• Donde No Hay Sufermiento: The Top Twelve Songs from 1:40 to 1:43

    Apr 13 2010, 7:19

    The Aspirations of Very Short Songs

    The struggle to be something more than fluff or fun trash, or to be an exemplar of the highest places to which fluff and fun trash can aspire; to make a skeletal framework stand in for flesh and imply substance inside a spook; to transcend the limitations of length when you hardly have time to say anything; to set a memorable mood quickly and then make it seem bigger than it actually is.

    Or to be Guided by Voices. This list is dominated by a relatively small number of bands, which I think is less due to limitations in my collection than it is to the small number of bands consistently working at this length. And more so, that some of those small number of bands are really, really good at short-form songwriting.

    I Swear, I Picked That Journal Title Before Today

    But very weird, to grab a quote from a song with a "me voy" refrain, considering that last.fm has just announced a change that will drive quite a few users elsewhere. Is this site just about data collection now? I wonder if the loss of the play-on-demand feature makes this column less user-friendly. I wonder if there is now little reason to keep it here, anyway.

    I just opened a Hype Machine account, and it seems to scrobble appropriately. However, it seems there are fewer fully-streamable tracks available. Readers, let me know: does the migration of full-track streaming to other sites mean that reading this column is now too much work? Or does it not matter as much as it seems like to me? Does it make a difference if you can get Spotify? (I can't.)

    Project Index

    The Top Twelve Songs from 1:40 to 1:43

    1) To Remake the Young Flyer--Guided By Voices
    What a delicious wet/sticky guitar sound! Most of these extremely short songs are really best at their truncated length, but if Sprout had wanted to be even a little bit self-indulgent, he could have stretched this one out. The Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd (to which “Flyer” owes a debt of influence) would have ridden this tune for at least three minutes, and we all would have thought it was great.

    2) Eruption--Van Halen
    Yeah, it’s just wanking. But it is 100% awesome (and quite short) wanking, so there’s not a single boring second to sit through before the cool part. The whole thing is the cool part.

    3) Never Talking to You Again--Hüsker Dü
    The shock of the folk rock! It would still be great anywhere in Hüsker Dü's oeuvre, but putting this song third on the side one of Zen Arcade is brilliant sequencing: a radical curveball to purist expectations.

    4) The Leader--The Clash
    Diddley beat with a simple and satisfying candypop refrain, in some ways an exemplar of what can be done within this time limitation.

    5) Isla de Encanta--Pixies
    Back when this song came out, I was taking first semester Spanish, and I asked my teacher what "fermiento" was. Because I heard it as "Donde no hay su fermiento," or, "Where there is none [of] your something." Also waiting for the German dominatrix version, "Ilsa de Encanta."

    6) Cowboys From Hollywood--Camper Van Beethoven
    Are they kind of taking the piss out of Dwight Yoakam here? They might have run into each other in California in the early 80s, and David Lowery might have asked Dwight’s band, “Hey, aren’t ya’ll cowboys from Hollywood?” Dwight's band would have gotten offended and claimed to be from Bakersfield, and then there would have almost been a fight.

    7) Zurich Is Stained--Pavement
    As Lisa pointed out, Pavement on my list has come to seem obligatory. But gosh, they have so many great songs; this one is an exquisitely warped fragment of refried country, although it loses a little something from not being in the album sequence.

    8) Dreams Reoccurring--Hüsker Dü
    Self-indulgent prog at a length tolerable for human beings. Its companion piece, the 14-minute “Reoccurring Dreams” is punk at a length tolerable for King Crimson fans.

    9) I Found The Star--Fastbacks
    Hyperactive pink punk pop, played too fast and too loud, and I mean that as a compliment.

    10) What's My Name--The Clash
    “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” reimagined, or ripped off, or stomped on, depending on one’s frame of reference. Also see Stop Draggin' Me Down by The Mono Men and Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones by The Hives. "What's My Name" is the best of the three.

    11) Hot Freaks--Guided By Voices
    Pollard emotes over a loose groove; structurally it’s barely there at all, but it feels like something larger, and it’s gone before you notice it isn’t.

    12) Brown Paper Sack--The Gentrys
    Reigning Sound’s growlier cover blows away this original, which is rather limp in comparison, but it is still fun trash.

    I'll be honest: there are three or four other GBV songs that could have, and maybe should have, made this list, since they are all better than "Brown Paper Sack." But in the interest of variety, I restricted each band to two songs.

    Well, then. I am still stunned by today's announcement about the removal of full tracks. It really makes this a different place. You know, I have always thought the price of a last.fm subscription was absurdly cheap; I would be willing to pay more to get the full tracks back, and I wonder why no one ever surveyed the subscribers to find out about that.
  • Mislead Your Children Well: The Top Thirteen Songs at 3:04

    Mar 27 2010, 7:05

    I can't find the reference, but Chuck Klosterman once made the point that teenagers are ill-served by pop music. Specifically, they are misled by the illusions that pop music constructs about the nature of romantic love. First you see her face, then you’re a believer. Your heart is, like, totally eclipsed. But then Jack slips out the back and pretty soon the sweet green icing is flowing down. (Also, beware of singing: it can kill you softly.) Of course, that general plot outline is so common it’s unremarkable, but pop music love only indicates signposts, not the day-to-day sweat equity of maintaining a relationship.

    Music is not alone in this conspiracy to mislead teens about love; pop culture in general is not a terribly good guide to life. When I was a little kid, I figured that when you really fall in love with someone, you both know it immediately and you have to find a meadow full of flowers so that you can run deliriously into each others arms. As an adult, I am now deeply disappointed that this has never happened.

    Obviously, it’s not just teens whose views and expectations are shaped by the weird promises of pop. Pop music trains us from an even earlier age, but it’s not all misleading or wrong; adults relate to it, so there must be some authentic stuff that might be actually useful information. In fact, once you outgrow music made specifically for kids, it’s one of the most accessible windows into what adults are like, and what being an adult is like. Not so much quotidian stuff like paying bills, more like the things adults care about, and how their emotions differ from a kid’s. Kids hear it and glean all kinds of lessons about adult life, some of which turn out to be true: lovers sometimes cheat on each other, and it hurts a lot, although it is pretty wonderful to be in love. Also, if you are ever riding through the desert on a horse with no name, you will know what to expect.

    A Note About the List
    This week I learned two things:

    1) 3:04 is a GREAT song length. It might be the most loaded with quality since 3:40 (see the Project Index for that one). Huge at the top, and so deep that the honorable mentions could have made a fine list of their own. I'll list those after the cadre has had a chance to weigh in.

    2) I have a lot more to say about Burt Bacharach than I ever expected to.

