Wednesday, May 24, 2017

My 20 favorite Soundgarden songs

In the week since the death of Chris Cornell, the great singer/songwriter/guitarist of Soundgarden, I’ve listened to the band’s last four albums straight through: Badmotorfinger (1991), Superunknown (1994), Down on the Upside (1996), and King Animal (2012).

I knew I’d be reminded of old favorites and hits, and that I’d rediscover some more obscure songs I’d forgotten. And yet I still felt overwhelmed by the ocean of extraordinary material — relentlessly innovative and challenging, often jagged and angular, mostly heavy and dark, occasionally with gentle or bright spots, but never tranquil, always disturbed and searching for something better.

So here are my 20 favorite Soundgarden songs, with the first letter of the album each song is from in parentheses, e.g. Badmotorfinger = (B). (And yes, I did listen to some of their other songs, but I found that all their highlights are from these four albums; their earlier work feels unripe, not like the band we love.)

I have to say, this makes a pretty great playlist — the equivalent of a double album, with the two discs being 1-10 and 11-20.

1. Outshined (B)

2. The Day I Tried to Live (S)

3. Spoonman (S)

4. Black Hole Sun (S)

5. Somewhere (B)

6. Fell on Black Days (S)

7. Slaves and Bulldozers (B)

8. Burden in My Hand (D)

9. My Wave (S)

10. Bones of Birds (K)

11. Superunknown (S)

12. Mind Riot (B)

13. Rusty Cage (B)

14. Been Away Too Long (K)

15. Pretty Noose (D)

16. Jesus Christ Pose (B)

17. Dusty (D)

18. Head Down (S)

19. Taree (K)

20. Black Saturday (K)


“I’ve always liked depressing music because a lot of times listening to it when you’re down can actually make you feel less depressed.” — Chris Cornell





(Photo of Chris Cornell by Marina Coelho.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Why the terrorists hate us

Within the last couple years, ISIS or people associated with it have apparently attacked a pop concert in Manchester, England, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and a rock concert in Paris, France.

These are not the kinds of attacks you'd carry out if your goal were to protest US foreign policy. France's very public opposition to the Iraq War didn't gain it any points with terrorists.

This is what you'd do if you hated great Western countries for our freedom. There is no way to appease the mass murderers' demands without giving up our whole culture.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The problem with social criticism

So much "social criticism" that's considered brilliant when phrased at the societal level ("our lives have become increasingly purposeless and devoid of meaning because ____") would seem like a clear symptom of depression if it were phrased at the individual level ("lately my life feels pointless and meaningless because ____").

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Annie Hall

Annie Hall was released 40 years ago today, on April 20, 1977.

A friend of mine once said he found the movie so sad it's difficult to watch. And I can understand that — it has an understated but heart-breaking pathos. But it's also probably brought more joy to more people than any other Woody Allen movie.

Woody Allen has said he doesn't think this is one of his outstanding movies. And it's not my favorite movie of his either. But when he dies, it'll be the first movie mentioned in every obituary. It was nominated for all five Academy Awards (best picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay), and won all of them except best actor. It was also the only time Woody Allen has won best director out of over 40 movies.

There's so much to say about this movie's innovative techniques (subtitles of the characters' thoughts, split screens to show how the two main characters live in different worlds, animation, etc.); witty and insightful dialogue; affecting performances by Diane Keaton and Woody Allen; nice minor roles for Christopher Walken, Shelley Duvall, Carol Kane, and Paul Simon; and one great line by a young Jeff Goldblum.

But for now I'll just say that I lurve this movie, I luff it, it's transplendent, it's too wonderful for words.

