Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Neon Hustle's Totally Subjective and Woefully Incomplete Guide to the Best Music of 2010

It's been a while since I've felt compelled to make a list. And now I have. The numerical rankings are as arbitrary as they ever are, but it's all in good fun, right?

Honorable Mentions:

Sharks - Show of Hands

British kids doing it the way British kids did before British kids made terrible music.

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

In a year where Drive-By Truckers, The Hold Steady, and about million other awesome bands made astonishingly mediocre records, Arcade Fire made another great one. That says... something, doesn't it?

Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

American kids doing it the way American kids did it before American kids made terrible music.

#5 The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang

Maybe the most Springsteen-y of all the new, Springsteen-y bands around. And I mean that in the absolute best way possible.

#4 The National - High Violet

We're already taking them for granted, aren't we? Although they might not be as flashy as some of the artists taking end of year honers around the web, The National have done nothing less than craft by far the most durable, assured, indie rock record of the year. It might never be your "favorite" album, but this is one we'll return to time and time again, right after (or fucking BEFORE!) we listen to Alligator or Boxer for the 1,000th time too...

#3 LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

James Murphy said that this might be the final LCD record, and that it was its best. Only time will tell regarding the former, but the latter is true. The first LP was a fun exercise, cobbling together a bunch of singles and throwing together a portrait of the artist as a not-young-for-long man, and the second has maybe the all-time great LCD tracks, but this is the best, most balanced, top-to-bottom BEST of the lot.

#2 Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I'm seriously almost sick of talking about this album. But it IS an ALBUM- and that is itself a rarity in hip-hop. Put it this way: Whether or not you believe he's an artist of this particular caliber, what matters is that Kanye West BELIEVES that he is Bob Dylan and Elvis and The Beatles and Prince and whomever else. That's why he acts how he acts. That's why he is who he is. And that's why he's able to produce a work as drop-dead-incredible as MBDTF. When he interrupted Taylor at the VMAs, most people thought "Oh my God! What an asshole! What a jerk! I just hate him!" I thought "Dude... The next Kanye record is gonna be sooooooo gooooooood..." And it is.

#1 Titus Andronicus - The Monitor

Rarest of feats: A high concept album that almost instantly makes itself at home within the listener like a long-beloved favorite. Alienation, frustration, indignation and every other boon of youthful righteousness, all delivered directly from the brain of one Patrick Stickles, generation Y's first truly great guitar hero.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Immortals List: #100-#81 Recap

Can you believe it, guys? It seems like we only just began our trip through Rolling Stone's list of "The Immortals", doesn't it?

Oh, right.

Fuck it, we're TWENTY entries in! Whoo!

When the once-illustrious publication in question chose, seemingly at random, the years 1953 as the moment that rock music "began", the list of artists chosen from the time period since was generally enjoyed as non-controversial nostalgia, and nothing that people would really get up in arms about. But if my trip through some of the greats (and some of the horrific misfires) has taught me anything, it's that...

Umm... Wait, what did we take from these legendary artists?

Shall we re-cap?

Beginning at the ending:

#100 - Lee “Scratch” Perry: Makes being high in Jamaica sound fucking awesome. Which, you know, it probably is.

#99 - Curtis Mayfield: Makes being an unheralded genius in a tumultuous era sound fucking awesome.

#98 - Roxy Music: Makes being really, really English sound fucking awesome.

#97 - Diana Ross and the Supremes: Makes being “kept” by Berry Gordy sound fucking awesome.

#96 - Martha and the Vandellas: Makes being a girl group sound fucking awesome and sort of noble.

#95 - Lynyrd Skynyrd: Makes being “Southern” sound fucking awesome. (This is the highest praise I have ever or will ever give this band.)

#94 - Nine Inch Nails: Makes being Trent Reznor sound fucking awesome. I guess.

#93 - Booker T. And The MGs: Makes being “Southern” sound way more fucking awesome than Lynyrd Skynyrd does. Because FUCK YOU, Lynyrd Skynyrd!

