Catching Up With King: Bag of Bones

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I took a flier on a lesser-known King novel that just happened to be $2.99 at the used bookstore – Bag of Bones.

What scares Stephen King? Based on what we’ve read so far in this series, we can make some guesses (e.g. cycles of abuse, bathrooms). But after reading his 1998 novel Bag of Bones, and looking into how his career was doing at that time, I think I may have uncovered the big kahuna: Tom Clancy.

In 1997, Penguin Books merged with fellow publishing giant Putnam, bringing King and Clancy under the same roof. At this point in his career, King couldn’t compete with Clancy’s mega-selling espionage thrillers. And he knew it. Here’s what he said to the New York Times in ’98: “I would like to sell. I wanted to have one more book that was big, that felt like I was running the tables in terms of sales. I wanted to knock Tom Clancy out of the No. 1 spot. Like Leonardo DiCaprio, I’m king of the world, even if it’s only for two weeks, whatever. I wanted those things.”

So it’s no coincidence that Bag of Bones is the story of a best-selling author in crisis. At first, it strikes a mournful, self-reflective tone that had me thinking King might actually pull this off. That this massively famous middle-aged man could use his fragile ego as the fuel for something meaningful.

His protagonist, Michael Noonan, has gotten rich writing cookie-cutter thrillers. But it bugs him that they only ever make the lower reaches of the best-seller lists. “If Tom Clancy were to go on hiatus for five years and then bring Jack Ryan back, he’d come back strong, no argument,” his agent warns. “If you go on hiatus for five years, maybe you don’t come back at all.”

When his wife, Johanna, dies suddenly, Noonan goes into a tailspin. He wanders through his Maine farmhouse, insulating himself from others, unable to write.

King is rarely better than when he’s writing about grief, and this is no exception. Like when Noonan finds an old W. Somerset Maugham paperback under the bed, with a playing card used as a bookmark: “It occurred to me that Jo was never going to turn the page and hear Strickland call the pathetic Stroeve a funny little man,” King writes. “I understood it wasn’t a mistake that would be rectified, or a dream from which I would awaken. Johanna was dead.”

If only this entire book had the tone of this quiet, heartbreaking realization. Alas, the lion’s share of Bag of Bones has little to do with it. It’s a panicked, overstuffed, perverted mess. When Noonan moves to his and Jo’s old lake house for a change of scenery, he is immediately swept up in a custody case involving a single mom and a monstrous octogenarian software magnate. Also, the lake house is haunted by ghosts that fight over the refrigerator magnets. Also, there’s a horrible secret that has something to do with an African-American blues singer named Sara Tidwell, whose family and entourage disappeared from this lake town around the turn of the 20th century.

Every single one of these plot points are like cotton balls in our ears, muffling the sounds of real human emotion that the author had so empathetically laid bare. Worse, the custody drama transforms into a romance that would make Woody Allen proud. Noonan comes to the rescue of 21-year-old Mattie Devore and her daughter Kyra, accidentally brushing against her boob the first time they meet, then not-so-accidentally fantasizing about her with uncomfortable intensity, then paying her legal fees for the battle with her cartoonish villain of a father-in-law. Johanna? She’s just one of several ghosts in the lake house, relegated to the background.

Ickiness aside, King is out of control here. Like the ghosts duking it out in the lake house, King’s tangled plot lines strangle any potential points that Bag of Bones could have made. What promised to be a story about harrowing grief and what constitutes fulfillment for a once-idealistic generation, becomes a literal bloody mess. King has to resort to a gruesome deus ex machina to prevent the Mattie/Michael relationship from going “too far.” And the Sara Tidwell secret is truly horrifying, and fairly offensive in how quickly it’s tossed in – like an extra tablespoon of lemon juice in an already sour cocktail.

Bag of Bones does have vestiges of what makes King’s best work resonate so strongly – especially the toxic grief that propels my favorite of his books, Pet Sematary. But for the first time in this column, I’ve seen just how thoroughly he can go off the rails. All evidence points to King going through some kind of crisis while writing Bag of Bones. At the very least, his obsession with sales was screwing with his artistic chemistry, as well as his public image. When his contract was up in 1997, King made the unusual move of going to the press, saying that he wanted a new publisher who would pay him the outrageous sum of $18 million a book. Nobody bit. That, after all, was Clancy money.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Carrie

3. The Shining

4. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

5. 11/22/63

6. The Gunslinger

7. Bag of Bones

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (40-36)

We continue our countdown of the greatest albums to be released in the decade when America thought David Schwimmer was really something. You can check out the full list here.

40. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)

Nirvana’s second album probably has more baggage than anything on this list. It’s been credited with loosening the Baby Boomers’ stronghold on pop culture, and inspiring the thrift-store fashion and blasé attitude of a new generation. It’s remarkable how little this mountain of hyperbole affects the experience of listening to it today. Sure, Nevermind no longer feels revolutionary – as one of the last world-dominating albums of heavy guitar music, it has more in common with Metallica’s Black Album then originally thought. But it’s as much of a blast as ever, the riffs and melodies gelling in ways that still feel exciting. A major key to this longevity: Kurt Cobain had no shame about letting his influences show, whether they were hip in ’91 or not. So while these songs buzz with the artful noise of The Pixies, they’re also girdered by the pop constructs of The Beatles. And “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that legacy-defining hit, lifts heavily from a Boston song. As a result, whether we’re hearing the irresistible “yeah yeah” chorus of “Lithium” or the primal screams of “Territorial Pissings,” our urge isn’t to break any rules. It’s to sing along.


39. Me’Shell Ndegéocello – Peace Beyond Passion (1996)

Like most people, the first time I heard Me’Shell Ndegéocello was when she duetted with/propped up John Mellencamp on a smash-hit cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.” Her fluid bass playing breathed new life into one of Morrison’s catchiest riffs, turning a stale idea into one of the funkier things we heard at the supermarket in 1994. Two years later, Ndegéocello’s second solo effort delivered on that song’s promise and then some. Peace Beyond Passion is full of rich, meditative R&B grooves that have only a passing interest in chart success. While her band is full of ringers – Billy Preston on organ, Joshua Redman on sax, Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet – her talents shine brightest. Her bass playing is incredibly expressive. Her singing voice is a deep, reassuring rasp. And her songwriting is bold. I love thinking about all the Mellencamp fans that must’ve checked out the first single – a heartbreaking, six-minute takedown of homophobia called “Leviticus: F****t” that boasts an irresistible three-note groove. It’s an eye-opening lesson about what funk can do. Ndegéocello is totally fine with you dancing to it. Just remember that she’s invited all of humanity to the party.

38. GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)

The sleeve of this record says “GZA,” but it’s hard to think of it that way. Because while Liquid Swords is indeed a showcase for Wu-Tang Clan’s most cerebral, cold-blooded storyteller, it’s even more so for its producer. RZA’s run from ’93 to ’97 was jaw-dropping in both its quality and quantity. It should be spoken of in the same hushed, reverential tone as Brian Wilson’s mid-’60s streak. And Swords is the purest expression of his vision. Dramatic samurai flick dialogue sets the tone for beats that pulse with the dark exhilaration of vengeance fulfilled. On “Duel of the Iron Mic,” chopped pianos and mechanical thunderstorms underscore GZA’s tale of “bloodbaths and elevator shafts.” “Cold World” dresses the melody from Stevie Wonder’s “Rocket Love” in icy, dissonant strings. “4th Chamber” pairs a floating sitar loop with beds of frayed, crunching power chords. These are themes for flawed heroes, navigating a world where violence is unavoidable. “I got your back / But you best go watch your front,” goes the chorus to this album’s first single. On it, RZA fills our speakers with trumpets, as sad and proud as a military funeral.

