Sunday, January 17, 2021

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2001

2001 was ten years ago? What the hell?

Right off the bat, I will acknowledge that no political or cultural event that year holds a candle to the events of September 11th, and as much as I'd hate to downplay its significance, this is not what this blog entry is about. Like the American psyche, however the music scene faced startling changes in 2001. This was the year that rock turned to pebbles, when an entire genre stopped focusing on one or two forms and broke off into what seemed like a million little niches. Every evolutionary milestone of the previous 40 to 50 years was being reviewed, recycled, or homaged, and bands were becoming subgenres onto themselves. No niche stood out in 2001-02 quite like garage rock, a raw, do-it-yourself approach that contrasted significantly to the slick, overproduced pop piffle that dominated CHR radio at the time. Also in 2001, the underground scene suddenly shifted from "college rock" to "indie"; college stations were giving up the free-spirit, "anything goes, support the little guy" approach for what commercial radio already had in heavy rotation. As a result, unknown bands on small labels were forced to promote their music by word of mouth, pray for positive reviews, or if they were lucky, nab a short-term deal with a big-name distributor. In short, they were independent in every sense of the word.

From a personal perspective, 2001 was also the year I finally embraced modern rock. Okay, maybe embraced is too strong a word, but this was definitely the year it finally garnered my respect. I can pinpoint this sea change to one song: "Last Nite," the leadoff single from the album ranked #1 on my list below. For me, contemporary music offered little promise: on the rock end, you had an endless sea of samey nu-metal, rap-rock, and watered-down industrial; on the pop end, you had N*SYNC, Britney Spears, and Lil' Kim in all their glittery creampuff glory. Compared to those two options, The Strokes were a revelation; if you were a 17-year-old boy self-taught in the virtues of classic rock and new wave, they were saviors. Though the singles and videos below do a fair job of capturing the soundtrack of my junior year in high school, I didn't discover the most of these albums until I was in college.

1. Is This It, The Strokes. Considering the direction of popular music --a theme that I shall continue to beat to death-- recording a full-length with such a simple rock sound was either absolute genius or commercial poison. The end result was a disc that was more joyful, rhythmic, and intense than anything else released that year. To the haters that complain The Strokes will always be defined by their debut: who cares?
2. White Blood Cells, The White Stripes. After noodling around with minimalist, stripped-down punk-blues on their first two discs, "siblings" Jack and Meg White hit creative paydirt on their third effort. This is how a breakthrough album should sound: take the band's strongest elements and make it bigger and tighter. The pop teases of De Stijl are expanded and accented, from the honky-tonk of "Hotel Yorba" to the frustrated debauchery of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."
3. The Blueprint, Jay-Z. After declaring his ascension to the throne of the East Coast rap scene after Biggie Smalls' murder in 1997, it took four years for Jason Carter to silence any and all critics. The Blueprint was not only a statement, but confirmed that Jay-Z would reign for years, if not decades to come. This is the rare rap album that plays like a critic's highlights collection, from "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" to "Takeover," from "Hola Hovito" to "Jigga That N***a." Better yet, the cameos are kept to minimum (Eminem and a young Kanye West appear on one track apiece), maintaining the focus on the king himself.
4. Oh, Inverted World, The Shins
5. Amnesiac, Radiohead
6. Things We Lost in the Fire, Low
7. "Love and Theft", Bob Dylan
8. Discovery, Daft Punk
9. Toxicity, System of a Down
10. Gorillaz, Gorillaz. Cartoon bands are a tiny, deservedly derogated novelty in the annals of rock; after this funky "quartet," the best group in this little alcove are probably The Archies. A side project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn --which eventually became his #1 gig after the band's 2003 fadeout-- is 80% hip-hop, 20% Brit-pop, 100% ear candy. The band's cartoon alter egos (a Japanese child prodigy, a mop-topped cretin, a 280-pound black dude, and a fab frontman) is just as eclectic and fascinating.

Honorable Mentions: B.R.M.C., Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park; Get Ready, New Order; We Love Life, Pulp; Tenacious D, Tenacious D.

