documentary, all the Go-Go’s took their turns with different members of the Specials and Madness, which makes me want to giggle aloud with delight as I’m typing this. As we were watching, when they mentioned that Jane snagged Terry, I said aloud to Pete, “Yeah. She definitely got the prized pig, there.” And deservedly so, Jane is obviously the best Go-Go. Then immortalized it all in the perfect Go-Go’s song on a record full of perfect Go-Go’s songs. Damn, do I love this band.
I also can’t say enough about the music video for “Our Lips.” It is, once again, perfect. I learned again, from the documentary, that the only reason IRS had any money to get them to shoot it was because labelmates The Police had some money left over from a video they’d shot just ahead of the Go-Go's. So they rented a convertible and just winged it, which is amazing. The best part is near the end when they all pile into a public fountain, splashing and frolicking, completely devoid of self-consciousness. In the documentary they said that they were trying to get arrested in such a manner where you think they were a little offended they didn’t get arrested. When I was a kid, I always wanted to live in LA because it was a big deal, kinda dangerous, and so glamorous (to paraphrase “This Town”). This video captures that spirit I aspired to as a little kid.
As I mentioned, the Go-Go’s broke up in 1985 and I’ve been thinking a lot about why recently. Like any dissolution of its kind, it was a lot more complicated than this, but a lot of it had to do with money. They didn’t share songwriting credits, so a couple of members were paid significantly more than the others. While we were watching the documentary and they were talking about the disparity I was initially like--yeah. There’s no band without songs. Songs are different than performances, they’re basically eternal. But at the same time, what are those songs without Belinda? Not just her voice, which is a fine voice, but there is no Go-Go’s without Belinda’s charisma and dynamism. “We Got the Beat” is not the same enduring pop anthem without Belinda’s performance. This was an issue with the Talking Heads as well, though it’s even muckier because there are questions about whether the credits were fairly made given the band’s songwriting process. This is sad and frustrating and reinforces my theory that art should never be commodified. It fucks everything up. It can’t possibly remain pure. This is easy as hell for me to say because I don’t write and we “share” our “profits” (lolololol) totally equally, so disregard if this is just naive and not naive and correct.
I have posted many, many times about how 3rd Wave Ska is a much maligned subgenre that I only sort of hate. I’m an apologist in that I think some pretty good stuff is lumped in with a lot of very terrible stuff. The shining beacon on the hill of a 3rd Wave band nobody has anything bad to say about is Operation Ivy (if we are discounting Fishbone, which I think also qualifies as universally respected, if not beloved).
Operation Ivy were the first kings of the late-80s/early-90s Bay-Area Gilman St. scene, the same one which bore Green Day, Mr. T Experience, and I guess ultimately Rancid.* Whenever we’re listening to Operation Ivy, particularly if we’ve had anything to drink, Pete will very earnestly ask me “could you even *imagine* this being a local band?” Putting it into a (somewhat) contemporary context, it’s hard to imagine being all grouchy and tired on a Wednesday and having plans to check out Operation Ivy at Slash Run *again* and trying to justify just going home, get pho delivered, and watch Unsolved Mysteries, and yeah, that’s weird.
*Wikipedia reminds (?) me that the Offspring was also part of the Gilman St. scene which if true, I either never knew (which seems really unlikely) or exists in a part of my brain waaaaaaaaay at the back of the ole filing system and likely have never would have thought about ever again if not for looking it up on Wikipedia. I’ve worked a little hard trying to figure out where Wikipedia got this to verify it and/or how this feels so foreign to me despite knowing a fair amount about the Gilman St./Lookout scene, to no avail. This just doesn’t feel right to me and may have already ruined my day.
What Pete is getting at is that they were so impossibly good from the start. They formed in May of 1987, broke up in May of NINETEEN EIGHTY NINE and yet somehow found their way into legendary-punk status. The self-titled collection, released post-mortem in 1991, includes their only full-length (1989) followed by a 1988 EP. And that was it! Finito! Off the top of my head, the only other band to do so little to so much notoriety is the Sex Pistols and they toured internationally, made headlines, WAS ON A MAJOR LABEL, despite being not nearly as good as Op Ivy.
For a hot minute in ‘95-96, I think I would have called Operation Ivy my favorite band (before Sublime usurped them, haha). I believe we became aware of them because of the Rancid Connection (regrettable, and something I’ll get into later) which coupled with the popularity of 3rd Wave ska at the time, gave Operation Ivy some Radio Free airplay. We weren’t that special, a lot of people knew of Operation Ivy pre-internet in part I think because of Green Day’s cover of “Knowledge,” which showed up on an early EP release. But in Hawaii, you didn’t have to be a punk rock scholar to be aware of Operation Ivy, even this lame girl I knew in college knew them (I remember this because she’s said to me that she liked that track “Nice Song.” She meant “Bankshot”). They were just on regular radio.
All of the songs Operation Ivy recorded are the best ska/punk songs you’ve ever heard. They just are. I was curious so I Googled “what’s the best Operation Ivy song” and to my surprise “Here We Go Again” is apparently unremarkable.* I wonder whether this has anything to do with it appearing fairly late into a lengthy LP. Or maybe I’m not as much of a banger-lover as I thought I was (see also “The Card Cheat”). To me, “Here We Go Again” sounds grand. It almost literally starts with a drum roll and vocalist Jesse Michaels’ proclaim “it’s not the ending it’s the beginning…” (more on this later). The first verse launches like a typical ska-core song before they pump the breaks, slow it down to half-time and go into an almost-rap-style flow, which I suppose is something of a chorus. As I type this, I realize this sounds terrible, but it’s a lot less worse than I describe. It concludes with backup vocals repeating “here we go again” over the half-time chorus-of-sorts. It’s grand!
*If you’re interested, Google approximates the following as the five Op Ivy songs with the most mentions online: “Sound System,” “Take Warning,” “Bad Town,” “Unity,” and “Freeze Up.” Again, I can’t really argue because they’re ALL SO GOOD.
How this came to be my favorite Operation Ivy song is a somewhat amusing story. One of the traditions at my high school everyone looked forward to most was selecting our senior quote to appear under our pictures in the yearbook. It was the 90s equivalent of what we used to say in the late 2000s when a friend said something stupid or profound or stupidly profound: “That’s my new MySpace quote,” but instead of course it’s “my senior quote.” When yearbooks came out junior year, this dude a year ahead of me quoted the opening of this song:
It’s not the ending, it’s the beginning
The ground is moist and it rained last night
Smells like smoke and it smells so clean
The sun is shining down like a friendly white light
Here we go again
I was angry because if I’d thought of it, it would have been my senior quote for sure. Though I was pretty sure I never would have thought of it, WE WOULD NOW NEVER KNOW, WOULD WE? I was especially mad because I didn’t like the guy. Despite technically being *one of us*, he was a pretty big asshole and would eventually go on to steal my weed by dumping the bag in his messy car, where none of us could find it in the moment, his intention, I’m sure. My senior quote ended up being:
I’m torn between the light and dark
Where others see their targets
I can’t see anything
Which I attributed to Dinosaur Jr., which I later found out was sort of incorrect. I selected the line because it was from mine and Pete’s song “Quicksand” which is an approximate cover of none other than eventual very-favorite, David Bowie. J Mascis changed many of the lyrics to apply to his space in life as opposed to Bowie’s, which was aggressively British, including the line in my quote, “I can’t see anything” from Bowie’s “divine symmetry.” So I was technically correct, but I’m triply mad because I came really close to quoting classic Bowie in my 1997 senior quote which would have made me extremely advanced among my peers. What a mess.
Operation Ivy has never and will never reform. They don’t hate each other or anything, I just think the brains behind the operation (ivy) is really uninterested. Jesse Michaels went on to do very little of particular note for a long time before founding Common Rider, an incredible band in and of itself. Last Wave Rockers is their first and best album, but almost too heart-stringy for me to listen to these days. He used to have a lovely and very relatable Facebook presence before fleeing for not being able to handle the bullshit. Understandable for sure, but I miss him a lot. Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman of course went on to do Rancid, a band I once liked fairly well. They’ve devolved into self-parody in the last 20 years. It’s so painful to watch, it’s affected my ability to enjoy their earlier, more tolerable output. You could say I hate Rancid, particularly compared with Op Ivy, but I will occasionally get a perverse and mostly pleasantly nostalgic thrill out of listening to much of And Out Come the Wolves and watching their earlier video releases.
The best Le Tigre--nay--the best *Kathleen Hanna* song is “Deceptacon,” everybody knows this, nobody argues, it’s a really really incredible song. It’s really great that she was able to crank out such a hit after Bikini Kill and basically give herself a second career. Which is not to say that Le Tigre in general wasn’t a revolution, but it was certainly fueled by the power of “Deceptacon.” A diss track, it not only slaps, but also effectively draws a line in the sand between Le Tigre’s post-punk (lowercase PP) and the male-dominated (and at times arguably quite misogynistic, if intended in a “playful” manner) pop punk that enjoyed unlikely mainstream saturation in the latter half of the 90s. And it was just in time.
In my post about Radiohead’s “Idioteque,” I mentioned that at the turn of the millennium, burnt out on rock music, there were a handful musicians that pivoted towards pop/dance music from what Pete and I considered to be credible from a punk/indie perspective. This helped us understand that electronic music wasn’t all drugs and glow sticks and that pop didn’t have to be vapid. Along with Radiohead, I credit Bob Mould and Le Tigre for letting us dance again. I dare say they also made the version of Electric Grandmother you know today possible.
When Le Tigre came along, I was familiar with Bikini Kill’s work from scant radio play, the KRS compilation (a bit of a watershed, mentioned in my Bratmobile post), and the Singles collection, but I wouldn’t have described myself as a *big* fan necessarily. Oddly, Le Tigre ended up being a gateway to Bikini Kill for me. I can’t for the life of me remember when I might have first heard them. I’m fairly certain it was in college. They played Hawaii* and we couldn’t afford to go, but I also remember being not-all-that-disappointed that we couldn’t make it either.
*Friends of mine went and I remember this because my pal Mindy reported to me that she saw Kathleen Hanna and now-husband Ad Rock seemed AWFULLY FAMILIAR hanging out near the stage before they went on, but this is long before anyone knew they were a thing. I think this explains why Le Tigre made it to Hawaii because the Beastie Boys were playing a show in town in the same week, a detail which at the time seemed QUITE benign. Also I’m sorry to have mentioned this union on a post about Kathleen’s band and not on the Beastie Boys’ post which would seem to in part define a feminist icon’s worth by her marriage, but not her husband’s. The story IS related to Le Tigre and not the Beastie Boys, though. It’s the best I can do.
I really got hooked on Le Tigre in grad school when they released Feminist Sweepstakes, which is NOT their best album (though not a bad album, having refreshed my memory), but since it had just been released, I got obsessed with it. And then retroactively became obsessed with the superior self-titled debut, which includes both “Decepticon” and the subject of this long, winding story, “The The Empty.”
