As my family and I walked a local outdoor mall this past Sunday afternoon, we heard gunshots coming from a Civil War re-enactment taking place a few blocks away (and a few thousand miles from the closest actual Civil War site). Only minutes before we had been laughing as we noticed the signs along the road, and we made jokes about the people whose daily lives were so boring that they had to reach a century and a half into the past for weekend entertainment. I was so glad we were cool.
Since the shotgun has been gathering dust for a while, I thought I'd try to get things going again by publishing a simple list of the best media of 2006. Books, movies, film, and television are all fair game. I wanted to make a simple top ten list, but I just couldn't. Here's my top fourteen. Enjoy...
14. Matisyahu, Live At Stubbs
Alright, perhaps the bloom is off this rose a bit, but it's still pretty good. And if I have one rule, it's this: whenever an orthodox Jew starts rapping, I listen. (This, by the way, is a bit closer to toasting than rapping, but that only makes it sweeter.)
13. The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
You're right, this is the book that you read when you were twelve, but I never got around to until a couple months ago during silent reading. It's written for an adolescent audience, but the father-son issues are relevant regardless of age. Read it yourself now, recommend it to your children when they get to middle school.
12. Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere"
First, big thumbs up for the name Gnarls Barkley. And the song, as overplayed as it was, is still pretty good, almost a year later.
11. Sugar Cult, "Lights Out"
This single was that rare song that I loved after hearing only two or three bars -- and the rest didn't disappoint. Good driving guitars, solid beat, aggressive lyrics. The opening riff: "I wanna girl, a girl, that won't talk back/ and a job, a job that gives me slack/ and a car, a car that won't break down in the heat of Los Angeles..." I'm pretty sure I wrote those lines when I was nineteen...
10. "I Shouldn't Be Alive"
This show airs on the Discovery Channel, and it's definitely worth your time. Each episode tells the story of someone who -- you guessed it -- shouldn't be alive. They tell the story through interviews with the survivor which are augmented with excellent re-enactments. A story lines typically go something like Murphy's Law on steroids. An example: "We were floating in the middle of the ocean, miles from land, when we were attacked by a barracuda. Later we realized that the barracuda had nicked my toe, causing a small cut. The blood then attracted a 25-foot hammerhead shark. We fought off the shark with a camera lens, then decided to swim for land, at which point we ran into a massive school of jelly fish." All of this is illustrated with scientific explanations of what's going on, ranging from CSI-type animations of broken bones and torn tissue to depictions of the effects of starvation and water deprivation. Once you start watching, you cannot stop.
9. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
I realize that some people don't get Will Farrell, but since I don't get John McCain, we'll just call it even. Anyway, this is Will Farrell at his best. If you missed it in the theater, add it to your Netflix cue right now and you won't be disappointed. If fact, I bet you'll get down on your knees and thank Baby Jesus.
8. Madeleine Peyroux, "Careless Love" and "Half the Perfect World"
If you're in the mood for some smooth vocals, look no further than Madeleine Peyroux. Both of these discs are excellent, and on some of the tracks she seems to be channeling Billie Holiday, which is never a bad thing.
I've always been a sucker for themes like this, the idea that small things can connect seemingly disconnected individuals who are worlds apart. I was worried (or at least uneasy) throughout the movie, but the overall effect of the film was excellent.
6. "The Office - Season One"
Okay, I'm a little late on this one. Leslie and I had heard lots of good things about this show, though neither of us had ever watched even a single minute. So for Christmas, in a Gift of the Magi moment, we bought each other the Season One DVD collection. (No worries, we returned one of them and bought Season Two.) We've already watched the entire first season and a good chunk of the next -- it's absolutely brilliant.
5. Arctic Monkeys, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not"
This album has some serious staying power, probably because it's incredibly diverse. "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor" got lots of radio play, but there's a lot of depth here. I like every track, and that's pretty rare. The one problem, though, is that I can't imagine these poor guys putting together a second album that could live up to this debut.
4. "Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete" by William C. Rhoden
The premise of this book might make some people uncomfortable, but Rhoden argues that even though many black athletes have become incredibly wealthy by dominating the playing fields and courts of American sports, they are still trapped within a hierarchy that is disturbingly similar to that seen on 19th century slave plantations. The surprizing thing is that his argument makes an awful lot of sense.
