Monday, June 30, 2008

If You Can't Get Enough of Dez's Top 100 Rock/Pop Albums...

...then you should head over to my friend JMW's blog for his own Top 100. It looks like his format will be similar to mine, posting five at a time. Today he started with his #100-96. While JMW and I often disagree on music (so his list should be a nice contrast to mine), I always respect his opinions, plus he's a hell of a writer. Which means you should check out his blog generally, A Special Way of Being Afraid. Anyway, that's my plug for the day.

Side bet: how many REM albums do you think will appear on his list? My conservative guess is about five.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Dez's 100 Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #85-81

To catch up on what's happened so far, check out #100-96 and intro, #95-91, and #90-86. Some quick stats: 77 different artists fill out the 100 slots. Out of those 77 artists, 33 are currently members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are 7 artists who max out with the three allowed selections. So far (including today) you have seen 2 of those 7 maxed-out artists once already.

85. The Grateful Dead – American Beauty, 1970
The Dead’s reputation as a stoner live band and the accompanying lifestyle prevent some listeners who would otherwise be naturally disposed towards them from actually checking out some of their better studio material. That is a real shame, because #85 is a gorgeous record of Americana, every bit as good as the best of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Uncle Tupelo or Ryan Adams. The Dead moved from the psychedelic noodling of their previous efforts to acoustic, folk-based, tight songwriting on #85 and its immediate predecessor and companion piece, Workingman’s Dead. This is their best batch of songs. Opening with the luminous “Box of Rain” (probably my favorite Dead tune), they progress through a survey of American folk, blues, country and rock musical textures, punctuated throughout by Jerry Garcia’s tasty guitar licks (but very few solos here). Also featured is the oft covered “Friend of the Devil”, perennial Deadhead favorite “Sugar Magnolias”, the acoustic beauty “Ripple”, and their biggest radio hit (before the freak success of “Touch of Grey”), the autobiographical “Truckin’”, which features their most famous lyric: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Sometimes a record is indelibly linked to a memory. Back in my high school days, my buddy Eric and I took a road trip from Texas to Colorado. Eric brought along a cassette copy of American Beauty, and to this day when I listen to this music I can still vividly recall crossing the Colorado state line to the opening chords of “Box of Rain”, cruising down the highway with the mountains in the background, the windows down and that Rocky Mountain air blowing through the car. Good music, good friends, the open road…it doesn’t get much better than that.

Above: The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty is one of those perfect road trip albums

84. Crosby, Stills & Nash – Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969
Some days I prefer their more disparate follow-up with Neil Young, Deja Vu, but I generally give the edge to the debut because it is the most pure distillation of their strengths and cohesion. Never have the harmonies been tighter. #84 is essentially a showcase for Stephen Stills, who played all the instruments (except some drums), mixed the whole thing, and wrote the majority and best songs. Nash’s three tunes here are negligible and are uniformly the weakest parts of the record, he would contribute more substantive material on future releases. Crosby’s arresting “Guinevere” has some unique and rich harmonic tones, while “Long Time Gone” is the hardest rocking song on the record. But it is Stills who consistently delivers the goods: the classic and complex “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, the groovy “49 Bye Byes”, and the acoustic gems “You Don’t Have To Cry” and “Helplessly Hoping”. Also, “Wooden Ships” (co-written by Stills and Crosby with Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner) serves as one of the great hippie anthems. There is a sonic purity to their chemistry here that would never be recaptured.

83. Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, 1978
Devo’s debut remains one of the most unique and tightest records of the New Wave era. To these ears, it outdoes anything by the more celebrated Talking Heads. Full of herky jerky rhythms and paranoid lyrics, they espouse their de-evolution theories to the hilt; best on “Mongoloid” and manifesto “Jocko Homo”. Opener “Uncontrollable Urge” explodes from the speakers and is catchy as hell, as is the crescendo of “Gut Feeling (Slap Your Mammy)”. Ironically, the most Devo-like song here is their deconstruction of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, where they turn it into a tense, robotic piece of paranoia and frustrated brilliance. This is punk music for freaks and geeks, with its focus on odd philosophies of “de-evolution”, sci-fi cheese, cynical views of society, and an overall frustration bathed in wit and humor. Unfortunately, they would never come close to matching their debut.

Above: Devo’s debut is punk music for freaks and geeks

And speaking of the Stones…

82. The Rolling Stones – Beggar’s Banquet, 1968
The Stones dive head first into their most decadent phase with this fan favorite. We all know the sinister samba of “Sympathy For the Devil” and the ambiguous call to arms of “Street Fighting Man”, but the rest is just as great. “Stray Cat Blues” is one of their most sleazy tunes, laid down on a nasty groove:

“I can see that you’re fifteen years old
No, I don’t want your I.D….
You say you got a friend, she’s wilder than you
Well, why don’t you bring her upstairs”

They also mastered the acoustic side of things, mixing elements of country and blues brilliantly in their ragged brew with the melancholy “No Expectations” and the gritty acoustic stomp of “Parachute Woman”. #82 was the beginning of a hitting streak of albums that is still unmatched in rock.