#92 - Guns N’ Roses: Makes the reasons that we know Los Angeles isn’t fucking awesome sound fucking awesome.

#91 - Ricky Nelson: Makes being a posthumously-appreciated child star sound fucking awesome.

#90 - Carlos Santana: Makes getting some Mexican food sound fucking awesome. Hey, you wanna go get some Mexican food?

#89 - The Yardbirds: Makes being capable of more sound fucking awesome.

#88 - Miles Davis: Makes being over the hill and still more interesting than anybody else in the world sound fucking awesome.

#87 - Gram Parsons: Makes being a trustafarian sound fucking awesome.

#86 - 2Pac Shakur: Makes dying young sound fucking awesome.

#85 - Black Sabbath: Makes faeries and mental instability sound fucking METAL.

#84 - James Taylor: Sucks.

#83 - N.W.A: Makes the 90s sound fucking awesome.

#82 - Eminem: Makes the early 2000s sound fucking awesome.

#81 - The Drifters: Makes being

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Immortals #81 - The Drifters

It goes like this: Brian Wilson heard "Be My Baby" ringing in his ears as he composed his teenage symphonies to God, and Phil Spector heard The Drifters when he composed "Be My Baby"...

The Drifters weren't necessarily the best of the early R&B groups, not any more than the Ronettes were the greatest of Spector's stable of "pet" production projects (The Crystals and especially Darlene Love spring to mind there), but they definitely deserve credit as largely responsible for their era's advancement of black American music into the dominant popular form of 20th century. Though the charts were littered with pop vocal groups in the 1950s, the Drifters' evolution of straightforward doo-wop into full-fledged orchestrations and overwhelming success and popularity influenced artists across many genres as that decade gave way to the 1960s.

There would arguably be no Wall of Sound without the Drifters', who also happened to serve as the penultimate production vehicle of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (whose shared denial of a place on the Immortals list is borderline criminal). There would also be no Motown without the blueprint set by Leiber and Stoller's efforts with the Drifters, which fused pre-soul rhythm and blues to lush pop arrangements, yet still remained, unmistakably, "rock and roll."

Wedding orchestral strings and brass to the fledgling sounds of young R&B hardly seems like a revolutionary act today, but it is also telling that seemingly every genre-of-the-moment now "matures" into replicating exactly that once it becomes sufficiently mainstream today.

Oh, and they might actually have been the best of the early R&B vocal groups to boot. More than enough reason to warrant inclusion on this list.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

The Immortals #82 - Eminem

Brace yourself. Because I'm about to make one of those grand, broad, sweeping comparisons between a relatively "young" media figure and one of the most enduring and popular icons in pop culture history. I'm warning you now that if this is the sort of thing that is as nausea-inducing to you as it usually is to me, then here's your chance to skip it now. Might I recommend a visit to to peruse the grave sites of many terrific artists who were not featured in Rolling Stone's "Immortals" list? Or maybe one of those websites with the funny cats? Because here, thar be discussion of Eminem. Eminem- hip-hop's answer to...

wait for it...

Elvis Presley.

(Yes, because he's white.)


Yeah, it's really that easy. It's, like, All Music Guide easy. So let's get the list out of the way early. Eminem and Elvis are the two highest selling solo artists in their respective genres (not counting 2Pac's sales for the bazillion re-packagings of the same material). Both popularized their genres nearly a decade after their arrival as full-fledged popular phenomena in the "other" America (is it racist to continue the "black people are cool" meme? How about just ahead of the curve then?), and both became the first mega-selling white cultural ambassadors of their respective genres (I'll get to the Beastie Boys and why they're not hip-hop later on down this list).

