Monday, December 26, 2011

American Wolf’s The Best of 2011

Best Movie: Super 8

A love-letter to Steven Spielberg’s late-’70s/early-’80s us-against-them, kid-featured supernatural adventure thrillers that we all grew up with (think: The Goonies, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and in its own way, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Spielberg now serves as executive producer for writer/director J.J. Abrams, who shrewdly sets his Super 8 in the late-’70s to mirror his own youth spent making Super 8 films (the teenage Abrams was so proficient in the medium that he was called in to help restore the early Super 8 films made by Spielberg, who was then enjoying his commercial breakthrough as a major film director). The combination of Abrams’ own youthful filmmaking and the Spielberg movies that inspired him power this tale, about a group of young teenage kids who accidentally witness (and film) a supernatural event while making their own zombie movie on a handheld Super 8, with a rare passion and attention to detail. But make no mistake – this is no tween-friendly Disney utopia; in this movie, kids swear, show hormonal lust, and are poor – in other words, they act like real kids. Seeing the film reach its exciting ragtag kids-against-the government climax, I began to wonder if I would see a better film all year. And then, as I watched a full cut of the kids’ Super 8-filmed zombie during the closing credits, I knew that I wouldn’t. In these moments, Super 8 outdid its influences and subject-matter to become a film about the joy of making film.

Best Television Show: Parks & Recreation

In a year that often felt like an endless parade of everything wrong with American government came a television show about everything right about American government – the fictional small town of Pawnee, Indiana, in which the pro-big government, liberal deputy director of parks and recreation, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), works under the antigovernment, libertarian parks director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). The show’s central joke – that is, even though she is below him, Leslie effectively runs the entire department because Ron favors a hands-off, non-approach to government – could have worn out long ago had it not become a portrait of two people with very different political perspectives checking their egos and ideologies at the door when it comes to what’s best for their town and friendship. It also doesn’t hurt that they are rounded out by the finest ensemble cast on television, with scene-stealers like dim-witted shoeshine-boy/man-child Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), life-loathing, deadpan intern-turned-secretary April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), and overzealous, entrepreneurial super-striver Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari). (You know a cast is superb when actors as fine as Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe fail to make a stream-of-conscious shortlist.) All of these characters stand united behind Leslie, who in turn works hard to ensure that the government does its best to serve the people it represents. And how many real-life governmental organizations can you say that about?

Best Album: 21 by Adele

Throughout human history, suffering has driven artists to some of their finest achievements. Pop music is no exception – out of the Beatles’ bickering came Abbey Road, out of Bob Dylan’s wrecked marriage came Blood on the Tracks, out of Bruce Springsteen’s almost being dropped by his label came Born to Run, out of Fleetwood Mac’s stormy inter-band relationships came Rumours, out of U2’s near-breakup came Achtung, Baby. And add to that list out of Adele’s heart getting broken by her first true love came 21. Adele had gotten a lot of attention for her debut album 19, which was fine, but not earth-shattering; she seemed to get nearly as much attention about her fuller (i.e., not a stick) figure as she did about her ability to write a killer pop song and deliver it with a hard-earned, whiskey-soaked croon that sounded like everything that Norah Jones was supposed to sound like but never quite did. A few years and one breakup later, she delivered 21, which marks her arrival as a major recording artist. From the pop-soul explosion of opener “Rolling in the Deep,” with a soulful funk that was equal parts Carole King and Aretha Franklin, through the somber piano closer “Someone Like You,” 21 was the rare album that you simply could not get sick of, an album in which every song could have been a single. As a result, it is also that even rarer album that was both the finest and most popular album of the year – perhaps the best example of this we’ve seen since Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Best Song: “Being a Mockingbird” by Bobby Long

2011 was a good year to be a British singer-songwriter with a deep soul and American sensibilities. While Adele ruled the pop airwaves with a broken heart and an unbroken resolve from the moment 21 came out in late January, Bobby Long’s debut for ATO Records, A Winter Tale, slipped by unnoticed one week later. Like Adele’s first album, it was a perfectly fine (if not terribly memorable) debut that placed him squarely in the postmodern folk-realm like a British Josh Ritter. However, towards the end of the album, came its finest (and shortest) song, “Being a Mockingbird,” a lilting waltz that channels both Elliott Smith and Woody Guthrie, with a lyrical assist from Bob Dylan (how else to explain the cryptically perfect opening line “And the night, it rests like a hammer-blow” – which plays like the offspring of Dylan’s own “The wind howls like a hammer”?). What makes the song go from great to transcendent is the female voice that joins in on the choruses with a counter-harmony that is almost heartbreaking in its beauty; I’d go so far to say that this is the finest guest female vocal on a song since Monica Queen popped up on the title track of Belle and Sebastian’s 1997 EP Lazy Line Painter Jane. I just wish I could figure out who the female singer on Long’s song is – there are at least three female vocalists listed in the credits of A Winter Tale, among them Nona Hendryx, one-third of the disco-pop group Labelle – but I can’t seem to get to first base on this one. But in the end it doesn’t matter – between Long’s lyrics, the female singer’s harmonies, and the rich-yet-simple folk instrumentation, “Being a Mockingbird” is the kind of song that feels so timeless it defies the laws of memory and order, a piece of music so instantly-familiar it seems impossible that there was ever a time in which it didn’t exist.

Best Book: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

I have not read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Like Isaacson, I rarely spend my time with contemporary figures, preferring the relative safety of historical figures who have long since proven their worth. At least, this is what Isaacson implies in his lovely obituary for Jobs in Time Magazine, in which he describes how he originally turned down Jobs’ offer to write a definitive biography of him, saying that he only worked in the realm of historically great minds like Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. But Jobs eventually wore him down, and the result is a rare feat – the finest living American biographer given full reign to the life of perhaps the most influential living American, right up to and through his young death. (In this light, the only document that comes close to Isaacson’s biography is Alex Haley’s legendary “autobiography” of Malcolm X.) But as I watched on Christmas Day as three generations of family gathered around the children’s new iPad presents with all of the idealized spirit and wonder of a Norman Rockwell painting, I began to think about just how much one man can – and did – alter the way we live in the world. For this reason, I plan to read Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I’m just probably going to read his biography on Benjamin Franklin first.