37. Slayer – Decade of Aggression (1991)

It’s hard to capture the feel of any live show on tape – to transport listeners to that venue, in that moment, without sacrificing the clarity of the performance. But to nail what it felt like to see thrash titans Slayer in 1990? That’s pretty much a goddamn miracle. And it’s what producer Rick Rubin pulled off with this 10th anniversary double-disc set. Not only does Decade of Aggression give us a fantastic mix of the band’s punishing, quicksilver onslaught – so crisp you can hear every syllable hurtling from Tom Araya’s throat – but it gives us just enough of the ambience of venues like the Lakeland Coliseum, smack dab in the center of death metal’s Florida heartland. Rubin lets a full 40 seconds of crowd noise go by until the extended intro of “Hell Awaits” kicks in. A chorus of demons start hissing in a backwards language. Their numbers grow. The volume rises. The anticipation is palpable. Then Jeff Hanneman lays into the hyperactive Sabbath riff, and you can smell the sweat flying from 10,000 dirtbags, headbanging with abandon. No matter where this comes on, in my car or my cubicle, I make it 10,001.

36. Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)

The concept of “keeping it real” is about as relevant as raising the roof these days. But Mobb Deep’s second album will always stand as a reminder of just how grim things can get when you take this credo seriously. Emcees Prodigy and Havoc weren’t interested in glorifying the challenges of their day-to-day lives in the Queensbridge projects. So they painted pictures of anxiety and pain, fierce loyalty and sudden loss. Walks home alone at night are pregnant with terror. Decisions aren’t made until potential prison bids are weighed. Yet, completely due to the power of their flow and production that bends piano keys like Twizzlers, The Infamous had hits. There will probably never be another song like “Shook Ones Pt II,” which brought the dark night of the soul to the dance floor. “Ain’t no such things as halfway crooks,” the chorus proclaims over a bewitching, slithering beat. It’s about how the streets leave no room for pretenders. If you’re still sensitive enough to be shaken by life, you don’t know how lucky you are.

The Top 10 Bob Dylan Songs, By Franz List

In the summer of 2000, I was out of college and in a panic – sleeping in my childhood bedroom, bombing interviews and praying my girlfriend would stick with me. It was also the summer I finally “got” Bob Dylan. I made a tape of my dad’s copy of Highway 61 Revisited and wore it out, driving around town with my cheap tie and thin resumé. The music was so urgent and alive, the words pouring out like lava. It made me feel like anything could happenWhich was exactly how I needed to feel.

As you know, a few years later I developed the alter ego Franz List, who has to make pop culture lists even though they’re pointless clickbait that goes against the very idea of art being subjective. He made me share my 10 favorite Beatles songs a while back. And now he’s making me do the same to my professional life coach of yore. Here are my top ten Bob Dylan songs of all time, in the universe, forever:

10. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home)

Both hyper-literate and head-over-heels, this endlessly compelling love song has zero to do with how its subject looks. It’s about her keen intelligence, her zen-like confidence, her easy authenticity in a world of quote-spewing bullshitters. “She knows too much to argue or to judge,” he sings, a self-centered man in awe of his opposite.

9. “From A Buick 6” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited)

Dylan’s band takes a cookie-cutter 12-bar-blues and injects it with cheetah blood, playing so fast and loose as to court chaos. Harvey Brooks’s bass line, steady and life-affirming, keeps it all together until Dylan can bring it home with a locomotive whistle of a harmonica solo. And then, like a child, we yell “Again!”

8. “Buckets of Rain” (1975, Blood on the Tracks)

Two of the biggest stereotypical gripes about Dylan – that he’s a grating singer and limited guitarist – are refuted on this, the graceful coda to his mid-’70s comeback album. His soothing, open-tuned acoustic waltzes gracefully with Tony Brown’s bass, and his voice is deep, gentle and flecked with regret. It’s no wonder he went full-on Sinatra 40 years later.

7. “Positively 4th Street” (1965, single)

Dylan had a lotta nerve to release this as a single. Because despite its sunny folk-rock chords and frolicsome organ runs, “Positively 4th Street” is one of the bitterest songs in pop history. Yet this alchemy of hooks and burns proved to be irresistible – it was a hit, and deservedly so. If you’ve ever had a shitty friend, get ready for a candy-coated catharsis.

6. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” (1969, Nashville Skyline)

Sometimes love can stop you in your tracks so hard that you’re giving away your train ticket. Dylan uses this bulletproof sentiment to close out his sweet, underrated country gentleman album, wooing his crush like a Tennessee Romeo.