OH! I would be remiss to not mention my mom’s role in fostering my relationship with Le Tigre. One day at some point in late 2001 (I remember because I think I was newly living in Columbus), out of the blue, she asked me if I liked Le Tigre. I felt a little like Steve Martin in Parenthood when the stripper who was mistakenly sent to his son’s birthday party in place of the popular cowboy character in that I had a lot of questions that didn’t even seem relevant. I told her I did fairly well. She said she heard Kathleen Hanna on Fresh Air and struck her as something I’d enjoy. “She sounded like a valley girl, but one with ideas.” I guess that’s fair. I was tickled enough by this interaction that I leaned in a little.
I didn’t want to talk about everyone’s favorite song by Le Tigre, so I instead made a personal pick. “The The Empty” is a very atypical Le Tigre song because the guitar is so front-facing. The guitar is also pretty typical three-chord (if that?), unusual for any song with a drum-machine track. The drum track, which is so fast, full, and chaotic, it’s almost irritating. What were they thinking? I think my favorite genre of music is bad-ideas-gone-good. When stuff looks bad on paper but you can pull it off anyway? That’s success.
Kathleen’s vocals aren’t typical for Le Tigre either. They’re usually bouncy and playful, even in angry songs like “Decepticon.” In “The The Empty,” they’re screamier, evocative of her Bikini-Kill style, but more screamy than yelly and far more kinetic. And oh! So angry! I feel like in most screamy songs, the vocalist rarely shows weakness or fatigue and the same I think the same could be said for Kathleen’s Bikini Kill songs, but by the end of the song she sounds at once exhausted but unready to stop?
For all the anger, she’s not even singing about something all that objectively bad. It’s a function of a simpler time, but also that Le Tigre was uniquely art-focused. She got all New York on us. They maintained the feminist-punk spirit from Bikini Kill that made Kathleen Hanna a household name, but in “The The Empty,” and other songs by Le Tigre through Feminist Sweepstakes, that spirit was less lyrically aggressive and more culture-focused and observational. In preparing for this post, I read an interview with Kathleen from 2000 in which she goes on at length about feeling out of step with culture after watching There’s Something About Mary. She admits to watching Adam Sandler movies (lol) to demonstrate that she’s can be quite low-brow and found some funny moments in Mary. But she couldn’t quite get past the concept that Mary effectively had three men stalking her, which rendered the whole thing unfunny and offensive. She had similar complaints about American Beauty (also lol) and Election, though I disagree with her on that. I think in 2000, she would have been chided for being too uptight, but I think mainstream cultural thought has finally caught up to Kathleen Hanna.
“The The Empty” is about exactly this. The refrain throughout the song has Johanna Fateman backing Kathleen’s screams with a pleasant, calm and melodic but assertive “all that glitt
rs is not gold,” which pretty much sums it up. I think the series of lines that drives the unique point of view home here is:
(Oh! Baby!) Why won't you talk to me?
(Oh! Baby!) You don't say anything!
(Oh! Baby!) Why won't you talk to me?
(Oh, baby?) You don't say anything!
What I like about it is that she’s asking for more out of culture. “Why don’t you talk to *me*?” She doesn’t limit the scope here to other musicians. She even calls comedians out, which I find a little funny, but again, with recent progression in standup norms, demonstrated by such output by Hannah Gatsby demonstrates that we are catching up with Kathleen Hanna.
Following Feminist Sweepstakes, Le Tigre attempted to sell out in 2004 with their major label release This Island, which is a steaming pile of shit. It was overproduced and under-performed. So it sounded really slick but amateurish at the same time. I hated it. I guess other people did too, because they failed to gain a foothold in the mainstream. I recall hearing the lead single “TKO” on CD 101 in Columbus and having to turn it off because I hated it so much. Then they went on indefinite hiatus, popping up here and there to do things like record that tragic shoot-the-moon track “I’m With Her” in 2016, along with various production projects here and there. It’s--definitely over.
I’m happy for Kathleen that Bikini Kill is back together. Pete seems to think it’s where she belongs. The couple of times we saw Le Tigre were in mid-sized clubs and they had to move their own shit. They were always fun shows, but I think it’s only natural that when you reach cultural-icon status, it kind of hurts a little to carry your own amps (see also Joe Strummer passing out handbills to an Atlantic City Mescaleros show). When we saw Bikini Kill last year for their triumphant reunion, they were playing at Terminal 5 in NYC and were treated like legends they are. I guess she’s where she needs to be now.
So, yes, I took a few days off. I think my last Favorite Song post was on Thursday. I’ve been feeling like I’m doing a ton of stuff lately, none of it well. So I took this weekend to relax a tiny bit and hammer out some progress of major projects, which I did and I'm very glad for it. I’m so terrified of having not used my Pandemic Time wisely, I’m making myself a little nuts. I used Labor Day weekend to kind of stand back a little.
So that partly explains my absence and that’s mostly the reason, but I’ve also felt demotivated to work on this since starting the process the night before the projected post-date, as I do. I began the work on it, reading up on the song and artist to refresh my memory, find inspiration, and learn new stuff, as I do. One of the first things I read was that “What Difference Does It Make” is well-known to be Morrissey’s least-favorite Smiths song, because OF COURSE IT IS. I was lowkey not looking forward to having to write about this creep anyway and reading this kind of put me over the edge.
There are two camps: people who hate Morrissey and everything he ever did, and people who hate him but love everything he ever did. I fall into a non-fanatical subcategory of the latter, which I think is rare. I think the Smiths have many really incredible songs, but they aren’t my favorite band. I wouldn’t even listen to them every day even though, again, I cannot deny their greatness. The Smiths are a definite Mood that I’m often-but-not-always feeling. It’s not even your stereotypical Post-Punk Sad Bastard mood, either. I’m not frequently subject to that one. I don’t know what it is.
Though the Smiths were always sort of around, I didn’t go on a semi-permanent Kick until 2013 or so when they became a staple. This was influenced by if not directly caused by becoming close friends with those who fall into the fanatical category of those who hate Morrissey and love everything he ever did. Though not technically one of them, as a recovering Screeching Weasel fan, I understand this. For years I was able to look past Ben Weasel’s atrocities because his music meant so much. Then, after a point, his music no longer meant very much because his atrocities just kept getting worse and worse. For some reason, Morrissey’s fans generally seem to have not yet hit this point, despite Morrissey’s atrocities being equal to if not worse than Ben’s to date. I don’t judge the Morrissey fanatics for this, really. I think the cult is just that intense. Respect.
Another unexplainable issue with the Smiths and Morrissey is how popular they are (though perhaps waning) among the Mexican and Mexican-American communities, particularly in Los Angeles. When I first heard about it, I thought the person relaying the Fact of Mexicans and Morrissey was making it up. But in fact, this is a well-enough documented pop cultural quirk that it trickled down to an episode of Orange is the New Black when a Mexican-American inmate described love as “getting into a bath but the water is like, warm chocolate pudding. And the Smiths are playing ‘There’s a Light That Never Goes Out.’” That was my favorite moment of the show. The popularity among such an unlikely population is such an intense, interesting, weird quirk of pop culture, learning it directly caused a friend of mine to leave the sociology grad program we attended together because he felt as if he wasn’t going to be able to ask the important questions in that context. He eventually became a lawyer.
Concerning the other camp, people who hate Morrissey and everything he ever did, this existed even before his aggressively careless rhetoric crossed over from annoying but ultimately harmless to white-nationalist and actually harmful. I think this might be at least in part due to his being an animal-rights vegan before veganism at all was super mainstream. The mere act of another self-identifying vegan or even vegetarian used to be a trigger for some people, but I think we’re fairly well past that, since the internet arguments got so tedious and repetitive nobody wanted to have that discussion again. But the hatred remains, I think.
One more fun aside: many, MANY years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles played the San Francisco 49ers and as we’ve done, my friend Adam Brodsky and I placed a wager on the game. If San Francisco won, Adam would have to produce a video of himself playing “William It Was Really Nothing” on acoustic guitar shirtless for me to share on social media. I don’t remember what my end of the bet was because it didn’t matter, the 49ers won soundly. He didn’t make good on this wager until literally years later, but when he did, it was so exhilarating, I didn’t care that it was delayed for years. He even sang it into a raw chicken leg, punctuating the performance by giving the raw chicken a kiss. I invite him to share the video in the comments, if he so pleases.
Speaking of Adam, he’s been known to say “chicks love the minor key.” I agree and think that’s part of why I love “What Difference” so much. I’m not a musician, but know enough to identify it here. I’ll take it a step further and say that the key sets the perfect tone for the rambling and self-effacing lyrics, spout by Morrissey in the perfect careless rant about a broken friendship or affair (I can’t actually tell). Towards the end he stands quite firm: “no more apologies, oh I’m too tired, I’m so sick and tired and I’m feeling really sick and ill today.” He has us right where he wants us before jerking us back with “but I’m still fond of you, whoa-oh-oh.” Contradiction isn’t unique in music but it is when presented in such a nonchalant tone. I’m also a big fan of both the content and delivery of “oh the devil will find work for idle hands to do.” I do actually find Morrissey-in-his-heyday pretty hot and I also know that this is weird and probably pretty gross to a lot of people and I do not blame those people. Still, the sex or non-sex implied in that line and its delivery is also quite hot.
Do I like this video? Not sure. I generally don’t like clips from TV shows that are passed off as “videos” on YouTube even if that’s probably just a function of it being the best-available and closest-thing-to an actual video and is technically better than nothing. This is an above-average version of the TV-clip video, fairly common for bands from this era and just before. It’s above average in part for the aforementioned eye candy that is Morrissey appropriately dancing very loosely and casually with a blank expression on his beautiful bespectacled face. Bonus: he’s not singing into a microphone which is both funny and allows him to swing his arms around like an idiot, which in addition to his open shirt is an enhancement.
So there you have it. Now I never have to write about Morrissey or the Smiths again.
True confession: I’ve loved this song for the majority of my life but did not know until today that it was originally recorded by someone else. I guess I always assumed Roberta Flack wasn’t actually credited for writing it because that was the case with many R&B/soul artists at the time, but I had no idea there was an earlier version. The original recording was released by singer/songwriter Lori Lieberman the previous year. Lieberman collaborated on it with Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, all three of whom are best known for writing “Killing Me Softly,” among others barely worth mentioning. The full story involves a sordid May-December love affair, severing of ties, lawsuits and every crazy thing you can imagine.
I should have known something was up long ago, when I found out that the object of the song--the person killing the singer softly with his song--is Don McLean. I don’t think anyone would fault me to point out that being touched by a Don McLean performance to the point where you write an enduring, classic tune about it is an obtusely white thing to do. I can honestly say that this has lowkey bothered me for YEARS. I just couldn’t picture Roberta Flack swooning over Don McLean that would inspire her to write the words “I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd. I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud.” It just wasn’t right.
Evidently the Don McLean song that inspired “Killing Me Softly” is called “Empty Chairs,” not one (I though) I’d ever heard before. It sounds to me so tonally similar to “Vincent,” a song with which I have an intensely personal relationship*, I kept wanting him to transition to “now I understand what you tried to say to me, how you suffered for your sanity” and when he inevitably didn’t, I felt disappointed and vaguely nauseated. This song doesn’t stand out to me at all and borderline sucks.
