After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.
I'm taking a brief respite from the big topics this week in order do one of my periodic "state of the project" updates. (Next week I'll be writing about religion, so gear up for that one.) We're now past the halfway point for Popless, and as I move into the second half of this project, I confess I feel better knowing that I'm closer to the end than the start. Popless has been a rewarding experience so far, primarily for the opportunity it's given me to organize my thoughts along with my music collection. But come next year, I won't miss spending every weekend engaged in marathon writing sessions that last from Saturday morning to Monday noon (broken up by trips to the playground with my kids, during which I'm usually wearing headphones and carrying a notepad)*.
And yes, I am starting to miss new music. I'm not missing the hype-cycle, in which a record can go from the most important piece of music of the year one week to being all but forgotten a few weeks later. (Is anyone still talking about the new My Morning Jacket? A month ago they were all over TV and the entertainment magazines, but I haven't heard much about them since.) Still, there are albums out there I'm anxious to hear (including MMJ), and I'm looking forward to getting back to that old feeling of putting on a new record for the first time and feeling my way through it, one song at a time**.
One question I've been torturing myself with, though: When I start listening to new music again, will I still be diligent about sorting and purging? I don't know about you guys, but I'm kind of a mania for order when it comes to my media. You wouldn't know it to look around my house, where piles of CDs and DVDs crowd every corner while my actual CD and DVD cabinets sit largely bare, but the reason for the disparity is because I'm so persnickety. I'm trying to store my media in such a way that I can add and subtract pieces easily for decades to come. I'm trying to keep it simple, while also creating some groupings that will help me think about my movies and my records in new ways. (Should I file Blade Runner under sci-fi/fantasy, or noir, or '80s, or Ridley Scott?)
I'm trying to do the same with the music on my computer. I'm keeping my favorite albums intact on CD—and I have a lot of favorite albums—but I'm also using iTunes and my external hard drive to organize artists into playlists that can be easily loaded onto my iPod when this project is done, and creating genre-based playlists for all the odds and ends. And there's where it gets tricky. Like, how should I file this song?
In the abstract, it doesn't matter that much. If I dump it into iTunes, I can pull it up by "The Members" or I can pull it up along with all the other songs on Rhino's No Thanks anthology (which is where I sourced it), or I can just put my whole library on shuffle and let "The Sound Of The Suburbs" come up wherever. I can even assign it to multiple playlists without wasting any extra storage space. But that doesn't suit me. I want there to be one perfect playlist that The Members' "The Sound Of The Suburbs" belongs on.
So where does it go? I could file it on the "70s" playlist, but most of that one consists of soft rock, bubblegum and glam, and "The Sound Of The Suburbs" would clash in that company. It's not quite edgy enough to be on the "artpunk" playlist either, and it's too polished for "indie rock." Nor is it "garage" or "heavy" or "noise." Ultimately, I filed it under "modern rock," because even though the bulk of that playlist is made up of pop-punk, Britpop and emo from the past 15 years, The Members sounds more like those bands than any other catch-all playlist I've created.
Does anybody else fuss around like this with their music collections? My wife quietly tolerates my filing frenzies, but other friends of mine have mocked me mercilessly for the various lists and indexes and classification codes I've been concocting since my teen years. But to me, it's just an extension of the baseball card collection I had carefully arranged into folders, or the full collection of NFL team pencils that I used to lay out on my bedroom floor in order of the current standings. Why have a collection if you can't obsess over how best to display it?
*Footnote 1: Although I have two more trips scheduled that might disrupt my schedule a little (including a stretch in Toronto that will necessitate another "gap week"), I believe I'm on pace to finish listening to my entire collection by the end of the year. That seemed impossible when I was still stuck in the "D"s in the last week of March, but here it is week 27 and I'm in the middle of the "M"s, which is the last letter in the first half of the alphabet. There are some monster letters ahead: "N" and "W" should each take two or three weeks, and then "P," "R," "S" and "T" might take up to a month each. But I'm not expecting to turn up much in "O," "Q," "U" or "V," and "X," "Y" and "Z" should breeze by. And then of course, there are the number bands, but there aren't many of those either, so I'm optimistic. Then again, I almost have to be. I really don't want to be grinding my way through The 5th Dimension in January of next year.