The trailer:




The first meeting:




The Christopher Walken scene:




The subtitle scene (the "15 years" line refers to how long Woody Allen's character has been in therapy):




Diane Keaton accepting her Oscar:

Monday, April 17, 2017

The problem with talking about cultural appropriation

Even if what gets called "cultural appropriation" is often bad, calling it "cultural appropriation" doesn't explain what's bad about it. On the contrary, labeling something "cultural appropriation" distracts from any other criticism that might have been made of that thing, because once the attention-getting phrase "cultural appropriation" is invoked, all the attention turns to debating whether cultural appropriation is inherently bad. And the idea that it's inherently bad is pretty easily refuted, so the object of criticism gets off easy. Meanwhile, the kinds of people who are drawn to the "cultural appropriation" critique have spent their time and energy on what will ultimately be a losing argument (because the consequences of consistently rejecting cultural appropriation would never be accepted). They could've spent that time and energy putting forward a more powerful critique, but they didn't, and now that time and energy — finite resources — are lost.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Happy 50th birthday to Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins!

As I turn 36, I'm thinking of someone else born on St. Patrick's Day: Billy Corgan, who turns 50 today.

It's hard to know what to say about Billy Corgan. Any words would seem inadequate to describe someone whose music has loomed so large in my life. The idea of growing up and being in the 1990s without the Smashing Pumpkins is inconceivable; to think of myself in an alternate universe in which I had never heard their music is virtually impossible, because the word "myself" would no longer seem to apply. Billy Corgan, and especially his inimitable way with melody, has colored so much of my life that if you asked what it feels like to be me, I don't know that I could come up with words more accurate than listening to a Smashing Pumpkins song. To paraphrase Mendelssohn, it is not that the music is too indefinite or hazy to be put into words, but that any words would be too vague to express music so precisely definite.

As a singer/songwriter/guitarist, Billy Corgan is not just great. He's life-changing.

I shall be free!


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Whitney Houston died 5 years ago today.

Whitney Houston died 5 years ago, in 2012, at the tragic age of 48.

I'm not really a big fan of hers, but I love this song. I love how everything about it is just a little too much: the song is a bit too exciting, her voice is slightly too expressive and sensuous, the video is excessively colorful, and the whole thing is just too perfect an encapsulation of '80s pop. It would all be a little embarrassing, if it weren't so undeniably joyous and uplifting.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Green Day's Kerplunk turns 25

25 years ago today, on January 17, 1992, an obscure band called Green Day released their second album, Kerplunk (or at least the version we're familiar with — a shorter version was released a month earlier).

The production of Kerplunk, which was released by the indie label Lookout! Records, was weak. But the songwriting had already reached the level of excellence that would be exposed to the world two years later on their commercial breakthrough, Dookie.

This becomes especially clear if you listen to the versions of "Welcome to Paradise" on both albums. Unsurprisingly, the Kerplunk version lacks the polish of the Dookie version. But the fact that one of the best songs from Dookie had already appeared on Kerplunk shows that this band was pretty great from early on.




"Christie Road" is a nice break from the band's usual fare: introspective and mid-tempo — at least for a little while . . .




"2,000 Light Years Away" is an energetic but poignant pop-punk love song:

Monday, January 16, 2017

James Baldwin on race in America, 1965

James Baldwin, debating William F. Buckley, Jr., in 1965:

40 years ago, when I was born, the question of having to deal with what is unspoken by the subjugated, what is never said to the master — of ever having to deal with this reality, was a very remote possibility. It was in no one’s mind. When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history, and neither did I — that I was a savage, about whom the less said the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. Those were the only books there were. Everyone else seemed to agree.
If you walk out of Harlem, ride out of Harlem, downtown, the world agrees: what you see is much bigger, cleaner, whiter, richer, safer than where you are. . . . Their children look happy, safe. You’re not. And you go back home, and it would seem that, of course, that it’s an act of God, that this is true: that you belong where white people have put you. . . .

One of the great things that the white world does not know, but that I think I do know, is that black people are just like everybody else. One has used the myth of Negro and the myth of color to pretend and to assume that you were dealing . . . with something exotic, bizarre, and . . . unknown. Alas, it is not true. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars — we are human too. . . .

