The Hold Steady’s Finest Hour

It’s Friday and I’m still working my way through new albums by Pharoahe Monch and the Strokes (and preparing to run the fucking Warrior Dash tomorrow), so I thought it would be totally awesome to end this week by doing another installment of my new favorite Bollocks! feature.

The Hold Steady is tied with the National for being my favorite band working right now. I’ve mentioned them a million times on this blog and that’s because they make awesome rock music for people who read books and they successfully perpetuate the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is a valid form of spiritual practice. So if you gave me one hour to convince you that the Hold Steady is fucking awesome, I would drop the following tracks on you.

“You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)” – This song is barely two minutes long but it rides a Tad Kubler riff that I can only describe as fat on a merry jaunt about playing the hand that you’re dealt, no matter how shitty that hand is (“I got stuck with some priss/ who went and sliced up her wrist/ but you know you gotta dance/ with who you came to the dance with”). This song is permanently on my mp3 player’s running mix (helpfully titled “Run, Fucker!”) because it makes me want to run around and rock out.

“Rock Problems” – You should just assume that every song on this list features a guitar riff, played by Tad Kubler (until there are statues of this man in every city, he will be an underrated guitarist), that will climb into your brain and fuck pure joy into your synapses. Because they all do. “Rock Problems” is from last year’s Heaven is Whenever, it’s kind of a sequel to “Most People Are DJs”, and it has a line about listening to Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy and getting “hung up on ‘The People Who Died’,” which is an experience I have had many times myself.

“Your Little Hoodrat Friend” – This was my first favorite Hold Steady song and it opens like this: “Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick/ but after I get sick, I just get sad/ ’cause it burns being broke/  hurts to be heartbroken/ and always being both must be drag.” I wanna share a story with you about my friend Zac, who gets mentioned a bit around here. He got married a couple months before I did and his bachelor party was at a strip club in Portland. Zac slipped some dollars to the DJ and bought his way into getting a lap dance on stage, to this fucking song. It was, needless to say, a moment of tremendous pride for both of us.

“Most People Are DJs” ends with a guitar solo so awesome that they just had to cut the tape off and go into the next song (I saw them play it live once and they went straight into “Killer Parties”). This is a quintessential early Hold Steady tune (from Almost Killed Me), with its crashing drums and Craig Finn’s self-deprecating, self-referential, and just totally awesome lyrics: “Baby, take off your beret/ everyone’s a critic/ and most people are DJs” (Finn’s delivery of the last word tells you precisely how he feels about DJs). I’m not gonna say that you don’t like the Hold Steady if you don’t like this song, but there’s a strong correlation between believing this song is awesome and liking this band.

“Stuck Between Stations” – The Hold Steady knows how to open an album. “Stuck Between Stations” opens Boys and Girls in America with authority and some of Finn’s finest writing: “There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly/ but he didn’t, so he died/ she said, ‘You’re pretty good with words/ but words won’t save your life’/ and they didn’t, so he died.”

“Ask Her for Adderall” – A great song that didn’t quite fit on Stay Positive (though it was released as a bonus track for that album and for the live album A Positive Rage), “Ask Her for Adderall” might be the Hold Steady’s catchiest song, which is saying something. Later career voice lessons have really helped Craig Finn and “Adderall” has one of his finest melodies.

“Constructive Summer” is still probably my favorite Hold Steady song. For now. It’s got all the stuff I need in a Hold Steady song – a hard-charging Kubler riff, pounding drums (“like the drums on ‘Lust for Life'”), and the fucking truth: “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/ I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher” (also: “We are our only saviors”).

“Knuckles” – I’m not sure how many Hold Steady fans would put this in their mix if they were only choosing an hour of music by this band, but I fucking love this song, which features a pretty unreliable narrator (“the last guy didn’t die/ I just lied”) who’s just trying to get people to call him Johnny Rotten, but people keep calling him Freddy Fresh. But I do believe that “it’s hard to hold it steady when half your friends are dead already.”

