"Brackish" by Kittie, 1999

Monday, November 18, 2013

(First of all, I want to say how proud I am of myself when I know the year, or can figure the year, for these songs I'm blogging without having to look them up. That was the case with this one.)

So, Kittie. What can one say about Kittie? "Real" metalheads agree, for the most part, that Kittie sucked. I don't care much what "real" metalheads say, and I cared even less back in 1999. At the time, I was just starting to get into metal and post-hardcore, mostly via Helmet's best two LPs, Meantime and Betty. I don't know if it's true, but to me Page Hamilton invented stop/start post-hardcore that these girls (yeah, girl; Kittie's average age when they formed in 1996 was 13 or so) so adequately borrowed, establishing them as the silliest (to most listeners) band in the Nu-Metal (puke) scene.

I suppose because I was coming to metal and post-hardcore from the place I've mentioned before--one of fandom almost exclusively of bands with female lead singers--Kittie was an obvious entree to heavier, chunkier stuff for me. This song in particular is probably my favorite off their debut LP Spit because of the excellent screams (though many don't approve of her screams, I think they're perfect in that they're not typical Cookie Monster because she is a girl, and it makes them that much more compelling) and the ridiculous (in a good way) drum machine stuff in the final breakdown*.

*This song has been released in various remixes. The version in this video puts the drum machine breakdown in the middle someplace. The version on the CD I have has it at the end, which I prefer.

"Both Hands" by Ani Difranco, 1990

Saturday, November 16, 2013

This was the first Ani song many of us heard, way back when, and many of us heard it when a female friend--one with a partially shaved head and shit-kicker boots--made us a tape and mailed it to us from Barnard. Come on, I cannot be the only person who first heard Ani under those circumstances.

I forget about Ani most of the time. In the mid-1990s or so, after I'd seen her play live a few times and memorized every word of her 1990 eponymous independent debut, she took on band members and a funkier, more polished sound that I just didn't love. But it was I think earlier this year, 2013, that I put on "Both Hands" again, for the first time in probably twenty years, and I still knew every amazing word.

"Blame It on Your Heart" by Patty Loveless, 1993

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I didn't grow up listening to country. Unless you count the several Grateful Dead songs that could rightly be called country, and that one Old & in the Way CD I had, I didn't like anything that was remotely country music until probably this song*.

In July of 1993, I was nineteen and living at home for the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Three years earlier, in 1990, I--along with many, many other teenage boys of a certain cloth--fell in love with Samantha Mathis in Pump Up the Volume. It stands to reason, then, that when a little movie called The Thing Called Love, starring Mathis as a struggling singer-songwriter in Nashville, turned up on the TV after its fairly dismal theater release, I stuck with it. "Blame It on Your Heart," as performed by River Phoenix and Mathis, comes up for a couple of important scenes. It stuck with me. I found it had been released as a single by Patty Loveless, and I bought the CD, probably with my Columbia House membership.

I'll include both versions here. Loveless's is obviously insanely better.

*Okay, I liked "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," but only 'cause it was a story song about some crazy shit.

"Beestung" by Kristin Hersh, 1994

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Kristin Hersh, founder and leader of Throwing Muses and solo artist, was my absolute favorite--my unhealthy obsession with Juliana Hatfield notwithstanding--for probably about seven or eight years. In compiling this list, though, I found that most of her songs, with and without Throwing Muses, just didn't hold up to my ears the way they once did. I still love them, and I still think most TM albums are as close to perfect as an LP experience can get, from their eponymous debut to Limbo. However, except for "Beestung" and one TM track (which I'll write about later, fear not), they didn't pass the crucial test the every song on this list has passed: constant listening.

"Beestung" proved different, and I don't know why. In fact, while I was listening to this list, as I whittled it down from too many to just a little too many, every single time "Beestung" was about to come on (that is, with an iTunes playlist on shuffle, when "Beestung" would pop up as the track about to start, but in the one and a half seconds before it actually did), I'd be like, "Oh, this song. This song will never make the final list. I'm sick of it already and it hasn't even started."