81. Dave Matthews Band – Under the Table and Dreaming, 1994
DMB has the most annoying fans (yes, more irritating concert experiences). I admire their dedication, but I am irritated by their lack of context. DMB fans go on and on about how the band is the greatest jam band in history, the most gifted improvisers in all of rock. That is just not the case. Ever listened to The Allman Brothers Band, people? Bela Fleck & the Flecktones? Also, Matthews is an embarrassing lyricist, but fortunately he sings in such an incoherent manner that you usually can just ignore what he is trying to say. Finally, Leroi Moore (sax) and Boyd Tinsley (violin) are mediocre soloists. So, why the hell do I have their record on my list? Matthews is a gifted and intricate guitar player, and the band as a whole creates dynamic sounds and locks into killer grooves. Carter Beauford is the best drummer playing today this side of Stewart Copeland. In fact, his intricate and tasteful playing reminds me quite a bit of Copeland. “Ants Marching”, “The Best of What’s Around” and “Satellite” were all over the radio in the mid-90’s and really stood apart from everything else at the time. “Warehouse”, “Lover Lay Down” and the trippy “Dancing Nancies” are also very distinctive tunes.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Cigar Appreciation

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” – Sigmund Freud

I don’t have many vices, but I do enjoy a good cigar now and again. I caught the wave of cigar popularity in the 1990’s while in college. Cigar smoking seems to be one of the few distinctly male bonding activities left (although a sizeable minority of women also enjoy them). Harkening back to the old days when the men would retire to the smoking room, it is still a great experience to sit outside in the evening with some good friends, light up a stogie that will last a half hour, and talk about the state of the world. Such circumstances seem to open up conversation like few other activities can. You are sharing something fine, akin to a good glass of wine, hopefully with equally fine company. Some of my best conversations have centered around the cigar smoking ritual.

ABOVE: Women can enjoy cigars too

“Happiness? A good cigar, a good meal, a good cigar and a good woman - or a bad woman; it depends on how much happiness you can handle.” - George Burns

For those of you who don’t know much about cigars, a quick primer. Most cigars come from one of the following countries: Cuba, The Dominican Republic, The Philippines, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Brazil, Cameroon, Indonesia or The United States. Other places grow the tobacco and make them, but your finer cigars will come from one of those countries. The U.S., as you are aware, has an embargo against any Cuban products, which includes cigars. I love the story of President John Kennedy placing an order, the night before he signed the embargo against Cuba into law, for over 1000 of the best Cuban cigars (with taxpayer money, I wonder?) Once the cigars were confirmed to have been delivered to the White House, only then did he OK the embargo. It is said that Cuba produces the best cigars in the world, in part due to the unique qualities of Cuban tobacco and also due to the skill of the Cuban cigar makers. It is also interesting to note that an estimated 90% of “Cuban cigars” sold to eager Americans in Canada and Mexico are, in fact, fakes (as in, not really Cuban). I have had some good Cubans that were ostensibly authentic. But I have to say that I do not find them to be any better than those top quality cigars made in the Dominican Republic or Honduras. But the aura around the Cuban cigar persists.

"A good Cuban cigar closes the door to the vulgarities of the world." - Franz Liszt

ABOVE: Americans are not allowed to purchase cigars made by Fidel's countrymen

Now, there are many factors which determine the quality and taste of a cigar. Size, type and origin of wrapper, soil in which the tobacco was grown, fillers, age, humidity, whether it is hand-rolled or machine-rolled…all help to determine the overall composition. I’m not a real expert, but many cigar connoisseurs can allegedly detect subtle flavors of cinnamon, chocolate and the like from cigar to cigar.

“You should hurry up and acquire the cigar habit. It's one of the major happinesses. And so much more lasting than love, so much less costly in emotional wear and tear.” - Aldous Huxley

Leading brands include H. Upmann, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Macanudo, Cohiba, Hoya de Monterrey, Cuesta Rey…among many others. My favorite of the readily available brands is Partagas. Of course, a myriad of choices is available within each brand. I’ve got a favorite “local” brand out of Ybor City in Tampa Bay, Florida called El Sol. (Note: El Sol takes orders over the internet if you want them shipped to you. They claim to be the oldest cigar store in Tampa...and there are a lot of cigar stores in Tampa. Anyway, their website is here.) There are many small, family run brands in that part of the country for obvious reason.

“Cigar?” – Blondie offering Tuco a smoke in ‘The Good, The Bad & the Ugly', right before severing their criminal partnership

Monday, June 23, 2008

RIP George Carlin, 1937-2008

I've never been a huge fan of stand-up comedy, probably because so many more people are bad at it than good. But Carlin was one of the best. My "stand-up" section in my CD/LP/cassette collection is rather small, but it is populated by several Carlin titles.

He was around for a long time. I can only think of a handful of stand-up comics who stayed as popular and on their game for so long. He hosted the debut episode of "Saturday Night Live", released 23 comedy records, had 14 HBO specials, wrote three books, and appeared in several movies (most notably, to me, in 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure'). He started out as half of a fairly traditional comedy team, Burns and Carlin, but evidently after seeing a Lenny Bruce show he had an epiphony and went out on his own and dramatically changed his act. One of his most famous skits was the "Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television", a skit which eventually was the catalyst of a U.S. Supreme Court obscenity ruling.

Anyone who listened to Carlin knows that not only did he try to test the boundaries of what he could and could not say in public, he was also very political (left leaning). While I have sometimes found his politics to be a bit naive and reactionary, Carlin never lost his ability to make people laugh. That was the bottom line, really.

I always loved his quick faux advertisements between longer skits that he had on his album A Place For My Stuff. "And now, a message from the National Apple Growers' Association: F*ck pears." RIP George Carlin.

Here's some vintage Carlin that is especially appropriate on his "passing away". Enjoy...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

One Step Closer to 'Life on Mars'

Looks like one of three essential ingredients (water, organic carbon and an energy source) to life as we know it has been found on Mars. (See my original post on the Phoenix mission to Mars). The Phoenix lander discovered ice about two inches deep in a hole dug by the lander's robotic arm.

ABOVE: In the left picture, lower left of the hole, you will see some white specks. In the next picture, taken later, the specks are gone. This leads scientists to believe that ice was uncovered and then vaporized once it was uncovered. Then why didn't the ice at the top of the hole melt also? Don't ask me, I'm no scientist

The Phoenix is now analyzing soil samples for evidence of carbonates and sulfates, which are formed by the action of liquid water. The real question is whether there is or was water in liquid form somewhere on the planet. The channels carved into the surface of Mars suggest liquid on the surface at one time.

So technically, finding the ice is the first step in finding proof of the first element, which is liquid water.

