Friday, December 10, 2010

The Five Essential Albums of Rock and Rap

Thanks to the incomparable Joe Venito for suggesting this topic. I can't say for rap, but I'll take a shot at rock. I've always been a greatest hits type, never one to listen to full albums (with the exception of David Bowie). So I'm just going to write about my five favorite rock artists/bands. You guys can read a history of rock anywhere so this entry is not so much an authoritative analysis of the genre . . . it's just my personal top five.

The Rolling Stones:

For me, rock music began with the Stones and achieved its classic high point with the Stones. They are the archetypal rock band: they've got the badass attitude; charisma; a powerful, distinctively grooving, rock rhythm section; hot guitar work; everything's sweaty and improvised . . . they were/are rebels par excellence and, above all, they knew how to capture that feeling of rebellion and translate it into musical sound.

Rock music grew up under the Stones. Before the Stones, it was the soundtrack to suburban teenage life, you know, sock-hop fare. But, with the Stones, rock started to sound smart, powerful, mature, soulful, . . . and very much for grown ups (at least college kid age, we'll say). It wasn't just for teenage girls to squeal at. Plus, it sounded musically sophisticated. The Stones were great players and, even this many years later, their records still sound fresh and grooving . . . particularly an album like Exile on Main Street.

Also, I think more than any other band, the Stones fused together blues, country, and RnB and gave it a little something extra to form bona fide rock music. Pre-Stones rock music tends to sound too heavily rooted in one genre or another, particularly country or RnB, to really sound like rock. Think of the country twang of rockabilly music (Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes") or the keyboard-driven RnB of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," the latter of which sounds like Ray Charles only faster and sillier. Or take a number like Elvis's "Hounddog": it's got that RnB thump to it, the beat hadn't quite changed . . . and it sounds like the great old blues singer Big Momma Thornton's version, only more uptempo and with pop-inflected backing vocals and hand claps. The genres had yet to gel with one another to form rock music, and, even though several key ingredients were in place (the backbeat, the party/rebel vibe, the instrumentation), the music just didn't rock yet. The Stones somehow knew how to make it rock, and they did this by making the music equal parts country, blues, and RnB with some gospel thrown in for good measure, and giving the music a new, tough, sexy attitude.

Part of the genius of the Stones is that they struck just the right balance between these disparate genres of music, not only fusing them to create rock, but using them to give the music just the right color. Their music is bright and sunny thanks to the country and gospel influences, but not too bright and sunny, like the Allman Brothers, or even Lynyrd Skynyrd. That said, their music is also somehow spiritual, deep, and even dark at times thanks to the blues, without getting too dark and bluesy like proto metal, e.g. Led Zeppelin, which I actually love, but which sometimes gets a bit too dark because there's no country or gospel influence to brighten things up.

I have the Rolling Stones to thank for my appreciation for American roots music, in particular country, blues, and gospel. Their album Exile on Main Street features all these genres and more, (even mixing in some Cajun if I recall correctly), to magical effect. I didn't even listen to country music until I heard Mick Jagger say he liked it, at which point I followed suit. The Stones showcase all of these genres to their best effect and further helped me understand an important principle: each of these genres, particularly country and the blues, is rooted deep in the American psyche. So, when rock music is steeped in these sounds, it strikes a primordial chord in the ear of the American listener--or really any listener, given the power of these genres of music--and has a kind of holiness about it.

Quite an achievement for a British band, eh?

For the reasons listed above, the Stones are my favorite band of all time, hands down. It's like, there wouldn't be Rock music with a capital R without them . . . and who knows what might have happened to hip-hop as a result. Run DMC made hip-hop cool by injecting it with a tough, rebellious, rock-n-roll look and sound. In other words, they put some Rolling Stones into hip-hop. Actually, we should say they put the Rolling Stones through Aerosmith, into hip-hop. Otherwise hip-hop might have remained some kind of novelty, dance/party music, I dunno. I saw a documentary on early, early, early hip-hop and it sounded silly, frankly, with cutesy-bootsy rhyming over dance beats. Even the battling sounded light, it really needed some muscle, some attitude. Perhaps we could say that the Rolling Stones helped rock *and* hip-hop to mature.