    The Top Thirteen Songs at 3:04

    1) Family Affair--Sly & The Family Stone
    OK, three things. I learned three things this week. I didn’t know this yesterday, but “Family Affair” was the first number-one track to use a drum machine. When I was six, this was all over the radio, and I loved it for its melancholy cough syrup funk that conveyed a sense of depth, mystery, and complication. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that it was one of the texts that seemed to explain adult relationships to me—not the mechanics of them, but how they feel. And I still love it for the same reasons.

    2) Dream All Day--The Posies
    While working summers for International Programs at U of Delaware, I would shepherd groups of foreign students around the east coast for weeks at a time. It was the most fun job I ever had. One of the things we used to do was bbq, sit in a big circle circumscribed by mosquito torches, and sing songs of our home countries. I usually sang “Driver 8” and “Dream All Day,” because they are in my range, because their melodies stand up without accompaniment, and because they both feel “American” to me: a sense of expansiveness, I guess. Which is weird, since “Dream All Day” is about hibernating in one’s room; I guess it’s a metaphorical, interior expansiveness.

    3) Frontwards--Pavement
    You see? How could this possibly end up in third place? If you asked me every day for a year what is my favorite Pavement song today, at the end of the year I would have given you twenty different answers--but I would have answered "Frontwards" a lot. The characteristic Pavement sludginess of the bass and weirdly-tuned guitar are deployed to their best effect, and the oft-quoted line "so much style that it's wasted" seems to encapsulate something essential about the band.

    4) Here Come the Girls--Ernie K-Doe
    It starts with a martial beat, but slips smoothly into a funky pocket provided by The Meters. Everybody knows K-Doe's “Mother-in-Law,” and justifiably so, but this song’s even better.

    5) It's Too Late--The Jim Carroll Band
    One of the greatest punk-era basslines wraps sinuously around one of Carroll’s better lyrics. Very influenced by Some Girls-era Stones, but it’s tougher and punkier than the Stones wanted to get.

    6) We Live Again--Beck
    The harpsichord gives it an 18th-century costume drama quality that rubs pleasingly but unsettlingly against Beck’s vulgar poetry.

    7) Sci-Fi Kid--Blitzen Trapper
    Psychedelic country-rock meets twee synthpop! An unlikely combination, but it is one of the highlights of Wild Mountain Nation. Played so confidently and with such utter disregard for the risks of its stylistic bricolage, it seems to inhabit its own universe, where such music is normal.

    8) I Say a Little Prayer--Dionne Warwick
    The second Bacharach/David composition to make a list (“Walk on By” made it twice). Bacharach is in some ways the apotheosis of the slick pop songwriter; his best stuff sounds absolutely mainstream, but it also has a jazzy undercurrent of sophistication that never gets in the way of his work’s proletarian pop pleasures.

    At the same time, Bacharach’s work is in some ways the opposite of the messy, opaque mystery of “Family Affair.” It’s a buffed and shined picture of adult life, in which life is pretty ordinary, but shot through with romantic misfortunes. There aren’t any people in Bacharach world besides the 1st person “I” and her (usually absent) lover, whose absence is met with either stoic sadness (if the absence is permanent or prolonged, as in “One Less Bell to Answer” or “Walk on By”) or an almost desperate, smothering desire to never be parted (“I Say a Little Prayer” or “Close to You”). But because the music is so smooth and untroubled, it never sounds desperate, and that contrast is pretty interesting, especially in comparison to the typically more one-dimensional “soft rock”/ “adult contemporary” fare that Bacharach often gets lumped in with.

    9) Palimend--Benoît Pioulard
    Pioulard uses a lot of tape tricks and found sound in little fluttery dryleaf layers, but at his best, the unadorned songs underneath the sonic filigree sound like Simon & Garfunkel. Good lyrics, too: "Oh smokepure strain of meeknesses & deathly-bound allying / Too many little sweetnesses, so much life in denying."

    10) Deceptacon--Le Tigre
    “Let me see you depoliticize my rhyme” says Kathleen Hanna, and then she proceeds to (almost) do just that all by herself with an insanely fun dancefloor stomper. It's about beat, it's about motion, and I bet the clueless guy she’s eviscerating enjoys the hell out of it.

    11) These Few Presidents--Why?
    Because it’s on Anticon, it’s often classified as experimental hip-hop, but it’s more accurately described as wordy, nerdy indie pop. And when the words are this good, nerdy wordiness is welcome. It’s hard to top an openhearted and poignant expression of regret like, “even though I haven't seen you in years, yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere.”

    12) Like That--Mr. Airplane Man
    There is never enough music like this: two women, a guitar, an amp, a mic, and a drum kit; equal parts Howlin’ Wolf, The Lyres, and The Stooges. One of the many discoveries I’ve gotten to know from googrit’s radio station, which is a candyland of garage rock.

    13) Guitars, Cadillacs--Dwight Yoakam
    Western swing by way of L.A., sung by an expatriate missing the titular trappings of home. It’s L.A. in the 20th century, though, so such trappings are readily available and to some degree in style. I don’t know what Hank would have made of that.

    When you were a kid, did popular music lead you astray, or give you badly-needed information, or both?
  • Retro Dream Covers: The Top Twelve Songs at 3:16

    Mar 6 2010, 8:22

    One of the most aesthetically satisfying and memorable dreams I have ever had was about attending an outdoor concert--not too crowded, just 100 or so people in a meadow on a cool afternoon, with The Beatles playing on a little wooden stage. The song they were playing was Pavement's "Trigger Cut," and of course, they sounded like The Beatles, but they were doing a pretty faithful cover, with John taking the lead vocal and Paul doing the falsetto "sha la las."

    I woke up with the sound of the song in my head, the specific sound of a cover song that would never be created, that could never be recorded or heard, that exists to this day only as a time-bleached memory of noises that were never made.

    The history of music (and art in general) is a long conversation, with later pieces commenting on things that have come before them. However, there's no reason why we can't imagine it going the other way. Wouldn't it be great to hear the impossible covers?

    Of course, it can't be done. But perhaps we can approach it approximately. Suppose a producer carefully selected some current artists--those with the versatility to not just copy a style, but inhabit it--and had them record covers of recent songs in the style of older artists, using the same production styles they did. Most conceptual projects like this are uneven at best, and it probably would fail, but what if it didn't? What if it was really well-made? I would buy that.

    So, tell me about your music dreams, and what impossible covers you would like to hear. For each of the songs on this list, I'm going to suggest an impossible retro cover (IRC).

    Project Index

    The Top Twelve Songs at 3:16

    1) Trigger Cut/Wounded-Kite at :17--Pavement
    Pavement is often either lauded or derided for their “slacker” vibe (cf. Beavis & Butthead, “try harder!”), and that’s accurate to a degree, but the lackadaisical surface is a deflection mechanism from the roiling emotions lurking just underneath. There’s a lot of self-conscious playful irony here (the aforementioned “sha-la-las” evoking a girl group), but it’s to lighten the mood of a “heavy coat, filled with rocks and sand.” IRC: see above.

