BEA wrap-up!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

I swear I'll get back to my top-hundred songs series eventually, not as if you care, but for this evening I'm just grabbing a few minutes to blog about BEA.

We go most years. I'm from New York, and I'll take almost any excuse to get back there. This time, though, my mother is in the midst of packing up the Long Island house she's lived in for 38 years--the house I lived in from two to eighteen, and then sporadically even after that, during summers, long visits, and for a year when I was 26, very soon after my father died. This was our last trip back east staying in my childhood home.

Anyway so that's weird.

It was also our first trip back east with the new baby, who turned six months old during the trip. Also weird. But primarily a big pain in the butt when her nursing mother has to be on the floor at Javits for like 16 hours over two days.

I've digressed like crazy. Here was my literary time in New York, in a nutshell:

Last Wednesday, my esteemed editor Jordan Brown and I had a conversation/reading thing at McNally Jackson books in SoHo. I think it went pretty well. The writers in attendance included three of my faves--Crissa Chapel, Bennett Madison, and Nova Ren Suma--so that made the evening special right off the bat. And a very cool surprise for me: an old friend and former bandmate of mine who happens to be called Greg and happened to inspire (to a small degree) a character of that name in GUY IN REAL LIFE also showed.

Crissa took a photo while I was reading!

Nova took a photo too while Jordan was talking and glared I guess!

On Thursday morning, I was back in the city again, this time for a half-hour signing at BEA proper.

When Jordan informed me they'd scheduled a 30-minute slot for me, I was all, "Whew, because once I had an hour slot and no one came hardly and that is super depressing!" As it happened, though, the line was pretty strong this year, and I got to meet some people I've only ever tweeted with in the past, such as Katie Katherine Locke, aka @bibliogato.

Jordan took a photo of us!

THEN, after the 30 minutes were up and I still had a stack of books and a nice long line still waiting, the good people of BEA moved me to a vacant line so I could continue signing books for another 20 minutes, at which time we ran out of books.

And speaking of running out of books, the last three people in line--too late for the books, actually--were Sarah, Mandy, and Mandy of Forever Young Adult, the freshest YA review blog around. Jordan took a photo of us, too!

And have you seen their review? I'm a little into it.

Sadly, here endeth my BEAdventure this year, for with a mother packing and tossing and sorting through nearly 40 years of memories, and with a 5-year-old child who was growing more and more irritated with his parents' absence and the dusty boringness of Grandma's packing and tossing and sorting, I didn't do seriously a single iota of extra socializing with book people and missed a lot of really cool stuff.

Maybe next year.

"Love Will Keep Us Together" by Captain & Tennille, 1975

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

(I'm not sure if Carrie's repeatables thing is still happening, but I can't go back to the regularly scheduled alphabetical programming without focusing on this song.)

I had planned to highlight this song--written by Neil Sedaka, recorded by loads of people, a huge smash hit for Captain & Tennille, and parodied (sort of) by Joy Division--because it's the only song in my Top Hundred that is also a Grammy winner. How outta sight is that?

It's also the newest repeatable on this list. When I wrote Guy in Real Life, one scene in particular which anyone who's read that book will easily identify, I listened to this song incessantly. It stands out on a book-writing playlist filled otherwise with deathcore, Bjork, and Berlioz. After the book was done--like, done done: drafted, revised, copyedited, proofread--it is the only song on that playlist I can still listen to on repeat for an hour or more at a time. I cannot explain this, except that the keys are totally danceable and the bass line is a blast. Also it modulates I think, which is so fun sometimes. Shut up.

"I'm in the Mood for Love/Moody's Mood" by King Pleasure, 1952

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

(Like yesterday, I've skipped ahead in the Top Hundred to the next selection that was at one time or another in my life eminently repeatable, as I'm joining my friend Carrie in her series on aural obsessions.)

This entry writes itself. Or, more accurately, I already wrote this entry a couple of years ago for the soon-to-be-resurrected (so sayeth Bryan Bliss) I'm going to paste the story here, but first, here's the song. It's not the exact recording that I listened to repeatedly as a young man--old King Pleasure recorded this thing like a hundred times--but it's close.

