Monday, May 20, 2013

Best Music of 2013 (So Far)

The title is somewhat misleading: this is the best music I've heard in 2013, not necessarily made in 2013. There are 15 tracks from the 1000 Recordings that made the cut; classical, rap, country, folk and rock. You'll find a varied mix of my favorite songs of the last 4 months.

After those 15 songs I've thrown in my favorites that WERE made this year. 27 songs of up-and-comers and established hit makers. I try not to ignore the music being made today while I catch up on the classics of the past. So check it out below or at the link here. Listen to it in order for 1000 Recordings first, or select shuffle for a very eclectic mix. (Here is a link to just the 1kR mix and one for the 2013 mix).

And download Spotify! It's free (if you don't mind the ads) and one of the best ways to discover new music. The artists get paid pretty much jack squat when you stream their songs, but there are a lot of artists I would never have seen live or bought the album if I hadn't heard it free first.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Grunge Part IV: Alice in Chains, Dirt

I was at a semi-fancy restaurant last summer. This was before I moved for my new job, so we had a babysitter; I haven't been out to dinner with my wife since then, so that dinner is even better in my memory than it was the night we ate it. Small plates filled with raw tuna, lemongrass spring rolls, and gourmet french fries (we almost skipped those, but they ended up being the perfect dessert). No kids, a glass of wine, and '90s grunge playing softly in the background.

Wait a second. What was that last thing? Almost imperceptible to any normal person, above the din of other adult conversations, I caught the distinct drum pattern of classic '90s alternative. My wife didn't even notice there was music playing, let alone discern a particular song. But I know my '90s alt-rock. There are some albums (like Pearl Jam's Ten and Nirvana's Nevermind) from that time period that I have memorized start to finish. Other songs are so familiar to me that even though I haven't heard them since they debuted in the mid-'90s I can still remember all the words. So yeah, it was a strange choice, this ritzy place that was voted "Best Place to Order a Drink," playing grunge. But a choice I completely agreed with.

As I've discussed, there is a whole mess of grunge music I am ignorant of, but I know more than the average person in my age group. Back at my old job I used to hang out in the office of two friends with whom I would swap music recommendations. This eventually evolved into "who can name that song the fastest?" Rules were drafted, other coworkers invited, a leaderboard posted, and countless lunch hours wasted. I was late getting home more than once because I was talked into "just one more round." It was during these heated battles that I earned the nickname "Rainman." I can't help that I can recognize Radiohead's "Just" after one downstroke, or Alice in Chain's "Rooster" after one reverbed note, and other songs just by the feedback in the intro.

'90s Grunge and Alternative category was never in doubt. I was also the leader on Oldies, Old School Hip Hop, Rock, Classic Rock, Indie Rock, '80s, Pop, 2000's, and "random" on multiple coworkers' iPods. I did not, however, take first in Lite Pop, Best of 2010, Southern Rock, Country, or '70s.

I think that Tom Moon nailed it, though, when he says on the back of his book, "The more you love music, the more music you love." Now I can't claim I know every album from the grunge era: in fact, the album "Rooster" is on, Dirt, is one that I didn't hear in full until I read Moon's book. And that's a shame, because this album should have been on heavy rotation in my teenage years.

Artist: Alice in Chains
Album: Dirt
Recording #120ish

I first heard Alice in Chains in the car with my mom. Somehow I convinced her to let me put the radio on my favorite channel, and she put up with it for a few songs. In fact, I remember she said she actually liked Alice in Chains when it came on. The harmonies elicited the praise: "Now this is actually kind of musical sounding." I remember thinking the same thing, confusedly. Grunge can have harmonies? When did that start? To be fair, most of Dirt lives up to the name: this is heavy and grimy. As Moon says, "Pure Junkie Menace." But mixed in with the feedback and wallowing are the best vocals of the '90s. The dual vocal attack of Jerry Cantrell and the late Layne Staley is stunning.

If I had gotten into Alice in Chains instead of Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and Nirvana I might have gone down a much different path in my musical tastes. Although all of those bands can be heavy at times, Alice in Chains is much closer to heavy metal than the others. This album, had I heard it back in my teenage years, could easily have been my favorite, giving me a taste for heavier music instead of the more prog rock/art rock direction I ended up heading in. In either case, though I came to this album later in life, I can absolute appreciate it and, honestly, rank it among my favorites. And it's not too late for me to be an Alice in Chains fan: the surviving members reunited in 2005 and their new album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, is due out in just over a month. If you haven't heard the new single, check it out (the video is pretty awesome, too). It certainly sounds like old school Alice in Chains even if Staley is, sadly, gone. Oh, and if you know of a good music trivia league, let me know: unfortunately, my new coworkers haven't shown the interest that my previous ones did.

