Archive for the ‘Today’s Top 5’ Category

When the history of 2020 is written, what will be said? That Rolling Stone released a remastered rendition of its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list? No, of course not – but it is a distraction from the machinations of the tinpot despot, so I’ll run with it. 

For those counting at home, this Top 500 is the magazine’s third stab at an all-encompassing album countdown. It first released a Top 500 in 2003, which was slightly tweaked in 2005 for a book, and then substantially reworked in 2012. The lists received just criticism, however, due to the artists being predominately white, male and rock-oriented. Artists of color, for example, made up a little more than a fifth of the featured acts, while women were less than 10 percent. As a result, this time around, the editors started from scratch. The introduction notes that “tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten” before explaining that Top 50 lists were solicited from “more than 300 artists, producers, critics, and music-industry figures.” The lists were tabulated and weighted, forming the basis for the 500, which was then kept in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls’ porch until September 22nd, when it was posted to the Web.

The main headline, I suppose, is that the list is indeed more diverse. Artists of color account for 33 percent of the 500, while women account for almost a fourth. (Note: my estimates are rough.) Also, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is now No. 1, supplanting the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which trips all the way out of the Top 20 to No. 24; it’s now deemed the third best Beatles album, behind Abbey Road (No. 5) and Revolver (No. 11). To my ears, What’s Going On is a vinyl paradox, forever timeless and timely; it’s never not relevant. I consider it one of the greatest albums of all time, so have no issues with its placement.

I also have no major issues with the overall order. These lists are not of “all time,” but of their time; they reflect the zeitgeist of the moment, and that moment is generally set by those younger than me. That said, the list is an ethnocentric enterprise, with its selections limited to albums that impacted U.S. music fans. For example, unless I missed one or both, the Jam and Paul Weller are MIA despite their success and influence in the U.K.; and the Stone Roses’ stellar debut, which routinely places at or near the top of U.K. best-album lists, ranks No. 319 here. The results also skew heavily towards Baby Boomer favorites, with 46 percent of the 500 hailing from the 1960s and ‘70s (less than in 2003, but still a lot), but that shouldn’t be a surprise – that’s when the album as an art form was at its zenith (now, too often, it’s little more than Spotify fodder). Also, I’d wager many of those polled first heard them (or songs from them) while driving with their parents, so there’s a nostalgia factor involved, too.

I do find the inclusion of recent albums to be annoying. As I explained in my post on NPR’s 150 Greatest Albums by Women list, the main reason for excluding a recent album is that “we don’t know whether it will, as most great albums do, grow stronger through the years or fall from favor.” It’s the difference between infatuation and love.

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Albums AWOL from Rolling Stone’s Top 500. They’re all past “essential” picks of mine; I’m listing them in alphabetical order. I should note that they hail from my personal Top 25 Albums off All Time list, where they share space with several hundred other albums. (As I joke somewhere, there are a lot of ties.) Also, they all hail from the 1980s, as the decade gets short-shrift in the countdown…

1) The Bangles – All Over the Place (1984). The Bangles rose from the ranks of the Paisley Underground to score some big hits by mid-decade, yet they’re routinely overlooked in these sorts of overviews. But, as their full-length debut ably demonstrates, they were nothing short of wondrous.

2) The Jam – Snap! (1983). I find the inclusion of compilations somewhat suspect on a list of all-time greatest albums, but if those are the rules of the road, then Snap! deserves inclusion. Simply put, it’s one of the greatest best-of compilations of all time.

3) Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ’N Roll (1981). As I say in my recap, “The pages of history textbooks are filled will legions of folks who shaped the world, but – academia being what it is – many important people receive cursory mentions or none at all. Like Joan Jett.” In short, she turned the world on with her guitar.

4) The Long Ryders – State of Our Union (1985). The Long Ryders never got their just due in the U.S., yet are a crucial link in the Americana timeline, one bridge (of several) between Gram and Uncle Tupelo. As I note in my piece, this album “integrates rock ’n’ roll, R&B, country and folk into a tasty whole, contains glorious guitar work and incisive lyrics, and features melodies that burrow into the brain like a groundhog beneath a back deck.”