Best Broadway Show: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

The Actor Formally Known As Harry Potter made a name for himself as plain-old Daniel Radcliffe as he anchored a sly, Mad Men-influenced revival of this classic Broadway musical. It’s said that he spent endless hours perfecting his American accent, and it shows – he has gotten to the point where he sounds so completely and off-handedly American that one of the show’s most thrilling moments came after the musical had ended, when Radcliffe came onstage to promote a benefit charity in his native-born accent. Turning to co-star John Larroquette to continue the pitch, Larroquette looks at him with utter shock and says, “You’re British?!” It was the flawless timing of moments like this that made John Larroquette the real star of the show, at least for me. I had grown up watching him on Night Court, pitied his misuse on The John Larroquette Show, welcomed his return-to-form on The West Wing and Boston Legal, and now found him as hilarious and charming as ever in this, his Broadway debut, for which he would go on to earn a Drama Desk Award and a Tony. The show may have been Radcliffe’s breakthrough – and indeed, it was a major reason for him winning the title of Entertainment Weekly’s Entertainer of the Year – but it was Larroquette’s career apex.

Best Reissue: The Centennial Collection by Robert Johnson

There was a secret about Robert Johnson’s platinum-selling, Grammy-winning, National Registry-making 1990 double-disc breakthrough The Complete Recordings: It was no fun to listen to. The compilers went for historical accuracy over listenability and put all of the songs in strict chronological order, which meant that for many of Johnson’s songs, a near-identical alternate take played after them. To mark what would have been Johnson’s 100th birthday earlier this year, Sony Legacy overhauled The Complete Recordings as The Centennial Collection, putting the songs from his first sessions in 1936 (16 masters followed by 6 alternate takes) on the first disc and the songs from his second sessions in 1937 (13 masters followed by 7 alternate takes) on the second. Also added was an alternate take of “Traveling Riverside Blues” that had been discovered after The Complete Recordings had been issued. Just as welcome as the new running order is the new sound. Robert Johnson has never sounded so clear, so immediate, and so full. He jumps to life like he never did on the comparatively flat sound of The Complete Recordings, while containing a minimal amount of hiss found on his more robust-but-scratchy vinyl reissues. Throw in newly updated liner notes and information about the master records’ history and remastering, and you have an anthology worthy of its legendary subject.

And One Final Year-End Shout-Out: Frank Buckles (1901 – 2011)

On February 27, 2011, Frank Buckles, the last known living American World War I veteran of the one million “Doughboys” who fought in the war, died at the age of 110 years and 26 days. With him went America’s final surviving link to the Great War, an event of cataclysmic importance and influence that has been overshadowed by the more immediate World War II. His final years were spent raising awareness for World War I (and its long-neglected 1931 memorial on the National Mall), an event that was once known as “The War to End All Wars.” Born a little over six months before President Theodore Roosevelt took office, his funeral was attended by President Barack Obama. If that isn’t an epic life, I’ll never know it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Beach Boys’ “Smile”: Unfinished Symphony

As far as I can tell, one of the biggest events in popular music this year (or most years) went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media: The Beach Boys finally released the album Smile, nearly 45 years after its original due date.

Part of the reason for this event’s lack of attention is because time and Smile-related projects has dulled the album’s mystique over the years. Originally begun by the Beach Boys’ creative leader, Brian Wilson, as an attempt to outdo the Beatles’ Revolver (and eventually, Sgt. Pepper) as well as his own band’s innovative “Good Vibrations” single, the mounting creative and commercial pressures combined with his own psychological frailness and psychedelic drug intake caused Wilson to retreat into his own mad, mad world. He had set out to make what he once called “a teenage symphony to God,” but got lost in the terrain he was trying to map. After a year and a half of missed deadlines and incomplete song structures, the album was abandoned in late 1967. Wilson declared that he had destroyed the tapes containing the album and that it would be lost forever.

Only it wasn’t. Just after the Smile project was abandoned, songs from its sessions began finding their way out into the world on the Beach Boys’ albums – sometimes with new backing or lead tracks, sometimes largely unaltered. And then, in 1993, the Beach Boys released a thirtieth anniversary box set that contained a half hour of music straight from the Smile sessions. A little over a decade later, Brian Wilson teamed up with original Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks and members of the power-pop group the Wondermints to complete the album as Brian Wilson Presents Smile in 2004. The album consisted of entirely newly re-recorded versions of all of the songs, but they were largely based on original Smile session material, which had been circulating among bootleggers for years. And Brian Wilson played a brilliant international tour in which he performed Smile live with the Wondermints backing him up, and it looked as though a chapter of the Beach Boys’ discography was finished.

And that’s how things stood until earlier this year, when Capitol Records announced they were releasing a finished version of the Beach Boys’ Smile – as part of the build-up to the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary reunion tour in 2012 – consisting only of the original session material that been declared lost so many years ago.

Given Smile’s legendary reputation as an unfinished lost album, it is often forgotten how close the album was to being finished. When I first heard Brian Wilson’s 2004 “completed” version, I was shocked to hear how little of it was actually new based on the recordings I had heard on bootleg albums. Part of the reason why Wilson was able to pull off the “completed” Smile was because he had already done the vast majority of the hard work some 40 years earlier.

So why should we care that, after the project was abandoned and its chief architect reconstructed and finished it, Smile now exists in its original Beach Boys recordings – unfinished, unpolished, and less unified?