3. John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition)"
For my money, this is one of the best records ever made, and certainly the best jazz album of all-time. I first bought it sixteen years ago, and it's never really been far from my CD player. A few years ago, though, this deluxe edition was released. I resisted. Sure, it was digitally re-mastered, but I wasn't falling for that. How much better could it be? As it turns out, a lot better -- like listening to a completely different album. It's richer in detail, offering a much fuller sound. The bad news is that there are a lot of other re-mastered albums out there... Do yourself a favor, though, and buy this one.
2. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Stadium Arcadium"
While Justin Timberlake was busy bringing sexy back, the Peppers just may have brought the double album back. Sure, it's risky to ask people to listen to a twenty-eight song collection, but when the songs are this good, there's a big reward -- the best album the Red Hots have ever released. The highlight is "Snow," a surprizingly musical piece that also happens to be Henry's favorite song. Trust me on this -- you haven't lived until you've heard a four-year-old singing along with Anthony Keidis, bobbing his head to Flea's bass line, clapping in rhythm with Chad Smith's drums, and laughing with pleasure at John Frusciante's soaring guitar solos.
1. Nike+ iPod
This is number one, and it isn't even close. Aside from TiVo, baseball, and pepperoni pizza, this is the coolest invention of all-time. Here's how it works. For $29.95 you get two chips, one that tucks neatly into the sole of your Nike+ running shoe and another that connects to your iPod Nano. (It only works with the Nano. If you don't have one, get one.) You choose your workout -- say, three miles -- decide what music you want to listen to, and start your run. As you run a voice updates you on your progress, giving you distance and pace information. When you finish you get an overview of your run (3.14 miles completed, total time: 27 minutes 16 seconds, average pace: 9'25"), and if it was one of your better runs (fastest or longest), you might even get a special message -- "Hello, this is Lance Armstrong. Congratulations, that was your longest run yet!" Granted, that sounds kind of cheesy, but when you're standing in the driveway after a run and you're thinking to yourself that you might've gone harder than you ever had before, it feels pretty cool to have Captain Lance confirm your suspicion. (By the way, I'm not sure, but I think that if your times start to slip, Lance might start whispering about EPO and HGH...) But the best thing about the Nike+ iPod system is that when you get back in the house and plug your iPod in to the computer, all of your run data is automatically sent to Nike so that you can track your progress. Quite simply, this is the best gadget purchase I've ever made.
In case you're joining us late, the idea was to make a list of the music that has changed my life. After much soul-searching, I arrived at a list of twenty albums. I posted the first ten last week, and now I unveil the final ten. Please remember that this is not a list of my favorite albums (though many would certainly make that list as well) but a chronological record of the records and how they influenced me. (Editor's Note: The albums listed at #11 and #12 should've come before #10 in the previous post. Deal.)
11. London Calling, The Clash
How do you begin to talk about an album like London Calling? Do we start with the Cold War anthem that is the title track? The relentless "Brand New Cadillac"? Or what about the picture of grown up rebellion offered in "Death or Glory"? I first came across this album ten years after it was released when Spin Magazine declared it the best record of the 1980's. My buddies and debated this into the ground, but the more I listened to this masterpiece, the less I could argue. I don't think there's a bad track on the entire record, but my favorite has always been "The Guns of Brixton." Lurking behind an incredibly smooth ska-influenced beat you find lyrics that make you wonder if maybe you should be a fighter instead of a lover:
When they kick out your front door, how ya gonna come?
With your hands on your head, or on the trigger of your gun?
When the law break in, how ya gonna go?
Shot down on the pavement, or waiting in death row?"
12. Led Zeppelin I, Led Zeppelin
My heart was broken for the first time when I was nineteen years old, and I turned to Led Zeppelin's first album for solace on a daily basis. We think of Zeppelin as rock and rollers first and foremost (Stairway to Heaven is probably the quintessential classic rock song of all time), but I'd argue this is a blues record. Not Muddy Waters/Robert Johnson/B.B. King blues, but blues nonetheless. With songs like "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You", "You Shook Me", "Dazed and Confused", "Communication Breakdown", and "I Can't Quit You", this album quickly became the soundtrack of a lost summer. For the first time in my life I had come across an album that spoke to me musically and lyrically, acknowledging my pain while assuring me that everything would be okay in the end. And, of course, it was.
