Monday, April 30, 2012

Song #176 of 9999 - So What'cha Want by The Beastie Boys

Song #176 of 9999

Title: So What'cha Want
Artist: Beastie Boys
Year: 1992
Album: Check Your Head

From the first line of this track, you know this isn't your parents' rap. "Just plug me in like I was Eddie Harris" goes the line and you're reaching for your pop reference encyclopedia from the get-go. (FYI, Eddie Harris was a jazz saxophonist known especially for amplifying the saxophone.) The Beastie Boys had already delivered their masterpiece, Paul's Boutique, three years earlier and didn't have anything to prove to anyone. Accordingly, they returned to their punk rock, lo-fi roots on Check Your Head, even playing their own instruments on the entire record for the first time.

"So What'cha Want" has typically clever lyrics you'd expect from the Queens-based rappers ("I've got depth of perception in my text y'all/I get props at my mention 'cause I vex y'all" & "Well they call me mike d the ever loving man/I'm like spoonie gee well I'm the metropolitician/You scream and you holler about my chevy impala/But the sweat is getting wet around the ring around your collar") made all the more interesting under a glaze of distortion and filtering. Even sitting right in front of my speakers, it sounds as though the track is coming from inside a car with the bass pumped up. Great slow groove and a cool video too.

A great track to kick off the week of 1992. Tomorrow, possibly the most influential indie rock record of all time.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Song #175 of 9999 - Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' by Michael Jackson

Song #175 of 9999

Title: Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'
Artist: Michael Jackson
Year: 1982
Album: Thriller

There are seriously so many good songs from 1982 that I could easily do another week. Once I'm done with this year-long review, I'll go back and grab great tracks from Prince, Springsteen, XTC, Marvin Gaye, Thomas Dolby and more. But tonight, I have to acknowledge the Thriller LP from Michael Jackson.

I honestly think "Billie Jean" is the best song from the album, but "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" is just so....weirdly evocative. The groove is infectious and almost trance-inducing. There are only two chords in the entire tune (D/E E), yet the arrangement and performance (primarily the latter) keep it interesting for six full minutes! There's something primal about the call-and-response lyric about spreading rumors and...who knows what else, really. By the time he starts singing "You're a vegetable/And they eat off you," you know this isn't your average pop song.

Interestingly, the super cool ending chant ("Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah") was directly lifted from the 1972 song "Soul Makossa" by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango. (Click here to check it out for yourself.) Dibango sued Jackson, who settled out of court for one million francs.

See you tomorrow in 1992!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Song #174 of 9999 - Someday, Someway by Marshall Crenshaw

Song #174 of 9999

Title: Someday, Someway
Artist: Marshall Crenshaw
Year: 1982
Album: Marshall Crenshaw

"Someday, Someway" is the sole top 40 hit for Detroit singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, peaking at #36. Crenshaw got his first big break performing as John Lennon in the off-Broadway cast of Beatlemania before eventually landing a record deal with Warner Bros. But while his music has always garnered critical acclaim, he has failed to make a dent commercially. Anyway, the song pretty much speaks for itself—similar to Buddy Holly (whom he played in the film La Bamba) and very catchy. If you like this song, check out "Something's Gonna Happen" his debut single from 1981. That's all for tonight!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Song #173 of 9999 - Come on Eileen by Dexy's Midnight Runners

Song #173 of 9999

Title: Come on Eileen
Artist: Dexy's Midnight Runners
Year: 1982
Album: Too-Rye-Ay

This is a song most everyone knows and it's probably a song you either love or hate. But there are multiple reasons it spent so many weeks at the top of the charts in 1982. It's ridiculously catchy, well-structured and -arranged and participatory. Let me expound.

1) Catchy: Well, if I could figure out what makes songs catchy and memorable, I'd be rich and/or famous. But in this case, I think there are obvious factors. The fiddle riff is pretty infectious and the lilting dotted-eighth/sixteenth groove at this specific tempo makes you want to move instantly. The chorus, particularly the bass and drums, is straight out of the Motown songbook. Add to that the "too-rye-ay" nursery rhyme lyric and you pretty much have everyone feeling like a 5-year-old which is a pretty good feeling.

