Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why I Don't Like The Pitchfork 500 - Part II

No, this list is not completely ridiculous. It does not entirely exclude mainstream music. And maybe there wouldn't be anything wrong with a list that did. But why throw a bone to mainstream music while essentially marginalizing it? It's like "Yeah, we know, some commercial hits were really good." Some? Thanks Pitchfork, I'm glad I have your permission.

Or maybe they have a heart after all. Maybe they anticipated that their list would be accused of being too snobby, or maybe they actually appreciate and respect some mainstream music, but regardless of the reason, there are some very well-known, commercially successful songs from the last 30 years included in the Pitchfork 500. I'd say about 10-15% of the songs either charted on the U.S. Billboard Top 40, or appeared on albums that charted on the U.S. Billboard Top 40. So good job, guys.

But the mainstream choices that they make! Dear God! Some examples:

1) Bruce Springsteen. They don't overlook Bruce Springsteen. Actually, I'm not sure I would have minded if they did. But they don't. So what songs do they pick? "Hungry Heart"? "Born In The U.S.A.?" "Glory Days"? Oh no. No, they pick "Atlantic City" and "I'm On Fire." Why, because they are cool, artsy Springsteen and not as obvious?

2) U2. Sure, they pick a couple of U2 songs. "One"? "With Or Without You?" Nope: "New Year's Day" from War and "Bad" from The Unforgettable Fire. Apparently U2 disappeared off the face of the earth after 1985. Come on. You mean to tell me that "Bad" is a "greater" song than anything off The Joshua Tree or Achtung, Baby? I know you guys don't really believe that. But you sat around and thought, "Well, everybody knows those songs, and they appear on plenty of other lists, so let's leave them off ours."

3) Same with R.E.M. Sure, they're on the list, but only "Radio Free Europe" and "South Central Rain," before they went completely downhill in ... what, 1986?

4) Nirvana. We get two Nirvana songs: "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which is a well-known song, and "Scentless Apprentice" from In Utero, which is not. Why not represent In Utero with "Heart-Shaped Box," "All Apologies," or even "Serve The Servants"? Because they want to be kooky, that's why.

In so many places, the choices reek of posturing. Why The Sugarhill Gang's "8th Wonder" and not "Rapper's Delight"? Find me a person who thinks "8th Wonder" is either better or more significant than "Rapper's Delight." No solo John Lennon (he still wasn't dead yet), but Yoko Ono's "Walking On Thin Ice?" Sure, I guess so. The Pet Shop Boys are on here, but it's their 1990 single "Being Boring." Just go with "West End Girls" and stop trying to be so contrarian, damn it. Talking Heads' album Remain In Light is represented by "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)," not "Once In A Lifetime." Hey, I probably like "Born Under Punches" just as much as "Once In A Lifetime," but come on.

I mean, if they called it "500 Overlooked Songs From 1977-2007," then I wouldn't be as irritated. But no, these are the "essential" songs, not the overlooked songs. The problem is, if an alien landed on Planet Earth and asked me to give him a list of the 500 best songs between 1977-2007, I would not give him this list. Or how about "500 Songs From 1977-2007 That A Person With A Passing Interest In Popular Music Might Not Be Totally Familiar With." And if they called it that, I would be OK. But no, they really wanted to pass this off as some sort of Definitive List. Like, "If you don't hear an artist that's not on our list, you aren't missing anything." Which is obnoxious.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why I Don't Like The Pitchfork 500 - Part I

Some people know more about music than other people do. However, it's not the knowledge itself, but what we choose to do with our knowledge that truly separates the ignorant from the enlightened. If you are one of these knowledgeable people, and you come across a person who is less knowledgeable than you, do you A) try to share your knowledge with that person in the hopes of making him or her happier, or do you B) boast about how much more you know than that other person and try to cultivate within yourself a cheap sense of superiority? If you answered B), then you may be a writer for Pitchfork Media.

The Pitchfork 500 is not just "Our Guide To The Greatest Songs From Punk To The Present." It's also "Our Guide In Which We Point Out To Lazy Mainstream Music Fans How Little They Know About Every Indie Subgenre Of The Last Thirty Years." In short, it's the snobbiest list of music from 1977-2007 that you've ever seen in your life.

Sure, I can understand. It's annoying to see a list like, for example (to talk about the '90s for a second), VH1's Top 100 Songs of the '90s. This list looks for all the world like it was compiled by a record executive. There are no weird choices, no surprising choices, no idiosyncratic choices. This VH1 list asks nothing of the reader, fails to challenge the reader, fails to expand his or her taste in music. It's a list that seems to be pitched toward the typical UCLA sorority girl. I would not recommend this list to a person unfamiliar with the music of the '90s and say with confidence that it would be a handy guide to the best music of that decade.