13. Graceland, Paul Simon
When I was a senior in college, months away from earning an English degree, my life became just another novel waiting for interpretation. I snatched metaphors out of the clouds and talked about imagery as if it grew on trees. I couldn't have been more ready for an album like Paul Simon's Graceland, a collection of eleven stories beautifully told. But when I listen to this record now, almost fifteen years later, I think of friendship. I lived with seven other friends during that senior year, but there was one who often rubbed me the wrong way, whether it was his penchant for strumming his guitar deep into the night or his youthful tendency to offend people without realizing it. But he and I spent hours listening to this album together, and it changed our relationship forever. We wondered at the rhythmic voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and analyzed every lyric. I remember one lengthy discussion on a single couplet: She said, "Don't I know you from the cinematographer's party?" I said, "Who am I to blow against the wind?" In any analysis of any piece of literature, the conversation matters much more than the conclusion, and so it was with us. I count him as one of my closest friends, and I have Paul Simon to thank for it.
14. A Love Supreme, John Coltrane
It begins with a short, lilting phrase from Coltrane's tenor saxophone, giving the you the briefest clue that what follows will be extraordinary. This was John Coltrane's masterpiece, a work of pure spirituatlity expressed through music. Having left the addictions of heroin, alchohol, smoking, and sweets (yes, sweets) behind seven years earlier, Trane's newfound spirituality combined with his peaking musical skills to produce this landmark album. Though not as complex as some of his later work, this album asks a bit more of the listener than some of his previous (and simpler) works like "Giant Steps" and "My Favorite Things", and I found it a bit intimidating for the first few listens. Eventually, however, I embraced it, and it was the first jazz album that I truly loved.
15. Nevermind, Nirvana
Even now I'd have to say that "Smell Like Teen Spirit" is one of the coolest songs I've ever heard. Dripping with teen angst (I wasn't a teenager, but I had plenty of angst: degree, yes; job, no), the album has no weak spots as one guitar-driven track leads effortlessly into the next. When Kurt Cobain took his life in 1994, leaving dozens of songs unwritten, the music world lost a great talent.
16. Achtung Baby, U2
I wrote last week about my love of U2, and it was this album that cemented those feelings. After splitting a pizza with a friend on my 22nd birthday, we went directly to Tower Records and picked up this recently-released disc. I slipped it into my CD-player, and the opening chords of "Zoo Station" signalled a new U2. With frequently distorted guitar and vocals clealry influenced by the current industrial movement, the record contained several songs which sounded more abrasive than anything the band had previously recorded, but these were balanced by deeper tunes like "One" and the four tracks which close out the album. A great album, maybe their best.
17. Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black, Public Enemy
It's not Fear of a Black Planet, but this disc was my first exposure to the P.E., so it makes the list. Push play, and here's what you hear: "The future holds nothing else but confrontation," which kind of sums the whole thing up. Chuck D's deep baritone, raging with anger and indignation, paired with the comic soprano of Flava Flav, the guy with the biggest pocket watch in the world, makes Public Enemy one of the most entertaining acts in hard core rap. In addition to his usual diatribes on racism, Chuck tackles issues like alcoholism in the black community (1 Million Bottlebags), Arizona's initial refusal to honor MLK Day (By the Time I Get to Arizona), and corporate America's exploitation of the innercity (Shut 'Em Down). This is the strength of Public Enemy: they get you bobbin' your head and thinking at the same time.
18. Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Red Hot Chili Peppers
The strength of the Chili Peppers? They get you bobbin' your head and make it clear that you don't have to think about anything except the bass- and vocal-driven funk that they lay down on almost every track. At times they make a whole lot of sense, like on the opening track, "The Power of Equality": Blackest anger, whitest fear/Can you hear me? Am I clear?/My name is peace this is my hour/Can I get just a little bit of power? Most of the time, though, your guess is as good as mine, like the entire next track, "If You Have to Ask". At times it seems like lead singer Anthony Kiedis simply uses his voice as a fourth instrument in the band, rendering the lyrics irrelevant except as an avenue through which he can provide rhythmic accompaniment to the guitar, drums, and dominant bass. Whatever he's doing, it works.