Read Moon's entry here.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Grunge Part III: Pearl Jam, Ten

I can't help it: when I'm happy I look insane
Fall, 1994. The scene opens on a painfully na├»ve preteen boy at a party where he is clearly out of place. Mike has been friends with Chris since kindergarten. In 5th and 6th grade they had weekly sleepovers; Mike’s house, then Chris', repeat. Chris has always been popular – his sense of humor has earned him the class clown moniker, but in a “cool” way rather than “klutzy.” His sense of fun is the link that sustains his friendship with Mike, and is the reason Mike is at a party surrounded by cool kids.

After a Saturday night sleepover, Mike and Chris had spent the previous Sunday morning in Chris’ basement planning the party. Chris knew exactly who to invite. At Mike’s forceful suggestion, the pretty new girl was invited, too. Mike even made the phone call to invite her to Chris’s party – immediately lending credibility to  his own “coolness.” Genius level middle school pickup move.

But now here they were. Chris, the social butterfly, was mingling with the small town’s most popular 7th graders. His parents were sequestered in the upstairs bedroom, while the party continued in the basement. Several of the kids had had a few drinks before arriving. One was offered to Mike – he passed. His  adolescent awkwardness was highlighted in the midst of this group of confident and self-assured peers. He was thrilled to have a friend like Chris who was helping to raise his social status, while  at the same time feeling absolutely uncomfortable in his own skin. Jammin ’92 blared on a stereo system and he nodded in time to hits like Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do it” and the Rednex “Cotton Eye Joe.” Some of the other kids were dancing and nodding along as well.

Suddenly, the opening riff to Pearl Jam’s “Alive” tore through the room. Its soaring solo guitar pierced the air, and to Mike it was as if the rest of the world was turned down. He had spent countless house at the library with headphones on, listening to the library’s copy of Ten on cassette. Each solo on the album was indelibly written on his soul. Seemingly unable to control himself and without any awareness of his actions, he began to "air guitar" and sing along.

Artist: Pearl Jam
Album: Ten
Recording #9ish

Evidently, this outburst did not go unnoticed. One jock in particular, who had never spoken a word to him or even acknowledged his existence before now, threw an empty two liter bottle at him. “Here’s a guitar for you,” he sneered. In hindsight, it was a pretty lame attempt at a burn. But Mike snapped out of his trance and noticed the many entertained eyes on him, and in his 7th grade mind his life had been destroyed. If this was a movie he would have run from the room in embarrassed tears as the crowd pointed and jeered.

Instead, he turned beet red, shuffled into a corner and attempted invisibility for the rest of the night. So much for trying to talk to the new girl. He was sleeping at Chris’ house that night, so adding insult to injury, he really had nowhere else to go. The music of '90s teenage outcasts had become a self-fulfilling prophecy as it solidified his standing as a spazz.

Later that year, as they walked to Mike’s house after school, Chris announced to Mike that he no longer “believed” in the concept of “best friends.” Mike understood – Chris needed to escape the friendship without crushing him. It was the best friend equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me.” Chris had tried to give Mike a hand up, and instead he risked being pulled down into nerddom.

The soundtrack of my teenage years, grunge, is intrinsically linked with my nerd status, which reached its peak in 7th and 8th grade. I have lots of fond memories of middle and high school – learning I was not (and would never be) part of the cool crowd was amazingly liberating. My core of lifelong friends was found in those years as we forged loyalty by embracing our outcast status and following our various nerdly passions. My lifelong love of music, especially of the obscure variety, was allowed to flourish because I didn’t have to worry about what anyone else thought.

My wife recently said to me that although I had relayed to her before what a dork I was when I was a kid, it didn’t hit home until she started paying attention to our son. His zest for life, completely unabashed earnestness and lack of self-awareness are endearingly adorable on a 2 year old. Imagining them in a 5 or 7 or 10 year old, though, she can see that our child will probably not be a “cool” kid. I’m okay with that. I can still remember the embarrassment of that night. Being a nerd is the price you pay for obsessive passion sometimes, but you have to follow what you love and what inspires you. I am who I am because I followed my passion and I hope I can pass that on to my kids.

Read Tom Moon's entry here.

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