Wednesday, August 31, 2011

5 Best Songs of All Time

I used to have this notion that the five best songs of all time were all written and released by alternative bands from the UK in the 1980's. I have since hired a team of engineers to run a series of tests and can now say fairly conclusively that this is a proven theorem. That's right theorem. Okay, full disclosure.  I am actually reading Dawkins right now. I still really do not understand the difference between "theory" and "theorum," but this prelude was a good reason to drop both into text and now I have not only name dropped a prominent atheist scientist completely out of context, but also essentially buggered up a blog title which otherwise was probably interest tweaking enough to stand on its own.

So yeah, the title and the subsequent tests are accurate. This builds on previous blogs where I rage at length about overplayed classic Skynyrd Zep type rock and once again pontificate to the effect that music really became interesting in 1977 when The Clash and Talking Heads released their respective debut albums. There is a whole other discussion or debate one could have with respect to the 80's as a musical decade. Very quickly, it quite possibly represents extreme cases for both some of the best and worst music ever released. Joy Divison and Richard Marx in the same decade. Try doing the math. It's a bit bonkers.

The music you listen to in late Jr. High and running into High School  is often the basis for the direction of your taste. There is a natural refinement that happens in university or the early twenties, but the path is set in High School. If you were a big Staind or Puddle of Mudd fan in grade 11, you're pretty much toast. Pure music nerds cut their teeth on good music much earlier (I was listening to Simple Minds when I was in grade 5 in 1982),  but that is also another blog pending.

Metal fans (of which I was one during the same years I was listening to the bands I am about to list) will always refer to the Big 4. This of course being Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax. I submit, likely not as a brand new idea, that the real Big 4 of music in general are The Smiths, New Order, The Cure, and Depeche Mode. I want to spend the balance of the post on the songs, but to me these four bands (and one of the band's original line ups) created truly unique sounds and ideas that had not really been heard or explored quite the same prior to them arriving and evolving into their optimal influential selves.

The 5 Best Songs Ever
(in no strict order and titles are You Tube clips due to pesky copyright embedding stuff).

Joy Division - "Love Will Tear Us Apart"

This one I will not dwell on, given my previous declaration on this very blog here that it is essentially the greatest song ever written.  It still is for all the reasons noted and likely others. I will however, at least offer an alternate version and clip this time.

So much cross audience appeal in one song.  The minor chords and offbeat percussive bits offer the goth and industrial DM fans the haunting feel they were missing since earlier works like Black Celebration. The beats, synths and hooks were on point for text book dancey Mode fans. The texture of the guitar work juxtaposed with some of Dave's smoothest and most heartfelt vocal work lends credibility to the sincerity and human-ness that perhaps has not been heard since in electronic based music. Like all of the songs on this list, "Enjoy The Silence" not only holds up well, but in retrospect was also never previously or subsequently matched in its perhaps accidental originality and comfortable slickness.

The Smiths were not my favourite band when they were making and releasing music for that brief period in the 80's. I am not sure who even was my favourite band at that time (I want to say Rush, but maybe I shouldn't) and I am also not sure when The Smiths took the title, but they remain my favourite band today without question. So many choices for what in fact qualifies as the best Smiths song, so by arriving on this one, it is safe to say it belongs in this list handily. The Smiths sound common to a lot of people, largely I think because they have been borrowed from and ripped off so many times. It was also a pretty basic equation with guitar, vocals, bass and drums all centred around seemingly simple jingle jangle pop songs. "There Is A Light..." embodies everything perfect about clever, witty, cheeky, melancholy, and endearingly simplistic pop music. When Morrissey sings "If a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die", I believe him. There are hardly a handful of artists currently writing songs with the audacity not only to write words like that, but to mean it. Layer that on top of Marr's signature I dare anyone to say they could write a better song.

Deserving of top five best ever, but also worthy of the most beautiful song I have ever heard. Smith's lyrics and delivery are in keeping with that heartfelt theme of the other tracks on this list, but the combination of sounds lend hope to his inherent sadness. Even the opening chimes somehow signal a story of retrospective contemplation. The combination of guitar hooks in the opening bars are undeniably the work of The Cure, and the shift at opening vocals to brighter chords cloak the larger theme of regret in clouds of optimism tempered with what ifs. A beautiful song that always sounds like far more musicians should have been involved in both its composition and performance.

There was a level of objectivity and respecting this whole exercise with this choice, since I am not entirely sure this is my favourite New Order song (most days it could be). Depeche Mode changed the way electronic music was made and performed live. New Order revolutionized those elements as well as how it was heard and integrated into other sounds and genres. "Blue Monday" epitomizes the apex of where electronic music was able to get to and the focal point for where it went and how it was influential. Indie music (this used to mean bands on independent labels - now it just means... well ... alternative... I guess) has expanded in the last number of years to really showcase electro pop bands like Cut Copy, Hot Chip, Zoot Woman, and Junior Boys. There is not one of these bands or their countless counterparts who don't owe much of their raison d'etre to "Blue Monday" specifically. Handily the most influential electronic song ever, and still wonderful for shaking so much ass if you're inclined.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rap is not pop. If you call it that then stop.

