Monthly Archives: February 2011

Looking Back At Oscar’s Best Original Songs

Since this Sunday is Oscar night, I’d thought I’d take a look back at a few “original songs” that have been nominated (or won) for an Oscar.  (As I’m looking through the list, I am shocked that nothing from Simon & Garfunkel’s soundtrack to The Graduate was nominated.  As Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers has been saying lately, “Damn you Oscar!”)

Bruce Springsteen – “The Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia, 1993)

I would have picked “The Wrestler”, but shockingly it was not nominated for Best Original Song.  (Damn you Oscar, again!)  Streets of Philadelphia does some quality lyrics from Springsteen: “I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone” that captures the image of a man wandering around the streets desolate and alone.  However, musically I find it to be pretty bland – it sounds like Springsteen just discovered a drum-machine.

Elliot Smith – “Miss Misery” (Good Will Hunting, 1997)

If there are any other reasons for hating “My Heart Will Go On” other than the fact it’s trite and soul-less, it’s Smith losing “Best Original Song” to it and Celine Dion.  A heartbreaking song from Elliot Smith (who wrote quite a few of those) about a break-up.  Trying to come to terms with it, he asks the girl whether she actually does miss him, or in fact lying to herself.  He tells her that he “keeps a good attitude”, but meanwhile drowns his sorrows with Johnny Walker Red.  Without a doubt, Smith’s best known song and though it’s the “popular one”, it’s among his best.

Bob Dylan – “Things Have Changed” (Wonder Boys, 2000)

“I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can,” Dylan declares half-way though this song.  A good portion of this song is extremely cynical – “I used to care, but things have changed”, “All the truth in the world adds to one big lie”.  But there’s also some humor beneath the cynicism – “I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train”, and the image of Dylan dressing in drag and then later picking up a woman and pushing her around in a wheel-burrow is hilarious.  Overall, in contrast to his younger self, Dylan tries to convince himself that it’s easier not to worry about the problems of the world.

Eminem – “Lose Yourself” (8 Mile, 2002)

When this song came out, who knew that Eminem could write a song that was inspiring and positive?  While Eminem has plenty of good songs, this is the closes thing he came to perfection. The intro is one of the most famous pieces of music from the past decade, and a hook that is triumphant and catchy.  He starts out nervous: “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, there’s vomit on his sweater already”. As the song gains momentum, he gains confidence and realizes this is life or death: “Success is my only motherfucking option, failure’s not”.   While the song will always be linked to 8 Mile, it took on a new meaning when it was used in the Chrysler commerical earlier this year.

George Harrison

Solo: “Wah Wah”

Today would be George Harrison’s 68th birthday.  Oddly enough, I was listening to All Things Must Pass earlier this morning without realizing it was his birthday until I saw it on list of birthdays I have on one of my news aps for my phone.  Thanks for the inspiration, George.

Beatles:

What The Clash Mean to Me

I recently read the feature on The Clash in the new issue of Rolling Stone.  While it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about the band, it certainly reminded me of why I love them so much.

In 2003, when I saw Pearl Jam in Pittsburgh while in college, I decided to wear one of my Clash t-shirts.  For a long time, my concert credo was not to wear the shirt of the band you were seeing, unless you purchased one at the show.  One fan saw my shirt.  “Pearl Jam doesn’t like The Clash!” He yelled at me.  I brushed him off, because I knew he was wrong.  Later on during the show, when Pearl Jam busted out a cover of The Clash’s “Know Your Rights”, I seemed to be one of the few that recognized the song and cheered loudly when Eddie Vedder shouted its famous line: “This is a public service announcement with guitar!”

I discovered The Clash sometime in high school.  I had been exposed to a few songs – “London Calling”, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” through mix tapes my sister made for me.  But on my 18th birthday, I received a copy of their live album From Here to Eternity from my older brother.  From the beginning of the opening song – “Complete Control” – I knew right away that this would be a band that I could identify with.  Here a band cutting down their own record company in song – they weren’t going to bullied by anybody.  The backing vocals which point out that “CON” is spelled out in the middle of “control” were captivating.  Strummer was clearly drawing a line.  You could either go with them, or be left behind.  I quickly knew which side I was on.