“Girls Like Status” was a bonus track on like the Australian release of Boys and Girls in America, but it’s worth seeking out. The chorus goes, “Guys go for looks/ girls go for status/ there are so many nights/ when this is just how it happens.” But the best line is, “You want the scars/ but you don’t want the war.” I’ve made much of Tad Kubler’s badass guitar playing, but Finn’s lyrics are the best rock lyrics there are. Period.

“Banging Camp” – Separation Sunday was the first Hold Steady record that I owned, and it still has a very special place in my heart. “Banging Camp” follows “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on the album, making for a one-two punch of epic awesomeness. “If they think you’re a Christian/ then they won’t send in the dogs/ and if they think you’re a Catholic/ then they’ll wanna meet your boss.”

“The Cattle and the Creeping Things.” While we’re on Separation Sunday, this song is a master class in clever references. “I got to the part about the Exodus/ and up to then, I only knew it was a movement of the people” is a Bob Marley reference, for instance. This is why I hate things like Train’s name-checking Mister Mister in that insipid “Hey, Soul Sister” song.

“The Weekenders” is all the things I’ve already said about awesome Hold Steady songs, but it has one of the best endings of any of their songs – “In the end, I’ll bet no one learns a lesson.”

“You Can Make Him Like You” – Sometimes the truth isn’t subtle. “There’s always other boys/ there’s always other boyfriends.” This is kind of an ode to feminine wiles that cautions that “it only gets inconvenient/ when you wanna go home alone.”

“Barfruit Blues” is another early song from Almost Killed Me, which is probably the Hold Steady’s most raw album (though it is still fucking awesome). I mostly just love the end of this song: “We’ve got the last call, bar band, really really really big decision blues/ we were born to bruise.”

“We Can Get Together” might be the sweetest song the Hold Steady has written to date, so much so that my wife and I included it as a slow dance for our wedding reception. And our programs had the phrase, “Heaven is whenever we can get together” on the front. My wedding was mind-blowingly awesome. The sentiment is correct and beautiful and if you think that’s cheesy, I can live with that.

“Yeah Sapphire” is another one of those songs that benefits from Finn learning to sing a bit. The melody is awesome, and that guitar riff is another feather in Tad Kubler’s cap (he’s gonna need a really big cap if I’m gonna keep handing him feathers for playing awesome riffs). I guess you’d call this a “deep cut” from Stay Positive, but it gets stuck in my head all the fucking time. Why is the radio too stupid to play songs like this?

“Stevie Nix” – Craig Finn is a great storyteller and Separation Sunday tells the story of a girl who becomes disillusioned with her local drug scene and disappears for a while (does she die? We don’t know), only to come back and tell the kids how a resurrection really feels. “Stevie Nix” is a plotty piece in the middle of that album, but it proves that a song can be raw and beautiful at the same time. When Finn sings, “Lord, to be 17 forever,” you know he means there’s only one way to do that.

So on the off chance (I hope it’s an off chance, anyway) that your Friday wasn’t quite awesome enough, try these Hold Steady songs on your headphones and let the weekend open up its loving arms to ya.

Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

My 13 Favorite Albums of 2009 13-6

Well, here we are in 2010, the year we make contact. For those of you who don’t know, a new federal law went into effect at midnight on New Year’s Day: if you hear any of your fellow citizens call this year “oh-ten”, it is legal to punch them in the face exactly one time.

Having safely seen 2009 out the door, I think it’s time to start talking shit about it. Everyone loves a list, especially one that doesn’t include Animal Collective or Phoenix, so I compiled a list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. I don’t know if they’re the best albums of the year or not and I don’t care. They’re the ones I like the best and, honestly, I think that’s all anyone can say. Also, my list contains 14 albums (well, technically, 13 albums and an EP) because there was a tie. Anyway, feast yer eyes on this here list (helpfully rendered in a distinctly non-slide-show format):

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass. I’ll just assume everyone knows that Lord Cut-Glass is really former Delgado Alun Woodward. And I know that my review of this record spent a good deal of time bitching about how the Delgados ought to just reunite, come to the U.S. and play shows in the courtyard of my apartment complex. But the fact remains that Lord Cut-Glass is a really beautiful record; Woodward lilts over plucked acoustic guitars and low brass, quietly issuing some of the best melodies of his career. Highlights include “Picasso,” “Even Jesus Couldn’t Love You,” “Holy Fuck,” “A Pulse” and “Big Time Teddy.”