Anyway, I find all of this exciting. Like I said before, if we can find reasonable evidence that the elements for life are or were present on Mars, that means two separate worlds in our little solar system have potential for life. Therefore, the odds would be that "life" is not all that unusual throughout the cosmos.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Dez's 100 Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #'s 90-86

If you missed the first two entries of this ongoing Friday series, check out the intro and #100-96 and #95-91. The question often arises: what do you do with an album that has some of your favorite music, but also has some filler or bad tunes? Does the good outweight the bad? Since this list is looking at albums as a whole, not necessarily. I’ve got to weigh the good against the bad and average it all out. Take David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. Five of the eight tunes are amongst my very favorite Bowie tunes. But those other three are at best filler and at worst pretty bad. So what to do? The peaks are higher than some of the peaks of records that appear in my list, but the valleys are also lower. With Let’s Dance, the bad affected the good (three out of eight is close to 40% of the record), so it did not make the list, although song by song, it’s got some of my faves.

90. Counting Crows – August and Everything After, 1993
Although I am a bit wary of these guys, their debut was one of the more intelligent and melodic of the 90’s. Adam Duritz was whiny even then, but his lyrics were so good and the band was so loose that it was forgivable. The hit “Mr. Jones” was actually one of the weaker tracks on the album, as “Round Here”, “Ana Begins”, “Rain King” and “A Murder of One” were all superior tunes. The early comparisons to Van Morrison, Springsteen and The Band (I guess because the Crows occasionally used mandolins and accordians?) turned out not to be too accurate, but that is OK, they have forged their own identity over the years. The more recent Hard Candy (2002) is a strong runner-up.

89. King Crimson – Red, 1974
This is one of the more in-your-face albums from the godfathers of progressive rock. (Thanks ANCIANT for telling me to check this out.) Much of #89 is instrumental, which is fine considering you’ve got Robert Fripp (guitars), John Wetton (bass) and Bill Bruford (drums) running the show. Fripp’s guitars are a consistent highlight; this time he uses a grating, slashing style that will stay in your head long after you hear it. Overall #89 is a heavy record, but it does have its quieter moments, such as in some beautiful passages in the extended closer “Starless.” But the reason I usually put this one on is for the pulverizing title track and “One More Red Nightmare.” If you want the Crimson trifecta, also grab In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) and Discipline (1981).

88. David Bowie – Diamond Dogs, 1974
What a glorious, coked-out mess of a record. Critics may prefer its predecessors, as they were more focused. But if you think about it, the best “glam” should be kind of messy, decadent and excessive. Yet those were the critical complaints about #88 at the time it was released. My response is, “exactly. So?” #88 marked the end of Bowie’s glam period, and soon he would dive into an astounding period of creativity and experimentation for a mainstream rock artist. Here he supposedly was trying to make a concept album based on Orwell’s ‘1984’, but he gave up about halfway through, so the result is a rather unfocused ‘Bladerunner’ in daylight. “Rebel Rebel” has one of the all time great guitar riffs, and minor hits “1984” and “Diamond Dogs” are both very catchy and distinctive. #88 also has some of my favorite Bowie album tracks, like “Sweet Thing” and “Big Brother.”

87. Journey – Frontiers, 1983
Why this is a list of my favorite records vs. trying to put together some sort of objective all time greats list. I am hard-pressed to defend #87 or this band, but screw it, I’ll do it anyway. The best way to explain it is that #87 hit me at the right age. “Faithfully” has to be the ‘Citizen Kane’ of power ballads. Just as important as Steve Perry’s yellow muscle shirts and soaring vocals are Jonathon Cain’s unsubtle synthesizers and Neal Schon’s showy but impressive guitar work (he did play with Santana afterall). The second half of the record is less well known, but has a harder edge to it. It comes across as if they are somewhat ashamed of the power ballads of side one, and are saying, “look, we can still rock too!” Oh, and have you seen the video for “Separate Ways”, where they all play air instruments? It is the cheesiest thing ever made. (Sure, you’ve seen air guitar, but how about air keyboards, air drums, air bass, and air singing?) Purchasing the remastered version of #87? About $11.99. The 80’s era photos in the booklet? Priceless.

ABOVE: Journey jams out with air instruments in the video for "Separate Ways" from Frontiers

86. Jeff Beck – Guitar Shop, 1989
I’ve owned this record for almost 20 years, and I still can’t decide whether it is a difficult masterpiece or an admirable misfire. Critical opinion seems equally split regarding its overall merit. At times, Beck sounds like a guest on his own record, not willing to flaunt his unparalleled guitar prowess in obvious, showboating ways. Instead he will often lay back in deference to the overall sonic textures being created by the power trio of Beck, drummer Terry Bozzio and keyboardist Tony Hymas. This is not to say that he won’t occasionally let loose and rip. Check out the solos near the end of “Big Block” and “Stand On It” for evidence of that. One of the highlights here is “Savoy”, which bounces back and forth from a funky groove to hard rock and then back again. The true standout, though, is the ethereal, unresolved piece “Where Were You”, where Beck takes a slide all the way up to the bridge of the guitar and summons otherworldly wails from the instrument. Admittedly, Mr. Beck is most appreciated by fellow guitar slingers. After years of listening and thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that Jeff Beck is the second greatest rock guitarist who ever existed, second only to Jimi Hendrix. I’ve seen him live a couple of times, but the first time was in 1989 on a double bill with Stevie Ray Vaughan. SRV blazed as expected, his greatness on guitar was obvious to all. But Beck came out and I remember being alternately impressed, curious, surprised, disappointed, awed, bored, even angry…what was this guy about? I left singing the praises of the easier to fathom SRV and dismissing Beck. With hindsight and deeper musical understanding, I can say that Vaughan was indeed great (one of the greatest ever), but Jeff Beck is a guitar genius. So with all due respect to SRV, I’d rather hear genius over mere greatness most days.

ABOVE: Jeff Beck hard at work in his Guitar Shop (one of my favorite album covers)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What Are You Watching?

