Okay. So the first question most of you who regulary read brain coral will ask is, "Why the hell is this guy starting another blog? It seems like half the entries on brain coral are about how he doesn't have time to write, he's tired, he's really busy, etc." And I don't have a really good answer for that. This just feels right to me. I love brain coral dearly, and I'm not going to let it wither, but I need to do this, too.
Since the age of 12 or so, I have been an avid consumer of music, financially, mentally, and emotionally. Most of my spare income in my teenage and college years was spent on CDs and books, but mostly on CDs. Until my mid-20s, it never occurred to me that not everyone takes music as seriously as I do. When people liked bad music, I saw it as a character flaw, and I found it more than a little difficult to forgive, even if there were a lot of other things that I liked about the person. I could chalk it up to lack of exposure to good music, or laziness, or maybe ignorance, but it always nagged at me, like when someone you love has a bad habit that annoys the hell out of you but which they are blissfully unaware of. It didn't make me like them any less, but it mystified me when otherwise intelligent, interesting people had less than perfect taste in music (and by less than perfect, I mean they didn't like everything I liked and hate everything I hated).
The first bands that I'll own up to liking are new wave britpop acts like the Thompson Twins, Flock of Seagulls, Orchestral Manuevers in the Dark (OMD), and, yes, Duran Duran (and I'll still defend their ability to write a killer chorus up through Seven and the Ragged Tiger). I don't really listen to any of these bands anymore, but it was OMD that first introduced me to some of the groups that will forever have homes in my CD collection. I had fallen in love with OMD through their album Crush, which my friend Katie had bought for me for Christmas or a birthday or something, so when a new song of theirs was featured on the soundtrack to "Pretty in Pink" (directed by John Hughes, starring Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthey, James Spader, and Jon Cryer, plus the woman who played the secretary in the Ghostbusters movies), I didn't have to think twice about purchasing it. I didn't know much about the other bands featured on the cassette, but I figured that at least a few of the songs had to be half-decent.
And most of them were, including tracks from the Psychedelic Furs, Suzanne Vega, INXS (another band that I was already into), and Jesse Johnson, one of the many side attractions in the grand circus that surrounded Minneapolis star Prince. But it was the tracks by New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, and especially the Smiths, three bands that I'd never heard of before, that really took my breath away. I immediately went out and bought the most recent albums of the latter two artists, Echo and the Bunnymen's Songs to Learn and Sing, a best-of collection, and the Smiths' The Queen is Dead.
The Queen is Dead was to become my favorite album of one of my favorite artists of all time, and I consider the purchasing of this record to be the beginning of my current music collection. Because at the same time I was getting into artists like the Smiths, New Order, and Echo and the Bunnymen via the "Pretty in Pink" soundtrack, I noticed that these same artists were appearing on the top 10 college albums on the back page of Rolling Stone. Since very few of the people I hung out with were into anything like this (I had one friend who liked the Balancing Act and the Violent Femmes and another who liked R.E.M.), I took the bi-weekly college music chart as my guide to new artists, purchasing pretty much anything that showed up there for two consecutive issues.
And this wasn't a bad decision, really, leading me in the first year to artists like the aforementioned R.E.M. and the Violent Femmes, and also to groups like Guadalcanal Diary, U2, the Replacements, the Mighty Lemon Drops, Talking Heads, Cactus World News, Julian Cope, Robyn Hitchcock, Love & Rockets, the BoDeans, the Bolshoi, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smithereens, the Cure, the Golden Palominos, the Woodentops, Timbuk 3, Shriekback, Waxing Poetics, Easterhouse, Game Theory, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Love Tractor, XTC, Dream Syndicate, EIEIO, the Saints, Fine Young Cannibals, Screaming Blue Messiahs, and many, many others. You might not have heard of a lot of these artists, or you might remember a couple of them for the single radio hit that they produced (Timbuk 3's "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades" springs immediately to mind), but each of them is responsible for at least one album that I loved enough to hunt down on CD and add back to my collection when I made the transition from cassettes to compact discs.