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man Happy Man. Last year, Doughty put out an album called Golden Delicious that I liked well enough at first. And then it kinda grew off of me with a stunning quickness. Just wasn’t feeling it, I guess. However, because I love Mike Doughty, I’m always willing to listen to his stuff. This year, he put out the superb Sad Man Happy Man, which I nabbed from Amazon’s digital store for five freaking bucks (gargle my balls, I-Tunes). SMHM is driven by Doughty’s chunky guitar strumming and absurd humor, and it’s my favorite album of his since Skittish (which has to be one of the most underrated albums I’ve ever heard). It opens with one of its best moments, “Nectarine (Part Two)” and also includes the coolest prayer ever (“Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On”) and “Year of the Dog,” which might be Doughty’s best tune since “Sweet Lord in Heaven.”

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz. 2009 was a great year for some of my favorite female vocalists, not least of whom is Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Not only did I get to delight in an affordable deluxe edition of It’s Blitz! (Amazon’s mp3 store has not yet let me down in the cheap goodies department), but I got to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play a kickass set at Coachella (one of the best sets I saw at that festival). The album is filled with awesome turbo-pop (starting with a pair of aces in “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”) and a few pretty ballads (“Hysteric” splits the difference between the two types of song and is, in two words, fucking awesome). It’s Blitz! firmly established the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as one of the best bands in America and their live shows will back that claim up for the doubters.

10. Brother Ali, Us. I could make a joke about how Brother Ali is the king of white rap (ha ha, because he’s an albino, ha ha), but, taking Us as exhibit A for the prosecution, it’s more accurate to place Ali near the top of the hip-hop heap, regardless of skin pigment. Jay-Z has never, in my estimation, done anything to rival  “Tightrope” or “The Travelers.” To my knowledge, he’s never even tried. With Us, Ali threw down a gauntlet of new rules for the hip-hop community, chief among them: no skits and fewer songs about how badass you are (Us has ’em, but they’re matched pound for pound by songs of real substance and at least one tune wherein Ali shows gratitude for his good fortune, saying, “I’m the luckiest sonofabitch that ever lived”). Us is a truly refreshing album, and it stays fresh with every listen.

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career. Speaking of refreshing, Camera Obscura released one hell of an orchestral pop album last year. My Maudlin Career, despite its potentially emo-sounding name, starts and ends with a bang (“French Navy” and “Honey in the Sun”, respectively) – in between, Tracyanne Campbell drops lines like “when you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing” and “drinking has never been the same again”, the latter from the stellar, mournful ballad “Other Towns and Cities”. My Maudlin Career is so good that I think almost anyone who likes music will like it. But some people who like music like Wavves, so I could be wrong.

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth. Killingsworth is the album that elevated Scott McCaughey from Person of Interest to Folk Hero in my estimation. It’s basically a dark country rock album, but it’s so fully realized and wittily rendered (“your wedding day was so well-planned/ like a German occupation”) that it cannot be denied. Backed by an excellent chorus of women, McCaughey sings of lurking barristers, broken love, and crowded urban apartment life (“Big Beat Up Moon”) with a drunken weariness that is deeply appealing to young curmudgeons like myself. He also takes the time to satirize fundamentalist Christianity on “I Would Rather Sacrifice You”, a song that never fails to but a big smile on my face.

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another. I have said many times that, all appearances to the contrary, I like more music than I dislike. A small subsection of music that I like is nasty, noisy stuff that almost no one else I know likes. Titus Andronicus comes to mind here, as does the Future of the Left, whose Travels with Myself and Another beat its way into my skull and won my heart last year with its pounding drums and Andy Falkous’s snarling vocals. Subjects range from girls who get off on hitting people (“Chin Music” will only be appropriate at a very small number of weddings:  “I only hit him ’cause he made me crazy/ I only hit him ’cause he made me mad/ she only hit him ’cause it gets her wet/ yeah, she’s one of a kind/ she’s got chin music”) to the practical concerns of Satanism (“You Need Satan More than He Needs You”). Travels with Myself and Another pretty much kicks ass, though it’s not for the faint of heart or the humorless.