"Schism," Tool
"Where's Your Head At," Basement Jaxx
"Hash Pipe," Weezer
"Short Skirt Long Jacket," Cake
"Fallin'," Alicia Keys
"Get Ur Freak On," Missy Elliot
"I Did It," Dave Matthews Band
"God Gave Me Everything," Mick Jagger
"New York, New York," Ryan Adams
"All The Way To Reno," R.E.M.

1. "Weapon of Choice," Fatboy Slim. To the two or three people that read this blog that have seen "Pennies From Heaven," you'd know that Christopher Walken is an excellent hoofer. This much-paroded clip exposed Walken's "hidden" talent with limber, gravity-defying zeal.
2. "Clint Eastwood," Gorillaz. Speaking of dancing, an army of zombie gorillas pay homage to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and terrorize our misfit heroes in this highly animated clip.
3. "Let Forever Be," The Chemical Brothers. Shot and released as a single in 1999, this trippy Michel Gondry-directed effort didn't find an American audience for two years, and even then it aired on MTV2 in the wee hours of the night, when they normally played techno and electronic music. That's a damn shame.
4. "Last Nite," The Strokes. Sometimes a great single doesn't need a big, flashy production, as this clip proves. Also, it's live in-studio, no overdubs or lip-syncing, which makes the low-fi earnestness all the more hip.
5. "Tribute," Tenacious D. Dave Grohl cameos as Satan in an ode to the greatest song ever written, which is... what, exactly?
Honorable Mention: "Everyday," Dave Matthews Band; "Island in the Sun," Weezer; "Everything Hits at Once," Spoon.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

These Last Four Years (Which Felt Like a Decade)

 Much like my late December music blog, it's become a tradition of sorts to letter-grade an outgoing U.S. president. I've been writing this blog for almost 16 years, and I summed up the Bush 43 and Obama administrations in lengthier than usual pieces. Given who our latest outgoing president is, I don't think I'll be nearly as verbose.

I don't think there's really anything I can say that hasn't already been analyzed or scrutinized in regard to Donald John Trump. He is by far the most polarizing president of our time, a man no one has no opinion about. No one used (or abused) social media quite like he did, and certainly no one flirted with abusing their power like Trump, either. History will remember him for running laps around Nixon's misdeeds. To paraphrase the man himself, he grabbed democracy by the pussy. 

Trump is a man of contradictions, if you consider his love for attention and disregard for the media contradictory. He is man who loves attention, a category 5 narcissist, who can't handle any negative news directed at him. He persuaded his base, already socially conservative and disdainful of the social media, to make "fake news" his mantra of choice both on the campaign trail and in office. He lives for flattery and bombast. 

I could just rattle off his various crises and scandals: the Russia hack, the sloppy attempt to cover up the Russia hack, Ivanka plugging her handbags, Stormy Daniels, myriad deregulations, a mountain of sexual misconduct allegations, and of course the situation in Ukraine that led to impeachment. His failure to address COVID --at least, until he tested positive himself-- was a stain on his final year in office. Now, just days after a bunch of Trump's most rabid supporters raided the U.S. Capitol building, a second impeachment is not beyond possibility. (Forgive the brevity, but frankly I'm sick of writing about the man.)

I remember reading something in Entertainment Weekly 15 years ago (I want to attribute this to Alynda Wheat, but I'm probably wrong) about the pitfalls of giving anything an "F" review. Wheat or someone else said that if you give something the lowest possible grade, it implies that the film, TV show, etc. has a train wreck quality that will still intrigue and attract people. An F makes one think it's so bad it's good, like "The Room." Almost for that reason alone, I'm giving Trump a D-, which is marginally better but far less savory. Trump had a few scant positive achievements, but they were minor and offer little long-term impact. 

In short, a new voice can't come soon enough. Former Vice President Joe Biden, our oldest elected U.S. President, has a tall order ahead of him. He's not perfect, but in many ways he's already an improvement over his volatile predecessor. Things can only get better.