I’m a shy Boy. I always have been. Open-house parties—the local parlance for “keggers” where and when I grew up—were an intimidating prospect, but an appealing one just the same. Where else could I expect to expand my social circle, pee in the woods, and kid myself into thinking I might work up the bravery to smooch some girl?
            Anyway, aside from peeing the woods, those things never happened. But I did learn a little about what I could expect from myself, anyway. And beer helped a lot.
            Sorry, Mom and moms. Yes, I had beers. Beers aplenty, all before I was even eighteen, and that wasn’t even the drinking age anymore anyway. So you can imagine how many beers I had before I was twenty-one! Oh my word.
            Where was I? Oh yes. Open-house parties and social lubricants.
            I’d better back up a moment and tell you this: The Gap ran a lot of TV ads back in the early 1990s. I imagine they still do, but who the hell sits through commercials on TV anymore? Not this guy. Back then, though—sure. We had five channels. We watched whatever they hell they put in front of us. Anyway, one such ad featured a montage of black-and-white photos of models in Gap clothes, I think. The music, though, I’ll never forget, because it was tune that has become so a part of me that to this day I know every word, every shift in pitch, every breath. I even sang it at my brother’s first wedding in a duet with my aunt.
            The commercial didn’t feature the whole song. It merely featured the first thirty seconds—not enough to even reach Blossom Dearie’s vocal part. My father, though, had quite a jazz vinyl collection, and it included no fewer than three versions of this apparently hit jazz tune by King Pleasure and Blossom Dearie. So I listened to the whole thing—constantly. I forced the song and all its lyrics and its melody deep into my gut and my heart. I was one with the song.
            So. Open-house party. Kegger. I think I remember whose house it was at. I know this was the night I first heard of “Special K,” aka cat tranquilizer, aka Ketamine. And here, moms and Mom, you may rejoice, because I did not partake of that drug that night, nor ever since. But many people did, as I recall, which meant my social anxiety went absolutely through the freaking roof.
            Keg parties where I grew up were generally held in backyards, lest partygoers jostle or break something important inside the house, where parents might notice upon their return from Europe, for example. This time, though, a select few kids were invited inside. After a few beers on the patio, I think I probably grabbed a mutual friend’s coattails and hobbled in as well.
            The TV was on in a big, well encouched family room. Everyone in the room, including myself, had by this time relaxed, either through pill or joint or beer, and the faces in the room were nearly expressionless as what had to be Saturday Night Live flashed before our eyes.
            Then it happened. The Gap commercial. It happened.
            Now listen. I was drunk. I was really about as drunk as I’d ever been in my (I’m guessing) seventeen years. If I hadn’t been, I might hummed along under my breath, or lip-synced even. But sing out loud? At the top of my lungs? Even after the thirty-second commercial was over, and well into Blossom Dearie’s section—in falsetto, mind you—until the very last line of the song?
            I never would have done that.
            Not without beer. (This probably sounds like a pro-beer story. It’s not. It’s an anti-fear story. Which, to some degree, is the same thing. I am going to get in big trouble. Don’t drink!)
            With beer, though, I sang out loud, and I sang out clear. Or as clear as you might expect a drunk seventeen-year-old to be. And I sang every word, and probably quite well. I’m not too shabby on the vocals, thankyouverymuch. By the time I was done, all eyes were on me, slouched in a leather sectional with a warm cup of beer in my hand. Saturday Night Live was back from commercial, but all eyes stayed on me.
            I grinned and took a sip of that warm beer. I hated beer then. Who didn’t at seventeen, especially that swill we always ended up sipping—Coors Light or MGD or Bud?
            Now, no one clapped. No one even smiled at me. One girl said, “Woah.” Then we went back to watching TV. But to me, things had changed. No one would forget I was at that party—as they probably had with every party I’d ever bothered showing up at. And that was something for a shy Boy.
            A couple of weeks later, I crashed my car into another kid’s car outside of a kegger—I mean, just the tiniest bit—and then tried to flee the scene right down a dead end. I didn’t get far and took a punch in the face for my trouble. So no one would forget I was at that party either. Not as fun, oddly.
Don’t drink, kids.