2) Well-structured and -arranged: I am fascinated by the key relationships in this song. Three different keys for the intro (F Major), verses (C Major) and chorus (D Major). Each modulation is direct with no transition yet they seem so natural and seamless. The move from C to D for the chorus is particularly brilliant and uplifting. (It must have been cool to be in the room when someone came up with that idea—wow!) But the real stroke of genius is the slow bridge and accelerando leading into the final chorus. This section with its quasi-chanted countermelody gives Kevin Rowland a chance to flex his Northern Soul muscle, his impressive tenor creating lovely counterpoint with the boys in the band. The Celtic-meets-Motown orchestration with its fiddle, banjo and accordion sounds as fresh today as it did thirty years ago.

3) Participatory: This is a song that not only invites you to join in, it insists. The call-and-response chorus is made for a sing-along and the tempo change in the bridge is designed to get your heart racing right along with the kick drum. But for me, it's the ascending scale on "too-ra-loo-ra too-ra-loo-rye-ay" that really begs for your participation. Sing a melody that is simple, catchy and wordless and you will have a legion of followers. Guaranteed.

For the record, I fall on the side of loving the song. So much fun.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Song #172 of 9999 - Tug of War by Paul McCartney

Song #172 of 9999

Title: Tug of War
Artist: Paul McCartney
Year: 1982
Album: Tug of War

By 1982, I had pretty much abandoned my obsession with The Beatles and Paul McCartney for the technical musical precision of progressive rock. Songs like "Ebony and Ivory" seemed too hokey for my tastes and McCartney II had been such a disappointment to me two years earlier. As an active songwriter, I would eventually come back to The Beatles and their solo work but it was John's output that resonated with me in my adult years. In fact, I've even become disenchanted with the Paul songs most people enjoy ("Band on the Run," "Live and Let Die," and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," for example), all of which seem like unfinished song snippets tied together with weak or silly lyrics.

So I pretty much skipped Tug of War completely and I'm glad I checked back in thirty years later to give it another spin. Two months into the recording of this record, John Lennon was murdered and it seemed to have a profound impact on Paul's direction as a solo artist. He had already dissolved Wings and enlisted famed Beatles producer George Martin for the sessions, but to me, it seems like Lennon's death led McCartney to produce a more mature, serious, personal record. While the album's tribute song to Lennon ("Here Today") is touching, it's the title track I find the most ambitious and satisfying in terms of composition and performance.

For me, the most compelling thing about the track is the meter. The song has a bit of a Spanish feel (it reminds me of "Barcelona" by Rufus Wainwright) and McCartney lets the lyric dictate the meter, even if it means inserting a random 2/4 or 3/4 bar to accommodate extra syllables (something Lennon did masterfully in songs like "Across the Universe"). The song also has a very slow harmonic rhythm, with individual chords sustaining through the verses for up to five or six measures. The "dancing to the beat" lyric is set to a rhythm and meter that is hard to discern but it seems like a quick 3/8 or 6/8 sandwiched among the slow quarter-note pulse. It's an exciting propulsion of rhythm in a fairly laid-back song that is both jarring and invigorating.

It's hard to say with certainty whether the song is about his relationship with Lennon but if it is, I think it's an even better tribute than "Here Today" which captures the camaraderie but not the struggles. This song, with a tremendous arrangement by George Martin, is as complex as their relationship and as moving as anything McCartney has ever written.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Song #171 of 9999 - The Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden

Song #171 of 9999

Title: The Number of the Beast
Artist: Iron Maiden
Year: 1982
Album: The Number of the Beast

Listening to this song for the first time in decades just brings a huge smile to my face. Music was so diverse in the 80s and most people listened to music of a variety of genres. Pop radio stations played a mix of new wave, roots rock, heavy metal—it was pretty wide open. MTV was the same—Michael Jackson one minute, Mötely Crüe the next. I played in a cover band that pretty much subscribed to this philosophy not quite on purpose, but because everyone in the band liked different things and we played just about whatever anyone wanted to play. So on any given night, we'd play a set that went something like this: "Jane" by Jefferson Starship, "YYZ" by Rush, "Reelin' in the Years" by Steely Dan, "Talking in Your Sleep" by The Romantics and "Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden. It was an insane mix but we somehow managed to get gigs and make people happy for the most part.

