Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 8. Lil Wayne

The first time I heard Lil Wayne’s voice was on the song, “Barry Bonds” off of Kanye West’s Graduation in 2007. I knew of him, but never actually listened to him. When he appeared on the second verse on the song, in his thick syrup induced drawl, my head turned. “What the fuck is this?”, I thought in astonishment. It was unlike anything I heard in hip-hop. His flow seemed to work around the beat, as opposed to be linked to it. And then there were the bizarre lyrics: “my drink’s still pinker than the easter rabbit”; “stove on my waist turn beef to patties”. It was clear even then, that the dude followed his own path. Instead of following the normal rules, he seemed to be re-writing them as he went along.

His voice is everywhere these days – besides his own songs, it seems that he is on almost every single hip-hop song on the radio. It seems so commonplace, so it’s easy to forget how weird, bizarre, and how good he can be. Many rappers stick to a constant flow in the song, making it easy to rap along. In any one of his songs, Wayne takes detours that others would be afraid to take. His voice is not normal, and he often enunciates particular words that would otherwise be un-rhymeable – “I’m rare like mr clean with hair, No brake lights on my car rear” from “Phone Home”. “A Milli” is one of the strangest hip-hop songs to be released in the past few decades. There’s no hook, except for the statement, “motherfucker I’m ill”. From anything other rapper, the strange beats and repeated “a milli” voice in the background would have been annoying, but Wayne sees it as a challenge, delivering a tour de force of a song.

Prior to Tha Carter III, he built up a following with the albums 500 Degreez, and Tha Carter. But it was really his mix-tapes Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 and his appearances on singles from Fat Joe (“Make it Rain”), Chris Brown (“Gimme That”) and Wyclef Jean (“Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)”) among numerous others in 2006 and 2007 that gained him a wider audience. When Tha Carter III was released in June 2008, it was clear that hip-hop belonged to Lil Wayne.

But being his unpredictable self, Wayne followed-up the blockbuster Carter III with the critically panned Rebirth, which was his much touted rock album. To some, Rebirth might be seen as mistake (and while it certainly is forgettable) it proves that Lil Wayne does whatever he wants, critics and detractors be damned.

Is Weezy, the best rapper alive, as he has often claimed?  Perhaps.  If nothing else he is without a doubt one of the most innovative, prolific, entertaining and wildest rappers out there.

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 9. Green Day

In the summer of 2004, I read an article that was previewing what would become American Idiot. It stated that Green Day were working on a rock opera about the state of the nation.  One song, the article said, was about 10 minutes long and would contain multiple sections.  At the time, it seemed quite ridiculous.  Green Day, was after all a band that sang about masturbating and smoking weed.  And who knows, maybethey sang about doing both of those activities at the same time.  Green Day were a good band, a fun band.   Billie Joe Armstrong might have borrowed Joe Strummer’s snarl (and occasionally the accent), St. Joe he was not.  During a drunken night, I told one of my friends about the alleged 10 minute song I read about in the article.  “Shut the fuck up, Matt,” He told me with a bit of disdain.  “Next, ever speak of this again.”  Afterall, who would want to listen to Green Day’s thought on the state of the nation?

As it turned out, Green Day would prove the skeptics wrong. American Idiot, would end up becoming one of the defining albums of the era in part because many of its song were protests against the War In Iraq.  While there plenty of artists making statements and complaining about the war, they seemed to be few and far between.  And it wasn’t just the Dixie Chicks who got some shit.  Dozens of fans walked on  a Pearl Jam concert in 2003 when Eddie Vedder sang the anti-Bush song, “Bushleaguer”.  If artists were speaking out against the war, they certainly weren’t doing it on the radio.  Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief didn’t receive much play, Neil Young’s Greendale only spoke to his devoted fans, and Conor Oberst was too much of a niche artist at the time to make any impact.  But when “American Idiot” came blaring on the radio in the summer of 2004, it suddenly became clear that Green Day were no longer trying to be The Clash.  They were The Clash for this generation.  When Armstrong suggested that ” Everybody do the propaganda and sing along to the age of paranoia” it was a rallying cry to wake people up.  And if the lyrics didn’t cover that ground, the sonic assault of the song was just as arresting.

