Monday, November 4, 2013
Two weeks ago, Justin and I picked our Top 10 album opening songs. Quite understandably, we followed by turning our sights to our favorite album closers.
As Justin pointed out in his list of favorite album closing songs, closers tend to be longer, more experimental, and also sadder—oftentimes downright devastating in their depressing prowess, which is why I got a real kick out of drawing up this list. When it comes to art, I’ve always been drawn to depressing, fucked-up material, so, of course, my list is teeming with wrist-slashers and epic songs. (You’ve been warned.)
For me, a great album-closing song is one that is so powerful, so definitive in punctuation that you couldn’t imagine any song following it; that’s my ultimate litmus.
• “A Day in the Life” from The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (What a perfect closing song to such a classic album. I kept this one off my list only because Justin had it on his.)
• “Glory Box” from Portishead’s debut album
• “Third Eye” from Tool’s Aenima
• “Now You’re Gonna Pay” from The Zodiac Killers’ Have a Blast (A fucking great album from a San Francisco punk rock band no one’s heard of. If you’re a Clash or Sex Pistols or Dead Kennedys fan, please don’t beat me up for not picking a closing song from one of their albums!)
• “Empire of Light” from Tin Hat Trio’s Book of Silk (Book of Silk was written after frontman Mark Orton’s wife died at a young age. One of the more depressing, melancholy albums I’ve ever heard and this song is just absolutely heartbreaking and beautiful.)
10) The Ostrich from Steppenwolf’s debut album
I suspect most people haven’t heard this song, (am I trying to be hipster-like with this pick?) but it’s a devastating song that is still prescient. Before I paste the lyrics to illustrate, it’s more than worthwhile to mention that this song was written in 1968.
Here’s John Kay’s lyrics for the song's second verse:
The water's getting hard to drink
We've mangled up the countryside
The air will choke you when you breathe
We're all committing suicide
But it's alright
It's progress, folks, keep pushin' till your body rots
We’ll strip the earth of all its green
And then divide her into parking lots
Nearly fifty years later, most of humanity is still sticking their heads into the sand, pretending that all is grand, and hoping that everything will turn out okay. As a species, we’re all still committing mass suicide.
9) When the Music’s Over from The Doors Strange Days
I’ve written about The Doors before on this blog, but those boys sure knew how to close out an album! Their debut album came to a close with “The End”—which could easily have made this list (it made Justin’s); Waiting for the Sun ended with “Five to One,” and “Riders on the Storm” closed L.A. Woman. Lately, “When the Music’s Over” has been my favorite of those closers. Clocking in at 10:57 in duration, it’s a certifiable epic. And like my favorite closing songs, it easily passes that litmus of there’s-no-way-another-song-could-possibly-follow-it. After Jimbo roars, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, and John Densmore go apeshit-wild from 2:54-3:42 before settling into a calm which meanders and crests again after the 8-minute mark.
I’m no rock historian, but I doubt any other band in rock ‘n’ roll was cranking out songs like “The End” or “When the Music’s Over” back then. With their eclectic musical influences meshing into one cohesive unit, there really hasn’t been a band like The Doors since.
8) Threads from Portishead’s Third
Like The Doors, Portishead has a knack for writing superb closing songs. “Glory Box” from their debut album is an immaculately gorgeous and heavy song; like that song, Beth Gibbons’ lyrics for “Threads” are so succinct and clear (I'm worn/tired of my mind/I'm worn out/thinking of why I'm always so unsure) that it gives her emoting—the anguish, the anger—that much more punch in front of the eerie sonic backdrop. This song can hit like a mallet.
7) A Light in the Black from Rainbow’s Rainbow Rising
A few weeks ago, Dio’s Facebook page asked fans who was their favorite guitarist who paired with Ronnie James Dio. Though he sung alongside some outstanding guitarists, for me it’s a no-brainer: Ritchie Blackmore, because of songs like “A Light in the Black.”
At 8:12 in length, this song is yet another epic on my list. I would have had this as second on my list if it were “Stargazer,” the song that precedes “A Light in the Black” on Rainbow Rising, which I think is a bit mightier. As far as musical and emotional power, I think either song could have been a potent closer for the classic album, but since this is the one that bring downs the curtain, this is my pick.
