This Christmas I handed out two homemade mix CDs to friends and family: one has the unoriginal title “Alternative Nation,” and the other, “Robert’s Robyn,” recreates critic Robert Christgau’s preferred version of Robyn’s Body Talk. Three years ago I handed out fun single-CD histories of both rap and jazz, and this is my attempt to make it some kind of holiday tradition. I also asked my friend, visual artist Wes Stitt, to provide album covers for this year’s selections; the cover for “Robert’s Robyn” is posted above.
As you may expect, “Alternative Nation” is an overview of early ‘90s rock, which we called “alternative” back in the day, though that label doesn’t seem as necessary or descriptive now as it once was. Here’s the track list:
1. R.E.M., “Pop Song 89”
2. Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole”
3. Sonic Youth, “Kool Thing”
4. Pixies, “Velouria”
5. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
6. Pearl Jam, “Alive”
7. Ministry, “Jesus Built My Hotrod”
8. L7, “Pretend We’re Dead”
9. Radiohead, “Creep”
10. Smashing Pumpkins, “Today”
11. Liz Phair, “Divorce Song”
12. The Breeders, “Cannonball”
13. Beck, “Loser”
14. Soundgarden, “My Wave”
15. Hole, “Miss World”
16. Pavement, “Gold Soundz”
17. Veruca Salt, “Seether”
18. Green Day, “Burnout”
19. Elastica, “Connection”
20. PJ Harvey, “Down by the Water”
Perhaps it would have been hipper of me, and maybe even easier, to compile mostly lesser-known favorites for this CD. But I decided instead to stick with the fairly obvious stuff, presented chronologically. Except for “Down by the Water,” the songs end in 1994, which is the year many of my friends and I graduated from high school. I expected the CD to be nostalgic, and I expected it to rock, but I didn’t expect so many of the songs to be feminist and political, and then, further, to present these lyrical themes so baldly on each song’s surface. While I read plenty of press at the time concerning the “apathy” of such songs and performers, I didn’t remember this apathy carrying so much philosophical and political weight. And where hits by Tracy Chapman, Midnight Oil, Springsteen and Mellencamp from the ‘80s brought attention to the Other who struggled to get by both emotionally and economically within a large, relatively wealthy Western society, these ‘90s writers scoffed at the validity of the entire Western system and presented mainstream society as the Other. They naturalized what was once considered the margins, both musically and lyrically. And many of them were funny about it. And smart. Super smart.
None of this is news, of course, but I was surprised to realize just how present this ideology remains in the musical artifacts. R.E.M. parodies small talk and the basic assumption that verbal communication is inherently effective in “Pop Song 89.” Sonic Youth ends the bridge of “Kool Thing” with the sarcastic, “when you’re a star, I know that you’ll fix everything,” which digs hard into the self-righteousness of such late ‘80s star-activists as Sting and Peter Gabriel. L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead” is a call to political action: the title hook is set up by, “they’ve got us in the palm of every hand (when we)” and continues, “they can’t hear a word we said/when we pretend we’re dead.” And I’m convinced Veruca Salt’s “Seether” is about the very real fear surrounding the untapped power of the feminine spirit.
And so on. Even less direct songs such as “Loser” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are wracked with disillusionment, and yet the speakers do not come across as powerless. At the time I figured the apathy discussed was a kind of resignation. But now I don’t think so. I think it was an assertion that a better world requires changes at a fundamental level. And in retrospect that fundamental change seems to have been a dislodging of the primacy of modernism in our daily lives. Not that we aren’t still trying to do things better, faster and stronger. But modernism isn’t the driving engine of mainstream society like it once was. Formally marginalized boutique cultures have an economic and social validity now that was not present in the 1980s. And I think this music provided a commentary for that change.