I’ve often joked that I credit The Clash with moving me towards a leftist way of thinking.  And while it’s certainly true that songs such as “Clampdown”, “London Calling” and “Career Opportunities” are Marxist theories put to thrashing music, The Clash opened a lot more doors than a political awakening.

The Clash incorporated world-music into their repertoire, which eventually lead me to seek out some of these sounds.  The only reggae artist that I knew before listening to The Clash was Bob Marley, but soon I was scooping up albums by Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals.

When Joe Strummer died in December of 2002, it was the first time I felt a void when a star died.  If The Clash were the “CNN of rock”, then Strummer was its Walter Cronkite – providing positive insight into a world that seemed to veer out of control.  While other bands have attempted to take The Clash’s place of political rock for a new generation – particularly Rage Against the Machine – none of them succeeded on the same level.  The Clash made have been “the only band that mattered” but they were also one of the few bands that were really were for the people.

5 Songs About New York

I’m in the middle of Patti Smith’s fantastic memoir Just Kids which recounts her early years in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe.  I’ve compiled a mix of songs about New York as a soundtrack while reading it.  Here’s a few of the songs I picked.

Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel #2”

It seems like every artist that lived in New York during the 1960s resided in the Chelsea Hotel for a period.   With its sparse guitar and Cohen’s naked lyrics – “giving me head in the unmade bed” –  present a heartbreaking portrait of his affair with Janis Joplin.  She tells him that she prefers more handsome man, but she’d make an exception for him.   “We are ugly but we have the music” seems to represent not just Cohen and Joplin, but rather all of the artists that lived there.  For many artists the Chelsea was a mecca for artists looking for their muse.

The Clash – “Koka Kola”

At first, “Koka Kola” might seem like the weakest song on London Calling.  It’s short and concise.  But in under 2 minutes, Strummer manages to attack stock brokers, advertisements, and businessmen’s love for cocaine and party-girls.  “The money can be made if you really want some more,” Strummer muses.  London Calling was released in the December 1979, so in its own way “Koka Kola” could be seen a song that foreshadows what some saw as a decade of corporate greed.

U2 – “The Hands That Built America”

U2 has written several songs about New York.  Some are great (“City of Blinding Lights”) some are not (“New York”).   “The Hands That Built America” falls into the “forgotten” bin.  Written for Martin Scorcese’s under-rated “Gangs of New York”, the song recalls the trials of immigrants and how they shaped the US and specifically New York.  The bridge contains some operatic singing from Bono – a theme he would explore on “Sometime You Can’t Make It On Your Own” a few years later.  The final verse contains references 9/11 – “it’s early fall, innocence dragged across a yellow line”.  One of U2’s best songs in the past decade.

Simon & Garfunkel – “The Boxer”

I could probably write a whole post on this song – which remains one of all time favorite songs.  Largely known for its chorus, “The Boxer” contains some of Simon’s best lyrics, a first person account of struggling to find his way in New York.  There’s also some pretty fantastic guitar picking courtesy of Fred Carter, Jr. Urban legend had suggested that the song is an attack on Bob Dylan, however Simon said that the song is mostly an autobiographical account.  If you’ve ever heard Dylan’s version released on Self Portrait – it’s one of the worst things ever put to record.

John Lennon – “New York City”

One of Lennon’s best “rockers” from his solo career.  With its fast-paced lyrics recalling tales of wandering around New York, in some ways its similar to “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, except less serious.  There’s also hilarious lyrics as well: “the pope smokes dope everyday”, and “up comes a preacher man singing, ‘God’s a red-herring in drag.'”.  Lennon seems pretty animated throughout the song and sums up his feeling about the city at the end with: “New York City – what a bad-ass city!”

 

 

Top Ten Rock Band List From An Unknown Magazine

According to an article on radio station DC101, a “new magazine” put out a list of the list of the top 10 best bands ever.  Note that the name of the magazine wasn’t listed, and that the article doesn’t state whether it was a reader’s poll or a staff pick.  Either way, I’m pretty sure I won’t be reading this “new magazine”.  It’s a terrible list.

Here’s the list according to the article:

1. The Beatles

2. Led Zeppelin

3. Queen

4. The Cars

5. Heart

6. Green Day

7. Journey

8. Santana

9. Rolling Stones

10. Motley Crue

Personally, I think there’s only two bands which deserve to be there – and I’ll leave you to guess which ones.