David Bowie:

David Bowie made rock music an artistic, avant-garde art form. His imaginative and literary lyrics; gender-bending personae; theatrical performing style; passion for modern art, science fiction, and fashion; and keen interest in new sounds (e.g. new styles of soul music and electronica), resulted in a sophisticated, rather high-brow brand of rock that lost none of its edginess in the process. Bowie showed that rock could be used to tell any story and express any and every emotion. In the process of becoming several different characters, (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke), and writing in a dizzying array of styles, I think one can safely say that no rock artist has ever used rock music to say and do so much. Bowie showed that rock 'n roll wasn't merely "sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll" as the saying goes.

What I learned from Bowie: be imaginative! Approach rock music with the awareness and depth of an artist.

Jimmy Page:

I guess I could have put Led Zeppelin here, but, in particular, I'm fascinated by Jimmy Page. He's my favorite guitarist. It's hard to put into words what I love about his playing, but I'll try. It sounds so manic: jagged and menacing at one moment, sensitive and heart broken at another, enchanted and otherworldly at the next. He sounds virtuosic and yet rough and raw. Above all, his playing sounds dangerous, like anything can happen. Really, for me, it's a very mystical pull. Every time I get discouraged in my practicing, I just watch a Led Zeppelin DVD. 1 min. of watching Jimmy will do the trick, and he's the one who made me want to play the guitar in the first place. His music is that force, that presence in the musical universe that makes me think, "Playing guitar in a hot rock band is the be all and end all of human existence, the absolute best-est, most badass thing a person could ever do and the most fun a person could ever hope to have, so . . . I just can't give up!"


In my opinion, Nirvana absolutely reinvigorated rock music. In the 80s, all the pop music was great and heavy metal was having a hey day, but rock music fell off the radar. Classic rock had run its course, the genre was tired out. Since the essence of rock music is rebellion, what was needed was a fresh take on that concept, and Nirvana did just that at the dawn of the 90s. Their music was psychologically rebellious. It was mental and, frankly, scary. You know, it was the whole dark grunge thing. But, somehow, when Nirvana did it, it was exciting. Their followers, who constitute the genre of "post-grunge" tended to just sound depressing. But Nirvana brought rock music to new "lows" without stripping the music of its vitality. And they sounded sophisticated and poetic doing it, also creating a new style of guitar work in the process (the grunge guitar sound).

Nirvana proved that rock music can stay relevant and, like Bowie, they showed that it can be used to explore most anything, so long as it is rooted in the concept of "rebellion." Their music wasn't about the standard fare . . . cars, women, drugs, (well, maybe drugs, I dunno). But it seems to be more about internal pain. I know Cobain was a big Bowie fan, covering Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," I think he got cues from Bowie to take rock music in a darker, more introspective direction. But, unlike Bowie, he made that angst the meat and potatoes of his sound. But it worked because it was just a new way of being rebellious, and that's what rock is all about. The lesson I learned from Nirvana? Be a rebel, in your own way, whatever that means.

One more thing I learned from Nirvana: the pen is mightier than the axe. While the heavy metal people were shredding away, Nirvana created music that was equally powerful if not more so because the lyrics were razor-sharp.

Jack White:

While I haven't actually listened to a lot of his work, what I've heard commands my respect because he did what I thought was impossible: he reinvented the blues. He made the blues sound contemporary all over again by giving it a new, punk attack. It's like punk blues. What I love, love, love about this is that his style of rock sounds current without sacrificing its core ingredients. Most artists, including my beloved David Bowie, modernized rock by stripping it of its traditional influences, (e.g. country and blues). But Jack White has a self-proclaimed love for Americana and roots music (I'm assuming that's why he lives in rural Tennessee). He's updated rock by updating its key ingredients, not tossing them out and replacing them with something foreign like jazz, pop, or electronica. His music gives me hope that rock music can stay vibrant into the future without losing touch with its roots. That's another way of saying that rock music as I know and love it and hope to play it, (warmed up by country and made soulful by the blues), will be relevant and a career playing in that mode is possible. That's pretty huge for me, so thanks Jack.

What about you, Joe? Who do you like?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Asking questions, a simple and profound kindness

What is most important to a person's happiness?

That may not be the right question to pose given that it's 2 AM :) But an answer's already popped into my brain, so here goes: assuming there are many good answers, one possibility is that it's essential to feel connected to the people and world around us. It's important to feel valued, relevant, understood, and a sense of interdependency with at least a handful of people, if not more. If that's the case, then sincerely asking others about how they feel and what they think about this or that may be one of the kindest things a person can do. Nothing builds bridges like asking questions and, unless the people you're with feel comfortable freely volunteering information about themselves, there is no other way to bridge the divide.