But, alas, one can also go too far in the other direction. Enter Pitchfork. I don't think the Pitchfork 500 was created with the purest of intentions; I think it was created as a reaction to lists like VH1's. You can smell the calculation dripping from every choice. It's not just "Here are 500 songs you might like," it's "Here are 500 songs we know about and you don't." It's "Ooh, look at us, we're including all these tracks that most people wouldn't have been smart enough to include." It's, "Ooh, look at all those big, era-defining hits we're not including." Dear Pitchfork writers: some people do not know as much about music as you do. Accept it, and move on.

Here's the thing. I'll bet these writers all have mp3 collections filled with much cheesier mainstream music. But they've chosen to pretend they don't, and that their taste only conforms to the songs that it's "OK" to enjoy, lest their fellow writers be looking over their shoulder. It's the Taste Police. And, to paraphrase N.W.A., fuck the Taste Police.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nail on Head

Yesterday Lady Gaga's new album Born This Way dropped. You may recall that last year I wrote a fairly gushing piece on the Lady, praising the mystique she's created surrounding herself and the general catchiness of her music.

Now, I haven't had a chance to listen to the whole album yet, though I've heard about half of it through various outlets, but I have to say, I think Lady Gaga is beginning to lose her bite.

Eagerly awaiting AMG's review of the album (which I am certain will be penned by Stephen Thomas Erlewine) I couldn't help notice that Mr. Erlewine has already penned a blog entry on the album. Folks, this guy has hit the nail on it's head.

He writes: "Gaga has taken it upon herself to filter out whatever personal details remain in her songs so she can write anthems for her Little Monsters, that ragtag group of queers, misfits, outcasts, and rough kids who she calls her own... Whatever performance art shock Gaga had on The Fame/The Fame Monster has turned into pure theater. Her drama club ambition to marry rock & roll rebellion with her disco beats turns Born This Way into Like a Prayer by way of Bat Out of Hell... Gaga has chosen not to dig under the skin. She’s quite content to state her themes then let them be...All well and good, and all very entertaining, but this is an album that’s meant to be more: it’s intended to be a soundtrack to a way of life, but it winds up playing as a collection of songs."

And that is pretty much EXACTLY the way I feel about what I've heard so far. Before, Gaga's music sounded effortless, but when I hear one of her new songs like the titular Born This Way, it just sounds so deliberate. The reviewer at Sputnik Music hits that nail again, driving it all the way in (think Karate Kid with the one-two hit) when he writes "Born This Way is one giant anthem, but songs written specifically to be anthems can never actually be anthems, no matter how infectious they are."


Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Pitchfork 500

About three years ago, Pitchfork Media published a book called The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide To The Greatest Songs From Punk To The Present. In it, Pitchfork claimed to "condense thirty years of essential music into the ultimate chronological playlist, each song advancing the narrative and, by extension, the music itself." They also claimed to do a lot of other fantastic things, like "reflect the way listeners are increasingly processing music—by song rather than by album," and prove that Baby Boomers have been mistaken, and annoying, in claiming that their era was a better era for music than the post-Baby Boomer era.

Shortly after the book came out, I walked into Borders and took a good look. Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is what I saw:

The Pitchfork 500

Take your time. Soak it in. It's hard to know where to start. I understand.

I will admit that I had some expectations. There would be a lot of alternative and indie rock. Many famous hit songs would be left off. Other than that, I wasn't quite sure what would be included.

The first thing that hit me was the writing. More on that later. The second thing that hit me was that, while I was familiar with a majority of the songs on their list, I was somewhat dismayed to realize that I was unfamiliar with roughly 200 of them. Maybe they were 200 songs that weren't any good. I probably wasn't missing anything. But still, my ego took a hit. I was supposed to know everything. Even though I was almost positive that all the songs in the Pitchfork 500 that I hadn't heard of weren't any good, I still felt like I needed to hear them. Maybe they sucked, but I had to know that they sucked.

Thus taking the phrase "Know your enemy" to heart, I decided that I needed to download every song on the Pitchfork 500 that I hadn't heard, realize that they stank, and then complain about it on my blog. So after work for a couple of evenings, I sat down with a pen and a piece of paper and painstakingly wrote down the names of all the songs in the Pitchfork 500 I'd either never heard, or at least couldn't recall off the top of my head. Sure, the easy thing to do would have been to just buy the book, but I couldn't stand the thought of bringing that ... thing into my home.