5. “Most of the Time” (recorded in 1989, released on 2008’s The Bootleg Series, Vol 8: Tell Tale Signs)

Dylan pulls the same trick that Hoagy Carmichael did with “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” bragging about how he’s over someone while proving just the opposite. I prefer this stripped down alternate take to the glossier version that ended up on Oh Mercy. It’s as stark as a December oak.

4. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)

Take a look at the lyrics to this timeless breakup song, and its songwriter seems like a bit of a dick. A more accurate title would be “It’s All Your Fault, But Don’t Freak Out or Anything.” But pair these words with the cascading finger-picked guitar of a 22-year-old Bob Dylan, and have them sung in his wise-beyond-its-years tenor, and this lack of empathy is exposed as a thin tough-guy facade. Behind it is heartbreak, pure and true.

3. “Like A Rolling Stone” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited)

“How does it feel?” Dylan asks on his most iconic song. He likely meant it in a cutting way, as a “get a load of me now” dig at an ex. But the music says otherwise. The rising major scale of the verses, the swirling organ of the choruses – it’s utterly, vibrantly optimistic. Enough that the artist deserves a straight answer. How does it feel? It feels like an acid trip in a botanical garden. It feels like waking up in Oz. It feels like discovering electricity.

2. “Not Dark Yet” (1997, Time Out of Mind)

Dylan wrote this song on a Minnesota farm in the wintertime. It had been seven years since he’d recorded anything of note, decades since his last masterpiece. Whether it was creative frustration, bruised ego, or just the weather, he was in an uncharacteristically confessional mood. “Not Dark Yet” is an admission of frailty, striking in its simplicity, stunning in its beauty. “I feel like my soul has turned into steam,” he shares, guitars and keyboards drifting around him like ghosts. Ironically, it was irrefutable evidence that he had so much more to give.

1. “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” (1966, Blonde On Blonde)

This is the apex of Bob Dylan’s artistic maturation, his transformation from strident folkie to impenetrable rock enigma. A seven-minute carnival ride through thickets of metaphors, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” is both impossible to parse and instantly mesmerizing – its circular blues groove, peppered with organ and harmonica, could go on for an hour without losing its power. While the verses make us consider Shakespeare, dead grandpas and vampiric railroad workers, the chorus is a plea so basic, it could’ve come from a child: “Mama, is this really the end?” In a way, it was. Two months after Blonde On Blonde was released, Dylan got in a motorcycle accident and receded from the public eye. Subsequent albums looked backward at the Americana that inspired him. He’d release incredible music in the decades to come (he still is), but nothing so exhilarating, so tapped into the magnetic and frightening possibilities of American life. At any point during Dylan’s peak, the music sounded like it could go off the rails. It’s the sound of risks paying off, of taking chances that get you places. He may have felt like he was stuck in Mobile, but he was teaching us how to get the hell out and live.

Catching Up With King: “Carrie”

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I made sure to cover up my dirty pillows before cracking open King’s stunning, heartbreaking debut novel – Carrie.

“Jesus watches from the wall / But his face is cold as stone
And if he loves me / As she tells me
Why do I feel so all alone?”
― Stephen King, Carrie

I’ve always taken pride in buying tampons for my wife. It’s incontrovertible proof that not only does this woman live with me, but that she actually likes me for real. If she’s comfortable with my involvement in one of her most intimate routines, I must be doing something right.

Society tells me I’m not supposed to feel this way. A woman’s menstrual cycle is supposedly TMI. God forbid she brings it up at dinner. Why are men so afraid of women that we’ve done all we can to stigmatize such a natural biological truth? Is it jealousy of the ability to create life? A frantic attempt to hold onto the overwhelming privilege we’ve enjoyed for millennia? Whatever the reason, it’s an established fact: Men fear the flow.

In 1974, a year after Roe v. Wade, Stephen King leveraged these patriarchal fears to create a horror classic. Carrie is the story of a long-suffering high school girl who gets her period, learns that she’s powerful, and takes horrible revenge. Dudes who were scared shitless of Gloria Steinem were definitely going to have to change their underwear after reading this.