19. Rubber Soul, The Beatles
The White Album and Sgt. Peppers get all the hype, but I'd argue that Rubber Soul is the best album the Beatles ever produced. With tracks like Drive My Car, Norwegian Wood, Nowhere Man, Michelle, and In My Life, this record plays like a greatest hits collection. My wife -- who is a huge Beatles fan and even used this record as inspiration for the name of her website -- introduced me to this album when we first started dating, and it quickly became the soundtrack of our falling in love. It just seemed like it was always on. I was never much of a Beatles fan before we met, but she's definitely shown me the light.
20. Kind of Blue, Miles Davis
My step-brother lived with us for a while when he was in the fifth grade and I was in the sixth, and it was a tumultuous year to say the least. It wasn't until about twenty years later that we realized that we shared a great common bond -- a love of music. A few years ago he happened to be out here in California on my birthday, and he bought me this album as a gift. How could he have known that a) I didn't already have it, and b) I was itching to buy it? Who knows... Anyway, this is possibly the greatest jazz album of all-time (Miles and Coltrane -- together), and if it's not already in your collection, it should be. Follow the link above and buy it now. (I dare you to listen to "Freddie Freeloader" without loving it.) You won't be disappointed.
And so that's it, twenty songs that changed my life. Do yourself a favor and take a listen to one or two of them. It might not change your life, but it will certainly change your day, I promise.
Recently I've been getting a lot of pleasure watching Alison and Henry as they develop a taste for music. As we were driving home this afternoon I switched on a Jack Johnson CD, then clicked back to the beginning of the song. During the momentary pause, Henry objected from the back seat: "Hey!" He calmed down as soon as the music started up again. I shouldn't have been surprized, though, because he's always been a Jack Johnson fan. He still asks all the time to hear "the la-la song," (actually, "Bubble Toes" from his first album).
As for Alison, it was just a few weeks ago that I wrote about her emerging interest in music, and when she won a personal radio during a post-Thanksgiving bingo game she spent the next thirty-six hours with it glued to her ears. In just a few years we'll have to buy her an iPod of her own.
And so all of this has gotten me to thinking down the road a bit. What kind of music might my children have in their collections thirty or forty years from now? Will Jack Johnson be there? What about Miles Davis and John Coltrane? The Beatles?
From there, of course, I came around to my own collection and a thought that's been itching my subconscious for almost a year now. A friend of mine sent an e-mail which included this line: "Here are some records I thought were life-changers when I bought 'em that I no longer listen to and probably haven't for years..." He then went on to list six albums, but what I couldn't stop thinking about was a bigger question: as much as I love music, are there any albums that have really and truly changed my life?
Well, it took me eleven months to figure it out, but here are twenty answers listed in the order in which they came into my life. (Well, actually it's ten now, ten later.)
1. Best of the Monkees
My first album. When I was about six years old I used to love watching re-runs of the old Monkees sit-com, and at the end of each episode there would always be the same commercial for a two-record collection of their hits. After finally saving up the coin to order it, I had to wait an inhumane six to eight weeks for it to arrive -- but the the payoff was sweet. For the first time in my life I was singing memorized lyrics in front of the mirror, belting out classics like Day Dream Believer, Valerie, Last Train to Clarksville, and, of course, "Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees!"
2. Paradise Theater, Styx
Ah, Styx. They were my first favorite band, and Paradise Theater was their magnum opus. This album was also a favorite for "air concerts," during which my friends, step-brother, and I would choose a favorite song and divvy up the parts for a living room performance. We weren't dorks, we were just a bunch of fifth- and sixth-graders. Okay, we were dorks.
3. Outlandos D'Amour, The Police
During the summer following my sophomore year of high school, four friends of mine came over every single day to spend the afternoon swimming in my pool. We always listened to music, but for some reason there were only two tapes we ever played, and one of them was this, the first album put out by Sting and the boys. As a result, every lyric was burned into my brain and the Police became my favorite band. Sting's influence slowly engulfed the group over their next four releases, leading to better albums, but this was probably the purest "Police" record they put out. Sure, everyone knows "Roxanne," but my favorite tracks are still "So Lonely," "Next to You," and "Can't Stand Losing You."