**Footnote 2: The new music prohibition officially ends November 1st, by the way. That's about the time last year that 2007 releases stopped trickling in and 2008 releases started, so that will be roughly one year without new music. When the time comes, I'll be asking for suggestions about what I should pick up, and then I'll be taking a belated look at 2008's best at the beginning of 2009, as a kind of epilogue. And then back on the bandwagon.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1979-present
Fits Between Buddy Holly and Peter Case
Personal Correspondence There haven't been too many debut albums more perfect than Marshall Crenshaw, a charming throwback to doo-wop and mid-'60s West Coast Pop, steeped in reverb and cooing background harmonies, but with enough post-new-wave edge in songs like "Cynical Girl" and "I'll Do Anything" to keep any fan of Talking Heads and The B-52s happy. Crenshaw's second album, Field Day, was almost as good, in spite of the heavy-footed Steve Lillywhite production. Field Day was actually the first Crenshaw album I owned—I found it in the cutout bin at a mall record store, and bought it because I'd heard Crenshaw's name bandied about by rock critics—and it took me a while to hear anything in that record but excessive echo and cutesy melodies. It helped when I found Marshall Crenshaw at a used record store and spent weeks immersing myself in its clean sound and boyish regret. On that album Crenshaw sounds like a man who's had some bad breaks in love and emerged chastened but still resolute. (Resolute in his faith in pop, anyway.)
Enduring presence? There haven't been too many artists who have fallen off as dramatically from their debut as Marshall Crenshaw, who's spent much of the last 25 years recording album after album with one or two good songs surrounded by a lot of filler—just like the bands Crenshaw loves. That said, I have a soft spot for Downtown, Crenshaw's third album, recorded with T-Bone Burnett in 1985. The songs aren't as strong as those on the debut (though "Yvonne" and "Blues Is King" are both killer), but the sound is as noir-ish and smeary as the picture on the album's cover.
Years Of Operation 1961-84
Fits Between Nat King Cole and Isaac Hayes
Personal Correspondence Here's another artist I discovered thanks to a Rolling Stone list. As I recall, the magazine's 1987 list of the best 200 albums of the past 20 years had What's Going On in the Top 5, which surprised me, since all I really knew about Gaye at the time was that he'd been killed by his dad shortly after the corny "Sexual Healing" was all over the radio. Luckily for me, that Rolling Stone list roughly coincided with Motown's 25th anniversary celebrations, which meant record stores were flooded with cut-price reissues and special editions of Motown classics. I got What's Going On for something like five bucks on cassette, and even more than the record's socially conscious lyrics—which, to be honest, aren't exactly deep—I was taken with the fluid sound of that album, which was like something out of my pop fantasies. I'd written a short story back in 1986 that featured a fictional band that played epic-length shows where the songs all ran together in a kind of mega-medley. (Sort of like Side Two of Abbey Road, but four times as long.) What's Going On was the kind of album my fictional band would've recorded. Stripped to its essence, What's Going On only has about three or four actual songs on it; the rest are reprises and vamps that take off from what Gaye's singing about and extend it into the realm of the abstract and emotional. In some ways Gaye's tuneful wails show more shades of anger, sorrow, and memories of former joy than anything specific he sings. Hearing What's Going On for the first time also helped me to understand the origins of the orchestrated R&B; sound that was so common in TV shows and movies in the '70s. Mainly though, I was fascinated with how it all fit together, like a musical puzzle. It was the album I'd been dreaming about.
Enduring presence? As much as I still love What's Going On, I confess that I've had less success in carrying my Gaye fandom very far beyond that album. I like a handful of the pre-WGO singles, and a handful of the post-WGO singles, and I appreciate the divorce opus Here, My Dear (but mostly in theory). I'm also frequently surprised by how much of Gaye's music I don't like. I could go the rest of my life without hearing "Let's Get It On" again, and I feel Berry Gordy's pain every time I hear one of Gaye's attempts to leave soul behind and become a pop crooner. (I wish I hadn't ponied up the dough for Hip-O Select's limited edition of At The Copa.) Still, Gaye had a beautiful voice and an artist's soul, and I can't think of too many artists who wouldn't take a hit and miss career like his if it meant one of those hits would be one of the most perfect albums ever recorded.