"I Can See It in Your Eyes" by Men At Work, 1982

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

(I've skipped ahead a bit, alphabetically, in order to post this with Carrie Mesrobian, who is revealing her list of oft-repeated writing tunes. When I'm done focusing on the most repeatable songs, I'll get back to where I left off. Read the first in Carrie's series.)

This song is kind of super important to me. I've never come up with a good explanation for why it completely devoured me when I was freaking eight years old. It makes no sense. It's a fairly mature love (end-of-love) song, lyrics-wise, by a band that, if not for a couple of (let's face it) novelty tracks, would have remained in relative obscurity outside of their native Australia.

But for some reason this track--at first just its ridiculously 1980s guitar solo, and eventually the whole song--leapt out at me as something different and special, distinct from the other songs on the LP, which I've had since 1982. (It still plays all right in spite of my tossing the paper sleeve inside the cardboard sleeve because when I was eight I thought you were supposed to throw that part out. I don't know.)

Anyway, in keeping with the spirit of Carrie's new series, I give you "I Can See It in Your Eyes," my first musical obsession and, without question, the song that has received the most repeated plays in my lifetime--and considering that the first thousand of those were on vinyl, please appreciate what a pain in the ass that was for an eight-year-old.

"Gypsy" by Suzanne Vega, 1987

Saturday, March 8, 2014

This might be the best song ever by anyone. I don't have anything else to say because I couldn't possibly say enough so I won't say anything. I really shouldn't have even included it on this list. It's not even fair to other songs or to my blog or even to me because I can't.

Suzanne Vega - Gypsy from Ryan B. on Vimeo.

"Groove Is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite, 1990

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

It's got everything: most danceable beat of all time, hot vocals, Q-tip rap, Bootsy and Maceo, and the maddest video on Mtv in 1990.

I drove with a friend of mine to Albany to visit the SUNY there in 1991. The only tape we had in the car was the cassingle of "Groove Is in the Heart" and we listened to it over and over. In 1991, you can believe that was waaaaaaay outside the box for me, since I'd been a classic rock fan and specifically a Dead Head for the last several years. Modern music seeped very slowly into my brain, and something featuring sampled beats and rapping was so out of my comfort zone . . . seriously I can't overstate how weird it was at the time.

Anyway it's obviously ridiculous and perfect so here's the mad video.

"Gorecki" by Lamb, 1997

Friday, February 28, 2014

(Boy was I off on the year with this one. I didn't hear this song until about 2001.)

As I work my way down this list, I've been pretty confident with my choices. A few absences, and a few cuts I might replace with a different cut by the same artist, have been apparent, but not glaring and I'm not even 100 percent confident that I'd make any change. With this track, though, I'm a little hesitant to include.

Until I opened my iTunes and put it on. And from the very first trip-hop strain, it's pretty perfect and impossible to turn off. It's all atmosphere and beats and sultry breathy vocals and symphonic (Henryk Górecki's Third, to be specific) samples, more and more intense as it climbs through its almost three and a half minutes. I only wish it didn't fade out at the end. It ought to have a proper finish.

"Get Older" by Matthew Sweet, 1995

Thursday, February 27, 2014

This is my favorite Matthew Sweet song, unless my favorite Matthew Sweet song is "Someone to Pull the Trigger." It probably depends on how morose I'm feeling at any given time.

Right from the jangly opening into the blast of (Richard Lloyd's? Robert Quine's? Anyway some brilliant lead player from the CBGB scene) lead guitar line to the vamping and throbbing one-piano-note finish, this song is pure Matthew Sweet pop perfection. Also its lyrics are straight-up It Gets Better like fifteen years before the It Gets Better campaign.

"Frank Mills" by James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot, 1967

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hair was a great obsession of mine, somewhere in the middle of my high school years. I saw it produced live twice, but opportunities to do so were rare, so typically I appeased myself by listening to the Broadway soundtrack over and over. And over. (Never the movie soundtrack, which was deeply inferior.)

