HOW WE DISCOVER MUSIC, PT. 1: PINK FLOYD

In a previous life, I wrote and published a nifty little Zagat-like music guide book called The Pockit Rockit Music Finder. I based it on the “If you like X, then check out Y” concept (or “RIYL” [“Recommended If You Like”] as they now say on Reddit). To the best of my knowledge, no one had yet written a music guide with that structure. It went through two editions, then Wikipedia and Pandora launched and soon my main distributor, Tower Records, went under. So, all good things come to an end.

But I still think there was a kernel of a good idea there: how do you discover music in an era of massively overflowing content? Spotify has something like 50 million tracks now (and seemingly twice as many playlists). More tracks are produced and released each year than ever before. It’s overwhelming and most people just have to hope that they get a lucky recommendation from a friend or happen to be listening to a decent Sirius station at just the right time.

So, I thought it might be helpful to revisit some of the recommendation lists I compiled back in the day, explaining what I think is the core essence of the artist in question and why I picked the recommended artists I did. Mostly, I’ll stick with what I wrote originally. But where a notable newcomer or two emerged over the past decade, I will not hesitate to elevate them to their own pedestal. This was the first one I wrote. Let’s check it out…

What I'd like to start doing with this blog is to examine how we turn-on to music. How do we go from where we are with music to points unknown? Is using what we already know our primary guide to exploring the unknown or do we use other means? What issues impact musical taste? How much of taste is musically based versus socially based? How big of an impact do things such as personal associations play into what we like? What about the impact of repetition and familiarity? What about the effects of subculture and style? I think we know that all of these things all have an impact. I just don't know how much. Can we ever just experience music "as music"? Do we even want to? Are all of those externalities, such as subculture, style, memories, associations, etc an essential element that enhances the experience? Or, are those externalities a way in which we reduce music to mere fashion accessories? I have my thoughts, but I really don't know.

I evaluate and categorize music for a living. It is of deep concern to me and a source of never-ending fascination to try to figure out connections between artists. For example, what would somebody who likes Jane's Addiction also like? It can be a difficult task, especially with this kind of band that has such an idiosyncratic style (The Doors are another band that is difficult to match really well). There are numerous cues that a Jane's fan could attach to: is it Perry's voice that most signifies Jane's sound? Or is it Stephen Perkins' drumming? Is it the hardness of the music or the quasi-psychedelia of it? Or is it something totally different: the decadent ambi-sexual vibes, Perry's corsets, the fact that you were a sophomore in high school and your first tape was the beat up copy of Nothing's Shocking that your older brother's hot girlfriend gave you. Or did a friend drag you to a show and it was your Birkenstock that landed on stage and was picked up by Perry. Trying to factor all of that into a single system is massively (impossibly?) complex. But I do think the underlying music, in and of itself, whether formally (the notes and structures), sonically (production), or perhaps even spiritually (essence) can be realistically explored and compared. So that's what I try to focus on.

Specifically, I'm trying to figure out how people connect from what they currently know and love to what they have yet to discover and yet to start getting into. It's the most tried-and-true, classic means of reference I know. By tracing that path, I'm trying to see if it's possible to get at "the essence" of a given artist's music and to see if it's possible to experiencing "pure music"-- music, as itself. Personal associations are burned deeply into everyone and are pretty much impossible to remove from the evaluation process. But removing the packaging, promotion, social pressures, political agendas, social theories, and other extra-musical distractions could go a long way towards building our ability to evaluate music in a rational, passionate, and musical way.

Most of this questioning is going to be fairly welcoming and open-ended: I'm simply going to pick an artist of the day and try to figure out what that artist's essence is: what forms the core of what makes that artist what it is. Then, I'm going to look at a bunch of other artists to try to figure out who, in essence, is most like the given artist. This is basically what I've been trying to do in the Pockit Rockit book and website, but now pulling back the curtains to its process, while also inviting critique and oversight.

I want to kick things off with Pink Floyd, a colossus of Classic Rock to most, a symbolic object of revulsion to some, and highly personal to me as they were my first concert (Brendan Byrne Arena, 1987, Momentary Lapse of Reason tour). Better yet, for all their renown, they are a tricky band to match and to provide discovery recommendations for, as we'll see in a minute. But they ultimately do a great job of showing how this process works, for better or worse. Hopefully, we'll be able to improve the process as we open it up.

The first step is to figure out what Floyd's essence is--what is Floyd at its core? This is more complicated than it could be due to the fact that the band changed its approach significantly between the time of its early singles and first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), and the dawn of its mature period, beginning around the time of Meddle (1971). There are plenty of people (of which I'm not one) who contend that Piper was the most significant album Floyd recorded and their definitive statement. For now, let's assume it is. Where does that leave us? Piper is, in its essence, the cataclysmic rupture between childhood innocence and the menacing vortex of the existential Void, or perhaps, more simply, the musical result of far too much hallucinogenic substances. Embodying this fractured essence is the tandem of Syd Barrett's whimsically psychedelic pop-songs, such as "Bike," "See Emily Play," "Arnold Layne," etc and his heavily distorted, ominous and menacing guitar freakouts, such as "Interstellar Overdrive," "Astronomy Domine." This Floyd is a schizoid soul.

And that's a tough trick to pull, because that schizoid-ness is what made early Floyd special. Honestly, much of that psychedelic pop/rock sound was done by a billion different (mostly English) bands that weren't particularly notable. Some relative stand-outs include Tomorrow and July, but good as they were, they didn't match Floyd at either extreme of deliberately arrested development, on the one hand, or nuclear mental meltdown, on the other. Perhaps some more interesting choices would include the astral-traveling Gong, with their soaring and spacey guitar and keys combination, or the Soft Machine on their first two albums, which had some of that child-like playfulness. But the former were whimsically self-described “pothead pixies,” as opposed to the brooding cynics in Floyd, while the latter combined their Syd-like tendencies with a kind of avant-jazz-rock sound, rather than bad trip menace. For that vibe, Hawkwind might be a good choice. But for all its dark and spacey vibe, Hawkwind never had the extended compositional chops of Floyd. Many people have drawn similarities from Floyd to the Velvet Underground's folk/feedback approach, although the Velvets never had a feeling of delight or innocence. They were clearly, self-consciously "arty," with John Cale's avant-garde resume and the band's connection to Warhol, while their songs had an archly urbane, (overly?) worldly edge that was full of heroin and S&M references. Maybe it was a kind of convergent evolution with two bands getting to vaguely similar places while arriving there from vastly different orientations.

With kind of halting, tentative steps, Floyd’s next few years yielded moments of genius ("Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," "Careful with that Axe Eugene," "Nile Song,” “Green is the Colour,” etc) but not much in terms of a coherent aesthetic. Things only started to coalesce with 1971's Meddle and then....then....of course, Dark Side Of The Moon, followed by Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall. At risk of alienating many passionate record collectors and hard core psychedelic fans, these 70s albums are the definitive body of the Floyd essence: transportation through hope, exploration, failure, disillusionment, despair, death, truth, salvation, not always in that order and not necessarily all of them in a single album. As time went on, the lyrical messages become increasingly pessimistic, but the experience of taking a trip is always there, as strongly as with any band that I know. This was achieved through masterful pacing, texture, and dynamics, as well as spectacular recording quality. The instruments are consistently secondary to the flow of the composition: none of them are overplayed or flashy: Nick Mason's drums mostly keep time, Rick Wright's keys are mostly atmospheric (though essential), Roger Waters' bass steps out only occasionally (such as on the monstrous, walloping "One of These Days"), leaving most of the soloing space to the understated forcefulness and restrained grandeur of David Gilmour's guitar. The music is closely composed, like a symphony, so there is little room for messy edges. Most every note, progression, and sequence is there for a reason and generates a specific effect, perhaps chemical. All together, that effect is sublime transportation. The tones are controlled, disciplined, a mixture of acoustic and electric, sometimes dreamy, sometimes hard, usually with a palpable intensity and often with a hint of darkness, directed primarily by simple, powerful, guitar lines over a bed of swirling keyboard atmospheres and softly sung/more harshly spoken songs.