Because the key to Smile’s power lays in the fact that it has always been unfinished. No amount of remodeling or varnish can alter its inherently incomplete state; it is, like the land that it comes from, an unfinished country. To declare an ending point would be a false gesture – to leave it open is to leave it free.

And what an open country it is!

I cannot think of any popular music artifact that provides such a complete picture of America. The only thing that comes close is the Band’s self-titled “Brown Album,” but that sounds like an old sepia-toned photograph compared to Smile’s Technicolor production. In Smile’s majestic sweep, one can find an epic landscape.

Wordless a cappella hymns turn into old doo-wop records; showgirls dance in the cantina while heroes and villains face off in a Spanish and Indian old western town; Plymouth Rock rocks and rolls over; the mystical, sparkling chimes of the bicycle rider cruise through the savage church of the American Indian; farm animals sing an animal symphony in the barnyard while the cooks chops lumber; the plunking banjo of a quiet home on the range gives way to the onslaught of the charging iron horse; atmospheric romantic music dissolves into the clattering hammers and buzzing saws of a woodworker’s shop; vegetables are harvested, celebrated, chomped, and carted off for sale; Mrs. O’Leary’s cow starts the Great Chicago Fire in a blaze of chaos and wonder before getting extinguished by sweet pools of cool water; and in the end, everything turns into good, good vibrations.

The music is as varied as the subject matter, as single voices and instruments unleash some of the thickest, densest sounds I have ever heard – all of the muddled excitement of a Phil Spector record combined with the muddy grit of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. This is what has been missing from all previous releases and remakes of the Smile material – the thick, dense sound that plays like the musical equivalent of the Big Muddy.

And like that waterway, there is much about the record that is unclear, unpolished, unrefined, and at times, seemingly directionless. There are words that get buried in sound and sound that fails to yield any words to shed light on them. At its messy, muddy root, it plays like an incomplete experiment.

But then again, so is the country it documents. As a nation and as an idea, America is an unfinished country, our forefathers brilliantly placing the power of change and amendment directly into the fiber of our governing Constitution. The major events of our history come from unfinished business – the Civil War emerging from the “peculiar institution” of slavery, World War II emerging from the unsettled alliances of World War I, the Civil Rights movement emerging from the broken promises of Reconstruction – and many of our greatest heroes – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, to name but four – lived unfinished lives. Some compare America to a tapestry, but if that’s the case, it’s a tapestry that’s only partly finished, with strands that are just as likely to fray apart as they are to weave together.

And Smile plays as its national anthem.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Do-It-Yourself Seasonal Update Letter

We’ve been getting a crazy amount of seasonal update letters this year. They are all pretty personalized and involved and go far beyond the amount of information given by our home this year (which usually consists of that we hope they enjoy a happy holidays and that our card has been sent with love).

But ’tis the season of giving, and with that in mind, I am creating a do-it-yourself seasonal update letter that can be used for next year and for every year afterwards.

You don’t have to thank me, I am happy to give this out to everyone.

Until I copyright it later this week. Then I expect royalties.

Dear [Plural Noun],

We hope you’re having a(n) [Non-Offensive “Seasonal” Adjective] season. We can’t believe that [National Holiday] is here again already! It’s been such a(n) [Blandly Positive Adjective] year, one filled with many happy [Generic Plural Noun] and exciting [Less-Generic Plural Noun].

I have been quite busy with my position as [Over-Inflated Noun] at [Proper Noun]. I worked hard to move from [Somewhat Impressive Noun] to [More Impressive Noun], and am enjoying the position even though it brings with it an extra level of [Noun]. It’s so great to finally be [Verb]-ing [Plural Noun] after so many years of hard [Noun].

My wife has been [Adjective] balancing her work [Noun] with her home [Noun]. Her work is always [Impressive-Sounding Adjective], and yet, she never ceases to [Even More Impressive-Sounding Verb] us with her ability to also keep our house running [Super-Duper Impressive-Sounding Adverb]. We don’t know how she finds enough [Plural Noun] in the [Noun] to do it all, but we’re [Adjective] that she does!

Our oldest [Noun] is now [Number] and loves attending [Proper Name] School. His/Her [Noun] says that he/she is the [Impressive-Sounding Adjective] [Singular Noun] in the entire [Generic Noun]. He/She is also plays [Musical Instrument, Or Drums] and is having much fun with [Colorful-Sounding Hobby Substituting For Real-Life Direction]. And whenever you need to find him/her, he/she can usually be found [Verb]-ing with friends or [Verb]-ing in front of the [Household Appliance].

Our newest addition to the [Noun] was born on [Date] and was [Number] pounds but is [Non-Radioactive Verb]-ing bigger with each new [Noun]. He/she is finally [Totally Basic Verb]-ing through the [Noun] and [Totally Basic Verb]-ing solid [Plural Noun]. He/She also loves to [Slightly More Advanced Verb] his/her big brother/sister [Verb] all around and is [Slightly More Advanced Verb]-ing new things every day.

We feel so [Quasi-Spiritual Adjective] to have such a(n) [Indiscretely Modest Adjective] family and are so grateful that [Religious Spiritual Being, Or The Politically-Correct Equivalent] has brought us so much [Quasi-Spiritual Noun] and [Peacenik Noun] to our loving [Noun].

Here’s to a(n) [Adjective] [Noun] and a(n) [Adjective] New [Noun]!


The [Plural Noun]

Friday, December 16, 2011

“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”

In December 1969, a series of billboards went up in a dozen cities around the world, each with a message in the country’s native language. They read: “WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.”

In his famous extended Rolling Stone interview the following December, John Lennon was asked about the response to this peace campaign.

