Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Make Way For the List: 45-41

45. Fiona Apple -- When the Pawn (1999)

This album is a good example of what I said this list would represent at the start: some Frankensteinian combination of my current respect for albums and the number of times I’ve listened to and enjoyed them throughout my life. Let’s take an example of something that had a lot of plays but doesn’t have much current respect: The Grease soundtrack. When I was a child, I would put on our stereo’s giant, dark-brown headphones and groove to that album for hours at a time, all the while wondering if my mother knew -- she couldn’t -- that “Greased Lightnin’” included the line, “we’ll be getting lots of tit.” Today, I still think the movie is a guilty pleasure, but it’s not like the soundtrack made my initial bunch of candidates for this list. Conversely, do I think When the Pawn is a better album than Abbey Road or Rumours? No. But did I manage to remove When the Pawn from my stereo for more than five weeks after I bought it? No, I did not. I hadn’t thought much of Apple’s debut, but on this follow-up she and producer Jon Brion crafted more mature (but still bratty when necessary), seriously addictive songs. If “Love Ridden” is too melodramatic by half, it’s still heartbreaking when Apple calms down to sing, “No, not ‘Baby’ anymore / if I need you, I’ll just use your simple name.” “Fast As You Can” was a great single -- on a list of my favorite individual moments in songs, I’d have to include when the frantic production abruptly stops and Apple belts the torchy, “sometimes my mind don’t shake and shift / but most of the time, it does.” And the album-closing “I Know” is one of the prettiest songs I’ve heard.

44. Nirvana -- Nevermind (1991)

From the time I was 17 until I was 22 or so, I heard “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are,” and “Lithium” so many times on the radio that I can’t even form a judgment of them. It would be like aesthetically judging the white noise in my brain. But it wasn’t like I changed the station a lot when they came on, so I figure I liked them. The best of the singles was the first, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which remains, with its catchy opening guitar riff and foot-tapping bass line throughout, more accessible than you ever remember between listens. (Maybe because I’ve only heard them a million times, not a trillion, these days I tend to prefer “Breed” and “Drain You” and “Lounge Act.”) I bristle at the idea of Kurt Cobain being called “the voice of a generation,” especially mine, since most of what he was screaming was either nonsensical or pat. Still, with this album, Nirvana created something new, and that’s not something you can say about rock bands every day (or every decade). They made music with the energy of punk, but they were clearly influenced by the melodies of The Beatles and R.E.M. as much as the anger and poses of The Sex Pistols. They also weren’t overly political (the band seemed most vocal about opposing rape and violent social bullying, which I think we can all agree on). Instead, they sounded angry and confused, disillusioned but energetic, and hyperaware of themselves as marketing objects. In that way, I guess they did represent my generation. Just don’t ask me to explain “sell the kids for food / weather changes moods / spring is here again / reproductive glands.”

43. The Hold Steady -- Separation Sunday (2005)

I’ve written about The Hold Steady many times around here, and I’ll be writing about them again in the future (hint, hint), so I’ll keep this brief. The first few songs on Separation Sunday are fine, but it’s the second half of the record that puts it this high on the list. “Stevie Nix,” alternating between raucous guitar and lonelier keyboard-driven moments, is one of their most epic songs. And even by the high standards of a band that knows the value of a great closing track, “How a Resurrection Really Feels” might be their best.

42. Chamberlain -- The Moon My Saddle (1998)

Chamberlain (now defunct) was formerly Split Lip, a hardcore-emo band out of the midwest. Their transformation on The Moon My Saddle is pretty startling. There are reminders of a hardcore band in the energy of the playing, but the songs are pseudo-epic, optimistic, and nostalgic, in the Springsteen and Son Volt tradition. (Singer David Moore’s voice, gruff but expressive, has been compared to the Boss, but I hear more of Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz.) Like Springsteen, there’s a lot of directly addressing a lover and a lot of talk of travel, as in:
So let's be off tonight, while we're awake enough to drive, and by this time tomorrow we'll be alive.
Who’d have thought girl, late last spring, we’d still be the same?
In the backseat, the smell of vinyl and wet streets must have helped you get to sleep.
While this album isn’t exactly gentle -- lots of guitars and drums, and there’s only one spare, piano-driven song -- there’s no question that this is proudly sentimental music. Caution to those who roll their eyes at earnestness.

41. Centro-matic -- Redo the Stacks (1997)

In the mid-to-late ’90s, it being the fashion, I went to a small club in Dallas with a friend of mine to see Mary Lou Lord. I don’t remember much about Lord, but the band that opened for her, Centro-matic, became one of my favorites. Based in Denton at the time -- and now in Austin, I believe -- Centro-matic is led by the prolific Will Johnson. (In the little more than a decade since Redo the Stacks was released, he’s put out 13 more albums and various ep’s under different names -- Centro-matic, South San Gabriel, and, well, Will Johnson.) The band’s gotten a bit more polished, and put out some terrific music, but I still prefer the slightly more ragged, garage-band sound captured on the 23 tracks here, some of which are rough enough to sound like demos and some of which are short enough to serve more as spackle than songs. There are haunting songs about love (“Cannot Compete”), mental breakdowns (“Post-It Notes From the State Hospital”) and arcade games (“Starfighter #1479), but the blood flows best on strenuous guitar workouts like “Parade of Choosers” and my favorite song on the album, “Am I the Manager or Am I Not?”



Blogger Dezmond said...

No arguments against The Hold Steady here. Love them. Nirvana? To be honest, I never connected with them. And I usually did change the station when they came on. Respect 'em, though.

Haven't listened to the other three.

8:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home