Most of that LP I can take or leave nowadays, preferably leave, but "Frank Mills," being an understated, sweet-without-being-sickly, perfect little pop song, has stuck with me. In college, when I'd probably all but forgotten about Hair, I stumbled across the Lemonheads version, and it all came rushing back to me. (Evan Dando has a talent for picking great songs to cover.) Still, in spite of my love for all things Lemonheads, the original soundtrack recording is still and by far the best version I've heard. Shelley Plimpton's voice is the perfect one for this song, and she kills it.

"Fool in the Rain" by Led Zeppelin, 1979

Monday, February 24, 2014

The last single of the band's lifetime, and never performed live, "Fool in the Rain" is not a typical Led Zep song. It's in 12/8 time, and has a little bit of a samba feel happening, far removed from the heavy blues-based sound we normally think of as Led Zeppelin. Sure, it's 1979, so we've already seen Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti, both of which were nothing like the blues-only days of the turn of the previous decade, but "Fool in the Rain" also has a sense of humor, in its melody, rhythm, and lyrics, which is something Led Zeppelin hadn't done much before, but did plenty of on In Through the Out Door, their 1979 LP and the album I listened to most toward the end of my intense Zeppelin fandom.

How much do I really have to say about Led Zeppelin? The music:

"Children Will Listen" by Stephen Sondheim, 1986

Saturday, February 22, 2014

(This song caused an alphabetizing burp because the version on my iTunes is called "Finale: Children Will Listen.")

Into the Woods is probably my favorite musical. It's a close call with other Sondheim, who is really the only Broadway composer I can listen to repeatedly and often. I saw the show on Broadway twice, once with the original cast and then again when Vanessa Williams played the witch in 2002. I prefer Bernadette Peters, who opens this song in the original cast before it becomes an ensemble piece.

But what's so effective about this song is its quietness, which is why I often would rather hear a singer alone perform this. The haunting lyrics warn the listener in that way Sondheim does so well. (See "Not While I'm Around" for another prime example.) Children will listen, Sondheim tells us, but not to lectures and rules. Rather they listen and learn those things we wish they wouldn't: Careful before you say "Listen to me," and it's all done to a lilting lullaby of a melody.

I can't link to the Broadway version, but it's on Netflix and turns up with about 6 minues left in the show.  Found it!

Here's Mandy Matinkin hamming it up on Larry King:

And here's Bernadette in a live performance:


Thursday, February 20, 2014

An (undoubtedly) incomplete list of songs sung by men in a dramatized attempt to get a woman (or girl) who has probably already said no into bed:

"Only the Good Die Young" by Billy Joel
"What's Your Name" by Lynyrd Skynyrd
"Your Love" by the Outfield
"Paradise by the Dashboard Light" by Meatloaf
"Come on Eileen" by Dexys Midnight Runners (which I wish had a comma in the title but doesn't and is therefore even grosser)
"Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke, obviously
"Baby, It's Cold Outside" by just about everyone
"Please Please Me" by the Beatles, which is debatable but read the lyrics

Add more in the comments.

"Famous Blue Raincoat" by Leonard Cohen, 1971

(This time, I had no idea of the year.)

I am not a Leonard Cohen fan, and this time I'm being very upfront not about my distaste for his music, which is not the case, but about my lack of education in the man's work.

This song came to me through Twitter only a couple of years ago, when I asked for help coming up with songs to add to a playlist meant to put me in mind of winter for a work-for-hire book I was writing that I wanted to have a bleak and wintery feel. (The playlist worked well. It's a very bleak book.) At the time, I knew only "Everybody Knows" and "Hallelujah," songs I'd known at least peripherally since college and that never really interested me much. If I'm honest, I don't think "Famous Blue Raincoat" would have interested me much in my younger days either. I'm sure young Leonard Cohen fans exist, but I needed a few more years of life experience to get it.

"Fallin'" by De La Soul and Teenage Fanclub, 1993

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

(I missed the year by one.)