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast. I guess #7 and #6 on my list are a study in contrast. Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast is an understated, mellow, and completely lovely work – his finest to date, if I may be so bold. It blends Bird’s myriad musical talents (no one on earth – no one – can whistle like this motherfucker) into quirky pop (“Fitz and the Dizzyspells”), old school folk (“Effigy,” which is nothing short of stunning), and whatever you’d classify “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” as. Some of the songs have unique movements, but they never seem to wander, even on the seven minute “Souverian.” Bird is a musician’s musician, a guy you can study as well as enjoy, and Noble Beast is the textbook for aspiring musical ninjas.

I know. It’s taken me four days into the new year to even start counting down my favorite albums of the old year and now I’m doing it in two parts. Pitchfork took a week to do their list and they still fucked it up, so maybe it’s better that I’m taking my time. I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse every choice I’ve made so far. Tune in tomorrow or Wednesday for albums 5 through 1, which are bound to include demure rodents, plenty of references to whiskey, a rant about shitty record labels, the best pop album of the year, the word vagina, and plenty of weather.

Best Albums of My Life #2: Mule Variations

There are a couple of things that even Pitchfork and I can agree on. #1: the Hold Steady is awesome. #2: you won’t “write a song as good as Tom Waits’ very worst song. Sorry, you just won’t.” They wrote that about the first Tom Waits album I ever heard, 1999’s Mule Variations. And, to this day, it’s the one sentence in all of Pitchfork’s history with which I agree word for word.

I first encountered Mr. Waits on an episode of VH1’s Storytellers and I was immediately struck by how awesome his stories were and how little they had to do with the songs he was performing. And the songs! Sweet Jesus, the first time I heard “House Where Nobody Lives”, I think I had an experience like the Mormon missionaries try to sell you about divine revelation. Here was a dude who was speaking the truth in a way I’d never heard anyone speak it before. I ran out and purchased Mule Variations immediately. That was ten years ago and my copy has seen better days, but it spins just fine and still resonates just as deeply.This album, like many Tom Waits albums, is the real shit – the deep down, bloody, muddy, messy, broken, gospel of sinners, whores, bums, ruffians, ne’er-do-wells, and basically everyone else.

What is it about Waits that’s so goddamn impressive? His songs are journeys, for starters. And, though they are full of specificity (including street names and weather, things Waits views as essential to good songs), they strike a universal chord. Take “Tom Traubert’s Blues”, for example: you don’t have to have actually been somewhere where no one speaks English and everything’s broken to understand exactly how he feels. Right? Waits intuitively understands broken-hearted, busted-ass loneliness and the anguish he howls from the rooftops is our anguish – a friend of mine in college said that Waits is crying so that you don’t have to. You couldn’t do it that well anyway. And that’s due in large part to his voice. I know, I know, a lot of people are all “Tom Waits can’t sing” or “his voice sounds funny” or “he sounds like Cookie Monster” but what they don’t understand is that for what Tom Waits is trying to tell you (about you, about us, about nasty, brutish, and short fucking life), ordinary voices are useless. I’d go so far as to say that they are insultingly inadequate. For the heartache and, yes, the joy that Waits is bringing on his tunes, you need a voice that’s a still-beating heart being tossed into a wood chipper in the middle of a nuclear war. You need a voice that took a stiff shot of whiskey and chewed up the glass. You need exactly the voice that only Tom Waits has. Do you really wanna hear Josh Groban inviting you to come on up to the house when “the only thing that you can see/ is all that you lack”? No. No, you don’t.