5) Suzanne Vega – Solitude Standing (1987). Tracy Chapman’s debut is rightfully in the Top 500, though arguably too low at No. 286, but the artists who set the stage for that album’s mega-success during the “hair metal late eighties” (as RS stereotypes it) aren’t included. Suzanne Vega’s first two LPs were integral albums that helped shape the soundscape of the mid- and late ‘80s. This, her sophomore set, reached No. 11 on the album charts; and the single “Luka” reached No. 3. It’s a perfect album.

So, at some point in the 1990s, a well-lit Barnes & Noble bookstore opened its doors not more than 10 minutes from our domicile. There were copious magazine racks, shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books, wonderful books, and – perhaps most importantly to me – a cafe where one could browse possible purchases while sipping Starbucks-branded coffee, lattes and macchiatos. Most weekends, Diane and I could be found there, she making like a power reader while I leafed through magazines and downed various double-shot concoctions.

I’m not sure if we subscribed to the New Yorker at that point in time, though I know we did for a few years that decade. It matters not whether this part of the story occurred at home, while standing at the B&N magazine racks or in the cafe, however: I spotted (in the Sept. 11th, 1995 issue) Rob Nixon’s upbeat critique of British scribe Nick Hornby’s debut novel, High Fidelity, about a music obsessive’s journey into maturity. In part, the review read (and I’m lifting this direct from Hornby’s own website), “It is rare that a book so hilarious is also so sharp about sex and manliness, memory and music. Many men and, certainly, all addictive personalities will find in these pages shadows of themselves. And most of us will hear, in Hornby’s acoustic prose, the obsessive chords of the past that more often lock up than liberate our hearts.”

It seemed like something I might like, in other words. I located the book, flipped through it and decided to buy it. In the cafe, or perhaps in the main thoroughfare to the cafe, I shared my find with Diane. On the way home, we made a quick stop at the supermarket; while I ran in to get what we needed, she stayed in the car…and began to read the book.

I didn’t get it back from her until she finished.

High Fidelity was, is and will always be one of my favorite novels. The protagonist, Rob Fleming, owns a record shop staffed by music-crazed obsessives who, like him, use music as both a defense mechanism and escape hatch from life. He sorts through the frayed ephemera of past relationships to figure out why his present is filled with far too many pops, clicks and crackles; and, along the way, comes to an unsettling realization: A person’s taste in music doesn’t reflect anything but their taste in music.

In any event, I recognized the characters from a lifetime spent in musty-and-dusty record shops as well as, for a few years, managing the CD departments at two video-rental (and much cleaner) stores. They were my people, essentially; I traded tapes with customers, debated trivial matters with others, and – like Rob and his pals/employees – made tons of lists. On these shores, or at least in my circle, they were Top 10s as opposed to the book’s use of Top 5s, but that was it. Diane, a fellow music obsessive, was the same. A few years later, when I launched the original Old Grey Cat website, we even created a page that honored High Fidelity’s Top 5 concept (and I still honor it with my too-frequent Top 5 posts).

Five years later, the book was turned into a movie and Americanized, with John Cusack shepherding and protecting his emotions through music while figuring out how and why he’d made a mess of his life. We saw it in the theaters and, though we had our quibbles, liked it. A lot.

All of which leads to this: Earlier this year, I discovered that a High Fidelity TV series was set to premiere on Hulu. The dearth of originality in Hollywood has resulted in more trash than gems, so my initial reaction was to shrug it off. Why remake a semi-classic film? Then I read that the creative team had changed Rob from a guy to Zoë Kravitz and London/Chicago to Brooklyn. That the daughter of Lisa Bonet, who appeared in the film, stars in it made me feel old, but also clued me that the TV series was aiming for something more than a straight remake.