I went home and got about five songs in before I moved on to better things. About a year or so later, while trying to download something entirely unrelated, I noticed that some enterprising young individual had already compiled and uploaded the entire Pitchfork 500 onto the internet. Well, this was much easier. So I downloaded the entire, pre-compiled Pitchfork 500. And now I am going to tell you what I think of it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Little Earl Loves The Music Of The '80s: Introduction - The Divided Decade

I know what you're asking yourself. "Why, Little Earl? Why?"

And why now? Why here?

So what happened? Let me tell you what happened.

I ran out of '60s and '70s music is one thing that happened. I tried everything. I tried Country. I tried Rap. I even tried Jazz. I started getting desperate. I downloaded some French pop. Then some Italian pop. That was when I knew I had pretty much hit bottom, the Italian pop.

So downloading is what happened. And YouTube. So much of the appeal of '80s pop music is tied to music video. I didn't have access to these videos before. I have access to them now. But maybe something else, something even more mysterious, has happened.

I was born in 1980. I could not be more of a child of the '80s if I tried. The music I heard in the '80s was the music my parents were listening to on the radio. My parents, unlike many Baby Boomers, did not listen to the music of the '60s. I grew up in a world in which The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Motown, Elvis, "Oldies," "Classic Rock," and so on, did not exist. Why exactly I grew up in this world is hard to say; you'd have to ask my parents. Nonetheless, '80s Top 40 radio was the music of my childhood. To hear the hits of the '80s is to be whisked immediately back into my origins.

I didn't always feel so hot about my childhood. But maybe I am feeling better about it now. Cynic that I am, part of me didn't think that I would actually live this long, or that the United States of America would still be a functioning nation, or that we wouldn't have all been wiped out by some sort of nuclear radioactive biological supervirus. So when I hear Kool & The Gang's "Cherish" in 2011, I am genuinely appreciating the fact that after all these years I am still alive and still able to appreciate such a terrific, if extremely cheesy, song. You might say that I cherish it.

But the '80s of my childhood, as I've gradually learned, is only half the story. Stephen Thomas Erlewine may have hit the nail on the head in his review of Rhino's Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box (Totally):
Rock criticism has two schools of thought regarding the '80s. One complains that it was all crass, commercial crap, breathing a sigh of relief that we made it through that dreck (thanks to IRS, SST, jangle pop, college rock, and hardcore punk, of course). The other celebrates the decade as "cheesy" fun, full of naïve, silly singles; bad haircuts; big synthesizers. It's a school intent on reducing it all as nostalgic fodder -- and whenever '80s music is written about in this fashion, it's always given ironic adjectives, straight out of the height of valley girl speak. All this ghettoizes an era in pop music that was rich in innovation, great one-hit wonders, oddities, and inexplicable flukes that make it a wonderful cross between the first days of the British Invasion and the peak of AM pop in the early '70s. It was the last great era for pop singles -- the last time that singles really mattered, the last time that something totally unexpected could capture the minds of the public, before radio consolidation meant hits couldn't build in a region, before MTV turned to non-music programming and cut off a national outlet for new music.
I admit it - I'm more or less an album guy. That's why the '80s have always bothered me. It seems like after Thriller, the goal pretty much became "How many hit singles can we extract from an album?" Not "How can we make a great album, and then maybe possibly pull a song for a single?" So imagine you're me, it's 1998 and you're exploring a lot of music, and mp3s don't really exist yet. Are you going to want to buy or borrow a CD that has a couple of great songs on it, or are you going to want to buy or borrow a CD that has a lot of great songs on it? Yes, thanks for playing.

But as Erlewine suggests, there were bands who focused on albums in the '80s - it's just that they were the alternative bands. Unlike the '60s or the '70s, where there were some cult acts, but on the whole almost every significant artist made a mainstream impact in some way, the '80s really were two decades. As if one '80s wasn't scary enough. There was the mainstream decade, and there was the underground decade. And the two decades did not interact. Aside from a few select artists (whom I may discuss), the mainstream did not know the underground even existed, and the underground had little desire to be associated with the mainstream.

Until recently, I've never liked this. I like music that's thoughtful, creative, and challenging, and yet somehow finds an epic place in the sweeping pop culture narrative that is unfolding in my head. "Our band could be your life," The Minutemen sang. Well what if I imagine my life to be grand and mystical? If a band could be my life, could I pick The Beatles? Maybe I'm like that working-class Republican who doesn't support raising taxes on rich people because, hell, I'm a-gonna be rich someday too. Why would I want a band to be my life? My life sucks!