Iron Maiden astonishes me with their continuing popularity. I see more Iron Maiden t-shirts at the high school where I teach than any other artist. The Number of the Beast was their third album and first with their most well-known (and current) singer Bruce Dickinson. Dickinson's operatic tenor became the trademark of a group already known for excess in their music, lyrics, cover art, etc. Their success was further heightened by the negative attention given to them by socially conservative groups in the United States who were convinced they were satanists. They weren't; just well-read.

I have very fond memories of playing and singing this song. The open riff in 5/4 was tricky to work out with the band. I can't say for sure if I sounded good attempting the amazing scream during the stop-time section that follows the opening verses, but maybe one of my childhood friends can chime in with the answer. It felt good though and it was an enjoyable and challenging song to sing. Great bass-playing by primary songwriter Steve Harris really tested and helped develop my chops. Hmmm....maybe I should re-form that band....

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Songs #169 & 170 - It's TWOsday!

Song #169 of 9999                                                  Song #170 of 9999

Title: I Melt With You                                               Title: I Ran (So Far Away)
Artist: Modern English                                             Artist: A Flock of Seagulls
Year: 1982                                                               Year: 1982
Album: After the Snow                                            Album: A Flock of Seagulls

Last night's blog post took a long time to write, what with the opera research and such so I'm going to make this a quickie. It is TWOsday so I thought I would just post two representative songs from the post-punk/new wave era from groups few of us have heard from since their 1982 debuts and say very little about them. :)

For me, "I Melt With You" is the better of the two songs, its apocalyptic love story dripping with emotional resonance even as digital music technology and severe hair and fashion were working hard to strip away such feelings from the pop charts. One of the things I really like about this song is how each musician in the band plays such an integral role in the arrangement. I never noticed it before, probably because I was too busy mimicking Robbie Grey's vocal delivery at maximum volume while jumping up and down.

"I Ran" is a simpler song about your run-of-the-mill alien abduction. This song really benefits from the call-and-response relationship between Mike Score's monotone vocal delivery and Paul Reynolds's clever two-note guitar lick. The thing I most remember about this song when it came out was Mike Score's haircut which seemed so bizarre and interesting at the time. Very catchy minor key song, probably a little too long and repetitive for the current market.

Happy TWOsday!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Song #168 of 9999 - O Superman (For Massenet) by Laurie Anderson

Song #168 of 9999

Title: O Superman (For Massenet)
Artist: Laurie Anderson
Year: 1982
Album: Big Science

There's so much great pop music from 1982 that I was having a hard time choosing a song with which to start the week. Rather than choose, I just went in the complete opposite direction. "O Superman (For Massenet)" is a piece of art music inspired by the aria "Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père" from Jules Massenet's 1884 opera El Cid. Rodrigo, an 11th century knight, prays for victory ("Oh Sovereign, O Judge, O Father") as he prepares to fight a battle with an overwhelming army of Moors. Laurie Anderson's overwhelming force is that of the American military establishment, which was engaged in attempts to rescue the hostages being held in Iran around the time this work was constructed.

Anderson employs the use of new digital audio sampling technology and an instrument called a vocoder that harmonizes vocal melodies with notes played by the performer simultaneously on a keyboard. (At least, I think that's how it works--feel free to correct me.) The song has just two chords (Ab Major and C Minor) linked by the common note C sung repeatedly from the beginning of the work ("ha, ha, ha, ha...."). I find this cadence-free alternation of major and minor chords to be hypnotic and soothing (it reminds me of the strings in Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question) although some people claim the piece sounds sinister to them. Interestingly, the lyrics of the piece seem to caution against technology even as the musical arrangement is consumed by it.

More proof that Brits are infinitely more interesting than Americans, "O Superman" peaked at #2 on their pop charts! (It also hit the top ten in the Netherlands and #11 in Ireland.) At least we were clever enough to install its accompanying video at New York's MOMA in 1983. It's an intriguing, evocative piece and its central themes are still resonant thirty years later (even if we have mostly given up our answering machines).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Song #167 of 9999 - Without You by Harry Nilsson

Song #167 of 9999

Title: Without You
Artist: Harry Nilsson
Year: 1972
Album: Nilsson Schmilsson

Look, I'm just going to admit right up front that I am ignoring The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stadust and the Spiders from Mars and Exile on Main St. and a whole lot of other great music that came out in 1972. It was a great year for music.