6) Raining Blood from Slayer’s Reign in Blood
If “Threads” can pack the punch of a mallet, Slayer’s “Raining Blood” is like a merciless shelling of speed and power. How fucking bad is this song? A few months ago, I read Joel McIver’s The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists and Vader’s lead guitarist, Piotr Wiwczarek, came in at #68. According to McIver, his defining moment as a bad-ass shredder is Vader’s impeccable cover of “Raining Blood.” That’s how bad that song—played at an average of 210 beats per minute—is. Any thrash metal band that can pull it off is a force of nature. And I can’t imagine any other song on Reign in Blood closing out that classic album.
5) Street Spirit from Radiohead’s The Bends
I rarely ever listen to this album, and this song, along with “Fake Plastic Trees,” is one I have to be in a rare, rare mood to listen to. I don’t think I could listen to this song with another person in the same room without tearing up; I would feel way too naked.
“Street Spirit” is one of the most beautiful songs I’ll ever listen to. How could words even begin to try to describe this song? As I listen to it now, all I keep thinking is how direct and pure of emotion it is. Few songs have so plainly captured and conveyed the pain and hope of being alive.
Mi hermanita, Carmen, was the one who introduced me to Radiohead, years ago. (She also got me into The Beatles, bless her.) Back in our late high school years, she used to play The Bends over and over in her bedroom. Once I gave this tune a good, heartfelt listen, I became convinced that Thom Yorke must be a fallen angel. I’m still convinced he might be.
4) Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland
It could be argued that there was Rock ‘N’ Roll B.J. (Before Jimi), and Rock ‘N’ Roll After Jimi. Only a few songs need to be played as examples and evidence to support this argument: “All Along the Watchtower,” “Purple Haze,” “House Burning Down,” and “Voodoo Chile” come to mind for me, but, like Justin wrote in his list, this is arguably Hendrix’s “most impressive instrumental accomplishment.”
Let’s put it this way: if an alien crash-landed to earth and asked, “What was the deal with this Jimi Hendrix dude?” this is perhaps the one single song that you would need to play to best answer that question. Jimi’s wah-wah guitar playing doesn’t feel like it was of the earth; it doesn’t even feel like it was of the sun (if that makes any sense). His playing on “Voodoo Chile” feels like it was distilled and born screaming from the wildest hallucinogenic drugs that populate this planet.
On a related note, Bill Hicks hypothesized that God left marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms on our planet to accelerate our evolution. Jimi was tapped into those goodies, and subsequently evolved our music possibilities.
(If this isn’t an advertisement for doing hallucinogenic drugs, I don’t know what is.)
3) In the Backseat from Arcade Fire’s Funeral
We’re getting thick with wrist-slashers now. Can you sense it?
Like The Bends, Funeral is an album whose songs hardly ever make my rotation nowadays. (“Haiti” has been my favorite tune from the album the past few years because it’s so darn twinkly and pretty. How could anything bad ever happen while listening to that song!?) “In the Backseat” is a song that still rattles me pretty much every time I listen to it. It’s just so fucking gorgeous: the strings, the simple melody, but most especially Régine Chassagne’s voice. And the build-up of strings and drums to the electric guitars at the 2:37 mark: fuck. Even though I’ve heard the song enough times to know what’s coming, that part stills get me charged. And Chassagne’s wailing before the song’s outro still shakes me up with its raw emotion and power.
2) Paper Boats from Nada Surf’s Let Go
“Paper Boats” is a piercingly beautiful song. Another tune I can’t listen to in front of another person without feeling shook up and completely naked. The chorus: All I am is a body floating downwind—dear god, just fucking perfect; the singular essence of every human being’s trajectory summed up in eight words—and so gorgeously with the simple, lilting musical backdrop. What a way to close out this amazing album.
1) The Call of Ktulu from Metallica’s Ride the Lightning
So if you’ve read my blog before, you’ve probably already figured out how much I love Metallica. I think “The Call of Ktulu” is always going to be one of my favorites. Its eight minutes and fifty-four seconds of sheer instrumental ecstasy for me.
The late and classically trained Cliff Burton (along with Rachel Maddow, the best thing to ever come out of Castro Valley!) and Dave Mustaine left their undeniable marks on this track, which is truly like classical meets metal. For me, songs like “The Call of Ktulu” is what ultimately separates Metallica from other metal giants like Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax; Metallica had a broader musical and emotive range than the other members of thrash metal’s Big Four.
