Thursday, June 30, 2011

The '80s Tape: Tracks 19-23

19. Lionel Richie - "You Are" (1982) [Chart Peak: #4]

20. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton - "Islands In The Stream" (1983) [Chart Peak: #1]

21. Kenny Loggins - "Heart To Heart" (1983) [Chart Peak: #15]

22. Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton - "We've Got Tonight" (1983) [Chart Peak: #6]

23. Billy Joel - "Tell Her About It" (1983) [Chart Peak: #1]

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The '80s Tape: Tracks 13-18

13. Toto - "Rosanna" (1982) [Chart Peak: #2]

14. Toto - "Make Believe" (1982) [Chart Peak: #30]

15. Toto - "I Won't Hold You Back" (1982) [Chart Peak: #10]

16. Toto - "Africa" (1982) [Chart Peak: #1]

17. Eurythmics - "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" (1983) [Chart Peak: #1]

18. Earth, Wind & Fire - "September" (1978) [Chart Peak: #8]

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The '80s Tape: Tracks 7-12

7. Sergio Mendes - "Alibis" (1984) [Chart Peak: #29]

8. Sheena Easton - "For Your Eyes Only" (1981) [Chart Peak: #4]

9. Survivor - "Eye Of The Tiger" (1982) [Chart Peak: #1]

10. Kool & The Gang - "Tonight" (1984) [Chart Peak: #13]

11. Huey Lewis & The News - "Heart and Soul" (1983) [Chart Peak: #8]

12. The Alan Parsons Project - "Prime Time" (1984) [Chart Peak: #34]

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The '80s Tape: Tracks 1-6

1. David Bowie - "Let's Dance" (1983) [Chart Peak: #1]

2. Eddie Rabbitt and Crystal Gayle - "You and I" (1982) [Chart Peak: #7]

3. James Ingram and Michael McDonald - "Yah Mo B There" (1983) [Chart Peak: #19]

4. Hall & Oates - "Kiss on My List" (1981) [Chart Peak: #1]

5. Joe Jackson - "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)" (1984) [Chart Peak: #15]

6. The Go-Go's - "Head Over Heels" (1984) [Chart Peak: #11]

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lost Memories

I've been planning to write this well before Little Earl's '80's Tape piece, but it seems somewhat complimentary to his so now's a good time as any.

I don't know about you but occasionally there are bits of my memory that aren't perfect. I remember something slightly but not enough to recall the full memory. This usually crops up with old songs that I remember a line or two of. I might remember a phrase or a melody but don't have enough to go on to recall the full song or even enough to search Google for the lyrics. Recently, through luck and occasionally complete serendipity, I've completed these memories and now share them with you:

I have a foggy memory of a school dance. I think I was in middle school. There's a slow song playing and we're all awkwardly dancing like you do in middle school, technically you're touching a girl but you're standing as far apart as possible. The song has some lady singing some quiet ballad. But then I also remember some woman singing really vampy too, something like "you better hope and pray..." and that's all I can remember. Maybe these were two different songs, I can't remember.

I had this one line stuck in my head for many, many years, I could hear this lady singing it, but I couldn't remember anything further. Years ago I tried searching the internet but with no success. Then sometime in the last six months the next line jumped in my head, something like "waking in your own world". Googling this and BAM! there it is, in all it's glory, "Stay" by Shakespear's Sister (that's how you spell it, don't ask me). Wow, this brings me back to the early 90s. It's a silly little ballady pop song, but somewhere in my heart I have a place for it, perhaps due to my long search and years of not knowing just what the hell that damn song is called! Well, here it is folks:

Little known fact: apparently vampy girl was terribly drunk when her part was filmed since she had been waiting around all day with nothing to do while the rest of the video was being shot.

Now it's the mid-90s and I'm in the boys locker room in high school. There's a bunch of those Mexican gangsta looking kids and maybe some white boy wanna-be gangsta guys. They keeping singing some hip hop song about a hurricane. I remember hearing it on KMEL even (though why I would have been listening to KMEL is beyond me, maybe someone had a portable radio?). Somehow a part of the song gets lodged in my head, something like, "Hurricane, but you can call me something something". Dammit, what is it?? For years this bit of a line is stuck in my noggin, and I keep hoping that maybe in some best of the 90s retrospect on VH1 it will pop up, but alas, maybe it was all just a dream?