But every time, I was wrong. Every time, that piano would come in, with it's simple and repetitive little two-finger riff, and I could feel myself swelling. If I had a degree in neuroscience, I'd study why some songs make me swell. This one makes me swell, and I never get sick of it while it's on. For years, it wasn't a song I would ever choose to put on, and for years I'd skip it on shuffle during that one and a half second delay before the piano would begin, but once it's on, I don't want it to end.

"Beautiful John" by Madder Rose, 1993

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Madder Rose, an oft-forgotten but quintessential early 90s band, significantly informed my tastes in music in college. When I first heard Madder Rose, I'd already moved away from my high school tastes--which had been very much of a late 1960s/early 1970s vibe, including predominantly the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and whatever the New York-area classic rock station would play. Along with most American teens, I'd heard and loved Nirvana's "Nevermind" in 1991. I wasn't the quickest to abandon my classic rock stuff, though, and enter the modern era, relying on bands like the Black Crowes and the Spin Doctors--both of whom had one foot (at least) firmly planted in sounds I found comfortable and familiar. But by 1993, I was getting someplace new.

In the summer of 1993, with a year of college behind me and a job delivering pizzas, I spent many late nights at Tower Records on Long Island, with a pocketful of tip cash. That tip cash, being above and beyond my hourly wage, I saw as CD money, and it was that summer that I did the most work to really grow my collection, probably more than before or since. That summer I focused on a certain type of band, though, one that became my mainstay of music for the next year at least: indie rock bands with female lead singers. If a band had a female lead singer, I'd probably buy their CD. It was a simple as that. I found Velocity Girl, Zuzu's Petals, the Sundays, Throwing Muses, Belly, Juliana Hatfield, Bettie Serveert, and Madder Rose using this method.

So, the song itself. It's an anomaly among Madder Rose songs, in that, though the lyrics are kind of dark and creepy, it's super poppy: a two-chord (one-->five) progression, if you can call that a progression, with frequent and very melodic and simple guitar solos. Much of this album is darker and more angular, implicating the heroin use the band seems to have enjoyed for so long. Melodic guitar pop was in 1993 still a very new sound to me, having come to modern music through more aggressive-sounding punk rock, and while "Beautiful John" is informed by punk rock to a degree, it has as much in common melodically with nursery rhymes as it does with CBGB.

"Baby, Now That I've Found You" by Alison Krauss and Union Station, 2002

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I should say right up front that the more famous version of this song, by the Foundations in 1967, is way better. It's WAY better. I just learned this moment by reading a little of the band's entry on Wikipedia that the Foundations were not an American soul group, as I always assumed. In fact they formed in London. Somehow they managed to craft this perfect little pop-soul tune that to me has always sounded like a bridge between the doo-wop vocal groups of the previous decade and the rousing horn-blast soul to come. So yeah. I've always loved this song. On its own, though, it wouldn't make my Top 100. It took a pop bluegrass group and a toddler on my lap for that to happen.

When my son was about two, I used to sit down with him at the computer and bring up the songs I thought his toddler ears might especially enjoy, typically ones I liked a lot as a small child. (Not that I remember toddlerhood. But I do remember being four, five, et cetera, and I remember the songs I especially enjoyed. Most of them were from the 1950s and 1960s.) One song I tried out was "Baby, Now That I've Found You."

Upon clicking once on a link, though, I found myself watching the Alison Krauss version. I watched it once with Sam, mainly because he seemed a little interested, and then found the Foundations version. He didn't care at all for that one, but over the next few months, whenever he caught me sitting at the laptop, would say, "Baby song. Listen baby song."

I'm pretty slow, but I did figure out that "baby song" meant this song, and for about a year it was the boy's favorite and the one we'd listen to together most often. I think my son prefers Krauss's soothing and slow arrangement, making the song actually sound like a song sung to a baby, rather than to a lover.

"Ann Jane" by the Jayhawks, 1995

Monday, October 14, 2013

I'm not the biggest Jayhawks fan ever. I got very into the alt-country/No Depression sound right after college, though, particularly via Wilco's A.M. and Son Volt and those bands' respective leaders' shared history in Uncle Tupelo. Of the Jayhawks, I only knew "Blue," so I bought Tomorrow the Green Grass, and I liked it a lot. But it was not an everyday listen, and lots of the deeper cuts didn't leap out at me as fantastic right away. It took years. It took nearly two decades now for "Ann Jane" to present itself as my favorite track on the LP. This is odd to Jayhawks fans, who apparently regard the second half of Tomorrow the Green Grass as something of a throwaway. Apparently.