I knew there's be a TFC song on this list, but I never thought it would be this one. I listened to Bandwagonesque, Thirteen, and Grand Prix many times, and every track was eventually whittled off the list.

This track, though, which is really more of a De La track, I suppose, refused to be cut.

The soundtrack to Judgement Night, a movie I've never seen, had very high ideals. Though the rock-rap thing had begun years before (I'm thinking Run DMC and Aerosmith), the rock press has often given this soundtrack credit for a lot of the late 1990s and early 2000s rap-rock/nu-metal/Limp Bizkit sound.

Maybe it's true. I can hear it a little in the Helmet/House of Pain cut "Just Another Victim." But it's definitely not apparent in this track, which is laid back and relaxed, without an iota of the aggression typical of the rest of the LP or the genre that came to be known as nu metal. ("Just Another Victim" is the only other track on the soundtrack I like, but it didn't hold up well enough to make the Top 100.)

Anyway here it is, Daisy Dukes* and all. (It's mortifying how much TFC looks like the Spin Doctors in this video.)

*The video I find has a fade out a little earlier than the LP track, so we don't get to here Plugs One and Two praise the girls with the Daisy Dukes on at the end, which is too bad 'cause they're having a lot of fun.

"Extraordinary Machine" by Fiona Apple, 2005

Monday, February 17, 2014

(Got the year right again. NBD at this point, I know.)

I am not a Fiona Apple fan. I don't have anything against her, you understand. It's just that nothing she's recorded has really leapt out at me, from the very beginning to the present day, with one exception: the title track from her 2005 LP Extraordinary Machine.

The first time I heard this was probably December of 2005. I was in Maine, in the backseat of a friend's car on the way to do some skiing, and I couldn't believe it was Apple when he told me it was. He tried to play the rest of the LP for us that ride, and maybe he did a little, but I know I had him play "Extraordinary Machines" over and over, as well.

This song is magical. It's like some alternate-dimension version of what pop music on Earth sounds like. The orchestration, the style of her voice, the lyrics, the rhythm of the vocal part: it's all so distinct, not only from other popular music, but from Apple's other music. The rest of LP reaches for this quality, but never quite gets there. If the top-100 list were to be trimmed to only ten, this track would almost definitely remain. It's special.

"Drown" by Son Volt, 1995

Sunday, February 16, 2014

(Got the year right again. This one's especially easy because I know this record's promotional copies went out the summer of 1995 when I was an intern at Mammoth Records' New York publicity office. Son Volt weren't a Mammoth act, but publicists and PR people send each other promo copies pretty regularly, and one of the two paid people in the office, the head of press then for Mammoth, had this LP in the regular office rotation. It got under my skin.)

This was my first exposure to "no depression," the genre, sometimes called alt country, and from here I got my hands on every Uncle Tupelo LP, Wilco, and then some. (I even started an alt country band the second I finished college. We weren't half bad.) But Jay Farrar has always been the best this bunch has to offer. His work with UT is their best work. His post-UT band Son Volt, though nowhere near as successful as Wilco, was to me far more compelling, and his solo LPs are more challenging, more interesting, and more important (sorry) than anything else in this paragraph.

"Drown" was the single off Son Volt's first LP Trace. I don't think it's the best song on that LP, and I don't know why it made this top-100 list instead of "Windfall," for example, which has a much stronger significance in my mind on a personal level. The only real memory I have of "Drown," aside from its obvious rockingness, is when my then-girlfriend and then-drummer decided that it sounds like Everclear, making me hate them both for at least one evening.

"Driveway to Driveway" by Superchunk, 1994

Saturday, February 15, 2014

(Once again I knew the year without looking it up. I'm beginning to think the odds of that happening are tilted extremely in my favor since most of the songs on the Top-100 list hold some kind of personal significance that I can trace to a specific era of my life. In this case, I was DJing at WHRW, the public radio station on campus at SUNY-Binghamton (now Binghamton University, puke).)

So. I've been looking forward to this song on the list. Not sure why. Maybe because it has a pretty sweet video to link to. Maybe because I feel like it's so atypically Superchunk: Yes, it does boast a pretty sweet lead guitar line whose time signature is a little wacky, but its aggression and angst levels are way below the Superchunk average, and it's SO SLOW.