Even though the college top 10 list remained a vital source for scouting out new bands (at least until the early 90s, when the college scene was poisoned by the advent of grunge as a mainstream movement and the word "alternative" came to mean anything guitar-based that the major labels were trying to get on the radio), I caught another lucky break when I decided to attend the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for my final two years of high school. It was here that I found people who were a lot more like me than friends up until that point had been, and while not everyone there listened to the music that I did, it was certainly easy to find people who did, people who not only loved the same stuff I did, but who could also introduce me to new bands (and who, conveniently, could show me the tricks for sneaking out of the dorms at night and using a fake ID to get into shows at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill).
So anyway. The point is is that music has been a day-to-day, almost minute-to-minute part of my life since I approached the cusp of adulthood. I listen to music all the timein the car, at home when I'm working or reading, at work, etc.and when I'm not listening to it, stray melodies are usually floating through my head, wandering ghosts that haunt my brain until I give in and put some headphones on. I know most people listen to music a lot, and most people have relatively strong feelings about what they like and don't like, but I know very few people that take it anywhere near as serious as I do (Tom and Doug are my two friends who are like me in this way).
While I have not formally studied classical or contemporary music either historically (except for a few essays and books by Greil Marcus, most notably "Lipstick Traces") or from a compositional, musician-oriented standpoint (I consider it one of the great ironies of my life that I seem to have zero apptitude for playing an instrument), I listen very closely to everything I hear, always searching for links between different styles and artists. Listening to music is not a passive activity for me; I study the music, I absorb it, and it becomes a part of me.
To put it simply, I'm a music snob, and proud of it.
Most of you know that I also run a music review site, Plug, that has been published more and more sporadically over the years. This is because, despite my voluminous opionions about music and my strong desire to share them, I simply don't have the mental energy and stamina to crank out a formal review every week or two. I had intended for Plug to be a collaborative effort where I would only contribute a review once every month or two, but over the years my various and sundry collaborators have drifted off to other pursuits, leaving me to do the bulk of the heavy lifting on the site. I would still like to keep the site going, and maybe this site will renew my enthusiasm for writing more for Plug, but I'd still really like to see others join in the effort (if you're interested, drop me a line).
I want to use this site both to document my history with the music I love and also to have a place where I can react spontaneously to the things I'm listening to on a daily basis. Here I don't have to rigorously engage with a subject like I would on Plug (indeed, I think a lot of my entries will be only a few lines reacting to some element of a song or album in the rotation), and I don't have to feel guilty that my content on brain coral, which has a pretty established voice at this point, is being oversaturated with music-focused content.
So that's about it. Over the next couple of days I'll be filling in the currently empty pages that you can see on the nav bar, and hopefully you'll get a better sense of everything I'm trying to do with this project. It makes me a little nervous taking on another big writing project when I often feel that brain coral doesn't get the attention that it deserves, but as I said at the beginning of this entry, this just feels right to me. At any rate, it should be an interesting ride.
One of the big pieces of content that you'll see on this site will be the Year Series mixtapes. The way this will work is I'm going to make a mixtape for every year starting with 1986, and then piece by piece post the tracklist and commentary for that mix. As I post each new piece to the front page of the site, I will also add it to the page for that particular mixtape (you can get to these mix-specific pages and also read more about the mixtape section by clicking on the mixtapes link in the navbar). Today I'm posting a brief introduction to the 1986 Year Series mix, along with the tracklist; tomorrow I'll post my commentary on the first song, etc., etc., until the whole mix has been commented on. Then I'll start work on 1987, etc. Without any further ado, then, here is the 1986 tracklist.
1986 was a pretty pivotal year in terms of my development as a listener and lover of music. It saw the release of many records that still remain active in my rotation to this day, including what is possibly the most important album I have ever purchased, the Smiths' The Queen is Dead. This is my favorite record by my favorite group ever (they've got some serious competition for that title now from Modest Mouse, but the Smiths were my first true love, so they get the edge), and it sounds just as good today as it did over 15 years ago. Morrissey's witty, literate, darkly humorous lyrics still have a sharp edge, and Johnny Marr's guitar work is still stunningly original. This is one of those records that would sound fresh and new no matter when it was released because no one who has followed has come close to recreating its brilliance.