It's something of a dirge, with a persistent hi-hat that gives the song a marching feel, as if accompanying a funeral. I don't know exactly what the song is about, if I'm honest, but it feels to me like a big brother doing a shitty but touching job of comforting his little sister, though their father is dead or dying. If I'm wrong, I don't want to know. (I have a suspicion that the narrator here could be a man of God, or God Himself. I don't know. Like I said, don't wanna.)

I can't find a video for this track on YouTube, so here's a link to the MySpace version. You might have to watch a little ad first.

GUY IN REAL LIFE cover reveal

Sunday, October 13, 2013

We'll take a short break from my Top-100 Songs posts (sorry those are taking so long, by the way; I had several deadlines this summer, and I had to make those my priority) to focus on my writing for a change.

If you follow my Twitter or like my Facebook, or if you keep up with the Epic Reads blog, you probably saw this already: the cover for GUY IN REAL LIFE (May, 2014 from Balzer+Bray) has been unveiled. If you missed it at any of those places, or if you just loved it so much and want to see it again, here it is!

First, the description from Epic Reads:

Lesh and Svetlana, two teens from St. Paul, Minnesota, are adrift in a sea of social coterie, desperate for something to change. When they crash into one another in a drunken bicycle accident at two am, they don’t yet know how close they are to finding it. For now, Svetlana is simply looking for a fifth member to legitimize the Central High School Gaming Club, and Lesh is looking to escape his being grounded for said drunkenness by entering, reluctantly, the world of online role playing games.

Lesh’s gaming life takes an interesting turn as, unable to figure out how to speak to Svetlana, he “becomes” her in-game. When real life and in-game life inevitably become entwined, Lesh and Svetlana both start to realize that the lines they draw to keep their lives in order are not so easy to maintain. Especially when you no longer understand why you drew them in the first place.

I love it to pieces. I hope you do too.

Coming up next, "Ann Jane" by the Jayhawks. . . .

"And Then She Stopped" by Dizzy Gillespie, 1965

Monday, September 30, 2013

Choosing a favorite trumpet player is tricky business, especially probably for a trumpet player. For most of my high school years as a player, I would have said Miles Davis, despite the fact that I often had trouble listening to him. I suppose I thought Miles, like much jazz and like all the new drinks I was trying at the time, was an acquired taste. Perhaps he is; I certainly like him more now than I did then. However, choosing him as a favorite was dishonest and an affectation. I discovered Clifford Brown my first year of college, and I loved his tone and his solo style and his pace, and I was like, "Ohhhh. This is way better."

I still think that about Clifford Brown, but in recent years I've remember how much I loved Dizzy's music even before I affectedly chose Miles Davis. (There was a brief period in which I worshipped Wynton Marsalis, for his exquisite tone and technical ability, and for his willingness to move, and skill at moving, from jazz to classical and back effortlessly. But he was rarely any fun.) I'd abandoned Dizzy as a fan probably because I knew he flared his cheeks, something every novice trumpet player is taught not to do. Also he kept showing up on the Cosby Show, which didn't seem disdainful of popular culture to a degree sufficient for a jazz musician. Miles Davis wouldn't even look at the audience, never mind appear on a sitcom.

Much in the way we can often as adults return to childhood favorites in movies and books, I returned to Dizzy only recently. Dizzy Gillespie composed and performed music that possessed all the qualities of bebop that I loved then and now. Maybe especially the Afro-Cuban stuff from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, like "Manteca" and "A Night in Tunisia" (I could just as easily have included either of those two on this list) and this piece, "And Then She Stopped," Dizzy's music had the wit and technical showmanship of most great jazz, but it was also eminently danceable and possessed a kind of musical humor. Jazz often cracks jokes, usually with brief musical allusions during solos, but I mean something more than that--Dizzy's compositions are inherently good natured and fun. Dizzy also played in the highest register of the instrument to a point that often seems a little absurd, setting off tiny musical fireworks. I love that.