In the short term, it didn’t much matter: We were re-watching one of Diane’s favorite shows, The West Wing, anyway, and then we re-watched Homicide: Life on the Street, following it with Sex, Chips & Rock ’n’ Roll and other assorted older shows and movies. As we do. The High Fidelity TV series fell off my radar, in other words, and remained so until I read, just a few weeks back, that it had been cancelled.

We gave it a go that same week.

Like the movie, the TV series has Rob (short for Robyn) break the fourth wall – and, in one episode, allows her friend/employee Simon (David H. Holmes) to do the same. Kravitz is terrific, as is the supporting cast – Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Cherise, especially. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about the book is that it is specific to the male experience, but its overarching themes – fear of commitment, self-sabotage and qualms about adulthood and adult responsibility – are near-universal conceits. (The truth is, men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus; we both hail from Earth – and share 99.9 percent of the same DNA.) Certain aspects of the story differ because of the gender-flip, of course, but it remains true to Hornby’s core vision. At root, the new Rob – like the old Rob – is damaged. It’s not until she begins to make the necessary repairs that she has a shot at happiness.

Now, I wish we’d watched it right off the bat – if only to add one more viewer to whatever metric Hulu uses to decide what to renew or what to cancel. (Quality certainly isn’t among the reasons they rely upon; if they did, High Fidelity would be a no-brainer to bring back,)

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Songs About Music.

1) Diane Birch – “Jukebox Johnny.” Just yesterday, the Church of Birch pastor released this addictive tune about late-night salvation found in songs.   

2) Dobie Gray – “Drift Away.” A much-covered tune about losing one’s self in a melody, this rendition – a big hit in 1973 – was itself a cover version. Written by Mentor Williams (the brother of actor/singer-songwriter Paul Williams), it was first recorded by Clarence Carter in 1970 and then John Henry Kurtz in 1972.

3) The Kinks – “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” A classic Ray Davies ode to folks who turn to music for solace – and the price they pay. “There’s a guy in my block, he lives for rock/He plays records day and night/And when he feels down, he puts some rock ‘n’ roll on/And it makes him feel alright/And when he feels the world is closing in/He turns his stereo way up high…”

3) Simon & Garfunkel – “Late in the Evening.” A Paul Simon song from his 1980 One Trick Pony album/movie, this version from S&G’s legendary 1981 Concert in Central Park is equally evocative, conveying the utter magic and mystery of music and how it colors life for the better.

5) Patti Smith – “Land/Gloria.” Turn this up loud. In 2012, Patti toured as the opening act for Neil Young and Crazy Horse – and, as this fan-shot video shows, damn near blew those warhorses off the stage. (Note I say “damn near.”) Diane and I were at this show in Philly, and totally blown away by her performance – this song, especially. (Patti has said that “Land” is a metaphor for the birth of rock ’n’ roll, but all I know is it’s great.)

Of late, I fear my blog has become superlative central. Week after week after week, I laud and applaud select artists and albums, lavishing them with praise that, though neither feint nor faked, sometimes trades in the hyperbolic. There’s no getting around it, I’m afraid. Like many others, music has provided me much-needed solace during these tryin’ times, akin to God rays brightening the dreariest of days. I cherish the brief bursts of catharsis cracking through the dark clouds.

So, if my plaudits occasionally seem over the top, that’s why; I’m lost in the revelry of the moment. There’s also this, however: I rarely write about things I dislike. If I hear something that doesn’t suit my ears, I tend to set it aside and move on. (Thus, some albums folks may expect me to write about, as I championed the artists in the past, never appear in these pages.) Plus, as my ongoing Essentials and Of Concerts Past series show, much of the music I celebrate is mixed with memories of long ago; it’s easy to get lost in those. Earlier this week, for example, I found myself hummin’ a song from 1962…

…and indulged in some wistful nostalgia. (And, just as an aside, is there a better practitioner of that specific art than Bob Seger?) However, as often as not the music is new – Old Flowers by Courtney Marie Andrews and Free by Natalie Duncan are two examples, while Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks brings the past into the present with panache.

