Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You Oughta Listen to My Best of the Aughts

As the decade draws to a close, this music lover’s fancy turns to thoughts of best-of lists. Forgive me if I’m jumping the gun, but I just can’t imagine anything coming out in the next five months that will displace any of these from my Top 20 of the 2000s…

20. “I Turn My Camera On” by Spoon (2005) — Spoon’s exquisite, precious, tortured minimalism can wear thin sometimes. But this has got to be the tightest, most sinewy dance-rock track since Bowie’s “Fame.”
19. “Toxic” by Britney Spears (2004) — Kindly ignore the rest of her odious catalogue and focus instead on the hookiest chorus of the new millennium. You have to give props to an accomplished vocal performance that transitions effortlessly from breathless falsetto to machine-gun staccato.
18. “Hate It or Love It” by The Game (2005) — Maybe “Hate It or Love It” belongs on a best-of-the-’70s list, since it’s the Trammps sample that really makes this song. But the propulsive hi-hat and driving bass line added by producers Cool & Dre bring it credibly into the 2000s.
17. “What Ever Happened?” by The Strokes (2003) — Many of the Strokes’ best songs remind me of classic video games like Pac Man or Donkey Kong — not so much because of their overtly ’80s sound, but rather because of the way their apparent simplicity conceals their true worth. Just as Pac Man and Donkey Kong ply simple 8-bit graphics into exquisitely balanced games that bear repeated playing, The Strokes weave basic, unadorned guitar, bass, vocals and drums into sonic tapestries that merit repeated listening. It sounds easy, but it’s not.
16. “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Jay-Z (2001) — Sure, Jay-Z probably rapped better on dozens of other tracks over the past 10 years, but did any of them boast an arrangement as seductively lush as this? Soaring, cinematic strings; a touch of sitar; the plaintive wailings of Tom Brock; the basso profundo of Biz Markie: it all adds up to a soundscape that captures the New York of my fantasies, where Shaft, Donny Hathaway and Robert Redford from “Three Days of the Condor” all hang out on a stoop together.
15. “Island in the Sun” by Weezer (2001) — A Proustian melancholy suffuses this song, which seems to chronicle Rivers Cuomo’s frustrated desire to return to the innocence of childhood. We pass from hope (the sweet, flat, trebly sound of those opening chords) to anger (the overdriven fuzz of the chorus) to acceptance (the reverbed outro). “We’ll never feel bad any more,” sings Cuomo, but we know he doesn’t believe the lie himself.
14. “Love at First Sight” by Kylie Minogue (2002) — Distilled sunshine, 100 proof. Best use of the flange effect since Van Halen’s “Unchained.”
13. “Mistaken for Strangers” by The National (2007) — It’s pretty cool how this song nails urban anomie, but its real appeal lies in the mournful tones (is it a cello?) that pull the song to its defeated conclusion, like a little boy’s balloon slowly deflating the day after his birthday party.
12. “Heartbeats” by The Knife (2002) — On their own, the basic elements of this song — its rhythm, its melody, its harmony — would not earn it a place in my Top 20. But the tone, good Lord, the tone! The main synthesizer line is almost impossibly fat and buttery and rotund. They could play scales with that tone and it would still hold the power to hypnotize. Never has a tone so captivated me since Jimmy Page’s solo on “I’m Gonna Crawl.”
11. “Read My Mind” by The Killers (2006) — Like the arena rock bands of the ’70s, the Killers are strangely anonymous — blank vehicles for the delivery of music. Their identity lies completely in their sound, no more, no less. As with Journey or Boston, you can instantly recognize a song by the Killers. But beyond that, it is difficult to say anything about who they are, the way one could easily describe the personalities of, say, Morrissey or Limp Bizkit. So why include them here? Because of their ambition. Like their ’70s brethren, the Killers aspire to greatness, even if they don’t always reach it. A quote from Milan Kundera sums it up nicely: “Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produced books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional — thus non-useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious — is contemptible.”
10. “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne (2003) — Perfection can be terrifying. A flawless diamond enchants with its cold, cruel beauty. A powerful laser bores holes through titanium with its pure, concentrated light. And “Stacy’s Mom” stimulates the pleasure centers of our brain with its ruthless cruise-missile precision. Listen if you dare, but don’t listen too closely, or its robotic efficiency could melt your mind.
9. “The Seed (2.0)” by The Roots (2003) — “The Seed (2.0)” possesses a coiled intensity, like a snake that’s poised to strike but never does. Like “Astral Weeks,” it’s all build-up and no release; all potential energy and no kinetic.
8. “You Can Make Him Like You” by The Hold Steady (2006) — Who needs three chords? The Hold Steady will rock you with just two, thank you very much.
7. “LoveStoned / I Think She Knows” by Justin Timberlake (2007) — Not since “Layla” has a song shifted gears with such sublime beauty. If weightlessness had a sound, it would be “I Thinks She Knows.”
6. “Golden” by My Morning Jacket (2003) — The delicate guitar pattern that propels this ballad rises softly and slowly, like a hot air balloon. You don’t know how high up you’re going until you look down. So many songs bemoan a dream deferred; “Golden” is one of a few songs by an artist other than Miley Cyrus to celebrate a dream realized.
5. “Promiscuous” by Nelly Furtado, ft. Timbaland (2006) — The best Prince song that Prince never wrote, “Promiscuous” accomplished something that fewer and fewer songs do in our fragmented, segmented, demographized age: it scored a monster hit, the kind that unites everybody. Whether you liked it or not, chances are you remember where you were and what you were doing when this song broke big in the summer of 2006.
4. “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga (2008) — A perfect fusion of high and low art. Oh Lady Gaga, I know you think you’re the latest coming of Andy Warhol, a real Greenwich Village artiste. But I really love you because you sound like a big-haired girl from Jersey or the Island.
3. “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson (2004) — Whitney Houston, BeyoncĂ© and Christina Aguilera may tower over Kelly Clarkson in the technical-ability department. But have any of them ever soared over a lyric as exuberantly as she does on this track? When the chorus kicks in and she sings the title line for the first time, rays of light dispel all gloom.
2. “Blue Ridge Mountains” by Fleet Foxes (2008) — It’s no accident that every time I listen to this song I’m reminded of “The Lord of the Rings,” into which J.R.R. Tolkien poured a lifetime of scholarship in mythology and linguistics. Tolkien absorbed the essence of his sources so thoroughly as to almost fuse with them. The resulting work felt timeless and immortal. Fleet Foxes pull off a similar feat with “Blue Ridge Mountains,” a song that synthesizes a wealth of influences to, sacrilege alert, out-Going-to-California “Going to California.”
1. “Hey Ya!” by Outkast (2003) — Words do not suffice. Just listen to it again and remember for yourself.

