Thoughts on the Music I Heard This Year (Part Two): “The Music Industry is Lying to You”

You might get the impression that a lot of music pissed me off in 2013 and while it is true that lots of music (and many other things) got my ire cranking during the last year, there was a lot of really great music this year and I’m happy that I got to listen to some of it.

This is not a countdown of my favorite albums of the year because I hate those. I don’t believe that nine or nineteen or 49 albums are measurable and precise intervals worse than my favorite album of the year and I think it’s silly to pretend they are. How the fuck do you calculate that, of all the albums released on the planet this year, How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is precisely the 72nd best? You don’t, because that would be silly.

Yes, the new Future of the Left album is my favorite album of 2013 and my other favorites are all albums that, like How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident, thrilled me to the point of distraction. So rather than some artificial countdown, think of this as “If you only had to hear six or seven albums from 2013, these are my recommendations.” But think of it with the following grain of salt – you might totally fucking despise the things I like and that is absolutely your right.

So what do I love so much about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident? First off, I love how it came into existence – Future of the Left announced a PledgeMusic campaign in the spring which, understandably, hit its goal in short order. I was able to send some money to the band so they could make this album and in return, I got a signed copy of the album, a T-shirt, and a digital copy of their Love Songs for Our Husbands EP. The band asked for help from their fans and then made an excellent and sincere show of gratitude. Oh yeah, and they made an album full of all the things I like from Future of the Left – sarcasm,  yelling, pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and kazoos. Okay, the kazoos are new but they really tie “Things to Say to Friendly Policemen” together:

The Pitchfork review of this album pointed out How to Stop Your Brain‘s implied critique of macho asshole behavior but then kind of chided the band for providing “no model for a better society” which I find a little bit odd. This is a website that chose the new Vampire Weekend album as the best album of 2013 and if there is a vision for a better society in that band’s music, I haven’t heard it. Forgive me, but I don’t see how a society where everyone endlessly plagiarizes Graceland is any better than the one we have now. Besides, Future of the Left has never been what you would call “solution-focused” (unless you count their suggestion that we “re-imagine god as just a mental illness” on Travels with Myself and Another). Andrew Falkous’s sarcasm, wielded with a skill and precision that cannot be taught, is probably indicative of a certain amount of hopelessness. Mind you, I don’t know the guy – maybe he’s a wide-eyed idealist like me but I doubt it. So why would a guy like me listen to such (on its surface, at least) negative music? There’s a certain catharsis inherent in the sharply barbed wit of Future of the Left’s music and what I love about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident in particular is that the two minute bursts of catchy-yet-snide stuff (“There’s nothing like a military coup,” sings Falco on “Johnny Borrell Afterlife” before adding, “The clothes are great / and everybody loves a curfew”) are occasionally offset but things like the opening line to “I Don’t Know What You Ketamine (But I Think I Love You)” which goes like so: “One day/ Soon/ Let’s talk about love/ like we talk about food: Generously/ and then/ without irony.” Cheeky title notwithstanding, the song opens with an honest (and, to my mind anyway, laudable) sentiment. Plus, I’m just generally in favor of doing things without irony. 

Obviously, Future of the Left isn’t for everyone but you probably didn’t start reading a music blog called Bollocks! to hear about stuff that might be for everyone. That said, I’m pretty sure most people who like music and/or joy will find something to love about Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady. 

One of the great things about life now is that, if you have the privilege of access to the internet and leisure time, you can find the music of pretty much anyone that your friends recommend to you. I read about Monáe when her first full-length, The Arch-Android, came out in 2010 but didn’t get around to listening to her until this year. I tend not to describe a lot of music as being “a revelation” but that’s what The Electric Lady is – it’s a truly thrilling, surprising slice of science fiction-infused soul. All of Monáe’s recorded output of which I am aware takes place in this sort of alternate reality (maybe the future?) where androids are marginalized and abused by mainstream society. But they are led in resistance by Cindi Mayweather, the ostensible alter-ego of Janelle Monáe. In 2011, Monáe told the London Evening Standard“I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other’. You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman … What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am’.” 

