Ten Days, Ten Albums, Some Explanation

Over on Facebook, a bunch of my friends have been doing this thing where they post a series of albums that influenced them significantly. Over the course of ten days, you post ten album covers, but offer no explanation as to how or why you chose the albums you did. I just finished doing it myself, but I enjoy explaining things and going into detail about why I’ve made the choices I made. So, for your reading enjoyment, I present my ten days, ten albums, with some explanation.

1. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedoes!Damn The Torpedoes

The first Tom Petty album I owned, and the one that I go back to time and time again. The damn thing plays like a greatest hits collection, and there’s not a bad song on there. I still think it’s the most essential Tom Petty album there is, even moreso than Full Moon Fever or Wildflowers (and I’ve already gone on at length about my love for Wildflowers).

2018-04-25 14.22.05.jpg2. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

This album was my introduction to the Flaming Lips (I mean, aside from “She Don’t Use Jelly,” which everyone had heard on 90210). The first song, “Fight Test,” just floored me. The mixture of weird electronic squiggles and beeps with the acoustic guitar and Wayne Coyne’s strained, heartfelt vocals . . . I was hooked.

3. The Beatles, Rubber Soul2009-04-28 15.03.36.jpg

If you didn’t think I was going to include a Beatles album on a list like this, you haven’t been paying attention. The Beatles are the alpha and the omega, the source of everything I love about music, and Rubber Soul is their best album, if you ask me. It’s the perfect balance between their earlier, more raucous work and their later, more deliberate and formalist efforts. They made more interesting and experimental albums after this one, but they never made another album as cohesive and awesome as it.

2018-04-25 14.23.114. Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind

And here’s the requisite Dylan album. Time Out of Mind might seem like an odd choice–there are definitely better Dylan albums to choose from–but it’s the one that had the greatest impact on me. Discovering that he could still produce music that was this visceral and heartfelt, even as his voice broke completely and he seemed well-past his prime . . . it was inspiring. And the songs are pretty damn good, too.

5. Queen, A Night at the Opera2018-04-29 12.37.57

Queen blew my tiny little middle school mind like nothing else. The obvious epic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is there, but so is the biblical apocalyptica of “The Prophet’s Song” and the nasty character assassination of “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…).” The sheer stylistic range on display is incredible, with heavy rockers, music hall goofs, and folky acoustic numbers with soaring harmonies. God, the layered harmonies. And don’t forget Brian May’s guitar work. The album kicks ass from start to finish.

2018-04-27 12.45.596. Pink Floyd, Meddle

This little-known Floyd album is one of my all-time favorites. The pulsing bass of opener “One of These Days,” the dreamy quality of “Fearless,” and the laid-back fun of “San Tropez” and “Seamus” make for a varied, entertaining album that doesn’t get weighed down in the concept album pretensions that most Floyd albums have to deal with. And the closer, the epic “Echoes,” with the sonar ping and murky, underwater feel…classic.

7. Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat2018-04-27 12.46.24

I had the privilege of seeing this album performed live in its entirety last year, and it was one of the best concert experiences of my life. The harmonies are the obvious highlight, but Jenny Lewis’s lyrics and songwriting are just as sharp and incisive as they were almost 15 years ago when this album came out.

2018-04-27 12.46.488. The National, Boxer

My introduction to the National was through a bootlegged live show right after this album came out. The show was made up almost entirely of songs from the new album, and I was intrigued so I sought Boxer out. Now, they’re one of my favorite bands, and this record is the reason why. Personal favorites include “Slow Show” and closer “Gospel,” though there’s really not a bad song on the album.

9. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska2018-04-27 12.47.09

Until the release of the likes of Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils + Dust, Nebraska was a weird outlier for the Boss. Solo acoustic, just his voice and guitar and a harmonica with a four-track recorder: that’s pretty much all there is to Nebraska. But it’s haunting, and glorious, and full of fire and brimstone and the sort of carefully-sketched character studies that Springsteen is known for. It’s the polar opposite of what Springsteen was known for: stripped down instead of piled high with overdubs, loose and slightly sloppy instead of precision-perfect.

