Friday, 26 June 2009

RIP: Michael Jackson 1958-2009

I was watching a recorded episode of Seinfeld during my breakfast this morning. When I stopped the recording on the PVR, I was shocked to see a headline at the bottom of the screen. There were unconfirmed reports that Michael Jackson had passed away after falling into a coma after a cardiac arrest. It soon because apparent that these unconfirmed reports were true. The king of pop had died at the age of 50.

Being a child of the 80s, there were 3 undisputed popstars who you worshipped as a youngster - Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson. I have never been a huge fan of Madonna, and although I've recently started getting into Prince's music, I wasn't a fan at the time. But I was always a huge fan of Michael Jackson, and he was the first musician I was truly obsessed with.

The songs from Thriller were a massive part of my growing up. The film clip to Thriller is still the best music video clip ever made, an absolute masterpiece of modern film making. It used to scare the living crap out of me when I was younger, and is still a lot scarier than a lot of the modern "horror" movies released these days.

When we used to visit some of our close family friends, they had a copy of the Making of Thriller documentary on VHS. Every time I used to go there, I would ask to watch it. I distinctly remember that there was a video clip of All night long by Lionel Ritchie, and Master blaster by Stevie Wonder directly before the documentary. It's amazing how one remembers little details like that.

Michael didn't really put a step wrong throughout the 80s. Bad was an incredibly solid follow up to an album that couldn't really be followed up. Subsequent follow-up Dangerous had some great songs, but it was really the start of his decline. The HIStory album released in 1995 can almost be seen as a bookend to his career which started out with the Jackson 5: 1 disc of his greatest hits, and 1 fairly patchy disc of new songs which showed the state of his life in 1995.

More recently, I started getting into some of his older music released with the Jackson 5 and, later, the Jacksons. It's hard to believe that the R&B pop masterpiece I want you back, with lead vocals by Michael himself, was recorded when he was only 11 years old.

Let's put the latter, tragic, part of his life aside, and remember Michael Jackson as the fresh-faced African-American musical genius from the 70s and 80s.

Rest in peace, Michael.

MP3: Michael Jackson - Gone too soon [Link removed]

Update: Song links removed.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Top 10 mediocre songs on otherwise excellent albums

Firstly, a shout-out to Stephen and Gary of the classic albums podcast. I mentioned them briefly in my last post, but I'd like to mention them again for a couple of reasons:
  • They mentioned me (and my last blog post) in their last podcast, so I'd like to return the favour.
  • A discussion they had on their last podcast inspired me to finally write up this list here, which I had been meaning to do for a long time.
In my Palm Treo PDA, I have many memos with ideas for blog posts, and one of them had the title crap songs that ruin great albums. I had a shortlist of songs in there as well, so when Stephen and Gary started compiling a similar list in their last podcast, I thought it would be a great opportunity to formalise the list into a response post.

[On a blog housekeeping note, you'll notice I have labelled all of my previous blog posts; you can see the list of labels on the left of the blog for easy access to previous posts.]

There's nothing more frustrating than a single mediocre song putting a blemish on an otherwise solid album. When an album is so close to excellence, and only a small blemish spoils it, you start to ask yourself questions. What if they did a bit more editing? Some will say "why not just skip the track?", but that is missing the point. Would Mona Lisa be so revered if there was someone mooning in the background?

There's a few key points I would like to state first:
  • I'm a firm believer that the opening and closing tracks are sacred places on an album. I don't agree with Stephen's assertion on the podcast that it is more desirable for the crap track to be at the end of an album because it makes it easier to skip. I'd much prefer the sub-par track to be somewhere in the middle of the album, even if it reduces the flow; this way the album is at least bookended by solid offerings.
  • Sometimes when an album is released (or re-released) on CD, bonus tracks are added to the album. Even if a bad bonus track is added to the middle of the album (which is something I frown upon), it's not eligible for inclusion in this list if it wasn't on the original track listing. For albums released on vinyl first, it's the original vinyl track listing which matters.
Anyway, enough talking. Here's the list!