Mule Variations is full of some of Waits’s best busted-ass moments, too. On “Get Behind the Mule” (this is how Waits encourages perseverance – he’s not gonna tell you you’re beautiful no matter what they say and that words can’t bring you down; there’s no time for that in the Tom Waits universe. You’ve gotta get up and get to work, just like the rest of us), he gave me a line that resonated through pretty much every failed romance of my life since I first heard it: “Big Jack Earl was 8 foot one/ and he stood in the road and he cried/ he couldn’t make her love him/ couldn’t make her stay/ but tell the good lord he tried.” Again, a lot of people have probably stood in poor Jack Earl’s giant shoes. On “Cold Water”, Waits feels the pain of “pregnant women and Vietnam vets/ out there beggin’ on the freeway/ ’bout as hard as it gets”. That’s a line Bruce Springsteen would’ve sold (and/or had sex with) his mother to write.

But Mule Variations isn’t all gritty, bone-tired heartache, either. It also features a fair amount of that magical Tom Waits weirdness. “What’s He Building?” reads like a list of rumors Waits’s neighbors might cook up about him. “Eyeball Kid” is a circus-freak anthem complete with a telling autobiographical element: the Eyeball Kid was born on December 7, 1949, the same day as Thomas Alan Waits. Like the Eyeball Kid, Waits came here to show us how to really see. And “Filipino Box-Spring Hog” is a recipe for awesome disaster and possibly also a terrible dinner.

The thing (if there is indeed only one thing, which I kinda doubt) that makes Mule Variations a masterpiece (in a career full of them) is how easily the oddball tunes sit along side some of Waits’s finest ballads: “Picture in a Frame” features a line that I find so honest and so simply romantic that it has caused me, upon reflection, to give up writing love songs myself: “I’m gonna love you till the wheels come off.” Maybe that doesn’t grab y’all the same way it grabs me, but when the radio is crowded with people singing about how someone is their whole life or their everything or whatever, Waits’s lyric cuts me to the quick. I want to love someone till the wheels come off and, luckily, I get to. Sorry, Portugal. The Man fans, someone out there really loves terrible ol’ me. No one said life is fair.

And then there’s “Georgia Lee”, a piano ballad about a girl who was murdered. I love that Waits doesn’t just make a tug for your heart strings here. He does nothing less than call God out for dropping the ball: “Why wasn’t God watching?/ Why wasn’t God listening?/ Why wasn’t God there/ for Georgia Lee?”  It’s clear, then, that Tom Waits doesn’t just understand romantic loss. He understands the feeling of being massively, cosmically fucked over, and he can howl that pain for you too. Is it overstating it to suggest that Waits is out there, strolling the universe, absorbing some of the hits for all of us? Maybe; but when I listen to his stuff, I’m not so sure. This is my gospel music, kids – and Mule Variations closes with a kick-drum stomping spoonful of raw spirituality called “Come On Up to the House,” where Pastor Tom tells us to “come down off the cross/ we can use the wood” and reminds us “the world is not my home/ I’m just passing through.” Is that corny? So be it; after my sister died last year, this was one of the songs that picked me back up, that let me laugh and cry at the same time. So for me, Tom Waits’s music has real healing power, the kinda stuff some people find in church and other people find in a bottle.

If a major criterion for being the voice of your generation (or any generation) is being able to tap into the hopes, joys, loves, and fears of that generation with a profound understanding (is that a major criterion? I should hope so), then it might be time to consider that Tom Waits is the true voice of at least one generation and probably of many generations. Sure, he’s not as glamorous as Kanye West and he doesn’t want the job nearly as bad as Kanye does, but his music is 9000 times more honest. In my lifetime, Tom Waits has made some of the most heart-wrenchingly meaningful music I have heard and Mule Variations is my favorite of his albums not just because it’s amazing, but also because it was my gateway into the man’s entire body of work. It has shown me the way to songs that have seen me through pretty much every high and low point of my life for the last ten years.

Best Albums of My Life #22: Combat Rock

combat-rock

I’ve realized two things recently: 1) I’ve been neglecting my sporadic countdown of the 29 best albums released in my lifetime. I’ll be 30 in a couple months, so I should probably wrap this up before then; 2) Combat Rock, the last real Clash album, is fucking awesome (I know, I know: Bernie Rhodes pushed through Cut the Crap after the band ousted Mick Jones, but if you think that’s a real Clash record, we’re gonna have words. Fighting words).