    2) So. Central Rain--R.E.M.
    A telephone line washed out by a storm is a metaphor for the helplessness of needing to communicate without the means to do so, even if all you will be able to manage is a weak but heartfelt “I’m sorry.” IRC: This will be a cliché in relation to R.E.M., but I think The Byrds would do a fine job with this. Neil Young, too, although that's hardly impossible.

    3) Summer Babe (Winter Version)--Pavement
    It precedes "Trigger Cut" on Slanted and Enchanted, and yes, they are exactly the same length and almost exactly as wonderful. Since Malkmus has claimed he wanted to sound like Lou Reed on this song, “singing about sad boy stuff,” the IRC here has to be the Velvet Underground, doing an arrangement with Cale on viola.

    4) The Bottomless Hole--The Handsome Family
    A man discovers a hole behind his barn, and throws all of his possessions into it to try to find the bottom. When that fails, he lowers himself down in a bathtub, cutting the ropes to fall until he finds the bottom. It’s a stark bleeding metaphor for alcoholism, although it works for any self-destructive obsession. IRC: Johnny Cash is too obvious not to nominate.

    5) Seether--Veruca Salt
    The joke about the chorus is that it can be rendered as “Sounds like the BREE-ders.” Well, that’s a poke, but it’s hardly an insult, and Veruca Salt’s biggest hit is a propulsive pop-punk confection, and a worthy addition to the Perfect Universe Top 40. IRC: The early riffy Kinks.

    6) Goon Squad--Elvis Costello & the Attractions
    The James Bond-ish riff evokes 1960s spy movies in service of a scenario out of classic 1940s fascism, a cool (and telling) juxtaposition. It can be understood politically, but it’s equally apt as an illustration of fear and peer pressure on a playground, or in an office. IRC: It would be interesting to hear a John Barry orchestral take on it, but you’d lose the lyrics that way, so I’ll go with a 1940s big band arrangement, with three harmonizing female singers. There's no way to know if it would suck until we try it.

    7) Straight Down--The Glands
    Chugging melodic rock with 60s psychedelic flourishes. Ira Kaplan’s praise introduced me to this band, which shares some of the stylistic breadth of Ira’s main project. IRC: 13th Floor Elevators.

    8) Police on My Back--The Clash
    I didn’t know this was already a cover until I was putting together this list. (see The Equals) It’s better than the original. IRC: The Yardbirds.

    9) Winter Must Be Cold--The Apples in Stereo
    A good example of how the blurry sound of lo-fi recording adds rather than takes away; if you could hear the individual parts more clearly, the dual vocals and guitar wouldn’t bleed so much into each other. Like a tasty soup, it’s the blending of elements that makes it taste good. IRC: The Cowsills. (Yes, that's right. I'm not kidding.)

    10) Grindstone--Uncle Tupelo
    Such bleak lyrics (“Clockwork of destruction / Hanging low over our heads”) coupled to an arrangement that refuses to sink into self-pity or overbearing doom. IRC: My first thought was “old country,” but I’d really love to hear Elvis Costello sink his croon into this one, even though that’s hardly impossible and not really “retro.”

    11) Everglade--L7
    I'm in love with the big riff, and it's as simple as that. IRC: The Stooges, obviously.

    12) Let's Stay Together--Al Green
    This kind of earnestness seems to have almost disappeared from popular music. I could probably think of 100 songs of the 60s and 70s that were this earnest, but I’d be hard pressed to come up with a dozen from the past 20 years. IRC: a 50s doo-wop group.

    Honorable Mention

    Telstar--The Tornados
    Another example of how cultural artifacts that attempt to be “futuristic” age more quickly than “ordinary” stuff. “Telstar” evokes the early 60s more specifically than almost anything else of its time. Still, it’s a great melody and a fascinating early experiment in tape manipulation. IRC: Any ideas? I'm stumped on this one, since it's charm lies to a great degree on pushing the technological and conceptual envelope of its time.


    Innocent when you dream...
  • The Album's Dead, Long Live the Album: Top Eleven Songs from 5:23 to 5:26

    Feb 16 2010, 8:26

    In the comments to the last journal, we were discussing album sides, and I observed that in the post-vinyl age, we no longer think in those terms, since there are no sides on a CD. The concept of sides makes even less sense for an entirely electronic library; on most mp3 players, it is easier just to shuffle everything than to find a particular album and play it sequentially. For more obsessive types like me, the versatility of the mp3 library encourages easy playlist construction, so that I can be both DJ and audience in the ultimate tailored narrowcast: "Hey, man, great segue!" "Yeah, I know!"

    (Note also that the mp3 library is a necessary condition for this project; imagine going through all of your vinyl records and writing down the times for each song in a fat notebook, updating each time you bought something new.)

    The happy result is that listeners have more freedom and control than we have ever had before, and the unhappy result is that artists have almost no control anymore over the context in which their work is heard. In the LP age, we almost always played whole album sides, just because it was too much trouble to get up and change the record after each song. You would have to lift the needle out of the groove, take the record off the turntable, put it back in its sleeve, take the next record out, carefully set the tone arm down in the desired spot--whoops, wrong track!--you get the point. If you were David Bowie in the 1970s, you knew that much of the time when people listened to your records, they would play at least an entire side.

    Naturally, that technological limitation (or feature, depending on how you look at it) drove artistic decisions. At the peak of the LP age, artists thought in terms of the album and the album side, and so did listeners and critics. We were trained to think that great bands proved their worth in 30 to 45-minute chunks. When CDs increased the album's capacity to over an hour, a common complaint in reviews was that the albums were too long. Critics wanted to hear records that lasted about 40 minutes, because that’s what they (and we) had been trained to want. Not that all such complaints were baseless; there were certainly plenty of hour-long CDs bursting with fifteen minutes of good material. In any case, the album was such an artistic and commercial success, the idea of it persists even when there is no technological reason for it still to hold such sway.

    However, just because there is nothing natural about collecting songs in the form of a long-playing vinyl record, 20 minutes a side, a convention originally determined by technology and not by art, does not mean that we should abandon the idea. First, the album has been so dominant for such a long time, culturally speaking, that it has become functionally equivalent to a literary form--the "novel length" of popular music, if you will.* Keeping the form alive is a way of continuing the dialogue with past artists.

    *The lack of technological limitations on the length of books is why we don't call a 900-page novel a "double novel."

    The second reason is more speculative, but potentially more powerful. Recall that in the golden age of the LP, record companies had to package their product that way because of the technology, and also because the market demanded it. If there weren't enough good songs to fill two sides of vinyl (or the equivalent time on a CD), filler would have to be produced. Alas, filler shall be with us always, forever and amen. However, now that there is no longer a technological reason to sell music in chunks of a certain length, and now that the mp3 has shifted the marketplace from albums to songs, might those conditions also prove to be happy for artists who want to make albums? If there is less economic pressure to produce filler, it seems that less would be produced--and album artists, who have seen their control of context dwindle along with the popularity of the vinyl LP, are now (at least theoretically) more free to create albums containing only good songs. Such a development would entail a return of some of the power of context to those artists willing to seize it, and it would mean that listeners would play whole albums not just because it was convenient, but solely because whole albums sound best that way.