We meet Carrie White on one of the worst days of her life. She gets her period for the first time, in the high school locker room, in front of her merciless bullies. Not only that, but thanks to her deranged, fire-and-brimstone-spewing “momma,” Carrie had never heard of menstruation. So while her classmates behave like wolves at a slaughter, yelling “plug it up” and pelting her with tampons, Carrie is also afraid she might be dying. Her gym teacher, Miss Desjardin, isn’t much help. “She certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard,” King writes. “A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.” Later, Carrie’s mother blames her, beats her and forces her into a closet, to atone for her feminine “weakness.”

But there’s a moment in this day, occasioned by those spontaneous gym class horrors, that allows Carrie something she rarely gets. A moment of calm. The principal sends her home early, hours before her mother’s laundry shift is over. “Alone,” she marvels. It’s the only moment in this story that she gets completely to herself, where the imaginary laws of high school (fat girls are bad) and Christianity (all girls are bad) aren’t bearing down on her. And as it turns out, it’s one of the last days that Carrie, and her hometown of Chamberlain, Maine, will know peace.

As King’s first published novel, Carrie gives us a look at how the author approached his craft pre-fame. He’s never been more laser-focused on plot. Perhaps he hadn’t developed enough confidence in his ability to flesh out a world, or maybe he thought straying from the action would hurt his manuscript’s chances. Because these 290 pages are absolutely filler-free. Characters get minimal backstories. We learn nothing at all about the town. It’s just the walls closing steadily, relentlessly in on Carrie White. There’s nothing we can do about it, except mourn her inevitable fate, and marvel at her power.

“What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic,” King writes, matter-of-factly, on page 4. It’s important that we’re armed with this knowledge that Carrie can move things with her mind. From the beginning, we know that everybody is underestimating her – they’re literally playing with fire. It’s a source of hope that she could rise above these bullies at school and home. And it’s a metaphor for the power inside every marginalized person, whose outrage is the potential fuel for change.

When guilt-ridden classmate Sue Snell decides to atone for Plug-It-Up-Gate by having her archetypal boyfriend Tommy Ross ask Carrie to the prom, Carrie ignores her instincts and says yes. The walls continue to close.

Meanwhile, Chris Hargensen, alpha bully and spoiled attorney’s daughter, and her legit psycho boyfriend Billy Nolan, have a heartless and disgusting plan to break Carrie White once and for all – a stage adaptation of her locker room shame that involves buckets of pig’s blood. King accentuates the true criminal depravity going on here, how it’s much, much worse than anything that could be labeled a “prank,” by taking us along on the trip where Billy and a few buddies break into a farm in the dark of night and slit the throats of two pigs. The inevitability of the story structure makes it clear that this plan will work.

Nothing I’ve read from King so far has been as heartbreaking as Carrie’s prom night. She waits nervously for Tommy to pick her up, immune to her mother’s rants about dirty pillows and roadhouses. Tommy doesn’t just show, he treats her with genuine respect, telling her she’s beautiful and meaning it.

As the night goes on, hope awakens. She has a legitimate rapport with her date; she gets compliments on the dress she made herself; she cracks a few jokes that land. “She felt something very old and rusty loosen inside her,” King describes. “A warmth came with it. Relief. Ease.”

Of course, that feeling was going to be short-lived. Not only does the pig’s blood plot go off without a hitch, dousing the newly crowned Carrie and killing Tommy with a bucket to the skull, but the crowd laughs at the gory display. She runs, and somebody trips her. She keeps running until she reaches a field, losing her shoes along the way like Bram Stoker’s Cinderella. And in this moment, with her only options to return to the cackling devils at school or go home to a mother who is waiting patiently with a butcher knife, she wishes for death.

And then remembers her power.

King describes the destruction of Chamberlain with the same efficiency as the rest of his debut novel, and the effect is chilling. Mocked and denigrated for her life-giving body, Carrie uses it to create death instead, raining fire on her abusers like the Book of Revelations made flesh. Bodies do stunted, electrified dances. Charred corpses smell like pork.

If only this town had empathized with somebody who had it hard at home. If only they hadn’t been so cruel about something so natural. Maybe then they wouldn’t have blood coming out of their wherever.