And you may think this ballad by Nilsson is sappy and melodramatic and I should probably be featuring "I Saw the Light" by Todd Rundgren or Nick Drake's "Pink Moon." I understand and maybe you're right! But that doesn't make this any less of a great song. It pushes all the right buttons and tugs all the right strings mostly due to Nilsson's amazing vocal performance. I dare you to listen to this and not ball your eyes out at 2:10.

That's really all I have to say. What else is there, really? Okay, a couple of fun facts: 1) the song was written by Pete Ham of Badfinger; 2) Nilsson never performed publicly or toured in support of his records; 3) his grandparents were Swedish circus performers.

See you tomorrow in 1982!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Song #166 of 9999 - Perfect Day by Lou Reed

Song #166 of 9999

Title: Perfect Day
Artist: Lou Reed
Year: 1972
Album: Transformer

"Walk on the Wild Side" and "Satellite of Love" garner most of the attention where Transformer is concerned and rightfully so. The former is a flat-out masterpiece and the latter cheeky and forward-thinking. As clever as the two lead singles are, it's "Perfect Day" that seems to have the lasting appeal. Twenty-five years after its release, the original appeared in a hit film (1996's Trainspotting) and a cover version recorded by an "astonishing line-up of world-class performers" topped the charts in the UK in 1997 as it raised money for the charitable organization Children in Need. Covered at least a dozen times, even Lou Reed himself re-recorded the song for his 2003 album The Raven.

Produced by David Bowie, "Perfect Day" assumes a bit of the grandiose fervor Bowie brought to "Life on Mars" the previous year. A circle-of-fifths chord progression meanders its way through the key of Bb Minor, borrowing here and there from the parallel major before settling on the dominant (i-IV-VII-III-VI-iv-V). That the progression confuses some (see the unfortunate Wikipedia article) is not unexpected as the intro commences with the dominant F Major and gives the strong impression that F is the key (I-iv rather than V-i) before proceeding down its windy road. When the chorus arrives, it comes with a thrilling mode change to Bb Major (I-IV-iii-IV/I-V-vi-V-IV-vi-V-IV) to support a soaring vocal.

Whether the song is about heroin or not doesn't really matter. If it is, it's absolutely brilliant ("It's a perfect day/I'm glad I spent it with you"); if it isn't, it's really lovely and sweet ("Just a perfect day/You made me forget myself"). Either way, it's a gem worth remembering and still sounds fresh after forty years.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Song #165 of 9999 - Woman is the Nigger of the World by John Lennon

Song #165 of 9999

Title: Woman is the Nigger of the World
Artist: John Lennon
Year: 1972
Album: Some Time in New York City

I'll be the first to admit this is not my favorite John Lennon song and Some Time in New York City is not a very good album. But, given the current state of affairs in this country (i.e. the so-called "War on Women" with its vaginal probes and ongoing efforts to curtail women's reproductive rights) and the absolutely horrific treatment of women in some nations around the world, perhaps it's worth revisiting this 40-year-old(!) song.

The title and thesis of Lennon's song was first stated by his progressive (and notorious) wife Yoko Ono in a Time Magazine article in 1969. Lennon admitted in an interview with Dick Cavett (worth watching here) that it took some time for him to shed his own chauvinism toward women but he ultimately agreed with Ono's statement and was inspired to write what is typically regarded as the first anthem of the women's rights movement. While many questioned the use of the word "nigger," it is undeniably provocative which is kind of the point of the song. I suppose the danger is that people will be so offended by the title, they won't stick around for the song; but if you're willing to listen, the message is strong.