    I know vinyl's not completely gone, and in fact has been experiencing a resurgence. (Have you got your turntable yet, Lisa?) However, I think it will remain a niche market for the foreseeable future.

    Project Index

    Top Eleven Songs from 5:23 to 5:26

    1) Wichita--The Jayhawks
    Classic tension-building verses are set free by an absolutely gorgeous miles-of-harmony chorus. The verses tell of troubles both quotidian (“don’t your mouth get sore”) and supernatural (“This an evil land / Brings a devil’s cloud”) redeemed by the romantic yearning of the chorus (“In one morning, you will be mine / Where the fields are smiling”), a devout hope that the soaring voices make seem both impossible and yet almost achievable.

    2) Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)--Marvin Gaye
    Political but not preachy, a soundtrack to quiet desperation, and (according to Berry Gordy) hopelessly uncommercial. God bless Marvin Gaye for pursuing his vision, and (incidentally) proving Gordy wrong.

    Yeah, this track is so great I feel embarrassed not putting it at number one. In case of a tie, I am inclined to go with the less obvious choice. Edgy, huh?

    3) The Call Up--The Clash
    Its antiwar, anti-draft theme remains relevant today, but I think you have to hear this song in its early-80s context to fully appreciate what an appropriate soundtrack to nuclear dread it is. In the era's more pessimistic moments, nuclear war seemed to be inevitable, as the song's allusion to the Doomsday clock ("55 minutes past 11") suggests. In context, it acquires an urgency and a sadness that I doubt resonates as well for younger listeners who were not alive then. But I could be wrong.

    4) E-bow the Letter--R.E.M.
    Michael Stipe and Patti Smith taste great together on perhaps the last of the great R.E.M. tracks. It’s interesting that at times in the verses, Stipe seems to be subtly imitating Smith’s rapid-fire talky style, while Smith’s crooning counterpoint is reminiscent of what Stipe likes to do.

    5) Chamber Of Hellos--Wire Train
    Borrows a bit of pastel murk from early R.E.M., but with less jangle and more echo. The plucked main guitar lead is among the most memorable of the 80s. I believe I have the extended version; the single was shorter and arguably even better.

    6) Double Dolphins On The Nickel--Mice Parade
    Breathtaking, expansive psychedelia. Yes, I suppose that's a Minutemen pun, but damned if I can figure out the connection.

    7) Eternal Mother--Monkeyspank
    Overamped funky wah-wah guitar, backed by a three-drummer attack, slams headlong into a hard rock, with delightfully splattery results.

    8) Mystery Achievement--The Pretenders
    The early Pretenders were pretty versatile; this is close to a straight-up dance track, and quite good as it is, but I can’t help wondering how great it could have been with a more limber rhythm section (Simonon and Headon, or Wyman and Watts, or Weymouth and Frantz, for example).

    9) Boy (Go)--The Golden Palominos
    Stipe should have gotten out of the R.E.M. context more often; although this song sounds pretty R.E.M.-ish, mostly due to Stipe, there’s a very specific spaciousness here, charged with a vague foreshadowing that R.E.M. never captured. Maybe it’s the Richard Thompson guitar. I’m not saying Stipe should have quit his main band, just that he was such a great singer in his prime that it would have been nice to hear him try more different things. (Note that the track last.fm thinks is “Boy (Go)” is actually something else.)

    10) After Forever--Black Sabbath
    What is the deal with this song? Were they trying to show that they were Christians rather than Satanists? The crunchy bludgeoning riff makes such things rather superfluous, but I am curious anyway. The last.fm shoutbox for this song is full of Sabbath fans claiming to hate the lyrics; it would have been great if Ozzy had sung these exact lyrics in Enochian.

    11) Ventilator Blues--Califone
    If the Stones’ original is a hand saw, the cover is a chainsaw.
  • The Thinnest Gruel Yet: Top Ten Songs at 2:10

    Feb 2 2010, 6:04

    (No, the title does not refer to the songs in the list below, it refers to my limp intro and weak song comments. I hope to return to the usual thick, gristly gruel next time.)

    Too Much Consensus
    Last time we talked about how the the fragmentation of contemporary audience has made critical consensus difficult. Not so fast, says the Village Voice's Chuck Eddy in his comments about this year's Pazz and Jop Poll. Look how closely our poll tracks with the Pitchfork list, says he. These new bands are horrible, and poll voters are both young and lazy, says he.

    Ha ha ha! Laugh at the old man with me. Except...well, I almost agree with him. This is the first year I can remember that I've been almost uniformly unenthusiastic about the new music that most critics agree is great. From the short list of new critical darlings, The Antlers and Atlas Sound are the only ones (yet) that have gotten stuck in my regular rotation. Most everything else (Girls, Animal Collective, Phoenix, Dirty Projectors, etc.) is "Cum On Feel the Ambivalence." In most cases, I haven't given these bands much of a chance, but they certainly haven't grabbed me either.

    Of course there is always a chance. It only took me thirty years to understand Captain Beefheart, so perhaps some of these darlings will just take time for me to assimilate. At the moment, however, I'm feeling like everybody else can see clothes, when to me it looks like these bands are naked. And that makes me feel old.

    You Believe in Things that You Don't Understand, And You Suffer
    I have some weird superstitions about my play count. I never stop on a number ending in "13" or "66," and I only stop on "99" when I'm feeling like taking insane risks. I know, I know: that's crazy. To stop on "99" like that.

    Well, there is more. Three weeks ago, when the New Orleans Saints were about to play their first playoff game, I stopped on "37777" (that's FOUR sevens!) and ended with Louis Prima's When the Saints Go Marching In. That totally worked, as the Saints beat the Arizona Cardinals 45-14. Four sevens is obviously some powerful voodoo. A week later, the best I could manage was two sevens; again I stopped with the Prima track, and the Saints had to sweat out a dramatic overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings, 31-28. So, before the Super Bowl kicks off this Sunday, you will see my play count stopped at "38777" with the Prima song at the top of the recently played tracks. I hope three sevens is enough.

    By the way, apropos of last year's discussion about Super Bowl halftime entertainment: The Who. Eh. Safe choice, and proof that the NFL hasn't run out of elderly musically inclined gentlemen for its big event.

    Project Index

    The Top Ten Songs at 2:10

    1) Brand New Cadillac--The Clash
    So completely badass, it could be a soundtrack for a cartoon villain. Also, a cover that resurrected a great forgotten song, which is perhaps the greatest service that a cover can provide.