*I think I’ve mentioned before that absent from my childhood is the experience of going through my parents’ old record collections and discovering old stuff that they love or once loved listening to, gaining an early musical education from those dusty old records. My parents were nomads before I was born, persistently bouncing around the pacific until they stopped in the late 1970s. They didn’t keep any of their stuff from when they were kids or in their teens or even their 20s. The closest I could get were old cassettes they kept from their Peace Corps days, which were most often dubbed mix-tapes made by close friends and family. They lacked the cohesion and colorful artwork that my peers’ parents’ old LPs would have, so I never “got into” my parent’s “record collections.” One vintage prerecorded cassette that survived moves and purges was a copy of Don McLean’s American Pie album so old that it didn’t come in the flip-style cassette case I was used to. Rather, it was like a hard-plastic cassingle-style sleeve-case. It was weird. Anyway, I listened to that album, which I now see included “Empty Chairs,” but more importantly included “Vincent,” which I’d never heard before listening to the album. I believe I was not yet taking art history yet, but was cultivating an early interest in post-impressionist art (still probably my favorite pre-modern period). I heard “Vincent” for the first time, burst intensely into tears, and listened to it like five more times. Years later, I found out that NOFX covered “Vincent,” which is one of my favorite things Fat Mike has ever done. I could not include either version on my top 100 because it is too embarrassing to even consider where it might fit, though it probably deserves a spot.
Evidently, Roberta Flack was sort of on the fence about recording “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” arguably one of two or three songs she’s now best known for. At the risk of summarizing the entire Wikipedia article in this post, I must also share the detail that Roberta Flack first heard the original version on an airplane as part of the in-flight audio program. You may or may not be old enough to remember these. I used to listen to them despite having at least a portable cassette player during every flight in which I needed to be occupied. It was fun for me, whose control-freak parents didn’t allow me to switch away from the adult-contemporary or NPR stations in the car and doing so on the airplane felt fun and random, yet predictable enough since the in-flight literature lists all songs they will play. I recall very early in high school hearing “Stand” by REM over and over on one such flight. So anyway, Roberta Flack was making preparations to record it but for some reason never did. Then, when opening for Marvin Gaye for lack of any other material for an encore, played “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” the crowd went wild, and Marvin Gaye advised her not to play the song again until she recorded it.
You might guess that I became enamored with “Killing Me Softly with His Song” following the Fugees’ 1996 cover version but that is not true! I remember my mom loving this song. All along I’ve assumed that the version of “Killing” I knew from my youth was the Roberta Flack version, but evidently there’s an Anne Murray version, which may very well be the one my mom listened to. That’s disappointing. I listened to it for the first time ever/in many enough years so that it didn’t sound familiar. It sucks. It’s over-arranged and the vocal performance pales (no pun intended) in comparison. That’s right, a Canadian adult contemporary artist can’t drum up as much soul as Roberta Flack. I’m taking a stand. I do like that cover by the Fugees, though and appreciated when it came along and enjoyed a second life. Another semi-contemporary moment-in-the-sun worth mentioning if not going into is a very sweet moment in the 2002 major motion picture About a Boy, which I love in spite of myself.
I don’t feel like I need to talk about why I love this song so much. I kind of feel like it’s similar to “What’s Going On?” Like, what is there to say? Everyone loves this song. I will say that the power of this song for me isn’t a play between the music and lyrics. I’m normally big on lyrics and the songwriter’s headspace, how that plays with the arrangement and the melody, but “Killing Me Softly with His Song” is just ok from that perspective. It’s thematically the same song as “Superstar” by the Carpenters. What I love best about this song is the melody of the verses as it transitions into the chorus. This song is 90% chorus, but the verses are where the meat is for me. Take verse 3 (please):
He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair
And then he looked right through me as if I wasn't there
But he just came to singing, singing clear and strong
You can kind of see what I mean. “In all my dark despair” sounds like an angsty teenage girl wrote it (which is basically true). The first line ends mid-range. The second one is high and strong and the third, which feeds into the chorus is a nonsense line but is delivered so forcefully, the performance takes on a life of its own and in one single shot, demonstrates the general magic of music.
Copper Blue is one of my all-time favorite albums and most certainly deserves to be represented here, but it was really hard to pick a song for a list like this. This isn’t a Whitney situation, where all of the major singles are tied for first. I always have a favorite song off of Copper Blue, but it rotates between the four best: “The Act We Act,” “A Good Idea,” “Helpless” and “The Slim”
In fact, in the two-whatever months I’d been doing this list, I switched favorites from “The Act We Act” to “A Good Idea.” That’s how volatile the situation is. The longest consecutive reign belongs to “The Slim” which is probably my actual favorite, but there was a situation which I’ll get into later, shortly after I found out that it’s a reflection of the pain of losing someone close to you from AIDS and the simultaneous fear and dread that came with being gay in the early days of the epidemic. Copper Blue was released shortly after Bob formally came out and I can only imagine how much trepidation and relief were simultaneously woven into artistic output that follows. The song is raw and impossibly sad. I was completely obsessed with this, listened to the song on repeat so many times, I ate my own sadness and now listening it makes me want to barf. It’s still the strongest song on the album, but I can’t listen to it.
I frequently forget about Sugar and go months and occasionally years between Copper Blue listens, but that just makes putting it on all the much sweeter. It’s a ridiculously great album. I invite anyone to speak up if it isn’t their favorite post-Huskers Bob Mould output because I think it’s fairly unanimous. I would take it a step further, and would put it up against New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig any day. It’s ahead of most Huskers albums because of the production value but the songwriting is also brighter and bouncier. It’s musically if not lyrically more optimistic. Danceable.
Sugar shares a guitarist, lead vocalist, and primary songwriter with Husker Du and I explored Sugar’s catalog at the same time I did Husker Du, in the late 1990s. I ended up being a bigger fan of Sugar (and Bob Mould solo-proper). Sugar presents a modernized version of Husker Du (to the extent possible between the late ‘80s when the Huskers broke up to the early ‘90s when Copper Blue was issued). Pitchfork attributes this to the advent of Grunge and the mainstreaming of bands influenced by Husker Du as well as Bob Mould’s just hearing the Loveless album by My Bloody Valentine. This is funny in the context of my Sugar bias because I don’t particularly like My Bloody Valentine.
I’ve seen Bob Mould play twice, which is a low average for a fan of independent music who lives in Washington, DC and in fact only saw him in DC once. I don’t think he’s ever lived here, but a recent music collaborator does, so Bob spends a lot of time here and performs as Bob Mould Solo-proper locally pretty often. We went once in 2012, less than a year after we moved to the area, not a time about which I think with much fondness. It was kind of a rough time and coincided with the aforementioned period when I was obsessed with Very Sad Song “The Slim,” likely because things were kind of a bummer over all. Bob was actually touring to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Copper Blue and in doing so, he was set to play the entire album. I was beside myself.
Leading up to the show, our good friend Eddie would be in town and wanted to get together that evening for drinks. We figured it was cool, we could have a couple at a nearby bar before heading over to the 9:30 Club. We met Eddie and travel companion at Bohemian Caverns (RIP) and I ordered a tall, single rum and Diet Coke, which is what I did at the time. We had two or three drinks and were having such a good time catching up with a pal from the Old Country, I didn’t realize how crazy-strong said cocktails were. Upon arrival at the show, the place was already packed with an ideal-typical Bob Mould audience, populated mostly with very large men as Bob has made his way into DC’s Bear scene and the Bear scene followed. Pete grabbed me like a human cowcatcher and started yelling “short people coming through!” This sounds obnoxious, but I assure you, we were adorable. We were told as much. Anyway, we kept drinking until I was barely standing and grabbed a cab before the show was over and I hardly remember much of the performance. I vomited in the cab on the way home, which marks the very last time I threw up from drinking and even at the time I felt a little too old for that shit. The experience is forever tinged with an uncomfortable, regretful, guilty feeling and we never made it back to another Bob performance, but now laying all of this out, I need to prioritize getting back to see him.
Yesterday I posted a song I thought was originally recorded by Roberta Flack, but had this crazy prehistory before Roberta Flack even heard the original on an airplane and today I’m posting about a song I had no idea was written essentially in tribute to the Pixies’ “Debaser.” I dislike the Pixies, but I hate “Debaser,” so this new fact, along with the My Bloody Valentine inspiration is very funny to me. For as much as I love “That’s a Good Idea,” I never considered the lyrics that reveal the darker motif to be the driving theme of the song. Unlike “Debaser,” which sounds a bit like a murder, “A Good Idea” is poppy and light such that *I* at least think that it paves over story of a woman who asks a man to drown her. This is in spite of the very obvious “I’ve been waiting for years and I’d rather be dead,” which I always sort of thought was maybe a metaphor along with “and she screamed,” with references to his holding her head under the water? I thought it was about sex.
Musically, as I’ve mentioned the song is light and poppy. The bass line is persistent and I’ve seen it compared to a Kim Deal composition, which I guess I can see and closes the loop on the “Debaser” comparison. But the rest of the song is kind of herky-jerky. It stops and starts, slows down, and speeds up. The guitar is meandering leading up to the chorus (with the 90s’ Beavis-and-Butthead immortalized “cool part” trend called back). There are also lots of atmospheric guitar tricks that call to mind a watery death along with an actual water effect in the introduction. In the verses pops in and out to occasionally interject an almost nautical amusical yowl. I like this. The ocean is probably the easiest thing to evoke through art because it’s so specific but universal. I don’t get tired of it.
Sometimes an artist’s catalog gets too expansive and I get overwhelmed and stop keeping up. Bob Mould is one such artist. We picked up a copy of Silver Age, released shortly before the aforementioned Doomed Copper Blue Show. I listened to it once, loved it, and never picked it up again. There is too much Bob Mould out there. I need ten solid albums from any combination Husker Du, Sugar, and Bob solo, no more. Every artist has their limit. But I do hope in the After Times he plays DC as often as he has so that I can get a do-over on that 2012 disaster.
It is a syndrome among many people my age +/- 3 or so years to have gone through the following stages regarding Phil Collins:
In our childhood - Acceptance. He was everywhere and his songs were neither remarkable nor unpleasant. He was like a muted wall color. Always there, rarely noticed.
In our teens until our mid-20s - Revulsion. He was very much the embodiment of inoffensive, vanilla 80s adult contemporary and the antithesis of everything Joe Strummer stood for.
In our early 30s - Guilty Pleasurism. The resonance is mostly nostalgic, but we cannot help but rock out to “Two Hearts” and may have even purchased a greatest-hits collection.
In our late 30s and on - All-Out Fanaticism. We came around to the fixture he was in the simplest times and decided ultimately that to be that inoffensive, vanilla, and still as infectious almost 4 decades later, he has to be a genius.
This is to say that for people of a certain age, Phil Collins means a great deal. There is definitely something about him that elevates his legacy above Richard Marx’s or Bruce Hornsby’s. His songs are not cool. He is certainly not cool. Nor is he good-looking, which is practically his brand: pasty, bald. And yet so many of us are completely obsessed with him.
