Monday, August 25, 2008

100 Albums, 100 Words (30-21)

30. Prince – Purple Rain (1984)

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to praise an album that contains life; electric word, life; it means dancealicious grooves and a few scintillating ballads, and maybe some explicit lyrics. Prince exploded with this album, fusing his admiration for Carlos Santana guitar licks to his love of old-school funk beats. He took musical chances, from the bassless “When Doves Cry” to the hyper-technofied “Computer Blue,” and they just about all work. Despite being infamous for spawning parental advisory labels, “Darling Nikki” is gorgeous, almost as much so as “The Beautiful Ones,” one of the greatest singles that never was.

29. James Brown – Live At the Apollo (1963)

It is all here – everything that made James Brown the greatest. Even from this relatively early point, the groundwork has been laid for Brown’s mind-melting funk in this sweaty r & b workout. Start and stop rhythms punctuate James’ blistering exultations of joy and sorrow in the guttural space beyond words. Perhaps the strongest instrument on here is the crowd, and James knows how to play it like a master, calling and responding until he has to scream. If only we could watch him dance, then this album might be able to save the lives of everyone whose lost someone.

28. Afroman – The Good Times (2001)

Bob Marley he isn’t, but Afroman uses more reggae than just about any other rapper out there, and with skill. Afroman’s underrated raps also incorporate rock and gospel. Lyrically he’s an imaginative MC who is not afraid to push a few buttons. In “Crazy Rap,” Afroman raps about getting head from Colonel Sander’s wife. In “The American Dream” Afroman includes homosexuals and teenage mothers in his vision of a unified America broken free from the bounds of corporate slavery. “Because I Got High” cracks on Hitler. Varied as his subjects seem, they all refer to unity in a diverse world.

27. The Clash – London Calling (1979)

All those annoying little ska boys are a small price to pay for this landmark of jazz-punk fusion. Finally garnering The Clash the attention they deserved in America, London Calling blended horns and guitars more naturally than anything by the E-Street Band by making horns rhythm rather than lead instruments. The record showed the band’s deep roots, shown by “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”’s transformation of “Stagger Lee,” something most other punk lacked, allowing it to carve out new musical terrains. From “London Calling” to “Lost In the Supermarket” to “Train In Vain,” it made the world want to rock the revolution.

26. Jill Sobule – Underdog Victorious (2004)

A breakup in three acts with an epilogue. Act One: Jill is tired of being the poor person in her relationship and its really dragging things down. It’s not looking good for the couple. Act Two: Jill retreats from the relationship by engaging in activism, singing a series of political songs dealing with issues ranging from drug abuse to schoolyard teasing to child prostitution in Israel to the intolerance of fundamentalist religious brainwashing. Act Three: The Post-Breakup Blues. The album ends with a hint of future bliss as she falls in love with the female cop who pulls her over.

25. Prince – Dirty Mind (1980)

“Naked funk” is what Prince labeled the bare-bones, demoesque style he unleashed on Dirty Mind, and naked certainly seems to be his modus operandi here. “Sister” is a song about you-know-what with you-know-who. “Head” is about something that goes on below the shoulders, or below the belt. Many of the lurid encounters leave the narrator confused and alone, however, and the album ends on a serious note with the intoxicating dance groove of “Partyup,” a song that suggests late-night dancing as a way of escaping the paranoia created by Reagan’s Cold War policies. This is the first great Prince album.

24. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1973)

Falling in the center of a fabulous quintilogy, Innervisions is a massively powerful album, seamlessly blending political and spiritual concerns into a harmonic tapestry of funk, soul, gospel and jazz. “Living In the City” is one of the most powerful singles ever, and the thematic template for Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” “Don’t You Worry About A Thing” and “He’s A Misstra Know It All” are similarly powerful attacks on being self-centered. Between the white-hot funk of “Higher Ground” and “Jesus Children of America,” Stevie slips in some beautiful ballads, like “Visions” and “Golden Lady,” making this a very balanced album.

23. The Doors – The Doors (1967)

In April of 1993, this album changed my life. In the short-term, it inspired me to start collecting records, learn to play piano, write crappy psuedo-poetry, and listen to The Doors endlessly. In the long-term, it not only made me see pop cultu re as something serious, but as something worthy of serious study. It led me to discovering music beyond the Doors and real poetry that bore little resemblance to Jim Morrison's drug-addled ramblings. I'd never heard organ before, and the sound was a revelation. It played over and over at my thirteenth birthday pa rty. Adolescence still chills me.