10. The Beach Boys - Sloop John B [Album: Pet sounds]

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this song, a traditional folk standard included on the Beach Boys' masterpiece Pet sounds. It's a catchy number with a great vocal melody, beautiful harmonies that you'd expect from the brothers Wilson, and a solid rhythmic foundation.

My gripe with this song is that it simply doesn't fit on this album. Other than the wonderful songwriting and performances on the album, it's the conceptual unity which elevates it to one of the greatest albums ever released. Most of the songs deal with love, nostalgia and longing for one's youth. But then, slap bang in the middle of the album, we get Sloop John B - a traditional West Indies folk song. It destroys the flow and mood which the previous six tracks helped to build up.

There was rumour that this song was included on the album as a hit single, on the insistence of Capitol records. As much as I'd like to believe this, apparently it's not true. If only they dropped that track, there would have been 6 tracks on side A and 6 tracks on side B. Side A would have ended with the interlude Let's go away for awhile, which would have been perfect. And side B would still remain one of the greatest album sides in popular music.

9. Supergrass - Tonight [Album: In it for the money]

I'm a big fan of Supergrass' second album In it for the money. While debut I should coco fit in well with the Britpop scene of the mid-90s, Money showed that they had the maturity and songwriting chops to outlive that over-hyped scene.

Their second album alternates between glam-infused rockers (Sun hits the sky, Cheapskate), lovely ballads (Late in the day, It's not me) and more epic numbers (In it for the money, Going out). At first listen, Tonight sounds like a quirky and upbeat number which isn't very different to some of the other rockers on the album. But while subsequent listens show that some of the other rockers like Richard III have a lot more depth than they did on initial spins, Tonight just gets more annoying over time for me.

It's the only track on the album which doesn't show any signs of songwriting growth from their debut album, and while it would probably fit well on the debut (a solid album in its own right), it sticks out like a sore thumb on this album.

8. The Smiths - Death at one's elbow [Album: Strangeways, here we come]

The Smiths dabbled in rockabilly a few times on their previous albums. There was Rusholme ruffians on Meat is murder, with its carnival-esque vibe. Then there was Vicar in a tutu from their masterpiece The queen is dead. Both worked on their respective albums, even if they stood out a little bit from the other tracks on the album.

Musically, with its subtle rockabilly influence, Death at one's elbow isn't a particularly bad song; it's just not very interesting. It's the lyrics which really let it down. Here's a sample:

Oh Glenn
Don't come to the house tonight

Oh Glenn

Oh Glenn

Don't come to the house tonight

Oh Glenn

...and there's not much more to the song than that. For a lyricist as witty and biting at Morrissey, this was truly a career nadir.

This was the penultimate song on their swansong, and came this close to being their farewell to the world. I'm very glad they decided to end the album with the much better I won't share you, but I would have been more glad if they left this song on the cutting room floor where it belonged. For a band who delegated so many classic songs to B-side status, including a song like this on the album was inexcusable.

7. Primal Scream - Don't fight it, feel it [Album: Screamadelica]

Firstly, a disclaimer. I'm not a huge fan of dance music in general. The dance and electronica that I do like usually appeals to me in other ways - it usually comes down to melody or atmosphere. So while other music fans might find this track an integral part of the ecstasy high that is Screamadelica, the style of music in this song puts me off.

I would describe Screamadelica to someone who had never heard it as the perfect fusion of acid-drenched Madchester and gospel-influenced classic rock. I'm not into drugs myself, but the album is supposedly sequenced perfectly for the euphoria of an ecstasy high followed by the inevitable comedown. Opener Movin' on up is a mammoth Stones-influenced opening number, and the album moves into weirder territory with Slip inside this house, a cover of a 60s psychedelic rock number by The 13th Floor Elevators.