Both also entered secondary careers as multi-media "threats" who blurred the lines between personal iconography and art, although, for the record, Eminem is a way better actor. And the public issues with substance abuse have been well-documented in the case of both men, as well as their precipitous effect in their declining popularity in eras not far removed from their initial popularity- Elvis because the Comeback Special really only earned him a quicker flight to Vegas residency as rock moved on and people stopped buying his records in favor of newer, more exciting sounds, and Em because 1999 was for-fucking-ever ago and nobody buys CDs of any kind anymore.

Eminem didn't "steal" hip-hop any more than Elvis did rock and roll, but its hard to manage a reason for his inclusion on this list without framing him as some sort of analogue to "The King" (a term used pro forma, believe me). I don't know that anybody was as really influenced by Elvis any more than either the acts he was accused of ripping off or those whom he merely outsold as contemporaries. Sure, he was great for selling the image, but did he add anything so definitively greater than Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, or frankly anybody that also happened to be recording for Sun in 1953? And is there something in "Stan" or "The Real Slim Shady" that's set to ignite a dormant creative spark in some soon-to-be brilliant 'head out there with an unwritten masterpiece that will change everything? I doubt it.

That doesn't mean they're not fun songs, or records like The Marshall Mathers LP don't hold up today. Em is a fine MC, with above average delivery and no worse than average lyricism. And he's from the Midwest. You can really never overstate the benefit of a neutral accent toward one's mainstream appeal. And as a representative of the last golden age of the music video (a form whose relevance fellow NH alumnus Steve and I notably and vastly disagree on) Eminem is a particularly poptent representative of the time and place. Hey, just like Elvis was for television! Look at that! When it rains over-obvious analogies it pours.

Bottom-line: Eminem did for hip-hop the same thing that Elvis did for rock and roll. He brought new heights of popularity to a "dangerous" style of music a good period of time after all the real danger had left it. And because there will never, ever be another 25x platinum-selling rapper, the easy comparison is all we're ever really gonna need to remember him by. That and his records, I guess. But mostly the other thing.

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Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Immortals #83 - N.W.A.

Might as well have single-handedly invented the parental advisory sticker. And hey, God bless 'em for it.

Let's start with the obvious good: Eazy is one of the most compelling and charismatic performers of his generation. Ren, Yella and Dre, though seemingly relegated to near side-men status at times, nonetheless make their presence abundantly known in some of the groups most durable and beloved tracks. And here a baby-faced Ice Cube immediately announces himself as a force of nature, absolutely dominating his way through arguably one of the most influential A-sides in hip-hop history (a streak he'd soon continue in his indispensable early solo work).

Still, I'm not positive why Straight Outta Compton is looked-upon as an album quite as highly as it is, though I do have a pet theory that might explain its current status. See, as a child of the 90s (started high school in the fall of '96, class of '00), I remember the decade for being the times when everything updated. With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the fall of the me-me-me! 80s, and a new world order was soon established. Gen X was to become as prominent in the culture as the Boomers had been, and the artistic underground of any number of media was about to define the mainstream, with all the commercial and cache privileges that implied. Yet for all its significance, the 90s had precious few definitive musical texts to represent it. By the time 1996 rolled around, the decade was ready to coast out on an endless parade of faux-grunge, pre-packaged pop, and gangsta-gangsta wannabe redundancy (and sometimes all at the same time!)

Yella and Dre's production isn't really all that flashy, but its proto-West Coast G-thing vibe is enduring, and its high points propel the album's most memorable tracks, but for the most part this is a stepping stone to Dre's more celebrated future efforts. Yet we remember these songs as being elementarily powerful, mostly because we can't seem to disassociate them from images of the larger-than-life place so proudly 'repped in the title that came just a few years later. When the riots rocked South Central in the wake of... well, pretty much everything that N.W.A said was going on in their neighborhood, culminating with the verdict of the Rodney King trial and subsequent boiling-over of the populace into civil unrest, many in the media (as does now, it seems, the gaze of history) looked to the biggest voices in the rap world as prophets who portended it all in their lyrics. We had the troubled times, but lacked a natural soundtrack, until we picked this one.