    2) Long Tall Sally--Little Richard
    Supposedly Little Richard wanted to write a song too fast for Pat Boone to sing. Boone was not deterred, although it is unknown whether he personally verified Sally’s built-for-speed construction, and if it was true that she had everything that Uncle John needed.

    3) Blue Spark--X
    Batting second on the incomparable side 2 of Under the Big Black Sun, which, if I were still in the business of ranking albums, would be on the short list for some prestigious top tens. Curious: for those who only know this or other classic records on CD, are the sides obvious? They seem so to me, but then I was deeply conditioned by the vinyl.

    4) Song of the Chief Musician (Part 2)--The Sadies
    The Sadies are obviously Byrds disciples, but I think they have surpassed their mentors. They share a lot of the same stylistic traits, but The Sadies' sound is richer and they write consistently better songs. Blasphemy, I know.

    5) Mama Tried--Merle Haggard
    "Mama Tried" may be the least emo song in existence: "I am a very bad man, and that is completely my fault, and I am pretty much OK with that."

    6) Black Out--Pavement
    An excellent example of one of Pavement’s favorite tricks, that of the lead guitar playing a swooping countermelody to the lead vocal.

    7) Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World--Ramones
    The only time I saw the Ramones play live—at a little club in Delaware with sweating walls—three or four nimrods with Nazi accoutrements dominated the pit. They seemed to have taken songs like this one a little too seriously.

    8) Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)--The Jimi Hendrix Experience
    Bliss, as Jimi channels Marvin Gaye with the same narcotic feel that would later characterize What’s Goin' On.

    9) Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)--Loretta Lynn
    Imagine the song fights if Loretta Lynn had gotten married to Merle Haggard or George Jones.

    10) Comanche--The Revels
    Red light district gutter saxophone music.

    Tell me about your last.fm superstitions, if you have any. If you don't, you can ridicule mine from your rationalist/materialist perspective, and then I'll sacrifice a chicken and kill you. Ha! Just kidding. I would never sacrifice a chicken.
  • Decades of Flowerbeds: The Top Fourteen Songs at 3:43

    Gen 12 2010, 4:52

    Note: This is a repost of a journal deleted last week by a renegade Nexus 6 spambot. The original post included some comments, but I don't know if they are ever coming back. If you want to repost anything you already said, please do.

    The question of which decade produced the best music is ultimately a matter of taste, but Simon Reynolds has come up with an interesting angle on the topic. In an essay primarily concerned with the fragmentation of popular audiences during the oughts--really part of a longer process of subgenre formation that began a long time ago--Reynolds makes a fascinating argument:

    I reckon that if you were to draw up a top 2,000 albums of every pop decade and compare them, the noughties would win: it would beat the 1990s decisively, the 1980s handsomely, and it would thrash the 1970s and 1960s. But I also reckon that if you were to compare the top 200 albums, it'd be the other way around: the 60s would narrowly beat the 70s, the 70s would slightly less narrowly beat the 80s, the 80s would decisively beat the 90s, and the 90s would leave the noughties trailing in the dust. Yeah, it's just a hunch – but it has the ring of truth. Because I think that the higher reaches of a chart of this kind demand something more than mere musical excellence: there has to be an X factor, the hard-to-define quality that you could call "importance" or "greatness".

    Reynolds is not making the lazy argument that "music was just better when I was a lad": earlier in the essay, he compares the profusion of excellent recent music as "a flowerbed choked with too many flowers." And I think he's absolutely right, at least for the first half of his claim. It's a simple structural argument: if there is a lot more music than there was before, chances are that, in raw terms, there is more high-quality music around than there used to be. That can be true even if you want to argue that the overall percentage of good music has diminished relative to the whole.

    The second half of his case moves from an implied mathematical logic to the slipperier ground of an aesthetics complicated by what might be called critical or cultural agreement. Here, I am less ready to follow his lead. Can we rely on cultural consensus to carry that much weight? Does true greatness depend on that consensus? What if we are wrong? Does a later generation of critics emerge to correct us? It's an interesting idea, and the fact that so many "best" lists resemble each other is evidence that this is how critics actually operate, reaching for consensus unconsciously. (Actually, I suspect that a Platonic ideal of any "best" list is to be both idiosyncratic enough to be interesting, and ordinary enough to maintain the critic's credibility.) There is no reason for me to think I'm any different, despite my efforts to judge each song on its merits. I doubt that can be actually done by anyone immersed in culture.

    However, I'm not so sure that "greatness" tracks as well with "importance" as Reynolds assumes. Is it not possible to be important without being great, and vice versa? The "choked flowerbed" is only a problem if you are worried about missing out on some of the prettiest flowers. That's a shame, but isn't it better to have such an abundance of beauty that no one can agree on which flower is the prettiest? I agree more with Patti Smith:

    We're in a very democratic era of rock 'n' roll. It's not an era of rock gods. You don't have the, you know, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Grace Slick -- there isn't really the pantheon of rock gods and goddesses that we had in my time. But we have something equally as interesting, and that's the fact that rock 'n' roll is really, more than ever, the people's cultural voice.

    You go on MySpace or different websites, and there's thousands and thousands and thousands of people making their own music, expressing themselves, exchanging files and deciding how they want to hear music and how they want to distribute music. Everything is changing, and I think that's fine. Rock 'n' roll was a revolutionary cultural voice that was people-based, and I think the people have taken it over.

    A Few Words, and a Little List, About the N/Oughts

    I am long out of the business of ranking albums, and there are plenty of decade-ending lists for you to peruse all over the Web. That said, here is a short chronological list of the records that meant the most to me in the past 10 years. Not necessarily the "greatest" or "most important," just the ones that sunk the deepest roots in my personal flowerbed. A few of these are from the end of the 90s, because there's no good reason to exclude them. Commenters, please feel free to add your own.

    In the Aeroplane Over the Sea--Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)
    69 Love Songs--Magnetic Fields (1999)
    Black Foliage--The Olivia Tremor Control (1999)
    Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea--PJ Harvey (2000)
    The Sophtware Slump--Grandaddy (2000)
    The Lemon of Pink--The Books (2003)
    Untrue--Burial (2007)
    Book of Bad Breaks--Thee More Shallows (2007)
    Microcastle/Weird Era Revisited--Deerhunter (2008)

    Project Index

    The Top Fourteen Songs at 3:43

    1) Plus Ones--Okkervil River
    A data point for the argument that music has not gotten worse this decade. The lyrical hook of adding one to canonical pop music numbers (100 luftballoons, 8 Chinese brothers, 17 candles, etc.) is one that I wish I would have thought of, but I would never in thousands of tries have been able to write a song this terrific using it. So in retrospect, it’s better for all of us that Will Sheff thought of it first.

    Sheff is as good as anybody at internal rhyme, and this song is full of ‘em (“no one wants to hear about your 97th tear”).

