What’s In My Discman, June 2012

In two days, I’ll be catching The Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Tour stop at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. DLPAC is normally a stressful, unsatisfying place to see a show – if you want to get thousands of people to start throwing punches, give them a whole mess of rollercoaster rides and $11 beers. But fuck if I don’t give a damn this time. Seeing Brian Wilson on stage with the remaining original Beach Boys, cherry-picking tunes from one of the most beautiful and haunting back catalogs in pop music history, is sure to make every other possible annoyance fade away, like a sandcastle in the tide. Naturally, I’ve been listening to Beach Boys albums like crazy this month, something I do when the warm weather hits every year anyways. Here are the three records that’ve been getting the most spins. (And thank you to my stunning, loving wife, who gave me these tickets for my birthday, and will be by my side Friday night, even though she couldn’t care less about the old farts on stage.)

The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio (2012)

It was easy to be skeptical about this project, a seemingly rushed-together LP released to coincide with the tour I’ll be experiencing on Friday. But while aspects of That’s Why God Made The Radio do feel a bit half-baked, and a few tracks get cornily self-referential, it is most definitely more than a lowest common denominator cash-grab. It’s also the perfect example of the clashing artistic visions of Brian Wilson and Mike Love. If you were in any way confused why the two haven’t worked together in a while, listen to the gorgeously morbid three-song suite the closes the album, where Wilson sings “Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in.” Then listen to “Spring Vacation,” a dopey good-time pop song in which Love sings “Driving around, living the dream/I’m cruising the town, I’m living the scene.” Brian’s still the fragile genius, all about introspection and the interplay of darkness and light; Mike’s still the aging rock star, all about Hawaiian shirts, cool cars and (I imagine) creepy leers. I don’t mean to put a line in the sand here – Wilson’s Jersey Shore-referencing “The Private Life of Bill and Sue” is an embarrassing attempt at relevance, and Love’s “Daybreak Over the Ocean” is rather sweet in its simplistic pleas. But the biggest wins are Wilson’s – the incredibly pretty, “Our Prayer”-ish opener, the title track with its wonderful, cascading chorus, and that jaw-dropping trilogy at the end (was any Beach Boys fan expecting such a perfect coda?). So if TWGMTR is wildly inconsistent, it’s still an accurate representation of where the Beach Boys are in 2012 – a band that might not be on the same page, but one that still sings like angels through it all.

The Beach Boys – 15 Big Ones/Love You (1976-1977)

Some of the biggest artists of the ’60s have dealt with their various mid-life crises by making albums filled with the songs of their youth – and like David Bowie’s Pin Ups and John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll before it, 15 Big Ones is a fun listen, if not a particularly life-altering one. As the first LP since Pet Sounds to feature the credit “produced by Brian Wilson” on the gatefold, the album must have been a bit of a disappointment at the time, but it’s actually aged pretty well, with originals like the cheerful, organ-peppered “It’s OK,” the breezy “Had to Phone Ya” and the bluesy “Back Home” fitting the old-time rock ‘n’ roll vibe while still giving Wilson room to scratch that harmonic itch. There are some throwaways here (e.g. a grating, dated-sounding “Chapel of Love,” a sluggish “Blueberry Hill”), but the lushly produced, reverent take on The Righteous Brothers’ “Just Once In My Life” ranks up there with the Boys’ best ’70s work. And who’s going to complain about these vocalists tackling “In the Still of the Night”?