While many of the songs are a protest agains the War in Iraq, making no pretense about the band’s stance, it’s also much more than that.   In a decade where everything seemed to teeter out of control from every direction.  “Hey can you hear the hysteria?” Armstrong asks. But then he takes it one step further – “The subliminal mind-fuck, America.”   Somehow Green Day managed to tap into the cultural zeitgeist – a fusion of anger and disillusionment.  It was an era where many seemed destined to “fall in love or fall in debt” .

Of course, Armstrong’s instincts and intentions would mean as much if the songs on American Idiot weren’t good.  The aforementioned 10 minute song, “Jesus of Suburbia” combined punk and elements of prog-rock.  Amazingly the 5 pieces of the songs fit together perfectly, and the result became of the band’s best songs.  “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” with that weird feed-back loop managed to be the successful song on the album.  The band managed to cover a lot of ground, without missing a step.  The lyrics may have the focal point of the album, but their content also never got in the way of a good rock song.  Which American Idiot was full off.

American Idiot brought back some of the spirit of the 60s and 70s – when music actually meant something, that it could be a catalyst for change.  If a group that previously known for being dumbass stoners ends up releasing the album that best sums up what it was like to live in the mid 2000s, I’m not sure whether Green Day deserve even more credit than they already have, or if I should point a shameful finger at others for not stepping up.

(And for those who might suggest I’m only basing this off of one album, The Sex Pistols only had one album as well.)

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 10. – Death Cab For Cutie

I first heard of Death Cab For Cutie sometime in 2003, sometime before the infamous Seth Cohen Starter Pack episode of the OC.   One of my friends in my poetry class next to me, who knew that I liked music, asked me if I heard of them.  “No,” I told her, thinking that Death Cab For Cutie was such an odd name for a a band.  She told me to listen to them, which I did, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.  I wasn’t too into the sensitive rock that they excel in at the time.  I was too into the “angry young man years” of Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan to really give Death Cab much of a chance.

For a while, I kind of forgot about them.  Then somewhere along the line, tons of people I know started talking about them.  This was probably due to their inclusion on episodes of The OC.  I had heard of The OC, but it wasn’t on my radar.  “Why would a band want to sell out and include themselves on a TV show?”, I wondered.  My thought was that they were obviously a bunch of sell-outs.  This thought is of course, not really well constructed.

Back to Dylan and Costello for a moment.  Both of these artists, represent an aura of non-compromise.  They do what they want, consequences by damned. Costello, famously playing “Radio Radio” on Saturday Night Live when the producers told him not to.  Dylan, of course, for going electric when he was the hero of folk-music.  Sure they sold records, and have a wide audience, but “selling out” wasn’t something they would do.  I for one, held onto this very idea for a long time.  (Ironically, around this time Bob Dylan was appearing in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, but I deemed it too weird, and surreal to be considered “selling out”.  Really, I just didn’t want to admit that even my hero could do something like that.)

But for bands in the early 2000s, the music business was different.  The record companies were fledging, and there had to be a new way for artists to get exposed.  While it may seem commonplace today, for artists songs to be used on Glee, in 2003 having your songs on shows like The OC was uncharted territory.  Especially for respectable bands, but Death Cab along with Bright Eyes seized the moment, and it worked.  Suddenly people started talking about Death Cab all the time.  Their sensitive, melodic  songwriting, and Ben Gibbard‘s soft voice ushered in a new wave of indie-rock, where it was okay to emotional without being angry.  Death Cab represented a true alternative to radio rock which seemed to be dominated by big, dumb rock songs.  They also weren’t “cool” like The Strokes, or guitar-heavy like The White Stripes.  Death Cab was more interested in writing songs and telling stories that people could relate to.