But enough about the Smiths; I'm sure you'll hear plenty about them on this site later. Let's get to the tracklist.
- "Summer's Cauldron/Grass"
- "Cemetry Gates"
The Queen Is Dead
- "As It Was When It Was"
- "My Biggest Thrill"
Mighty Lemon Drops
- "Kundalini Express"
Love & Rockets
- "Cities in Dust"
Siouxsie and the Banshees
- "Gunning for the Buddha"
Big Night Music
- "Give It Time"
Greetings from Timbuk 3
- "Radio Head"
The Blind Leading the Naked
- "Beauty and the Beatitudes"
- "Groovy Tuesday"
Especially for You
- "White Lines, Blue Sky, Black Top"
Land of Oppotunity
Blast of Silence
Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams
- "Reflecting Pool"
Big Plans for Everybody
- "Fall On Me"
Lifes Rich Pageant
- "Beatle Boots"
This Ain't No Outerspace Ship
Britney Spears' "performance" on SNL this week was the worst attempt at lip syncing I've ever seen. If you're going to be a fake singer, at least try and get the fake singing part down.
"Los Angeles, I'm Yours", I'm yours.
Okay, so this is really two tracks, but don't you think XTC deserves it? Beside, on the album, they purposely blended the two songs together, so trying to separate them is just awkward and unnatural; playing one of these tracks without the other just sounds wrong (they did a similar trick with two other tracks on this album, "Ballet for a Rainy Day" and "1000 Umbrellas"). And it underscores the dual nature of this band: although Andy Partridge is the primary singer and songwriter and responsible for "Summer's Cauldron", there are always at least a few tracks by bassist Colin Moulding, who here contributes "Grass".
There were two controversies surrounding this record's release in the U.S., one from conservative Christians and one from the fans of the band. See, there was this song called "Dear God", which questions the existence of God while simultaneously chiding him for the terrible state of things here on Earth just in case he does exist, and although it wasn't included on the original vinyl and cassette releases in this country, by the time the album was released on CD (this was in the very early days of CDs, where only guaranteed hit records were automatically released on CD; other releases had to achieve a certain level of sales before they were deemed disc-worthy), the song had become relatively popular thanks to a video that got regular airplay on MTV's alternative music show, 120 Minutes. So the American record company, Sire (also home to the Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen), replaced the track "Mermaid Smiled" with "Dear God", hoping to spur new sales and even some re-sales to completists who already owned the album or tape.
The thing is, "Dear God" isn't nearly as good a song as "Mermaid Smiled", and so the purist nuts (like me) who knew and loved the album from its original release were irritated that the disc tampered with what we already believed was a great record. But most of us bought the CD anyway, and were sated a few years later with the release of the Rag and Bone Buffet CD, a collection of rare tracks, demos, and outtakes that included the MIA "Mermaid Smiled".
It would have been easy to include almost any song from this record somewhere on this mix. "Earn Enough for Us" and "Dear God" would have been the familiar choices, and "Another Satelite" has always been one of my favorite XTC tracks (although I actually like the demo version on Rag and Bone Buffet better than the Skylarking version), but this combo, which opens XTC's disc, were a good fit for the opening of this disc. I guess I don't have much else to say about these selections except that if you aren't already familiar with XTC, go out and buy something of theirs immediately (Skylarking is great, but so are Oranges and Lemons, Nonsuch, and the Apple Venus discs).
The new Belle & Sebastian album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, is seriously difficult to figure out. It's definitely more likeable than 2001's abysmal Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, but I'm not sure if that means it's better; Waitress is an extreme departure from the softspoken melancholy pop for which the band is so famous, and it's hard to know exactly what they were trying to accomplish by forsaking the songwriting sytle that has won them legions of loyal fans.