Love You, the second of this two-album set (thank you Capitol Records) was the last Brian Wilson-produced Beach Boys album before this year’s That’s Why God Made The Radio. And while it’s a ramshackle shadow of his glorious ’60s work, it’s an oddly compelling little masterpiece all the same, and my favorite of all the ’70s Beach Boys albums I’ve heard (Carl & the Passions and Holland have still managed to evade my ears). Wilson’s songwriting is straight-up goofy in places, and at times painfully childlike, but it adds to Love You’s ragged blend of synthesizers and doo-wop harmonies – “Johnny Carson” is the weirdest Beach Boys song ever, a straight-faced ode to the celebrity whose verses have a strangely ominous melody. And “Solar System” is a 2nd grade astronomy lesson sung by a blissed-out organist – but because it features Brian’s voice at its hoarsest, it’s also a bit of pop innocence that’s streaked with something sadder. Then there’s the heartbreakers – “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together,” a crushing duet between Wilson and his indifferent-sounding wife Marilyn, and “Love Is A Woman,” where Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine compel us to treat women nicely over a Fats Domino-ish arrangement. When Wilson sings, “Tell her she smells good tonight,” it’s so awkward, and so perfectly earnest, I can’t help but get chills.

The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)

I’m not really sure what the critics think about this one, but I’ll be bold enough to come right out and say it – Pet Sounds is good. Honestly, it would be a waste of all of our precious time to blather on about the swirling, magnificently dense arrangements, the bittersweet love songs to beat all bittersweet love songs, the force of nature that is the band’s vocal harmonies. The Beach Boys have always been obsessed with the trappings of summer, but I think Brian Wilson was more obsessed with the brutally temporary nature of that season – before you know it, school’s back in session, the leaves are falling, and you’re starting to wonder if you were made for these times. Pet Sounds was summer for the Beach Boys, a time when their talents were in full blossom, their ingenious leader was as confident and prolific as he ever would be, and their songs were on the charts. Then they blinked an eye, and it was September.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (75-71)

75. Prince Paul – A Prince Among Thieves (1999)

Given the gritty truths and intense melodramas that have been such a huge part of hip-hop – especially its 1990s golden age – it’s surprising that the genre has given us no stone-cold brilliant concept albums. Is what you’d say if Prince Paul had never made this, easily the greatest hip-hop concept album of all time, and one that I’d take over Tommy any day of the week. A Prince Among Thieves is the story of Tariq, an aspiring rapper and fast food worker who dreams of using his art to get rich and provide for his mother. When he lands a cherry meeting with Wu-Tang Clan, Tariq needs to raise some money to pay for studio time – his demo is a little rough – so he dips his toes into the drug game to make ends meet. While it’s predictable that this story would end tragically, Prince Paul infuses it with flash-forwards, Shakespearean betrayals and bursts of dark comedy, telling a tale that never gets confusing, and always keeps you on your toes. Paul’s production work is on the level with his classic De La Soul material – “Steady Slobbin'” and “What You Got” feature some of the most irresistible soul loops he’s ever dug up. The actors are totally convincing, and guest stars like Kool Keith, Chris Rock, Everlast and Big Daddy Kane make for a hell of a cast. Nobody shines brighter than the star though – Breeze Brewin’ is the main reason we sympathize so much with Tariq; he’s the perfect, unassuming hero in the skits, and his steady, tight flow is the backbone of the majority of the songs.

Take a listen to “What You Got,” whose funky sax loop and playful interactions between Tariq and his pal True are a sign that it comes early on in the story.

74. Roger Waters – Amused To Death (1992)

After releasing the final Pink Floyd album in 1983 – the underrated anti-war elegy The Final Cut – Roger Waters got into a weirdly allegorical groove, from his pervy-road-trip-as-metaphor-for-something-I-don’t-really-understand solo debut The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking to the guy-in-a-wheelchair-ends-capitalism follow-up, Radio K.A.O.S. Not to disparage those albums, both of which have aged far better than anything the David Gilmour-led edition of Floyd ever recorded, but everything about Amused To Death feels like Waters getting back to business, saying to hell with prog-rock librettos and writing the kind of acidic sociopolitical material that made The Wall and The Final Cut so unforgettable. “And the Germans killed Jews and the Jews killed the Arabs and the Arabs killed the hostages and that is the news,” his wonderful backup singer P.P. Arnold belts on “Perfect Sense, Part I,” and that’s the basic theme of the record – organized religion, governments and the media colluding to support humanity’s vilest sins. Because this is a solo Waters album, things do get too preachy for comfort from time to time (especially an uber-cheesy battleground play-by-play from Marv Albert). But you’ve gotta forgive him for these moments, because his rage is so pure, his hook-free arrangements so beautifully meditative, his vision so artful. He spends much of Amused to Death musing about what God wants (spoiler alert: it’s all bad stuff). Say what you want about the man upstairs, but he gave us Roger Waters, and that’s a check in the “pros” column for sure.