Material Issue/Matthew Sweet
Years Of Operation 1985-96/1986-present
Fits Between Cheap Trick and Matthew Sweet/Marshall Crenshaw and Material Issue
Personal Correspondence If Material Issue frontman Jim Ellison hadn't killed himself, I imagine that he and his power-pop outfit Material Issue might have a career today not unlike fellow traveler Matthew Sweet's: a lot of side projects and soundtrack appearances, interrupted by the occasional album and tour that play mainly to the cult. Or maybe Ellison would've outpaced Sweet. Like nearly every other rock fan, I first started paying attention to Sweet with the 1991 release of the near-miraculous Girlfriend, with its roof-raising sound and grabby songwriting, and I followed him closely on the albums that followed, even as the returns diminished. Material Issue, by contrast, released a debut album with great songs and punchless production, then followed it up with a more radio-friendly record that sounded depressingly shallow, before pulling it all together for 1994's crisp-sounding, relentlessly catchy Freak City Soundtrack. After Ellison's suicide, Rykodisc released the posthumous demo collection Telecommando Americano, which showed that the band's pop sense was evolving. Ellison was arguably on an upswing before he died, while Sweet has trailed off and plateaued. Or maybe that's just selective perception at work, because Sweet's still around to disappoint, while the records Ellison never made will always be perfect.
Enduring presence? Power-pop is an especially tricky genre to finesse, because the very quality that defines it—big, sparkly hooks—also makes it hard to take in large doses. Both Material Issue and Matthew Sweet are guitar-driven pop-rock classicists, both have flirted with mainstream success on occasion, and it's hard not to argue that songs like Material Issue's shimmering ballad "I Could Use You" (off the sublime Freak City Soundtrack) or Sweet's rocked-up, ecstatic "Evangeline" (off the classic Girlfriend) should've been massive hits in their day, and should be pumping out of car stereos even now. But the public has spoken, and the public just doesn't go for this kind of stuff in a big way. Lord knows why.
Years Of Operation 1980-present (off and on)
Fits Between ZZ Top and The Grateful Dead
Personal Correspondence I've mentioned before my high school friend who used to loan me his punk records, typically without my even asking for them, and often before he'd played them himself. I usually treated those records similar to the way I'd later treat the promo CDs that publicists sent me: If I liked the first track, I'd listen to the whole record; if I didn't, I'd skip ahead, giving each song at least a minute of my time. At the end of the process, I'd find some open space on a cassette and record the songs that left an impression. Only twice during that stretch did I ever stop the record before the first song even finished, put a tape in right away, and record the whole album immediately. It happened with The Replacements' Let It Be (though I owned Tim by that point, so I was already a fan), and it happened with Meat Puppets' Up On The Sun. In the case of the Meat Puppets, I was mainly shocked into acquiescence. Judging by the band's name, and their association with Black Flag's SST label, I expected something more hardcore or avant-garde, not this laid-back country-rock boogie. If it weren't for the slurred, off-key vocals, much of Up On The Sun could pass for a kicked-up Grateful Dead (another band that couldn't sing all that well, now that I think of it). Meat Puppets dominated my first couple of years in college, for odd reasons. I met a couple of guys in my dorm who were huge Meat Puppets fans (and huge Cerebus fans, but that's another story), and while we never became friends, hanging out in their room one night listening to Mirage convinced me to venture beyond Up On The Sun and buy the complete Meat Puppets catalog, which I could afford to do because I'd received a belated scholarship check. What I didn't realize at the time was that the scholarship check was for the full year, not just the quarter, and by the time I burned through it buying records and pizza and tickets to shows, I didn't have enough money left to buy books for winter quarter. (I skated by somehow, borrowing the readings from classmates.) A couple of years before they signed to a major label and made their life-changing appearance with Nirvana on MTV, I saw Meat Puppets live, on the Monsters tour. It was an under-attended show because Billy Bragg was playing that same night (and because fans generally didn't like Monsters as much as I did), but it was a hell of a performance. I remember a double-time take on "Touchdown King" that knocked me flat. Plus, the show ended early enough that I could make it down the street and see Billy Bragg too. A great night in Athens.
Enduring presence? Meat Puppets' post-Nirvana years have been marked by tragedy, waste, and a lot of mediocre music, though the core MP sound—snaky guitar, chugging rhythms, nasal vocals, acid tinge—has remained strong enough that they can usually be counted on for one or to memorable songs per record. (Even on No Joke!) Still, their enduring legacy is that short stretch of superb albums on SST, and the way they represented (along with Minutemen and Black Flag) the promise of post-hardcore and indie labels to expand musical horizons and deliver idiosyncratic masterpieces.