What are your top 10 bands?

The Music of My 15 Year Old Self

Here’s a glimpse into the music I was listening to at 15.    It should be noted that I almost bought Pinkerton in October of 1996, only to buy Blues Traveler’s Save His Soul instead.  Damnit.

Blues Traveler

Blues Traveler’s Four was huge in 1994 (or at least I remember it being big.) On the radio domination of “Hook” and “Runaround” I bought the album at The Wall in one of Frederick’s malls.   To my surprise, the rest of the album was good.  Then in the summer of 1996, they released the live compilation Live From The Fall that I snatched up as soon as I saw it.  Not having been exposed to many jams bands – it was new sonic territory for me.  I didn’t know songs could go on 15 minutes and in retrospect, guitars could sound as masturbatory as that.   But at the time, Blues Traveler seemed awesome.  Luckily my Blues Traveler phase didn’t last too long.

Live


For a long time, I was obsessed with Throwing Copper. Sure Live had the big hits off the album – “I Alone”, “Lightning Crashes” – but it was the small town anthem “Shit Towne” that grabbed me.  They were talking about my hometown! “Stage” was so raw and angry especially when Ed Kowalcyzk shouted, “c’mon motherfucker!” off the cuff.  And then there was the sheer poetry of “Pillar of Davidson”.  Too bad they threw it all away for  the craptacular Secret Samadhi.

The Who

No snarky comments here.  Though I don’t listen to The Who as much – for a brief period of time they really captured exactly what I was  feeling as a teenager.  In his own way, Pete Townshend is a great social commentator.  “My Generation” will always be adored by some kid who thinks that his or her elders don’t understand anything.  And “Substitute” remains the perfect soundtrack for a guy who knows his girlfriend is only dating him because she can’t find someone else.  I don’t remember how I got into The Who, but a good two years I listened to them every single day.  I finally saw them in 2007, and while it was awesome, it totally would have meant a lot more to them if I had seen them ten years before.

 

 

 

 

5 Rarity/Unreleased Collections

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series 1-3


The Basement Tapes had already proved that Dylan had a tendency to leave some of his best material in the vaults – which I’m not including because I could write an entire post on the subject.  This is certainly true on this first installment of his famous Bootleg Series. “She’s Your Lover Now”, “Talking John Birch Society Blues” rank among with some of his work from the 1960s.  Elsewhere, “Blind Willie McTell“, “Foot of Pride”, and “Series of Dreams”  show that no one could write a song like Dylan, despite decent but not earth-shattering albums such as Infidels and Oh Mercy. But for me, the real revelations comes from alternate versions of familiar songs.   The original version of “Tangled Up in Blue” opens up like a novel becomes even more poignant and devastating than the original.  “Idiot Wind” loses some of its bite from the scathing version found on Blood on the Tracks, but the sting is worse.  Dylan seemed more wounded here than the possessed.  “If Not For You” gets some extra help from George Harrison – who would later take this arrangement for his own cover of the song on All Things Must Pass. Many artists would kill to have songs Dylan just seems to leave on the cutting-floor.  And this isn’t even my favorite installment of the Bootleg Series – that would go to Volume 8 – Tell Tale Signs.

The WhoOdds & Sods


I admit to not having listened to Odds & Sods in a few years until the other day since I’ve come out of my Who-phase.  This was one of the first of these collections that I bought.  In high school, I was obsessed with The Who – they’re the perfect soundtrack for teenage angst.  The original material is interesting and worthwhile for Who fanatics.  The kid’s story of “Little Billy” is a  anti-smoking ditty with some of Keith Moon’s best drumming.  The Lifehouse center-piece “Pure and Easy” has border-line pretentious existentialist lyrics, which is saved bv the music which contains some of the Who’s best 1970s harmonies and a pretty awesome fade-out.  But the real highlight of the set comes from the early R&B covers including frenzied versions of “Baby Don’t You Do It” and “Leaving Here”.  With these versions The Who rightfully secure their infamous “maximum R&B” tag.