Breaking it down:

Essence: Immersive and transportational listening experience through a wide emotional range in which the dominant sounds are spacey, intense, and often dark.

Means: Understatedly powerful lead guitar, omnipresent atmospheric keys, controlled drumming, disciplined bass, modest vocals, pessimistic lyrics, meticulous dynamics, spectacular production.

Special Sauce: Mastery of extended, album-length composition and immersive listening experience.

Who I Picked For Pockit Rockit and Why (alphabetically):

Camel: I had not originally included Camel, but a reader’s suggestion made me reconsider. In the end, I think he was right. Camel had at least one of its feet in the Floydian vibe: fluid guitar solos, atmospheric keys, a spacey and heavily instrumental sound, if missing a little of Floyd's contained intensity. Camel knew how to put together an extended and, for many, an immersive listening experience. To my ears, they lack some of Floyd’s darkness, muscle, and texture, but I have little doubt that many Floyd fans would find much to like in Camel. Probably start with either The Snow Goose or Moonmadness.

Eloy: particularly, their late 70s/early 80s work (Silent Cries and Mighty Echoes, Ocean). What they had that very few other bands of the time had, was a feel for the Floydian guitar/keyboard tones and interactive balance. The sound is crystalline, even if not quite as meaty as Floyd's. What they got wrong is that when you have a great sound, the vocals cannot be allowed to detract from it. Unfortunately, Eloy's vocals are heavily German-accented English, which can be distracting. Thankfully, their songs are largely instrumental.

House of Not: They pick up on the harder-edged, darker Floyd sound from The Wall/Final Cut. The atmosphere and musicianship is spot-on, if only their writing throughout the duration of their albums were more consistently excellent. Some stunning, memorable tracks, though ("Mainstream").

King Crimson: this begins a string of what seem to be artists only tangentially related to Pink Floyd's sound. Crimson, in any of its incarnations, does not really sound like Floyd, in any of its incarnations. The musicianship is more rigorous, the compositions more ornate and demanding, etc. Still, Crimson (as with the best progressive rock) approaches music in a similarly transportational sense, if also in a more experimental and improvisational sense, than Floyd. Still, for a certain Pink Floyd fan—one who wants to kick up the intensity and musicianship—I think Crimson could be a logical next step of exploration, especially due to Crimson's excellence with dynamics and Robert Fripp's truly phenomenal guitar playing. Red strikes the best balance of song and instrumental (and includes “Starless,” one of the absolute greatest pieces in Rock history), though Larks' Tongues in Aspic may be more intense.

Magma: Similar issue here, as with Crimson. They don't sound at all like Floyd, but they have some essential similarities that could resonate strongly with a certain kind of Floyd fan. Admittedly, there is a little element of self-indulgence of including Magma, since they are probably my favorite band and any excuse to get them more exposure is a good one, in my mind. But for all their Carmina Burana, epic-opera, jazz-rock, on Top of totalitarian, Martian marching rhythms, Magma, like Floyd, are one of the greatest composers of the album-length, extended Rock composition. They cover the highest highs, lowest lows, brightest brights, darkest darks, and take you on jaw-dropping, breath taking, soul stirring trips through your emotional and spiritual being. All of life, but elevated and magnified, for forty minutes. Magma’s invented language and choir vocals may seem bombastic to those who appreciate Floyd's more austere sensibilities. But some may find here the greatest band ever, as I did. Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh is as complete of a statement of musical and spiritual art that I know.

Mike Oldfield: Oldfield is much more instrumentally focused and lighter than Floyd, bountiful with all sorts of "world" influences and pastoral passages. But, again, he brings a mastery of extended composition that certain Floyd fans would appreciate. His guitar work is ace, as is the fantastic production. In terms of sound, if a listener could embrace Floyd as a gentler, more ethnically vibed, all-instrumental band, while retaining the suberb guitar work and even a bit of Floyd's intensity, Oldfield will be much appreciated. The classic Tubular Bells, as well as Ommadawn, Incantations, and perhaps Amarok are all good places to start.

Nektar: No one sounded quite like Floyd, but Nektar came closer than most. Certainly, their light show rivaled Floyd's. Also, like Floyd, this band did a lot of evolving. Their first, Journey to the Center of the Eye, leans back to the more psychedelic Syd-era, but spacier and generally rockier. One year later, A Tab in the Ocean was more in line with Meddle's sound. Things tightened up further by Recycled, with shorter songs that fit into the sharp, clear, total album. The overall sound is sometimes a little harder than Floyd's and a bit more psychedelic and more loosely structured. The trip was almost as good and the aesthetic for the time was more than sympatico.

Neurosis: Again, I've taken liberties (big ones, this time!) with the literal interpretation of the Floyd sound in favor of what I've gleaned to be the Floyd “essence.” Neurosis comes from the East Bay post-hard core scene. They are far heavier and rawer than Floyd (especially regarding their mostly barked/incanted vocals). However, starting around the time of Souls at Zero and reaching full stride by the following masterpieces, Enemy of the Sun and Through Silver in Blood, it became obvious to me that Neurosis was playing, in lack of a better term, "psychedelic music." Many heavy music fans (including Floyd fans) agreed with me wholeheartedly when I would suggest as much to them at concerts. The albums feel like extended works while the songs are often long, volcanically intense, yet incredibly dynamic journeys. This ability to shift intensities is largely what gives Neurosis its cathartic, time and space-travelling power--a power very much related to Floyd's, even if the outward form is very different. I know that a lot of Neurosis fans are Floyd fans. I don't know how many Floyd fans could become Neurosis fans, but I'd at least like to open the door.

Ozric Tentacles: Here, it comes back to the powerful, lead guitar/spacey, atmospheric keys interaction. The Ozrics essentially reinvented psychedelic jam music in the late 80s with their futuristic, space rave-influenced sound. They're entirely instrumental and bring in influences from dub, Middle Eastern, Indian, and trance musics, so they're not a Floyd carbon copy by any stretch. But the playing, with its polished and streamlined prog approach to psychedelia and its seamless instrumental interplay show Floyd to clearly be one of their biggest influences (along with the above-mentioned Gong). And they definitely know how take you on a trip: Erpland does it all.

Porcupine Tree: Probably the first band I would recommend to Floyd fans seeking the next torchbearer. One of the most important Prog bands of the 90s, PT's Stephen Wilson almost perfectly matches David Gilmour's dark but soaring lead guitar and tasteful vocals while gracefully incorporating more modern elements, such as trance rhythms and electronics in their traditionally Prog-based sound. You want Floyd, but newer, more updated? This is your band. Start with the live greatest hits Coma Divine and work backwards.

Radiohead: To the extent that prog translated into the post-alternative/post-Nirvana world, I would say that Tool is the modern King Crimson, Mars Volta is the modern Yes, and Radiohead is the modern Pink Floyd. Their best work, as with Floyd's, is both progressive and song-oriented, challenging and accessible. They can generate a powerful emotional reaction with everyone in the band playing their heads off or with just an acoustic guitar and vocals. Vocals, in fact, are closer to the lead instrument here, as opposed to the guitar, so the overall feeling is a bit more emotive than grand, but they achieve both in spades. Lastly, few recent bands are as good at connecting songs into a organic album-length experience than Radiohead, especially on OK Computer.