Years Of Operation 1977-present
Fits Between The Clash and Hank Williams
Personal Correspondence One of my first real experiences with feeling misled by rock critics came when I bought the Mekons' 1985 country-punk album Fear & Whiskey. I just didn't get it right away. I thought the sound was cruddy, the vocals were terrible, and the songs were weird and unsatisfying—not a bit like the futurist version of country I'd been led to expect by the likes of Spin magazine. But whether you want to call it a well-placed faith in rock critics or a lamentable willingness to be lulled into conformity, I stuck with Fear & Whiskey and eventually grew to love every off-key yelp, screechy fiddle and incongruous drum machine. Fear & Whiskey isn't my favorite Mekons album though; that would be The Mekons Rock 'N' Roll, a riotous, tune-packed analysis of how conventional pop and rock paradigms reinforce the status quo. It's a brilliantly conceived record, and "fun" in its own perverse way. Unfortunately, I lost my copy years ago and have never gotten around to replacing it; but the Fear & Whiskey song "Country" is in a similar vein, both sonically and conceptually. In "Country," the Mekons nod to the genre they're working in, yet use the title also to refer feelings of nationalism, and whether they mean anything to two drunken lovers.
Enduring presence? Though I drunk the Kool Aid on Fear & Whiskey and Rock 'N' Roll, generally speaking I haven't been wildly pro-Mekons. A lot of my initial complaints upon my first exposure to the band still pertain: They're sloppy, they're prolific to a fault, and Jon Langford's cocky insistence that he knows what's best for society and for music can occasionally cross the line from inspiring to obnoxious. Still, between all the out-of-print or hard-to-find albums, EPs, singles and side projects, the Mekons have left quite a trail of tasty breadcrumbs for new fans to follow. This is a band in bad need of a box set.
Men At Work
Years Of Operation 1979-85
Fits Between XTC and The Police
Personal Correspondence The first new (not used) album I bought with my own money was Men At Work's Cargo, and in just about every way possible, it was an experience that helped codify my rituals of buying and absorbing a record. I'd asked for and received Business As Usual for Christmas, and cheered Men At Work's Best New Artist win at the Grammys in February, and only two months later the radio started playing a new Men At Work song, the more mature and moody "Overkill" (arguably the band's best). I can't remember how I got the money, because I was only 12, didn't have a job, and was still getting a fairly pathetic allowance of two dollars a week, but due to the benevolence of some grandparent or another I had the 10 bucks I needed to buy Cargo the week it was released. I remember riding home from the mall, scrutinizing the cover for all its visual gags:
And I remember poring over the lyric sheet, and noting to my brother that one of the songs with the fewest words was the longest on the record (which for some reason I took as an indicator of quality, proving that Men At Work weren't just some dopey pop band). Then I got home and put the record on, starting with "Dr. Heckyll And Mr. Jive," a song that I can't listen to more than 15 seconds of today, but that I thought was way cool when I was 12. (Just like the intolerably goofy "Be Good Johnny," from Business As Usual.) "Dr. Heckyll" was the third single from Cargo (following "It's A Mistake," which was released when the album came out, in June), and I thought it was neat that I'd been listening to the song for months before it hit the radio. And I thought it was neat that there were great songs on Cargo—like the angular and New Wave-y "Upstairs In My House"—that weren't on the radio, but that I knew. Thus music snob was born.
Enduring presence? Listening to Little River Band two weeks ago, I started thinking about how a lot of mainstream Australian rock doesn't really sound like anything. Men At Work's new wave leanings give them more of an edge than some, but they're still basically meat-and-potatoes: a well-practiced rock band with a keen pop sense and no particular agenda. Their albums are filler-full, but their hits are easy to like even now.
Years Of Operation 1988-present
Fits Between Neil Young and The Flaming Lips
Personal Correspondence I back-doored my way into Mercury Rev, via The Flaming Lips. I'd unaccountably ignored their first two acclaimed LPs (as well as their less-heralded third, which may actually be my favorite), but after Mercury Rev's Dave Fridmann produced the Lips' The Soft Bulletin, and after the raves that attended the release of the Rev's Deserter's Songs, I finally caught up with the band, in one fell swoop. I like Deserter's Songs just fine, but nowhere near as much as 1995's See You On The Other Side, a stylistic leap forward that presages a lot of what Fridmann would do with The Soft Bulletin, as well as serving as a kind of DIY answer record to Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon (right down to the sax solos). Earlier Mercury Rev albums courted a funhouse atmosphere, but See You On The Other Side takes in the whole carnival, from the freak show to the top of the Ferris Wheel. It's one of the great forgotten classics of mid-'90s alt-rock.