Bruce Springsteen – The Promise


I don’t have Tracks, so I can’t comment on that particular set.  But The Promise, unlike a lot of similar collections is a full-realized work albeit in different ways then its spawn, Darkness on the Edge of Town.  While there is some of the bleakness on The Promise (particularly the title track) many of the songs show Springsteen’s affection for early rock and roll and pop songs from the 1960s.  The backing vocals on “Gotta Get That Feeing” recall some of the early Phil Spector singles.  “Wrong of the Side Street” is rocking fun in the best possible E-Street Band way.  The inclusion of Springsteen’s version of “Fire” and “Because the Night” are a nice addition, but Patti Smith’s version of the latter remains the definitive version.  What is most interesting about The Promise though is that Springsteen ditched some of his most accessible work here in favor of the more challenging songs found on Darkness. What would his stature be like if he had released some of these songs between Born to Run and Darkness?  It’s hard to say.

Pearl Jam – Lost Dogs


Lost Dogs is a collection that won’t bring any converts to Pearl Jam.  But it does contain some stellar material that showcases Pearl Jam taking on a wide variety of styles thats not always apparent on their proper albums.  The Howard Zinn inspired “Down” is one of their catchiest songs.  “Alone” is Ten-style rocker that should have replaced “Deep”.  Surprisingly for Pearl Jam there are a lot of songs that are pure fun.  Guitarist Stone Gossard takes lead vocals for the crunchy rocker “Don’t Gimme No Lip” which has very few words outside of the title.  “Whale Song” contains some cool guitar effects to recreate the sound of whale calls.  And then there’s “Dirty Frank” a ridiculous ode to one of their bus drivers.

R.E.M. – Dead Letter Office


By no means a great collection and Peter Buck admits as much in the liner notes.  But I have a soft spot for this collection since it was one of the first ones of these I owned and it introduced me to the Velvet Underground with three covers – “Femme Fatale”, “There She Goes Again” and “Pale Blue Eyes“.   Like Lost Dogs, R.E.M. show their playful side here with the surf inspired “White Tornado”, and the hilarious “Seven Chinese Brothers” alternate take, “Voice Of Herald” which finds Michael Stipe singing lyrics off of an old Christian LP.  A must!  Worth having because the CD version contains their first LP Chronic Town.

Why I’m Not Excited About Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs”

I’m probably in a minority here, but I never understood the fascination with Radiohead.   And while I applaud them on the “choose your own price” marketing of In Rainbows, I found the album to be smug, bland, and worst of all – dripping of effort.

I admit to liking OK Computer (it’s the only album by Radiohead which I find to be interesting).  When Kid A was released the critics loved it, because it was different.  Many of them suggested that the album was paving the way for the future with its electronic beeps and blips – and non-existant songs.  It was definitely a risk at the time on Radiohead’s part, but that doesn’t mean its soul-less vibe was as ground-breaking as the critics would have you believe.  In retrospect, if it was groundbreaking it was only because it was vastly different to everything else that coming out in 2000.  Remember this was an era when N’Snyc, Britney Spears, Blink 182 and Limp Bizkit were ruling the airwaves.  And the “garage revival” was a year away, so naturally Kid A would lend itself  as a masterpiece to the critics.

To me though, Kid A sounded like Radiohead tried too hard to take inspiration from Krartwerk, 1984, and Dada artists such as Tristan Tzara.   While many rock artist take inspiration from literature (see Bob Dylan, The Pogues, Sufjan Stevens, etc) for Radiohead it didn’t seem to be an extension of their music, but rather something they could latch themselves onto for even more credibility than they already had. Perhaps I’m being too harsh.  Radiohead’s inspiration from Dada – a movement by artist who wrote a lot of dribble and nonsense that was deemed as philosophical and insightful – might  be natural after-all.

Both fans and critics of Radiohead seem to praise everything the band puts out simply because they are Radiohead.  Radiohead fans are a lot of fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  You say you don’t like them and your credibility is automatically questioned, implying that you don’t understand anything if you say one little thing against them.

As you can probably guess, I have zero interest in Radiohead’s new album King of Limbs.  I have no doubt that once again, critics and fans will be praising it’s “underlying message” and “adventurous music”.

And for the record, I’m not a fan of the Steelers either.