22. Nuggets – Original Artyfacts From the Original Psychedelic Era (1972, 1998)

Few box sets can brag of being hitless, but this one can, and does. Originally twenty-seven tracks of exquisite acid rock madness, Rhino expanded the original two-record set to four cds, featuring three times the tracks that appeared on the original. The result is no less glorious for the distillation. Many songs sounds like dead on imitations of different artists – Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane – but the reverse seems just as likely after a few spins. From Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” to The Standell’s “Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” this set is a treasure trove of underappreciated gems.

21. Elvis Costello – This Year’s Model (1978)

A promotional poster for this album claimed it was “made in 1953 for 1983.” This album is thirty years ahead of its time, which means we’ve almost caught up with it. Rockabilly-fueled punk, this album paves the way for 80s New Wave. The Attractions are in top form here, playing every instrument like it is the lead. The bass in particular stands out, especially on tracks such as “The Beat” and “Living In Paradise.” The stop-start feel of many songs pushes the adrenaline. For being considered a forerunner of the punk movement, this sounds big enough to be arena rock.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Scurvy Love

Rihanna's ubiquitous hit "Disturbia" can be pretty annoying, but when I first heard it on the radio, I heard it as "Scurvy Love," an infinitely more interesting title.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In Memory of Isaac Hayes -- Shaft's 3 Best Qualities

Isaac Hayes will be remembered for many things -- voicing Chef on South Park, playing an aging gangster who comes out of retirement to teach the youth a less in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, and for becoming a Scientologist and alienating everyone around him. What he will most likely be remembered for, though, is the music that defined John Shaft, street-smart detective and one bad motha..... watch your mouth! In honor of that great contribution, I would like to memorialize Hayes with a list of Shaft's three best qualities, as embodied by moments in his films (as portrayed by Richard Roundtree).

One thing that made Shaft unique among action heroes was that he not only fought bad guys, but you got the idea he also psychologically fought oppression. Between scenes of blown up bus and failed hi-jacking attempts, the Shaft trilogy (Shaft, Shaft's Big Score, and Shaft In Africa) inserted little nuggets of moral characterization where we'd see what Shaft stood up for. After all, if you stand up for nothing, you'll fall for anything and more than any other action movie hero I can think of, we know what John Shaft stood for. Here are his three greatest values:

3. Animal Rights

Shaft would have been PETA's most hardcore activist if he were a real person and around today. In Shaft In Africa Shaft befriends a stray dog. Later, Shaft is in a tough spot. When he gets hit, he just turns the other cheek, but when they kick his dog, Shaft pulls out a longbow and kills the bad guy, chiding him for hitting the dog right before delivering the final death blow.

2. Gay Rights

In Shaft, Shaft walks into an expresso bar and sips his treat out of a shot-glass sized coffee cup, preparing us to see him as the gentle giant. When the garcon comes by the audience notices at once that he is effiminate, which has long been the way Hollywood has stereotyped gay men. What makes this notable, however, is they way Shaft treats him back. He isn't taken aback at all, but jokes around with him and treats him with the utmost respect. The waiter tips him off to some bad guys, and Shaft just stays cool. The key moment though is right before Shaft leaves. The waiter offers to hook Shaft up with one of his friends, another guy. Most masculinized movie heroes would get squeamish at best, but Shaft just grins as though he takes it as a compliment before thanking the guy for the offer and then respectfully declining. You don't see this often enough in films now, and I can only imagine it was all the more rare in 1971.

1. Feminism

Shaft had more ladies than James Bond, but he always treated them with respect and acknowledged their power in the relationship. He comes out as a straight-up feminist though in Shaft In Africa when he is trying to seduce the king's daughter. As they lay in bed kissing and talking, she reveals to Shaft that her country's laws will soon force her to have a clitoredectomy as a rite of passage. When she says this, the mixture of disgust, outrage and compassion which comes over Richard Roundtree's face is all you need to know where he stands. When he suggests that as the king's daughter she try to use her influence to stop this horrible ritual and offers to do what he can to help, it only solidifies his position even more. Solid.