Tangerine Dream: This band kind of inverts the tangents I went on with King Crimson and Neurosis. Those bands have little tonal connection to Floyd but may, for certain listeners, have similar effective goals as Floyd. Tangerine Dream, on the other hand, has a lot in common with Floyd, tonally, but their goals are divergent. An insightful reviewer once called TD "Pink Floyd without the rock,” and that's about right. All the atmosphere, the spaciness, the intensity and vague ominousness are absolutely there, largely through the expert use of analog synthesizers and trancey, cosmic spaciousness, rather than emphasizing guitars and rock rhythms. However, the atmospheres exist largely to be lived in, without the tightly composed dynamics and production embellishments that make for a typical Pink Floyd song cycle. TD occasionally bring in rhythmic elements but the real impact comes from the powerful, moving clouds of keyboards. Phaedra is probably the most definitive, though Riccochet and Force Majeure add some drums for a more rock-ish feel.

The lack of obviousness is a major reason why I wanted to start this new blogging approach with Pink Floyd. Each artist demands a different approach to discovery guidance, based largely on the originality of the artist, the number of followers it has, the quality and variety of those followers, and the ultimate, artistic and emotional impact of the artist. For Floyd, there are few truly direct comparisons (Porcupine Tree, House of Not, maybe Radiohead) but the artistic approach (extended, album length works) and the ultimate goal (emotional/spiritual transportation) is timeless and is aimed for by many artists. The trick is recognizing and balancing those elements through artists that make their music without necessarily having any thought to how it might fit into my equation. For some listeners, the balance of my recommendations will fall to the left; for others, to the right; for others, hopefully, a third eye will open. After addressing the basics, I think offering the possibility of revelation is the greatest service I can hope to give.

SOMETHING GOOD FOR 2018

Friends always ask me what my favorite bands and albums were for any given year. In the post-Spotify world, I have to admit that it is increasingly difficult to find artists that deliver fantastic album after fantastic album. It’s even difficult to find albums that are fantastic from front to back. But there are good TRACKS. These are what I try to dig and extract for my clients, usually one track at a time. Here, in a Spotify playlist is a small—and in no way comprehensive—handful of the pop/rock tracks that caught and continued to hold my ears in 2018 (jazz, prog, and folk is entirely another issue!).

Deep Music’s Something Good For 2018.

ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINEES 2018

ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINEES ARE IN! A lot of repeats this time, and I can't say most of them are particularly more compelling candidates the second or third time. However, there are some very compelling newcomers.

As always, my criteria is three-pronged: (1) Formal Innovation: did the artist do something new or different technically, stylistically, etc; (2) Lasting Influence/Importance: did the artist change the direction of the Rock/Pop universe, preferably for the better? Is that influence still felt?; and (3) Commercial Viability: not that "more is better" but that the artist must have attained at least a certain quantum of commercial success, either during its active lifetime or in the years since.

And the nominees are:

THE CURE: Huge resounding YES! There was no band who did more to define both the “Alternative” look and sound of the 80s than the Cure. The Smiths were major (and should be inducted); New Order was huge (and should be inducted), but the Cure truly embodied it, from the black clothing, to the asymmetrical hair, to the deliberately misapplied makeup. But what makes it truly work is that the Cure’s music transcends their widely-copied (and parodied) style. Sometimes harrowingly dark and heavy, sometimes sprightly and optimistic, the Cure could cover a range of emotions while always retaining their essence throughout. Their catalog is deep with several albums that could reasonably considered any given fan’s favorite and excellent songs (and hits!) all through the course of their career. Innovative? Huge: they took Joy Division’s lead and essentially defined the Post-Punk/Goth/Alternative sound. Influential? Massive: from their look to their sound, they launched countless ships. Commercial success? Huge here, too! No-brainer slam dunk.

DEF LEPPARD: This is the Journey/Bon Jovi case all over again. All three were big Arena Rock bands that sold plenty of tickets and many albums. Def Leppard suffers in comparison with the other two in that they do not have a “Don’t Stop Believin’” or “Livin’ on a Prayer” to demonstrate lasting pop cultural impact. Indeed, if you look at Def Leppard’s Spotify page, the sum total listens of their entire catalog has generated a small fraction of what either of those two evergreen behemoths have generated. If you’re going to get in almost entirely on your pop success, you better have HUGE pop success. It’s not clear that Def Leppard has it. What Def Leppard can be credited for is translating the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, led by bands such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, Saxon, and others, to a more pop-forward MTV audience. Credit can also be given to their album, Pyromania, as one of the archetypal pop-Metal album of the 80s. Most importantly, credit must be given for the menschy way in which they treated their drummer, Rick Allen, when he lost his arm in a car accident just as the band were on the brink of mega-stardom. Rather than dropping Allen, and filling his stool with some hired hand, the band gave him the time to recover and re-learn how to play a special kit modified to accomodate his disability. Many, if not most, up-and-coming bands would have likely placed their ambitions above their loyalty. Def Leppard did not. However, credit on the musical front must be limited. They were not a formally innovative band. They essentially simplified the British Metal sound of the time, turned out several well-crafted pop versions of the sound, and communicated it with sympathetic production, courtesy of Mutt Lange. That’s not an “easy” task to accomplish, but nor is it a Hall-worthy one. While one could argue that Def Leppard were influential, the nature of that influence is dubious: setting the stage for the commodification/commercialization of Metal culminating in the artistically suspect “Hair Metal” scene that dominated mid-late 80s MTV and which became the de facto definition of “Metal” for large swathes of the American public. My guess is that they get voted in, but I don’t think they should.

DEVO: Interesting nomination. With their high-concept philosophies of human “devo-lution,” d.i.y. pseudo-scientistic-futuristic attire, and off-kilter herky-jerky sound, they were one of the most idiosyncratic and identifiable bands of the American punk movement. Pretty high on the innovation scale. However, it’s not clear to me how deep their influence was. Contemporaries such as the Ramones defined the garage-style three chord high-energy punk-pop/punk sound for a zillion followers; The Talking Heads and Television lay the groundwork for the American “Alternative” scene that emerged in the 80s and exploded in the 90s; Blondie and the Pretenders showed what strong female leads could do; Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and the Circle Jerks pointed the way to hard-core. What did Devo lead to? Interesting band and odd historical footnote, but not RRHoF.

JANET JACKSON: As I said with Janet two years ago: “I don’t see it. Obviously, Janet has been massively successful across four decades. However, she seemed more to ride the popular trends throughout the years rather then really trailblazing anything. And while she always knew how to cut a hit, and she employed innovative producers such as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, her sound was never really that distinctive nor were her vocals ever particularly impressive. Lastly, I really don’t see her musical and cultural influence/importance (apart from her unfortunate involvement with a certain Superbowl halftime spectacle). [As a counter-argument, a friend explained to me that her cultural impact on suburban and Midwestern Black youth was comparable to Madonna’s].

JOHN PRINE: A proverbial songwriter’s songwriter. While the quality of his downbeat folk/blues/country songs is attested to by the many many artists who have covered his songs, very few have made their way into the popular consciousness. Maybe he has influence among a certain similar style of songwriter but I don’t think he was any more innovative or influential than his peers, such as Townes Van Zandt or Gram Parsons. Not RRHoF.