Enduring presence? Having had its thunder stolen some by The Flaming Lips' ascendancy, Mercury Rev has seemed to me to be a little adrift since Deserter's Songs. The follow-up All Is Dream was an enjoyable retread, but a retread nonetheless, and then The Secret Migration sounded at once bombastic and thin. I hope their upcoming album is a course correction, or else See You On The Other Side might be seen as the moment Mercury Rev took a turn for the conventional, and ultimately for the worse.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
Maria McKee, "Can't Pull The Wool Down (Over The Little Lamb's Eyes)"
I'm not sure whether I'm more disappointed by Lone Justice's inability to follow through on their early promise, or Maria McKee's inability to record another album as stunning as her 1989 self-titled solo debut. Though every bit as state-of-the-art glossy as Lone Justice's efforts, Maria McKee sports stronger songs, seemingly tailored to Mitchell Froom's alternately warm and clanky production. The gospel undertones and triumphant dynamic of "Can't Pull The Wool Down" never fails to lift my spirits. After a rough journey, McKee ended the '80s with one of the decade's best songs. And almost nobody noticed.
Mark Eitzel, "Atico 18"
Immediately after the dissolution of American Music Club, AMC mastermind Mark Eitzel threw himself into a series of collaborative solo projects that found him pushing toward places that he couldn't quite reach. Neither Mark Isham, nor Peter Buck, nor the rhythm section of Sonic Youth provided the consistent spark of inspiration that Eitzel received from the eclectic American Music Club ensemble, and so Eitzel's first three solo records were good for a few outstanding songs and far too much depressing filler. The outstanding songs on those records though—like this delicate acoustic sketch of two men discovering a deeper love for each other just by sticking together, day after day—are as good as anything in the American Music club catalog. (Also great: Eitzel's album The Invisible Man and its signature track "The Boy With The Hammer," a sad and funny character study of an attention-seeking youngster. Drawing inspiration from fellow gay troubadour Stephin Merritt, Eitzel fuses his lovelorn laments to accessible pop and dance music arrangements, emerging with something as peculiar and passionate as anything he's ever written.)
Mark Kozelek, "Find Me Ruben Olivares"
I'll be giving Red House Painters a big write-up later (and some ink to Sun Kil Moon too), but I can't pass Kozelek by without stopping to say hello. This solo track makes fine use of Kozelek's dreamy voice, and his facility with patterns and repetition. I was delighted the other day when I heard a Kozelek song on the Nick Jr. show Yo Gabba Gabba, but I wasn't surprised. I can't think of too many musicians who'd be better at calming toddlers down than Kozelek.
Mark Olson & The Creek Dippers, "Cactus Wren"
Mark Olson left The Jayhawks when his bandmates' chart-topping ambitions led them toward jangle-pop sheen and away from the earthy country-rock that first brought them together. Olson retreated into the wilderness with his folk-rock-darling wife Victoria Williams, and over the past decade, he's released periodic dispatches under the name "The Creek Dippers," each with a raggedness reminiscent of Neil Young's '70s-era post-Harvest records. With Williams trilling in the background like a latter-day Nicolette Larson (or perhaps like Emmylou Harris to Olson's Gram Parsons), the singer-songwriter opens his doors to the communal everybody-come-over-to-play school of music, which he then populates with characters uncomfortable with their habitat. Olson takes a relaxed brand of mountain music then accentuates distortion and echo, instilling pretty melodies with a hint of foreboding. He may have fled an oppressive creative environment, but he can't stop singing about people who aren't where they want to be, physically or spiritually. The old hill folk used to have a name for his kind of gloriously sad music: "high lonesome."
The Marlins, "(Everybody Do) The Swim Pt. 1"
A proto-disco bongo-and-piano rhythm gives an unusual timbre to this surprisingly haunting song, which is more about the counterpoint harmonies of the lead and background vocals than about learning new steps. All we're told is that "a guy named Jim" created The Swim as a modified form of The Monkey, which presumably means that rather then jerking your arms up and down, you slide them in and out in a horizontal fashion. But there are regional variations: The Backstroke in Philadelphia, The Paddle in Boston, and so on. No wonder we had to call on Martha & The Vandellas to unify the novelty-dance schism.