I’m curious about what people are watching on TV these days. With the cable networks jumping in with their own dramas, comedies and action series, the choices are ever-expanding. Here’s what’s on regularly in Dezmond’s household (I will generally only speak of current shows). Keep in mind that while this may look like lots of TV, these shows are on at different times of the year (most are on hiatus over the summer), and the magic of DVR lets you watch stuff commercial-free whenever you want to watch it.

The pickings are pretty slim on the traditional networks. The only show that I really enjoy on the networks is the ratings challenged “Friday Night Lights”. I guess people aren’t watching because they still think it is just about football. Not so. This is the best drama on network television with a superlative cast. The first season was perfection, the second season stumbled in the first half but gained its footing to finish strong. Can’t wait for Season 3. I highly recommend renting the first two seasons on Netflix. I also watch “Heroes”, because although they have made some mistakes, they take risks worth taking and the narrative is quite complex for network TV. I gave up on “Lost” in the middle of the second season, but my wife is still a devoted watcher. My wife’s tastes baffle me sometimes. She watches some great shows with me, but then she also watches the family of “CSI” shows and “Grey’s Anatomy” religiously. (For the record: I hate “Grey’s”, the original “CSI” gets props for starting it all but the formula is as stale as year old bread, “CSI: NY” is watchable because of the slumming Gary Sinese, and “CSI: Miami” is terrible beyond words). We’ve been enjoying the first two episodes (episode three airs tonight) of the promising guilty pleasure “Swingtown”. They are still able to ride the novelty of the premise (following a neighborhood of swingers in the carefree sexual 70’s), but it will be interesting to see if they can develop these promising characters. And I like “Reaper”.

ABOVE: "Friday Night Lights" is the best show on network television.

But cable is where it is at for great television. We are still hanging in there with the wildly inconsistent (veering from brilliant to cringe-worthy, often in the same episode) reimagining of “Battlestar Galactica” on the Sci-Fi Channel. So many things are so right about that show, but so many other things are so wrong. Denis Leary’s “Rescue Me” has its ups and downs, but generally it is engaging television. HBO set the standard for great modern TV with “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” (two of the greatest shows in the history of the medium), and we absolutely love “Big Love”, the utterly addictive polygamy drama. Season 1 was fantastic, but Season 2 was a masterpiece of television. One of the best seasons of anything on TV ever. Cannot wait for Season 3. Harry Dean Stanton's polygamist cult/compound leader Roman Grant is the best villain on TV, and one of the most sinister characters to come along in a long time. Showtime has entered the sweepstakes with the very promising David Duchovny drama/comedy “Californication” and the outstanding “Dexter”. (I know they showed a sanitized “Dexter” on network TV, but I do not see how good that can be without the essential brutality of the show, as well as the poetic swearing of Det. Doakes. It would be like trying to edit “The Sopranos” for A&E or something. Oh wait, they do that too).

ABOVE: HBO's "Big Love". Seems like a nice problem to have...but three times the lovin' comes with three times the complications. BELOW: Harry Dean Stanton's Roman Grant is one of the best villains on television

In the reality genre, I am still a devoted “Survivor” watcher, although I understand why many people jumped ship on the show long ago. I just can’t. My wife and I love “Top Chef” on Bravo. Not only is it a well done reality competition, but the cooking and food on the show is fascinating to watch. I like that the competitors have to be skilled at something, vs., say, just living in a house and being filmed acting like jackasses (“Big Brother”, “Real World”, a host of VH1 shows). Season 4 of “Top Chef” just ended, can’t wait for Season 5 in the Fall.

Well, that’s all I can think of right now. What shows are you watching?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Really Don't Care About Golf, But...

...while I'm congratulating people for great sports victories, I guess I should also acknowledge Tiger Woods as well for accomplishing what some sports pundits are hyperbolically calling one of the greatest feats in sports history. I guess it is impressive winning the U.S. Open on one leg. Congrats, Tiger.

Congrats to the Celtics

Well, I feel kinda stupid. So should the majority of sports pundits out there who, like me, picked the L.A. Lakers to defeat the Boston Celtics for the NBA Championship. After watching these finals (where the Celtics defeated the Lakers 4-2, and it wasn't really even that close), I don't see how anyone could have seriously picked the Lakers to win. They were weak mentally and played no defense whatsoever. It is a feel good story for three of the league's longest suffering stars. Paul Pierce toiled in Boston for a decade, Ray Allen was wasting his time in lowly Seattle and Kevin Garnett, long regarded one of the best in the game, had the thankless job of leading the Timberwolves. Last year when Boston traded for Allen and Garnett, uniting them with Pierce, many people immediately declared that they would win it all. I thought that talk was a little premature...but I guess it wasn't. The real key as to why this latest attempt to bring together aging stars for a run at a championship worked where so many similar attempts before have failed is that these stars were willing to subordinate their own glory for the sake of the team. This would not have worked without the personalities of Pierce, Allen and Garnett.

The Celtics killed the Lakers. It wasn't ever really in doubt. I guess defense still does win championships. It also became obvious that the Lakers are soft as a marshmellow in the middle without Bynum in there.

Anyway, congrats to the Celtics and to Garnett, Pierce and Allen in particular.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sunday, June 15, 2008

RIP Tim Russert, 1950-2008

I always liked Russert, with his severely intense stare and arsenal of quotes that he enjoyed throwing back in the face of his victims on 'Meet the Press'. As John McCain once quipped after a typical Russert cross-examination, "I haven't had that much fun since my last interrogation." His law school training really came across in his interviewing style; whereas most news interviewers will ask a question and regardless of the answer they will move on to the next question, Russert would not accept a BS answer or dodge. He would actually listen to the response, and if his question wasn't answered to his satisfaction he'd ask it again. And again. And again. Either his guest would be forced to address the issue or they would be pounded into the ground.