Tough to pick against “Perfect Sense, Part I,” but my favorite tune here is “Watching TV,” a heartbreakingly poignant take on the Tiananmen Square protests with some surprisingly effective guest vocals from Don Henley (the only saving grace of his career IMO. Yeah, “Boys of Summer” sucks too).

73. Helmet – Meantime (1992)

From the moment I first heard “Unsung,” which I’m guessing I saw on Headbanger’s Ball, Helmet’s major label debut became an album to save up my allowance and buy (quick side note – nothing will ever sound sweeter to me than the CDs I had to save for a month to be able to afford. Great music will always give me chills, but never again will I feel the blissful release of a record that lives up to my own, self-inflicted hype machine). And while the balance of Meantime didn’t possess anything quite as brutal as that amazingly simple riff, it was perfect for the kind of teen looking to project his weirdo angst on something harder and snarlier than Nirvana. Mixing the mammoth riffage and clipped shouts of Page Hamilton with drummer John Stanier’s deep-in-the-pocket breaks, Meantime was loud, nasty, groove-based hardcore, a sound that hurts just as good 20 years later. Sure, there’s plenty of pain-obsessed Trapper Keeper poetry – Hamilton’s jealous cheerleader screams of “You’re better … die!” being the lowest point. But the guitars are so punishing, and the rhythms so gut-punching, they would smother any attempt at refined lyricism like the runt of a litter.

Behold the brutal, brass tacks awesomeness that is “Unsung.”

72. Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out (1997)

“Words and guitar/I got it!” What better way to sum up the joyful noise of Dig Me Out than this chorus to one of its many unshakeable standout tracks? Sleater-Kinney’s third album, and first for Kill Rock Stars, provides equal helpings of molten punk shredding and bouncy British invasion melodies – it’s not a coincidence that its cover is an homage to The Kink Kontroversy. The record sounds for all the world like a trio of gals who love nothing more than plugging in and screaming their guts out. (Which reminds me, Screaming Females’ Ugly, one of my front-runners for the best album of 2012, would in no way exist if not for Dig Me Out.) This palpable exuberance is what makes Dig Me Out something special; instead of wallowing into lines like “I wear your rings and sores/In me, it shows,” singer Corin Tucker sets fire to them, her wild, quavering pipes proving that the death of grunge didn’t stop the Seattle scene from spitting out some startlingly talented, unpredictable voices. Of course, you can’t get by purely on energy. Dig Me Out is riddled with killer pop melodies, Carrie Brownstein’s shit-hot guitar playing, and deftly layered sequences that belie the whole garage band aesthetic – take “Words and Guitar,” where Tucker’s vocal devolves into a primal scream and Brownstein chimes in with a cheery backup vocal (“Can’t take this away from me/Music is the air I breathe”), all over a sun-kissed riff straight out of a Searchers song. Sleater-Kinney makes it all sound exhilaratingly simple, as sure a sign as any that we’re hearing a great band at its peak.

I’ve said enough about “Words and Guitar.” Get to listenin’.

71. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)