I can’t, as a heterosexual white guy, connect with Monáe’s music from a standpoint of marginalization – just like I can’t connect with, say, Bikini Kill or Curtis Mayfield in the same way that women and people of color do. It would be dishonest, not to mention a bit foolish. Where I strongly connect to Monáe’s work is as 1) someone who loves a good R&B record (and The Electric Lady is a great R&B record) and 2) someone who can quite easily imagine a world where people aren’t chronically fucked over because they are viewed as “less-than” in the eyes of the dominant culture (indeed, I can quite easily imagine an end to “dominant culture” – I told you I’m a wide-eyed idealist). Like a lot of the music I love (Mayfield, Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Bratmobile, Public Enemy – I could go on), The Electric Lady offers ironclad proof that we never have to choose between style and substance. We can have music that is aesthetically astounding and demands liberation at the same time. Isn’t that what all good art should do?

Writing about and thinking about Janelle Monáe and Future of the Left all morning (it takes me longer to write this stuff than it used to) has led me to a pretty happy conclusion – these are probably the two albums that I have listened to the most in 2013 (and they both came out in the last half of the year) and they both suit different sides of my personality. How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is loud, sarcastic and (somewhat) diagnostic while The Electric Lady is bombastic, stylistically diverse, and (somewhat) prescriptive. In terms of hopelessness and hopefulness, they kinda balance each other out in some way. It may not work for you, but it does for me.

Those are only two of my favorites from 2013 – I guess you’ll have to wait until 2014 to read about (if you want to, that is – we don’t force anyone to read blogs around here) some of the others, which include albums by Neko Case, Aye Nako, Hilly Eye, The Julie Ruin, and probably some others I’m forgetting.

In the meantime, here’s a link to “Dance Apocalyptic” from The Electric Lady: 

Happy New Year!

The Songs of Rocktober 40-31

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Congratulations on surviving to Wednesday. By the end of today it will be officially “almost the weekend” which, for some of us, means “almost Rocktoberfest.” You know where I’m going with this. Ten more songs of Rocktober below:

40. The National – “Abel” – People who are more familiar with the National’s Boxer album are probably thinking “Lol, wut?” right about now, but I assure you that “Abel,” from 2005’s excellent Alligator, is deserving of your Rocktoberfest attention. One of Matt Berninger’s best vocal offerings (and that is saying something), “Abel” starts with him screaming the chorus (“My mind’s not right”) over and over again. “Abel” has a great guitar lick, awesome drums, and a great line about how “everything has all gone down wrong.” Easily one of my favorite National songs.

39. The Hives – “B” is for “Brutus” – You need some Hives for your Rocktoberfest. You just do. Vying hard with “Dead Quote Olympics” for the best Hives song ever is this lovely little nugget, “B is for ‘Brutus.'” This is the kind of rock song you can break shit to ( “shit” could also mean “yourself” in this context) if you’re not careful. Or if you are careful, depending on how you feel about whatever shit you’re breaking. It’s good to have some space cleared out at your ‘Fest for songs like this, because people are well within their rights to jump around like goons while it is playing.

38. Radiohead – “Just” – This song is possibly the best artifact of what we can call Radiohead’s Guitar Rock phase. It features one of the top five gnarliest guitar solos I’ve ever heard and it’s hard for me to dislike a chorus that says “You do it to yourself/ you do/ and that’s why it really hurts”. If you can show videos at your Rocktoberfest, the video for this song is also unassailably awesome.

37. Rancid – “Ruby Soho” – I’m not a huge Rancid fan, but I know this much is true: “Ruby Soho” could turn Oscar the Grouch into Polly-fucking-Anna (these pop culture references are brought to you by the Betamax videos of my childhood). You will find, while listening to “Ruby Soho”, that you physically cannot be unhappy (unless you’re Ohio’s 8th District Representative John A. Boehner, whose name – I’m told – is pronounced “John, a Boner”). I really don’t know what this song is all about. Something about a destination unknown. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you can still sing along with this quintessentially indelible chorus  while slowly (or quickly) descending into alcoholism (at which point you will be unable to coherently utter phrases like “quintessentially indelible”).