The topic's been on my brain because I just had some conversations with people who are unable to do that. I asked them a question, they answered. I asked another, they answered. And so on and so on . . . and if I didn't ask them something, the conversation would go dead. I've been in so many conversations like that it seems. From my experience, most people love to chat about themselves and very few people socialize with the intent of connecting with others. If they wanted to connect, if they wanted it to be a two-way-thing, . . . they would ask questions.

Can you judge a person's character by how well they converse? I think so. I'm not referring of course to the size of their vocabulary or the profundity of their thoughts. I'm referring to the extent to which they converse for the purpose of connecting with others. Do they monopolize conversations, stealing the spotlight and promote their agendas? Or do they use conversations as opportunities to share their own opinions *and* have their minds enriched by the input of others? Or simply to laugh with others, share a moment in time with another person?

The people whom I most respect are excellent conversationalists. They possess the ingredients necessary for great conversation: confidence and curiosity. They like themselves enough to share their own thoughts, but, because they are curious about the world around them and because they genuinely care about other people, they are equally interested in knowing what others have to say.

On the flip side, the people I know who are the most self-centered and mean are the worst conversationalists. They constantly talk about themselves and their favorite topics and when it comes to other people and things in life they don't know about, they just don't care.

Somewhat on a tangent, I've decided that one of the meanest things a person can do is intentionally isolate another person. There are people in my life who, I'm sorry to say, are very mean and emotionally abusive. The way they abuse others is by isolating them: never laughing at their jokes, never sharing their opinions on anything, making them feel alone or awkward for feeling a certain way or saying a certain thing, not making eye-contact, flat out ignoring them and, of course, *never* asking questions. As someone who's been on the receiving end of that, I can say that isolation is one of the most painful things I've ever experienced. That makes connectedness one of the most joyful things I've ever experienced. Again, ask questions :) Or smile. Include the other person, etc. etc.

As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate kindness in others much more than I used to. Lately, I've found myself wanting to reach out to people I remember from my past who possessed that rare quality of truly caring about the world around them and the people in it . . . people who reached out to me. I can think of an old piano teacher, an aunt and uncle and a cousin. It's a short list, really. But I want people like that in my life. I think they possess a greatness, a generosity of spirit that inspires me to be a better person.

I've also re-evaluated what really matters when it comes to interacting with people. It's great if you're beautiful, funny, intelligent, . . . the life of the party as they say. But the thing that qualifies you to socialize is your desire to connect with others. As long as you approach any social situation with the desire to obtain some kind of mutual understanding, then it's a success. I have to keep that in mind sometimes, seeing as how I'm a rather reserved, quiet person. I never feel like I have anything to say. But that doesn't matter, actually. What matters is how well I reach out.

I'm too lazy now that it's 3:30 AM to give this a proper conclusion. Let's just say that I don't want to be like those people earlier who never ask questions if only because, in the long run, self-centered people end up isolating themselves. They don't grow. They're always on the defensive. They already know everything, and, as a result, they refuse to learn anything new. They're unable to truly cooperate with others and bring out the best in other people, which makes them unable to be partners in lasting, meaningful friendships and relationships. Sadly, for those emotionally abusive people I talked about earlier, I've watched the arc of their lives. I've watched them destroy themselves and so many good things. It's a poison. It's harrowing. It's tragic.

Ask questions.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pascal on Christianity and . . . the Blues.

The Harvard Classics 15 min. a day program is an excellent way to dip into something thoughtful for a moment or two. I've commenced the habit and was rewarded with an excerpt from Blaise Pascal's Thoughts. I had heard of Pascal's mathematical achievements, but I was unaware of his passion for religion. Indeed, he devoted much of his intellectual life to defending the Jansenist sect of Catholicism.

In the particular essay I read, he posits that a person must come to know 1) there is a God and 2) their need for redemption, or their "wretchedness," as he put it. The world is set up in such a way as to make us aware of those two facts. There are moments when we experience the reality of God: in nature, in the power of love, our consciences may evidence it. But there are equally moments of godlessness . . . when we sin or watch the sufferings of others at the hand of sin or natural disasters, etc. In other words, our experience is set up in such a way that we experience both the reality of God and the reality of living in a fallen world, a world in which we are separated from God . . . hence the need for a divine intermediary, Jesus Christ. Christianity allows us to make sense of why we sometimes feel God is there, and why we sometimes feel that He isn't. That's because he *is* there, it's just that, in our current fallen state, we are separated from him. Pascal's reasoning is perhaps the closest we can ever come to answering the question, "If God is real, then why do bad things happen?" In fact, Pascal explained that our awareness of evil and suffering can potentially be faith-promoting because it can prove to us the need for Jesus Christ.