When I was 14, I considered Ten to be one of the Great Rock Albums, on a level with Led Zeppelin II or Back In BlackBut if you’ve read my introduction to this list, you’ll understand why I was nervous to listen to Pearl Jam’s monster debut front to back, for the first time in at least a decade – what Ten has inspired in its wake has been pretty horrifying. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cringe during “Once,” the album’s propulsive opening track. I can appreciate melodrama, but as Eddie Vedder growled “Once upon a time/I could love myself,” I realized how rough around the edges this gifted vocalist was in 1991. Vedder connected with listeners from the get because he sang with naked emotion, but on Ten, he often gets lost in these waves of feeling, his grunts and wails coming off almost comical. At the end of “Once,” Vedder lets loose his most heinous guttural burst (“YUH-HEA-HEA-YUH-HEA-HEA!!!!”), which I will now claim as the #1 reason Chad Kroeger, Scott Stapp and Chris Daughtry sound like they do. That’s all to explain why Ten is #71 on this list, instead of in the top 20. It remains a smorgasbord of killer guitar riffs, and is full of songs that shamelessly aim for arena nosebleeds, with none of the artsy experiments and ham-fisted politics that would make vs. and Vitalogy so uneven. And when Vedder calms down, his vocals are gorgeous – the ballads “Oceans” and “Release” are two of the album’s strongest cuts as a result. Then there’s “Alive,” perhaps the perfect example of how Pearl Jam combined the angst-ridden energy of grunge with the comfortable, crowd-pleasing tropes of classic rock – if you thought existentialist crises and guitar solos couldn’t mix, here’s your proof.

Eddie Vedder might’ve had some developing to do as a singer at the time, but on “Oceans,” his raw ability can’t be denied. An exquisite ballad that alone absolves him for his “hunger dunger dang”-related sins.

What I Learned From “Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction”

Having just watched every episode of The Wire in a marathon session, I’m more familiar than ever with the devastating failure that was the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs.” The jury’s out on whether or not the people who crafted this policy ever cared about stemming the tide of American drug use, or just wanted to give law enforcement an excuse to lock up as many black people as their heart desired. This I do know for a fact, though – the campaign’s slogan, “Just Say No,” was hilariously ignorant, and offensive to any person who turned to drugs to numb their pain. The same kind of shortsightedness that birthed “Just Say No” is what inspires Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, a fantastically campy  TV movie broadcast in 1983, one year into Reagan’s first term. Starring Dennis Weaver (the voice of Buck McCoy!) as an aging California real estate agent struggling to compete with a flashy youngster who’s starting to outsell him, Cocaine paints everything in hysterically broad strokes, as Weaver’s character goes from a respectable blue-collar guy to a bloody-nosed psychopath over what feels like a couple of weeks. It’s just the kind of movie that will make a young person want to try cocaine, if only to prove that what he just saw was a load of shit. Anyways, what did I learn?

1. Dennis Weaver has some nostrils on him.

I know that cocaine will make you act like an asshole and ruin your life and all that, no matter who you are, but I think there’s a logical explanation for just how quickly Weaver’s character hits bottom in this movie – his cavernous nostrils. There’s no doubt that he’s consuming 10 times more coke per snort than his fellow addict friend (played with suicidal glee by Jeffrey Tambor). It makes you think, if Jimmy Durante was a cokehead, how long would he have lasted?

2. Cocaine will make your midlife crisis even crisis-ier.

In the early stages of Weaver’s “seduction,” he suddenly becomes better at his job, his newfound drug use loosening him up around clients and making him ready to make the jump to selling the big-time listings. It’s at this point that he decides to look the part too, cruising the SoCal freeways looking like a dad having a nervous breakdown, a wreck of leather, black shades and wide-collars.

3. Cocaine will make you betray James Spader.

When Weaver’s wife discovers cocaine in the house, it’s not his – it’s his son’s (played with extreme blondness by James Spader). Of course, Spader actually stole his from Weaver’s shaving kit stash, which makes for some wonderful “I learned it by watching you!” moments. Throwing his own son under the bus marks the low-point for Weaver, who begins the long road to recovery soon after. Which you’d never make a movie about, because bo-ring.