But even though Straight Outta Compton is maybe best-remembered for it's opening one-two punch and a whole lot of f-bombs, it's hardly that straightforward or politically focused a record.
Public Enemy was called "The Black CNN" because Chuck D's brought the "informed and angry about it" gravitas of a grown-ass man, but the members of N.W.A. exploded into public life at a tender age in their early adulthood. Eazy was 25, but the rest of the group were barely out of their teens- hell, Cube hadn't yet crossed that threshold. Compared to the more legitimately conscious hip-hop in that period, "Straight Outta Compton" and "Fuck tha Police" are less social commentary than an adolescent lashing-out, just raw, juvenile anger. It's the kind of emotion that's hard to muster as an adult with responsibilities like a job to get up for in the morning. Elsewhere, "I Ain't tha 1" and, um, basically everything that comes out of Eazy-E's mouth display sexual politics of a sophistication on par with your average horny 15-year-old boy.

Most of the tracks are slice-of-life grooves about partying, getting laid, and waking up the next day hoping not to get hassled by cops or lesser MCs, liberally coated with lyrical posturing on how much they get laid, party, and fuck up other MCs. In that light, Straight Outta Compton is really sort of underrated as one of the better coming of age albums of its era. And when Cube left the group after its release, it might as well have been the last scene of Stand By Me, with Richard Dreyfuss narrating about how now Ren drives a forklift and Eazy died just six years after that fateful day (and River Phoenix fades away...)

When the PMRC inquisition the music industry to adopt the so-called "Tipper Sticker", it was really only a matter of time before that little black and white warning symbol became the prized badge of entry to new worlds of badass-ness for kids all over America. And the irony of N.W.A now is that in our fervor to indulge the legacy of Straight Outta Compton, we've all become little Tipper Gores ourselves. This music validates our own inner-teenagers, the part of ourselves that needs to remember that time and place as feels most fitting to us now. And so we remember the people who remind us of then in the same way. That's why Straight Outta Compton still feels mostly scary and cool and vital today, even if the 90s as a whole weren't quite as much those things as we might remember them.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Immortals #84 - James Taylor

With the his success of ultra-popular, triple-platinum-selling second album, James Taylor became first bonafide superstar that heralded the "singer/songwriter" era, a genre that was differentiated from other music made by people who both wrote and sung their own songs in the early 1970s by its transparent willingness to veer into gratingly self-absorbed and sonically derivative territories. And considering that this was a generation of musicians who were essentially just trying to do bad impressions of Bob Dylan, that's really saying something.

Sweet Baby James is packed with the hallmarks that defined the singer/songwriter tag, as Taylor paints his tracks in broad, bucolic strokes of Americana gleaned from the country and folk of in the previous decade, and polishes them to a high gloss of mellifluousness that consistently overwhelms those barely-there moments that hint of intelligence and even a faintly dark sense of humor contained within them. In places, it's exceptionally easy to hear the title track, or "Blossom", or the iconic "Fire and Rain" and find them perfectly pleasant for what they are, which is "perfectly pleasant", I guess. But much of this album is devoted to the perfunctory task of keeping appearances of depth, be they in the shamefully thin "character study" of "Sunny Skies" or a similarly de rigueur attempt at "interpreting" the American songbook, such as with Stephen Forster's staple/chestnut "Oh! Susanna" (you know, because James was down with the whole folkie-thing.)

Which I guess begs the question of just how "good" these songs even needed to be in the first place. The "singer/songwriter" was a pop designation, and folks like Taylor were simply trying to make a name for themselves in the industry with nice songs that people liked to listen to. There's an honesty there, sure. If there wasn't, how could it so often veer into the irritating level of insistent sincerity that we so often associate with the "guy with a guitar?" And much of the music produced by Taylor and his contemporaries (or, as I'd argue, his betters) such as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and Carole King was truly beautiful, and even sometimes deeply affecting. And hey, if selling records with a nice ditty was really the only goal he had, then Taylor was as successful a performer as anybody could possibly become by that measure.