This line of thinking brought the blues to mind. I've always wondered why blues music feels so powerful and I wonder if it has something to do with the blending of the major and minor modes . . . do we possibly hear that as a musical metaphor for life, with it's blending of good and evil as discussed by Pascal, as experienced by all of us? I think the blues might be an excellent sonic illustration of Christian doctrine.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Lady Gaga changd my life . . .

I always respected Gaga's extraordinary visual imagination and songwriting abilities, but this performance doubled my admiration for her. It shows off her voice, performance skills, piano playing, and rock 'n roll attitude. As a singer in training, I'm wowed by anyone who sounds good live and it was nice to see her performing at her instrument without all the potentially distracting clothes and dancers and sets, etc. She's so skilled at putting on a spectacle that I think it sometimes distracts from her sheer musicianship.

As far as the rock 'n roll attitude, there are very few who can pull this off. It's a spiritual orientation and a powerful, devil-may-care charisma that few possess. No woman has ever nailed it to my satisfaction with the exception of Alanis Morisette. So big props to Gaga for taking us to that place . . .

Oh yeah ... I switched from piano to guitar some years ago feeling that the piano didn't let me "rock out" enough . . . but there was something about this performance that made me want to revive the piano playing again.

Thank you for inspiring me, Miss Gaga!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Trey Songz: Cutie-Pie Perv or just honest?

MTV Unplugged with Trey Songz looks pretty cute, Trey has a sweet face. I was expecting music that was equally sweet and, well, let's just say I was caught off my guard: that adorable little son-of-a-gun knows a thing or two about yep, mmmhmmm.

Isn't it funny how they have no shame in Contemporary RnB? And how they equate romance with sexual "performance"? The tracks start off with cheezy synths and chimes and cooing vocables and the next thing you know you gotta skip to the next track because someone walks in the room or you start blushing or you just feel flat out uncomfortable . . . whichever comes first ;) Contemporary RnB always makes me feel like I'm eavesdropping, like I'm some voyeur peeping at a couple on their honeymoon, like I snuck in when the happy two weren't looking and made myself nice and comfy under the marriage bed.

Okay, cheesiness and explicit content aside . . . it did occur to me that perhaps I'm being just a little too hard on Trey Songz and the whole genre and that society is perhaps too hard on men in general when it comes to sexuality. I've personally never been one to stereotype men as sex-crazed beasts, but the stereotype does exist and it comes up in conversation between women all the time when they discuss relationship woes. The thing that women never like to admit, though, is that they *expect* guys to initiate and want them that way.

I don't think there's a women alive who isn't disappointed if a guy doesn't make a move of some kind on a first date, definitely by the second. And this is true even for "wait until marriage" types like myself. If I went out with someone and they didn't do something I wouldn't be sure if they liked me as more than friends; I'd want to sense, almost from day one, that they wanted to sleep with me :) And it really wouldn't be cool to me if a guy was too shy to touch me, kiss me, etc. And I would much, much prefer it if he initiated. Don't get me wrong . . . if I thought a guy was the right one and he was super shy, I would never let that get in the way of my dating him . . . I'm just speaking of what is ideal in my imagination. And, interestingly, I think the more reserved a girl is, the more she expects a guy to get the ball rolling . . . and she is exactly the kind of girl who is also the most prudish and critical of men being too "sexual." I know of straight-laced women like this. They complain of "morals these days" but I'm quite sure that if their significant other didn't get the job done nothing would happen in the birds and bees department.

So . . . that's a lot to expect from guys, I think. I have three younger brothers and I feel compassion for guys since I spend so much time with my bros and inevitably talk about girls and relationship stuff with them. It's nice to be the girl in certain respects, to be on the receiving end of everything. Not that girls can't take matters into their own hands, but, you know, traditionally speaking it's the other way around.

And now back to Trey Songz. Maybe when he sings his long list of things he's going to do to this or that girl, he's really just targeting exactly what women expect or want from guys whether they like to admit it or not . . .