The album opens with a pair of tunes that are enough like previous efforts to be recognizable as Belle & Sebastian tunes, but they're still different enough that you wonder what's around the next corner. The next four tracks are all outstanding, especially "If She Wants Me" and "Piazza, New York Catcher". "Cuckoo" is charmingly irreverent and downright fun, bubbling over with chirpy pop melodies that go hand in hand with the track's title.
After this, things get a little dicey. Most of the remaining tracks have their moments, but often those moments are tragically brief. The album ends on a terrible note with "Roy Walker", a weird sort of cowboy romp that isn't even good enough to be a b-side, and "Stay Loose", which is undoubtedly the weakest and longest song on the record, and which may well be the worst thing Belle & Sebastian has ever recorded. The group often sounds awkward and unsure of themselves, like they know what they're doing is not what they're good at, and they're slightly uneasy about straying so far from their comfort zone.
All in all, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is a really mixed bag. Belle & Sebastian will undoubtedly lose many longtime fans who can't stomach their new sound, and I don't have faith that they will gain enough new ones to make up the difference. It's admirable to see a band that seemed to be running out of steam take off in a radical new direction in an attempt to revitalize themselves creatively, but when those efforts fail, they fail disastrously. I wouldn't call Waitress a complete catastrophe (sorry, couldn't resist), but it comes pretty close. The strongest tracks on this album rank among the best songs that the group has ever recorded, but those compositions are sandwiched between what are without question the worst efforts of the band's career, and, when taken as a whole, this is certainly the weakest record they've ever made.
I told you it was hard to figure out. I guess we'll just have to wait until their next release to find out if Waitress is a transitional piece that will bridge two phases of the band's development, or simply the first step down the road to irrelevance and obscurity.
The Queen Is Dead
Ah, the Smiths. I was able to hold out until the second track, but just barely. The "Cemetry" in the title is not a typo, and I have no idea why the band chose to spell it that way except that it's pretty close to the way Morrissey pronounces it in the song. This is a disarmingly cheery song about meeting a friend to go read poetry in the cemetery together on a sunny day, and it's full of literary references to Keats, Yeats, and Wilde (Morrissey's idol). It's the perfect anthem for bookish teenage loners obsessed with death. Like me.
It was unbelievably hard to pick just one track from this record for this CD. Almost every song is a Smiths' classic, including "Frankly Mr. Shankly", "I Know It's Over", "Bigmouth Strikes Again", and "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out". But this was one of my favorites, and it also played nice with its neighbors.
Apparently Elliott Smith killed himself yesterday. I'm a relatively recent fan of his, but the growth and complexity he exhibited on his last two efforts led me to expect great things from him in the future. I only own two of his discs, XO and Figure 8, and while I thought the first one merely good, the second one ranks as one of the best releases of the last few years. I was very much looking forward to his follow-up to that record, which he was recording at the time of his death (tentatively titled From a Basement on the Hill), but which will now never be completed (although I'm sure we'll get whatever he's recorded for it so far on an album with that title).
The closing trio of songs from Figure 8, "I Better Be Quiet Now", "Can't Make a Sound", and "Bye", which will now be remembered as the last three official songs in his catalog, deal with the themes of death and loss and feature lines like "I've got a long way to go/I'm getting further away" and "I have become a silent movie". The titles of the first two make explicit reference to silence, and the songs themselves remind us just what a unique voice we've lost. The final track, "Bye", features only a haunting, distorted piano, and literally ends on a sour note with the sound of the keyboard being pounded in frustration. Just try to listen to these three songs in light of his suicide without getting goosebumps.
It's always a terrible thing when someone who knows how to create beautiful things dies, especially when he still had so much potential left to fulfill. That's really all I can say.
"As It Was When It Was"
Okay. So in the early to mid 80s, the cutting edge of British music was divided into two camps, both of which were reacting to the overly hairsprayed keyboard bands that dominated the then-popular New Wave movement in Britain. The first faction was interested in a back-to-basics guitar revival, led by Johnny Marr and his Smiths, while the second was a more dance-oriented movement led by New Order that included the drum machines and electronic paraphenalia of New Wave but also used guitars and cast a darker shadow than the New Wavers. Interestingly enough, both of these movements had their epicenter in Manchester, specifically in a club called the Hacienda, which was owned by members of New Order.