36. The Black Lips – “Bad Kids” – I love the Black Lips and not just because they hate Wavves (although that does earn them bonus points). I love them because they are exactly what I think would happen if some Muppets started a punk band. “Bad Kids” should be their unofficial anthem, and it might be one of the catchiest songs of the decade (although, to my knowledge, Pitchfork didn’t think so). This is another song that has a very worth-screening video, featuring a bouncing ball over the lyrics and everything. That’s just how the Black Lips roll.

35. LCD Soundsytem – “Movement” – I only just recently realized how amazing this song is. James Murphy is one of a very small number of people who can simultaneously be a scene and give a scene the finger, and nothing shows it better than “Movement” (as in, “it’s like a movement without the bother of all of the meaning”), a three minute ride that builds from a slight bass/drum beat up to roaring guitars and Murphy screaming about how “you’re history/ and I’m tapped.” When I saw LCD Soundsystem live, they closed their set with this song and it kinda blew everyone’s face off. This song also features a very punk-rock guitar solo, which I won’t try to describe in words. Just listen to it.

34. Neutral Milk Hotel – “Holland, 1945” – You probably won’t be sitting at a biker bar with AC/DC blasting on the jukebox, talking about how great Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is with a burly, fat biker named Thor (why is it that 99% of the guys on Harleys and similar motorcycles are always disproportionately large?). I mean, you could try it some time, but I’m guessing it’ll get mixed results at best. In any case, “Holland, 1945” is frantic right out of the gate (distorted acoustic guitar!), features some of the most kickass drumming I’ve ever heard (no, really. Listen to that dude all going crazy on this song), and – as if that’s not enough – it also has a daffy mariachi horn line. Jeff Mangum (whose nasally wailing you’ll either love or hate) yells about the only girl he’s ever loved and how she’s now a little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames. This may or may not have something to do with Anne Frank. It doesn’t matter, though. Why? Well,  to recap, this song features: thrashing drums, distorted acoustic guitars, mariachi horns, and fucking fire. “Pianos filled with flames.” If Billy Joel could do that… no, I’d still hate him. As for “Holland, 1945”, the only thing it’s missing is ninjas; otherwise, it pretty much hits all my sweet spots.

33. The Ramones  – “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” – This may be my favorite Ramones song because of just how…well, Ramones it is. There is only one verse, repeated to look like two verses. Your dog could play the drum part. This doesn’t sound complimentary, but how can you not love the Ramones? (Of course, John-a-Boner could not love the Ramones, but you’re not him, are you? Are you?) The hand claps are a nice little textural addition that doesn’t appear in every other Ramones song and this one is about how a nice girl named Sheena just couldn’t go out disco dancing with her friends. And how New York City really has it all. Do you need to know more? I mean, it needs no further explanation.  Look: if you don’t know that the Ramones kick ass, you probably don’t know that the earth orbits the sun.

32. The Thermals – “An Ear for Baby” – Why are the Ramones so great? Because we wouldn’t have a lot of great bands without them (of course, we might not have some shitty bands without them, but I’m gonna go ahead and ignore that fact for now). Portland’s Thermals aren’t really musically close to the Ramones, but they do traffic in the same sort of meat-and-potatoes punk that owes Joey & co. a not-insignificant debt (meaning they’re not not musically close. I guess). This song comes from 2007’s amazing The Body, the Blood, the Machine and has a catchy drum part (those exist) and one of singer/guitarist Hutch Harris’s most melodic guitar solos. Also, it gives the finger to fundamentalist religion, which is always a plus in my book.

31. The White Stripes – “You’re Pretty Good Looking” – I like the specificity of this song. You’re pretty good looking for a girl, but you might make an ugly lamppost. Or hamster. You could be downright beautiful for a bran muffin, but we’ll  never know. For a girl, however, you’re merely pretty good looking. Bully for you. These days, we’ve reached a point of saturation with Jack White and his many bands, but there was a time when he was just a dude with a guitar who so capably synthesized his influences that he could blow your fucking mind in a minute and forty-nine seconds – like he does on this here song.