A little of all of this is apparent in the video herewith, from a live performance of "And Then She Stopped" from 1965, the year of its initial release.

"Ana Ng" by They Might Be Giants, 1988

Friday, September 20, 2013

This song is particularly special to me for two reasons.

1) They Might Be Giants are distinct among bands that I like a lot, and not just because they're such freaky weirdos: I first liked them by seeing them live. When they toured in 1992 (I think) to promote Apollo 18, I had never heard them. Still, they came to SUNY Binghamton, where  I was a freshman, and lots of my friends were going. The show was right in the student union. Of course I went. And it was fantastic. I can't remember another time I went to see a band live whom I'd never seen or heard before and fell so thoroughly in love. I in particular loved this song, which had me (and everyone else) bouncing around the room like crazy people.

2) Like a lot of my favorite songs,"Ana Ng" is a perfect little self-contained story, though a weird one, I'll grant you. In this case, our narrator is in love with a woman who leaves clear on the other side of the planet, and he's never met her. Maybe they're pen pals, but I prefer to think it's some other kind of connection that is conceivably in the narrator's imagination. That idea, added with the lines "Who was at the Dupont Pavillion? Why was the bench still warm? Who had been there?" inspired me to take on perhaps the most challenging book idea I've ever had. I'll probably never finish it.

"Alison" by Elvis Costello, 1977

Thursday, September 19, 2013

There aren't all that many Elvis C. songs more famous than "Alison," his very first single, recorded even pre-Attractions. I guess "Pump It Up" gets more radio play. Maybe "Radio Radio" and "Watching the Detectives" come close. And now and then he records something new, which gets a lot of airplay but then vanishes in to obscurity, where frankly it probably belongs. (Case in point, this new one with the Roots. I think it's horrible.) I'm not actually sure "Alison" is the Elvis song I'd call the best. Not by a long shot. "Beyond Belief." "Shipbuilding." "Big Sister's Clothes." But they didn't make my list. Who can explain these things?

But back to "Alison." I had a dear friend during and after high school by the same name, with that extra common "l," and often, when I was bored, I'd call her up and sing this song into her answering machine. (Sometimes I'd sing "Alison's Starting to Happen" by the Lemonheads, but that didn't make the top-100 list.) When I think about it now--the song, that is--it makes me a bit uncomfortable, but it fits right in with Elvis and his Angry Young Man aesthetic: there's something vaguely misogynistic about these lyrics. While the narrator claims his aim is true, and seems to love Alison, he also wishes she would just shut her silly mouth. He also casts a dark eye on her former loves in a manner not entirely becoming, I'd imagine, to a woman being wooed.

Still it's a fine and brief pop song, deceptively simple, with really strong lyrics.

Next time, another love song, sort of, and a whole lot weirder. Think 1964 World's Fair.

"There's a New Girl in Town" by Linda Lavin, 1976

Friday, August 30, 2013

I don't even know what to say about this song, the third* song--alphabetically--on my Top-100 Songs list, the theme to the CBS sitcom that ran from 1976 till 1985, Alice.

My mom watched it for a few of those year. I remember that. I watched it with her a handful of times. We all remember "Kiss my grits!", right?

But I sure didn't remember (or particularly care about) the theme song. Then the internet and an explosion of mp3s turned up. I think it was in around the year 2002 that I downloaded from some website of probably ill repute a huge collection of TV theme songs. A few stood up for nostalgic reasons--like Silver Spoons, the theme of which should probably be on this list too but as of right now isn't; Alf, a show so miserably bad that I can hardly believe I watched every episode; Family Ties and Growing Pains, both with theme songs that have truly stood the test of time but still sound remarkably of their time, if that's possible--but Alice's theme stood out by sounding nothing at all like a TV theme, at least to my ears.

Linda Lavin, the show's star, sings the theme, which is an uptempo bluesy thing with a country tinge and lyrics aiming right at the heart of 1970s feminism. (The sitcom was based on the film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, which I've never seen but I suppose I should one of these days.)

*In my iTunes, this song is listed as "Alice," rather than as "There's a New Girl in Town." That's why it's third on the list. Forgive me!