New Order was born from the ashes of Joy Division, a seminal post-punk band that was forced to disband when their singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide. Actually, they didn't really disband; the remaining members renamed themselves New Order, drew straws to decide on a new singer (guitarist Bernard Sumner lost), added a keyboardist, and carried on with an already-scheduled tour of America where they introduced audiences to the new group.
Brotherhood was actually seen as a sellout by longtime fans; it included guitars more prominently and was generally more compact and guitar-oriented that their previous releases. But personally this is my favorite New Order record, probably because it was the first record of theirs that I owned (I've noticed that, in general, the first record I own by an artist tends to remain the one I have the deepest connection with). I have all the earlier ones now, and I like them, too, but I still like this one a little bit better. Most fans would agree, however, that this is their last great record; Technique and Republic were far too unfocused to rank with their early work, and though 2001's Get Ready was a nice comeback from a band that had been out of commission for almost a decade, it's doesn't hold a candle to Brotherhood.
"Bizarre Love Triagle" would have been the obvious choice to include on this disc, since it is probably the group's most well-known track, but it's actually one of my least favorite songs from the record (that's not to say I don't like it, thoughthis is a great album when taken as a whole, and most of the individual compositions deserve to be part of it). I don't have especially strong feelings about "As It Was When It Was", but it worked better than any other song from Brotherhood sandwiched between the Smiths and the Mighty Lemon Drops. It doesn't really showcase the keyboard/drum machine ethos for which the band is known (there are a lot of songs like this on Brotherhood, which may be why the diehards didn't take to it), but it's a fairly representative New Order track nonetheless.
Interestingly enough, in the late 80s, about five years after Manchester first became a musical mecca thanks to the Smiths and New Order, the city would host another musical revolution, one that saw the previously opposing sounds of dance and guitars come together in the music of bands like the Happy Mondays, the Inspiral Carpets, and most importantly the Stone Roses, who we'll hear lots more about later. Around the same time, the Smiths' Johnny Marr and New Order's Bernard Sumner, along with the duo from the Pet Shop Boys, attempted their own fusion in the form of Electronic, whose eponymous debut came out around the same time as the Stone Roses' first release. And while Electronic is a fascinating historical document, it does tend to come off as more a lab experiment than a true collaboration between two great songwriters, and it pales in comparison with the other music being made in Manchester at that time.
There's a sound a few seconds into Beulah's "My Side of the City" (from their latest release, Yoko) that sounds exactly what I've always imagined Paul Simonon's bass sounded like when he smashed it on the stage of the Palladium (that event is famously preserved on the cover of the Clash's London Calling). "City" is not my favorite song from Yoko, but god, I love to hear that sound.
"My Biggest Thrill"
Mighty Lemon Drops
The Mighty Lemon Drops were often compared to Echo and the Bunnymen, especially on this record, their debut, and frankly, if Echo and the Bunnymen had released an album in 1986, a track from that record would likely have taken this slot in the mix. But they didn't, and so I have to fill this void with their imitators. My friend David Jessup (who was one of the few popular kids at the private school I was forced to attend from grades 7 through 10 who I could stand and who could also stand me) gave this to me for Christmas, selecting it more or less at random from the college music top 10 list in the back of Rolling Stone, which he knew I used as a source for new music. And truth be told, I loved it at the timeI listened to little else for several weeks after I got it.
A lot of the stuff on this album holds up pretty well, but the Mighty Lemon Drops band began a quick slide towards mediocre pop after this record. Their sophomore effort, World Without End, is mostly tolerable, but after that their releases become a desperate chase for the mainstream that was painful to watch and even more painful to listen to. It wasn't that the music was necessarily bad, it's just that it became increasingly clear that the band had no artisic center, no visionit was all about the money. And that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, even if the music's not all that bad.