But still, there's a lot that's missing from Dylan's influence in Taylor and the seemingly endless parade of singer/songwriters who followed his example. Dylan's was a wicked wit and he was a truly inveterate bastard, and when he turned his ire toward a subject of personal scorn (especially himself) he'd waste not one syllable in the course of intellectually and emotionally eviscerating both it and the listener. And when he stole your song, it was to show us something about where we came from and why we're here now- and at least he had the integrity to admit so outright.

A few singer/songwriters who embodied Dylan's ethos and made tremendous records (I'm thinking of Randy Newman here, who's a goddamned national treasure as far as I'm concerned), but the majority of those who followed him never even tried. James Taylor never had any illusions that he could ever be so vital, ever matter that much. At least he was as forthright as Dylan was when addressing that particular fact. In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2000, he admitted:

I've taken no more risk than I absolutely had to. I'm not changing the world, and I don't have anything to prove.
Well, I guess that's your prerogative, James. But if that's really the case, then what makes you think we could give a fuck about anything you have to say?

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Immortals #85 - Black Sabbath

Just as The Ramones moved a step beyond the archetypes created by The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and another number of other proto-acts that predicted their genre to become the first definitive punk rock band, so too did Sabbath solidify their place as history's first great true heavy metal band with 1970's Paranoid.

It's pretty cool, man.

Unlike a lot of other kids, who seem to have grown up on classic rock radio staples by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Hendrix, I went about this whole thing ass-backward. I only acquainted myself with traditional "hard-rock" after reverse-engineering its history beginning at my punk-loving roots. After spending my teens with only a casual relationship to Suicidal Tendencies and Motorhead, I started to move toward more metal-friendly hardcore like the Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge in my early 20s, gradually discovering the more popular grindcore and melodic death metal of the 90s (big ups to Entombed and At the Gates) before meeting the "Big Four" of 80s speed and thrash (Anthrax, Megadeth, SLAAYEERR and *sigh* Metallica) and New Wave British bands like Maiden and Priest. As it was, I didn't arrive at the blues-indebted, "classic rock" era of 70s metal until the last couple of years, despite the fact that at any moment in the past ten years I could likely have randomly tuned my radio dial across the FM band for pretty good odds of hearing any track from Paranoid or Zoso.

Did I mention that before I'd ever heard those records, I was already co-hosted my college radio station's metal show for a year in grad school? Sitting in the booth with two teenagers with a fixation on cheesy power metal and Dio-era Sabbath? Man... fuck all of us...

Paranoid is an undeniably solid record with several moments of transcendence, which isn't to say it lacks flaws. In fact, arguably the weakest part of Sabbath was its most famous association. Ozzy sounded plain silly even back then, not only in the modulated vocal intro to "Iron Man" or his awkward phrasing ("Caaan he walk-at-all/Or if he moo-oo-ooves will he fall?"), but also in the fact that he was still pretty much a hippy-dippy child of the 60s and at times it feels like he's in danger of being outpaced by the band making such heavy music around him.

Ozzy's best lyrics were the ones grounded in the anxious realities of death, war, and his own depression, and his weakest indulged a tastes for fantasy and science fiction in a way that was totally permissible back then when read for vague, anti-Christian overtones, but today would probably get you filed somewhere between My Chemical Romance and Coheed and Cambria on the Hot Topic t-shirt wall. (One track on here is titled "Faeries Wear Boots", and the original name for "War Pigs" and the album as a whole? Walpurgis, after the witches' holiday of the Spring. Robert Plant, I'm comin' for you later on down this list...)