I wasn't going to post anything on Russert's passing, but I felt inspired to after watching 'Meet the Press' this morning, which was a heartfelt tribute to Russert moderated by Tom Brokaw. Sure, generally nice things will be said upon the passing of a celebrity, but the respect Russert had in the industry was very apparent from watching the tribute this morning. I didn't realize how prepared Russert was for each episode of 'Meet the Press'. He would spend the entire week prior researching and preparing, and all of his colleagues today commented on how irritated he would be when his guests would not be likewise prepared. They showed some great clips of Russert grilling everyone from W. to Perot to Obama. He was tough on people from across the political spectrum.

But it was also clear how much people in the industry and in politics liked Russert as a person. He could rip you apart on his show if you weren't ready to answer the tough questions, but everyone commented on how genuine and friendly he was off camera. He truly loved politics. It was quite a touching moment this morning when Brokaw choked up while talking about his friend. Even Bruce Springsteen, while on tour in Europe, dedicated "Thunder Road" last night to him from the stage. Russert was a dedicated Boss fan. RIP Tim Russert.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Dez's 100 Favorite Rock/Pop Records (#'s 95-91)

In case you missed the first post in this weekly series, check it out here. What makes a great album? It can’t be merely lots of good songs, they have to hang together in some way as a whole. I am not saying that they have to tell a story like The Who’s Tommy, but there has to be some logic as to why they are together on this record. This “logic” might just be an inherent mood arc that the tunes take you on. It is hard to express musical ideas in words here, but you know it when you hear it.

#’s 95-91…

95. a-ha – Minor Earth Major Sky, 2000
This is one of those cases where your level of surprise at a-ha’s inclusion on my list depends on where you live. In the U.S., they were a one-hit 80’s wonder. But internationally, a-ha is a respected band that has filled arenas for decades. #95 wasn’t even released in the U.S., but in the UK it went Platinum and had four #1 singles. The tune “Summer Moved On” went to #1 in 17 countries. Anyway, singer Morten Harket’s voice has lost none of its range that you remember from the “Take On Me” days; if anything he has learned to use it more expressively and in more subtle ways. #95 has a remarkably coherent feel to it, maintaining a midtempo dreamlike quality from start to finish, in large part due to the soundscape laid down by Magne Furuholmen and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy (from the names, you can correctly surmise they all hail from Norway). There isn’t a bum track here. Fun fact: Harket holds the record for longest sustained vocal note in a British single, over 20 seconds in “Summer Moved On.”

ABOVE: Minor Earth Major Sky is a far cry from “Take On Me” (a good thing)

94. The 13th Floor Elevators – Easter Everywhere, 1967

The 13th Floor Elevators are the very definition of cult favorite. This mysterious Texas psychedelic band only released three studio records, but they are revered in garage and psychedelic circles. The original master tapes for their first two records have long since disappeared somewhere in Houston, so #94 is only available in its lo-fi glory, which only adds to the overall mystique. While Stacy Sutherland’s underrated guitar work and Tommy Hall’s signature electric jug playing contribute to their uniquely queezy psychedelic sound, it is really all about Roky Erikson’s otherworldly wail and fragile psyche. A favorite track is the haunting cover of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" (entitled "Baby Blue" here), while the epic opener "Slip Inside This House" may be the ultimate Elevators manifesto. To be honest, it’s a toss-up between #94 and debut The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.

93. Michael Jackson – Thriller, 1982

Say what you will about Wacko Jacko these days, but there was a time when he could not be touched. Thriller is the perfect pop record. The stats are well known, but impressive all the same: 37 weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts (holding a record that will unlikely ever be broken), staying within the Top 10 of the Billboard charts for over one year, the best-selling record in the U.S. for two consecutive years (the only record ever to do so, with continued U.S. sales of 60,000/year to this day), and seven Top Ten singles. But look beyond the stats, and this is pop music without peer. “Beat It” was innovative for its cross-genre pairing of heavy metal god Eddie Van Halen on a ripping guitar solo and Jackson’s pop perfection. The title track is fun with the campy ‘rap’ from Vincent Price. “Human Nature” is one of the prettiest R&B ballads ever. But “Billie Jean” is Jackson’s finest moment, a song of gripping paranoia bathed in a groove that will stand the test of time a century from now. And…the doggone girl is mine.

92. The Buffalo Springfield – Again, 1967

The Springfield was a (too) short lived band. Neil Young and Stephen Stills really begin to diverge on their second and best outing. Neil only delivers three tunes, but they are all seminal Young songs. “Mr. Soul” starts things off, with its razor sharp “Satisfaction”-like riff and paranoid lyrics. Then he joins forces with orchestrator Jack Nietzche for the soaring “Learning to Fly”, one of the prettiest songs Neil’s ever done. Finally, the experimental, psychedelic hodgepodge “Broken Arrow” makes no sense, but it is a great listen nonetheless. As for Stills, this record is his finest hour. “Rock and Roll Woman” sounds like the best Byrds single they never made, full with chiming 12-string guitars and tight vocal harmonies. “Everydays” is off kilter, pensive and unsettling. But the opus “Bluebird” is where it is at, Stills pulls out all the stops and records his unquestionable masterpiece, featuring the greatest acoustic guitar solo ever laid down in a rock song. Then he tops things off with the unexpected but sweet bluegrass coda. In a band without Young or Stills, Richie Furay would have been recognized as a major talent. Richie contributes the great country-rocker “A Child’s Claim To Fame” and the lovely “Sad Memory”.