Fifteen years after it closed out Ride the Lightning, “The Call of Ktulu” got the classical treatment through Metallica’s collaboration with The San Francisco Symphony for their 1999 S&M album. Though the album—in my humble opinion—is hit or miss, mostly due to Hetfield’s vocals, their classical treatment of this song is simply astounding. If I was on my death bed and had ten minutes to listen to music blasted through speakers (I’m thinking of that final scene in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), either version of “The Call of Ktulu” would be a dandy way to blast off Planet Earth.
Sunday, November 3, 2013
You are what you eat
You are what you read
You are what you watch
And you are what you listen to.
You are the company you keep
You are whom you revere;
You are what you love
You are what you stand for—
And you are the love you give yourself.
You are what you read
You are what you watch
And you are what you listen to.
You are the company you keep
You are whom you revere;
You are what you love
You are what you stand for—
And you are the love you give yourself.
Labels: concept of no-self
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
My boy, J-Oro and I, are at it again, coercing one another into drawing up yet another top 10 list. This time, we gave ourselves another difficult task: picking a mighty list of our favorite album openers. Check out his list here.
With over a century of recorded music to feasibly choose from, there is, inevitably, a galaxy of astounding songs I have never heard of—and never will—let alone songs that didn’t make my list. For this post, I found it helpful to think of it as a glimpse, a documentation of where I am at this point in my life—like those height chart markings cool parents make of their ever-growing kiddos.
In drawing up this list, I found myself biased toward opening ditties for great albums versus ones that are mixed bags, or otherwise lackluster. A great example of an outstanding opening song on a so-so album is Dokken’s “Unchain the Night” from Under Lock and Key. Great fucking song: George Lynch at the peak of his shredding might, strong vocals from Don Dokken, and a mindblowing solo. But the rest of the album, in my most humble opinion?: a shoulder-shrug egh. “Rusty Cage” from Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger is another example (please don’t kill me, Soundgarden fans!)
I also found myself leaning toward openers that I could not imagine the album without. Some examples that didn’t make my list: The Doors “Strange Days,” “Planet Claire” from The B-52s debut album, or “A.I.R.” from Anthrax’s Spreading the Disease. In building my portfolio of top 10 opening songs (I am starting to sound like my work self), the ones that really rose to the top were songs that helped to define their album—songs that were an essential component of their sonic alchemy. For me, a great opener is like a perfect interlude (think “Sunday Morning” by The Velvet Underground, or, to a lesser extent, “Airbag” from Radiohead’s classic OK Computer), the Rickey Henderson of a potent line-up.
All fluff and bluster, aside, let’s get to my Fall 2014 picks (in no particular order)!
1) London Calling from The Clash's London Calling
The title track for The Clash’s classic album. “London Calling " does everything an opening song should do: it sets the underlying emotional tone for the rest of the album; it gets shit going. The song is infused with a foreboding seriousness that other more playful songs like “Clampdown” or their cover of “Brand New Cadillac” lack. “London Calling” is a dystopian anthem. Along with “Lost in the Supermarket,” I think it is the heart of the sprawling, eclectic album. And over thirty years later, the opening song still seems prescient, capturing an ominous tone that our civilization, including metropolises like London, cannot shake. Beatlemania is long, long dead. All that’s left is to howl at our inevitable doom like Joe Strummer does in this gem.
2) Holy Wars…The Punishment Due from Megadeth’s Rust in Peace
It seems fair to begin the write-up for this scorcher by thanking crank and alcohol and god knows what other drugs Dave Mustaine was consuming during the recording of this thrash metal classic.
This 6:33 humdinger of an epic starts off motoring with the classic Megadeth line-up of Mustaine, Friedman, Ellefson, and Menza at play. Like the following song, “Hangar 18,” Mustaine’s lyrics isn’t exactly the meat the listener comes for (though the opening verse: “Brother will kill brother / Spilling blood across the land / Killing for religion /Something I don't understand” encapsulates the song). Instead, of course, listeners like myself get drawn in by the virtuosity of Mustaine’s playing. Backed by Friedman, Ellefson, and Menza, he grabs our throats and compels us to listen with his unorthodox songwriting, the emotional despair and bite in his snarl, grunts, and wails, and his guitar playing. “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” almost always makes any list of top Megadeth songs (it’s usually #1) and one of the big reasons is his solo in this song. 4:56 – 5:40 is just—jesus fucking christ—jawdropping.