We got a big response. The people that got in touch with us understood what a grand event it was apart from the message itself. We got just thank yous from lots of youths around the world – for all the things we were doing – that inspired them to do something. We had a lot of response from other than pop fans, which was interesting, from all walks of life and age. If I walk down the street now I’m more liable to get talked to about peace than anything I’ve done. The first thing that happened in New York was just walking down the street and a woman just came to me and said, “Good luck with the peace thing.” That’s what goes on mainly – it’s not about “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And that was interesting – it bridged a lot of gaps.

In December of 1971, John Lennon took this message and turned it into its most durable legacy: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Lennon and Ono came to New York to record the song the previous October, enlisting the help of legendary producer Phil Spector, who contributed his signature echo, and the children of the Harlem Community Choir, who brought the famous “War is over” refrain to life. Although the song was initially not much of a hit – it failed to chart in the US and wasn’t released in the UK until the following November – it grew to become a modern Christmas classic.

Much has been written about “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” its impact, its influence, and its message, but one thing has always struck me about it that I’ve never read anywhere else: Its melody sounds to me like it was lifted from Johnny Ace’s 1954 posthumous R&B hit, “Pledging My Love.”

Although now largely forgotten, Johnny Ace was an influential rhythm and blues singer and songwriter from the early 1950s. When he is mentioned today, it’s usually in reference to his death – he shot himself in the head at the age of twenty-five while backstage at a show in Huston, Texas, on Christmas. The legend had always been that Ace died while playing Russian roulette, but firsthand sources have since contradicted this claim. Always known to fool around with guns, Ace was showing off with one as a girl in his lap, jokingly pointing the gun over here, over there, at the girl, at himself. When people told him to stop he said there was nothing to worry about – the gun was empty, he could prove it by pointing it at his own head and pulling the trigger. He was wrong.

The outpouring of grief that followed was unprecedented for a rhythm and blues singer and became the archetypal rock and roll death, complete with a massive funeral and numerous tribute records. “Pledging My Love” had been released a few weeks before his death but didn’t make an impact until after he died. The song went to number one on the R&B charts in early 1955, stayed there for ten weeks, and even crossed over to the Top 20 pop charts – one of the first rhythm and blues records to do so.

The song became a rock and roll standard, covered by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, and most eerily, as the B-side of Elvis Presley’s final single, “Way Down,” which was released before Elvis’s death but didn’t become a big hit until after he died. Sometimes “Pledging My Love” would be altered slightly, and sometimes its title would be amended or substituted with the song’s irresistible opening phrase, “Forever My Darling,” but even as the song faded into the rock and roll ether, the legend lived on.

The most familiar tribute to most modern listeners is Paul Simon’s “The Late, Great Johnny Ace,” the closing song on his 1983 album Hearts and Bones. In it, Simon uses Johnny Ace’s death to frame a song about the death of John Lennon. He sings about the night he learned John Lennon died, from a stranger on the street; the singer and the stranger go inside a bar and stay until it closes. “And every song we played,” the singer concludes, “was for the late, great Johnny Ace.”

Now, I have never been able to find a concrete connection between John Lennon and Johnny Ace outside of this Paul Simon song that neither lived to hear. But I have to believe that John Lennon knew who Ace was and was familiar with the song “Pledging My Love,” given his vast knowledge about early rock and roll and rhythm and blues from the mid-’50s. Pieces of early rock songs appear like phantoms in a number of his songs – the “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man” line in “Run for Your Life,” taken from Elvis’s “Baby, Let’s Play House” (one of the rock and roll songs Lennon performed live on the day he met Paul McCartney); the “Here come old flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly” line in “Come Together,” adapted from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” (Berry was able to successfully sue for copyright infringement) – they are the vocabulary from which he wrote his own music.

I believe that “Pledging My Love,” which was a much bigger hit than either “Baby, Let’s Play House” or “You Can’t Catch Me,” had lodged itself into the recesses of Lennon’s memory such that when he needed a melody for a phrase that he had been using for the past few years, this one presented itself subconsciously. What makes it so unique is that while Lennon would often cop lyrics from old rock songs, it’s rare to have him swipe a melody. Was Johnny Ace’s power such that it went beyond the conscious place of lyrics and into the more ethereal realm of melody? Is it possible that, in sitting down to write a melody for his Christmas song, John Lennon subconsciously connected Johnny Ace’s accidental shotgun suicide on Christmas to the melody of his signature hit that followed? Is this all mere coincidence? Or is it another chapter in the long afterlife of the late, great Johnny Ace?

So here we are at the other end of history – at the other end of the gun that shot Johnny Ace on Christmas 1954; at the other end of the gun that shot John Lennon seventeen days before Christmas 1980, which in turn caused a reissued “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” to peak at number two on the UK charts; even at the other end of the gun that “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” producer Phil Spector, who was born a day after Christmas 1940, used to shoot and kill actress Lana Clarkson – and, at long last, at the other end of all of the guns fired by and at American soldiers in the Iraq War.

President Obama stood onstage at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and welcomed home the troops in a grand gesture signaling the end of the Iraq War. It was a simple image that grew more complicated the more one thought about it. Everyone knows that the Iraq War was the signature issue that got Obama elected to the US Senate, which in turn propelled his presidential election, but now he stands on the other side as the President of the United States coming into an election season. He was praising a war he had previously opposed, finding pride and joy in a circumstance that he had previously found futile. Perhaps this was what any president would do in his position – find a pragmatic ending to an unpopular war. Thousands have been shot and killed and it is part of his job to ensure “that these dead shall not have died in vain,” as Abraham Lincoln once said, two years before he was shot.

But as I read the newspaper article about Obama’s speech a few days ago, and considered how his words were a strange tangle of words and performance, spoken and unspoken, symbolic and real, five words came to the forefront of my mind and provided the perfect caption to the article’s link as I posted it on my Facebook page.