After being one of the first punk bands to actually say stuff with their music (I sometimes think “White Riot,” “Career Opportunities,” and “White Man at Hammersmith Palais” say it all), the Clash headed out into new territory, whipping up delightful mixtures of their influences (one such recipe became London Calling, the best album ever. Of course, one of them also became Sandanista!, an album that has its moments but is about three times longer than it needs to be. Yes, like Shakespeare before them, the Clash were capable of cranking out the rare bad work) and serving them up as piping hot records of rock, reggae, punk, and even early hip-hop. In the process, they went from Best Punk Band Ever to one of the best bands ever in any genre.

Even as Mick Jones’s ego and Topper Headon’s drug use (and, to be fair, the ego and drug use of the rest of the band too – to quote Joe Strummer, “We were always a drug band. Always.” If you read Return of the Last Gang in Town, you’ll find that he wasn’t too proud of that fact) began to tear the Clash apart, they managed to cobble together (not without some internal strife) Combat Rock, which would feature two of their biggest commercial hits (“Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” which – I’ve read – Mick Jones wrote about Ellen Foley, a.k.a. the girl who sang on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Apparently, Mick enjoyed a romantic affair with Foley and even produced her solo debut, which tanked like a Kevin Costner movie with a score by Steven Seagall’s country band) and a host of other awesome songs. In fact, here’s a little history lesson for you kids who heard “Paper Planes” on the Slumdog Millionaire trailers last year: “Paper Planes” actually samples “Straight to Hell” from Combat Rock. So if you’re diving into M.I.A.’s catalog because of that song, do yourself a favor and listen to the Clash while you’re at it. In fact, I don’t care if you have no idea what I’m talking about right now – listen to the Clash.

Combat Rock is the Clash’s poppiest album, but that’s hardly a bad thing. In fact, it only proves that, had they stuck together longer (an impossibility which will discuss further in a minute), the Clash would’ve dominated the 80s with awesome pop goodness. Combat Rock also points to where Strummer and Jones would eventually end up post-Clash: “Overpowered by Funk” and “Red Angel Dragnet” point toward the work Mick Jones would do with Big Audio Dynamite, “Death is a Star,” and “Straight to Hell” indicate the direction that Joe Strummer would explore with the Mescaleros. Of course, Strummer’s death in 2002 (at the tender age of 50) means that we’ll never really know the impact he could’ve made with his second great band (have you heard Streetcore? It’s awesome). Jones is still running around producing various albums (including the first Libertines record, which owes a not-tiny debt to the Clash) and even recently collaborated with Topper Headon on a re-recording of “Jail Guitar Doors” for a prison charity in the U.K..

Originally titled Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg, Combat Rock had a long struggle to even see the light of day. It was originally 15 tracks, 65 minutes, and growing. Mick Jones was happy with this situation, Joe Strummer was furious with it, and from there, you can see that this was a band not long for the world. In a 1984 interview with Creem, Joe Strummer pointed out, “I don’t believe anyone is that great they don’t write crap sometimes.” In Strummer’s opinion, the album that would be Combat Rock was in bad need of an editor and an outside producer – things I think would have benefited Sandanista!. When CBS heard the Rat Patrol tapes, they were not happy and suggested Glyn Johns to mix the record. Johns hacked the album down to twelve tracks with a decidedly pop bent (Strummer was on a mission to make a pop album that wasn’t all “Stuff ‘er on the bed and shove it to her” in an ambitious attempt to lure meat-heads away from the burgeoning hair metal scene), a move that led Jones to abandon the sessions, apart from re-recording his vocal on “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”  Clash biographer Marcus Gray (author of the aforementioned Return of the Last Gang in Town, a must-read for fans of the band) accuses Strummer of perhaps going too far toward a mainstream sound on Combat Rock, but Strummer biographer Chris Salewicz (whose Redemption Song is also a must-read; taken together, Gray’s book and Redemption Song paint portraits of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones as two very gifted men with strong wills, strong egos, and maybe an even stronger need to be loved by a wide audience) points out that Strummer kind of stuck his neck out, “having seized the reins” for the album, and was understandably nervous about how it would be received.