I don't mean to just shit-talk Ozzy, because each composition credits all four band members and by all accounts Ozzy had a big part in their writing (not to mention that Tony Iommi was, I'm pretty sure, just as much into the unicorns crap as he was.) Also, he could wear a fringed-jacket like a fucking champ. But if these tracks had been originally released by an instrumental power trio version of Sabbath, you'd be hard pressed to tell me they wouldn't have rocked just as hard. Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward are impeccably tight, and the stretches between Ozzy's verses are every bit as engaging for their seamless integration of riffs and solos into straightforward (but never simple) as their frontman's admittedly somewhat charismatic presence. Ozzy even gets a couple of solid vocal moments, especially on the title track and "Hand of Doom", so, you know, good on him, I guess.

Today, listening to Paranoid is very much what I imagined it was in 1970, and from what little I've seen of the still ridiculously popular Ozzfest tours, the band is pretty much just that live as well. Perhaps they don't sound as delightfully scuzzy as they would on vinyl when you're high as balls, but what's so nice about music of this type- their authenticity isn't anything that's lost with age, which is more than can be said of a lot of the other reunions that have happened in the name of a little filthy luchre.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

The Immortals #86 - 2Pac Shakur

Okay, confession time: I'd never heard a 2Pac song before sitting down to write this post.

Despite being, ostensibly, his core audience (a white, suburban high school freshman in southern California) when his post-incarceration magnum opus, All Eyez On Me was released, rocketing him to pop superstardom, I somehow managed to completely miss the phenomena. I was just old enough to be turning off MTV, and the once-venerable Los Angeles rock radio institution KROQ-FM had not yet completed its hellish devolution into a Clearchannel atrocity. And I never got invited to parties or had any fun ever. I had a vague familiarity with "California Love" through cultural osmosis, and I knew to attribute the phrase "picture me rollin'" to his track of the same name, but otherwise I managed to live to the ripe old age of 27 years old before becoming acquainted with the works of Mr. Tupac Amaru Shakur.

And I'm sorry, you guys, but I just do not get it.

Now, it's true that I'm the biggest hip-hop guy, but I'm far from a neophyte. I've got love for most of the genre's other entrants on Rolling Stone's "Immortals" list, and a bunch of other fairly "mainstream" acts like Eric B, and Rakim, Public Enemy, The Pharcyde, Boogie Down Productions/KRS-ONE, and A Tribe Called Quest- all have all seen some play in my collection (to name but a few...) But more important than my credentials (or relative lack thereof) is that 2Pac provides us with our first opportunity to address rap and hip-hop's inclusion by RS' parade of experts and legends as ostensibly belonging naturally within some broad interpretation of the rock and roll milieu.

Put flatly, it is incredibly dismissive of perhaps the most culturally significant musical movement of the latter half of the 20th century, despite the fact that RS' decision could charitably be taken as an intended compliment to hip-hop, that it's greatest artists are every bit as important as those from "plain old" rock and roll. But this gesture is wholly misguided, and ultimately as equally great an implied insult to the titans of jazz (and, arguably, giants of country and soul musics as well) who were not seen as deserving recognition in the world of rock music in its "first 50 years."

The six hip-hop artists who made the top 100 (four of whom are clustered between spots #75 and #86) represent a plot on behalf of Rolling Stone that could be taken as token reference at best and grotesquely commercial at worst- an slight that stings all the greater when considering that such a middling a talent as 2Pac managed to end up occupying a space that could have otherwise gone to John Coltrane or Willie Nelson (or hell, even Garth Brooks! I mean, the dude sold a bazillion fucking records, right?) But no, the "masterminds" behind the Immortals project saw fit to incorporate an overwhelmingly popular (and profitable) part of their magazine's coverage since the late 1980s with a transparent attempt to play it off as a tribute from rock and roll to hip-hop that really does neither any service, ultimately.