4. Cocaine is highly addictive, but ’80s movies about drugs are even more so.

I know that we’re supposed to be devastated by how far Weaver has fallen in this movie – from a rock-solid family man who topped the sales chart at the office for a decade (“10 years!”) to a jittery douche who would sell out everybody he loves for another fix. But Weaver is just so brilliantly hammy, he turns this message movie into one hell of a good time. Watching him get progressively sweatier, more paranoid and bug-eyed, sneaking hits during showings, hornily grabbing his wife by the sink, it’s like manna from heaven for camp lovers. I’ve since watched several more movies like Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, none of them matching its intoxicating blend of hyper-melodrama, over-the-top acting and low-ball budget. Netflix offered this one to Watch Instantly; when they take it off, I’m going to have to buy it. That’s how the pushers get you hooked. That, and VHS packaging like this:

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (80-76)

“So I thought you were counting these albums down in groups of 10?” absolutely nobody will ask when seeing this group of five ’90s albums. Well, I haven’t had a lot of time to write lately, and rather than have these sitting around like yesterday’s dirty diapers, I figured I’d bundle them up and take them down to the dump (a.k.a. post them). So there you go. Enjoy!

80. Propellerheads – Decksanddrumsandrockandroll (1998)

Whether they’re the result of the legitimate, organic rise of a new artistic sensibility, or something manufactured by critics who are magnanimous with their “next big thing” proclamations, all pop music trends are fads, destined to flame out. So instead of letting them dictate the way you walk, talk and dress, why not do something that will never go out of style – find a good groove and dance to it. This is the message of Propellerheads’ single “History Repeating,” a propulsive spy movie rave up, complete with a gutsy Shirley Bassey vocal, that realized the mainstream potential of electronica while mocking the hype machine that had been predicting just that for years. On the British duo’s first and only LP, they give several examples of the kind of tracks that could inspire critics to go all Nostradamus, doing monstrous things with drums and bass lines that could seemingly stretch on forever without losing their adrenaline-spiking energy. “Take California,” “Bang On!” or the Matrix-approved “Spybreak!” make driving to work feel like a million-dollar chase sequence. When sequenced with quieter, quirkier moments like the groovy kitsch of “Velvet Pants” and the loping, skater hip hop of “360 (Oh Yeah?)” (which features De La Soul at their effortless-sounding best), Decksanddrumsandrockandroll becomes an evergreen listen, an album that will always be as much fun as it was the day it came out. My flannel is long gone, and these beats are forever.

The understatement of the album comes on “Velvet Pants” – “It’s groovy, I guess.”

79. RZA – Bobby Digital In Stereo (1998)

By the time RZA got around to releasing an album under his own name, he was seen as a pretty solid hip hop double threat – a genius producer who had garnered respect as a rapper as well. Bobby Digital In Stereo solidified this status. Not only was it the treasure trove of dramatic, confrontational beats we’d come to expect (and this a year after the double-LP Wu-Tang Forever. Damn, were we spoiled), it was the first real revelation of RZA’s abilities on the mic. He dishes out some wild, brilliant tongue-lashings here, making the record’s kinda lame “digital v. analog” concept sound like the toughest street battle this side of Mobb Deep, and shouldering the burden of keeping the adrenaline flowing over the course of 17 tracks. That said, Bobby Digital drags just a bit in the middle, but it’s thanks to a glut of guest rappers (RZA only contributes six verses from tracks 8-15). And it pretty much doesn’t matter, because the man closes things in unforgettably explosive fashion. “My Lovin’ Is Digi” is grand and ridiculous and sublime; pairing a huge string loop with a chorus that’s sung with hilarious gravity: “Sometimes, I find someone fuckin’ with my pussy.” Then there’s “Domestic Violence.” Jesus Christ, “Domestic Violence.” An ugly, misanthropic argument between RZA and guest Jamie Sommers, the track is both a raw nerve of rage and bitterness, and a massively successful piece of entertainment. Hearing Sommers laundry list all the things about RZA that “ain’t shit,” how could you not join in?