KRAFTWERK: I said it two years ago and I’ll say it again. This should be a no-brainer. Simply, Kraftwerk established the use of electronic instrumentation as a fully valid approach to making Rock/Pop. Moreover, they distilled the insight of fellow German innovators, Can (developed in parallel with artists such as James Brown, Sly Stone, Miles Davis, and the Weather Report), that extended grooves—as opposed to traditional song structures or even classical composition—can make for equally engaging music. And it was THIS insight that facilitated the development of other, longer-form, extended groove-based music, from Disco, to House, to Techno, and all electronics-based Pop music. Massively innovative, massively influencial, and, with hits such as “The Model,” “Autobahn,” and “Trance Europe Express,” they have just the level of commercial success that should make them a strong inductee.

LL COOL J: As I wrote last year: “I don’t see it. Maybe someone else has more insight to LL’s history, but all I see is a by-the-numbers, mid- to late-80s commercial rapper, with fairly trite rhymes about his own sexiness, in a style done much tougher and convincingly, more technically, and more intelligently by any number of his contemporaries, from Run-DMC, to Eric B & Rakim, to the Beastie Boys. LL deserves credit for a fierce, live “unplugged” version of “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and for becoming a successful actor/celebrity.”

MC5: Another from last year: “A huge cult fave with tons of cred. They were a monster live band and are now often credited as being a precursor of Punk. The influence is there. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the same could be said for their recorded output. They never really translated their blitzing live show to vinyl and most of their recorded live output leaves a lot to be desired on the sound quality front. They deserve ongoing respect and reverence, but I’m not sure that the RRHoF is the most appropriate forum for their legacy.”

RADIOHEAD: As was the case last year, this should be an absolute slam dunk. Yes, I know that some find their fans to be insufferable and I know that some cannot help but push-back against the band’s valorization, in some contrarian manner. But the truth is that they are, after Nirvana, probably the most influential Rock band of the 90s. This should have been obvious last year and it should be no less obvious now. Maybe it’s just too early, but they should most definitely be in.

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: From last year: “Tough call. On the one hand, they were one of the biggest Rock bands of the 90s. They forged what is probably the most effective fusion of Rock and Hip Hop to date (Public Enemy is up there, too, with RatM falling more on the Rock side and PE falling more on the Hip Hop side). On the other hand, not many bands of consequence followed their lead. To the extent we saw further Rock/Hip-Hop hybrids, it was in the artistically dubious “Nu Metal” genre. Nor do we hear much of their influence either in contemporary Rock or Hip Hop. A recently rebooted offshoot, Prophets of Rage, released an album to mixed reviews. While they were a vital, invigorating band, it seems that their importance is largely limited to their era. Great to rock out to but ultimately a “no,” for now, at least.”

ROXY MUSIC: Yes, just…yes. Their formulation was brilliantly bizarre and effective—experimental Rock wrapped in Glam, with an old world crooner frontman and “non-musician” noise-making foil—essentially situating themselves in the lineage of the Velvet Underground and David Bowie, while also filling “the space between” them. They smoothed-out their sound as time went on but very much laid the groundwork for Post-Punk and New Wave before the Punk movement even existed. They lasted long enough to transcend their own history and influence to end their recording career with the sublime AOR album, Avalon, one of the finest swan songs in Rock/Pop history.

RUFUS feat. CHAKA KHAN: The way this nomination is structured continues to frustrate me. Why is Chaka being limited here to her time with Rufus? Rufus was an excellent funk/soul/pop band, but probably not Hall-worthy, on its own. Chaka, on the other hand, with her Jazz and Gospel-influenced, raspy, soaring, sassy and sophisticated voice, was arguably the best Black female vocalist of the late 70s/early 80s. Moreover, as I said last year and the year before, she compares more than favorably to her contemporary and RRHoF member, Donna Summer. While Donna has a few bigger hits, Chaka has plenty of her own and is, to my ears, superior and richer both vocally and artistically. Restricting Chaka to Rufus removes her often superb solo work. Chaka, taken as a whole, over the course of her entire career—with Rufus and solo—should be a shoo-in. Taken only with Rufus, her candidacy is much more limited.

STEVIE NICKS: Stevie represents a kind of flip-side to the Chaka case. While Chaka is an artist best appreciated over the course of her entire career, both within a band and solo, Stevie Nicks benefits from being seen primarily as a member of her band. Most all of Stevie’s important contributions—her distinctive voice, her lace-gypsy-enchantress style, and her most resonant songs (from “Dreams,” to “Rhiannon,” to “Landslide,” etc.) were all done in the context of Fleetwood Mac. The work she did as a solo artist, including the enduring “Edge of Seventeen,” is really just incremental to her work with Mac and, frankly, pales next to it.

TODD RUNDGREN: All I have to say is, “Finally!” One of the few people of the Rock era that deserve to be spoken of in the same (if only slightly smaller) breath as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Todd was the kind of guy who, while already a shredding Rock guitarist, could play virtually any instrument, and often did! He was one of the first major artists to play all of the instruments on many of his recordings. But he was also a sensitive and wide-ranging songwriter, with influences from the Beatles, to Laura Nyro and the Philly Soul sound, to Gilbert & Sullivan. His albums could contain piano ballads and hard rockers, soul covers, and synthesizer experiments. After his first three (fantastic) albums, virtually no two albums were alike. And this doesn’t even touch on his Prog-Pop group project, Utopia. He would be a Hall-worthy artist purely on the basis of his recorded output. However, his work as a producer might be even more impressive. What’s most remarkable about his production credits is not merely the list of artists he’s produced but that, for each artist, Todd helped them to accomplish something critical, such as completing an abandoned album under tight time pressure (Badfinger), enabling career revivals at crucial points (Grand Funk, XTC), translating underground sensibilities for mainstream release (New York Dolls, Tubes, Psychedelic Furs), giving mainstream sensibilities more progressive space (Hall & Oates), creating a Wagnerian Pop Opera that no one wanted to touch with a ten foot pole (Meatloaf), or simply helping a friend say goodbye (Patti Smith). A wizard, a true star and a more-than-worthy and way-past-due RRHoF artist.

THE ZOMBIES: Two years running now and here’s what I said both times: “the Zombies were the writers of an exceptional, exquisite, body of work that stands as among the greatest of its era, but which is relatively meagre and lacks clear longer-term influence. It is possible that the Zombies lack of disciples is testament to the group’s inimitability (particularly Colin Blunstone’s vocals, whose breathy, melancholy romanticism might be the most enduring legacy of the group). They are a borderline choice, even questionable, but undeniably wonderful.”


The Jazz Kissa Vibe Comes to the States

Here's a neat article on the recent emergence of the ultra-audiophile, connoisseurship-based, Japanese "Jazz Kissa" aesthetic in LA. While my work is generally geared to more heavily trafficked and less rarefied environments, I love that this ethos and sense of high-level curation is finding a space in the States [is this happening in New York?]. For what it's worth (and, if I'm being honest, I'm proud to say that) many of the names they dropped, such as Talk Talk's "Spirit of Eden," Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, and the Spiritual Jazz series, have all found their ways into my clients' playlists ;-)

Ryuchi Sakamoto on Music Curation

There was a fun and interesting piece in the NY Times yesterday involving the pioneering Japanese musician, Ryuichi Sakamoto. Apparently, he has a favorite Japanese restaurant in New York City. Unfortunately, he hated the music they played. So, as one might, he wrote to the owner (a friend of his), told him the music was terrible, and offered to curate the music for him.