2018-04-27 12.47.30

10. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

My introduction to Wilco came when I was listening to a Glen Phillips (of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame) bootleg solo acoustic show. Folks in the audience were calling out what they wanted to hear next, and some dude kept asking him to play a Wilco song. And then he threw in a reference to them in one of his own songs, and I decided to check them out. YHF blew my mind, with its mix of acoustic instrumentation, weird blips and beeps and effects, and phenomenal songwriting. The fact that this album led me to so many other amazing bands–The Minus 5 and Uncle Tupelo being the two most prominent–and also led to me finding out about the Mermaid Avenue collections (Billy Bragg and Wilco play around with old Woody Guthrie lyrics? Hell yes!) is just gravy.

Happy Valentine’s Day 2017

When I was a younger man, single and insecure and full of anxiety and dumb ideas, I was a bit of a sad sack.  Okay, a lot of a sad sack.  I moped around the campus fountain at midnight listening to sad songs on my Discman like some mooney-eyed twit.  And I made mix CDs of songs about love gone sour and losers.

Nowadays, I tend to mope less, mostly because I finally got medication and therapy.  Marrying an amazing woman helped, too.  While I don’t make mix CDs anymore (I make playlists on my phone instead, because it’s 2017), I do still enjoy putting together thematic lists for special occasions.  While I think of myself as less of a loser than I once did, I thought it might be fun to put together one more Loser List for Valentine’s Day.

Before the list, though, a few words on this holiday.  I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day.  Maybe it’s a result of being single throughout college and grad school.  Maybe I resent being told I have to be romantic on a set day in a specific way (today’s comic is a pretty clear indicator that the Wife and I have our own unique brand of affection and romance).  Honestly, I don’t think there’s any real reason to feel obligated to do some big, ridiculous thing today, unless you really want to.  Some folks really love Valentine’s Day, and that’s great for them!  For the rest of us, let’s just act like it’s a regular ol’ Tuesday, and everyone has joined Garibaldi’s Red Shirts for the day for some weird reason.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the Losers List.

The Beatles, “I’m a Loser”: A Hard Day’s Night is one of my absolute favorite Beatles albums, and this manages to be one of the best songs on the record.

Beck, “Loser”: Like this song wasn’t going to show up on this list.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Even the Losers”: More a song of hope than anything else, it always gives me strength to think that even the losers can get lucky sometime.

The Avett Brothers, “Shame”: Sometimes we feel so sure of ourselves, only to realize we’re being tremendous assholes.

Bob Dylan, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”: Blood on the Tracks is full of sad songs of love gone wrong, but this is one of my favorites.

Cake, “Friend is a Four-Letter Word”: If early-20s me had an anthem, this was probably it.  If anyone needed a punch in the face, it was early-20s me.

Camera Obscura, “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken”: “‘Cause I can’t see further than my own nose at the moment.”  Brilliant.

Sting, “Seven Days”: Sting’s face is pretty punchable, too, if only because he refers to his rival as “Neanderthal.”

Jesse Malin, “She Don’t Love Me Now”: I’m a sucker for great horn arrangements.

Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey What Can I Do”: Your woman runs around on you while everyone’s at church?  Robert Plant feels your pain.

Halloween Playlist

Are you like me, and find yourself wanting to enjoy Halloween but struggling because of a dearth of decent songs associated with the holiday?  I mean, in terms of inspiring music, it’s not Christmas, that’s for sure.  I just find that I can’t stand listening to the Monster Mash and the Addams Family theme and the Munsters theme again and again on repeat this year.  I need some actual, non-novelty music.

And we’re in luck!  There are actually plenty of real, pretty awesome songs that have a stealth-Halloween theme to them.  Here’s a selection of some of my favorites.

1. The Eagles, “Witchy Woman”: Sure, it’s easy to rag on the Eagles as being the dad-est of Dad Rock, but they did some fun songs.  This one carries the witch metaphor throughout pretty strongly, and fits right in with our “real song but Halloween-y” theme.

2. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “I Put a Spell on You”: Yeah, I know, the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins version is probably better, and certainly more Halloween-y, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to include a CCR song on a playlist.

3. The Beatles, “Devil in Her Heart”: Not even a little bit of the right tone, barely even mentions anything Halloween-related (the titular devil in her heart, which is more metaphorical than actual), but it’s the Beatles, and it’s my playlist, so nyah.

4. Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London”: There was a 0% chance I wasn’t going to include this.  An obvious but classic choice.

5. Tom Petty, “Zombie Zoo”: “Sometimes you’re so impulsive/You shaved off all your hair/You look like Boris Karloff/But you don’t even care” is probably the best line in any song ever, and I will fight you if you say otherwise.