78. Leaders of the New School – A Future Without A Past … (1991)

The title of Leaders of the New School’s debut album is a reference to youth, and all the hope and possibilities it implies. And it completely delivers on that idea. Charlie Brown, Busta Rhymes, Dinco D and DJ Cut Monitor Milo inject every track with endearing, juvenile energy – these guys weren’t just skilled MCs, they were kids whose dreams were coming true, and their joy informed everything they laid to tape during these sessions. This is what makes A Future Without A Past one of the upper-echelon Native Tongues albums; where A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were exploring the power of positive thinking, Leaders of the New School was about innocence. A loose schoolyard concept informs classic tracks like “Case of the P.T.A.,” where the guys reflect on how parents and teachers just don’t get it over a completely infectious New Jack Swing groove, and “Show Me A Hero,” a “Gambler”-lifting warning shot to bullies in which Busta steals the show just by reciting his height and weight. If the rising star’s commanding baritone tends to shine just a little brighter than his bandmates, it was all part of LOTNS’ perfect pH balance, leveling out the bizarre shrieks of Brown and the steadying force of Dinko. Hearing them gleefully playing off each other really shines a light on how much the group dynamic has faded from modern hip hop. If you ever get tired of hearing solo records littered with guest spots, crank this up loud, and rejoice in the blissful synergy. Who cares if it gets you detention?

Just try to deny the youthful energy of “Case of the P.T.A.”

77. Lou Reed – Magic & Loss (1992)

Lulu, Lou Reed’s much-maligned 2011 collaboration with Metallica, has joined the likes of Gigli and Glitter as shorthand for an artistic train wreck. And on paper, Reed’s 1992 effort Magic & Loss looks like something destined for a similar fate – a concept album about death from an aging auteur striving to prove he’s still relevant. But in reality, this is the polar opposite of Lulu’s fancifully misguided theater. Shaken by the actual death of a friend from cancer, Reed sat down and wrote lyrics that are as subtle as chemotherapy. He marvels at the fact that the same thing that killed people at Chernobyl was helping his friend buy time. He wrestles with ideas of spirituality, bowing to their sanctity one moment, deriding them as “mystic shit” the next. And through it all, no matter how crushingly depressing the songs become, Reed handles them with that classic sense of cool, his resigned sing/speak translating it all into something like hope. He’s always been great at tackling material rich in conflicting moods – “Perfect Day” kicks your ass every time, because it’s about happiness in the context of sadness. Magic & Loss is “Perfect Day” on steroids, then, an album that finds beauty and mystery in the brutal unfairness of life. “I’m sick of looking at me/I hate this painful body,” he sings over the lone, mournful guitar figure on “Magician,” a harrowing tale of a spirit longing for freedom that’s among his best work. Like the album it anchors, it’s riddled with loss, yet feels like magic.

Put on a leather jacket and your best contemplative expression, and give “Magician” a spin.

76. Depeche Mode – Violator (1990)

When you’re alone, you can rule your own universe. It’s a theme that’s been used for several classic pop songs about adolescence. But when I first saw the video for Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” I’d never heard “In My Room” or “I Am A Rock.” I was in 7th grade, an introverted kid who typically loved extroverted music – bands like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Guns n’ Roses  possessed such audacious confidence, it seemed like an interplanetary transmission to a boy like me. But the “Enjoy the Silence” video spoke to me on a deeper level, and could very possibly have been the first work of art to do so. It told me that I wasn’t the only one who shied away from social situations, that, in fact, it was a kingly pursuit to avoid the everyday noises of life. “Words are very unnecessary/They can only do harm,” sings David Gahan as he walks through one gorgeous landscape after another, dressed in a crown and cape and carrying a lawn chair, stopping from time to time to heed the direction of the song’s title. Violator is full of introspective struggles like this – my 12-year-old brain wasn’t savvy enough to understand these songs that wrestled with ideas of faith, and truth, and love. But those haunting goth-pop melodies were more than enough to make me obsessed; plus, as a Catholic school kid I could sense the delicious sacrilege that was being committed on “Personal Jesus.” I loved this album then, despite it standing out of my cassette collection like a sore thumb, and it has only become more poignant with age. The more I’ve discovered about why I love Violator, the more I’ve learned about the younger me, that awkward king of his own quiet world.

Here’s “Enjoy the Silence.” Please enjoy it, even though it’s interrupting your silence.