Then recently I'm reading some article on the AV Club. Someone in the comments mentioned a hurricane and some poster (God bless 'em) responds with "but you can call me slurricane!" THAT'S IT!! That's the next line! Googling quick I come upon this golden gem by The Click, and they're apparently from Vallejo. Ahhh, the high school locker room memories...

That "dah da da da da da da" is sure damn catchy.

My third and final memory goes back, way back (is this The Tree of Life?). I'm probably no more than 8 years old, maybe even younger. I'm with a friend, let's just call him Macklan, and there's a game we used to play a lot of on his dad's old Atari. It's like Space Invaders but not quite the same. I really don't remember a lick of info beyond that. Then I'm sitting here at my job, unboxing things related to the history of early computing, when I find a familiar looking box. A very familiar looking box. Wait, that picture, I... remember. The game: Demon Attack. Oh yeah, it's like Space Invaders BUT BETTER. Wow, this is something I thought I'd never ever find the true name of, and now the box is sitting right in front of me, complete with the cool looking alien spaceship and everything!

Trust me, this was pretty damn awesome back in the day.

And there you have it folks. I can now die having lived a happy, fulfilling life - one full of memories of wanna be space invaders, mid 90s hip-hop, and vampy space ballads.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The '80s Tape

Once upon a time, there was a black TDK cassette. It looked something like this:

Sometime in 1984, my mother used this cassette to tape several songs off Top 40 radio. My mother and I didn't always get along too well, but with this tape, I must admit that she created a masterpiece. She was not a person who intellectualized music the way that I do. But here, she possessed the instincts of a natural.

Although by accident rather than design, the tape became a perfect slice, an expert capsule of what pop music in 1984 was all about. Most of the major artists of that time were represented in some fashion. Almost every song was a winner. Even the duds were mostly tolerable. Huge hits sat next to relatively lower-charting gems. Songs that I still hear on the radio to this day were nestled against songs that, for years, I had only heard on that tape.

The '80s Tape had some idiosyncratic features. In a painfully hilarious way, the tape captured the passive-aggressive nature of my parents' relationship. Initially, I believe my father had used it to tape some of his favorite songs off his LP copy of Toto's monster album Toto IV. I guess he only wanted to listen to the four big hit singles (which were "Rosanna," "Make Believe," "I Won't Hold You Back," and "Africa") and didn't feel like lifting the needle. Or he wanted to hear the songs in the car. At any rate, my mother apparently took the tape and recorded her own songs over it. But she did a sloppy job. So on Side One of the tape, "Rosanna" played in totality, and then about a minute of the way through "Make Believe," there was a loud click, and then the tape began playing the last minute or so of David Bowie's "Let's Dance," before slipping into some DJ banter.

My father later grabbed the tape and must have realized, with horror, what my mother had done. Undeterred, he simply taped the four Toto songs onto the start of Side Two, my mother's songs be damned. So the tape as I knew it featured the four Toto songs at the start of Side Two, complete with silence in between, so it was obviously not the radio, and then when "Africa" faded into the ghostly Saharan night, suddenly there was another loud click, and you heard the last minute or so of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)." And the rest of Side Two consisted of my mother's songs.

Certain songs were missing their opening seconds. And little bits of opening seconds were sandwiched in between completed songs. I specifically remember the introductory piano notes of Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock And Roll" left dangling uncompleted between two cuts. One song was even recorded twice, for some bizarre reason. But all these little quirks were part of the '80s Tape's charm.

Despite the battle for supremacy, both mother and father agreed to listen to the tape in the car, and it became a staple of our family drives. I can't say how long, precisely, it reigned, but at some point, it must have fallen out of favor, perhaps to make way for the new Madonna or Gloria Estefan album.

Almost ten years later, in 1994, I was rummaging around in the house when I stumbled upon a black TDK cassette. "What is this?" I thought to myself. I plopped it into the stereo, and instantly I knew. "Ah, The '80s Tape." The memories came flooding back, and flooding back hard. The tape seemed to be particularly evocative of night time drives through San Francisco, for reasons that remain mysterious to me. I have no specific memory of driving through San Francisco at night listening to the tape. Perhaps a couple such drives took place. Doesn't matter. The tape, to this day, still reminds me of that vibe. It's a good vibe. As a child, the city seemed vast and glorious and impossibly mysterious. I liked the city more than the trailer park in Half Moon Bay, I can tell you that.