Up next, we tackle a book I’d never heard of before buying it used for $2.99 – 1998’s small-town soap opera Bag of Bones.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Carrie

3. The Shining

4. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

5. 11/22/63

6. The Gunslinger

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (45-41)

And we’re back to our countdown of the most earth-shattering earworms of the 1990s. None of them are the earth-shattering worms from Tremors and Tremors 2: Aftershock, even though both of those films came out in the ’90s. Tremors 3: Back to Perfection and Tremors 4: The Legend Begins came out in 2001 and 2004, respectively, but both movies starred Michael Gross, best known as the dad from Family Ties, which ended in 1989, but was in syndication in the ’90s.

45. Snoop Doggy Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)

The first rapper we hear on this, the definitive statement from the California G-funk era, isn’t Snoop Doggy Dogg. Or Dr. Dre. It’s the forever slept-on Death Row mercenary The Lady of Rage, whose joyful, electrifying verse sets the tone for the record to come – “Kickin’ up dirt and I don’t give a god damn,” she spits. It’s an immediate sign that Doggystyle is going to be more fun than Dre’s iconic 1992 opus The Chronic. While that record was concerned with settling scores and establishing myths, Snoop’s is concerned with partying and making dick jokes. His laconic flow and youthful effervescence is the ultimate counterpoint to Dre’s bloodshot Funkadelic grooves. The opening salvo of “G Funk,” “Gin & Juice” and “Tha Shiznit” is a cresting wave of positive vibes that still makes me feel like I’m blissfully plastered, with the warm sun on my face. This is the record that should’ve been named after weed.

44. Pearl Jam – No Code (1996)

Even when Pearl Jam was conquering the world with sweeping arena rock anthems, they actively rejected the “arena rock band” label. They stopped making videos, fought Ticketmaster, defaced #1 albums with drunken accordions and bizarre sound collages. But it wasn’t until No Code that they actually stopped sounding like rock stars. It remains the band’s most patient and honest effort, with themes of spirituality taken to heart. What hits you at first is the eclecticism – Eastern melodies and spoken word and muddy punk all rubbing shoulders. But what’s endured are the ballads, some of the loveliest in ’90s rock. There’s no attempt to mask the weariness in Eddie Vedder’s vocals or Brendan O’Brien’s loose, shaggy production. Whether it’s the somber self-criticism of “Off He Goes” or the gentle country lullaby “Around the Bend,” we’re hearing musicians so exhausted by stardom, all they had left to do was be themselves.

43. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)

I can think of no better example of sampling as an art form than Public Enemy’s third album. Of all the classics made during rap’s Wild West sampling era – before attorneys got wise to the fact that producers in this new genre were chopping up copyrighted material – Fear of a Black Planet has the most consistent, fully realized vision. PE’s production crew The Bomb Squad deploys 129 samples over the course of 20 tracks, leaning heavily on James Brown and Sly Stone breaks but also mining Prince, Uriah Heep, Sgt. Pepper’s, Hall & Oates, and Vincent Price’s laughter from “Thriller.” Amazingly, the album doesn’t sound like a collage or mash-up, because The Bomb Squad treats these samples like building blocks, just 129 of the instruments used to flesh out PE’s relentless, confrontational funk. This isn’t a wall of sound. It’s a skyscraper. And when the man rapping over it is Chuck D in his prime, his voice booming like timpani, full of righteous outrage and Afrocentric pride? You can’t imagine anything ever sounding bigger.

42. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Let Love In (1994)

When an artist begins and ends an album with songs called “Do You Love Me?” it’s fair to wonder if he’s a bit starved for attention. When Nick Cave did this, on his eighth Bad Seeds album, he was 36 years old, prime crisis territory for a rock star. It could just be dark fiction from a master storyteller, but either way, Let Love In is a towering work about sin, regret and death – a Leonard Cohen album adapted into a horror movie. Cave litters his lyric sheets with defeated characters, wasting away in bars and planning their funerals. Sacred thresholds are violated left and right, by lingering devils, or lying politicians, or lovers who have to be let in like vampires. I find it telling that Cave gets nostalgic on a pair of twitchy punk tunes that sound like old Birthday Party B-sides. Over the churning, serrated guitars of “Thirsty Dog,” he apologizes like he’s got nothing to lose: “You keep nailing me back into my box / I’m sorry I keep popping back up.” It certainly sounds like he was worried his career was toast. And rather than denying these feelings of fear and vanity, he faced them head-on in his songwriting. Something that I, for one, will always love him for.