I remember back in the late 90s when I guess you could call Phil Collins a still-contemporary artist (I think he was exclusively doing million-dollar tracks on Disney soundtracks at that point), Pete told me that Phil Collins was once cool. I challenged him on this notion and he said that it was the connection to Genesis. “You mean the ‘We Can’t Dance’ guys?” Yeah, evidently Peter Gabriel was their lead singer once upon a time. And they were weird. Like, much weirder than “Sledgehammer.” We would only discover much later exactly how cool he was, having played drums on Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). This was a big wait-what moment for us.
How did this happen? He went from associating with prog/art/experimental 70s acts to that moment in American Psycho* when Patrick Bateman goes on a several-minute monologue about how great Collins’ body of work is post Genesis’ 1980 album, Duke. He dismisses their earlier work as “too intellectual,” but in praise of Phil’s later work, says his solo stuff is “more commercial and therefore more satisfying,” calling “Sussudio” out as “a personal favorite.” In other words, a film character emblematic of all of the worst features of the 80s LOVES Phil Collins.
*American Psycho was released in 2000. I was 21 years old, so I was still in the Revulsion phase of the Phil Collins Cycle of Children of the 80s. The scene in which he went on about Phil Collins was my favorite of the film, followed closely by the internal monologue about business cards’ paper color, type, weight, and font.
My friend Eddie is a pioneer in the transition from Guilty Pleasurism to All-Out Fanaticism (amazingly also a feature of yesterday’s post on Sugar’s “A Good Idea”), having been well under 30 when he caved and he caved more spectacularly than anyone I know, basically turning his love of Phil into a personal brand. Eddie aggressively doesn’t give a fuck and sometimes it even seems disingenuous, as if he’s just a contrarian. He isn’t and it’s really hard to explain why I’m so sure about this. The best I can do is to say that he has absolutely nothing to gain from exaggerating his love for Phil Collins. He doesn’t joke about it or do anything cheap like putting out hammy covers of better-known Phil Collins songs. He just really loves Phil Collins in a very pure way. He was definitely instrumental in Pete and I getting over our discomfort with loving Phil Collins.
“Against All Odds” was another one of those iTunes that I downloaded right after I learned it was possible to legally download individual songs off the internet. I don’t know when I first heard the song. Released in 1984, it wouldn’t have been familiar to me from my parents’ radio-listening, I would have been too young. My high-time would have been closer to 1988 and the aforementioned “Two Hearts.” I have some recollection of competently performing it at karaoke in college before Mariah Carey’s cover was released, but I believe there was some turning point in high school when this song clicked with me.
This catalyst may have been the result of seeing this weird-ass music video* in high school at some point. I know very well that it’s mostly clips from the forgotten film that shares a name with this immortal song. As they do sometimes, they tried to weave the recording artist responsible for the featured song on the soundtrack into the film-clip-heavy music video. I have never seen Against All Odds the film because it’s supposed to be a stinker but now that I’ve written this, I feel like I need to find 90 minutes to get this out of the way. Phil had nothing directly to do with the film so they got creative. Our first glimpse of the man himself is only of his lips, a low-fi cut-out underlaying an Aztec-inspired (??) mask of some sort. I think it has something to do with the plot of the movie. The mask-thing fades and we get a clear shot of Phil Collins in all of his pasty, bald glory, singing directly into the camera in front of a backdrop that can only be described as red-tinted rain. The clips of the film don’t help me understand the plot of the film at all and having just skimmed the film’s Wikipedia page, I can say it’s because the plot of the film is wildly all-over-the-place. There’s football, snorkeling, possibly heroin addiction? Anyway, much as I love it, I’m not going to go into a play-by-play of the music video because you’re free to sit down and watch it if you want to spend your time doing so. I do need to mention the iconic (perhaps only to me) neon triangle, which at one point ¾ of the way through the video forms around Phil Collins as the camera zooms out to a wide shot. Under the neon triangle there’s a rippling effect as if there is an otherwise invisible shallow pond lying beneath. Then it goes away, fades into more random stuff from the movie (I think the Jeff Bridges character is a pro football player which is a topic of emphasis in the video even though most of it seems to take place at a resort in Mexico), but then the triangle comes BACK like 10 seconds later, but this time there are clips from the movie in each of the regions of the screen, separated by the sides of the triangle. In the middle, there’s a waterfall, with Jeff Bridges above it, Rachel Ward to the left, and James Woods to the right. I'm delighted to see this is the frame in the thumbnail on this post. It might be one of those things that would have been really tough to do and expensive at the time, but I don’t think so. I just think the director sucks. The use of neon and colored rain is so clumsily 80s, I don’t know what to do with myself. I think I need to take a walk.
*I usually try to link the official “video” from the artist’s YouTube channel even if it’s just the album cover because there *is* no video. I do this because I don’t want to post a video from one of those psychos who work really hard to make their weird-ass videos look like official ones. I did not observe this practice in the case of “Against All Odds” because I wanted to promote this weird-ass video, which was official in that they’d play it on VH1 once upon a time. The video was posted by Peter Lippman, the production manager. I think he’s probably weird in an un-fun way because on his channel I also found the video for Charlie Daneils’ 2008 video “I Believe In You.” About Charlie Daniels, Lippman says: “Charlie expresses the patriotic spirit & greatness of America in this video! It's always a pleasure working with Charlie! Not only is he a GREAT fiddle player, he is also diverse, unique and sings songs about what's important in life!” OK, Pete.
I feel like I need to end this at some point and I haven’t even really talked about the actual song, so I’ll wrap it up with that. The thinking man’s choice for best Phil Collins is easily “In the Air Tonight,” a VERY fine song and probably my second or third favorite, but as easy as it is for me to identify how corny “Against” is, but I do love it so much. It starts very quiet, with Phil doing his vulnerable sad-man thing. Then the beat (of sorts) drops. I wonder if it’s because Phil’s a drummer that he does this so often, bringing the drums in late. He brought them in famously late for “In the Air” and then kind of chickened out on this follow up. I think it’s the kind of thing where he couldn’t help but use it a second time on an emotional power ballad, even knowing it’s a bit of a weaker version of the same thing.
The way Phil takes us through enduring heartbreak isn’t novel but I find it really touching for some reason. I guess I’m not alone because the two most notable cover versions are done by Mariah Carey and the Postal Service, both of whom I consider to be legit *artists*. I have not read the Phil Collins memoir. I downloaded it, but couldn’t even get through the introduction because his narrative voice is so loathsome. I understand that this was a good decision because my instincts were correct and he does not come across very well, which is so strange because he’s so bald and pasty, you’d have to assume he’s a good guy. Phil wrote “Against All Odds” after his divorce with his first wife, the details of which I’m not really familiar, but I would guess there’s probably real emotion in it. Despite not experiencing any real breakups in my life, I somehow also find this really personally touching. I think maybe because I’ve always fell back getting revenge by living well, even though it often strikes me as the coward’s solution.
HOLY FUCK, I HAVE WRITTEN THREE SINGLE-SPACED PAGES ON PHIL COLLINS. I have more to say but need to get on with my life now.
Ween is an all-time favorite of mine. They’re a top-ten band for sure. Looking critically at the ranking, I wondered whether it should have been moved up, but no, I think I stand by Ween being represented in this spot. The relatively low ranking of their only song on this list may be the result of a consistent and expansive catalog. If you discount 12 Golden Country Greats* I can count on one hand the number of songs they released that I think are just-OK or worse on the five other studio albums they released between 1994 and 2007 (I rewrote that sentence like five times and I’m still not sure it makes sense, but I think you probably get what I mean). I can think of several others I could have included, but they all would have been tied for #32. The math I used to make these rankings is instinctive and very sophisticated, so I can’t explain how that’s possible. I would like to mention these songs because they are also so very great: “Even if You Don’t,” “Flutes of the Chi,” “Your Party,” “The Golden Eel,” “Freedom of ‘76,” “Roses are Free,” “With My Own Bare Hands,” “Don’t Laugh I Love You,” “Transdermal Celebration,” and “Pumpin’ for the Man.”
*12 Golden Country Greats is a popular one among Ween fans, but it’s sort-of a concept album and I don’t care for the concept so I admittedly didn’t give it much of a chance. So I mentally exclude it when thinking/talking about Ween, but I’m not even sure whether that’s because I think it sucks or because I’m just unfairly dismissive. Also, I don’t want to talk about this.
Like a lot of people, my introduction to Ween came in the early 90s. I can’t remember whether it was because I heard them on Radio Free, who gave “Push th’ Little Daisies” some airplay or whether I saw them first on Beavis and Butthead, but that’s a fine point because I’m sure it would have been fairly simultaneous. I didn’t think much of them. “Push” was a funny song, but seemed an awful lot like a novelty track and not something I could large-scale love, not realizing at the time that ALL of their songs were like this. When “Push th’ Little Daisies”-mania faded, I kind of forgot about them.
Threeish years later, enter guess-who! When I met him, Pete basically had two buckets of music he liked. One included those falling under his loosely-defined punk-rock umbrella, but he also had a small-but-mighty low-fi/weird music bucket that included such outfits as Beck, Daniel Johnston, and of course Ween. And as with many of the artists that appear on this list, Ween showed up early and often on the mix tapes he’d tirelessly and persistently put together for me. At the time, we were basically working with the first five albums through Chocolate and Cheese If you’re like me, you think of Ween in two major phases, before and after Chocolate and Cheese.
By this standard they’d barely gotten going in 1996. Ween’s early period is marked by drug-fueled creative chaos. I like it, but it’s not super easy to like and I don’t think it’s nearly as good as their later output. I think it’s fairly analogous to Bowie, before and after Hunky Dory.* There are, however, a handful of really outstanding songs from those earlier albums, including the one I ultimately settled on for my 32nd favorite song of all time.
*Idk maybe that’s unfair. You’d call someone crazy if they’d say their favorite Bowie album is one released before Hunky Dory but Pete’s favorite Ween is Pure Guava and I don’t think he’s crazy. I stand by the fact that they’re basically two different bands before and after Chocolate and Cheese, though.
Though Chocolate and Cheese is fundamentally a better album, I hit my stride with Ween when we got the Mollusk. It’s basically another concept album, all the songs unified by a loose nautical theme. I have very clear memories being on the Big Island with Pete and my family during a Thanksgiving trip. Pete and I were both in college and scrambling to finish up our work for the semester. I had a paper due in my labor history class and we went to the UH-Hilo library so that I could look at microfiches of newspapers covering the air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981 and we spent a lot of time driving around by ourselves and listening to the Mollusk. More than 20 years later, I still associate the Mollusk with that trip.
We have seen Ween* play four times together *I think*, which is a low average for a Ween fan. When I posted about Pearl Jam I said that I didn’t think I liked any bands that had a following like Pearl Jam’s, but that’s clearly untrue because Ween is definitely one such band. Our dear friend Gary, with whom we drop in and out of touch for reasons that aren’t mine but I accept, is the kind that follows/has followed Ween around regionally. I can’t say how many times he’s seen them and Pete can correct me on this, but I think it’s north of 50. When Ween reunited after a several-year feud, they played three consecutive nights at Manhattan’s Terminal Five. Each night, they played a 30+ song set and had zero repeats, they were all amazing sets. We went to the second night and in reviewing the setlists for each, I can’t even tell you which is the better one. Most recently we saw them play in Baltimore and had front-row tickets. I was so excited to have gotten such sweet seats, but of course as soon as they started playing, everyone rushed to the front and it didn’t matter. I will go see Ween play whenever it’s feasible. I can’t see getting tired of seeing them.