So why 2Pac? Well, for a lot of the reasons that Gram Parsons (our #87) is here, quite frankly. If any rapper's personal mythology ever overwhelmed the quality of his art, it was Shakur's. The oft-sung ballad of the thug-poet with who embodied such fake dynamic tensions as being "hard edged" with a "gentle soul" has somehow not been undone in the almost 15 years following his death in a senseless act of life-imitating-music-industry-created-hype, as if nobody checked the wiki and took note that the dude was a dancer with the Digital Underground (a far more honest and entertaining venture than anything from 'Pac's own recording career- "Samoans!"), or that nobody ever played the childish media games of glamorizing gang violence more egregiously.

Instead, we somehow remember him as the profligate free spirit who was lost before his time, leaving us with nothing but his interminable hours of uninspired teenage bullshit spewn across tracks so utterly unremarkable as to border on... nothing. They're fucking boring. I just listened to an hour of this two-disc Greatest Hits thing, and I can't even think of a comparison that wouldn't make his music sound like some other thing that's far more interesting and worthy of anybody's time.

Were I so inclined play this as an insult to hip-hop, I would point to 2Pac as the ultimate triumph of persona over substance, but that really isn't any more uniquely warranted a criticism as could be equally applied to 60 years of pop music, so fuck it. Instead I'll pay a specific (and ultimately far more damning) insult to Shakur for his inexplicable legions of fans to suffer: You already know that if you hadn't been shot, you'd have gotten as old and pathetic as Elvis did at the end, but you know what else?

Biggie wouldn't have.

Yeah, that's right. You thought I'd write something about 'Pac that did the favor of not mentioning him? Well I didn't. Because as long as we're humoring this little exercise and including rappers on the list, Biggie was just one of a great many artists who deserved to be here more than you.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Modern Library Top 100: #94 - Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Around the same time a few white kids in your typical suburban high school--my typical suburban high school, weirdly enough--rallied around the American flag to say they weren't too fond of a multiracial America, thank you very much, I was turning the final page on Jean Rhys's celebrated meditation on racial identity. I doubt any of those boys has read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I'm sure they would find it instructive. It's as racist as they are.

Jean Rhys first read Jane Eyre as a teenager, and was appalled at the revolting portrayal of Bertha Mason, the Jamaican creole madwoman banished to the attic of Thornfield Hall. A creole herself, Rhys decided to give Bertha her due, writing a prequel of sorts describing Bertha's youth as white girl growing up in Jamaica in the wake of emancipation. Rhys does her best to rehabilitate Mason's image, along the way tackling BIG ISSUES like the existential anguish of being in a economically dominant minority, or the pain of growing up in a nice big house that's falling apart because your mother couldn't afford to pay her former slaves enough to keep it up. And why are all the black people so mean to Bertha (here called Antoinette) anyway? The horror!

So no, I did not like this novel. To be charitable, Rhys is definitely on point vis-a-vis Victorian gender relations. She does a very good job of painting Antoinette's husband as the domineering weasel who effectively forces her into madness, his appropriation of her so complete that he even succeeds in renaming her. (Not that complete, of course, because she does eventually burn his house down in Jane Eyre. But still). But woo boy, nobody would accuse Rhys of being racially sensitive (except, of course, sensitive to the plight of white people).

Christophine, the principal black person in the novel, is a wise old woman who practices voodoo, and shepherds Antoinette throughout the narrative. She's the very definition of the magical negro, and she's just as offensive as Uncle Remus. Sandi Cosway is another black person who pops up, and he happens to be the love of Antoinette's life. He arrives for a single page to save her from a schoolyard beating, then disappears entirely from the story for his trouble. But hey, we're at least told that Sandi and Antoinette were engaged, so that's....something, I guess. The rest of the black characters either burn down Antoinette's childhood home, steal her clothes, kill her brother, call her names, or seduce her husband. Some critics have defended Rhys's portrayal of black Jamaicans, since the story is told from the point of view of a 19th century genteel Creole woman, reflecting what would have been her feelings on race. Bullfeathers, I say.