41. A Tribe Called Quest – Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996) 

When a genre is as young as rap was in the ’90s, its elder statesmen are too. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were only 26 and 25 when their fourth album dropped, but they were already done as influencers of the genre. By ’96, their jubilant, jazz-inflected Native Tongues movement was no longer a thing, with groups like Outkast, The Roots and The Fugees using it as a launchpad for their own signature sounds. Beats, Rhymes and Life succeeds by readily embracing all of this. Undeviating in its polished, radio-friendly approach, the record documents Tribe entering its accelerated golden years with ease. Never have they sounded slicker. And that’s not a complaint. Those trademark Fender Rhodes loops are even simpler and spacier. And the drum programming is just gorgeous. To this day I’ve never heard snares crack with such reassuring warmth, like pebbles hitting your bedroom window. As always, Tip and Phife float effortlessly through it all, resulting in some of the catchiest rap of the decade – especially “Motivators,” where Phife encapsulates the vibe with his typical conversational flair, “This here groove was made for vintage freestylin’ / Feelin’ like I’m chillin’ on a Caribbean island.” Moments like these make questions of age and relevancy feel silly, boiling hip hop down to a simple credo: When the beats are good, and the rhymes are good, life is good.

2017 Songs of the Summer

Call me a cheeseball, but I’ve always been excited at the prospect of new summer music. One of the best things you can say about a song is that it sounds perfect blasting out of a car window, air conditioning be damned.

I remember exactly how it felt to discover my first song of the summer, in May 1992, when one of Buffalo’s 17 classic rock stations debuted the new Black Crowes single “Remedy” just as my mom was pulling into the driveway. I ran inside to catch the rest of it. To this day, when those incredible backup singers come in on the chorus to bolster Rich Robinson’s shaggy blues riff, I get chills. I will forever associate that moment with feelings of warmth and possibility.

25 years later, figuring out the “Song of the Summer” has become its own cottage industry. We make our predictions in May and declare the winner in September. And for the most part, the criteria is the opposite of most pop culture analysis – mainstream acceptance is a must. In 2013, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” won the season not just because of its pristine, inescapable disco hook, but because the Internet was obsessed with it as well. It’s easy to be cynical about arbitrary “awards” like this – it is the the essence of music blog clickbait, after all – but it’s important to talk about music we can generally agree on as a culture once in a while. The more I hear that our country is hopelessly divided, the more I want to prove that wrong. Searching for, and honoring, these shared musical moments every year is one tiny way to do it.

Plus, I really really like to make lists of songs. So here are the ones I’ll be running into the house to tape off the radio this summer.


Jeremih – “I Think of You”

Jeremih flirts with MJ status, yearning for a mistletoe moment in July over an utterly joyful, marimba-inflected beat.

Thundercat – “Tokyo”

An electro-jazz-yacht-rock bass virtuoso sings about how a great vacation can bring out the kid in us: “Gonna eat so much fish I think I’m gonna be sick / Gonna blow all my cash on anime!”

Haim – “Want You Back”

This California trio finds a sweet spot between Fleetwood Mac and Wilson Phillips. Hope they luxuriate in it for a while.

Bebe Rexha – “I Got You”

A pop song about building trust, with a chorus that feels like falling into somebody’s arms.

Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”

The best rapper alive, tearing a monster Mike Will Made It beat to shreds. Bring on the Summer of the Low-Register Piano.

Power Trip – “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)”

The headbanger of the summer, with a riff that chugs like a locomotive from hell, and a chorus that demands to be shouted at top volume, like a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts.

Bob Dylan – “Braggin'”

The more Dylan digs into the Great American Songbook, the happier I get. This sprightly shuffle off his excellent Triplicate album is a pure pleasure, full of folksy, spot-on commentary on what passes for leadership these days: “When you should be busy plowin’ and a-plantin’ / You stand there a-rantin’ / Get no harvest tootin’ your horn.”