*+1 for the time we saw Gener do a set of Billy Joel covers, which was one of the best things I will ever see.
I think for the handful of people intimately familiar with my Ween sensibilities, “Birthday Boy” probably strikes as an odd pick. As I mentioned, I like Ween better in their polished, showoffy, elder-statesmen period post-Chocolate and Cheese. Of their early period, God Ween Satan is fairly challenging (if not as much as the Pod) and most of it is silly/experimental and noisy. Still good, but fundamentally different from their classic period. Most songs on God Ween Satan like “Papa Zit” and “El Camino” are so weird and emotionally detached, it makes their raw and vulnerable output that much more special. “Birthday Boy” is the most raw and vulnerable of all.
It’s another breakup song. Can we take a second to step back and appreciate the creative potential of humans-as-a-species that they’re able to churn out tens of thousands of breakup songs and still manage to find new stuff to say? Like, compare “Against All Odds” to “Birthday Boy.” They are about the same thing but couldn’t be more different. “Birthday Boy” is comprised of a vocal track, electric guitar, a barely-present bass track, and sampling and that’s it. It’s a very lonely song, atmospherically. There’s an effect on the vocals and Gene is doing his high-whine (not quite falsetto, I think?), which I think maybe he started using as a joke but eventually became how he sings.
I learned today that the backstory of “Birthday Boy” is that Gener and a girlfriend broke up because she was going to move to California. The tone is hopelessly sad and powerfully regretful. He didn’t appreciate the relationship when they were together but now that it’s over, he can’t see pulling himself out of this dark, dark space. It makes sense to me that the reason for the breakup was a move because it’s a sure-fire way to break up on good terms and to still be sad about it. This is still nothing new. I think the reason this song is so powerful is his reflection on the breakup happening on his birthday. The title is an obvious allusion, but the samples that come in at the end hammer the point home. They’re answering-machine messages, both mention his birthday. I love the juxtaposition. The first one sounds like it might be from a friend or coworker. I listened REALLY hard today and can’t quite make it out. The voice wishes Gener a happy birthday, mentions work and then gives a phone number (I think). The other one is the one that really sticks its hand into your chest to pull out your still-beating heart. It’s from his grandma, who sings happy birthday and congratulates him on his transition from “little teenager” to “full-grown-twenty.” Which, christ. First of all, can you imagine? I think most of us think of our grandmothers as an embodiment of our most innocent times? I do. I think of kindness, vacations, someone always happy to see me, with a fairly simple life, who donates to animal rescue organizations, enjoys TV and a garden full of flowers. And then putting myself in Gener’s place where you feel 100% like shit and like he doesn’t “know if [he’ll] be ok” for complicated and grown-up reasons and then get this sadly sweet reminder of a simple and soft past? Ouchie.
Another point of note is that “Baby Bitch,” which appears on Chocolate and Cheese references this relationship again. I guess they ended up in the same place again and it didn’t go as well as Gener built it up in his mind and he closes the loop with:
Got fat, got angry, started hating myself
Wrote "Birthday Boy" for you, babe
Now I'm skinny and sick and paranoid
Without a cent to my name
This epilogue makes me feel less sad about “Birthday Boy” and adds to the lore. It’s also a kind of poignant closing because it adds layers to the simple Breakup Song motif. You don’t appreciate something until it’s gone AND sometimes that appreciation is just amplified by absence.
The world needs Ween. I can’t explain how happy it makes me that they’re friends again. It’s personal too because even though we don’t sound super-a-lot like Ween, they’re really the closest things EG has to role models. They’re funny and serious but never take themselves seriously. They’re amazing musicians, fabulous at what they do and genuinely themselves. I love it when people see Ween in EG. It’s the highest possible compliment.
I swear I didn’t do this on purpose but today am posting an unprecedented third consecutive breakup song. Upon realizing this, I took a quick look at the rest of the list and can say confidently that “Against All Odds,” “Birthday Boy,” and “Again” are the three best breakup songs of all time. I told you the math I was using was sophisticated. The system works.
I think every woman who grew up about the same time I did has a favorite among the pop divas* of the 80s and 90s. I take it a step further and rank them because that’s just who I am. My favorite is Janet Jackson. While neither the best singer nor dancer of the group, she’s like the greatest generalist of her time. Solid dancing, her vocal range falls right in that meaty part of the curve where she’s not showing off, not falling behind. The songwriting and arrangements are probably her strongest suits. Janet Jackson is the consummate pop generalist, which as someone who is a little good at everything but not great at one single thing, I tip my hat to her.
*I really didn’t want to use this loaded and implicitly sexist term but found it impossible to avoid.
That said, Janet is no underdog. The track listings for her three best albums, Control, Rhythm Nation 1814 and Janet. boggle the mind. They are in no uncertain terms loaded with hits. They were all released three or more years apart (1986, 1989, and 1993 respectively) which is a LIFETIME between releases in pop-music years. She got away with this because she released so many singles from each album. Take Control, for example. The first single “What Have You Done for Me Lately” was released in January of 1986 and the sixth single from Control, “The Pleasure Principle” was released in May of 1987. The video for the latter was awarded an MTV video music award in September 1988. By this measure, she rode the Control wave for two years, eight months. In the case of Rhythm Nation 1814, she’s distinguished as responsible for the only album in history that had number one hits in three separate calendar years. She didn’t have to rush to put something out every two years because she stayed in the spotlight for three years every time she released an album. I love this.
Another advantage to putting out hit-heavy albums less often is that she got to change musical and style directions each time. During her Control era, she presented herself as a flirty, wholesome, girl next door. For Rhythm Nation she (mostly) presented herself as this militaristic, no-nonsense badass. Towards the end of Rhythm Nation’s reign, something weird happened. For the music video for her seventh (!) single, she completely changed her image, one she carried over into the Janet. era. In fact, I recall the first time I saw the music video for “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and wondered what the fuck happened. It didn’t help that in the first verse of that one she was doing this weird, husky low-voice thing that I don’t think she ever did before or since. Her appearance was also dramatically different. She was always in great, pop-star physical condition, but I think the shape of her face gave off the impression that she was somehow “chubby?” In “Love Will Never Do,” she was “chubby” no more, exuberantly showing off her wash-board abs. She’d also lightened her hair and the direction of the video was very evocative of a CK One commercial, in which the stark desert setting and the clean minimalist white-cotton-and-denim wardrobe choices was very much of its time.
As mentioned, this clean, simple, and beautiful aesthetic carried over into Janet., starting with the iconic album cover,* a sepia-toned photo of a topless Janet Jackson with disembodied hands covering her nips. This also looks like a Calvin Klein print ad, aided by the half-buttoned button-fly jeans she’s wearing. I think she’s also wearing a wallet chain. I miss the 90s.
*Described here is actually the *alternate* album cover. The other one just had her head, which is clearly not as memorable. I’d completely forgotten about it before looking it up.
By the time Janet. was released, I was already a fan of alternative rock, which makes the fact that she’d gotten my attention during this era all the more impressive. “That’s the Way Love Goes” was the lead single and it’s a nice slow jam, but besides “Again,” “If” is a standout in my personal soundtrack because musically it was certainly a departure. The music video, a super heavyweight example of cultural appropriation is nonetheless beautiful. There’s a lot going on, matching the song’s kinetic pacing. There’s group choreography and what looks like some kind of sex-parlor/voyeur’s paradise situation going on? Janet is wearing a from-fitting, cropped vest, as she does in the video for “That’s the Way Love Goes,” which I can only explain by reminding you again that this was peak-90s.
“Again” was released as the third single in October 1993, but it appeared in the major motion picture Poetic Justice starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, which was released the previous summer. It for whatever reason wasn’t on the soundtrack album, but is played over the closing credits. I saw Poetic Justice at the weird little Kuhio Theater* with bff Alison and this girl Autumn who we knew from the school we attended before high school. I don’t remember how I felt about it at the time, only that Autumn had a major boner for Tupac. I’ve watched it since then and cannot recommend it. It is a terrible movie and the poetry is terrible.
*I see that the Kuhio Theater was demolished in 1996. It was my favorite theater. I feel like it’s appropriate it was destroyed in 1996, was effectively the end of the 90s. I saw Poetic Justice, Sleepless in Seattle, Dragon, and fucking Congo at this theater, making it the most 90s movie theater of all time. May it rest in peace.
So my introduction to “Again” must have been a slow burn because I don’t remember having heard it for the first time. I suspect this is in part the result of my being a stubborn alternative rock fan at the time. It wasn’t ok to enjoy pop music at the time, so it must have started out as a guilty pleasure before blossoming into a full-blown obsession. I believe it was also the rare pop song that received some Radio Free airplay, but I can’t verify that. I can definitely see it being the kind of thing where it was around for like a year and then I heard it for the first time in a while and I say to myself “wait a minute. I *love* this song!”
There’s a piano riff that comes and goes throughout the song, starting with the intro. It’s infectious. It’s probably the reason that this song is elevated above run-of-the-mill pleasant-pop-ballad to full-blown classic status. Janet will occasionally sing along with it. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about? That part that goes duh-dun-dun-duh-dun-dun-dun? “Again” is not structured like a pop song either. It’s meandering and there’s no real chorus, but she repeats the word “again” several times in a handful of different contexts. It seems really short for some reason, but it’s almost four minutes long. The Wikipedia entry refers to it as an “experiment” and a “departure,” and I guess it is for all the reasons I mention above, but they make it sound like it’s Janet’s first noise record.
I was shocked to see that in its time, critical reception of “Again” was “mixed.” Fuck you guys, this song is beautiful. The criticism is mostly about the lyrical content, which I guess I can see if you’re also dead inside. I mean, it’s a love song. I was touched by it because Janet who was then 27 had a *past* and the concept of having sort of forgotten how strongly you feel about a past relationship struck me as very adult. Also adult? The bit about feeling nostalgic about how good the sex was. Most iconic breakup songs put the focus squarely on the hurt (see: “Against All Odds,” “Since U Been Gone”) or how great the ex-partner was (see: “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “Someone Like You”), but looking back with regret about how good things were is kind of unique. And like, mature. I loved it.
The music video is indelible. It’s also very white-cotton, taking place in some breezy, Mediterranean house-like setting, in which she’s alternating between writing what I can only imagine is bad poetry and flashing back to her time with this lost love. It’s so domestic, but in an extremely leisurely and wealthy way. They’re very happy and rich in their oversized wicker chairs. I must mention that the boyfriend in the video is played by one Mr. Gary Dourdan, who played one of the top ten most annoying characters in sitcom history, Shazza Zulu from A Different World. The enduring image from this music video occurs beginning at 1:53 when Shazza unbuttons Janet’s jeans and slowly slides his hand down her pants. THE NATION WAS POSITIVELY SCANDALIZED BY THIS. As it turns out, he was just going for her belly chain. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know what this was and the whole thing was so confusing, really making absolutely no objective sense. It was presented in such a lurid manner, you were sure it must have been some kind of genital chain, if such a thing existed. Which for all any of us knew, did.