Honorable mentions: “So Fresh, So Clean” by Outkast; “Clarity” by John Mayer; “Be Easy” by Ghostface Killah: “King of All the World” by Old 97s; “Ignition” by R. Kelly; “Lisztomania” by Phoenix; “Hot in Herre” by Nelly; “Glad Girls” by Guided by Voices; “Party Hard” by Andrew W.K.; “Maire Mhilis Bhrae” by Solas; “Made You Look” by Nas; “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” by PJ Harvey; “Let’s Get It Started” by Black Eyed Peas.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Things That Make Me Feel Old

Having turned 33 recently, I’m constantly reminded of a line from the Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road” — I’m not the cat I used to be / I got a kid, I’m 33 baby!
When I was nine, that lyric struck me like a transmission from Mars, a confession from some alien world I would never know or understand. Today, of course, I totally relate. Which got me thinking about all the other things that I think of in a completely different way now. Starting with the most obvious.
“1999” by Prince, then: A defiant hedonism in the face of an impending Reagan-induced nuclear apocalypse. And now: Evokes a pathetic nostalgia for the year that brought us Kid Rock, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas, American Pie and the Y2K bug.
Metallica, then: So wild and exotic and dangerous. The guys who wore Metallica T-shirts in school were total misfits. And now: It’s all therapy, art collecting and fear of Napster — as documented in the idol-shattering Some Kind of Monster. See also, Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden.
“Cars” by Gary Numan, then: Seemed like a total novelty song. And now: One of the most prescient, ahead-of-its time singles ever.
“Touch of Gray” by the Grateful Dead, then: Like many people my age, this was my first introduction to the Grateful Dead. And I hated it. And now: Once I realized what an important band the Grateful Dead was, I reconsidered Touch of Gray and even learned to like it. But now I hate it again. 12-year-old me was totally right. This song sucked then and it still sucks now. I guess some things really don’t change with age. See also, “Veronica” by Elvis Costello, “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, “Got My Mind Set on You” by George Harrison, “Harlem Shuffle” by the Rolling Stones.
Nostaligia itself, then: 1987 was the first year I noticed the phenomenon of nostalgia. I remember NPR doing a long piece on the 20th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s. And Rolling Stone put out a special 20th anniversary issue listing the best records of the past two decades. Back then, it all seemed like ancient history, as if Shelby Foote were narrating while the camera panned over sepia-toned pictures of Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. And now: Good Lord, man, twenty years ago isn’t history! Why, no, it’s hot, fresh songs like “Father Figure,” “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car,” “Man in the Mirror,” “The Flame,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Never Tear Us Apart,” “My Prerogative” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Those aren’t old, right? I’m not old, right? Right?