What is dangerous here is the turning away from . . . anything any white American says. The reason for the political hesitation, in spite of the Johnson landslide, is that one has been betrayed by American politicians for so long. Of course, I am a grown man, and perhaps I can be reasoned with. I certainly hope I can be. But I don’t know, and neither does Martin Luther King, none of us know how to deal with those other people whom the white world has so long ignored, who don’t believe anything the white world says, and don’t entirely believe anything I or Martin is saying.
And one can’t blame them. You watch what has happened to them in less than 20 years. It seems to me that the City of New York, for example . . . [is] able . . . to reconstruct itself, tear down buildings and raise great new ones downtown . . . and has done nothing whatever except build housing projects in the ghetto for the Negroes. . . .

Until the moment comes when . . . we the American people are able to accept the fact . . . that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country — until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it. And if that happens, it is a very grave moment for the West.

That excerpt starts at 30:14 in this video:

Friday, January 6, 2017

Tori Amos's Little Earthquakes turns 25



(Photo by Rob Verhost/Redferns via Rolling Stone.)


Tori Amos released her first solo album, Little Earthquakes, on January 6, 1992 — 25 years ago today.

Although she's an American, the album was released only in the UK at first; the US version was delayed until late February. Apparently the thinking was that she might not be as appealing to Americans. The concern was unnecessary.

It's hard to express what a brilliant artist Tori Amos is. She does three things and is stellar at each one: songwriting (alternating between frankly confessional and slyly cryptic), singing (at its most mellifluous on this album but capable of being much more raw) and piano playing (classically trained but with pop and jazz sensibilities).

Whether or not Little Earthquakes is her best album, it's at least the essential starting point for approaching her sprawling 25-year body of work.

Rolling Stone's "track-by-track guide to Little Earthquakes" includes extensive quotes from her on the long process of self-realization that led to creating her solo debut after leaving an unsuccessful band.

"Coming out of beating myself up about the choices I had made, I just rolled up my sleeves and grasped at all of the poetry that had ever meant anything to me," Amos says. "From Rimbaud to Baudelaire, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, and also the visual artists. I surrounded myself with the stories and the thinkers that formed me, not what those that had the power to push the button wanted me to be formed with."

"Silent All These Years" is quintessential early Tori Amos — the rare songwriter who can pull off rhyming a whole phrase with itself:
So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts
What's so amazing about really deep thoughts?
The sudden feeling of uplift and release in the bridge ("years go by...") is exhilarating.



(Live solo.)


In "Precious Things," she delves into themes of Christianity, gender, beauty, sexuality, and humiliation, over a relentlessly driving rhythm.



(Live solo.)


In "Crucify," Tori, whose father was a minister, again addresses Christianity ("Got enough guilt to start my own religion"):



(Very different live version.)


"Winter" is the emotional centerpiece of the album — an almost startlingly intimate ballad.



(Live solo.)


Near the end of Little Earthquakes, in "Me and a Gun" (the least musically interesting but most lyrically arresting song on the album), Tori leaves her piano aside and recounts her harrowing experience of being raped. She explained in an interview:
In the song I say it was "Me and a Gun," but it wasn't a gun. It was a knife he had. And the idea was to take me to his friends and cut me up, and he kept telling me that, for hours. And if he hadn't needed more drugs, I would have been just one more news report where you see the parents grieving for their daughter.

And I was singing hymns, as I say in the song, because he told me to. I sang to stay alive. Yet I survived that torture, which left me urinating all over myself and left me paralyzed for years. That's what that night was all about, mutilation, more than violation through sex.

I really do feel as though I was psychologically mutilated that night, and that now I'm trying to put the pieces back together again. Through love, not hatred. And through my music. My strength has been to open again, to life, and my victory is the fact that, despite it all, I kept alive my vulnerability.



Continuing the theme of "vulnerability," she sings in "China":
Sometimes, I think you want me to touch you
How can I, when you build the great wall around you?
Few albums keep vulnerability alive as beautifully and daringly as Little Earthquakes.