Combat Rock was, of course, adored both in the U.S. and in the U.K., but that would not be enough to keep the Clash together. Topper Headon was out of the band before they went on tour in 1982 and Jones was kicked out at the end of the tour. On its musical merits alone, Combat Rock is easily one of the best albums of the 1980s and it holds up well to this day. And, if we’re being honest, we must admit that its musical greatness is due to the talents of all four members of the Clash: from Give ‘Em Enough Rope to Combat Rock, Topper Headon, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones, and Joe Strummer matured together as musicians and made some of the best rock music ever recorded.

Incidentally, the “countdown” (it’s not really a countdown, since I do it in the order of my choosing whenever I feel like adding an album to the list) is not even half way over. If you want to catch up, you can find the entire list right here. I’ll try to update it more regularly, since I was supposed to have this all done by the end of 2009.

The Songs of Rocktober 10 to 1

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Oh fuck yes, boys and girls. Today is the day of the bestest ‘Fest. Let us not delay, then, in getting to the ten most kickass songs of this most kickass month of Rocktober.

10. Dead Kennedys – “California Uber Alles” – If there’s only one person the Dead Kennedys didn’t like in the 1980s, that person was probably California governor Jerry Brown (or maybe Twinkie defense asshole Dan White). If there’s two people they didn’t like, they were Jerry Brown and everybody. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is probably one of the best American punk albums ever, and “California Uber Alles” is especially awesome for imagining a new-age fascist America headed up by Jerry Brown and patrolled by the Suede-Denim Secret Police. Better lock up your uncool niece.

9. Queens of the Stone Age – “No One Knows” – The Queens of the Stone Age fooled the radio into playing songs from Songs for the Deaf and the world was all the better for it. Still one of the heaviest songs (of the not-sucky variety; I’ll allow that Metallica might have a heavier sound, but I don’t find the sound of heavy turds pleasant) to creep onto the FM dial, “No One Knows” features some of Dave Grohl’s best drumming, recorded just as he lost his battle with lameness and slipped forever out of the Land of Awesome. It also features typical (meaning “badass”) QOTSA guitars and Josh Homme talk about how we get these rules to follow and pills to swallow and all that good stuff.

8. Elvis Costello – “Radio, Radio” – To prove he was not fucking around when he sang “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me” on “Radio, Radio,” Elvis Costello stopped the Attractions mid-performance on Saturday Night Live (I think they were doing “Less Than Zero”) and counted them into this song, thus guaranteeing that Lorne Michaels would pitch a fit and ban Elvis from the show. This did not stop Michaels from later saying that Costello’s performance was this iconic event for SNL. That’s because Lorne Michaels is a giant douche. “Radio, Radio,” however, is a prescient song, written in the late 70s about how shitty radio was in general, with some allusions to crazy right-wing talk radio thrown in for good measure. There was a time, apparently, when Elvis Costello knew fucking everything.

7. The Clash – “White Riot” – You gotta love Joe Strummer watching black people riot in the U.K. in 1977 and thinking, “Why don’t white people do that? What’s wrong with us?” “White Riot” is Strummer’s attempt to get the Caucasians in the mood to bust shit up. It ultimately failed, of course, but his efforts did result in two of the finest minutes in punk history.  And who doesn’t want a riot of their own?

6. The Hold Steady – “Constructive Summer” – While I’m spreading the Strummer love here, I might as well point out that “Constructive Summer,” by the Hold Steady, is as passionate and fitting a tribute to the man as you could want. Over positively (see what I did there?) pounding drums, Franz Nicolay’s persistent rock piano, and Tad Kubler’s cranked guitar, Craig Finn orders us to “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer.” Why should we do that, Craig? “I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher.” You know, Craig Finn, you might be on to something there.

5. The Stooges – “Search and Destroy” – Raw Power is one of the all-time greatest rock albums ever recorded and “Search and Destroy” is the track that gets that particular party started with a bang (or whatever sound napalm makes). Back in 1973, there were no Sex Pistols and no Clash, but the punk spirit was living large in the person of Iggy Pop (a.k.a. Iggy Stooge at that time) and his band of miscreants. Iggy was (and still is) actually a pretty good singer and he employs full-on vocal pyrotechnics, singing “Somebody save my soul/ baby, penetrate my mind.” That’s a dude asking you to mindfuck him and when Iggy asks, you answer.