The second CD, “Robert’s Robyn,” was originally a gift to me from Robert Christgau. I met and interviewed him just after Christmas 2010, and before I left he handed me a couple of mix CDs. (I think these are CDs he was mailing to friends and family for Christmas that year.) Besides Robyn, he also gave me a Das Racist mix alluded to in the title of his review of their first two mixtapes. Anyway, I wanted to share this with my own friends and family because meeting my idol was a big deal, and I consider this gift from him a symbol of what I now consider a friendship. So here you have a small piece of an important moment in my life. The track list itself was later published in an essay for Christgau’s Rock & Roll & column at Barnes & Noble Review. Read the essay for an explanation of the CD.
Both mix CDs are burned from Apple Lossless files and are therefore CD quality. So enjoy! And Merry Christmas!
To the apparent surprise of many of his readers, Robert Christgau posted a rather positive review of Rihanna’s latest album Talk That Talk on his Expert Witness blog two weeks ago. In the comments section, several of Christgau’s fans complained of how R.’s music is beyond terrible because 1. it is hopelessly derivative of other, better music, and, 2. tracks such as “Cockiness” and “Birthday Cake” are too overtly sexual to be of any aesthetic value. Me, I immediately put “Cockiness” and “Birthday Cake” on repeat because I find them both exhilarating on a formal level, and, truth be told, crass sex talk doesn’t really bother me very much, especially when said sex talk includes puns and wordplay. So I posted a rundown of musical events in “Cockiness” that I find particularly meaningful, and I presented my analysis in the best way I know how: via terms and methods associated with academic musicology. Here’s an excerpt:
I have a particular skill set, and music like “Cockiness” and “Cry Me a River” and “A Milli”—to choose three seemingly unrelated songs—make my brain get a buzz on in a way that I don’t read about too often. I streamed “Cockiness” for a third time today just to see if its novelty had worn off, but I still totally love it. I typed some notes as I listened, and here’s the cleaned up version:
The first thing I love is the 3 against 4 “chop. chop. chop.” sample that underlies much of the song; you notice it most when it is left unadorned right at the end. I love when producers do this at the ends of songs—Timbaland does the same thing with “Cry Me a River,” when he strips away each layer near the end to reveal the song’s astonishing, effortless complexity. I also love the fanfare horns and the “YOU!” samples that punctuate the lyrics in the pre-chorus.
Another fun surprise is the song’s structure. When you map it out, it’s not like, “wow, such complexity!” But where the different parts fall in the series compliments the whole brilliantly. It opens with a brief intro, then we get the main refrain, a verse with killer call and response in R.’s trademark vocal effect, a “pre-chorus” with the aforementioned horns and “YOU!,” and then the “I love it when you eat it” before returning to the refrain again to repeat the sequence. Then we get a bridge or “development,” then pre-chorus, “love it,” and outro breakdown. Each piece is very different, but each also fits together with the whole perfectly, and with harmony that is never actually performed; it is only suggested by the melody. Listen close and there is very little toned music aside from the voices, some of the sound effects, the “chop.” sample, and the toned bass drum. Which is kind of like “Single Ladies,” but with elements that sound less disparate to these ears. It reminds me more of “A Milli.”
I didn’t intend my post to stir up too much controversy, but it did, and the subsequent debate concerning the value and assumptions of such formal analyses of music was compelling and valuable if you enjoy discussing aesthetics. On Christgau’s blog, readers are able to thumb up or thumb down comments if they wish, and within a few minutes I had already earned a thumb down. I expected a few of these, but what I didn’t expect is for Christgau himself to immediately, and sharply, criticize the aforementioned thumb bomber, calling him or her “a know-nothing and an imbecile.” In a later post he explained that what I had written could not be refuted with just a simple thumb-bomb: that he believed my formal discussion of favorite musical events was a list of facts, and that—as long as they are accurate—could therefore not be disagreed with.