When the 7-minute Don't fight it, feel it comes in at track 3, it becomes a bit of a momentum-killing brick wall on the album to me, despite its upbeat sound. There are many other acid-house influenced numbers on this album, but they all work so much better for me -- even the 10-minute epic Come together which is as entrancing as it is repetitive.

6. Manic Street Preachers - S.Y.M.M. [Album: This is my truth tell me yours]

This is my truth was the first Manics album I purchased, and because of this it will always hold a special place in my heart. While old-skool Manics fans were quick to diss the album as a significant softening of their punk roots, only the most hardcore punk fan would deny that there were some stunningly beautiful songs on this album.

The only real issue I have with this album is the final song S.Y.M.M. (South Yorkshire Mass Murderer), a 6-minute drone about the Hillsborough disaster. While the source subject matter may be interesting enough, Nicky Wire penned some of his absolute worst lyrics to this song. Here's a sample of the opening and closing verses:

The subtext of this song I've thought about for so long
But its really not the sort of thing that people want to hear us sing
The ending of this well I haven't really thought of one
There's nothing I could ever say that could really take that pain away

Now, I've got nothing against lyricists breaking the fourth wall, but most would agree that in this particular song it's just lazy songwriting. It would help if the music was more interesting, but it's not.

I much prefer to think of this album ending at Nobody loved you, Nicky Wire's tribute to missing band member Richey Edwards who disappeared a few years earlier. Dropping the last track would have also made the album nice and symmetrical, with 12 tracks at just under an hour.

5. Yo La Tengo - Spec bebop [Album: I can hear the heart beating as one]

Most of the 70 minutes of I can hear the heart is a lovely amalgamation of shoegaze, pop, electronic and folk which makes it one of their most accessible albums. I hate it when bands throw in a "difficult" track for what appears to be the sake of it, and Spec bebop is one such song.

Spec bebop stands out even more on the album because it's sandwiched between the lovely doo-wop of Center of gravity and the shoegaze epic We're an American band (which has one of my favourite guitar solos in indie rock history). But what hurts it more than anything is that it drones along for almost 11 minutes with no melody and very little variation. I probably could have forgiven it if it was a few minutes long, but talk about killing the momentum of the album!

4. The Polyphonic Spree - A long day [Album: The beginning stages of...]

The Polyphonic Spree's debut album The beginning stages of... was a wonderful statement of intent and possibility. If anything, it showed that a band consisting of 20+ members looking like a cult dressed in white robes could get past the whole novelty factor of such a ridiculous proposition.

For the first 9 tracks and 32 minutes of this album, it's simply a fantastic listening experience. Sounding like a cross between the Flaming Lips and the Brady Bunch (really!), it is optimistic, life-affirming and happy music. Why they stupidly decide to end the album with the 36-minute (!) LSD-fest of A long day is beyond me. I gave it a listen now for the purposes of writing this, and I couldn't get past the 4 minute mark.

I'm sure they thought it was pretty funny at the time, but all they achieved on this track was destroying all of the goodwill that they built up over the previous 9 tracks. And they also made over 50% of the album completely unlistenable, which is unforgivable.

3. Pulp - Seductive Barry [Album: This is hardcore]

Seductive Barry is like a great wall of pomposity separating the gothic, brooding and occasionally upbeat pop of the first 8 tracks of Hardcore from the stadium rock pretensions of the final 3 tracks. Thematically, with its grunts and groans, it is probably the song (other than the title track) which best represents the titular (and front cover) concept of the album. But that doesn't make it any more listenable.

This is hardcore proved that they Pulp could outlive the Britpop scene better than some of their contemporaries. It was a real U-turn of an album which illustrated that, as good as His 'n' hers and Different class were, they had the ability to mature and apply their musical chops to subtle genre experiments like this album.

While Different class will always be their pop masterpiece to my ears, This is hardcore came pretty close to being a very different sort of masterpiece: a yang to Different class's yin if you will. For most of the time, the album works remarkably well; if only they cut back on some of the failed experiments like this track, it would have been much better.