I wish the Cartoon Network would make all the songs from the Williams Street shows (Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Sealab 2021, Brak, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, etc.) available for download on their site. And not just the theme songs, eitherthe songs within the show. Hell, I'd even pay for a CD. But make them available, for god's sake.
I really, really hate MTV, mostly because the "M" in their name is completely inappropriate now given the rash of reality shows and similarly non-music-related fare that dominates their programming schedule. But I must admit, I've enjoyed listening to the Strokes' new album, Room on Fire, on the MTV web site in advance of its release on a feature called The Leak, which lets you listen to streams of new records up to a week before their street date. For those of you waiting for the Strokes to fall flat on their faces after two years of relentless hype (a lot of it contributed by MTV, even though I've never seen the network actually play one of their videos), well, it's just not going to happen. I've listened to Room on Fire a few times now, and it's a good record, and anyone who loves rock and is capable of ignoring the more annoying aspects of their publicity machine will have to admit that. It might not be as good as Is This It, but hey, what is?
This is what I love about music: it can always surprise you, always throw something strange and beautiful and new at you that you weren't expecting. Yesterday I had planned to head out to the record store at lunch and pick up the new Strokes record Room on Fire and the new Shins, Chutes Too Narrow, two records that I have been eagerly anticipating since absorbing their predecessors two years ago. Instead, thanks to those magnificent bastards at Pitchfork, who every now and then drop the smarmy, self-satisfied tone and deliver a review that actually gets you excited about a record, I ended up listening to an artist I'd never heard of before, a singer-songwriter named Sufjan Stevens. The Pitchfork editorial staff liked his most recent work, Greetings from Michigan, so much that they actually re-ran a review that they'd originally posted back in July because they thought the album had been overlooked and deserved more air time on the front page of the site.
This piqued my interest, so I found Sufjan's web site and downloaded the MP3 outtakes from the record to get a taste of his sound. The first track I listened to, "Marching Band", made me hungry for more. The second, "Niagara Falls", knocked me flat on my back. I swear, it almost moved me to tears. The other four songs weren't too shabby either, especially the acoustic demo of "Vito's Ordination Song". After loading the tracks into my iTunes library, I immediately burned them to a CD for playback on the drive home, knowing that I wouldn't want to listen to anything else that day.
And I didn'tI probably listened to each of the six outtakes at least a dozen times yesterday. I even called Tom in the middle of the day to tell him to go to the site and download the tracks immediately. I was that taken with them. I skipped going to the record store at lunch and instead went after work, where in addition to the Strokes and the Shins I also picked up The Decline of British Sea Power by British Sea Power, The Creek Drank the Cradle by Iron and Wine, and the Decemberists' first record Castaways and Cutouts. Sadly, they didn't have Sufjan in stock, but I was kind of expecting that. I don't often order records online, just because I hate the lag time (I'm a very immediate gratification kind of guy when it comes to music purchases), but Michigan might make the cut. I doubt my local record stores are going to stock it anytime soon, and based on my response to the outtakes from that album, I'm not sure how much longer I can live without it.
My lust for an iPod has increased tenfold since I started working on this site.
The new Shins album, Chutes Too Narrow, is pretty much everything I hoped it would be. The production is beautifully clean, as opposed to the frequent muddiness on their debut, Oh, Inverted World; singer James Mercer doesn't strain his voice to the upper falsetto register nearly as often (and when he does, it's much more controlled) and his lyrics are much more clearly articulated; and the band in general just sounds much tighter. They haven't lost any of the quirky pop sensibilities of Oh, Inverted World, but they've developed much clearer song structures to complement them. There are no mini-masterpieces like "One by One All Day", whose understated, elegant nostalgia made it my favorite track from the first record, but the overall consistency of the production and songwriting on Chutes Too Narrow more than makes up for it.
Still, though, for all the much-deserved praise it's getting, Chutes Too Narrow isn't quite as good as the Decemberists' sophomore effort, Her Majesty the Decemberists, which has already cemented a spot in my top five this year.