Goodbye Borders

Not that it really comes as a surprise, but Borders announced its Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and plans to close 30% of its stores.  The digital age has already taken its toll on the record industry, and now bookstores are beginning to feel the heat as well, since e-books the literary equivalent of an Ipod.

Before I moving to Baltimore, Borders was essentially the only place where there was a large selection of CDS.  It was either that or Best Buy.  But Best Buy didn’t have the back catalogues of most of their artists, and they also only displayed artists with track records of moving copies.  It was also one of the few places that I was allowed to drive to by myself when I was in high school.

I would spend hours at a time just browsing through the CDs making mental notes of which artists I needed to eventually check out.  Borders was also one of the first places I remember that had a listening station for new CDs.  Usually the description of the album was off-base, but at least you were able to actually hear what you were about to purchase.  Many of my favorite albums were purchased from Borders – London Calling, Sticky FingersZiggy StardustRaw Power, several Pearl Jam bootlegs, etc.  The bargain bin (selected albums were $7.99) was also my first introduction to Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.

When I wasn’t looking at the CDs, I would wander off to the music book section and read through many of the rock encyclopedias, and memoirs.  If you’re ever wondering where most of my knowledge of artists comes from – it’s a direct result of that.  At the time, I desperately wanted to be a rock critic (still do actually) and I figured the best way to do that would be to study up on the subject.  Before I listened to Iggy Pop, I knew of his affection for peanut-butter on stage.  It was in a Borders’ chair that I first learned about the legend of Robert Johnson making a deal with the Devil at the crossroads.

Because I was there so often, many of the cashiers knew me.  When I went to purchase a copy of The Velvet Undeground & Nico , the girl at the counter seemed genuinely interested – she had never heard of them before. When I explained to her what they sounded like – shocker – she didn’t seem as interested in anymore.

Since moving to Baltimore, I hardly ever go to Borders – Soundgarden is about two miles away from my apartment – but whenever I go back to visit my parents I almost always stop by.  The last few times I’ve been have been extremely depressing.  The CD section has all but been taken away.  There are no more back catalogues of artists – shit, even Target has a better selection of artists and albums these days.

I haven’t listened to it in a while, but perhaps I’ll break out my copy of Quadrophenia tonight.  It was one of the first albums I purchased at Borders.

Lady Gaga’s Battle With Sincerity

When Lady Gaga took the stage for her acceptance speech on Sunday night at the Grammys, I was shocked at how sincere she was.  It was almost painful.  Tears were flowing.  She talked about how she imagined Whitney Houston singing her new song “Born This Way”.  Even Bruce Springsteen and Bono (two of rock’s most sincerest performers) have showed some humor when accepting awards.  And even Madonna, who Gaga models herself after – “Born this Way” is a re-write of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” – never gave a performance like that.

Most of Gaga’s previous songs I enjoyed because I always got the sense that there was some sense of irony in her performances.  There’s no way you could take songs like “Pokerface” and “Bad Romance” at face value. That seemed to be part of the appeal.  Unlike a lot of other pop that has been coming out of the airwaves, Gaga seemed intent on being mysterious.  Every interview I’ve ever read with her though, the opposite is true.

But on Sunday night, when Gaga accepted her award, her demeanor was more like a country-artist.  She had to let everyone that she was “thankful” and that everything that she does is for her fans aka the “little monsters”.  Despite her outward appearances and masks, the real Gaga is just a little girl looking for acceptance.

This sincerity is why “Born This Way” might be Gaga’s worst song, even over the tepid but hilarious “Boys Boys Boys” off of The Fame. It’s already been called a “gay anthem” and Gaga herself make claim that she is writing this for the outcasts everywhere, but its clearly about her own anthem for acceptance. Outward it seems as if she’s telling everybody it’s ok to be slightly freaky and different, but the reality is Gaga seems a bit insecure and “Born This Way” is her way of reaffirming herself to society.  Gaga has also claimed that she wrote the song “in 10 fucking minutes”, which sounds nice on paper, but the lyrics seem too forced for it to be written in such a fashion.  She clearly thought everything through several times.

Lady Gaga seems to be caught between two worlds: the post-modern kitschy trash of her wardrobe and stage antics, and the open heart of her real personality. She can’t have it both ways.  She desperately wants to be cool, and she was definitely not “born that way”.