When you think of “indie rock”, it’s hard not to think of Death-Cab.  Earlier incarnations of indie rock mostly included punk, hard-core, riot girl, and weird experimental post-punk bands. But Death Cab represented a new era of “indie rock”, and almost every indie band that came out after (or around the same time) – from Modest Mouse to Vampire Weekend – owe them a huge debt.  Let’s also not forget Death Cab also became a band that teenage girls, and women in college could relate to, something which rock radio seemed to be lacking.

When Death Cab signed to Atlantic in 2004, it was a major move.  True, Modest Mouse was among the first of the “new indie” bands to sign to a major in 2000, but when Death Cab signed people were left wondering if they would alter their sound for the masses.  But like R.E.M., two decades earlier who had also put out several albums on an indie label before signing to a major label, Death Cab put out Plans in 2005 , an album that didn’t compromise their sound, but built upon the foundation they already had as evident on such songs as “Crooked Teeth“, and “Souls Meets Body”.

Even though they’ve never really had a “hit”, Death Cab For Cutie remains extremely popular in part because the world came to them.  Perhaps in their own way, maybe they are a bit like Dylan and Costello.

Edit: Here’s the full list of The Ten Most Important Artists

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Music Books I’ve Been Reading

Patti Smith Just Kids

Besides her own version of “Gloria” and “Because the Night“, prior to reading Just Kids I knew little about Patti Smith.  I knew she was a punk icon, and that’s about as far as my knowledge of her went.  Around December I saw that she had won the National Book Award for Just Kids.  Having just finished the book a few weeks ago, it is more than justified.  It’s a moving portrait of a young woman on the cusp of fame finding her voice and her inspiration.  As influential as her records are in the rock and roll canon, it’s art in general that moved her – whether it be Rimbaugh, The Beats, or Dylan.  And at the center of it all is her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  Sometimes they were lovers, but most of the time they were kindred spirits who not only saw art as a way of life, but also salvation.  Smith’s prose is breathtaking, gorgeous, and always enlightening.  After reading Just Kids, I’ve started to really dig into more of her stuff, but the book also made it clear that even if Smith wasn’t famous as a singer, she would still be known in the art world for something.  For her, rock and roll just happened to be her the medium she used.

The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved The Soul of America – James Sullivan

The Hardest Working Man tells the story behind James Brown’s famous April 5th 1968  Boston Show and Telecast.  I’ve been a fan of Brown’s music for a while, but listening to his music some 45 years later, it’s almost impossible to understand how big his impact on music, popular culture, and Black America really was.  Sullivan does a good job of bringing all three parts together and make a compelling book.  It’s really interesting to read about the relationship that Brown had with Civil Rights Activists, and his own thoughts on the subject.   According to the book, the telecast nearly didn’t happen.  The Mayor’s Office of Boston had already arranged the film crew to be there, leaving Brown in a predicament where he could potentially be sued for video infringement if the show was broadcast.  Last minute phone calls were made, and as history shows, Brown ended up giving one of the most important concerts ever.   I suspect that Brown isn’t rapped most sampled artist just because his music is amazing, but also because of his impact on African American culture.

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Songs For St. Patrick’s Day

Van Morrison – Cyprus Avenue

A centerpiece of Morrison’s landmark Astral Weeks album, Cyprus Avenue finds Morrison wandering Belfast, remembering his past and his life as child.  Only a singer like Morrison could sing about tongue tied, and actually sing in a stutter, and make it sound transcendent and beautiful. The album version unfolds like an Impressionistic painting put to music.  The more you listen to it, the deeper you get into Morrison’s soul and psyche.  The live version found on “It’s Too Late To Stop Now” completely transforms the song into a mixture of soul, jazz, revealing that if Morrison ever played on song ever live, he would still be a phenomenal performer.

The Waterboys – “The Stolen Child”

Technically, The Waterboys are Scottish, but this closing song on Fisherman’s Blues includes lyrics taken from the Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child”.  Over a collage of piano and flute, Tomás Mac Eoin delivers the poem in spoken word, while Waterboys singer Mike Scott gives a haunting background vocal.  I used to listen to this song on my headphones on repeat when I was hung-over and had some pretty bizarre dreams as a result.