Just as compellingly, however, the thumb-bomber in question, who goes by the handle Jackson Cage, fessed up to his crime and subsequently wrote a strong defense of his opinion. He complained that my post was arrogant because of how I introduced myself as a musicologist with special skills—a detail I included so as to justify my inclusion of a potentially controversial formal analysis (see Not. Milo. Miles. post for an explanation). Jackson C., however, thought I was simply showing off how I could complete an intellectual task I expected others were not intelligent enough to do on their own, which irritated him. But, ultimately, he seemed most frustrated by how my analysis did not add up to anything of value—that I simply stated information about the song rather than actually cracking open the song’s meaning and larger value. At first I disagreed with this—I explained that the musical events create musical meaning in and of themselves, and that the matter needn’t be elaborated upon further. “Sometimes sounds are pretty when put together in a clever manner,” was the extent of my reasoning. And I left it at that.
But now I think Jackson Cage’s criticism pointed out a serious flaw in my reasoning, and now I agree my analysis was indeed missing something important. I was making too broad of an assumption concerning musical meaning and how that meaning is produced in my mind grapes. Though I still believe the formal elements in R.’s song are what arouse my cranium’s spongy head, I don’t think it’s just the confluence of these events that provides for me such a reaction—by which I mean that it takes more than just the impressive and efficient combination of musical ideas to excite me as much as this song does.
"There seems to be something in the chill breezes which scurry through the long, narrow thoroughfares productive of rueful thoughts. Not poets alone, nor artists, nor that superior order of mind which arrogates to itself all refinement, feel this, but dogs and all men. These feel as much as the poet, though they have not the same power of expression. The sparrow upon the wire, the cat in the doorway, the dray horse tugging his weary load, feel the long, keen breaths of winter. It strikes to the heart of all life, animate and inanimate. If it were not for the artificial fires of merriment, the rush of profit-seeking trade, and pleasure-selling amusements; if the various merchants failed to make the customary display within and without their establishments; if our streets were not strung with signs of gorgeous hues and thronged with hurrying purchasers, we would quickly discover how firmly the chill hand of winter lays upon the heart; how dispiriting are the days during which the sun withholds a portion of our allowance of light and warmth. We are more dependent upon these things than is often thought. We are insects produced by heat, and pass without it."
— Theodore Dreiser, in Sister Carrie, pp. 87-88. Hey, maybe capitalism and Christmas aren’t such a bad combination.
"The finale in an automated parking garage in Mumbai (yes, the movie goes from Dubai to Mumbai) suggests the rising and falling elevators of ‘Donkey Kong,’ and the suspense is heightened — as is everything else — by composer Michael Giacchino, who does more variations on Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme than Beethoven did on Diabelli’s."
— David Edelstein, in his review of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, published in New York Magazine. More variations on the M:I theme “than Beethoven did on Diabelli’s”! Tee-hee!
"We discovered and enjoyed the only true Bohemia. Every day and night we repaired to one of those palaces of marble and glass and tilework, where goes on a tremendous and sounding epic of life. Valhalla itself could not be more glorious and sonorous. The classic marble on which we ate, the great, light-flooded, vitreous front, adorned with snow-white scrolls; the grand Wagnerian din of clanking cups and bowls, the flashing staccato of brandishing cutlery, the piercing recitative of the white-aproned grub-maidens at the morgue-like banquet tables; the recurrent lied-motif of the cash-register—it was a gigantic, triumphant welding of art and sound, a deafening, soul-uplifting pageant of heroic and emblematic life. And the beans were only ten cents."
— O. Henry, in his short story “The Plutonian Fire.” The quote is from p. 8 in Selected Stories of O. Henry, as published by Barnes & Noble Classics. Delicious descriptions of sound punctuated by the brilliantly unpretentious last line. Hilarious!