They read: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”

These words made me wonder what John Lennon would have thought about all of this had he not been shot. Maybe he too would think of his “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” song title, and allow the song to seep deeper into his conscious than he usually reserved for a song he had written and recorded so many years before. It would play in his mind as he contemplated war and peace, the living and the dead, the pen and the sword, the ballot and the bullet.

And then it would hit him, like a bullet, hiding in plain sight as it remained unrealized for decades: “Hey, did I get that tune from that old rhythm and blues song that began, ‘Forever my darling’…?”

And that wouldn’t just be interesting – it would bridge a lot of gaps.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Random Thoughts, Vol. 4: My Million-Dollar (Christmas) Idea/Requiem for a Band Aid Song

Five words: A Schlock and Roll Christmas.

I love schlocky Christmas songs of the modern rock and roll era and I’ve always wanted to see a compilation that brings them all together in a mix of humor, warmth, and cheesy production values. The chief contenders/offenders would have to include:

  • “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid (1984)
  • “Thank God It’s Christmas” by Queen (1984)
  • “Please Come Home for Christmas” by the Eagles (1978)
  • “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by the Jackson 5 (1970)
  • “Last Christmas” by Wham! (1984)
  • “Christmas Time Is Here” by Ray Parker Jr. (1984)
  • “Must Be Christmas” by the Band (1975)
  • “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C. (1987)
  • “Christmas All Over Again” by Tom Petty (1992)
  • “Winter Symphony” by the Beach Boys (1977)
  • “Pretty Paper” by Roy Orbison (1963)
  • “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses (1981)
  • “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney (1979)
  • “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” by Elvis Presley (1966)
  • “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” by David Bowie & Bing Crosby (1982)
  • “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon (1971)

As for the running order, there would only have to be two specifications: “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” would have to be the last song. And “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” would have to be the first.

Now, I love “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and was touched to see people rush to its defense when I included it on my list of the worst Christmas songs of all-time. The song has always been a guilty pleasure for me, somewhere between my Monkees CDs and Doctor Demento singles, and I included it on the worst list because it felt like the better fit – after all, it was the things that were so wrong about the song that made me love it all the more.

It’s like, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is like George Washington: Perfect, regal, and distant, something that can only be marveled at from afar. But “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is like John Adams: Flawed, imperfect, and human, something that tells us far more about ourselves. I mean, who would you rather have a beer with: George Washington or John Adams? Everyone knows that George Washington would be all intimidating and quiet right off the bat, while John Adams would make fun of the ugly waitress before she was even out of earshot.

Thus, I would much rather listen to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” than “White Christmas.” It’s a fascinating record with numerous elements that should work against it – a baffling structure, overwrought lyrics, and cheesy production values – but somehow manages to hold together and deliver its unique impact. (Its film equivalent would be another artifact that begins with death, basks in weird extremes, and ends with Christmas: Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. But I digress.)

Although I do still stand by statement that “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” is the cruelest line I’ve ever heard in a Christmas song.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The 100 Essential Albums & Singles of Rock and Roll

Blame it on the iPhone.

There’s something too tempting about an item that easily fits in your pocket yet can hold several days worth of music. At any rate, owning an iPhone has driven me to perfect what I consider a “basic” rock and roll library (unless, of course, wanting to perfect a basic rock and roll library subconsciously led me to owning an iPhone, but I digress), that is: What’s the smallest amount of music that still tells the complete story of rock and roll?

I first had to set some boundaries. After playing around with some numbers, I found that 50 worked ideally, so I kept myself to 50 albums and 50 songs, for a total of 100 items listed. I also decided to stay within rock and roll’s first 40 years, which I count as from 1954 (the year “Rock Around in the Clock” was released) to 1994 (the year Kurt Cobain died) such that all the music, and the albums they appear on, lands within the confines of these years. Finally, being the retro-hound that I am, I favored the “classic” version of albums, even if they’re out of print (Elvis’s original Sun Sessions LP), missing a few classics (The Best of Sam Cooke), or both (Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight). Besides that, pretty much anything was game.

So here it is, 692 songs – the 50 albums and 50 songs not included on those albums – that comprise the essence of rock and roll. In keeping with the project’s overall theme of brevity, I have written quick annotations for each one, more an epitaph than an obituary, more a 45 than a 33 1/3.

This is the basic rock and roll library – the 100 Essential Albums and Singles of Rock and Roll.

Let the debates begin.

Part 1: The 50 Essential Albums

1. The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds. A portrait of teenage love perfected (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”), pulled back to reveal endless layers of beauty and sadness, hope and regret, instruments and voices. (Capitol, 1966)

2. The Beatles: Rubber Soul. The Beatles take in the lessons of Dylan (both musical and medicinal) and emerge with their first ambitious masterpiece. (Parlophone, 1965)

3. The Beatles: Revolver. The sound of a growing Beatles – John discovers LSD (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), Paul discovers classical (“Eleanor Rigby”), George discovers Eastern meditation (“Love You to”), and Ringo discovers a number one hit (“Yellow Submarine”) – but one that could still stand as a unified band. (Parlophone, 1966)

4. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If not the greatest album of all-time, certainly the most influential; a record that, in perfecting the concept album, cut the history of rock and roll in half. (Capitol, 1967)

5. The Beatles: Abbey Road. And in the end, this was their epic final statement, balanced between a number of signature tunes on one side (John’s “Come Together,” George’s “Something,” Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden”) and one epic suite on the other (Paul’s “Long Medley”). (Apple, 1969)

6. Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight. Question: Where would rock and roll be without the likes of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and two dozen more that I don’t have space to name? Answer: Nowhere. (MCA, 1955-1964/1984)

7. David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. A passion play about an interstellar rock and roll savior, covered in space-age glam but fueled by a human heart. (RCA, 1972)