And from there, the final minute of the song just barely holds on. Like every astounding Megadeth song, “Holy Wars,” somehow or another, teeters on the edge of completely derailing from its manic, frenetic pace.
3) Fight Fire With Fire from Metallica’s Ride the Lightning
God I love this song for so many reasons: the lilting acoustic introduction, like a sunshiny day with not one cloud in the sky before 184 beats per minute of brute and doom destroys it. The intro is like Bambi Meets Godzilla, Metallica-style:
I dig “Fight Fire With Fire” because it is clear, from that song alone, that Metallica musically took leaps and bounds from 1983’s Kill ‘Em All to the classic Ride the Lightning a year later under Flemming Rasmussen’s producing. It is unimaginable to think of “Fight Fire With Fire” being a part of Kill ‘Em All, which is more raw and juvenile.
“Fight Fire With Fire” is a brutal, resoundingly mighty and grotesquely beautiful song which perfectly captures Metallica’s relentless power and precision; it’s a 4 minute and 45 second blitzkrieg of pounding double-bass notes, serious shredding, and grunting and shrilling. It’s Black Sabbath on high octane. I suspect it will always be a song that few can surpass in its savage, tightly-honed power.
4) Nutshell from Alice in Chains' MTV Unplugged album
“We Die Young” from their debut album, Facelift, could have made my list, but this song can really get to me.
Back when I was a squirt in high school, my favorite Seattle bands were in this order: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. In Life After Lymphoma, it’s now Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden (please don’t kill me, Soundgarden fans!), and Pearl Jam (please don’t kill me, Pearl Jammers!). Musically, I think, without question, Soundgarden was the superior band of the four but I think Alice in Chains was extraordinary because of Layne Staley (Jerry Cantrell’s no slouch either). From the get-go, when they were in their early twenties, Alice in Chains’ music revolved around death and self-destruction. Write it off to a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I find Staley to have been an extraordinary vocalist both for the power his voice wielded in its vulnerability and the darkness their songs delved in. There will never be another singer who will sound like him.
Few songs more nakedly show this heart and vulnerability than their acoustic version of “Nutshell.” I listen to Staley sing the opening verse and chorus and I can’t help but sense that he already knew he was done for, that his time was quickly extinguishing and yet, there he sat, boldly singing in a front of a crowd in an intimate setting without cracking. I’m still unsure how a human can do that—how they can sing their pain so plainly and not cry or crumble. But Layne did it here, and on several other songs on this album, notably “Down In a Hole” and “Would?.” (I still get the chills when I watch their recorded performance and he stares back at the camera.)
After listening to “Nutshell,” that live audience must have known they were going to be in for an enthralling, emotional purging. It was an extraordinary performance.
5) The Golden Age from Beck’s Sea Change
Though I rarely ever listen to Sea Change, I couldn’t think of a more perfect song to open the album, a melancholic, acoustic-heavy one that chronicled Beck’s breakup with his then-fiancée, whom he had been with for nine years. After Beck sings the opening line, who isn’t ready to slash their wrists? “The Golden Age” captures that numb, debilitating fog of sadness that envelops us when our hearts are broken—and in a lilting, almost lullaby fashion.
6) De Cara a La Pared from Lhasa de Sela’s La Llorona
Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime singers, Lhasa de Sela is a voice we will never hear from again.
Like “Fight Fire With Fire,” “De Cara a La Pared” is one of those songs you can’t fucking believe exists when you listen to it the first time. It is a haunting, haunting song. Lhasa sounds more like a ghostly, not-of-this-world llorona than a human being in this song with the sheer beauty, grace, and emotional depth of her voice. I rarely listen to songs from her La Llorona or The Living Road albums, but when I do, sometimes I do wonder if she was not of this world. Maybe the breast cancer that took her at age 37 was some sick, humanly way of checking out of Planet Earth after she’d graced our species with her recordings, presence, and performances? When I listen to songs like “De Cara a La Pared,” “El Desierto,” y “Con Todo Palabra” I still question how a human could have such a beautiful, haunting voice.