"Alarm Call" by Bjork, 1998

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In 1993, a handful of CDs rotated in and out of my CD player. Their jewel case booklets decorated my dorm room's door. They were Hey Babe. They were Red Heaven. They were Blind. They were Star. They were Last Splash. They were Copacetic.

And they were Life's Too Good.

I loved this record. My sophomore year roommate has told me that, to this day, several of the CDs I put on repeat during my marathon afternoon naps/depressive states still bring him down, reminding him of the dark and musty room. Perhaps the Breeders, though I think he's a fan. Probably Belly. Definitely the Throwing Muses. But I cannot imagine that the nordic pop madness of the Sugarcubes could possibly bring him down. Bjork's infectious pixie voice and Einar Orn's mad rantings, along with a sound so exotic that compared to the distinctly American music I normally listened to, made this record and this band seem to soar above all the rest like heat lightning. Sure, it was already five years old by 1993. But it was new to me, and I spent hours on end with the CD on repeat, drifting in and out of NyQuil hazes and dreaming in Icelandic.

I'll probably say more about this album later, specifically "Delicious Demon," since it too is on the Top-100 List.

But in 1993, something else important happened, something I was really looking forward to: Bjork's Debut.

I hated it. HATED it. Where her voice used to bring girlish psychedelia to a frenetic new wave sound, here it was, on the first single "Human Behaviour," accompanied by an obnoxious techno--a dirty word among my ilk in 1993--tympani's BOOM BOOM and a video so bizarre that we'd often switch off 120 Minutes when it popped up, which it did quite often those first few weeks. I was done with Bjork--besides listening to Life's Too Good, which I still did.

So we fast forward. We fast forward to the new millennium, in fact, and we meet Vespertine through a friend at work. This was my second entree to Bjork and her genius. Yeah, I said it. Genius. Today I consider her one of the most original and groundbreaking artists in music. Vespertine became my new Life's Too Good in many ways. I let this album, full of electric clicks and unidentifiable sounds, somehow woven together to create some of the most beautiful and unusual music I'd ever heard, wash over me for weeks. During those weeks, I looked backwards--at Debut and Selmasongs, the soundtrack to a movie I'd loved, Post, full of amazing songs that nearly made the Top-100 as well, and finally Homogenic.

I loved them all, though probably not as much as Vespertine's magical beauty. Last year, though, as I worked through draft after draft of a new novel, a protagonist of which is a girl verily obsessed with Bjork's music, I found myself and the character returning to "Alarm Call." It was my character's ring tone; it became my ring tone. It's a song about humanity and joy, about finding happiness in music and by merely enjoying life, as if it's very simple. The song--and the character in the novel--would say it is very simple. A radio. Good batteries. A joyous tune: Free the whole human race from suffering.

Also it's got that "Beep beep. Beep beep. Beep. Beep beep. B-b-b-beep beep" thing. I car-dance to this one.

"A Sunday Kind of Love" by Etta James, 1961

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The first on the Top-101 List, in alphabetical order, is this standard song as performed (most famously) by Etta James.

I'll be totally up front: before a certain commercial that played incessantly in the year 2003 or so (I think it was for men's pants), the only Etta James tune I'd have known was her other perennial favorite, "At Last." But Beth and I spent a tremendous amount of time in 2003 watching TV. We watched all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We watched Sex and the City. We also watched Trading Spaces till our eyes bled. I'm assuming TLC ran the pants commercial a lot. "A Sunday Kind of Love" became one of our favorite songs, and probably our first "our" song. We connected with the lyrics--with this idea of the right, relaxed, long-term kind of love--so well, that when we got married in 2006, it was our first-dance song.

My 100 (and one) Favorite Songs of All Time

If you're my Facebook friend, you might have noticed, for much of the months of April, May, and June of this year, I was obsessing over a list of my own creation: My Favorite Songs of All Time.

These are not the best songs of all time. In fact, I consider a lot of my personal favorite songs to be, well, not very good. Several of my favorite bands (like Helmet and Hum) didn't make the list at all.

I went through my iTunes and my memory, adding songs as I went. At one point the list was over 300 songs. It took a good long while for me to narrow that down to a list close enough to 100 (104, to be precise) that I felt it was as tidy a list as I could make. I shared it on Facebook on June 15.