91. The Kinks – Face to Face, 1966

For the first time, Ray Davies harnesses his songwriting genius for the length of an entire record. Also emerging here is Davies’ unusual traditionalist values perspective. Rock and roll is rife with songs celebrating teenage rebellion, but how many songs side with the worried parents of a selfish, rebellious daughter, such as on “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home”? The Kinks also get out of the three-chord ragged glory garage of their early records and begin to explore many different sonic textures: check out the English music hall of “Dandy”, the Hawaiian guitar and beach sound effects of “Holiday in Waikiki”, the groovy back porch acoustic jam of “Little Miss Queen of Darkness” and the lovely harpsichord and Eastern drones in “Fancy.” “Too Much On My Mind” is one of the great forgotten Ray Davies gems, a hypnotic song of mental exhaustion. And “Sunny Afternoon” is the best look at middle class malaise I’ve ever come across:
“My girlfriend’s run off with my car
And gone back to her Ma and Pa
Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty
Now I’m sitting here
Sipping at my ice cold beer
Lazin’ on this sunny afternoon”

ABOVE: Could The Kinks’ Face To Face be the best British pop record of the 1960’s by a band that is not The Beatles? Dez thinks so

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hoops Conspiracy?

Who would you rather not be these days? Bud Selig or David Stern? Steroids scandals in major league baseball or crooked ref and game fixing scandals in the NBA? If there is anything to the growing conspiracy theories and the charges made by convicted felon / ex-ref Tim Donaghy, I think that the NBA scandal may end up doing more damage to its sport.

ABOVE: Tim Donaghy - Heroic whistleblower or just a convicted felon trying to get an easier sentence? Recall Donaghy was convicted of gambling on NBA games for which he was also working as referee

For years NBA conspiracy theorists have charged commissioner David Stern and his cronies of "fixing" games by instructing NBA refs on how to call key games. And there have been some horribly called games that can be easily used as "evidence", such as the infamous Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals where in the crucial 4th quarter the L.A. Lakers shot 27 free throws to Sacramento's nine. The Lakers won the game, and eventually won the championship that year. Consumer crusader/perrenial presidential candidate/Kings fan Ralph Nader even wrote a letter of complaint to Stern and the NBA office about that game. Ask any San Antonio Spurs fan about their chances of winning a game if Joey Crawford is on the court to officiate. Or consider the almost acknowledged double standard for how you officiate for the stars of the league vs. the regular players. I recall a rather infamous game where Shaq was called for a foul, and then the ref actually went to the scorer's table to make sure he wouldn't be fouling Shaq out of the game. Why should that matter?

In every sport you will have complaints about officiating, but in no sport does it reach the level of dissatisfaction that it does in the NBA. And now disgraced ref Donaghy, through his lawyers, has sung about two specific games (including the controversial Lakers/Kings Game 6) that were evidently "fixed" in order to extend a series to make more money for the league. Now, you can dismiss his accusations as those of a man facing a sentencing and trying to get a better deal, as Stern does. But the sad thing is that nobody was really shocked by the allegations. Now even players from that 2002 series like Scot Pollard are coming out and saying they agree that there was something "wrong" with that series. When asked about it this week, Lakers coach Phil Jackson responded by referring to the Game 5 before that was, in his view, "stolen" from the Lakers on bad calls.

Do I think these games were "fixed"? I have a hard time believing that. And as several sports commentators have pointed out in the past few days, if the league is fixing things, they haven't done a very good job. Why let small market San Antonio win four championships in the last decade? Why let Detroit get so far, so often? If they were fixing things, it would be all Lakers, Knicks, Celtics and Bulls all the time. But there does need to be some sort of overhaul, because the officiating is often atrocious. For years I have been furious about the double standard for the league's stars. A foul is a foul, dammit.

I have sympathy for the refs, too. Officiating a constantly moving basketball game is a lot harder than officiating a slow as molasses baseball game or even football. More fouls are called, and you have to be watching all of the players every second of the game. It is constant action and mistakes will be made. But the NBA is going to have to do something to restore their credibility, whether or not Donaghy is full of shit. Hearings? A more open review after games? Something. Perception is crucial for a business like the NBA, and they have a real credibility problem right now. I don't really have an answer because I am not sure what would really work, but something needs to change.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Common Ground With Obama

I have found that I have some common ground with the presumptive democratic nominee afterall. I was listening to an NPR interview with Obama this afternoon, and he was asked the very important question of who he thought would be the NBA champions. He admitted that at the outset of the series he picked the Lakers in 6. Recall, faithful readers, that was my prediction as well. Since the Celtics are currently leading 2-0, that prediction seems very unlikely to come true at this point. He said that he did not really have strong feelings either way because he is a Bulls fan, and he is thrilled that they have the number 1 pick in this year's draft. I was heartened by the fact that Obama follows the NBA. I don't know why.

I was reminded of when Hillary Clinton was asked whether she preferred the Mets or the Yankees when she was running for her New York Senate seat. She straddled the fence and said "both." As any self respecting sports fan knows, you can like one, the other or neither...but not both. At least Obama risked angering Celtic Nation by taking a stand on who he thought was the better team between Boston and L.A. That is political courage.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Oh Yeah? I'll Show You Cute...And a Prayer

My good friend over at A New Career In a New Town and his lovely wife recently got an admittedly adorable new puppy. He has since been assaulting his readers with photos of puppy cuteness. I can fight fire with fire, ANCIANT. I present to you our new dog, Toby…

Toby is somewhat of a mystery dog. We picked him up at the Animal Defense League, a no-kill shelter. They in turn had snatched him up at the city pound (the ADL takes certain dogs and cats out of the pound that they feel have a chance at adoption). As you know from a previous post, we already have a dog (Winston) and cat (Maurice, who was adopted by yours truly at the same ADL about ten years ago). My wife has been demanding a second dog for some time, so we met after work over at the ADL to ostensibly take a preliminary look around. I got there first, and Toby immediately caught my attention. I introduced my wife once she arrived…and before you knew it I was driving home with Toby in the passenger seat of the car.

Toby is the sweetest and most affectionate animal I have ever come across. In the domination battles, Winston seems to be asserting himself as alpha dog, but Toby will occasionally stand up for himself. He even forced Winston to back down from the couch the other night. Whoever gets on the couch first has the advantage, as they can then take a defensive position and dig in at the high ground, thereby blocking the top of the little doggie stairs we have for dog access to said couch.