It's probably fair to say that the underground and mainstream somehow merged once again in the '90s, before both concepts ceased to mean anything, and all music in general, mainstream or underground, became rather crummy. Thus is the world in which we find ourselves today. Suddenly that split in the '80s doesn't seem so bad. I have to say that, in comparison to contemporary pop music, '80s mainstream pop music is sounding pretty damn good. At least I can find several shamelessly catchy and memorable singles sprinkled liberally throughout the decade. I'm not even asking for deep, profound music here. I just want something at least on the level of "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" or "Everything She Wants."

There are rock critics who would argue that the alternative '80s was the "real" '80s, and that the mainstream '80s was just a big fraud and a sham. But here's my opinion: I don't really prefer one over the other. For years I have found both halves of the '80s to be lacking. The mainstream '80s was too singles oriented, and the singles were often blandly produced love songs with overly-generic lyrics. The alternative '80s was too navel-gazing, amateurish, and sonically abrasive. Everything was out of balance. There was no perfect '80s. But hey, I knew this already.

So here's what I am going to do. I am going to talk about the alternative '80s, and I am going to talk about the mainstream '80s. I am going to talk about them separately. In my mind they are genuinely separate things. They remind me of two completely different eras in my own life. The alternative '80s reminds me of my college years. The mainstream '80s reminds me of my childhood in a visceral way that I find somewhat disturbing. Depending on what mood I'm in, I can enjoy both equally. I am that rare beast. Well, me and Stephen Thomas Erlewine.

How am I going to do this? Simple. To discuss each aspect of the '80s, I am going to utilize two separate music collections as my launching pads. To begin my discussion of the alternative '80s, I am going to write about The Pitchfork 500. To begin my discussion of the mainstream '80s, I am going to write about what is known in my family simply as "The '80s Tape."

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, 2010)

I'm here to review Heavy Rain, a game for the Playstation 3 I just finished playing and one that I'm not sure exactly what to say about. To begin with, it's been marketed as a new type of videogame storytelling, one where your actions in the game influence the outcome of events in ways never thought possible before in videogaming. The makers call it, perhaps somewhat pretentiously, "interactive cinema". To add weight to this lofty ambition, the developers, Quantic Dream, have gone all out in the CGI department, using motion capture to create highly detailed characters that at times look almost real (check out the original E3 2006 demo). It's all quite a large feat, and Quantic Dream, well, they kind of pull it off, but not quite.

Remember in the past when people thought up the idea of interactive movies, where the audience would be watching a film, and when prompted, decide what a character should do next by pressing a button and inputting their choice? Except no one wanted to do this - you go to the movies to be immersed and entertained, not asked what you want the protagonist to do next. Well, this interactivity is at the crux of Heavy Rain, and it actually manages to work, perhaps because the player is the sole decision maker. In this sense it vaguely resembles an old Choose-your-own-adventure book.

Heavy Rain is a murder/mystery story revolving around a handful of characters, each with their own motivations and desires, on the hunt for the elusive 'Origami Killer'. The killer kidnaps children who are then found dead a few days later drowned in water holding an origami figure in their hands. It makes for a great setup, and the characters are fairly believable and fit the story well. The story opens with a prologue with you playing as the main protagonist Ethan, a father of two children. One day one of your boys gets killed due to some slight negligence on Ethan's part. The game then shifts forward a few years where we find Ethan has become a distraught wreck, divorced from his wife, living in regret over his first son's death. Soon, his second son gets kidnapped by the Origami Killer, setting in motion the events of the game.

It's an intriguing story, as Ethan's desire to find his boy is made all the more urgent considering he's already lost one of his children. Other playable characters include a comely journalist, an aging private investigator, and an FBI agent.

The other aspect that makes the game unique is the control scheme. Done away with are standard button mapping concepts such as "Hit A to jump", instead each action your character performs is determined by an onscreen prompt that guides you in how to perform a specific action. While difficult to explain in text, it works ingeniously well as the button presses become proportionally difficult to the task at hand. It also adds a sense of bonding with each character that doesn't usually occur in a game,

Heavy Rain has many terrific moments. Playing as Ethan, the Origami Killer begins sending you messages. These messages outline tasks Ethan must do if he wishes to save his son. Some are straight out of the Saw series of movies (though it should be noted that the game is primarily a whodunnit and not a horror flick), and since you are carrying out the action using approximate button presses, it makes the action that much more visceral and exciting. In one of my favorite sequences, Ethan is told by the killer that he must drive for five miles going the wrong way on the freeway. It's an intensely exciting experience, one that had me jumping out of my seat as I struggled to keep control of the car and not hit any oncoming traffic (watch it here).