Sadly, I can't imagine any record company allowing the recording and distribution of this song by a major artist today nor do I think one of these artists would be willing to make such a bold statement. As accepting as we've become of profanity and explicit sexual and violent content on records, strong political statements seem to have disappeared from the music of our most popular musicians. For that reason, I guess I should be happy that so many of Lennon's recorded sentiments still apply today. But I'm not.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Song #164 of 9999 - Go All the Way by The Raspberries

Song #164 of 9999

Title: Go All the Way
Artist: The Raspberries
Year: 1972
Album: Raspberries

In my defense, I was only three when this song came out, but I still regret that I didn't write it. 

For the record, this is what Eric Carmen sounded like before he started singing about "Hungry Eyes." 

I could explain why this song is so great but it would be a dry and boring discussion about chord progressions and song structure and well, tonight I'm just going to spare you all of that and let you enjoy one of the defining songs of the power pop genre.

Just listen to the song—maybe dance around your house or office a little—and forget about everything else for a few minutes.

See you tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Song #163 of 9999 - The Needle and the Damage Done by Neil Young

Song #163 of 9999

Title: The Needle and the Damage Done
Artist: Neil Young
Year: 1972
Album: Harvest


To me, the Y in CSN&Y always seemed like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Although Neil Young's association with the vocal group made sense on a philosophical level, especially when it came to writing timely protest songs ("Ohio" comes to mind), musically they seemed miles apart. Young always struck me as more original, more daring, more experimental (anyone remember the immensely interesting flop called Trans?) and I think the proof is in his solo work. While Crosby, Stills and Nash continued to attach their beautiful harmonies to songs of little emotional depth (see "Southern Cross"), Young moved toward more personal topics, both biographical and autobiographical.

"The Needle and the Damage Done" is heavy before the needle even touches the record. The title alone gives us some clues about the subject (heroin addiction) while Young's lyrics offer three parts lamentation, one part cautionary tale. Not that Young was one to clean up recordings or fix out-of-tune vocal tracks, but the choice to use a live recording for the record adds an air of vulnerability to the track that I find compelling.

Finally, as many times as I've heard the song, I'm still impressed by the creatively constructed chord progression. I've never heard another song that combines this common semi-chromatic descent (D-C-B-Bb) with the equally common blues shuffle riff (A-C#-E-F#-G-F#-E-C#). To make matters even more interesting, it's downright difficult to tell what key the song is in. Most pop songs have either a traditional V-I cadence to restart the progression (or a IV-I), but this progression ultimately settles on a II (E Major) before returning to I. (The entire verse progression for those who care about such things: D9 D9/C D9/B Bbmaj7(#11) C F Esus4 E) The overall effect is one of a never-ending loop (which Young chooses to end unresolved on the Bb chord), perhaps an unconscious representation of the never-ending spiral that haunts so many addicts.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Songs #161 and 162 - It's TWOsday!

Song #161 of 9999                                                  Song #162 of 9999

Title: Thirteen                                                          Title: That Teenage Feeling
Artist: Big Star                                                         Artist: Neko Case
Year: 1972                                                               Year: 2006
Album: #1 Record                                                   Album: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

It's late and I'm tired but I didn't want to miss a night when I just got this thing restarted! But I may not have brilliant things to say. I'm just giving you fair warning.

I'm pairing up two songs I think are amazing for the way they capture the innocence and excitement of adolescent love. I must admit I first heard Big Star's "Thirteen" performed by Elliott Smith circa 1997 when I was downloading everything I could find by the late singer-songwriter. I remember vividly hearing him play it in a club that year and it was quite moving. In retrospect, the Big Star original is better. Alex Chilton's warble sparkles against the backdrop of so many trebly acoustic guitars and the backing vocals add a dimension lacking from almost every cover. The overlooked guitar solo is also really great with its jangly layers and before-the-beat syncopation. It's a beautiful recording.

Whereas Chilton's song really seems to capture young love in the moment, Neko Case's "That Teenage Feeling" is written from the perspective of an adult who can still remember what it feels like to fall in love as an adolescent and yearns for the return of that feeling. The 12/8 feel of the accompaniment gives the impression of prom night circa 1957 and the vocal arrangement hearkens back to the girl groups of the same era. The chord progression of the verse is complex, occasionally meandering, but when the song opens up and reveals the chorus, it's a magical moment. But you better not miss it because she only gives it to you once! It's as fleeting as the feeling it aims to portray.