I've made a few changes to the list since then, removing a song or two, adding a song or two. (I knew it was time to remove something if, while listening to the playlist I made of these songs, I tended to skip a certain song. For several weeks, I listened to only this playlist, so this was by no means an easy test to pass. The songs that remain on the list have play counts now in the triple digits in the last couple of months alone, and I'm still not sick of them somehow.) The list now stands at 101 songs.

Over the next few months, I intend to blog as often as I find the time on each song from the list. But for today, I'll share a few statistics. Of the 101 songs on the list as it stands now (for it's never really final):

43 songs feature a woman (or girl) on lead vocals
2 songs have no vocals at all
20 songs have at least one guitar solo
5 songs have three guitar solos
7 songs feature a steel guitar
6 songs have no discernible guitar playing at all
10 songs are shorter than 2:30
2 songs are longer than 6:00
1 song won a Grammy
1 song has me singing back-up vocals

So watch this space for the complete and final (for now) list, day by day (when I have time). 


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fantastic fellow YA author Nova Ren Suma is celebrating the imminent release of her new novel 17 & GONE this week, and so has asked any number of her writerly friends to . . .  well, let’s let her tell us. She explains.
If Nova had asked what haunted me at 13, you’d get a ghost story. It would feature my late grandfather visiting me during my dreams and my waking hours, sometimes carrying his own head, usually smiling, and once looking at me as he stood above the bed with such scorn and disappointment that I closed my eyes and screamed until he was gone.
If Nova had asked what haunted me at 4, you’d get a story about a funny-smelling basement, a short-lived daycare center, and vague shadows on the faces of strange children and stranger adults.
But Nova asked what haunted me at 17, and there’s nothing vulgar or supernatural about it. At 17 I was haunted all day, every day. Fear crawled over every inch of body, inside and out, like tiny spiders tickling my soul, nibbling at my skin, devouring my heart.

Steve at 17

I might be overstating it, but only a little, and apologies for how emo we got there in the last paragraph for a minute. The point is, I wasn’t haunted by ghosts, and I wasn’t haunted by stranger-danger. I wasn’t haunted by anything so definable and tangible (is a ghost tangible? Grandpa seemed tangible) and defeatable. I was haunted instead by an impossible future.
This haunts everyone at 17, I suppose—anyway everyone I knew at 17, I realize now. It’s a rare and special adolescent who sees the mystery of adulthood and freedom and self-reliance and responsibility looming like the exit in a ¼ mile on the LIE that you have to get into the right lane for right now, and is not overcome with constant low-level anxiety and downright fear. I suppose this is why I find young adult fiction so compelling: it’s the time in our lives that seems so crucial, so particularly relevant, to what kind of child we’ve been, to what kind of adult we’ll become, to how we’ll turn our backs on those things and people that don’t fit our ideas about life and goodness, and how we’ll overcome the ones that stand in our way. The freedom of majority age and leaving home brings with it more than non-curfew and legally purchased cigarettes and voting and the open road and a place of our own; it also brings a new form of socialization, in which the walls of our school and the people within are no longer our only recourse. We move freely in the world, and we associate with whomever we like.
It’s exciting, of course, but it’s also terrifying. The rules will change. They’ll be malleable and unclear for many years—more years than we ever imagined as we grew up, watching our parents engage in this world beyond school. People often say, “If I only knew then what I know now,” the implication being that their younger days would have been easier and more easily navigable with the wisdom of their later years. Short of winning lottery numbers, though, I disagree. If I’d known at 17 what I know now—about how little guidance we really have as adults, how unclear it is whether we’re really adults at all and why, about the vagueness of expectations placed on us—I’d have been positively terrified and frozen.
So here's the irony. As teens, my friends and I fought back the fear with two substances, for the most part, as often as we could get away with it. We drank on weekends, smoked on weekdays and weeknights, and kept ourselves as comfortably numb as we could. But these things did nothing to slow the onset of the future; that's always coming at you, no matter what you do. No, these things instead removed the only thing we actually had, the only thing we could actually take part in, affect, and to some degree control: the present.
Yeah, so. Happy release day, 17 & GONE!

My new jam

Sunday, March 17, 2013

This Swedish pop tune is my new favorite song.