The music Sakamoto chose--sparse, elegant, particularly subtle, and esoteric--seems perfectly appropriate for a quiet and peaceful sushi restaurant. I wonder what he would do with a broader, more mainstream concept in which the ownership and clientele demanded music that is more accessible and familiar. That's the challenge I work with every day: how to craft a sound space that satisfies most guests' desire to hear things they already know and love--music that reassures them and makes them comfortable--that is also distinctive, interesting, and unique to the given space--music that takes them to a place they haven't been before.

My other question was, what Brazilian pop was the restaurant originally playing that could have been so awful? 

My Littlest Daughter Turns-On To Music

I have three kids, aged 8-13. Despite my obsessive involvement with music, I've never pushed it on them. After all, if music is ever going to have any true meaning for them, it's got to comes from inside of them. You either feel it or you don't and you can't fake that.

My oldest digs music fine, but it's primarily background for him. My second also likes music just fine, but it isn't a major focus for her, either. She likes what she likes and doesn't feel the need to look much further.

But my littlest is a bit different. Left to her own devices, she plays KidzBop. The thing is, she sings along to every song, regardless of the style or genre. If I put on something else while we're in the car--First Wave, Soul Town, Ozzy's Boneyard, Deep Tracks, The Bridge, whatever--she will hum along, even if she doesn't know the song. And if she does know the song, she will sing along, even if she doesn't know the lyrics. She seems to like it all. She feels music (but don't ask her to try to play it).

So, it wasn't particularly surprising--though it was still super-cool--when she walked up to me while I was working on the curation for one of my clients and she wanted to see and hear what I was doing. I played her a certain song that I had recently placed in that client's program. I thought it would bridge her love of Pop with something leaning slightly towards a more Indie Pop sensibility.

Her response: "Dad, that's now my favorite song." Priceless.

She continued, "Can I come again and you can play me some more songs?"

It doesn't get any better than that.

This was the song:

 

 
 

ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINEES

The Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame nominees have just been released. Of course, there is no objective, definitive, statistical means of evaluating musicians, the way there is for baseball players (and even that is highly controversial). But the way I like to keep myself grounded is by applying three major criteria: (1) formal innovation (2) importance/influence (3) enduring success/popularity, as these seem to me to get at the most essential facets of a musician’s legacy. On to my one cent…

BON JOVI: A similar case as Journey had last year, but weaker. As with Journey, Bon Jovi were a big, popular, mainstream, arena rock band. Their songs were pretty standard pop/rock of the era and not particular innovative. Apart from their period fashions, I don’t see much lasting musical influence. In their favor, they do have one song, “Living on a Prayer,” that continues to have pop cultural currency. But, at each point, they fall short of Journey: their musicianship was OK, but not of Journey’s caliber (most of whom had jazz-fusion backgrounds); Jon was an identifiable vocalist but not in the same league as Steve Perry; and, while Bon Jovi has some enduring hits, Journey has more and bigger ones. Ultimately, pop success alone cannot be sufficient for induction. Journey barely crossed the line on the back of their commercial success; Bon Jovi comes in below that line.

KATE BUSH: No brainer. That she has not been inducted ages ago is a major travesty of the RRHoF voting process. Along with Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush might be the greatest solo female artist of the rock/pop era. Her vocals are both distinctive and virtuosic; her compositions are dazzling and sophisticated in melody, structure, and rhythm; her production is consistently surprising, challenging, and individual; her influence flows through virtually every boldly artistic female artist that followed her, from Tori Amos to Bjork to St. Vincent. While her commercial success in the US is not nearly what it is in the UK, there is little doubt that, if she were to announce a US tour, she would sell out 20,000 person arenas from coast to coast. She is so ridiculously overqualified for this institution that it doesn’t merit further discussion.   

THE CARS: All-time great debut. Excellent follow-up and significantly decreasing returns since then. They were a tight and stylish band, with cool, disaffected vocals, economic and intelligent lead guitar, a tight rhythm section, and effectively deployed keyboards. However, it would be hard to call them “innovative,” as they were a bit late to the New Wave rock scene. It would also be hard to call them particularly “influential,” with contemporaries such as the Talking Heads, Blondie, and even Gang of Four having their sounds appear more in contemporary bands. Borderline for me.

DEPECHE MODE: DM were more synth-pop popularizers than pioneers, as compared to, say, New Order or even Human League. However, DM should get the nod for a couple of reasons. The first is that they continued to evolve from their lightweight and somewhat formulaic (if catchy) beginnings, into darker and richer forms—both musically and lyrically. Their lasting impact and influence is massive and unquestionable.

DIRE STRAITS: As with the Cars, DS were a talented and musically stylish band. Their stripped-down, yet open and jazzy, blues-based rock was original and unlike their peers. Mark Knopfler’s restrained telecaster was often incisive and evocative. Better yet, they had solid success with their early sound even before their mainstream, Big Rock, MTV-fueled mega hit album. Unfortunately, they did little to follow-up on that blockbuster and I don’t see much lasting impact or influence. Ultimately, borderline for me.

EURYTHMICS: Along with Yaz and Erasure, Eurythmics were major proponents of the 80s vocalist-and-producer format. Annie Lennox cut an iconic frontwoman figure and the duo definitely had their share of hits. Unfortunately, their sound wasn’t that different from many of their peers, nor was their commercial peak that deep or that long. To their credit, they moved away from their early synth-pop sound and into more rock/r&b-based material but, again, their new successes were not particularly deep or long-lasting. Maybe some people look back longingly to Annie’s early imagery for inspiration, but I’m not sure their influence is particularly vigorous or any stronger than, say, Yaz', whose Upstairs at Eric’s album the Eurythmics never matched artistically. 

J. GEILS BAND: The “Jewish Rolling Stones” were a helluva live band, with their high energy r&b/blues-based rocka rolla “house party” vibe. They even enjoyed some mainstream pop success via significant MTV play. But that’s really about as far as it goes.

JUDAS PRIEST: Hands down yes. Priest were critical to the evolution of Metal by bridging the heavy, swinging, blues-based sound of Black Sabbath to the leaner, meaner, tighter and more technical sound of Iron Maiden, essentially pioneering the modern Metal sound in the process. While I personally discount the more commercial and, frankly, dumbed-down style they performed in the 80s, the era of their biggest commercial success, their 70s work, from Sad Wings of Destiny through Stained Class, is some of the most influential work in Metal history. “Dissident Aggressor” is, for my money, one of the top-5 greatest Metal tracks of all-time. Innovation: Priest rates very high as the architects of modern Metal. Influence: from the shredding twin-lead guitar line up (shared with Thin Lizzy), to the operatic frontman, to the leather/s&m-influenced attire, to the lean tight sound with the Blues being de-emphasized, Judas Priest were one of the most influential bands in Metal history. That they not only had many charting hits and continue to sell-out arenas and headline festivals is testimony to their lasting popularity. They should be in and Maiden should be next.

LL COOL J: I don’t see it. Maybe someone else has more insight to LL’s history, but all I see is a by-the-numbers, mid- to late-80s commercial rapper, with fairly trite rhymes about his own sexiness, done in a style done much tougher and convincingly, and more technically, and more intelligently by any number of his contemporaries, from Run-DMC, to Eric B & Rakim, to the Beastie Boys. LL deserves credit for a fierce, live “unplugged” version of “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and for becoming a successful actor/celebrity. 

MC5: A huge cult fave with tons of cred. They were a monster live band and are now often credited as being a precursor of Punk. The influence is there. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the same could be said for their recorded output. They never really translated their blitzing live show to vinyl and most of their recorded live output leaves a lot to be desired on the sound quality front. They deserve ongoing respect and reverence, but I’m not sure that the RRHoF is the most appropriate forum for their legacy.