First Aid Kit’s recent rendition of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” does, too, while also making me yearn for a COVID-free future. Concerts are much missed.

The tunes need not be upbeat to steal one away from the immediate; sad songs work as well as happy. Either/or, they just need an oomph, which is near impossible to put into words beyond – to appropriate a phrase from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1915-85) – I know it when I hear it.

In some respects, I subscribe to Carl Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious, though I’m fairly certain that the collective shattered decades ago into hundreds upon hundreds of shards, some small, some large, akin to ice shelves breaking apart in the Arctic and Antarctica. While some shards have drifted far away, others are close enough together that one can hop between them; thus, whether the intangible oomph connects depends on a combination of chance, when one leaps and where one lands.

Anyway, in the days and weeks ahead, I plan to shift focus away from music and to some of the other stuff I occasionally write about, if only to cleanse the palate of the superlatives I’ve been tossing around. One guaranteed topic: James at 15 (later 16), an interesting – but not great – TV series that aired from 1977 to ’78 on NBC. Another: the documentary Seventeen, which explores the lives of teens in Muncie, Ind., during the early ’80s. I’ve also been thinking about baby boomers, Generation X and the micro-generation that lies between them, Generation Jones, and plan to apply my amateur anthropologist-psychologist training to each. (That’s a joke only James at 15 fans will get.)

Stay tuned…

Traditionally speaking, August is the cruelest month, accented by heat, humidity and thunderstorms. This year, however, it’s likely to be no less cruel than the months that preceded it; the Trump virus, aka COVID-19, has seen to that. As way of explanation: I found myself watching a bit of the day’s news last night; the increasing number of COVID-related deaths in the USA – 156,000 and counting – was the headline; experts are expecting exponential growth come fall, with the prospects of a quarter million or more dead by November.

Neil Young’s recasting of the Living With War song “Lookin’ for a Leader” sums up my feelings quite well: “Lookin’ for somebody/with the strength to take it on/keep us safe together/and make this country strong/walkin’ among our people/there’s someone to lead us on/lead a rainbow of colors/in a broken world gone wrong…”

In any event, each day seems the same as the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, as if Diane and I are trapped in a real-life Droste effect or, perhaps more apropos, Groundhog’s Day. Come 6am, for me, the same events play out in the same order: shower, make coffee, feed the cat, log into work, listen to music, play with the cat, log off of work, retrieve the mail, feed the cat, eat dinner, do the dishes, watch TV, placate the cat, fall into bed…and do it again tomorrow. Weekends aren’t that much different, except I work on the blog.

Yet, despite the sameness of daily existence, some good has percolated through the Internet and/or been delivered to my doorstep: the new Courtney Marie Andrews album, Old Flowers, is catharsis set to song and, as I wrote in my review, one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. Here she is on CBS This Morning performing one of its stellar tracks…

Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks, another recent find, is a delight; Liane La Havas’ self-titled set is wonderful, too; and, released just yesterday, the new Natalie Duncan album, Free, is an old-fashioned stunner. I plan to write about it tomorrow, but for now here’s one of its standout tracks…

Also: The groove machine known as the Stone Foundation has a new album, Is Love Enough?, slated for a September release. The latest teaser track from it, “Deeper Love,” features Paul Weller and is the sonic equivalent to a warm bath. It’s guaranteed to take away the aches of the day…

Last: the surprise release of Folklore by you-know-who. Fans were apparently so upset that the Pitchfork review graded it an 8 out of 10 that they threatened the writer with all kinds of craziness; some even called her at home to express their displeasure. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica also found the album a solid, not stellar, outing, setting off a similar firestorm. Me, I listened to it last Friday and thought that, like many albums of the modern age, its length was not a strength, but a hindrance. (Too much chaff, not enough wheat.) That said, the title tune is quite memorable…

(Oops… wrong “Folk Lore”!)

What else? I’m expecting the 50th anniversary edition of Roberta Flack’s First Take album any day now; here’s one of the previously unreleased songs included with it. Expect my thoughts on it next week.