Oh man do I fall apart at this song. To this day. The piece at the end, where she’s all “say it just one time, say you love me. God knows I do love you again?” Phew/yikes. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been with Pete for my entire adult life and am EXTREMELY lucky to have enjoyed a very harmonious, low-drama relationship to the point where I’m kind of naive in this area if that makes any sense. But because it’s been so good, the concept of it ending, an issue raised by “Again” in which an end that nobody wants just sort of happens is seriously fucking heartbreaking. Then--for the door to open slightly for an opportunity to relive it? It killed me at age 14 and it kills me now.
When I started posting about my 100 favorite songs of all time, I devised a process for tackling such a monumental endeavor. I made a mishmash list of as many as 200 songs, then I assigned them each a tier. Tier 1 contained my 12-15 all time favorite songs. Tier 2, I felt needed to be ranked between 12 and 30, and so on. Within each group, I put them in order. Ordering the tiers happened all in one setting, so it was subject to whims and moods. One such whim placed “Take the Skinheads Bowling” at #30.
I was high on this particular song because it was this song that inspired this project. For whatever reason on one of Pete’s and my music-video Friday nights, I put this song on and somewhat inebriated, I declared this to be one of my very favorite songs of all time, even as I’m not particularly a fan of Camper van Beethoven OR Cracker, I just really like “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” And then in the light of day, it occurred to me that it would be a very rewarding experience to create a list of all of my all-time favorite songs. Then I posted about it on Facebook to my very supportive friends, one of whom said that she loves the way I write and would love to read about my favorite songs. It hadn’t occurred to me that each post would be accompanied by a blurb about the song, but that seemed like a great idea, too.
About two months later, here we are at #30 and a song that I have almost nothing to say about (except that it’s great) and more than ⅔ of the way through a marathon that seems to be running out of steam. I’m short on time these days. I’ve taken on a bunch of projects during the pandemic, all of which seem to be suffering in opposition to each other. I can’t do the best job I possibly can on the EG music video if I’m feeling guilty about not practicing singing. Doing my best at my job and professional networking is impossible if I’m writing about my favorite songs while attending MS Teams meetings.
But like, I have to finish all of these things. HAVE TO. Before the pandemic, I constantly felt like I never had enough time to do the things I need to do to remain creatively and personally fulfilled. I was not exercising enough, certainly not sleeping enough, and had zero time to do anything besides work, socialize, and exist, save for a few hours on weekends. When the pandemic began, I was borderline inspired by the fact that the pandemic was giving us the gift of time. Then I began to think of time-intensive projects I could begin. It started out with one or two and now I’m simultaneously four or five and not only do I feel over-extended *by my own hand*, but am also beating myself up not doing as good a job as I’d like to be doing on all of them.
I guess the logical thing to do wout be to put one or more things on hold, but I don’t want to neglect any of them for fear that I’ll not feel like completing them once I have more time. The fear of never-finishing is even darker than it sounds because in a lot of ways I feel like being productive during the pandemic is a fight against my own mortality. I’ve posted before about feeling nervous and worried about getting sick and dying. The irony is that a lot of this is completely unrelated to the pandemic and related more to the loss of my dear friend Josie at such a young age and my mom’s passing, now having happened FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, the latent shock of this never wore off.
When my brother was solidly in school, my mom was still only working half time, pretty much having her afternoons to herself. She began taking up a series of projects that seemed maybe a little out of character, but now I get it. She became interested in crafts, in writing, in jewelry-making. She didn’t always have a specific goal in mind, she just became very busy being creative all of a sudden. This didn’t stop until she got sick. In retrospect, it seems like she was racing against time. Despite the fact that I’m generally in really great health and have very few remaining vices, I find myself doing the same thing as I’m entering middle age, almost as if I’m racing against time, too.
I almost never use Facebook for anything but to post these essays and the occasional funny thought that comes to me. I certainly don’t want to use it for any conversation that goes beyond very surface-level discussions about funny or stupid stuff. All other discussion is far too depressing. I don’t think I’m alone. I see people posting about deactivating Facebook. I occasionally think “what ever happened to so-and-so?” and it turns out that they haven’t posted since June. I personally have instituted a personal rule that I don’t look at my phone at all after 10:00. I’ve been sleeping much better since making that policy.
It’s ironic that we’re all drifting away from a *social networking* site just as we’re all kind of isolated to people in our household or masked small-group gathering with friends who have the a similar risk threshold. That’s why I’m still here. Pete and I entertain ourselves extremely well for a two-person unit, but we’re social creatures and miss our friends and miss shows and going out. But goddamn, I can’t keep reading day after day after day about how the Biden campaign isn’t doing X or Y well. There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s only upsetting me. Same with what happens if Trump loses doesn’t leave office. How are any of you dealing with living this day in and day out without feeling like your insides are rotting? Walking away also has the effect of shrinking our worlds in a time where we need each other. So I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe we just live small lives until 2022. Start again then. If we’re lucky.
The hundred favorite songs aren’t like that, though. It’s kind of magic. I never get mad at any comments. I love the interaction. I love that we’re talking about stuff that enriches our lives instead of making us sad or stressed. I love that there are regulars who often, but don’t always have something to say about it. I love so much that Pete reads every word and makes a point to comment specifically on something I’ve said. I love that my dear friend Kelly is doing this with me and is feeling the same strain of commitment and time-dump when we have other, more serious fish to fry. We always Heart each other’s posts. I love it to the extent that even though it feels like a monster, I am terrified of how I will feel when it’s done.
These posts take between one and four hours to research and write. I hate it when I stumble across songs on this list that don’t inspire me because then it becomes a chore in addition to a mission. So I just didn’t this time and poured my guts out. It’s a delightfully infectious, nonsensical song by a band I’m not particularly a fan of that launched a three-month time suck that endures as both very fun, sometimes rewarding, and sometimes burdensome. May Jah increase the number of clocks by exactly one.
I’m four or five years old and listening to my mom’s transistor radio on the beach at Makaha. My mom’s wearing a pale turquoise terrycloth jumper and I’ve got on that blue swimsuit I see in so many pictures from that time. I have long, straight-cut bangs and wavy hair down to my little waist. My dad is wearing those blue swim trunks with the white hibiscus pattern that was later immortalized in a painting my mom commissioned years later. He’s fishing down near the rocky shoreline as he is in that painting that hung for decades in the house I grew up in. There aren’t any kids around and I’m still an only child so I’m frantically busying myself, picking up sand crabs, building sand castles, and exploring tidal pools. The sky and the ocean are impossibly pure and clear--shades of blue are all around. The breeze is hot and dry and competing with the sun. The song on the radio is “For the Longest Time “ by Billy Joel. My mom and I sing along.
This is to say that I am a lifelong Billy Joel fan. It was a mainstay on my mom’s preferred radio station and An Innocent Man was one of the few albums-on-cassettes my parents had of contemporary artists and I would steal it and listen to it on my own. I got all overstimulated when Billy Joel showed up on Sesame Street to sing “Just the Way You Are” even though that was never my favorite by him (too preachy). I loved “For the Longest Time” the most when I was a kid, but grew to love “Uptown Girl” as a pre-adolescent because of Christie Brinkley’s appearance in the video. It was also really romantic to me. I wasn’t exactly an uptown girl myself, but was maybe an aspiring one. I thought it was cool that he wrote a song for a celebrity we all knew.
I never really stopped loving and listening. I even liked “We Didn’t Start the Fire” because I was a big nerd in ‘89, but didn’t care for his releases after that. I hated the title track from “River of Dreams” and kind of stopped paying him any mind and it was ok because he had a stout enough back catalog by that time so that I could just wallow in the past and have ever since.
My husband does not like Billy Joel, so it ends up being a thing that I put on on the odd occasion where I’m at home (and not working) alone during the day. The best is if I’m doing some intense cooking or cleaning and get really into it and sing “Don’t Ask Me Why” at the top of my lungs to the cats. I have also been known to belt out “Piano Man” in the shower when home alone, which sometimes moves me to tears. I’m being completely serious.
So you would think this is something that I carry around with me quietly but that isn’t the case because many of my friends are also rabid William Joel fans. Thanks in part to a viral video we discovered through Lou Barlow of Sebadoh’s Facebook page in which Billy Joel flips out during a live performance in the USSR in the 80s. The venue kept turning the lights on the crowd, which prompted Billy Joel to scream into the microphone between lines of song lyrics “STOP LIGHTING THE AUDIENCE,” “STOP IT,” and “LET ME DO MY SHOW FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.” He also hits the stage with a mic stand and literally overturns the piano he’s playing. If you’ve never seen it, it’s on YouTube and findable if you search “Billy Joel goes crazy in concert.” Anyway, this video struck a chord with a number of my Facebook contacts, including our friends in Pittsburgh, members and well-wishers of the Weird Paul Rock Band. We never get tired of talking about this video and they’ve leaned into their Billy Joel fandom, going as far as attending concerts together. I love this and I love them.
I don’t remember the first time I heard “My Life,” but can guarantee that it was from the Miller-Boyett situation comedy Bosom Buddies starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari. Bosom Buddies ran from 1980-1982, a two-season run dwarfed by its post-hoc reputation. This is in part because it starred Tom Hanks in what was not his first role, but pretty darn close. Possibly because of the star power brought by Tom Hanks, it enjoyed a good run on syndication, which is where I would watch it. I think its enduring presence in the minds of television viewers also owes substantial debt to the truly bizarre and shockingly progressive or regressive (I don’t honestly know) premise. Two young bachelors lose their New York City apartment, have difficulty finding a place they can afford, and end up living in a women’s hotel, a thing that I kind of doubt even existed back in 1980. In order to qualify for building residency, they dress as women and have to maintain this ruse as alter-egos Buffy and Hildegard as long as they’re living in the building. So you can imagine that this situation sparks a number of repetitive comedic situations. They strike up friendships with other women living in the building, played by former model Donna Dixon, Telma Hopkins who of course went on to play Aunt Rachel on Family Matters, and others. Of course the Tom Hanks character develops a crush on the Donna Dixon character and etc etc etc 80s sitcom etc. We have the first season on DVD and I’m mildly delighted to see that Season 2 is also available in that format. It isn’t a quality show, but very entertaining and I do recommend you check it out, though I’m sure anyone who’s gotten this far in this post is already quite familiar with the show.
The connection to “My Life” is that the song plays over the opening credits which I’ve seen described as long “even by 80s standards” and I can only assume that this is by design, to give “My Life” the featured positioning it deserves. The version that appears in the opening credits of Bosom Buddies does not include Billy Joel’s vocal performance due to licensing issues. These pesky licensing issues impact my enjoyment of the series on DVD even more so because in “My Life’s” place is some other stupid song. I can’t immediately think of a theme song that impacts my enjoyment of a show more than this one. It’s just not the same show without it.