The Marmalade, "I See The Rain"
Here's another nugget from Nuggets—the UK version—and as the title implies, it's a kind of perversion of sunshine pop. The melody and the harmonies are every bit as bright and pretty as any late '60s happymaker, but the bass thumps like thunder and the guitar rumbles in like a nimbus cloud.
The Mars Volta, "Drunkship Of Lanterns"
Any out-of-context passage of The Mars Volta's debut LP De-Loused In The Comatorium would probably sound shrill and pretentious to even the most adventurous rock fan, but taken as a piece, the record's free-flowing synthesis of Santana, Yes and Metallica is overwhelming in a good way. Vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez keep experimenting with the creation of alternately punishing and pleasant sonic environments. Their debut EP Tremulant skewed more toward the spacious and atmospheric, but the Rick Rubin-produced De-Loused is pushier, with jackhammer drums and screeching guitar providing the foundation for almost every track. They're aiming for some kind of hybrid of prog-rock fantasia and '70s funk surrealism. The follow-up Frances The Mute goes even further out, propelled by 13-minute tracks that defy logic as they rocket from atonal drone to furious thrash to whipcrack polyrhythms. As an admirer of ambitious deviants, I've continued to follow The Mars Volta, even as they've shifted from merely challenging to outright off-putting, but I miss the relative directness they started with, and tracks like the prog-at-warp-speed "Drunkship Of Lanterns."
Martin Denny, "Stardust"
One of the neo-cocktail movement's biggest heroes, Martin Denny can be tough to really dig into, since most of his records are geared more to background atmospherics than active listening. Still, sometimes those atmospherics alone are so beautiful and adroitly imagined that you can't do anything but listen to them…usually while closing your eyes and imagining that you're out on a tiki-torch-festooned patio on a tropical island.
Marty Robbins, "El Paso"
Country music has gone through multiple stretches of pop crossoverdom, including a time in the late '50s and early '60s when western-inflected story-songs like this Marty Robbins classic became the rage. Few are as complex as "El Paso" though, with its spiraling melody, poetic lyrics, and romanticizing of an outlaw's death. It's a whole movie in four minutes—and one of the best movies of 1959.
Mary Wells, "Two Lovers"
This Smokey Robinson-penned-and-produced tune went to #1 on the R&B; charts and #7 pop in 1962, though it's never become one of the Motown standards. It's a twist-ending song, about a woman's worldly passion and her concerns about getting hurt. It opens with Wells singing "I've got two lovers / And I ain't ashamed" and ends with her singing, "You're a split personality / And in reality / Both of them are you." Then the song wraps, too quickly. The lyric would have more power if the revelation about who the two lovers are were moved up to the middle point, so that the song could explore the ramifications of living with someone with two sides. Still, musically the song shows Motown's rapid development in the early '60s. "Two Lovers" is just as simple and smooth as Wells' prior hit "You Beat Me To The Punch," but the addition of a slick horn line moves† "Two Lovers" closer to the sophisticated feel that Motown was shooting for. If you took Wells' first three hit singles—the first being "The One Who Really Loves You"—as chapters in a book, it would tell an interesting story about a woman drawn to relationships with abusive cheaters. (And what does it say that all three were written by a man? Is Smokey Robinson is describing the kind of man who always seems to get the girls? Or is he that kind of man?)
Massive Attack, "Unfinished Sympathy"
I don't have the deep attachment to Massive Attack that some do—perhaps because dance/electronica/chillout/house/what-have-you is in no way my area of expertise—but Blue Lines is pretty unassailably great, and this centerpiece song from that record encompasses the Massive Attack I like best. The synth washes are reminiscent of mid-'80s techno-pop, the piano and vocals are pure adult contemporary, the strings are cinematic and the scratches and polyrhythms are from hip-hop. It's a bubbling bouillabaisse of modern pop sounds.
Matisyahu, "Fire Of Heaven/Alter Of Earth"
I'm neither opposed to nor enamored of Matisyahu. I think there's a place in the world for his kind of positivist, reggae- and rap-inflected frat jams, and while I wish his music were more eruptive and ecstatic, I find it basically inoffensive and occasionally catchy. Still, I can't hear Matisyahu without thinking about two things: the joke in Knocked Up about how Martin Starr's beard makes him look like Matisyahu, and my own awkward interview with the dude two years ago. I asked one simple question about his early days and got a 10-minute recap about his entire career to that point (all while checking my watch, knowing that I only had 20 minutes tops scheduled for our phoner), and then to the rest of my questions he mostly answered in single lines, effectively cutting off the conversation. I had expected that he might take the opportunity to show that he could be both orthodox in his religion and a normal, down-to-earth guy, but that wasn't my experience. He was pleasant enough, but he had his wall up the whole time. If he couldn't give one of his pat speeches, he wasn't interested.