7) Everything In Its Right Place from Radiohead’s Kid A
I still remember the evening I first listened to this song. I bought the Kid A CD (remember those?) at the Virgin Megastore (remember those?) that used to be on Market Street in downtown San Francisco. After I bought the CD, I popped it into my discman (remember those?), then walked down Market to the Embarcadero Center to watch Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. I remember being swallowed by the opening electric piano notes, the digitized scratching of Yorke’s vocals, thinking holy shit, this is not OK Computer, then hearing him sing “Everythiiiiiing” four times and being floored by his third incantation of that single word. It was just one word, one goddamn word, but with that hypnotic, drowning background that felt like the sonic replica of Stanley Donwood’s cover artwork, my heart dropped. I probably blinked hard as I slithered past all the people walking along the sidewalk, thinking I can’t believe what I’m hearing just as I looked up to the dark, overcast sky above the downtown skyline and thought, my god, this is it, our future, caught and recorded for us all to hear.
And the rest of Kid A—which Thom Yorke explained was partly about "the generation that will inherit the earth when we've wiped everything out"—never relents. Like any great, great album, Kid A is a timeless artifact of our time on this planet. (And that night in the city was a brutally bleak one that I might never forget.)
8) Little Child Runnin’ Wild from Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack
In its own way, this song can slay me, too. Curtis Mayfield’s voice just kills me; his voice was exquisitely beautiful in its falsetto range, clarity, emotional control but most especially in its vulnerability and sense of honesty. (Back when I was in my early twenties, singing Motown and disco songs to myself in my car as I drove around suburbia, I used to wish I could sing like James Brown or Jimmy Ellis from The Trammps. But now, no question, I wish I could sing like my boy, Curtis, if I could come back as a full-fledged soul brother.) Mayfield’s lyrics, singing, and his funky-soulful backing tapestry is an immaculate intro to this classic album that seemed to capture and define the rhythm, sadness, despair, frustrations, and beauty of the inner city landscape in the 1970s.
And the last minute of the song starting at the 4:30 mark: wow. It’s overpowering with the beautiful interweaving of the saxophone solo with the outro strings. Textbook example of how an opening song sets the emotional tone for the rest of the album.
9) Welcome to the Jungle from Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction
What an iconic song, man: the opening guitar notes, Axl Rose’s seemingly neverending howl, and then the nasty-crunchy opening riff. With “Welcome to the Jungle” as the opening act, Guns N’ Roses sets the tone for the debauched glamour that few, if any other albums, more perfectly captured than Appetite for Destruction. After this album—which could simply not be the same without its opening song—Guns N’ Roses was, without a doubt, atop the rock ‘n’ roll world in 1986. Rose’s snarl, his don’t-give-a-fuckness, along with Slash’s sheer bad-assery, was the face of mainstream rock.
And who can forget the song’s breakdown starting at the 3:21 mark?: the driving bassline, the percussion, the crescendo of distorted guitar notes ala the song’s beginning building up to Axl Rose’s singing the classic, classic “Ya know where ya are? You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna diiiiiiiiiiiiiieaaaaah!” (According to legend, a crazed stranger said this to Axl Rose on a schoolyard in Queens years before Guns N’ Roses existed.)
Ever since I discovered this album in its entirety back when I was 28, I have quietly advocated that “Welcome to the Jungle” be played at pediatric wards across the United States for every newborn infant to hear. Few songs could be more bitingly forthright about what awaits.
10) Mouth for War from Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power
Que puedo decir, I love me some metal. It was oh-so-tempting to put “Brown Sugar” or “War Pigs” or “Purple Haze” here (great pick, Goldman!), but this song does a better job of capturing what my spirit is drawn toward lately. This song’s so bad I don’t even give a fuck if Phil Anselmo is a racist bigot motherfucker from Texas; this album pretty much rules. “Mouth for War” is delicious slaughter. Vulgar Display of Power captured Dimebag Darrell (RIP, brotha) at his absolute peak, synthesizing his distinctive groove metal leanings with some absolutely decimating thrash riffs. For that, you need look no further than the 3:06 mark of this opening song, which can be summed up with two words: HOLY FUCK.
No scientific study has been conducted to prove this, but I shit you not, every single time that part of the song blares through my iPod headphones, my pedaling pace or Elliptical speed at the gym significantly spikes. In my head, I always want to roar with my entire being but since I’m signed up to the Social Contract, I keep it inside (though I often thrash my head to get some of my energy out).
-“Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones
-“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Charles Mingus (a bedazzling kaleidoscope of sound)
-“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath
-“Bonded by Blood” by Exodus
-"Mysterions" by Portishead
-“Achilles Last Stand” by Led Zeppelin
-“The Call of Ktulu” by Metallica from their S & M album