2. Bright Eyes - The big picture [Album: Lifted]

Bright Eyes' excellent 2002 album Lifted or The Store is in the story, keep your ear to the ground (to quote its full and clumsy title) is an album that I generally have to motivate myself to play. Not because it's a particular difficult album overall (it's generally very melodic and accessible) but because the opening track The big picture is an 8 minute 42 second piece of whining, acapella self-indulgence.

Why Conor Oberst decided to open this fantastic album with such an inaccessible song is a complete mystery to me, but maybe it was an elitist way of ensuring that only the really dedicated listeners were invited to hear the remaining treasures on the album. What annoys me most about this song is how dropping it from the track listing would have made the album so much more well-structured - it would have dropped from a 13-track 70+ minute album to a nicely symmetrical 12-track album running at just over an hour.

1. Wilco - Less than you think

Never has a track title summed itself up so well. Start playing this song on your iPod or CD player, and you'll note that it has a duration of 15 minutes. The opening of the song is gorgeously minimalistic -- just a piano, Jeff Tweedy's stunningly fragile vocals and some high-pitched percussion in the background. The song builds up gently over the first few minutes of the song, the subtle melody beautifully emerging from the cracks after 4-5 listens. The whole thing has a gorgeous 3am "I've been drinking my miseries away" vibe to it.

Then, shortly after the 2:50 mark Jeff Tweedy sings "There's so much less to this than you think", which in hindsight is one of the cheekiest lines on their most avant-garde album A ghost is born. For the remaining 12 minutes, the listener is subjected to what sounds like Wilco paying homage to Lou Reed's infamous 1975 album Metal machine music. In reality, Jeff Tweedy was known to be suffering from terrible migraines at the time of recording this album, which had resulted in an unfortunate addiction to painkillers. This song was supposed to be an audible manifestation of what Tweedy suffered during one of his many migraines.

Whatever the thematic intention of this song, I don't think there would be any Wilco fan out there who has honesty listened to this song in full after the first listen. It's a pity that the wonderfully experimental A ghost is born is tarnished by the last 12 minutes of this track -- if it was edited down to the 3 minute mark, there's a good chance that the album would have given their masterpiece Yankee hotel foxtrot a run for its money.

As it stands, this track is a time capsule what happens when a band forget (in a moment of stupidity) that music's primary purpose is entertainment.

Honourable mentions

The Byrds - Mind gardens [Album: Younger than yesterday]

There's little doubt that this album is almost ruined by this pretentious 4-minute piece of dated David Crosby psychedelia. Dropping it from the track listing would have reduced the album down to 25 minutes, but nobody would have missed that song.

David Bowie - It ain't easy [Album: Ziggy stardust]

The sole cover on Bowie's masterpiece, this is not actually not a bad song, but it doesn't seem to fit in with the conceptual theme of the album. Dropping it from the track listing would have made the album flow much better - it would have become a 10-track album with side A finishing on the lovely ballad Lady stardust and side B starting with the wonderful rocker Star. Perfect.

Radiohead - The gloaming [Album: Hail to the thief]

Hail to the thief was a wonderful return to form about the patchy Amnesiac. Even though HTTT was also patchy, it also had some of Radiohead's finest songs on it. This was not one of them. It is a disturbing piece of electronic self-indulgence which completely lacked a melody, and is up there with Pulk/pull revolving doors from Amnesiac as one of their worst ever songs.

Can - Aumgn / Peking O [Album: Tago mago]

Actually two consecutive songs on the album, it's pretty hard for a sober person to appreciate anything here. I understand that it was probably groundbreaking for its time in 1971, but to me it just adds up to 29 minutes of music which is difficult just for the sake of being difficult. A sharp contrast from the difficult yet rewarding songs that make up side A of this landmark krautrock release.

So what are your thoughts? What would you put on your list of mediocre songs which ruin otherwise excellent albums?