    2) Higher Ground--Stevie Wonder
    In best-decade arguments, few people ever stump for the 70s, but I remember the early 70s as an unacknowledged pinnacle of great top 40 radio. As an eight-year-old, I had no idea that stuff like this mid-career Stevie Wonder song was extraordinary, because it was on all the time. Sure, there's probably some nostalgia at work in that assessment, but just look at this list. Yeah, there’s some crap on it—just as there is in any year. And you won't have to read for very long before you find the crap, heh heh. But behold also the awesomeness, and tell me that top 40 radio in 1973 wouldn’t still be a blast to listen to.

    I mean, c’mon: Superfly! Dr. John! Cisco Kid! Little Willy! Dueling Banjos! Sly Stone!

    3) Just What I Needed--The Cars
    Along with "My Best Friend's Girl," two hits of exactly the same length back-to-back on a debut album, both deploying the same neat trick—the dry staccato plucks of rhythm guitar acting as a subtle carrier of melody. If I had to pick one--and for the purposes of this exercise, I did--it’s "Just What I Needed," because of the wonderful and unexpected way Ben Orr swoops in to sing harmony on “your hair.” That still gives me a nice blush after thirty years. Following up on a recent discussion, do these get played on classic rock stations, or are they too pop?

    4) Holiday in Cambodia--Dead Kennedys
    We remember SoCal punk as aggressively leftist and reliably anti-Reagan, but those bands didn’t have much affection for comfortable liberal pieties either. The guy in the first verse who listens to “ethnicky jazz” doesn’t strike me as a Reaganite; he’s more of a wannabe-swank Playboy Club hipster. Ultimately I suppose the politics in detail matter much less than the snide commentary on an actual genocidal regime in power contemporaneous with the release of the song, and the bracing horror-punk ride it takes you on.

    5) Go Your Own Way--Fleetwood Mac
    The titillating partner-swapping Fleetwood Mac story has been done to death. In any case I was never aware of that stuff as a preteen, hearing these songs when they were hits—so I suppose the backstory doesn’t really matter. Or at least not as much as the lovely balance between the rough electric rhythm guitar and bright mandolin, backed by a clean and insistent beat. Am I hallucinating a little bit of proto-R.E.M. in this song?

    6) Tokyo--The Books
    A song that would not have been made in the 60s because the technology to make it didn’t exist. They had tape manipulations then, to be sure, but not this precise. The technology allows us to think of different things—or rather express different things. I imagine Johns Cage and Lennon (for example) may have thought of this kind of thing, but they couldn’t do it. Critics of electronic/computer-aided music claim that it’s cold; here, snippets of conversations, announcements, and cut-up violin sound dessicated and experimental in theory, but wind up warm and human in the execution.

    7) Girl From the North Country--Bob Dylan
    Dylan and Cash, two guys who “can’t sing,” singing beautifully together in full-on croon mode. I’ve always loved the sound of Cash’s voice, and while Dylan’s croak is more hit-and-miss, his Nashville Skyline work is my favorite.

    8) Clubland--Elvis Costello & the Attractions
    I try to stay out of the discussions about who and what is under and overrated, but it seems to me that Trust is underrated even by Elvis fans. As with "Clubland," Costello's music is getting more sophisticated, but it doesn’t lose the immediacy of his early work. A few albums later he would get out of balance with some pointlessly ornate production, but this effortless complexity is hard to find fault with.

    9) Blood On The Bluegrass--Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers
    The “Natural Born Killers” of jittery, caffeinated murder ballads.

    And speaking of pointlessly ornate, I wish this band would standardize how they spell their name. It's different every record; last.fm seems to have settled on the spelling that is hardest to type.

    10) Bright Yellow Gun--Throwing Muses
    The Muses never made a great album, but their best songs are spiked sweet treasures. Yes, I know this comment is a weak addendum to a pretty good song. Sorry.

    11) Pocahontas--Johnny Cash
    Cash adds dignity to everything he sings. There is absolutely nothing psychedelic about this cover, except for the underlying psychedelia of Johnny Cash singing a song about hanging out with Pocahontas and Marlon Brando at the Astrodome. One of the best Neil Young covers.

    12) Dance On--Prince
    A good friend of mine—a bigger Prince fan than I am—said he didn’t like this song because he thought it was nothing but electronic guitar gimmicks. I guess I have a higher tolerance for electrogimmickry, especially when it is attached to such a wicked groove.

    13) 867-5309 (Jenny)--Tommy Tutone
    The 80s’ most outstanding singalong song based around a phone number.

    14) Down On The Street--The Stooges
    The missing link between Space Truckin' and Rock Music.

    So, does Reynolds have a point? Or do you lean more toward Patti Smith's hippie utopianism? Looking forward as always to your comments.
  • Lost Journal May Not Return

    Gen 8 2010, 21:00

    And if it does, it won't be quick, as detailed here.

    I have a draft of the lost journal saved, and will reconstruct it by early next week. That's a pain in the ass, but not awful, as it will merely cost time. I am more upset about losing the comments, which of course I did not save.

    If I moved this thing off site, to a private url, would ya'll still come? The conversation is the most fun part about this for me. I'm not saying that's what I am going to do, but it's now in my array of options.
  • Nerd Theory: The Top Fourteen Songs at 2:40

    Dic 11 2009, 8:36

    In both theory and practice, rock iconography has promoted a cult of "coolness": sunglasses, boots, leather, long or short hair depending on who is supposed to be offended, etc. Listening to rock is itself supposed to be a badge of coolness. It says, "We are hip. We are definitely not square. Nerds R not us."

    (For the purposes of this discussion, I am using the definitions of "nerd" and "cool" as generally understood on school playgrounds. Those archetypes are defined by superficial characteristics such as appearance, demeanor, and level of interest in things like Star Trek. Of course I know that nerds can be, and in fact quite often are, very cool, and that cool people can be, well, extremely uncool. Especially to nerds. However, whether or not a rock star is really a nice person--inside, where it counts!--is outside the scope of this discussion.)

    And yet, for a long time I noticed that almost every artistically successful or critically beloved rock band has at least one nerd as a member, usually part of the rhythm section: the Stones had Charlie Watts; the Beatles had Ringo; Spinal Tap had Derek Smalls, he of the lukewarm water mediating between the creative energies of fire and ice. But the band that literally embodies the nerd/cool balance, making it the focus of their entire image, is Cheap Trick.

    Nerds to the left of me, cool guys to the right

    Those signifiers unpack themselves, right?

    It is also just fine to have a band entirely composed of nerds. Devo is probably the archetypal version of that, but they were trying so hard to live up to the archetype that they are more like nerd superheroes than real people. For a more down-to-earth example, I prefer The Feelies.

    Boys with perpetual nervousness

    However, it is not OK to have a band with no nerds at all. If my theory is correct, that is the primary reason why critics don't like hair metal bands.

    Are you basking in our coolness yet?