This leads into the next interesting mechanic that Heavy Rain offers. Your characters can die. And you don't get to start the scene over. So if one of the characters doesn't make it, their plotline is finished, they won't have anything else to contribute to the rest of the game. This ties in neatly with the choose-your-own-adventure feel of the game, leading to branching stories and scenes that may or may not occur depending on your actions. Luckily I managed to keep everyone alive and got an appropriately rewarding ending, though it should be noted that none of the endings are considered 'the right' or 'best' ending.

However, the game has many, many faults. To begin with, it's a slow start. The first third of the game is a bore, as you learn the basics of the control scheme through such mundane tasks as brushing your teeth or making a sandwich.

Second, Quantic Dream is a French company and they used all French voice actors. Sure, many of them have terrific American accents, but frequently the French accent slips through, ruining the sense that I'm supposed to be a grizzled P.I. in Philadelphia. This is most notable with the character Lauren and Ethan's two sons, who just sound so, so, French.

The game suffers from some pretty large plotholes as well. A major recurring plot point that strongly suggests Ethan has something to do with his own child's kidnapping is glaringly never resolved. Near the end of the game, once the plot begins to come together, you'll find that suddenly characters who have never met suddenly know each other. This is a major distraction from an otherwise intriguing story.

My final grievance comes from the fact that the identity of the Origami Killer always remains the same. I was under the impression that depending on how you played, the identity of the Killer would be different, that way each playthrough would be truly unique. Alas, this is not so, and it somewhat undermines the fundemental idea that your actions determine the outcome. Additionally, the actual final identity of the Killer is a bit of a cop-out and a let down.

So what do I really think of the game? I loved the control scheme, and I enjoyed the branching narratives and different ways the action can be played out in each scene. I would love to see another game like this made with the same controls and choose-your-own-adventure style of storytelling, but one done with voice actors who actually sounded like they were supposed to, and one where the plot made more sense. There's a lot of potential here to create more engaging, meaningful stories, someone just needs to figure out how to make it all work.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Nicolas Cage: What Is Going On In There?

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine hosted what he termed "Bad Movie Night." It was to be, he hoped, the first of many. The inaugural feature: Nicolas Cage's 1989 film Vampire's Kiss. He was inspired to rent it after viewing the following clip:

Needless to say, Vampire's Kiss was everything he hoped it would be and more. In this film, Nicolas Cage manages to chew on people's necks with a set of false plastic teeth, eat a real live cockroach, occasionally speak in an English accent for no apparent reason, smash an entire bathroom to pieces, and spend at least twenty minutes engaging in a conversation with the side of a brick building. Vampire's Kiss was like American Psycho, except instead of being a retro-nostalgic take on the late '80s, was actually made in the late '80s.

Apparently satisfied by our selection, we realized there was a commentary track featuring the one and only Cage, and we decided to listen to it, in the hopes that he might explain what the hell he was thinking when he opted to make this movie. But alas, the commentary track only deepened the mystery. Cage seemed to be aware that the movie was funny, but he did not seem to be aware that the movie was bad. In other words, yes, it was funny, but not for the reasons he intended. It just made me ponder one of the essential questions of our age, namely: Nicolas Cage and his brain - what the hell is going on in there?

Nicolas Cage appears to lack any sense of quality control. I imagine a conversation between him and his agent must go something like this:

Agent: Hey Nic...
Cage: Yo!
Agent: I've got another part for you, it's called Leaving Las Vegas-
Cage: I'll do it!
Agent: How 'bout, here's another one, it's called Wicker Man-
Cage: I'll do it!
Agent: OK, here's another one, it's called Adaptation-
Cage: I'll do it!
Agent: Here's one, it's called Gone In 60 Seconds-
Cage: I'll do it!
Agent: How about, this one looks good, it's called Moonstruck-
Cage: I'll do it!
Agent: Hmm, what do you think about Ghost Rider-
Cage: I'll do it!

One thing you've got to say about Nicolas Cage: no matter what the role, he brings his A game. Whether it's Matchstick Men or The Wicker Man, the dude is into it. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), he is not able to distinguish between a role that benefits from an intense approach, and one that doesn't. The man is a master at, shall we shall, "losing his shit." Hence the infamous YouTube video, "Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit":

So why is he smearing paint all over himself? I doubt even he could answer that question. One blogger has dared to go where others fear to tread. Witness 30 Days of Nic Cage. The description: "Nicolas Cage is in some pretty good films. He is in some OK films. He is also in some astonishingly bad films. I am going to watch 30 of them in 30 days." I hope this man has good medical coverage.

Finally, the Cage Matrix: a handy guide to Nicolas Cage's filmography, plotted on two axes. One axis plots his roles from "Brilliant" to "Rubbish," while the other axis plots his roles from "Serious" to "Mental." I think you may find their system surprisingly useful.