THE METERS: Taking the wildly syncopated “second line” rhythms of Mardi Gras marching bands, the Meters stripped things down into a tough, tight, idiosyncratic, off-kilter, slinky, and inimitably funky groove. Basically, they translated New Orleans style for the rising funk and r&b of the 60s and 70s and ended up being one of the founders of Funk in the process. Incredibly innovative and influential (their playing appears on hundreds of recordings, not only by funk/r&b artists but also by rock & pop artists). Outside of music fans, I’m not sure how well-known they are and I doubt they ever sold millions of copies. I’d love to see them voted in, but I have doubts that’ll actually happen.

MOODY BLUES: An intriguing nominee. They were an important and influential band BUT their importance and and influence was not particularly enduring and is not particularly visible any more. They were also very successful in their day but are not widely listened to in the present. By building on the compositional innovations of Revolver/Sgt Pepper/Magical Mystery-era Beatles and working them into increasingly extended compositions based not only in psychedelia but also Classical music, the Moody Blues (with nods to Procol Harum and the Nice) have a strong claim to inventing Prog Rock. Unfortunately for them, thanks to bands such as Yes and King Crimson, the sound of Prog Rock evolved fast and far from what the Moody Blues first innovated. That their music still sounds very much of its vintage and has not made its way into contemporary aesthetics does not help their case. Ultimately, their importance should be revisited and appreciated—and credited—but their lack of direct, ongoing influence and limited listenership among newer generations renders them a “no” vote.

RADIOHEAD: I can hardly think of a bigger slam dunk. Other than Nirvana, Radiohead is probably the most influential and important Rock band of the past 30 years. Just an obvious yes.

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: Tough call. On the one hand, they were one of the biggest Rock bands of the 90s. They forged what is probably the most effective fusion of Rock and Hip Hop to date (Public Enemy is up there, too, with RatM falling more on the Rock side and PE falling more on the Hip Hop side). On the other hand, not many bands of consequence followed their lead. To the extent we saw further Rock/Hip hybrids, it was in the artistically dubious “Nu Metal” genre. Nor do we hear much of their influence either in contemporary Rock or Hip Hop. A recently rebooted offshoot, Prophets of Rage, released an album to mixed reviews. While they were a vital, envigorating band, it seems that their importance is largely limited to their era. Great to rock out to but ultimately a “no,” for now, at least.

RUFUS FEATURING CHAKA KHAN: This is a change, I believe, from last year when Chaka was nominated on her own. Unfortunately, I think limiting Chaka to Rufus makes this a weaker candidacy. I wrote last year that Chaka was likely, in terms of all-around talent, success, and musical quality, the best Black female vocalist of the late 70s and early 80s. Moreover, I said then and still hold, that she compares more than favorably to her contemporary and RRHoF member, Donna Summer, with Chaka being superior vocally and in the richness of her jazz-funk-soul-disco catalog. Restricting Chaka to Rufus removes her often-superb early solo work. By herself, Chaka should be a shoo-in. With Rufus, as good as they were, and she with them, the candidacy is much more limited.

NINA SIMONE: An even bigger slam dunk than Radiohead. I was gobsmacked, flabbergasted, and dumbstruck that she was not in already. The only reason I can think of is that she might not be considered “Rock ’n Roll,” in the technical sense. As with our earlier discussion on Hip Hop, I think most of us recognize that Rock ’n Roll does not still refer only to music strictly having the characteristics of traditional rock and roll, but encompasses all contemporary (primarily Anglophone) popular music. She should be in…decades ago. 

SISTER ROSETTA THARPE: Another intriguing nomination. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is widely acknowledged as a Rock precursor for bridging Gospel with secular r&b while wielding an electric guitar. She was successful in the 1940s but is not widely known today (though that is being remedied via the wonders of YouTube) and it is not clear she was well-known to the generation of Rock musicians following Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. Innovation: huge. Influence: in some ways, massive; in some ways, perhaps, limited. Success/popularity: significant but largely reserved to her era (though that may change as more people discover her, after the fact). Drawing and understanding roots and origins is critical to understanding development and evolution. But that can be covered in history books. On the other hand, the RRHoF functions, in many ways, as a big, public history book. It could go either way, but I’d probably err on the side of completion and richness.

LINK WRAY: A similar nomination to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s. Like Sister Rosetta, Link is not widely known, outside of music fans. He doesn’t have many big hits, (his instrumental, “Rumble,” comes closest, but still isn’t as recognizable as his contemporary, Dick Dale’s “Miserlou”) and, were he still alive, he would not sell-out large venues. However, his influence on the sound of Rock ’n Roll is enormous. When you listen to early Rock guitarists, like Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley, they rock, but there is a rootsiness that is almost quaint to contemporary ears. What Link Wray did was take that rocking sound and made it nasty. With huge chords and snarling distortion, Wray brought a sense of menace to Rock, which later rockers (from the Who and Stones, on down) would increasingly draw upon. An argument could be made that Link Wray did more to influence the way the electric guitar sounded until Hendrix. A sentimental, archival choice for me. But I can see how the voting will probably not work out that way.

THE ZOMBIES: As I wrote last year, the Zombies were the writers of an exceptional, exquisite, body of work that stands as among the greatest of its era, but which is relatively meagre and lacks longer-term influence. It is possible that the Zombies lack of disciples is testament to the group’s inimitability (particularly Colin Blunstone’s breathy, melancholy romanticism). They are a borderline choice, even questionable, but undeniably wonderful.

Track of the Day: "ふわりふわふわ," by Ruriko Ohgami (1977)

“City Pop” is a Japanese take on what is sometimes called WestCoast or, more, colloquially, “Yacht Rock.” City Pop takes the Yacht Rock foundation of soft/smooth rock with r&b/soul/jazz touches and ultra-polished studio production and smoothes it out ever more. The result is often saccharine and sentimental but sometimes extremely refined and elegant.

One great example of City Pop done well—and a track I can’t stop playing right now is vivacious chanteuse, Ruriko Ohgami’s “ふわりふわふわ.” Don’t ask me to pronounce it, much less translate it. What makes it special isn’t the slinky cocktail jazz instrumentation but the exquisite Brazilian lilt in the deliciously, irresistably ever-so-slightly melancholy melody. Once it caresses you, it’s hard to let it go. I haven’t after a few dozen listens.

 
 

What Makes Things "Cool": Building Bridges From Familiar to Exotic

We all need bridges to get us from places and things we know to places and things we have yet to discover. If we jump too far too fast, the "new" will feel foreign, alien, weird. But with the right bridge, the "new" will feel enlightening, exciting, and stimulating.

When I was a kid, growing up on classic rock radio, I needed exactly this kind of bridge to bring me into the then-exploding world of "alternative" rock. The artists that did it for me were bands such as Soundgarden, who were deeply steeped in the wailing heavy rock of Led Zeppelin, Fishbone, who grooved with the spirits of Sly & the Family Stone, and Primus, who mutated the Prog rock of Rush and King Crimson into their idiosyncratic concoction. 

The Beatles are also instructive of this principle. They explored and experimented so widely, they provided for many people who had only been exposed to pop music the bridge to the exotic shores of psychedelia in "Tomorrow Never Knows," to the concept album of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, to the chamber/orchestral arrangements of "Eleanor Rigby," to the heavy rock of "Helter Skelter," to the avant-garde of "Revolution #9," even to the very idea of Rock 'N Roll, itself.