So when I rediscovered the '80s Tape in 1994, all those associations came back with it. I listened to that tape the entirety of my freshman year of high school. I went to the library and tried to find out the names of all the songs on the tape, and the artists who recorded them. This was before the internet, folks. Finally, I got sick of the tape again and discovered alternative rock. Not really. But I moved on to other albums. I did keep The '80s Tape around, however. I believe I still have it to this day. It's sitting in a corner of my room with all the other cassettes I never listen to anymore but don't have the nerve to throw out.

And yet, although the tape itself has been retired, the music lives on. One night in college, I downloaded each of its songs and reconstructed the running order on my computer. It was strange to hear the tracks without the awkward endings and occasional radio static. But the overall spirit remained.

And now, for the benefit of the readers of Cosmic American Blog, I am about to perform a similar reconstruction, this time through the powers of YouTube. A few words before I do.

I am going to post about six videos per post, free of commentary. Whenever possible, I am going to post the official music video. When no such video is available, I am going to post an audio-only version or a reasonably representative live version. As mentioned, both sides of the tape began with Toto's "Rosanna." I am only going to feature it once here. Likewise, Michael McDonald and James Ingram's "Yah Mo B There" was recorded by my mother twice. Maybe she really liked "Yah Mo B There"; maybe she'd forgotten that she'd already recorded it. However, I am only going to include it once. You will notice that a couple of tracks actually date from the late '70s. I'm not exactly sure how Top 40 stations chose their playlists back in the day, but apparently they were willing to stretch a few years back. More analysis to follow. But first, without further ado: The '80s Tape.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why I Like The Pitchfork 500

Let's be honest: the Pitchfork 500 essentially overlaps with my taste in music. There are not too many of my absolute favorite artists from 1977-2007 who are not represented on the list. Sure, they left out some late '70s mainstream acts I would have included, such as latter-day Pink Floyd, latter-day Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees, or even Supertramp. But we do get Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, ABBA, and the Electric Light Orchestra, so those bases are sort of covered by implication. Likewise, the Pitchfork 500 overlooks a lot of cherished '80s pop guilty pleasures of mine, such as George Michael, Janet Jackson, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Billy Joel - the list is endless. But hey, they do include Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Hall & Oates, and even Journey for God's sake. So the cheese is not completely unrepresented.

According to Pitchfork, between 1977 and 2007, country music did not exist. Unless you count Wilco or the Meat Puppets. I wouldn't argue with them too loudly, but one late '70s Willie Nelson song might have been nice.

They do a nice job with rap, which constitutes about 10% of the list, but I explored rap so thoroughly back in 2008 that there were few new discoveries for me here. Although there were a few, such as Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two," Souls of Mischief's "93 Til Infinity," and the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks On Me."

More objectionable to my peers, I imagine, rather than myself, is the absence of many "significant" '90s American rock acts, such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But Green Day, Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nine Inch Nails all make an appearance, so it's not explicitly anti-American mainstream rock per se. Mostly I think Pitchfork just wanted to make a "different" kind of list, for better or worse. Besides, I know from their other reviews that they do in fact like Pink Floyd and Pearl Jam and many of these bands. I understand; you can't include everybody.

And yes, 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. But I'm not an alien, am I?

Maybe four or five years ago, I wouldn't have been interested in the Pitchfork 500. See, I used to get all worked up if I downloaded something that I didn't think was very good, because, man, it was such a waste of time to listen to something I didn't really like. But now...I've got time to waste. Sure, I'll sit there and listen to some post-punk album that kind of stinks. Because hey, what the hell else am I going to do?

I used to be an AMG Five Star Purist. If an album didn't receive five stars in the All Music Guide, I didn't want to have anything to do with it. The most enthusiastic four-and-a-half star review was not good enough for me. Was it essential? No? Forget it.

Then a funny thing happened. I finally heard just about every five star album in the All Music Guide. Now four-and-a-half star albums don't seem so bad. Maybe even some four star albums. Maybe even some three star albums! Two-and-a-half stars is pushing it.