    So, nerd theory seems to accurately describe a lot of rock bands, right? Not so fast. It describes a lot of old rock bands, but it starts to fall apart when you look at more recent examples. What do we make of Kurt Cobain? Beck? Stephen Malkmus? Billy Corgan? Rivers Cuomo? All these guys are at least somewhat nerdy by the traditional definition, but they also seem kind of cool in a way that Ringo Starr is not. Moreover, these somewhat-nerdy guys are FRONTMEN, not drummers. The original nerdidity of rock has given way to a glorious nerdaciousness. How can this be explained?

    Well, I'll tell you how. At some point in the early 90s, traditional coolness suffered a sudden devaluation, and nerdiness was ready to leap into that cultural void. Rock critics often mistake this shift for the triumph of grunge, or punk, but it had less to do with a specific musical style than with a change in the cultural zeitgeist. Rock music didn't suddenly embrace nerds because it grew up; it embraced nerds because the larger culture suddenly found them cool. And nerds accrued their cultural cachet because of Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, and their armies of nerds working tirelessly on nerdy little gadgets that everybody thought were really cool. Hence, Belle and Sebastian.

    Project Index

    The Top Fourteen Songs at 2:40

    Extremely tough group to rank this time--lots of very high quality stuff did not make the list, and the top five or so seem like obvious #1s in most contexts.

    1) These Boots Are Made for Walkin'--Nancy Sinatra
    One of my most beloved songs period, at any length. When I feel a song like this, it’s hard to say anything intelligent about it, but I’ll try: Nancy’s version is the shit, of course, but Hazlewood’s songwriting is durable enough to support interpretation in a variety of genres without losing the song’s essential attitude. Ah, who am I kidding? This is what is important to know: That part at the end, when she says, “Are you ready, boots? Start walkin’”? And then the horns kick in? Man, I love that.

    2) Johnny B. Goode--Chuck Berry
    Chuck’s guitar is a clear and compelling articulation of rock n’ roll value system—perhaps all the justification it needs--and his most famous song is deservedly of monumental influence.

    3) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction--Devo
    Always on short lists of “greatest covers,” and useful shorthand for describing the complete reimagining of a song from the foundation up. Over the years Devo’s nerdacious science-project deconstruction of the Stones has become familiar, but it is still absolutely amazing.

    4) Friday on My Mind--The Easybeats
    According to Australians, it's the best Australian song of all time. I'm inclined to trust their judgment on this one, but the list is obviously faulty, as it contains no Radio Birdman.

    5) Ever Fallen in Love--Buzzcocks
    One of the great “new wave” singles of the late 70s was little-heard in the U.S. This kind of tuneful guitar pop had fallen out of favor since the 60s, and hadn’t been played this fast and ferocious even then.

    6) Shake Shake Shake--White Denim
    Perhaps a variant of gutter jazz, but with almost everything but the riffing discarded, then sped way up and translated into a garage rock idiom with extra shouting. Extremely fun.

    7) Annie Had A Baby--Hank Ballard & the Midnighters
    I like this considerably more than “Work With Me Annie,” which is the more famous and controversial of this pair. The earlier song is more famous because “Work With Me” is about having sex, which is dirty, and “Annie Had a Baby” is about not having sex, which is not dirty, and thus presumably suitable for the tender ears of teenagers.

    There was a tremendous amount of rather obscure R&B and garage rock that almost made this list: Levitation; If You Took A Survey; Garden of Four Trees; lots more. A mix of just those 2:40 songs would be extremely kick-ass.

    8) Non Stop Girls--Radio Birdman
    Perhaps this lightning-riff song is the one that the Aussie committee could have selected to include on their list. Or any one of another dozen of their best; I’m not picky. They’re all great.

    9) Don't Set Me Free--Ray Charles
    An exemplar of how deep Ray’s catalog is. Most casual fans don’t know this song, but it’s 96% as good as his more famous tracks. And yes, I did calculate that, thanks for asking.

    10) Wild Thing--The Troggs
    Like “Born to Be Wild,” this classic has been almost ruined by overexposure, and in particular, the use of it in films and TV to accompany footage of stuff like babies getting crazy, or to ironically comment on the uncharacteristic mildly assertive behavior of very timid people. To the point where I almost hate it. But all that crap isn’t the song’s fault.

    11) The Living End--Bongwater
    Heavy, chilling apocalyptica that merges the playfulness of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd with the moroseness of Roger Waters-era Pink Floyd.

    12) Too Drunk to Fuck--Dead Kennedys
    Punk expressed impolite truths that the rock establishment--known for its cool born-to-be-wildness--was ironically too conservative to notice. Here, the DKs bulldoze the fiction that rock musicians had a right—no, an obligation—to careen through their lives drunk.

    13) A Question Of Temperature--The Balloon Farm
    Almost Dr. Demento-level weird, but underneath the trying-too-hard-to-be odd production is an actual good garage rock song.

    14) Malcolm's X-Ray Picnic--Number One Cup
    There were a lot of post-Pavement/post-Pixies bands around in the mid-90s that sounded pretty much like this (nice melody, weirdly distorted guitar, faux girl-group backing vocals), but not many came up with a song this good.

    Sound off, nerd nation! You may do so by using your computer to connect to the Internet.
  • To Make Infinity Comprehensible: The Top Twelve Songs at 4:23

    Nov 21 2009, 7:15

    Umberto Eco:

    "The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order -- not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists -- the shopping list, the will, the menu -- that are also cultural achievements in their own right."

    And you thought I was just making lists! Hell, no. This is a cultural achievement.

    Project Index

    The Top Twelve Songs at 4:23

    1) Bang A Gong (Get It On)--T. Rex
    A genuine and unsentimental hippie love song with interesting lyrics that also rocks. Hard to pull all of that off. And also a list, which resonates with the theme and kind of broke a tie here. This is a pretty strong group, but none of these songs strikes me as really a #1; any of the top six could have gone here, but they all feel like #2s and #3s to me.

    2) Bambi--Prince
    Coming in second, Prince writes a T. Rex song, only hotter. This might have been a hit in the early 70s, if radio could have handled the overt sexuality.

    3) Pilgrimage--R.E.M.
    Emotional rather than sonic dynamics: downbeat, weary verses set free by a liberating, triumphant chorus that inspires instead of preaches. All the more amazing in that the “official” recording is a demo; in the early 80s, R.E.M. was blessed with a generational magic.

    4) I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Niga--Public Enemy
    PE gets all Bill Cosby about the casual use of that word, in a direct rebuke to their fans and in particular to other black rappers. It is still a little shocking. I like that Flavor Flav brings a note of good-humored exasperation to it; Chuck D. would have sounded too Old Testament.

    Two questions: first, does anyone know what the blues guitar sample is (because it rules)? Wikipedia lists it as Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” but I don’t know the song, so I can’t verify. Second, would it be possible for a white band to cover this song and be celebrated for it? If that happened, what would the cultural reaction say about the state of racial issues? I don't think this song has ever been covered, but I could be wrong.