Friday, April 04, 2008

In Which I Predict the Demise of Pop Culture in the Year 2395

Like a snake eating its own tail, pop culture feeds on itself.
Until recently, this has been a good thing — it’s a natural recycling or mulching process that nourishes the soil in which our beloved pop grows. One obvious example is The Simpsons, which has generated almost 400 episodes’ worth of amazing material by satirizing just about every movie, book and work of music from the past 50 years. Another is the practice of sampling, which has given new life to artists from Atlantic Starr to ZZ Top. One could go on and on.
But, like a scientist witnessing the collapse of arctic ice shelves, I’ve become alarmed by the rate at which pop culture is cannibalizing itself. The warning signs are everywhere...
In the world of film: Movie producers have run out of comic books and TV shows to adapt. Having already worked through Spiderman, Superman and Batman several times over, they’ve now turned to lesser superheroes like Daredevil, Elektra and the Fantastic Four. Likewise, having already adapted Star Trek, The Muppet Show and The Fugitive, they’ve now resorted to Miami Vice, The Dukes of Hazzard and Starsky & Hutch.
In the world of TV: Ever since the infamous “Poochie” episode, The Simpsons (my personal yardstick of television quality, if you haven’t already guessed) has been parodying itself as much as it parodies the culture at large. Meanwhile, spin-offs seem to be increasingly prevalent. CSI: Pittsburgh, anyone?
In the world of music: Despite the trappings of experimentation, the indie darlings of the recent past — like Wilco, the White Stripes and the Strokes — can best be described as revivalists. They feast on old bones — classic rock, garage rock and New York avant garde, respectively — and regurgitate them a new yet recognizable form. Contemporary R&B, if it’s possible, is even worse, trapped in some kind of backwards-gazing time warp. Alicia Keys, John Legend and D’Angelo, while talented, are beating a dead horse.
Yes, just as an old sailor can feel a storm approaching in his bum knee, I can sense that pop culture is in danger of exhausting itself. But the scientist in me was not content with mere anecodotal evidence. So I sought a metric by which to measure this phenomenon.
For years, I struggled to develop a formula. The number of channels on cable divided by the number of quality shows at any given time? The number of original movies released in a year that are not sequels or adaptations of another movie, book or TV show divided by the total number of movies? The number of reunion tours — the Police, Van Halen, Duran Duran, the Eagles, Dinosaur Jr. — divided by the number of non-reunion tours? Nothing seemed to work.
Then one day, like Newton getting beaned on the head by an apple, inspiration struck when I heard a country song called “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.”
“That’s it!” I thought to myself. “I will measure the exhaustion of pop culture by calculating the acceleration of the rate at which pop culture memes migrate from the world of hip-hop to the world of country music! Brilliant!”
First popularized in a 2004 episode of Chappelle’s Show, the term badonkadonk was plundered within a year by Trace Adkins in his “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” song, released in 2005. Velocity equals one migration per year.
But to calculate acceleration, I would need velocity at some point in the past. Easy. It took 12 years for How Ya Like Me Now?, the 1987 album by Kool Moe Dee, to morph into the Toby Keith album of the same name, released in 1999. Velocity in 1999 equals one migration every 12 years.
Once I had my two velocities, it was easy to calculate the rate of acceleration:
acceleration = v2005 – v1999 / time
acceleration = ((1 migration / year) – (0.083 migrations / year)) / 7 years
acceleration = 0.131 migrations per year squared
From there, I could predict the future rate at which pop culture will cannibalize itself. The trend is alarming:
But how fast is too fast? At what rate do the wheels come off? How much longer can pop culture continue to eat its own before it dies?
In physics, the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, is the considered the “speed limit” of the universe. The analogous speed limit in pop culture, I would argue, is one self-reference per week. VH-1’s Best Week Ever represents the outer limit of pop culture cannibalization, the event horizon of meta-tude. Were it to ever become Best Six Days Ever, the whole thing would simply collapse upon itself.
If we continue at our current pace, this collapse will take place in the year 2395. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
And yes, I’m aware I have far too much time on my hands. But I actually care about this stuff.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The world's greatest candy bar

My sitemeter just e-mailed to tell me that I am still getting an average of two visits a month to this blog!!! Noble visitors, whoever you may be, I owe it to you to post something more than once every six months. So here, for your delight and amusement, I present ... the best candy bar.
I asked Google, "What is the world’s greatest candy bar?"
Google’s answer (try it yourself) was the Take 5 bar.
Google, you are so right! The Take 5’s blend of milk chocolate, peanuts, peanut butter, pretzels and caramel is indeed the world’s greatest candy bar. A close second would be the Nutrageous bar, which irate customers can shake at hapless waiters, cashiers or salesmen, saying "This is a complete and utter nutrage!!!" But the Take 5 has pretzels, so it wins.
Just thought you should know.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Regarding Henry

Watching a preview for the upcoming Al Pacino movie Two for the Road last night, it dawned on me that we need a version of the television term "jump the shark" just for actors. Pacino once made classics like The Godfather, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Scarface. Now he churns out crap like Gigli, The Recruit, S1m0ne and The Devil's Advocate. We need a term for a turnabout of such monumental proportions.
I humbly propose it be "regarding Henry," in honor of the awful 1991 movie of the same name, which marked a clear turning point in Harrison Ford's career. As the dean of the rock critics Robert Christgau once said of Rod Stewart, "Rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely." Please consider...
Before Regarding Henry: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, Witness, American Grafitti.
After Regarding Henry: Hollywood Homicide, K-19: The Widowmaker, Random Hearts, Six Days Seven Nights, Sabrina, The Devil's Own.
I rest my case.
Usage would be flexible. It could be a verb, as in, "I'm worried John Leguizamo is regarding Henry now that he's joined the cast of ER." Or it could be a gerund, as in, "Regarding Henry is the risk an artist takes when he values money over art."