But on a much more serious note, Toby has got major health problems. The ADL said that he had heartworms and had been given treatment, but everything else was fine. We took him to our vet for a full check-up, and it was discovered that he has the following: heartworms, anemia, some tick disease, a respiratory infection, his blood levels are all out of wack, and he may be in kidney failure. The doctor gave him about a 40% chance of pulling through. The ADL offered to take him back, but told us they did not have the resources to treat him so they’d just put him to sleep. Well, shit. Our vet has some ideas for treatment and he's the best in town, so we are going with that and hoping for the best. A “free” adopted dog has now cost us about what we would have paid for a fancy, purebred dog. But he’s a great little guy, and we are going to do everything we reasonably can. I am guardedly optimistic, he seems to be reacting well to the treatments so far, but the tests being taken today will really determine his fate. So, whether you pray, chant or send out good vibes, set aside some for this little dude. Go Toby!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Dez's Favorite 100 Rock/Pop Records (#'s100-96)

Considering that GNABB was born in February of this year, I have shown remarkable restraint by holding back my lists of favorite albums or movies until now. But I can stand it no longer. What follows is #100-96 of Dez's Favorite Rock Records as of June 2008. Those of you who have had the misfortune of reading previous lists of mine know that I can go on for pages about each record, but I have mercifully decided to be as brief as possible. Also, so as not to overwhelm readers with all one hundred at once, I have decided to give you five selections each Friday, so this will be a regular feature at the end of each week for awhile. As usual, I welcome comments and thoughts, as well as your own lists of faves.

Rules? Pop/Rock records only, and no artist gets more than three selections. No compilations, no live albums. In this Age of iTunes and downloads, I fear that people are quickly losing appreciation for a cohesive album; one which is meant to be listened to as a whole work, not just as a group of songs. (Although, many of my selections are just collections of unrelated but outstanding songs.) There is something about holding a physical record in your hand vs. ordering a song up on your computer or iPod. I am somewhat heartened by the growing niche popularity of LP's. I'm on board, and I buy as many LP's these days as CD's or downloads. That is all for a different post, but all true music fans should buy LP's. Neil Young is right, they sound better. And the ritual is important. I will try and start each group of 5 with further thoughts and comments, so as to not overwhelm with one big-ass post. So, more on this next week.

Here we go, #'s 100-96...

100. Band of Horses – Everything All the Time, 2006

To prove I’m not all about the classic rock period, we’ll start with one of my favorite new bands. JMW turned me on to these guys, and they have a fiercely devoted following. BOH are all about sweeping, melodic, majestic pop. Song after song features hooks all over the place with dramatic crescendos. I hear some New Order and Cure here (the lighter side) instrumentally, but comparisons to Radiohead (their early stuff) and Coldplay (but with more guitars) are equally appropriate.

99. Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth, 1984

You mean the “She Blinded Me With Science” guy? Yeah, and that song isn’t even here. This is a very obscure, forgotten little record that has a wonderfully coherent sound and mood. The intricate bass playing of Matthew Seligman and spare guitar from Kevin Armstrong help Dolby make #99 a musically captivating listen throughout. Sure, the 80’s synthesizers are there, but the bass and guitar lay a spry, funky groove over an appealing mix of synths and acoustic guitars. I know I am not alone in my admiration for this lost 80’s gem, I was pleasantly surprised when looking this up in my trusty ‘All Music Guide’, they gave it their highest ranking of five stars. There are a couple of missteps, but they are more than made up for with the pretty title track, “Dissidents”, "I Scare Myself" and the gorgeous “Screen Kiss”.

98. Elton John – Tumbleweed Connection, 1971

There is more blues, country and overall roots rock influence here than on any other Elton record. “Ballad of a Well Known Gun”, “Where To Now St. Peter?”, “Amoreena” (used wonderfully in the opening sequence of the film ‘Dog Day Afternoon’) and “Burn Down the Mission” are all solid rock songs that are about as earthy as Elton ever got. This is Elton John, though, so even here he throws in at least one gorgeous ballad, “Come Down In Time”. For folks used to his insipid Disney themes of the last couple of decades, go back to this record and those released around this time to see what the fuss was all about in the first place.

97. The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1968

In the midst of internal turmoil (but then, when were the Byrds ever not in turmoil?), one of the most important and underrated American bands of all time created a gorgeous piece of pastoral, psychedelic folk rock. Nothing else out there really sounds like this record, and it represents the best of the wide open sonic freedom of late 1960’s rock recording. Funny story: the horse on the far right on the album cover is supposedly there to represent the recently booted (or resigned, depending on whose story you believe) David Crosby.

ABOVE: Is that David Crosby on the far right?

96. Pearl Jam – Vs., 1993

I know that Ten is more beloved, cohesive and influential, but I prefer the power and eclecticism of their follow-up. PJ veers from punk-like bursts of energy with “Animal” and “Leash” to perfect acoustic power rock like “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”. They were lumped together with the grunge bands of the early 1990’s, but Pearl Jam is really a classic rock band in grunge clothing. Their music has more in common with The Who or Neil Young than with Nirvana or Alice in Chains. Remember the days when the release of a new Pearl Jam album was an event?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

NBA Finals Are (finally) Here

David Stern and the NBA brass got what they wanted. A Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals. These two rivals will meet tonight for the start of the 11th NBA championship clash between these perennial greats.

Let's first look back to the conference finals. I got the Eastern right and the Western wrong. The Pistons against the Celtics and the Spurs against the Lakers suffered from the same problems: aging rosters and key players who were not at 100% due to lingering injuries (Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton for the Pistons, Manu Ginobili for the Spurs). Stern can rest easy that he avoided his nightmare scenario (ratings-wise) of another Spurs-Pistons match-up.

ABOVE: Will Kobe finally win a championship without Shaq's assistance?