8. James Brown: 20 All Time Greatest Hits! The history of African American music in the latter half of the twentieth century, as told by the man who pushed it the hardest and took it the farthest. (Polydor, 1956-1976/1991)

9. The Byrds: Greatest Hits. Dylan’s words meet the Beatles’ aesthetics and a new sound is born, a delicate thing of rare, shimmering beauty in the jingle-jangle morning. (Columbia, 1965-1967)

10. Ray Charles: The Best of the Atlantic Years. With “I’ve Got a Woman,” “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” and “What’d I Say,” this is the rock of ages upon which soul was built. (Rhino, 1954-1959/1994)

11. The Clash: London Calling. A sprawling two-record set that begins with a vision of the apocalypse and then works its way through rock, rockabilly, pop, ska, and reggae, remaking it all in its own punk image. (Epic, 1979)

12. Sam Cooke: The Best of. With equal parts gospel, pop, and rhythm and blues, Cooke helped to create the aesthetic of soul music; but with the effortless charm of songs like “You Send Me,” “(What a) Wonderful World,” and “Having a Party,” he may have also been the best rock singer of them all. (RCA, 1957-1962/1962)

13. Derek and the Dominos: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Eric Clapton and Duane Allman trade riffs and solos on an extended mediation of blues and rock, best summed up by the blunt title of one the album’s finest songs: “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” (Polydor, 1970)

14. The Doors. A journey through the dark psyche brooding just beneath the surface of psychedelic rock’s diamond sky. (Elektra, 1967)

15. Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home. Bob Dylan goes from acoustic to electric, but not in that order. Oceans rise and mountains crumble, but you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. (Columbia, 1965)

16. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited. Beginning with the gunshot drum hit of “Like a Rolling Stone” – perhaps the most epic opener of any album – this was Bob Dylan’s first fully-electric album. It was also his masterpiece. (Columbia, 1965)

17. Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde. Dylan goes down to Nashville, hooks up with some crackerjack studio musicians, and spins wild, surreal tales of love, drugs, and anything else that might go through his heart or mind. (Columbia, 1966)

18. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You. Aretha Franklin emerges on her Atlantic Records debut fully-formed, bringing the sacred into the secular, the church into the bedroom, and on the opening song, her signature “Respect,” politics into love. (Atlantic, 1967)

19. Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On. Rock and roll as a sermon – brave and focused on heaven, but weary as hell. (Tamla, 1971)

20. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced. The most stunning debut in rock music; after listening to this archetypal explosion of drugs, sex, and rock and roll, it became clear why no question mark was needed at the end of the album’s title – it was a question that answered itself. (MCA, 1967)

21. Buddy Holly: The “Chirping” Crickets. A rare long-playing masterpiece from rock and roll’s first decade, although when peppered with songs like “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh, Boy!,” and “Maybe Baby,” could it be anything less? (Brunswick, 1957)

22. Michael Jackson: Thriller. For one brief, shining moment – best heard in the post-disco strut of the album’s lead single, “Billie Jean” – the entire intertangled worlds of rock, pop, and soul met in a single place, before becoming so splintered that they could hardly stay unified within themselves, let alone between each other. (Columbia, 1982)

23. Elton John: Greatest Hits. With “Rocket Man,” “Daniel,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Your Song,” the sound of a thousand AM radios in the seventies, and a million FM classic rock stations ever since. (MCA, 1970-1974/1974)

24. Janis Joplin: Greatest Hits. She dressed like a hippie and had hits like a pop star, but make no mistake – this was a blues singer down through her very tortured soul. (Columbia, 1967-1970/1973)

25. Led Zeppelin: Untitled [IV]. A virtual greatest hits album by the archetypal heavy metal band, kicking off with “Black Dog,” anchored by “Stairway to Heaven,” and closing with “When the Levee Breaks.” (Atlantic, 1971)

26. Jerry Lee Lewis: 18 Original Sun Greatest Hits. Rock and roll’s most ignoble son is mad: Mad call I it, for to define true madness, what is’t but to be nothing else but mad? (Rhino, 1956-1961/1984)

27. Little Richard: Here’s Little Richard. The sound and spirit of the ranters and ravers, as reimagined for the kiddies in ten little words that started a thousand rock and roll bands: “A-wop-bob-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!” (Specialty, 1957)

28. Madonna: The Immaculate Collection. A playful survey of the Material Girl in the Material Age, until the masterful “Like a Prayer” comes on and the artist suddenly lives up to her name. (Sire, 1983-1990/1990)

29. Bob Marley: Legend. The fact that this is the best reggae-selling album of all time – in large part because everybody ever owns it (just start asking around) – can obscure the fact that it is also a brilliant collection of brilliant music by a brilliant performer; I mean, if there’s only one reggae album you’re gonna own… (Island, 1972-1981/1984)

30. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks. Ignored upon its release, indispensible now, few records have been so ambitious if only because so few performers have been so uncompromised. You breathe in, you breathe out. (Warner Bros., 1968)

31. Nirvana: Nevermind. Punk’s last gasp-turned-“alternative” music revolution courtesy of a Northwestern trio led by a loser who used to live under a bridge. (DGC, 1991)

32. Elvis Presley: The Sun Sessions. The birth of rock and roll as anchored by five perfect singles with a blues song on one side and a country song on the other. Have you heard the news? (1954-1955/1976)

33. Elvis Presley: Elvis’ Golden Records. With “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “All Shook Up,” a near-perfect summation of the music that made the man king, just before the army came along and stole his crown. (RCA, 1956-1957/1958)

34. Prince and the Revolution: Purple Rain. The Purple One at the peak of his skill, talent, and popularity, turning funk into confession and sex into love. (Warner Bros., 1984)

35. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The Sgt. Pepper of rap music, or Huey Newton with two turntables and a microphone…and the endless wail of police sirens. (Def Jam, 1988)

36. The Ramones. Four punks, three chords, two minutes, one revolution. (Sire, 1976)

37. Otis Redding: Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul. Sung like blues, marketed like soul, and backed by funk, this was music that dug so deeply into the earth it felt bottomless. (Stax, 1965)

38. The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet. The return of five prodigal sons with a sympathy for the devil, striking the pose of street fighting revolutionaries. (Decca, 1968)

39. The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed. An apocalyptic funeral for the 1960s, released one day before Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death at the Stones’ free concert celebrating its release. (Decca, 1969)

40. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St. A dense, gritty mudpit of sound where blues bravado intertwined freely with honky-tonk sleaze and bodies lay on the floor all around. (Rolling Stones, 1972)

41. Diana Ross & The Supremes: Every Great #1 Hit. Motown in its Platonic form with twelve number one pop hits – still the most ever for an American vocal group. (Motown, 1964-1969/1974)

42. Run-D.M.C.: Raisin’ Hell. The video for the lead single “Walk This Way” was stupid – featuring Steven Tyler literally breaking down the wall between rock and rap with his microphone stand – but it also was right on the mark. The album it heralded was the finest by Run-D.M.C., which means it was the finest by any rap group up to that point. (Profile, 1986)

43. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The seminal album of the punk revolution (or lack thereof) that took the future – your future – and pounced on it like a tiny bug. (Warner Bros., 1977)

44. Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water. A portrait of the crumbling late ’60s in beautiful harmonies and remorse, as executed by two men who grew to hate each other so much they ceased to be a group by the time the album hit the stores. (Columbia, 1970)

45. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run. Rock and roll’s biggest fan makes his bid for its biggest statement, and for a moment, gets it. (Columbia 1975)

46. U2: The Joshua Tree. Irish soul meets the American soil, as sculpted by a British eclectic and a Canadian visionary. (Island, 1987)

47. The Velvet Underground & Nico. The place where the modern meets the postmodern, this is music that has been so endlessly ripped-off that it’s difficult to hear just how completely unprecedented its once was, yet remains so far ahead of its time that everyone is still trying to catch up. (Verve, 1967)

48. The Who: Who’s Next. The point at which the Who turned the corner from being the “Maximum R&B” group of the ’60s to the loudest arena-rock band of the ’70s; and on songs like the storming opener (“Baba O’Riley”) and the storming closer (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”), the first — and so far only — successful use of synthesizers in rock and roll. (Polydor, 1971)

49. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions. Fresh off the one-two punch of an artistic breakthrough of Talking Book and a near-fatal car accident, Wonder shut himself in the studio, turned himself into a one-man band, and dug deep into his soul, which is to say, soul itself. (Tamla, 1973)

50. Neil Young: After the Gold Rush. An effortless tale of love, anger, and remorse, told just as the 1960s were collapsing into the 1970s, by an iconoclast who would use his experiences in the former to help define himself as the quintessential artist of the latter. (Reprise, 1970)

Part 2: The 50 Essential Songs

1. The Band: “The Weight.” The rock ballad as a pilgrimage, spending equal time with the beautiful, the holy, and the damned. (Capitol, 1968)

2. The Beach Boys: “Good Vibrations.” A staggering masterpiece of sound and production, completed just before Brian Wilson lost his way. (Capitol, 1966)

3. The Beatles: “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Their international breakthrough. (Parlophone, 1963)

4. The Beatles: “Yesterday.” Their (and the) most-covered song. (Capitol, 1965)

5. The Beatles: “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Their finest recording. (Capitol, 1967)

6. The Beatles: “Hey Jude.” Their best-selling single. (Apple, 1968)

7. Chuck Berry: “You Never Can Tell.” Scenes from a marriage, rock and roll style – lost in the mid-’60s pop charts and found by the Pulp Fiction soundtrack thirty years later. (Chess, 1964)

8. Ray Charles: “Hit the Road Jack.” Playful, catchy, and fun – a highlight of the Genius’s brief burst of creativity in the early ’60s, just before the long, slow slide into schmaltz. (ABC, 1961)

9. Chubby Checker: “The Twist.” American independence as a dance craze. (Parkway, 1960)

10. Jimmy Cliff: “The Harder They Come.” Not just the first sound of reggae, years before Bob Marley would become a household name, but proof that rock and roll had broken through to the third world. (Island, 1973)

11. Sam Cooke: “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Passionate, heartbreaking, and controversial, this was the greatest soul ever sung. (RCA, 1964)

12. Bo Diddley: “Bo Diddley.” The beat that launched a thousand songs, yet this one is still the best. (Chess, 1955)

13. Fats Domino: “Blueberry Hill.” The signature song of rock and roll’s steady-rolling New Orleans piano man – a rare rock founder who exercised warmth over rebellion. (Specialty, 1956)

14. Bob Dylan: “Lay Lady Lay.” Dylan quits cigarettes, goes country, and scores a top ten hit. (Columbia, 1969)

15. Bob Dylan: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” An instant standard, which first appeared on a soundtrack that nobody heard to a film that nobody saw. (Columbia, 1973)

16. Bob Dylan: “Tangled Up in Blue.” The flagship song for Dylan’s finest comeback to date – although it wouldn’t be his first or his last… (Columbia, 1975)

17. The Eagles: “Hotel California.” A mid-seventies rock and roll state of the union: Paradise in hell, free will as a prison, pink champagne on ice. (Asylum, 1976)

18. The Everly Brothers: “Bye Bye Love.” The primer for any group who wants to employ two-part harmonies as a lead vocal. (Cadence, 1957)

19. The Four Tops: “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” An enormous-sounding record, tightened by all of the suspense and drama of a monster truck teetering at the edge of a cliff. (Motown, 1966)