The Pogues – “Poor Paddy”

Shane MacGowan has written many great songs about Ireland and Irish identity, and they’ve also covered numerous traditional Irish folk songs.  Their cover of “Poor Paddy” is particularly spirited.  At the time of Red Roses For Me release, The Pogues were ushering in a new form of music with their mix of punk and traditional folk-music.  “Poor Paddy” shows that The Pogues were cemented in the past, never forgetting the struggles of the working class and their own national identity.  It also shows that in the process they were creating their own version of what it meant to be Irish by adding a new spin on old themes.

Stiff Little Fingers – “Alternative Ulster”

Ireland’s answer to The Clash – Stiff Little Fingers hailed from Belfast and like The Clash, many of their songs dealt with weighty topics including the troubles in Northern Ireland.   Case in point, their 1978 single “Alternative Ulster” was a rallying cry against the war-torn area of Ulster.  “Is this the kind of place you wanna live? Is this were you wanna be? Is this the only life we’re gonna have?” Singer Jake Burns demands over a wall of buzz-saw guitars.

Kate Bush – “The Sensual World”

Kate Bush’s “The Sensual World” draws its inspiration from Molly Bloom’s famous internal monologue at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Originally, Bush decided to take some of the actual passages from the book, but was refused by the Joyce estate, so she wrote original lyrics inspired by the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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15 Best Girl Group Songs

On Monday night along with Tom Waits, Alice Cooper and Dr. John, Darlene Love (finally!) got inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Her most famous song is the Holiday Classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, but Love added her vocal talents to other groups of the time as well including The Crystals, The Blossoms, and Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans.

So in honor of her induction, I present my list of the 15 Best Girl Group songs.

1.) The Ronettes – “Be My Baby”

Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” at its best.  The drum intro is probably responsible for a lot of drummers’ careers.

2.) The Shirelles – “A Thing of the Past”

The original female group.

3.) The Crystals – “Da Doo Ron Ron”

According to Darlene Love, she originally sang lead vocals for this track with her own band The Blossoms, only to have Phil Spector erase them and rerecord the lead with The Crystals’ Dolores “Lala” Brooks instead.  Love still ended up singing background vocals.

4.) The Dixie Cups – “I’m Gonna Get You Yet”

Slightly sinister (?) B-side of “Gee, The Moon Is Shining Bright”

5.) Martha & The Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street”

Forget the craptacular Bowie & Jagger version.  Brilliant song about how something as dancing in fire hydrants can be a rallying cry.  Co-written by Marvin Gaye.

6.) The Shangri-La’s:  “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”

The obvious choice would be “Leader of the Pack”, but I prefer this one.

7.) The Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go?”

Best use of Footstomps ever in a song, which actually consisted of one person, a teenager named Mike Valvano, to create illusion that it was a group of footstomps.

8.) Martha Reeves & The Vandellas – “Heatwave”

Listen for Martha Reeves belting out “Yeah, yeah!” at the 2 minute mark.  Killer stuff.

9.) Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans – “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Da”

Disney, who?  With Darlene Love taking over, this is the definitive version of the song.

10.) The Ronettes – “The Best Part of Breaking Up”

11.) The Marvelettes – “Please Mr. Postman”

Probably the first song that I ever recognized as an “oldie”, so as such I’ve always had a soft spot for it.

12.) The Crystals – “He’s A Rebel

13.) Chantals – “Maybe”

14.) Shirelles – “Stop the Music”

15.) The Crystals -“Then He Kissed Me”

I always thought that the narrator was pretty forward in this song telling her potential beau that she loves him.  Luckily it all worked out.

 

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Videos For The Weekend: 3 Different Versions of David Bowie’s “Heroes”

I absolutely love “Heroes”.  Apparently, so artists love to cover it as well.  Here’s three different artist putting their spin on the Bowie classic.

TV On The Radio:

Arcade Fire:

The Wallflowers:

While all of them are good, I prefer TV On The Radio’s the best – I think it captures the experimental feeling of the original the best.

 

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