Instead? We've got storylines galore. We’ve got the star power of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Can Kobe cap his MVP season with his first post-Shaq championship? (Does anyone remember Kobe complaining loudly last summer about wanting to be traded because he did not feel that the Lakers had the mentality to win?) This is the first finals appearance for Gasol, Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen, and all are respected stars who have paid their dues. Many people feel that Garnett especially deserves a championship for his Hall of Fame-worthy career and years of plugging away in vain in Minnesota. If the Lakers win, this will be the 10th championship for coach Phil Jackson, giving him the most rings as a coach in NBA history. Who would he pass up? Boston’s Red Auerbach, of course. Which two NBA teams have won the most championships? Boston (16) and L.A. (14). We’ve got the league’s #1 offense and its MVP (Kobe) going against the league’s #1 defense and its Defensive Player of the Year (Garnett).

BELOW: Will the respected trio of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce each get their first championship?

I don’t need to hype this series up any more. The NBA is taking care of that for me. My prediction? Lakers in 6.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"The Ike & Tina Turner of Politics"

As I watched history unfolding before my eyes last night on TV, I was amazed (although I shouldn't be at this point) as to how Hillary Clinton steadfastly refused to acknowledge what was happening. Even after it was clear that Obama had the delegate count to finally take the democratic nomination and she could have gone on national television to be gracious and mend fences and at least acknowledge that for the first time an African-American was the nominee for one of the major parties in this country...Hillary gave a speech that could only be categorized as defiant. Instead of being the good soldier and trying to unify the party, she continued to make her case as to why she feels she is the better candidate and how she won more in the popular vote than anyone else (according to Clinton Math). "What does Hillary want?" indeed. She went on to declare that she was "not making any decisions" and encouraged her 18 million strong Hillary Army to e-mail her and help her to determine her next moves. I was reminded of holdout Japanese troops, long after World War II had ended, still dug into their caves on various Pacific Islands, ready to fight to the death.

One of the commentators on CNN last night was great (and I can't remember who it was). He called Bill and Hillary the "Ike and Tina Turner of politics. They will not do anything nice and easy, it's got to be hard and rough."

ABOVE: Bill and Hillary Clinton will fight to the finish

Allegedly she is now pushing for the VP slot, but that speech last night was not the way to go about it. The strategy was to throw her weight around and bully Obama into begging her to join the ticket. Rarely does a politician in Obama's current position want to be seen as giving into threats. I am still convinced that her real endgame is to do enough damage to Obama so he loses to McCain, and then she will mount another campaign in 2012. That is the only plan that logically explains why she is doing what she is doing. It has been clear for weeks (actually, over a month) that Obama would be the nominee. Yet she and Bill continued their race baiting, divisive tactics. So far, Hillary has been a much more vicious foe for Obama than McCain. As offensive as Father Michael Pfleger's sermons were this last week, his caricature of Hillary was spot on.

Obama is really in a tough spot. He and his campaign rightfully can't stand her. Yet they could desperately use her on the ticket to convince her formidable army of supporters to back Obama. In some states, an amazing 30% of Hillary supporters claim they will vote for McCain before Obama. But what if? What if Obama makes a deal with the devil, and wins? What the hell would he do with Hillary and Bill once in office? What a nightmare.

On a personal note, congratulations to Obama for his historic night. It is frustrating, because I really want to support Obama. I like him and I feel like his victory in the general election would go a long way in healing our country. Yet I feel some of his policies would be disasterous, so I cannot in good conscience support him. McCain is right on Iraq. I can't really get beyond that point, because Obama's plans for Iraq would do such harm to the region and to us. So, go McCain.

Monday, June 2, 2008

RIP Bo Diddley, 1928-2008

Few artists can claim to have created their own style of music, but that is only one of the accomplishments of Bo Diddley. Say “play a Bo Diddley beat” to any knowledgeable musician, and they will know exactly what you are talking about. Many of his most famous songs stay with one chord throughout the entire song; all of the excitement and focus is on that rhythm. Immortal original tunes like “Who Do You Love?” and “Bo Diddley” are but two examples. And just so you don’t think that Bo was a one trick pony, check out the riffmaster of “Roadrunner” or the freakin’ groove of “I Can Tell” which is as deep as the Grand Canyon.

Born Ellas Bates (he later took the name Ellas McDaniel, from his mother’s cousin who adopted and raised him), Bo became one of the biggest artists on the legendary blues/rock record label Chess Records (along with Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.) He is hailed as an innovator on several fronts: as a music innovator (the Bo Diddley rhythm pushing rock music forward), as a guitarist, as a guitar designer, and as a songwriter (contributing such tunes as “Bo Diddley”, “I’m a Man”, “You Don’t Love Me”, “Who Do You Love?” and “Roadrunner” to the rock canon).

For me, it is “Who Do You Love?” that stands as his crowning achievement. The perfect example of his patented Bo Diddley beat/rhythm, over which Bo raps (yes, ‘raps’ way back in 1956) as if he were some hoodoo master hybrid of his Mississippi roots transplanted to the stark Southwest with references to “47 miles of barbed wire”, “a brand new house made from rattlesnake hide” with “a chimney made out of human skull” and “cobra snake neckties”. It is a remarkable tune of mesmerizing and pulverizing rhythm, with barbed wire guitar leads and vocal boasts that sound as much tribal as they do rock and roll.

Today we lost one of the last living fathers of rock and roll. There are only a handful left from the days of the music's birth, and Bo Diddley was one of the greatest of the greats. A true gentleman and intellectual from those days, as he helped to design his distinctive rectangular-shaped guitars that he made so famous.

For a good overview of his music, I would suggest grabbing His Best: the Chess 50th Anniversary Collection.

ABOVE: Crank this video up to 11 and just groove out to this kick-ass performance from Bo Diddley. Decked out in his black leather glory, he rocks this audience of hippies into a frenzy by jamming on his patented rhythm for about 4 minutes. Awesome.

RIP Bo Diddley.