Anyway, I guess the point of this all is that it really shouldn't be so hard to step outside yourself and write a sympathetic fully-realized character outside your own experience. But for whatever reason people keep fucking it up. I've long railed against Hollywood's (a collection of white men if there ever was one) treatment of women as either baby-crazy psychopaths (I'm looking at you, Judy Greer) or bland objects of adolescent desire (oh hi, Zooey Deschanel!). And obviously it's not just about gender. Going back a wee bit further, Robinson Crusoe's boy Friday wasn't exactly a positive step forward in race relations.

So maybe I shouldn't be so harsh on Wide Sargasso Sea. It's just another pearl in a necklace of failure. And besides, it's not a total drag. But if it's one of the best novels of the 20th Century, we deserve better.

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The Immortals #87 - Gram Parsons

The "Whatever That Is" Immortals post.

(Props if you got that reference.)

I'll admit to being moderately annoyed that this entry is not simply for The Flying Burrito Brothers. It's true that Chris Hillman will get his props in another entry much further down on this list, and that there is no single figure more closely associated with his referred musical style on this side of the nearest Urban Outfitters, but still- doesn't this just sort of smack of aggrandizement?
Almost nowhere in the annals of his discography does he achieve anything of note without significant collaborative effort.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo
, the final Byrds LP and often cited as the first "country-rock" album, was dominated by Roger McGuinn while his first two albums with the Flying Burrito Bros (a band name he outright stole from his old International Submarine Band-mates), The Guilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe, were all-star efforts featuring the talents of former Byrds Hillman and Michael Clarke along with incomparable efforts from bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel guitarist "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow. And as the Burritos continued to make underrated records following Parsons' departure, Gram made a couple of records with no less a talented co-star than the young Miss Emmylou Harris; records that went nowhere until, decades after his overdose, they were dusted off as a hipster cause célèbre and credited for kick-starting the alt country craze that began in earnest in the 1990s.

Parsons' mythology has almost certainly outpaced any legitimate claim he might have had to being the "godfather" of alt country. Apart from the incalculable influence of the outsider country sounds made in Bakersfield and Lubbock in the mid-20th century, there were simply too many credible
revivalists of folk, rock, blues and Appalachian musics to essentialize as any sort of cohesive "movement" under the patronage of a rich-born, Harvard-educated Southern boy who played with some good bands once he moved to LA.

Yet we know more about Gram than practically any of the other supposed originators of alt country, and a large part of me suspects that it's because he's just so damned easy to glamorize. He was credited years after his early passing as an unheralded genius. He had fascinating, idiosyncratic interests UFOs, Joshua Tree, rodeo tailoring and casual narcotics usage. And it certainly never hurt that he was always the cutest boy in any room he walked into. He was the genuine, original
indie idol. Hell, he was even predisposed to calling his particular take on country, folk, gospel and rock as "cosmic American music", making him the original "whatever that is" alt-pedagogue. I mean, not to diminish all the excellent music that he played in his too-short 26 years, but did any other musician benefit as much from the live fast, die young school of rock legacy-making as Gram?

Still. There's something to idol-worship... isn't there?

Glorious Noise recently pointed to a section of The Observer's press for a new Rolling Stones documentary that made note of the closeness of Mick and Gram:

"Keith and Gram were intimate like brothers, especially musically. The idea was floating around that Gram would produce a Gram Parsons album for the newly formed Rolling Stones Records. Mick, I think, was a little afraid because that would mean that Gram and Keith might even tour together to promote it. And if there is no room for Mick, there is no room also for the Rolling Stones."
My favorite piece of Burrito Bros. trivia is that it was they, and not the Stones, who first recorded and released a version of the Richards/Jagger composition "Wild Horses." The story goes that, during their prolonged European bro-down, Keith played a demo of the song for Gram, and Parsons flipped for it and insisted that he be allowed to record it with for the Burritos' second album, which wound up being released a year before Sticky Fingers. The result is, blasphemy be damned, my favorite version of my favorite Stones song.

Three years later, he'd be dead, and he wasn't even really famous yet.

What if indeed...

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