Matt Pond PA, "Promise The Bite"
Singer-songwriter Matt Pond grew up in New Hampshire, but added a "PA" to the end of his name when he moved to Philadelphia, as a way of recognizing the regular set of Pennsylvania musicians who comprise his pop orchestra. The assemblage works in the mode of Amerindie fellow travelers Beulah and Lambchop, reworking Pond's songs through complex arrangements and studio treatments until they become balladic soundscapes, where strings and horns coarse through percussive guitar-and-drum constructions with the thickness and vitality of blood. Pond's half-gulped, half-crooned vocals are reminiscent of Peter Gabriel and can be difficult to discern, but the intelligible lines show that he's another one of those young songwriters who's dedicated his art to the obstacles that stymie relationships. It's music for moody intellectuals with poetic souls, and Matt Pond PA serves it up with a sweetness that's easy to swallow, and a structural complexity that smartens up the mixture. The compact, textured pop of "Promise The Bite" is like a distillation of the essence of Nick Drake or R.E.M., without the thorny personalities (or their attendant depth). In providing tasteful wallows in morose sentimentality, with gentle melodies enhanced by fashionable sonic affectation, Matt Pond PA have been farming Sufjan Stevens' territory since well before Stevens was getting profiled on NPR. And while Pond has lost some juice over time, there's no reason why Stevens fans shouldn't find their way to Pond's lovely albums Measure and The Green Fury.
Maxïmo Park, "Going Missing"
For some reason I had minimal interest in Maxïmo Park until I saw Stranger Than Fiction and heard "Going Missing" over the closing credits, and by the time I caught up with their debut album A Certain Trigger, the follow-up was about a month way from release. Our Earthly Pleasures doesn't quite measure up to A Certain Trigger—it's more Pretenders II than The Bends—but it's in keeping with the kind of purposeful strides forward that the band's Tyne-and-Wear mates The Futureheads and Field Music have delivered. Still, there's nothing on there that builds and explodes like "Going Missing," a song that moves beyond mere post-punk revivalism.
MC5, "Kick Out The Jams"
I had a lot of occasions as a young rock fan to read about legendary bands before I actually heard them, but I think I went longer between reading about and listening to the MC5 than any other act. Because they were favorites of Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh—and because the were prominently featured in a handful of rock history books I'd read—I knew all about their sound, their politics, their legacy, and their groundbreaking embrace of the word "motherfucker" on their signature anthem "Kick Out The Jams." But their records weren't easy to find, and when I finally came across "Kick Out The Jams" on the soundtrack to some movie I can't recall the name of, I was a little disappointed. It sounded commonplace—just another amped-up white boy boogie. Later, I started to get more into sync with the MC5, as I heard more of their music and the music surrounding them, and began to understand the context. Which brings up the same question I asked in the Mekons entry above: Did I turn around on MC5 because I smartened up, or because I bought the company line? I think it's the former, but either way, I'm not sure it matters. I enjoy the music. That's enough.
Me'shell Ndegeocello, "Mary Magdalene"
Just as with hip-hop and electronica, I went through a phase of picking up each year's most critically acclaimed neo-soul albums, hoping to find something that would resonate with me the way classic '70s soul albums had in the past. My collection is littered with Angie Stones and Jill Scotts and Terence Trent D'Arbys, and a couple of records by neo-soul oddball Me'shell Ndegeocello, who followed D'Arby's lead by recording a moderately successful debut album with a catchy hit single and then returning with a self-indulgent record littered with weird song titles and elusive religious references. I admire her guts, even if I rarely listen to the record, which never really emerges from the confines of her head.
Meco, "Star Wars Theme"
Yes, this disco-fied take on John Williams is bright orange artificial cheese, but any kid who was a Star Wars fan in the late '70s should understand how awesome it was that this movie kept giving and giving. For me, it was like my stack of Justice League Of America comics had suddenly become so popular that there were songs about them on the radio and special TV episodes dedicated to the characters and the phenomenon. I begged my mom to take me to see Star Wars because I thought the commercial looked cool—"It's got spaceships, and a big monkey!" I remember saying—and the fact that it became such a merchandising bonanza seemed to validate my taste.