Anyway, that lick and the chiming second guitar that strolls along with it and extra guitar that rings out at the end of the lick and the drunken vibe of the whole song and the falling rhythm guitar of the chorus and the one-chord chunking to close the chorus and the lonely bass line and ding-dong rhythm guitar at the end of the song. That wasn't a sentence. Here's the video:

"Delicious Demon" by Sugarcubes, 1988

I love this song from the Icelandic band's debut LP for three distinct reasons:

1. Bjork.
2. My brother was three years old when I was born and for at least a little while couldn't say "Baby Steven." He said, "Baby Demon," and my family, father especially, continued to call me that well into my teens.
3. The last 18 seconds, when the off-kilter drumbeat collapses into a straight back-beat as Bjork shrieks, "Delicious OH! Here he comes again! WAOHH!", is the best thing ever.

"Crazy Love, Vol. II" by Paul Simon, 1986

Thursday, February 13, 2014

First of all, very proud of myself for knowing the release year of Graceland without having to google it. Second, it is my only slightly educated opinion that said LP is Paul Simon's best work as a songwriter. His lyrics are inventive, direct, crisp, and moving. The use of visual imagery and metaphor is above and beyond most of else I've heard from him or otherwise. (See the previous entry for the one singer-songwriter that I feel competes with this LP, and probably she wins, but I digress.)

"Crazy Love, Vol. II" begins with perhaps my favorite lyric of all time: "Fat Charlie the Archangel sloped into the room." As an author it has been my career-long dream to work "sloped into the room" into a manuscript without blowing it. I hold out hope.

Beyond that, the playful lead guitar line, the song's sense of humor, the rich cast of characters, including Fat Charlie, the narrator (probably one and the same), and their soon-to-be-ex-wife, create a song that is, at its heart, deeply unfunny, yet manages to feel like the lightest--the airiest--track on this LP. (Maybe "You Can Call Me Al" is lighter. It's certainly poppier. Lighter is debatable, but I think it's unfair to call that song lighter because Chevy Chase is in the video and I know that's what you're thinking.)

Anyway, here's "Crazy Love, Vol. II":

"Cracking" by Suzanne Vega, 1985

Thursday, February 6, 2014

It's an odd little song. It's short at two and a half minutes, but feels much shorter, and Vega talks the lyrics like a poet, rather than sings them, and it's on her eponymous debut, which also has the minor hit "Marelene on the Wall" and the song that should be on my top-100 but for some reason isn't, "The Queen and the Soldier."

"Cracking" opens the LP, and it does it masterfully. Because it's mostly spoken instead of sung, and because it's so sparsely arranged, with almost no drums, and with a casual bass line and long-sustaining synth calls, "Cracking" brings the listener into the record carefully, like the lyrics say--walking on ice. And between each verse, Vega coos a lilting "ahh," until the last verse (there is no chorus), when the bass begins striking its fifths.

The listener has the impression that our narrator--the voice we'll listen to for the next 35 minutes--is afraid, tentative, and that mood pervades the whole album, with one major exception, which this song sets up: those lilting "ahh"'s, and that last verse, which Vega sings instead of speaks, bringing out the melody as if it had been there all the time if only she hadn't been so afraid. Throughout the LP, the melodies are either stark and jagged, or they are lilting and beautiful, and where one feels afraid, the other feels in love.

That's the theme of the song's lyrics, too, of course: finding the beauty after moving tentatively through the fear.

I could go on and on about this LP. It's one of the best ever recorded. The following track, taking its cue from "Cracking"'s ice themes, is called "Freeze Tag." That track snaps, "I will be Dietrich and you can be Dean," and is followed by that minor hit "Marlene [Dietrich] on the Wall."

Here's "Cracking" live:

"Circle" by Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, 1988

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

One of the reasons I started this list was to see what songs my brain and body and heart really went for if all the potential embarrassment went out the window.