4. Bring on the Night, Sting
I love live albums, and this is by far my favorite. It was recorded in Paris during Sting's first solo tour, a time in which he was clearly enjoying his newly discovered freedom after having left the Police behind. He seemed to be making a conscious effort to blur the typical boundaries of musical genres as he enlisted the help of noted jazz musicians such as Kenny Kirkland, Branford Marsalis, and Omar Hakim to create a band that could not have been more different from the sparse three-man outfit he had played with for the previous decade. The result is a thirteen track collection of songs spanning his entire musical career, each reinterpreted by this new, more dynamic band. When I first listened to this album towards the end of my high school years, I was struck by the general fluidity of music. A song might seem complete when it is first recorded, but when another artist adds his or her own influence, it changes dramatically. (In the mind of a sixteen-year-old, this is powerful stuff.) This communal nature is, I believe, what lies at the very heart of jazz, perhaps the purest and most joyful music you can listen to. There is a sense that the music changes from one night to the next, depending on the mood of the performers, the atmosphere of the venue, or even the random hand of chance. Neither the audience nor the musicians knows exactly what might occur on a given night, but the journey is clearly more important than the destination.
5. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Genesis
Not quite as much to say about this one. They produced this ambitious double album when Peter Gabriel was still the driving creative force of the band and Phil Collins was just a drummer. Looking back at it now, it really isn't that much different than a lot of the grandiose material produced by other seventies rock bands -- achingly long instrumental sections wrapped around mysterious lyrics. I'm not sure how great this record is, but when I was a senior in high school it was my absolute favorite, so it makes the list. Incidentally, I never even upgraded to the CD version, but the album still sits in my parents' garage.
6. The Joshua Tree, U2
A good friend of mine recently described U2 as our generation's Rolling Stones, and I think that's about right. They've been making music for about a quarter of a century now, and it's difficult to believe that the Joshua Tree was released almost twenty years ago, but it's certainly held up to the test of time. The album opens with four solid hits that are still staples in the band's current live shows, but its strength lies in some of the lesser known tracks, most notably the story of a heroin addict told in a song so beautiful ("Running to Stand Still") that I can sing it to my daughter without reservation. When I heard this record it was the first time that I realized that a rock and roll band might have something relevant to say about the world around me, and I became a fan for life. Bono, the Edge, Larry, and Adam are my John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and U2 will always be my favorite band.
7. Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads
Another great live album. On the very first night of my freshman year of college someone slipped this disc into a CD player and the world started to change. After the opening track played, I took the liberty of skipping ahead to "Burning Down the House," then jumping to "Once in a Liftetime," and finally clicking back to "Girlfriend Is Better." Amidst a sea of dancing eighteen-year-olds, a guy I had met earlier that afternoon looked in my direction and said, "Yeah, he knows all the cool songs." (Ten years later -- almost to the day -- I'd make a toast as best man at his wedding; two years after that he would return the favor.) No discussion of this album would be complete without an in-depth discussion of "Once in a Lifetime." Three of us adopted this track as our theme song that year, and we made sure that it was played at every party we attended so that we could dazzle everyone in attendance with a not-so-elaborately choreographed performance which was loosely based on David Byrne's on-stage ticks and gyrations. As the three of us danced from one move to the next, first rhythmically chopping our forearms, then whacking our foreheads with our open palms ("Same as it ever was..."), the music literally carried us away. I don't think we ever stopped to think about the significance of the song title, but we probably couldn't have chosen a more approriate song to represent our college years. Even now, almost twenty years later, whenever I hear that song I am instantly eighteen again. Same as it ever was.