Mel & Tim, "Starting All Over Again"
When you're thinking about getting back together with your ex, who better to ask for advice then your skeptical-but-supportive best friend?
Mel Tormé, "Too Close For Comfort"
Because of Night Court, I spent years thinking that Mel Tormé was a joke—the epitome of easy listening schmaltz, and an icon to the unhip—but something compelled me to pick up a Tormé anthology when I found it in the bin full of bargain jazz CDs that I raided so frequently in college. (I think I bought it because it was there alongside Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and I wanted to understand the connection.) That best-of turned me around on Tormé . With a voice that smooth, he could've sung just about anything, but he strove to mesh his instrument with the compositional advancements being made in jazz, and while Tormé was hardly avant-garde, his ingratiating presence went a long way toward dragging pop out of the syrup and into the light.
The lines between hardcore punk, heavy metal and grunge were made more indistinct by bands like the Melvins, who flew the flannel and thrashed hard at the same time. As an outsider to the metal and hardcore scenes (and a doubter when it comes to grunge), I've always wondered what kind of audience is drawn to the Melvins. Aren't they too sloppy for the metalheads, or too heavy for hardcore? Or do they find the sweet spot that unites?
The Mendoza Line, "Mysterious In Black"
Mendoza Line co-leaders Timothy Bracy and Peter Hoffman—with permanent guest vocalist/songwriter Shannon McArdle—had a solid reputation for explicating the American way of love through vivid country-rock story-songs. (Then divorce broke up the band, perhaps inevitably.) They never broke beyond the cult level, perhaps because they lacked the distinctive personality of the similar-sounding Rilo Kiley or Wilco. But they left behind an eclectic discography well-worth mining, including songs like the stinging "Mysterious In Black," which uses detective imagery as metaphors for a relationship.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Marc Ribot, Margo Guryan, Maria Muldaur, Mark Isham, Mark Knopfler, Mark Lanegan, Mark Ronson, Mark Sandman, Martha & The Vandellas, Marty Stuart, The Marvelettes, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Mary Jane Girls, Mary Timony, Mates Of State, Maura O'Connell, The Mavericks, The Maytals, Mclusky, Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, Meat Loaf, Mecca Normal, Medeski Martin & Wood, Memphis and Menomena
Marc Black, Marc Broussard, Marc
Cohn, Marcia Griffiths, Marcos Silva, Marcus Carl
Franklin, Marcy Caldwell, Marcy
Playground, Margareth Menezes, mari, Maria Bethânia, Maria
Taylor, Marie Knight, Mariee Sioux, The Marigolds,
Marion Black, Marisa Monte, Marissa Nadler, Maritime, Marius
Constant, Marjorie Fair, Mark Geary, Mark Lee Scott, Mark Lindsay, Mark
Mallman, Mark McGrath, Mark Mulcahy, Mark Suozzo, The Marked
Men, Markéta Irglová, Marley's Ghost, The Marlins, The Marmalade,
Marnie Stern, Maroon 5, Mars Arizona,
Marshall Chapman, Martha Scanlan, Martin Wolfson, Martin
Zellar, Martino Da Vila, Marty Raybon, Mary
Karlzen, Mary Love, Marya Josie, MaryKate O'Neil, The
Mascots, Masha Qrella, The Masked Marvel,
Mason Jennings, Mason Proper, Mass, The
Master's Apprentice, Masterplan, Matt & Kim, Matt Coogan, Matt
Elliot, Matt Lax & Nearly Beloved, Matt Nathanson,
Matt Sharp, Matt Suggs, Matthew Friedberger, Matthew Ryan, Maurice Davis, Maurício
Pereira, Max Gregor & Orchestra, Max Wall, Maxine Nightingale, Maxwell
Street Jimmy Davis, Mayday, Mayflies USA, Mazarin, Maze, MC
Hammer, MC Honky, MC Lyte, MC Sleazy, McCarthy, The McCoury Brothers, Mcenroe,
McFadden & Whitehead, The Meat Purveyors, Meat Whiplash, Mecca Headz, Meiki
Kaji, Mel Henke, Melle Mel, Mellow, Mellowdrone, Melodians, Melody
Unit, Melonie Cannon, The Members, Memphis Slim, Men Without Hats,
Men's Recovery Project, Menahan Street Band, Meneguar, The
Mercury Program and Mercury Radio Theater
Next week: From Merle Haggard to The Monkees, plus a few words on faith-based rock initiatives.