6. Josh Ritter, “The Curse”: A love song about a mummy told as sincerely as this is proof this world is sometimes better than we deserve.

7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Red Right Hand”: Honestly, you could just put a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album on for Halloween it’d be fine.  If I have to go with one song, though, this is the one.  The Pete Yorn version from the first Hellboy movie isn’t half-bad, either.

8. Jeremy Messersmith, “Ghost”: A haunting beautiful (get it?) song about disappearing out of someone’s life.

9. The Flaming Lips, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1”: War of the Worlds, if it was fought between a Japanese pop singer who knows karate and giant pink robots that want to eat people.

10. The White Stripes, “Walking with a Ghost”: I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one.  I just wanted another song about ghosts on here.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

The Beatles – Live at the Hollywood Bowl

As with most right-thinking individuals, I love the Beatles.  I’ve been listening to them since I was a small child, sitting in the living room with my father, reverentially placing the vinyl records on the turntable and dropping the needle.  I remember that the copy my dad owned of the Hey Jude collection had a skip in “Old Brown Shoe” after second verse, where the record would get stuck in an infinite loop and you had to gently nudge the needle to continue the song.

I never really thought much about their live work.  I mean, they stopped touring in, like, ’65, focusing all their time and energy on creating some of the most revolutionary studio albums of the decade.  And yeah, audiences cheered like mad when the Lads from Liverpool took the stage, but that in and of itself was a problem: there’s the old story that they couldn’t even hear themselves playing on stage at the height of Beatlemania, and there was even a legend that they sometimes didn’t actually bother even playing, since no one could hear.  You could shake your head for the “ooooh” at the right time and drive everyone nuts.

And then this album appeared.  I have a vague awareness that it’s related to a Ron Howard film, Eight Days a Week, about the Beatles during their touring years, and I was at first a bit hesitant to grab it.  I’m a little leery of releases like this; they whiff of cash grab.  But I picked it up anyway, and I’m pretty damn glad I did.

See, the thing I forgot – the thing I’m sure a lot of people forget in the wake of the years the Beatles spent not touring and performing shows – is that these guys could tear it up.  They cut their teeth playing dive bars in Hamburg; if you think they couldn’t still cut loose and barnstorm through a set just because they got matching suits and new haircuts, you don’t know these four musicians.

What strikes me the most about this particular set – aside from the fact that the Beatles still sound like they’re just having a helluva lot of fun playing music – is how breathless it all feels.  The album is 17 tracks long, and very few of them (only four) break the three-minute mark.  The rest are all considerably shorter.  They play these familiar songs, songs we’ve heard hundreds or even thousands of times, at a breakneck pace, as if they’re trying to reach the end of the song ahead of everyone else.  And there’s not much banter or piddling around between songs: someone (usually John or Paul) introduces the next song, usually saying what album it came off of, and then it’s off to the races.  They rip through “Things We Said Today” in 2:18, the Ringo-led “Boys” in a mere 2:08.  On several occasions, John and Paul actually sound literally out of breath at the end of the song, or maybe it’s a sprint.

The song selection is about what you’d expect from 1964-era Beatles: a mix of covers (such as “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” “Long Tall Sally,” or “Roll Over Beethoven”) and well-known singles (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Ticket to Ride”) and a few less-obvious choices (the aforementioned “Things We Said Today” or the actually slowed-down “Baby’s In Black”).  The band themselves are in fine form: everyone’s voices sound good, though John sounds like he’s holding in a laugh for most of “Help.”  Paul’s bass is a deep, melodic rumble, Ringo is clearly pounding the hell out of those drums, and the guitar interplay between John and George feels both well-practiced and loose.  This is music that’s vital and fun, and you just can’t help but sing along.  By the end of the 17-track collection’s 40-odd minutes, you’re as breathless and exhilarated as the band.

Is Live at the Hollywood Bowl a necessary Beatles album?  No, not really.  The studio versions of all these songs are almost uniformly superior in terms of quality of recording and performance.  It’s not a bad introduction, though it’s not going to do much to explain to a neophyte or an unbeliever why the Beatles were such a thing or why Beatlemania was happening.  It is a good time, though, a fun record that creates a snapshot of the Beatles as they strained against the earlier constraints of their sound and the limitations of trying to reproduce it on the stage in a live setting.  If you have any love or appreciation for the Beatles, you’ll definitely find something here worthwhile.