This little video describes how an early 20th Century industrial engineer, Raymond Loewy, began to theorize about this bridge concept through a formulation he called "Most Advanced Yet Accessible," or "MAYA." The idea is that people like things that are as out-there as possible while still being recognizable. Loewy figured that one way to help achieve MAYA is by bridging people from the familiar to the increasingly "new."

I always try to do the same with all of my programming and curatorial (though I haven't always had Loewy's terminology to describe it). By inserting quirky, off center (but fun and often funky!) pieces of Prog Rock, Swedish psych, TV themes, groovy instrumentals, Thai funk, Ethiopian jazz, French and Brazilian pop, Basque folk, or whatever, within environments of more familiar rock, pop, and soul, I hope to spark the delight of discovering something "most advanced yet accessible," pushing listeners' boundaries without anyone realizing it but enjoying the trip all the same. To me, when it's working right, that is what's "cool."

Track of the Day: "Tale in a Hard Time," by Fairport Convention (1968)

Fairport Convention were a critical band for me. After reading about them (and Joni Mitchell) in the Led Zeppelin biography, Hammer of the Gods, I explored their work, which took me down a wonderful rabbit hole of British Folk Rock, worlds away from the all day-all night classic rock radio that was my 13-year old life.

It was the Zeppelin track, "Battle of Evermore," off of Led Zeppelin IV. The startling female soprano vocals belonged to a certain Sandy Denny, Fairport's lead vocalist. After delving into Fairport's work--particulary the definitive Liege & Lief--it was clear that Denny's voice soared over most of the band's best work (her "Fotheringay" is one of my favorite melodies in all of music). However, there was one big exception, the track here, "Tale in a Hard Time." Sounding like a British Byrds, with more agile guitars, a more muscular rhythm section, and vocals that soared in a way the Byrds rarely did, this one is something special and Fairport never recorded another song quite like it.

 
 

R.I.P. Leon Ware

My first Marvin Gaye album was What's Goin' On. Wonderful, magical, etc. Loved it. So, I moved on to Marvin's next 70s album, Let's Get it On. Liked it, didn't love it. The songs lacked the progressive sweep and transportive dynamics of the previous album. Sure, it was grittier, I suppose, but that didn't make it better. So, I tried again, with I Want You. That was the jackpot. It not only had everything I loved in What's Goin' On, but it was the first time I had ever heard a soul "concept album," of the type I knew and loved so well from the Prog Rock world. Every track stood on its own, but the whole became even greater than the sum of its parts as the tracks flowed one into another until, by the end, I had gone on a proverbial "journey." This was almost exactly what Maxwell did twenty years later on his debut. Man, Marvin was the best!

 
 

Well, yes, and no. It was only years later that I learned that most of the entire album was written and arranged by a young hand at Motown, named Leon Ware. The story is that Leon put it together and showed it to Motown boss, Berry Gordy. Gordy said, in no uncertain terms, that it was so good he was going to take it and give it to the biggest Motown artist at the time. That artist was Marvin and the rest was history. Leon was able to re-record and release much of I Want You around a year later, as Musical Massage. Unfortunately, without much label push (and, frankly, without Marvin's name), the album didn't do much in the market.

 
 

Nonetheless, Leon was able to go on and have a fairly successful solo career, punctuated by the blissfully smooth, "Why I Came to California." To this day, that song stands as one of the true high points of the WestCoast AOR/rare groove ("yacht rock") scene of the late 70s/early 80s. One of my faves, for sure, and one that I try to work in whenever and wherever I can...

 
 

R.I.P. Al Jarreau

We are all compelled to sing. Some more than others. Some, more frequently. Some, louder. But we ALL do it. Different times, moods, and vibes. There are songs we can sort of maybe kind of do amateur justice to. There are songs just way out of our league. But we give it a go. Sometimes, we might need the protection of a shower curtain or the courage of two our five tequila shots. But we still do it. We can't help it. And we love it,

One of those songs for me is Al Jarreau's "We Got By." It hushes and delicately leaps, coos and delicately cascades, lithely stretches and groans to sensitive growls, soars to saxophone-like reveries. I find my face involuntarily contorts into into jazzy shapes both round and angular, while my eyes close and my eye brows rise and fall. It's special and wonderful. It's one of the songs I deeply wish I could do justice to. Fortunately, the man wrote it did it all the justice it so righteously deserved. He was truly special. And now he's gone.

P.S. if all you know of Al Jarreau is his 80s jazz/yacht pop, you really should check out his first album--the one for for which "We Got By" is the title track. Yes, it's breezy and jazzy, but it's also often slinky and tight and funky in a way he would never quite hit again.

 

Happy Birthday to Roberta Joan "Joni" Mitchell

If there is anyone who personifies the Female Artist in the rock/pop era, it's Joni Mitchell. She is a true icon and the standard by which any female singer/songwriter is measured. There is no one of commercial viability who has so consistently pushed herself and her audience into increasingly sophisticated musical realms (the only one in her league is Kate Bush, though her renown in the US is criminally below what it deserves to be). In any event, it's her birthday today. So, in honor of her, here is a playlist I put together a little while ago, featuring my favorite tracks from each of Joni's albums, up to 1982, and tracks by a handful of the best artists who clearly and profoundly have been influenced by her. 

Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame Nominees

Last night, the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame published its annual list of nominees. Here's my 1.5 cents on the 19 nominees:

BAD BRAINS: Deep cred faves. But, honestly, I’m not sure that they have wide-ranging enough influence to be a RRHoF band. Sure, they influenced the Beasties, but not in a way that was pervasive throughout the Beasties’ sound (except maybe a bit on “Check Your Head”). Yes, they obviously influenced Living Colour, but that latter band was a much clearer influence on the Black Rock of the late 80s and early 90s. In the end, BB may have been the most blazing American punk/hard core band ever. They influenced bands who likely had more influence than they did. Love 'em, worship 'em, but not RRHoF.

THE CARS: Their debut album is one of the best “Greatest Hits” albums ever released. Unfortunately, their subsequent albums suffered from increasingly diminished returns. So, their body of work is not very deep (though their best is of very high quality) and much of it kinda sucks. Nor were they particularly innovative (they came late to the New Wave scene). Nor have they necessarily had a major influence on future bands, as far as I can tell. A quality band but not one that rises to the level of HoF.

CHAKA KHAN: Perhaps not as famous or quite as commercially successful as her contemporary and RRHoF member, Donna Summer, Chaka nonetheless compares more than favorably. Chaka was superior to Donna both vocally as well as in the richness of her jazz-soul-funk-disco catalog (including her work with Rufus and solo). A strong argument could be made that, in terms of all-around talent, success, and musical quality, Chaka was the best Black female vocalist of the late 70s and early 80s.

CHIC: This should be a no-brainer. Not only were Chic likely the finest disco ensemble of the era, not only was their production definitive for the era, but “Good Times” is one of the most deeply and widely running rivers in all of popular music since the late 70s, whether in Rock (Queen), New Wave (Blondie), or hip-hop (Grandmaster Flash, etc). An essential band who really must be in.

DEPECHE MODE: As major popularizers, rather than originators of rock/pop sub-genre (in this case, synth-pop), Depeche Mode maybe strikes a parallel with another nominee, Pearl Jam. If Depeche Mode is to be considered, we have to wonder why New Order is not. What makes me give DM the benefit of the doubt is the way they evolved beyond their somewhat formulaic and lightweight beginnings to incorporate darker themes, both musically as well as lyrically. And, influence-wise, their impact and influence is unquestionable.