In thirty more songs, it will be Rocktoberfest. Tomorrow’s set will feature no fewer than two songs that my (sadly now-defunct) band covered at our only gig, one of the coolest motherfuckers of the 1970s, and…um… Shakespeare(?).

Numbers:100-91 90-81 80-71 70-61 60-51 50-41

Damn. That’s a lot of rocking.

Big Black Baby Jesus of Today

If you took Raw Power-era Iggy Pop and threw him in a blender with Creedence Clearwater Revival, Murmur-era R.E.M., and a Muppet punk band, you might come up with something that sounds kinda like The Black Lips. The Black Lips trade in a very pleasing form of raucous musical buffoonery that’s somehow never really played for laughs, despite the hilarity of songs like “Bad Kids,” from 2007’s Good Bad Not Evil. I’ve read somewhere that they call their style of music “flower punk,” but I’m content to keep calling it “Muppet punk.”

The Lips are back (in Black, har har) with the appropriately absurdly titled 200 Million Thousand, a murkier, muddier, druggier disc than its predecessor. Which is mostly a good thing. Consider – there are a lot of bands out there that strive for a certain lack of neatness in their songs, but they typically lack the balls to just lose control- or, if they do, it comes out sounding like shit. The Black Lips have an uncanny ability to play sloppy, loud, and with an impressive looseness and still make good songs.

200 Million Thousand (still a better album title than Wavvves) starts with the chugging “Take My Heart,” and works its way to the surprisingly poppy “Starting Over,” which features a guitar riff right out of Peter Buck’s playbook. But if “Starting Over” is one of the few pop moments on 200 Million Thousand, you wouldn’t know it from the vocals, which are wonderfully shambolic and come off as more than a little intoxicated. You get the feeling that the song’s narrator has pledged to start over every night for the last ten years, only to continue his habit of getting piss-drunk and pledging to change his (good, bad, not) evil ways.

“Starting Over” is followed by “Let It Grow” and the truly fucked up “Trapped in a Basement,” which the Lips claim in the liner notes to be based on the true story of a girl who was locked in the basement by her dad, a dude named Josef Fritzl,  so he could have incestuous sex with her. Apparently, Fritzl (which is German for “Incestuous Baby Fucker” – look it up) also fathered seven kids with his “favorite girl.” This story is too fucked up to be fiction as far as I’m concerned.

“Side B” of the album (they make the distinction on the CD, and why not?) starts with “Big Black Baby Jesus of Today,” and it’s worth just quoting the liner notes for this one at length: “This song is a testament to the coming of the black messiah. I imagine him something like a mix between Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Jack Johnson, and Barack Obama.” For those of you who are confused, the Jack Johnson referred to is the early 20th century boxer, not the white, surfer who is his generation’s Jimmy Buffet (if you think that’s a compliment, you don’t know me very well). That being the case, when the black messiah comes, I think I’ll finally be joining a religion. By the way, if they ever start handing out awards for Best Liner Notes, I hereby nominate 200 Million Thousand. As if the notes for “Big Black Baby Jesus” weren’t awesome enough, here’s what they have to say about “Body Combat”: “Just when you thought you knew all the answers, we go back and change the questions. When we get done with you it’s gonna look like we set fire to your face and put it out with an axe.”

200 Million Thousand never really gets off track, unless you pay too much attention to the half-assed rap of “The Drop I Hold,” the Lips’ attempt to bring  “newer, bolder, faster, trendsetting demographics for the global computer youth of today!” The liner note is better than the whole song, but the song is forgivably brief. The bonus track “Meltdown” can be a little trying as well.

The late, great Lester Bangs wrote passionately about bands like Iggy and the Stooges, praising them for their willingness to make big, dumb, primitive rock ‘n’ roll without putting on any airs. Arguments can and will be made about which current bands Bangs might like (I’ll give you a hint – none of them are Interpol), but if you told me to pick just one, I’d tell you it was The Black Lips. That, of course, doesn’t mean that you have to like them (or 200 Million Thousand) just because Zombie Lester Bangs would, but if you like what Bangs liked about rock ‘n’ roll and are tired of shiny, overproduced, safe rock music, you might do well to pick up a Black Lips album and see what Muppet punk is all about.

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