20. Marvin Gaye: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” A masterful, deceptively simple performance that gets richer with each listen; maybe that’s why it became Motown’s best-selling single up to its time. (Motown, 1968)

21. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “The Message.” Rap music turns its focus from the party inside the loft to the warzone out in the street. (Sugar Hill, 1982)

22. Bill Haley and His Comets: “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock.” The shot-heard-’round-the-world rallying birth cry of the rock and roll revolution. (Decca, 1954)

23. Jimi Hendrix: “All Along the Watchtower.” Hendrix’s production masterpiece as well as his only American Top 20 hit (!); Bob Dylan’s original acoustic version was merely the preliminary sketch – after hearing this, even Dylan conceded that he could never perform the song with an acoustic guitar again. (MCA, 1968)

24. The Impressions: “People Get Ready.” A stirring vision with hands on the guitar and eyes on the prize; this train was bound for glory. (ABC, 1965)

25. The Jackson 5: “I Want You Back.” The greatest debut single of all-time? It was certainly the most exciting – and danceable. (Motown, 1969)

26. The Kingsmen: “Louie Louie.” Ground zero for punk rock: Three chords that everyone could play and mangled words that no one could understand. (Jerden, 1963)

27. The Kinks: “You Really Got Me.” Heavy, on the road to becoming heavy metal; I once gave a friend a list I wrote of the top 100 rock and roll moments and this was his response: “What about Dave Davies rips the cones out of his amp?” (Pye, 1964)

28. John Lennon: “Imagine.” Radical socialism disguised as wistful sentimentality. (Apple, 1971)

29. Martha and the Vandellas: “Dancing in the Street.” A rock and roll call-to-arms/answer record to the urban upheavals of the mid-sixties that offered dancing over rioting, hope over anger, and music, sweet music. (Motown, 1964)

30. Van Morrison: “Brown-Eyed Girl.” The soundtrack to everyone’s favorite summer fling, or at least the way we choose to remember it. (Bang, 1967)

31. Roy Orbison: “Oh, Pretty Woman.” After countless songs of heartbreak and pain, rock and roll’s most beautiful yet awkward singer finally gets the girl – in the final seconds of the record. (Monument, 1964)

32. The Penguins: “Earth Angel.” An unfinished demo that was buried on the flipside of a single, got played on the radio, and became one of the most natural hits of rock and roll, all thanks to the entire world turning on Cleve Duncan’s vocal trill, almost exactly halfway through the record. (Dootone, 1954)

33. Elvis Presley: “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The signature song off of the otherwise forgettable Blue Hawaii soundtrack, which became the best-selling album of his lifetime; now, freed from vinyl, the song is currently Elvis’s most-downloaded song. (RCA, 1961)

34. Elvis Presley: “Suspicious Minds.” The centerpiece of Elvis’s late-’60s comeback work, as well as his final American number one; as a study of tension and paranoia, it rivals Vertigo, as an exercise in sweat and passion, it rivals Elvis’s finest work – which is to say, it rivals the finest rock and roll. (RCA, 1969)

35. Elvis Presley: “Burning Love.” One final burst of joy before the sorry decline; a rival to “Louie, Louie” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ on” as rock and roll’s greatest #2 hit single? (RCA, 1972)

36. Otis Redding: “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” Written while listening to Sgt. Pepper over and over on headphones, recorded three days before his plane crashed into the icy waters of Lake Monona. (Stax, 1967)

37. R.E.M.: “Radio Free Europe.” A profoundly weird record that pointed the way to the future – half-mumbled, college radio-thriving mysticism – even if no one heard it at the time. (Hib-Tone, 1981)

38. The Righteous Brothers: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The Wall of Sound, Version 2: Mature, dynamic, and as subtle as a tidal wave. (Philles, 1964)

39. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: “The Tracks of My Tears.” A three-minute testimony of why Bob Dylan probably wasn’t joking when he famously called Smokey Robinson America’s greatest living poet. (Tamla, 1965)

40. The Rolling Stones: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The greatest riff ever played. (Decca, 1965)

41. The Rolling Stones: “Paint It, Black.” An attack on psychedelic rock and roll, with tar brush in hand. (Decca, 1966)

42. The Rolling Stones: “Honky Tonk Women.” A subversion of country into blues, as well as the Stones’ best-selling stateside single. (Decca, 1969)

43. The Ronettes: “Be My Baby.” The Wall of Sound, Version 1: An endless sea of instruments, voices, and echo that could be summoned into submission by a single kick-drum. (Philles, 1963)

44. Sly & The Family Stone: “Family Affair.” Only Sly Stone could take a profoundly weird, drug-induced horror story about race, murder, and inequality and turn it into a smooth and funky number one hit. (Columbia, 1971)

45. Patti Smith: “Gloria.” Punk’s greatest poet throws down the gauntlet in just eight words or less: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” (Arista, 1975)

46. The Temptations: “My Girl.” A soaring number one classic that has become one of the most durable Motown productions; most people forget the song had its humble origins as a companion piece to the comparatively-forgotten Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” which itself hit number one. (Gordy, 1964)

47. Ike & Tina Turner: “River Deep, Mountain High.” The Wall of Sound, Version 3: A raging apocalypse of sound and vision. (Philles, 1966)

48. The Who: “My Generation.” One bass solo, two key changes, three instruments, and four musicians, all hanging on the five most exciting words ever (almost) stuttered in a rock song: “Why don’t you all f-f-f—(Brunswick, 1965)

49. Stevie Wonder: “Superstition.” The funkiest funk ever told. (Tamla, 1972)

50. Neil Young: “Heart of Gold.” Rock and roll’s most uncompromising rebel at his most surprising: Singing a friendly, mainstream number one hit. (Reprise, 1972)