In the immortal words of Q-Tip, this heading seems to have potentially fallen on deaf ears somewhere along the way for a lot of people. For all my musical grand standing and occasional knowledge parading, I never feel properly equipped to pontificate about the state of hip-hop's past present or future. There is something about being a near 40 year old white dude that makes it feel a bit poserish to profess any level of authority or proficiency with respect to hip-hop, even as a well versed, cross genre competent, music nerd obsessive.

Then I saw this recently....


There is always a risk, particularly when discussing hip-hop, of coming across as the old guy who just "doesn't get it".  Feeling pretty safe here however, in saying that this foolishness represents not only everything that is wrong with contemporary hip-hop, but perhaps music in general. 

Somewhere along the way, hip-hop artists and music nerds very quietly decided to become part of the same club (hair metal still doesn't get to be in the club by the way), but rap evolved from a sub genre and actually almost became the vehicle for a danger and daring that was long since lacking in traditional rock & roll music. I have huge respect for the pioneers like Run Dmc, but let's be honest. The beats and rhymes are slow and other than fond memories, hip-hop has come so far as to almost render early 80's and prior rap music virtually un-listenable. Try listening to "Freaks Come Out At Night" by Whodini and ask yourself if it holds up.


What does hold up is most Golden Age era hip-hop and the current rhyme based music that it inspired. I would loosely pinpoint the era as late 80's through early 90's. There was a tremendous cross section of styles even within this period, ranging from political militant right through to the party fun stuff. The common theme through it all though, was a a level of care and respect for craft. There was a level of experimentation and obsession with skill development that seems long since relegated to independent or sub-mainstream hip-hop. In fairness, hip-hop as a result of its evolution, is sometimes held to a higher standard by music nerds, for always needing to say something interesting. Just because 50 Cent was shot in the face, does not mean he has anything interesting to say.  It just means he's very marketable. On the flip side, because KRS and Chuck D had lots of interesting things to say, should a whole genre be held to a similar standard? Probably not. It would be nice though.


I would love to know what The Roots think when they see a video like "Racks". The opening line from LL Cool J's "Bad" is "no rapper can rap quite like I can". Do these cats even care about being the best? When people referred to (and still do refer to) Rakim as the greatest MC of all time, it seemed like the kind of title a guy wanted to hold onto, so you would keep finding new things to rhyme about in interesting ways. Making a video where you're firing bills around with no skills at all would be damaging to your cred and the crown. 


There is an irony that bragging and chest pumping now resides in crappy mainstream hip-hop, and is less prevalent in clever and relevant contemporary hip-hop. I have no issue with well placed non-contrived profanity in music, but what if you could make a slick hip-hop recording, loaded with word skill, crazy hooks, interesting beats and all without one f-bomb or the need to release "clean versions" of tracks, along with lyrics that are respectful to women. Wait... a Canadian hip-hop artist did that last year....


Like all modern mainstream music now, a sub-par offering is the reality for what a volume based hip-hop audience can expect. Gone are the days of the Much Music or MTV video charts showcasing artists like or influenced by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Gang Starr, Public Enemy, Mos Def, Pharaohe Monch, Eric B & Rakim etc etc. The arseholes in the Racks video get to continue behaving like arseholes and being artistically bankrupt largely because a lot of young white dudes like music about cash, bad booze, bad dental work and mysogyny. It's good business, but it's bad art.

Good news ... there are cats out there making a lot less money still "get it".

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Heavy Fives - Week of August 15, 2011

Last week was catching up to reflect on the best of 2011 so far. This week it's time to catch up on some albums that slipped past along the way this year.  Five recordings in reasonably heavy current rotation.

Dog Day - Deformer

Thievery Corporation - Culture of Fear

Maritime - Human Hearts

Miracle Fortress - Was I The Wave?

Holy Ghost! - Holy Ghost!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pulse Check - 20 Best Albums of 2011... (So Far)

So it felt like it was time to take stock of the musical year that has been thus far and try to make some sense of what does not suck. All mid stream music nerd lists are subject to change, so I reserve the right to turn up the suck for any of the noted 20 best from 2011, seven months in so far.

In no particular order, because I will just hate the ordering two minutes after it's done anyway.

The Horror The Horror - Wilderness

Battles  - Gloss Drop

Frankie & The Heartstrings - Hunger

The Pains Of being Pure At Heart - Belong

Army Navy - Last Place

Cold Cave - Cherish The Light Years

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Panda Bear - Tomboy

Wild Beasts - Smother

Cut/Copy - Zonoscope

The Horrors - Skying

Junior Boys - It's All True

Elbow - build a rocket boys!

Pharoahe Monche - W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)

Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

Telekinesis! - 12 Desperate Straight Lines

Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Toro Y Moi - Underneath The Pine

The Dears - Degeneration Street