Since “My Life” was released the year before I was born, I don’t have firsthand experience with it as something you may regularly stumble upon. Before digital music, it was a rare jewel I knew well but didn’t always have access to. I remember the first time I saw the music video was WELL into the 21st century and was a revelation. It is so gritty, drab and early-80s New York, I want to crawl into it. It begins outdoors during the daytime someplace in New York and features a leather-motocrycle-jacketed Billy sporting a *great deal* of hair. As he’s walking with his buddies, a saxophone player joins them as they enter what looks like a subway station because the stairs seem situated in the middle of a sidewalk, but it’s actually an entrance to a nonspecific underground establishment which is so ugly, I can hardly stand it. It’s got wood paneling and red carpeting, but my favorite is between two elevator doors there’s one of those half-egg shaped metal ashtrays. Oh, I can almost smell it! As the gang turns the corner, it turns out that it’s a cluttered recording studio, so dark and shadowy, even though the camera lingers and several of these randos’ faces, you can only really see Billy Joel’s. So this group of people is all sitting in front of the mixing board but then it cuts to a band playing in said studio. You might think that this is some cheeky sleight of hand where Billy is watching himself play, but it’s just clumsy direction. They just came in to record “My Life” in earth’s ugliest recording studio. That’s it.
One thing I like about this song is the unabashedly disco-inspired bass line. The rest of the song isn’t disco-evocative at all, just that bassline. I think this is something that non-disco artists did around the turn of that decade to stay relevant in what they feared was probably a musical revolution, which I guess in retrospect it was. But these are some of my favorite songs of the late 70s (see also “DJ” by David Bowie and “Heart of Glass” by Blondie, which is I guess fundamentally a borderline-disco *song*, but my point stands). The piano riff is another favorite feature of mine. It’s like--convincing. Dut-dut-duuuuuuut-dut-dut-dut-duh-duh-duh (followed by that bassline). Oh, it’s genius, they belong together.
Billy’s vocal performance is as always great but I think the standout on this track is the backing vocals, a feature of songs I think generally stands out to me as a backing vocalist. In researching this post, I learned that the backups are performed by members of Chicago, including Peter Cetera, so I guess I like it in spite of that. I do think that Billy’s vocal performance is aided by the song’s structure and the transitions between verses and choruses. Each of the verses ends on a sustained note that’s so pleasing, it is as close to butter of anything that immediately comes to mind (see: “now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.Aaaaaaaaaa,” “go ahead with your own life leave me alooooooooooooone”). It’s got authority to it, but it’s rich and smooth at the same time. I love it. It’s my favorite part.
Lyrically, idk, it’s typical boomer independence-asserting drivel, but I did find out that there’s a school of thought that the “old friend” referenced in verse one is RICHARD LEWIS, a comedian I do not care for. I am however charmed at the idea that Billy may have twice pulled that shit where he wrote a song about a celebrity and I’m here for it. The meat of the lyrical content is the latter half of the chorus: “I still belong, don’t get me wrong. You can speak your mind, but not on my time.” Hahahaha, ok, Boomer! There’s NO TIME for disagreements! He’s too busy wearing a motorcycle jacket.
My very favorite intersection of personal-story and “My Life” occurred on a no-account afternoon. I had a doctor’s appointment in Foggy Bottom and decided to walk home to Van Ness because it was a beautiful afternoon and I had the time and wanted the exercise. As I was walking on Connecticut near DuPont metro, a lone elderly busker stood on the sidewalk with a microphone connected to a small amplifier. Out of the amp blared the karaoke track to “My Life,” as he incompetently limped along, mumbling the vocals. It was one of the worst busker performances I’ve ever seen and it was like the entire universe was designed just so that I would walk by at that moment to carry it around with me forever.
I don’t know how people get into Brian Eno. I suspect it happens through a variety of channels. For me, it was a direct route through Bowie. I’ve mentioned before that after Bowie passed, Pete and I did a deep dive into his contemporaries, to include Brian Eno solo and took the reigns from there. I would say Eno is definitely the most impactful Bowie-offshoot, certainly in my household, but for me personally as well. Other common routes to Eno would be a direct through Roxy Music, with whom Eno recorded the first couple of albums. I would also guess that many looked into him as Talking Heads fans since he’s so known for his work producing three of their strongest albums. I would also guess that fans with very different sensibilities than mine are natively into ambient or contemporary classical, in which Eno has a substantial foothold.
All of this is to say that Brian Eno has essentially had three careers. In chronological order, as an art-pop musician, as a genre-inventing experimental musician, and as a musical producer. I think most know him for the latter two, but I appreciate him best as an art-pop musician, which is pretty astounding, considering I very much do not like Roxy Music. Eno’s first, second, third, and fifth* (out of approximately** 20) solo albums are SO GOOD, this output for me becomes the standout in a shockingly prolific and exceptionally accomplished career.
*In 2005, out of nowhere, Eno put out another pop album called Another Day on Earth, the first since Before and After Science in 1977. It is EXCELLENT. I wouldn’t rank it ahead of my favorite of his ambient output, but would slip it in right after Apollo, Music for Airports, and Discreet Music. If you haven’t heard it, you have to buy it or find it on YouTube. The title track is exceptionally good for managing emotions during These Times.
**Approximating the number of solo albums a person releases seems like an odd thing to do, but he’s put out a ton of collaborations as a solo artist (e.g., Eno and Cluster, Eno; Fripp & Eno, etc.), plus installations and other technically non-studio recordings, it really depends on what exactly you count as a solo album.
“On Some Faraway Beach” was released on his first solo album, Here Come the Warm Jets, which is my favorite Eno record. It is a perfect album: atmospheric, unnerving, creepy, and beautiful all at once. Two standout tracks, “Needles In The Camel’s Eye” and “Baby’s On Fire” were both featured in the 2008 major motion picture Velvet Goldmine. “Needles” was played over an opening sequence in which little mod children, contemporaries of the fictionalized David-Bowie lead character, run through the streets of 1960s London and the placement is 100% perfect. Fic-Bowie’s band in Ziggy-Stardust-the-Motion-Picture form perform a cover version of “Baby’s” recorded by a band calling themselves the Venus in Furs that features Thom Yorke on vocals. Read that sentence again. I feel like I made that up, but I didn’t.
I feel moved to tell you what the album sounds like but I can’t because it isn’t at all cohesive. Each song sounds like it is being performed by an entirely different band, which I need to stress, isn’t a criticism, it’s a statement of fact. “Needles” is light and playful (really does evoke the image of a bunch of mod kids running through cobblestone streets, I promise), “Baby’s” is dark and creepy, sounding almost sinister net of the plainly creepy lyrics, “baby’s on fire, better throw her in the water.” The songs that flank “On Some Faraway Beach,” “Driving Me Backwards” and “Blank Frank” are almost welcome interruptions of the intense sentimentality (not a criticism) of the middle track. “Driving Backwards,” I would bet a thousand dollars, was named as such because it sounds like it was recorded backwards ala David Lynch playing an actor’s dialog backwards, the dialog itself being written backwards. But it isn’t, Eno just invented the backwards sound. “Blank Frank” is harsh, drum-heavy and sung in an almost annoying nasal tone. It snaps you out of the trance you fall under listening to “Faraway Beach.”
A few summers ago, Pete and I took a weekend away in Asbury Park, New Jersey to catch a punk festival coming through (more on that in another post). We’d recently rebuilt our lives after a several-year-spanning bad patch and were starting to *really simmer* again. Happy, content, comfortable. The concert was our reason for taking the trip, but the trip ended up being much bigger than that. We relaxed and recreated really hard and it was one of my best vacations ever. At the time we were listening to a lot of Here Come the Warm Jets and watching the waves break on the beach, the piano riff of “Faraway Beach” was in my head on a loop. It endures--I still think of that trip when I hear the song.
It starts with that loop with soft drums and backing vocals, harmonizing “ahhhhhhh” with the piano riff. This intro lasts TWO MINUTES AND FIFTY THREE SECONDS of a four and a half minute song. And if you’re curious, the word count for the song clocks in at a lean 49*. This is the point though because that hypnotic and repetitive intro tells most of the story. When the vocals start, he’s starting in the middle of a conversation, with the understanding that you’ve had all the context you need for him to burst out with “given the choice, I’ll die like a baby on some faraway beach when the season’s over.” As is the case with all Eno solo songs, I don’t know for sure what this one is about, but am VERY confident it’s about something. If I had to guess, I would say it’s about how life is ultimately temporary with maybe a sprinkle of how nature exists past the human plane, but again, no idea for sure. As the vocals and the drums and other instruments fade out, the piano is back as the feature, playing a similar (but not the same) melody it did during that long introduction, at such a pace where you feel nature moving on after we’re gone. Purely my take, I don’t think I’ve ever discussed this with anyone. The internet tells me that the lyrics came to Eno in a dream and nothing else definitively.
*If you’re like me and don’t know how many words most pop songs contain, I did a word count for David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a fairly conventional pop song of a similar sub-genre from the same era and it has 266 words.
As much as I love Eno, Pete is the *big* fan in my household. He has a near-complete collection of Eno’s solo recordings, reads voraciously up on Eno’s methods and compositional philosophies and you can probably hear it in both of EG’s most recent albums, particularly the most recent, Relaunch. Pete’s phone case is the cover of Another Green World. When he’s wearing his t shirt that also bears the cover of Another Green World, he reminds me of the time I brought an in-heat Betty to the vet wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of a cat on it, clutching my wallet, which yes, also had a picture of a cat on it. He earned this post yesterday, having gotten through Billy Joel day. I rushed to get it done today even though I didn’t really have time for this reason and because it’s Thursday afternoon.
If you haven’t seen the BBC documentary titled Five Years, about the meatiest years of David Bowie’s career, it’s currently streaming on HBO Go. It’s the only documentary I could and do watch at least twice a year. It was hard to find for a minute there, to the point where when we did locate it on PBS dot com or some such place, we actually converted it to file and saved it for safe keeping. Anyway, among the five years covered in the doc is 1976, when the majority of Low was recorded over in Berlin with significant involvement from our pal Eno. I think he probably generally comes off very well in interviews, but he comes off EXCEPTIONALLY well in these as the godfather/puppetmaster of David Bowie’s most lauded output.
I bring this up because I want to talk about my very favorite part of it, when co-producer Tony Visconti recounts the famous story of how he introduced the idea of using new toy, the Eventide Harmonizer on Low, telling Bowie and Eno over the phone “it fucks with the fabric of time.” I think in telling this story, it’s implied that Visconti is kind of fucking with *them*, and they take the bait. The experimentally nerdy duo in their little production bubble let out a “whoop,” which I think only Visconti can do justice. That to me summarizes the necessity that these two work with each other on Low and Heroes. Like, the universe saw it as necessary. I think they’d agree, evidenced by the fact that though they didn’t work together all that much after Heroes, they regularly kept in touch and in much later years, would send each other funny and surreal emails, as if they shared a language neither of them could translate, but both completely and fully understood.
I’m kind of a grumpy person and I get mad at things even if the aspects that make me mad aren’t the thing’s fault. A perfect example of the logical conclusion to this kind of grumpiness is growing to hate a song or movie or whatever because it gets too popular. It’s illogical and I acknowledge this. It doesn’t always happen and I was much more prone to this when I was a teenager. I didn’t stop liking Moonlight because other people saw it and liked it after I did, but I did begin to loathe Smashing Pumpkins. If your first favorite SP song was “Disarm,” I have no time for you.