ELO: Delightful band with a deep well of good material (if sometimes buried among less distinguished material). Maybe we could say that their baroque pop bridged certain elements of the Beatles with certain elements of the Bee Gees and they definitely have their adherents. But I have a tough time seeing their impact, as a whole, being HoF level.

J. GEILS BAND: A tip of the hat to a great live band who also had some mainstream success in the MTV era. But, no way. Sorry.

JANE'S ADDICTION: Tough one. While their two proper alternative-era albums are two of the most original and exciting of the time, it is a relatively small body of work and that work has not really proven to be particularly influential. How many bands can you think of that sound anything like Jane’s or even point to Jane's as a major influence? Maybe that’s testimony to the inimitability of their style but it also raises questions about their “importance,” if not about their quality (their involvement in the credits of Entourage doesn’t help). While borderline for the RRHoF, they always have my devotion, for whatever that’s worth.

JANET JACKSON: I don’t see it. Obviously, Janet has been massively successful across four decades. However, she seemed more to ride the popular trends through the years rather than really trailblazing anything. And while she always knew how to cut a hit, her sound was never really that distinctive not were her vocals ever particularly impressive. Lastly, I really don’t see her musical and cultural influence (apart from her unfortunate involvement in a certain Superbowl halftime spectacle).

JOAN BAEZ: If the RRHoF existed in 1969, Baez would have been a top-tier no-brainer. Now, with her brand of folk not particularly pervasive and considering that she was known primarily an interpreter in an era of singer-songwriters (though all Metal fans will eternally salute her for “Diamonds and Rust”), it is getting harder to make the case for her. That said, if Linda Ronstadt can get in…

JOE TEX: At least he made it into the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. But, as my friend, DJ Duane, explains: “Tex was the bridge between Little Willie John (who's in the Hall) and James Brown. It's been said and confirmed that Brown lifted a lot of Tex's dance moves from him...he was George Clinton's fave singer and you can hear a lot of borrowed riffs in a TON of early-mid funkadelic tunes. Even Clinton's song-rap narrative is a direct descendant of Tex's unique style. He's an important unsung yet integral part of Funk's history....he's a foundation of hip hop that's for sure.” “Important” and “unsung,” then, but still not RRHoF. 

JOURNEY: If entry to a RRHoF ought to be based on some algorithm involving importance/influence, success/popularity, and innovation, Journey strains that algorithm by making its case overwhelmingly off of only the most déclassé of those factors. On this basis, should ‘Nsync eventually be voted in? Justin Bieber? However, there are a couple of things that make Journey more than a mere pop star vote. First, the band’s musicianship was of an extremely high caliber (if not particularly imaginative). Second, the presence of an exceedingly identifiable vocalist in Steve Perry, gave them a trademark sound far beyond and more affecting than peers such as Foreigner and REO Speedwagon. Lastly, the argument could be made that Journey has actually been influential in the larger culture simply due to the fact that so many outlets (from The Sopranos to Glee) have found their music to be resonant in numerous contexts. In short, many people still really love their stuff. That counts. 

KRAFTWERK: Another no-brainer. While pop artists from Perrey & Kingsley to the Silver Apples, to Tangerine Dream, to Sly Stone had been experimenting with drum-machines, synthesizers, and other electronics for years, no single artist was more responsible for developing electronic music into pop music than Kraftwerk. While I would not claim, as others have, that all electronic pop music, from electro-hip hop to synth-pop to techno would have been unthinkable without Kraftwerk, no one was more important or, um, instrumental in growing that branch of the Rock tree.

MC5: Like Bad Brains, deep cred here (Jennifer Aniston notwithstanding). MC5 were a jams kicking live band and, now, widely seen as a precursor to punk. It would be great to vote them in. The influence is there. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure the same could be said for their recorded output. They never really translated their blitzing live show to record and, of the many live recordings that exist, most are of bootleg sound quality. The MC5 deserve to be remembered and revered, but I’m not so sure that the RRHoF is really the most appropriate forum for their legacy.

PEARL JAM: Like Depeche Mode, PJ were more popularizers than innovators. However, they have maintained their status as one of the biggest American stadium bands for over three decades. If they deserve to get in (and they do), it would be primarily on the basis of their enduring size (with a nod to the straight-forward integrity with which they carry themselves). As for importance, they certainly deserve much credit for shaping the mainstream alternative sound of the 90s. However, as that page is written, there is no question that it was Nirvana who really marked that decade more than any other, even if Pearl Jam outsold them.

STEPPENWOLF: Give me a break. This would be like voting a pitcher into the baseball Hall of Fame for pitching a single no-hitter and a two-hitter.

TUPAC SHAKUR: I generally believe that hip hop is part of the larger “rock & roll” universe. However, that argument is easier to sustain with artists such as Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and NWA who all had strong elements of Rock within their sonic frameworks. With Tupac (and, soon, Biggie and most of the hip hop to follow), that interior Rock element is not as present (and, frankly, I was never much of a fan of his schtick). Still, if we are to take the shared Hip Hop and Rock universe seriously, we must also take seriously the apparent and wide-spread influence that hip hop culture claims for Tupac, but it’s borderline for me.

YES: An absolute no-brainer. In terms of success and influence, Yes are probably the most important Prog Rock band of all-time. They did not necessarily invent Prog Rock nor were they necessarily the most avant-garde, but they did more to define the sound and likely inspired more bands to make Prog Rock than any other band. Their five-album peak body of work is magnificent (only Genesis from that same time can challenge it) and their magnum opus, 1973’s Close to the Edge, is arguably the finest Prog Rock album ever recorded (and is also a worthy entry as one of the all-time greatest albums, of any genre). If we were to completely disregard all of their other recorded output (including the massive—and better than you might think—90125 i.e. the one with “Owner of a Lonely Heart”), on the basis of their deep peak, the heights of their finest work, and their profound influence, Yes should be a top-tier RRHoF selection.

THE ZOMBIES: Just as Depeche Mode parallels Pearl Jam, as successful popularizers rather than innovators, the Zombies maybe parallel Jane’s Addiction, as the writers of an exquisite—though relatively meagre—body of work that stands as among the greatest of its era, but which lacks longer-term influence. As with Jane’s, maybe the lack of Zombies disciples is testament to the group’s inimitability (particularly vocalist, Colin Blunstone’s, breathy romanticism). Borderline, even questionable, but undeniably wonderful.

 

R.I.P. Caroline Crawley (Shelleyan Orphan, This Mortal Coil, 4AD, Babacar)

In the wake of the Smiths' pining romanticism, the Cocteau Twin's gauzy ethereality, and Sarah Records' pastel preciousness emerged a fertile garden of melodically lush, faintly melancholy, and faintingly beautiful (predominantly British) artists in the late 80s and early 90s. One of the most striking of these artists was the neo-Romantic, pre-Raphaelite duo, Shelleyan Orphan. Eschewing synthesizers (and, frankly, most electric and electronic instrumentation), Shelleyan Orphan wove finely wrought strings with equally intricately braided vocals. Those vocals, particularly Ms. Crowley's ringleted, lightly trilling soprano, ornamented with light trills and filigree, could not have possibly been more perfectly suited for incanting the group's music if Dante Gabriel Rosetti had painted them himself.

Ms. Crawley passed this day. Here is the song that first stopped my heart with her voice: the cover of reclusive Canadian songstress, Mary Margaret O'Hara's, "Let Me Lift You Up," as performed by the seminal Goth-Romantic-Ambient label, 4AD's, iconic standard-bearer, This Mortal Coil, from which Ms. Crawley has just shuffled off....