I was a freshman in high school when Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars came out, and I was already slipping comfortably into a neo-hippie, tie-dying wearing idiom, listening to the Dead and Pink Floyd and classic rock radio. As modern bands went, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians was a pretty easy step for me. You'll recall the guitar solo from the LPs lead single, "What I Am," was essentially a Jerry Garcia homage.

Most of that LP--and this isn't my pride talking--I can take or leave nowadays, preferably leave. But "Circle," which was everyone's favorite song on that album back in the day, still sticks with me. The LP turned up again in my life as a freshman in college, when groups of us neo-hippies would sit around listening to or singing "Circle" in particular along with our Indigo Girls favorites, and I associate the song vaguely with independence and new crushes and all that sort of freshman-in-college stuff.

Also I still really like her sultry hippie voice. So sue me.

"Call Me" by Throwing Muses, 1986

Monday, January 20, 2014

I've already talked about Kristin Hersh in this series of posts. This song, from her band's eponymous debut in 1986, is a perfect representation of the band's sound in its earliest years: Dave Narcizo's nearly cymbal-less drumming pounds like Hersh's bipolar heart; Leslie Langston's driving bass lines guide the song from mountaintop to valley in spite of Hersh's angular and sort of formless guitar playing; and Hersh's voice and lyrics are haunting, complex, and mad.

"Brass in Pocket" by the Pretenders, 1979

Saturday, January 18, 2014

What can you say about Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders? As far as I'm concerned, she's the first lady of rock and roll, the ultimate hard-working, ass-kicking rock vocalist and songwriter, and the only permanent member of the Pretenders. She is the Pretenders. I hear her influence in everyone from Pat Benatar to Kristin Hersh to KT Tunstall.

I might have chosen "Don't Get Me Wrong" or "Chain Gang" if I'd made this list in a different mood. In fact, Learning to Crawl and Get Close are two of my favorite LPs of all time, and any number of tracks from either record wouldn't be a huge stretch to show up on this list.

The original video for "Brass in Pocket" is a classic, and it's below, but I'm also adding a recent live performance so you can see how much ass Hynde still kicks.

"Brand New Love" by Sebadoh, 1992

Friday, January 17, 2014

[I actually thought I'd finish blogging about my top-100 songs some time in the fall. Whoops.]

I first heard this song on Tossing Seeds, the compilation of Superchunk early 7-inch and EP releases. They covered Sebadoh, as a lot of the great artists of indie rock did back in the mid 1990s. I remember my cousin saying, "Have you notice how many people cover Sebadoh?" I had not noticed. I was not a Sebadoh fan until I picked up Bakesale in 1994, and I still think of that LP as their best. (Sorry, Gaffney.)

I bought Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock years later. By then I'd heard "Brand New Love," owing to how much I'd wore down the digital grooves on my copy of Tossing Seeds, but the original Sebadoh version is an entirely different experience. It begins empty and far away, with one sad little guitar lick, and then the bass and drums that make it somehow sadder. Lou Barlow is in typical indie-emo form, his voice as emotionally low as it gets. The lyrics, too, are angry and stark, cynical and decidedly anti-love. When the snare roll and overdrive guitars come in for the chorus, with a decent pair of headphones or your speakers way up and the couch and house to yourself, the noise and melody and drone is a singular experience.

New Year

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year.

2013 was a big year, but all of it was about as personal as it comes. Some of it was awful (medical stuff; we survived), and some of it was awesome (baby girl born two days before Thanksgiving), so all in all it's a year that I can't sum up with "great" or "terrible" or even something as basic as memorable, simply because there was so much I'd like to forget. It was simply BIG.

2014 can't be as big, and that's fine. We're hoping for a basic year: a book release, a new kindergartener, a baby who will smile and walk and maybe talk--all good things, but things that won't strike us at the very marrow, that won't be life or death, that won't have us lying in bed at all hours, staring into the blackness, quiet together, wondering if the next day will bring a precipice or sturdy bridge, a guillotine or a stay of execution.

Wow, that was dramatic. I'll get back to that top-100-songs list any day now. Meanwhile here's a wish:

  --Randall Jarrell

"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.