    5) Version City--The Clash
    One of the most often overlooked songs on Sandinista!, this dub-flavored blues is one of my favorites on the album. When The Clash spread their wings, they weren’t just trying different genres out, they were actively creating new ones.

    6) Nude as the News--Cat Power
    Hypnotic, low-key menace, giving me the jim-jams under my skin but I can’t say why. The chords and song construction strongly remind me of Pavement, but I can't imagine Malkmus singing this.

    7) Where Is My Mind?--The Blue Ribbon Glee Club
    Some might call this a capella choir rendition a novelty cover, but it is beautiful in its own right. Ambient conversations give rise to a tune, as if a musical broke out unexpectedly at a board meeting--or a party. Throughout, people keep talking, laughing, drawing attention to the frayed edges of the melody. Where does the “song” stop and the “background noise” begin?

    (If you need this--and you already know, based on the description, if you do--I will be happy to send it on to you. I imagine it is hard to find.)

    8) Word Up--Cameo
    One of the most popular of P-Funk’s children, and also an example of how a long cooling-off period can reinvigorate a tired song. Back in the era of its ubiquity, I never worked up an actual hatred for it, but it signified “stupid party” to me. These of course were no stupider than the parties I liked to go to, but I didn’t know that then.

    9) Civil War Correspondent--John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey
    Like a choice wounded mood outtake from To Bring You My Love; it is strong praise to say that it would have improved that already strong album.

    10) Twilight at Carbon Lake--Deerhunter
    Doo-wop filtered through a dark David Lynchian glass, rising to a dense shoegazey climax.

    11) I Thought You Were My Boyfriend--The Magnetic Fields
    Tight pop craftsmanship with tension-building verses and an earworm chorus. Like so many other Stephin Merritt songs, the subtext undermines the literal sentiments; if he’s got nine other guys he would settle for, can this really be love? The bridge hints at the pleasures involved in either being unfaithful or not having a boyfriend at all; he seems more upset about his wounded pride. I think there is also a joke about the stereotype of hyper-promiscuous gay men; suffice to say that the song has many levels.

    12) No Surprize--Aerosmith
    Slick, highly-produced rock that retains its raggedness in a way entirely different from today’s slick, highly-produced post-grunge music. Just a souped-up Chuck Berry riff; outside of AC/DC, as raw a guitar sound as you could find at the time from a stadium band with pop aspirations. Yes, Aerosmith was soon to fully realize those pop aspirations, and at the same time begin to suck.

    So...does this help at all, or is infinity still baffling to you? I will keep trying.

  • Sweet Spots and Down Times: The Top Ten Songs from 5:43 to 5:46

    Nov 9 2009, 8:45

    As I have gotten further into this project, a disturbing--or maybe just curious--thing has become more and more apparent. I've been trying to hit a wide range of times, short, long, and in between, to get a wide variety of things to talk about, and also to avoid exhausting the "sweet spot" times in the 2s and 3s, leaving some of those for later on.

    But here's the thing: WHY do I think of those as "sweet spot" times? Where is this sweetness located? In the length of the songs, or in my head?

    If you look at the Index, you'll see that while I've made a game effort to spread out, the 3-minute times are filling in a lot quicker than anything else. In some ways, that's to be expected--there are a lot more songs at those lengths than there are shorter or longer--but I mitigate that by grabbing larger chunks of time for those lists, as I have today. Still, song quality (as perceived by me) seems to gradually decline beginning at about the 4 minute mark: a random group of ten songs from 3:22 is likely to be much stronger than a random group of ten songs from 4:22. Does that indicate merely a preference for shorter songs—a shorter attention span—or does it say anything about genre preference? An impatience with more ambitious structures, or a low tolerance for self-indulgence?

    We think of taste as defined by genre, but what if another vector of taste is song length? I think of my taste as eclectic and adventurous, but what if I am really stubbornly, conservatively wedded to pop song lengths?

    Do you have sweet spots? Down times? Look at your library and let me know if you share my affliction.

    (Just in case you’re wondering, I do like all of these songs, and I think this is a good list. But the candidate list wasn’t nearly as deep as some of the shorter lengths.)

    The Top Ten Songs from 5:43 to 5:46

    1) Ocean--The Velvet Underground
    Majestic. Many VU songs are like dirty little black and white photographs with a thumb-sized faded spot in the lower left corner; this one is epic, widescreen Panavision. "Ruler of filthy seas" is as good as any descriptor of the band.

    If you're counting (and if you spend a lot of time on last.fm, then let's face, you are definitely counting), this is the third VU track to top a list. Impressive, and a little surprising, to me anyway.

    2) Flash Light--Parliament
    You know how people talk about “tasteful riffs”? The Moog bassline is the opposite of that. It is defiantly not tasteful, completely OUT THERE in its own bizarre universe, which is what makes this song so memorable. Don't check out at the first fade; there's a psychedelic gospel coda waiting for you.

    3) Pico--Labradford
    A baroque desert, like tincture of Calexico; stark, desolate, and utterly infectious: "post-rock" with "hooks." Plus, "Pico Labradford" would be a pretty slammin' porn star name.

    4) Tension Envelopes--namelessnumberheadman
    Surfy then floaty, or driving then wistful, but only bordering both feelings, or meta-referencing them; I think it's the mix of electronic and acoustic elements that creates that quality of seeming to inhabit the feeling in an authentic, emotional way at the same time as being outside of it.

    5) The Killing Moon--Echo & the Bunnymen
    Immediately evocative of the mid-80s. A quarter-century later, what strikes me about this big 80s sound is how Percy Shelley, capital-R Romantic it is. I can't remember if it seemed that way in my youth, because almost everything seemed that way at the time.

    6) Powderfinger--Neil Young & Crazy Horse
    An enigmatic short story, sung from the perspective of a ghost.

    7) My Old School--Steely Dan
    Steely Dan lyrics are like little puzzles; clever but potentially exasperating. The most interesting thing to me about Steely Dan, and this song in particular, is how they can make a catchy, hook-laden pop hit--the kind people sing along to in bars--out of words that flaunt their obtuseness. Part of it is their penchant for employing words that have interesting meter: the way "Annandale" rolls off the tongue, or the way "William & Mary" and "Guadalajara" mirror each other, as do "oleander" and "California."

    8) Green Arrow--Yo La Tengo
    Extremely slow surf music with crickets, which turns out to be far better than one might think.

    9) Leaving The Barren Ground--Joseph Childress
    Recorded inside an empty water tower, with fantastic natural acoustics, transforming an earnest folk song into something more monumental; the echoey bass percussion of the water tower’s walls a giant clock of doom.

    10) Sultans of Swing--Dire Straits
    Really nice chord changes, which are more impressive to me than the technically flashy but kind of wanky guitar solo.

    And, here's my favorite part: hitting the "post" button.