"[Ellen] Willis’s partisans aver that she got out [of rock criticism] while the getting was good, while [Paul] Nelson’s mourn the loss of his genius. I believe the opposite. Nelson was right to get out. Rock’s hero quest has been a dead end since circa 1980 — there’s Springsteen, that’s one, and then there’s, well, Bono, who it’s impossible to imagine Nelson taking seriously for a host of reasons good and bad. But I think Willis would have been better off staying. She was a powerful thinker, and though she never wrote enough she almost always wrote well when she did. But as someone who spent 15 years extricating himself from her politics and is so glad he did, I say continued attention to her beat would have changed those politics for the better, sensitizing her to mass pleasures, countercultural anxieties, class antagonisms, and racial contradictions she lost touch with. Mere attention wouldn’t have done it, though — she would have had to enjoy it. And it’s my guess that for writers as gifted as Willis and Nelson never to have found language to describe music means that in the end they didn’t enjoy music for all it’s worth. When Ellen and I were feeling our way through the music of the ’60s, we scoffed at such notions. But we were wrong."
— Robert Christgau, in his article “Pioneer Days,” just published online at the Barnes & Noble Reader. This leaves me completely breathless. He’s not my favorite writer for nothing.
"It’s no coincidence that Gen X’s greatest artistic legacy is probably grunge, which is all about glorifying marginalization and alienation. Millennials, though, have been forced to live lives on the periphery, when they had always expected that they would be at the center. As [Noreen] Malone points out [in her article “The Kids Are Actually Sorta Alright”], the Fleet Foxes, led by 25-year-old Robin Pecknold, sing about thinking that they were ‘special snowflakes’ but finding that they are in fact ‘cogs in some great machinery.’ In contrast, the most famous musician from Generation Catalano is probably 34-year-old Kanye West, who actually is something of a special snowflake—and at the same time that he has released some of the best music of the last few years (and gotten very rich off of it), he’s also been engaged a very public battle with himself. Like West, Generation Catalano is never fully comfortable with its place in the world; we wander away from the periphery and back again."
"If the Red Hot Chili Peppers acoustically covered the 12 worst Primus songs for Starbucks, it would still be (slightly) better than this. ‘Loutallica’ makes SuperHeavy seem like Big Star."
— Chuck Klosterman, in his review of the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration Lulu at Grantland. For non-nerds: SuperHeavy is Mick Jagger’s recent (competing?) supergroup with Joss Stone, Dave Stewart, Damien Marley, and A. R. Rahman. Big Star released Radio City in 1974; you should own it.
"To speak of the numbers that underlie both musical plays and films is to speak of … the complex interplay of lyric and music, word sound and musical sound, verbal idea and musical idea that marks the best American film and theater songs … Americans hear and, consequently, understand these verbal-musical bundles automatically; the words and music of the best American film and theater songs fit so snugly that their conjunction seems ‘natural.’ Only by pulling words and music apart does one hear careful art coyly masquerading as simple nature."
— Gerald Mast, in Can’t Help Singin’, pp. 3-4. “The interplay of lyric and music,” “word sound and musical sound,” “verbal-musical bundles,” and “their conjunction seems ‘natural.’” Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Words matter. Words are musical. Go forth. Tell others. I heart American song. It is the site onto which I demonstrate my patriotism ;)
Today I revealed the results of the Expert Witness community’s first-ever jazz album poll over at Robert Christgau’s MSN.com music blog. For this poll I asked voters to choose their ten favorite jazz albums recorded in the 1960s. Voters could define “favorite” and “jazz” however they wished, and were asked to allocate points to each of their ten albums as per the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll's points system. A full list of the EW Jazz Poll's rules is available here. I wrote some pre-game commentary here, and some post-game commentary and individual ballots are available in the comments section of Christgau’s MSN blog. Below are the results, compiled from 29 ballots. Please note that Robert Christgau did not vote in this poll.
1. Miles Davis, In a Silent Way 238 (19)
2. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme 233 (17)
3. Charles Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady 136 (9)
4. Miles Davis, The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 92 (7)
5. Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity 80 (7)
6. Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch 79 (8)
7. Duke Ellington, Meets Coleman Hawkins 61 (6)
8. John Coltrane, Live at the Village Vanguard 60 (5)