Calvin Harris (ft. Frank Ocean & Migos) – “Slide”

A smooth-as-ever Frank sings about moments when “whatever comes, comes through clear” over a breezy disco groove from Calvin Harris. Positive vibes abound.

Beachheads – “Your Highness”

Shimmering, harmony-laden power-pop that sweeps you up like a hang glider.

CupcakKe – “Barcodes”

This sex work empowerment anthem is a blast of exuberance from a Chicago rapper on the rise. “Pay the damn price or go home to your wife,” CupcakKe demands, backed by the funkiest horns you’ll hear all summer.

Drake – “Passionfruit”

Over a swirling dream of a dancehall groove, a narrator mourns a fading long-distance relationship. Emotional and entrancing, it has all the makings of signature Drake summer smash.

Feist – “I’m Not Running Away”

Sparse, introspective blues songs don’t usually make me want to bat a beach ball around. But I can’t shake this tune. Its mix of slinky guitars and bold declarations are as thoroughly bad-ass as the Power Trip song on this list. I’d suggest throwing it on while a bonfire is burning.

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

In March 2015, Kendrick Lamar released a song called “How Much a Dollar Cost,” about ignoring a panhandler who turns out to be God. Throughout the sprawling crisis of faith that was his To Pimp a Butterfly album, this was one of the most overt pleas to not give up, a New Testament argument in favor of the basic decency of humanity.

Then, a year and a half later, Election Day came to prove him wrong. Lamar didn’t make any public statements after Donald Trump’s victory. I can’t imagine how it’s affected him. But this spring, with the release of his laser-focused fourth album, bluntly titled DAMN, it became clear that the effect on his art has been extraordinary. Determined instead of conflicted, realistic instead of religious, DAMN outlines a vital artist’s transformed approach to navigating a fucked-up world: Have faith in yourself.

It begins with a direct echo of “How Much A Dollar Cost,” a story about Lamar seeing a blind woman on the street who looks like she needs help. This time, he does the Christian thing and goes over to lend a hand. Then she pulls out a gun and kills him.

The sound of that bullet represents a call to action. Lamar is absolutely on fire for the ensuing 13 tracks, all tagged with curt, one-word titles. He raps about the power in his blood, the clarity of his emotions, the resilience of his mind. He takes on a new nickname to match this new ethos of strength through self control, “Kung Fu Kenny.” Never has he gone in with such disciplined energy and irresistible swagger.

“I don’t contemplate / I meditate / Then off your fucking head,” he flexes over the levitating sitar n’ bass rumble of “DNA,” a song that finds Lamar digging so deep inside for inspiration that he’s talking shit about his genetic makeup and ability to reach nirvana in yoga class.

On “FEEL,” Lamar’s voice dances over a light, subterranean R&B groove, belying the weight class of the lonely-at-the-top emotions he’s contending with: “The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’ / And fuck you if you get offended.”

And then there’s “LOVE.” Over a dreamy P.M. Dawn-esque synthscape, Lamar duets with guest vocalist Zacari about the all-or-nothing thrill of finding your person. It’s as concerned with betrayal as the rest of the record, but with a sweetness and vulnerability that your average rap album wouldn’t touch with a 1,000-foot pole. “If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me?” Lamar sings on the refrain. “Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you trust me than to love me.”

It’s technically correct to refer to DAMN as a “back to basics” record. The jazz/spoken word/Tupac ghost interview experiments of the past are firmly in the rearview – DAMN‘s closest relative in Lamar’s discography is his soulful, tightly concentrated 2011 debut Section.80. But it’s more than that. He’s gone back to basics psychologically as well, stripping away everything that he couldn’t count on in the world and starting over from there. His music has reached a higher plane in the process. The shorter the titles, the more meaningful the songs.

That’s why DAMN is, to me, the best album in Kendrick Lamar’s absolutely bulletproof discography. It’s the purest representation of his katana-sharp storytelling gifts, is absolutely loaded with hooks, and is driven by the kind of visceral, personal feeling that will never stop being relevant.

“Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he shares, over and over again, throughout this album. The first time he says it, it’s a plea. Eventually it becomes a mantra. By the end, it’s a declaration of independence.

We may not be praying for you, Kendrick. But to our great benefit, we’re listening.