So for someone who had run out of music to explore, the Pitchfork 500 was like a goldmine. And divorced from the actual writing, as simply a list of songs, it was terrific. It was like a big pile of eclectic, smartly-chosen music. That doesn't mean I don't think it could have been better. It could have been much better. But as a tool for exploring music from the '80s and '90s, it was pretty damn handy.

I decided to treat the Pitchfork 500, however flawed, as an opportunity - as a road map for further music exploration. I decided to take my time. If I came to a song on the list by an artist I was unfamiliar with, and I liked the song, then I would download an album of theirs, with guidance from AMG. Maybe I would download their whole discography. Who could say? Maybe I would download an album from a band not featured on the Pitchfork 500, but listed as a "similar" artist to a Pitchfork 500 band on AMG.

In this manner, I quickly found myself knee deep in the '80s.

And I quickly realized that my fear of someday running out of worthwhile music to acquire was unfounded. There are simply too many different little genres and subgenres to explore, particularly in England: New Wave, Post-Punk, Dance Pop, Jangle Pop, Pop Metal, Thrash Metal, Shoegaze, Lo-Fi, Industrial, Electronica, Sadcore, Neo-Glam, Post-Glam, Sad-Glam ... OK now I'm just making them up. And all the different record label "scenes," like SST, IRS, Rough Trade, 4AD, Creation, Sub Pop, Matador...dare I go on? Apparently there was a whole scene built up around Sarah Records. What the hell is Sarah Records?!

Ah, we'll find out soon enough. But first, a discussion of '80s music of an altogether different kind.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

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

I guess I prefer lists that present themselves as simply one person's taste in music (like our own Top Ten Albums of the '90s, for instance). Because once you start trying to pass of a list as "definitive," you're basically trying to tell other people what music they should like, and in the process, you somewhat make an ass of yourself.

Witness the writing in this book. My lord, the writing. It suffers from the same problem, I feel, from which most contemporary critical writing suffers: the writers share very little about their own personal experience with the subject. They're trying really hard to say something "new" about music that's already been written about, but mostly they're making up nonsense. They would have come much closer to saying something "new" if they'd simply written from a more personal perspective. In addition to being obnoxious, the writers also frequently get their facts wrong, misquoting lyrics and attributing singing parts to the wrong singers in certain bands. I could go all day, but I have other things to do.

Well, one more thing. Their attempt to emphasize "the song" over "the album" mostly backfires. Often they seem to realize that they need to represent a significant album somewhere on the list, so they simply pick one song from a great album out of many other equally strong possibilities. Maybe some albums contain more than one of the "Greatest Songs From Punk To The Present"? Doesn't matter. They only choose one song per album, no matter how loaded the with classics the album may be. It makes some sense; who wants to list half the songs on London Calling? But it's disingenuous to pretend that they only picked "the greatest songs." Besides, in the essays for certain songs, you can tell the writers just wanted to write about the whole album, and they barely even discuss the actual song they've chosen. "But no, we can't pick an album because this list is about songs." Oh, right.

And what does it mean for a piece of music to be "significant" and "influential," anyway? I think music can be significant and influential in many ways.

One way to measure the influence of a musician is to see how many other musicians who followed ended up creating music in a similar style. This is probably the definition of "influential" that Pitchfork has in mind. But hell, you could say that Alabama and Reba McEntire were extremely influential, in that the sheer volume of modern music that owes something to their borderline Adult Contemporary approach to '80s country could fill the Caspian Sea. Does that make them "great"? I would not say so. Music can't just be "influential." It has to be something more.

If you ask me, to measure influence within the confines of some sort of linear musical narrative is to only measure a small slice of what music can mean to people. The other aspect of "influence" is the amount of influence a piece of music can have on an individual's life and philosophy. For example: many rock critics would say that Pink Floyd's The Wall was not very influential on music, in the sense that few later acts tried to emulate its "meticulously produced rock opera" style, whereas they would say that The Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols was, in the sense that many later acts did decide to emulate its "we can't play worth a damn but who really gives a shit" style. But personally, The Wall (with its message against self-imposed isolation) has been more influential in my own life than Never Mind The Bollocks has (with its message of...telling the Queen to piss off?). So to look at "influence" only in terms of some historical artistic narrative is to view influence in a narrow and limited way.

But in order to talk about that kind of influence, the Pitchfork writers would have to share much more personal information about themselves. Which is something they don't seem very interested in doing.