8. Document, R.E.M.
Before starting college I figured I would learn a lot, but it never occurred to me that what I'd be learning about would be music. In a dormitory filled with more than eighty people from all over the country, musical tastes collided each night in marathon listening sessions and debates. If you had asked everyone in our dorm that year who they thought was the "coolest" band out at the time, I have no doubt that R.E.M. would've won in a landslide. (Close second: The Replacements.) Michael Stipe and the boys were still years away from mainstream success, but they were already huge with the college crowd. "Document" was their current album, and we played it every single Friday night as friends piled into our room in preparation for the night's festivities. The centerpiece of this album, "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" seemed to have been written especially for us. The frenetic, nonsensical lyrics, placed in contrast with the soothing background chorus ("It's time I had some time alone") capture the contradictions of the eighteen-year-old psyche perfectly.
9. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me; The Cure
Up until this point, if an album didn't grab with the first spin, I usually gave up on it. Aside from obvious classics (like "Just Like Heaven," certainly one of the coolest singles of all time), there were some challenging spots on the record. But instead of putting it aside, I stuck with it and it remains one of my favorite albums.
10. Disintegration, The Cure
During my junior year of college, five friends and I enjoyed a terribly odd existence. Aside from going to classes and parties on the weekend, we had little contact with the rest of the world and often spent hours and hours listening to music. At some point the Cure's "Disintegration" would always find its way into the CD player, and all energy would drain from the room as the smooth textures of the music washed over us like molasses. And then there were the lyrics:
"If only I'd thought of the right words,
I could've held on to your heart.
If only I'd thought of the right words,
I wouldn't be breaking apart
All my pictures of you."
And did I mention that we listened to this album all the time? I still love this disc, but I'm beginning to wonder if maybe we played it a little too much. One of my friends never went to class, another skipped spring quarter and went home, and I almost dropped out. The amazing thing is that I never put all that together until five minutes ago.
So there you have it. You'll have to tune in tomorrow (or maybe next week) to find out the next ten, but I promise you won't be disappointed. While you're waiting, why not fill the time by coming up with a list of your own? I'd love to hear if any of these ten albums resonated with anyone else, or if you've got a completely different list. Do tell.
Click here for the second half of the list.
It happened today for the first time. The whole family was packed into the Oddy on the way to Alison's basketball practice, and I started punching the stereo pre-sets looking for something interesting to listen to. I skipped past lots of commercials before finally settling on our local adult contemporary station, Star 98.7 -- isn't there a Star in every town?
Anyway, as is usually the case, Star let me down quickly. It only took a while before an unacceptable song popped up (I now know that it was Kelly Clarkson singing "Since U Been Gone"), and I reflexively clicked over to another station. And then it happened.
From deep in the back seat I heard a tiny voice calling to me over the music. It was Alison.
"Daddy, can you put that song back on?"
I looked dubiously into the rearview mirror and asked, "Did you like that song?"
"Yes, Daddy. Can you put it back on?"
Though I thought about citing the internationally agreed upon tenet that states that the driver ALWAYS gets to choose the station, I gave in instantly. It was the first of what will likely be twenty years of disputes over what music to play in the car, and I found myself conflicted. On the one hand, my daughter was expressing her musical preference, which was obviously a good thing, but on the other hand she had chosen Kelly Clarkson, which was, well, Kelly Clarkson.
I've always made a conscious effort to expose our kids to what I feel to be good quality music. The Wiggles, for instance, have never been played in our car. Instead they've gotten massive doses of people like the Shins and Jack Johnson whenever we're driving, in addition to steady helpings from the local jazz station and Indie 103.1, the coolest station in town.
But apparently it's done no good. Alison and I were supposed to be two peas in an iPod, but somewhere my plans went awry. Our dear Alison seems ready to dance down the path of least resistance, the one with trail markers bearing names like "Barry Manilow" and "Debbie Gibson" and "Britney Spears." Is it too late for her?
Perhaps not. Maybe there's still time for her to be the coolest kid in her class, the one who admits she still likes Green Day but recently is a bit more into Death Cab for Cutie. The one who knows that Latin rock means Maná, not Ricky Martin.
The one who lets her dad choose the station in the car.
Not likely. But would it really be such a bad thing? Aren't parents supposed to shake their heads ruefully at the music they here coming from behind their children's bedroom doors? And aren't children supposed to be embarrassed by the oldies playing on their parents' car radios? Maybe it'll be no different for us.
I guess I just didn't think it would be happening at age five.