4. The Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop” – I will argue with you or anybody that “Blitzkrieg Bop” is the best Side 1, Song 1 of all time. This was the song that launched The Ramones and, well, the Ramones. They were a band that didn’t have time to write multiple verses, but they did have time to get everyone pulsating to the backbeat. This would be a good lead-off track for your Rocktoberfest play list, what with the tight drum beat and Joey Ramone shouting “Hey/ Ho/ Let’s go” (or, ” ‘ey/ ‘o,” as he sings it). So let’s go, dammit.

3. Jim Carroll Band – “People Who Died” – Jim Carroll just died a few weeks ago, so if you’re ‘Festing to this song, pour one out for the man. Catholic Boy was a magnificent album and its best moment came with “People Who Died” which is exactly what it sounds like: a list of Jim Carroll’s friends who have shuffled loose this mortal coil. That could be morbid business, but the song is upbeat and insistent. Carroll’s buds employed myriad methods for exiting the land of the living, so you’ll never get bored: one guy overdoses on Drano (how much Drano constitutes an overdose? I’m guessing very little), one guy gets leukemia at age 14 (and looks like 65 when he dies), and someone jumps in front of  a train. Apparently, this song became a big hit after John Lennon was shot because it helped people deal with that numbing fact. That might sound kinda fucked up, but there’s catharsis in the irreverent humor of the song. I listened to it about a hundred times on the day Jim Carroll died. He was apparently just sitting at his desk writing. If I’m ever in a band again, I’m gonna rework this tune to include Jim Carroll, Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, and all the other awesome dead musicians. Who’s with me?

2. The Pixies – “Debaser” – Inspired by Luis Bunuel’s fucked up 1929 film Un Chien Andalou, (the bit in “Debaser” about slicing up eyeballs? They slice up a cow’s eye in this movie. I want you to know) “Debaser” is the best Pixies song. Period. (You don’t really think “Where is My Mind?” is their best song, do you? Why? Because it was in Fight Club?). Frank Black tears into the verse, exclaiming, “Got me a movie, I want you to know.” And certainly no Frenchman could declare “I am un” anything as assertively as Black declares “I am un/ chien!/ andalusia!” (Of course, the French dude would know to say “Je suis un” whatever, but I’ll let Black Francis slide on this one.) This is another breaking shit, bouncing around the room kind of song and I will never, ever (ever!) get tired of it. In fact, I’m gonna listen to it again right now.

1. The Clash – “Death or Glory” – If aliens landed here on Earth and pointed their lasers at my face, demanding to know, in four minutes or less, what rock ‘n’ roll was (we’re talking quintessence here – Platonic ideal shit), I’d play them “Death or Glory” by the Clash. This song has it all: an awesome guitar part, melodic bass lines, Topper Headon’s brilliantly textured drums, and some of Joe Strummer’s finest lyrics. The second verse is particularly instructive: “Every gimmick-hungry yob/ digging gold from rock ‘n’ roll/ grabs the mic to tell us/ he’ll die before he’s sold/ but I believe in this/ and it’s been tested by research/ he who fucks nuns/ will later join the church.” Nothing rocks like this song rocks. Nothing.

That’s it. Get out there and rock, revelers. Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer! And another toast to St. Jim Carroll and one to St. Joey Ramone. While you’re at it, raise a toast to Jello Biafra and Karen O. and every other awesome musician who is gracing your Rocktoberfest play list. And remember the wisdom of Mr. James Murphy: “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life.”

To sum up: These songs kick ass. These songs kick slightly more ass. These songs kick still more ass. These songs songs kick more ass than that. These songs kick ass and Henry Rollins is awesome. These songs kick ass but are just a minor threat. These songs kick ass and have pianos filled with flames. These songs, much like the Flaming Lips, kick ass. And Tom Waits is awesome.