As a person who fell in love with “Such Great Heights” the very first time I heard it, you’d think I’d feel this way about the song but I do not. Not only does everybody love this song, but the universe’s desire to make me tired of it went as far as featuring the original and cover versions in six thousand* different TV commercials. It was placed prominently in Garden State, a film that aged so poorly, of films released during my meso-adulthood it is only rivaled by American Beauty. It appeared in Veronica Mars, which is totally fine and appropriate, but ALSO in Grey’s Anatomy, a TV show I loathe so much, it pains me to even think about this (HOW is it still on TV?).
*The internet tells me that it’s only been four total TV commercials, two each of the Iron & Wine and Postal Services versions, but my guess is that it also shows up in the trailer for Garden State, which would bump it up to five. The UPS commercials in which they appeared were part of a series, so I’m sure they were played far too often, even though that only counts as one. This is too many for a song that’s only (yikes) 17 years old, so my point stands.
It is by any objective standard overplayed. And overplayed in terrible, terrible ways. I take this kind of intense, intentional commercialization pretty personally. I’m not entirely fascist about this, I know they gotta eat (though I’m not happy about it), but come on. MULTIPLE commercials? How could you do this to your own art? It’s not even the principle, it’s practical. Commercials are by nature annoying and repetitive. Why would you want YOUR SONG associated with such an awful thing? And honestly it’s one thing if it’s “Ocean Man” (by Ween). A fine song, catchy and composed well, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be a special, deep, meaningful thing for anyone (maybe SpongeBob), but it’s just a song. “Such Great Heights” is special. It *touched* me.
So, given all of this, the fact that this song is very fairly ranked at the #27 spot on my* list should speak volumes about how powerful this song is. I don’t remember where or why I first heard it, but I do know that I have always loved it. It was released in what I consider to be the second year of my actual adulthood or four years before I grew up fully, depending on what measure you use.
*Coincidentally, “Such Great Heights” is ranked in the #27 spot of Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest songs of the 2000s. I was curious, so I looked to see what their #1 was, and it’s “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley which made me laugh. Not as hard as seeing “Stan” by Eminem at the #11 spot, which hahahahahaha why is Rolling Stone still relevant?
I can’t tell you how sweet my memories are of that time. Pete and I talk about it a lot. We were living in our first apartment together in Westerville, Ohio, a northern suburb of Columbus and were engaging in the slow process of Figuring It All Out. If I’m being 100% honest, I think this was the period in which Pete and I truly fell in love with each other, which is why we think of it so fondly.
We met in 1996 on the little baby internet, and spent the entire first year of our relationship was mostly long-distance, save for a few really intense visits of a week or two at a time. He moved to Hawaii in the summer of 1997 and until we moved to Columbus in 2001, we were still kind of getting to know each other and learning how we wanted to be as a couple. When we moved in together, we really did team up and became really happy. This timeline, now that I think about it, probably explains why the music from this period makes me so fuzzy.
“Such Great Heights,” of course, leans into this because it’s a very simple, beautiful love song. It’s very much us-against-the-world/don’t-listen-to-the-naysayers. I mean:
They will see us waving from such great heights
Come down now, they'll say
But everything looks perfect from far away
Come down now but we'll stay
Yeah. Sorry! The trope of two imperfect misfits that are perfect for each other is tired but I dare you to argue that the glove doesn’t fit. TRY IT!
Musically--I can’t. The bubbly, quiet synth at the beginning is so soft and sweet. The way the well-meaning drum-machine track fades in, so as not to startle you? Oh man. The vocals are simple and nice and nothing to write home about, which is kind of perfect. God, do I love a song written in the second-person. It’s fucking intimate, isn’t it? Like the singer is letting you into a private world that’s so special you really shouldn’t be there, but they’re giving you a tiny glimpse of a really nice thing?
Pete and I got married in July 2003, the same year “Such Great Heights” was released. We ran away to Vegas to elope, but before I reached my wits’ end, was in the process of planning a wedding for the following year. One source of stress (of many), was what our song should be. I think we’d tentatively decided on the now-much-derided “Love Song” by the Cure. Now-much-derided because of the 2004 311 cover, so that would probably have fallen through. We wouldn’t have picked it because it was a then-current song and we were too cool for that, but in retrospect, “Such Great Heights” would have been perfect. Leaning into its ubiquity, when I make the movie of our lives, it will definitely be playing over our elopement montage.
NOFX was one of my first forays into punk rock music. They were kind of on the cusp of being mainstreamed but never got over the hump. I think if you were to draw a line between mainstream and just-underground punk rock music, Bad Religion would be on one side and NOFX would be on the other. Unlike Bad Religion, they stayed completely off MTV and mostly off mainstream radio. I believe the story was that they produced a music video for “Stickin’ In My Eye” and against their better judgement submitted it to MTV, who didn’t play it and NOFX was like “well, I guess that’s that, then.” They were definitely played on Radio Free, but I’m not sure how far beyond Radio-Free type and college radio stations they appeared. I’m thinking very little. But that presence they did have served them really well, while still giving them fairly plausible DIY bragging rights. And they’re millionaires. Go figure.
I feel like my introduction to NOFX came early on in high school because of the aforementioned Radio Free airplay and the fact that they came through Hawaii fairly regularly. I can’t pinpoint it, but do clearly recall buying a used copy of White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean at what was then the Radio Free Hawaii music store* (it is now a bank). This was another economic decision, where I made the purchase because it was the first of the familiar albums I found used.
*Goddamn, there is precious little online about this fabled location which was hands-down my favorite place in the world sophomore and junior year in high school. If I didn’t have the money to buy a compact disc (even a used one), I would carefully select a sticker and buy it instead for a dollar or two. Also purchased at this location was the purple hair dye I used to dye my hair the one major time I did it. Some of you may not know or remember that it was REALLY REBELLIOUS to dye your hair a non-natural color and was not the kind of thing you could get done in a salon. And furthermore, your school probably forbade it and you could absolutely not work in retail or any variety of position not related to the subculture in any way. Those days are long gone.
It’s interesting that it happened that way. When it came out, NOFX’s sixth studio album, Heavy Petting Zoo was my favorite record by them because it was so grand and ambitious. In retrospect I think it was probably too ambitious and didn’t age well, but I still think of it fondly because it coincided with such a Time. I listened the shit out of that album. Then, I think like a lot of people, I turned to their previous release Punk in Drublic for a long time, which is fair and includes NOFX’s most beloved and (probably) best known song, “Linoleum.” Released right on time in 1994, you’d think that Punk in Drublic was their breakthrough album, but just as NOFX is only sort-of a mainstream punk band, Punk in Drublic is only sort of their breakthrough album. The turning point for NOFX which elevated them from scabby jokesters to legitimate talents both in writing and musicianship happened leading up to their *fourth* release, White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean.
This is the direct result of their hiring musical ringer Aaron Abeyta, known in NOFX as El Hefe. This move is less cynical than I make it out to be. Their previous lead guitarist made an ill-timed departure right before Nirvana’s Nevermind was released. When Fat Mike recounts this story, he is unable to contain his giddy, schadenfreudic delight. Hefe wasn’t a punk rocker, he was a Very Good Guitarist (and trumpet player AND voice actor), the formula worked exceptionally well, and this lineup change is directly responsible for their being elevated to Punk Rock Legends. <br>
It wasn’t until I sat down to really critically think about which NOFX song most belongs on this list that I realized the songs on White Trash actually mean the most to me and it is in fact my favorite NOFX album at this point in my life. Punk in Drublic is a more confident effort. It’s sillier and probably more evolved musically. There’s a humble quality to White Trash that I find really endearing. “Please Play This Song on the Radio” was a standout for me right away since the first time I heard it ws *on* the radio, making the whole situation very meta, which never fails to tickle me. “Bob” and “Stickin’ in My Eye” are classics. “Liza and Louise” is the first in a series of embarrassingly problematic tunes about lesbians that seemed legitimately progressive in their time. He meant well and “Liza and Louise” on its own would have been fine but in subsequent installments it goes off the rails in straight male lesbian fetishization. I digress.
“The Bag” is a bit of a sleeper, but one I’ve always loved. After very careful thought,* I think I’ve made the right choice, particularly for Our Times. I first heard it on Radio Free. I don’t think it was a single, but made its way on the radio anyway. Musically, it’s sad. It starts out like a lot of NOFX songs do, with manic guitar and drums in a break-neck intro cut by Fat Mike’s semi-intentionally disharmonic vocals. The drums are kind of typical for Smelly’s style in that they feel like they’re almost tripping over themselves. The melody itself is tired and regretful, matched well with the tired regretful lyrics.
*I didn’t limit myself to one-song-per-artist on this list but the very sophisticated calculus I used to determine song selection and rank order determined that NOFX deserved one song but it should be in the top thirty, so in this case, yes, it’s just one NOFX song.
When I really thought about what this song was trying to say, I was actually kind of moved by the application to Our Times, particularly for those of us belonging to an out-in-public community. The lyrics express a feeling many of us have had at our worst and most tired, feeling very alone among friends. I’ve done a lot of reflecting about how I didn’t appreciate being out among friends as often as I was before the pandemic hit. I mentioned this in my post about Operation Ivy: what happens when a party feels like an obligation. I read that in Mike’s lyrics. It’s the lament of someone who’s not in the mood, but is out anyway: “There's no reason for me to be here, no I feel so lonesome surrounded by friends,” “Give me something I can sink my teeth into; show me a time, tell me a story that I haven't heard a million times before.” Then in the last verse, strangely prophetic: “As I watch the people pass, I see moments in their life, nothing fascinating. Are we all living for the past, never realizing we're clinging to an empty bag?” So like in this case the idiom “left holding the bag” is a double entendre where “the bag” is nostalgia. To review: in a single song, Mike laments the obligations that have us socializing for socializing’s sake in a song that’s literally about the dangers of nostalgia?! When this hit me, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. This isn’t the only time they did this. Their song “Just the Flu” which came out in the year of our lord nineteen hundred and NINETY ONE, basically talks about life in the time of Corona. NOFX is to the pandemic as the Simpsons is to the Trump presidency.
I have loved NOFX for 26 years. I went on hiatus during the aforementioned period when we as Americans grew tired of punk rock, but fell off the wagon in 2008 when the Fuse network began airing episodes of their truly fantastic reality series, Backstage Passport, a TV series I have watched in its entirety at least ten times and have not grown tired of it. Then we started catching up a little bit to find out that they hadn’t put out terrible music in the interim. Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing (2006) is the strongest post-So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes and in fact I’d probably rank it third in quality behind White Trash and Punk in Drublic.
As I do with any band that has a Personality, I get frustrated with NOFX and their musical and spiritual leader, Fat Mike. He hasn’t been doing well in the last several years and I think that there’s some tension within the band that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot. Mike has made a ton of mistakes and you can blame mental health and substance abuse challenges he’s been very open about over the years, but I worry that there aren’t a lot of people willing to tell him “no” anymore. I read their four-way memoir The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories and he comes off pretty bad in it, though I do recommend it; it’s a great read. Regardless, when they come through town, I will go and see them and I’ll be excited about it. They’re a legitimate source of comfort for me, still together, a certainty in an uncertain world, for now, at least.