Autobiographical Order No. 363: Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

Q-Tip once said that Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue was kind of like the Bible—you kind of have to have a copy in your house. This is the part where I admit I don’t actually have Kind of Blue on vinyl (I have it on CD and a bunch of other Miles Davis albums on vinyl, but still…). Don’t yell at me.

But I think that everyone-needs-this quality—potentially for the sake of your soul’s salvation—applies to a lot of other albums. Does that apply to Radiohead or Led Zeppelin? Probably not. Does it apply to Van Morrison or Funkadelic? Yeah, probably! And it definitely applies to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

I didn’t really grow up with Marvin Gaye’s music. I remember hearing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and knew a little bit about him, but on some level I had to find this album for myself. It was around senior year of high school when I started scooping up armloads of extra-cheap CDs of The Canon at Circuit City and Best Buy and filling out my collection. Stuff like this, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed—essentially anything from before I was born. And once I heard this album, I was moved. Of course, my understanding of how fucked up the world was back then was a lot less sophisticated or extensive, and as far as I knew everything was fine. That wasn’t true then, and things have only gotten much, much worse. And as I return to this album, it carries greater resonance and emotional weight. It’s an album about the state of the world, the country and so on, but it’s also an album heavy with grief. Gaye recorded it after his singing partner, Tami Terrell, died of a brain tumor—she collapsed into his arms onstage, in fact. And whenever I think of that story, it’s hard for me not to get a bit choked up.

What’s Going On, you might notice, doesn’t have a question mark in the title. It can be read as a question—a plea to understand the cruel reality of war, poverty, addiction and grief—or it can also be read as a statement about the truths we’re inundated with and sometimes don’t know how to process. It’s a mournful album more than an angry one, and it’s also an incredibly beautiful album. There are recurring melodic motifs, and it’s best absorbed as a complete piece rather than as individual tracks, though it does have a handful of standouts.

This album, despite being released during the Nixon era, is as relevant today as it was when it was released, and sounds just as incredible. In 2017 after Trump was elected, I started a project of daily protest songs (which I never finished, but still intend to eventually compile into an epic playlist of songs for every day he’s been in office), and I pulled a few from this album, naturally. I also DJed later that year at a local bar and someone came up to me while I was playing “Inner City Blues.” Interestingly enough, he recognized it was Marvin, just not which album, so I held up the cover for him to remember and hopefully put on his shopping list and eventually bring it home. Where it belongs.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

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Autobiographical Order No. 362: Duran Duran – Rio

Duran Duran’s a band that while commercially successful and, at least in hindsight, received a good bit of acclaim seem to be underestimated in large part. Not necessarily in their instrumental abilities, though that’s true—the last time I wrote about Duran Duran, I noted how they’re actually a super badass band who can play the hell out of their instruments. (Don’t believe me? You try playing those basslines that smooth, wise guy.)

But they’re underestimated in another way—they’re actually pretty weird. I know what you’re thinking: Duran Duran is weird? The band that released “Rio”? That song isn’t weird. But the band actually did lots of really far out and arty stuff, and in some respects I imagine having hit songs like “Girls On Film” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” gave them the leeway to explore their more avant garde sensibilities. And they certainly had some avant garde sensibilities.

Their first video for “Girls on Film” was absurdist, not-safe-for-all-ages-TV-viewing chicanery, for instance. Their “Wild Boys” video a nightmarish dystopia inspired by William S. Burroughs (I remember being freaked out by this one when it was on MTV). And Rio, despite selling millions of copies and being played by a band with magazine-cover good looks, has some pretty weird moments on it. None are weirder than “The Chauffeur,” a dark and eerie art-rock song that goes into the depths of some of Roxy Music’s most unsettling moments (a la “In Every Dream Home a Heartache”) with more new wave synthesizers, and a video inspired by controversial cult film The Night Porter, which itself has been long the subject of debate over whether or not it’s a work of artistic merit. (I’ve never seen it myself, but it involves Nazis and BSDM, so I dunno, seems like there could be plenty of arguments to go around.)

“The Chauffeur” might be my favorite song on the album. Or it might be “Save A Prayer,” which I wanted to cover a long time ago with my post-hardcore band Cuneyt. We never did (though we did cover Bauhaus and Tom Waits). Mostly because I was probably the only one who wanted to, and mostly that was because it was fun to loop delay riffs over each other.

Make no mistake, Rio is a pop album. But it’s a Trojan Horse for some serious art-house weirdness, which I’m 100 percent here for. I bought this just months after getting their first album on vinyl, and even by then it’s an album I’d been listening to for years and years. Sometimes it’s just time, you know?

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 361: Outkast – Aquemini

For five years I had the luxury of spending about half my working hours doing so from home, which gave me the opportunity to listen to records while I worked, hang out with my cats, brew more pots of coffee, not wear pants on hot days, etc. It was a nice perk! But I also worked pretty close to my home, so if I needed to make it over to the office for a meeting or something, I could get there pretty quickly. In fact, I could walk there in about 30 minutes, which became an on-and-off routine until the dead of summer when it just kind of became unpleasant to do so.

I also sometimes biked to work. In 2015, I was convinced that I’d be biking to work every day, that this would become my new routine and that I’d get super healthy. I’m sure you can see where this is going, but I was doing it at least a couple days a week for a while, and I felt pretty good about it! Sure, I’d be all sweaty and out of breath in the office, but I was doing something good for myself! I guess!

There were some downsides to working at home though. For a while we had a neighbor that would put on some super loud music while I was trying to get some work done, and it was distracting. But I also just tried to let it go for the most part, since our band practiced in the house, and it’s a mutual not-complaining kind of situation.

So one day I ride home on my bike, tired, hot, sweaty, and I pour myself a glass of water. I’m just relaxing, enjoying a quiet moment, and then the neighbors start up with the jams again. I’m a little exasperated, but I just kind of throw up my hands, say “fuck it,” and put on Aquemini on vinyl. I turn it up loud, and all of a sudden everything feels great. I’m at home, I’m exhausted, but I’m listening to an absolute classic while my neighbors are getting turnt. And you know? I was into it.

The neighbors eventually moved out and the person who lives there now is much quieter—we rarely see her. But I’ve still got Outkast to turn up when the occasion calls for it. Or at a reasonable volume. That too.

Rating: 9.5

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 360: Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again

From my perspective it seems fairly obvious, but at this stage of the ongoing saga of the records of my life that we call Autobiographical Order™, it’s winter. Winter of 2015 to be specific, and in the last installment of the blog I was discussing buying a slow, droney indie rock record in the middle of a blizzard in New York City. Seems about right, no?

As it turned out, waiting on my doorstep at home was a Jessica Pratt record that I had bought from Drag City. At the time I recall saying it was the first great record of 2015, and it’s indeed a great record. I’ve long been a fan of Jessica Pratt, and her music, despite pretty widespread acclaim, still feels underrated to me. On Your Own Love Again might be her best album. It also might be her new one, but I’m not getting to that one for a while so for the sake of this argument we’ll just go with the one in front of us. It is, of course, a wintry album. It’s quiet, essentially all acoustic and with very little in the way of bigger arrangements (no drums, no bass, just occasional organ/keyboard).

This is ultimately my favorite kind of “folk” album (kind of like Zeppelin’s folk ballads), for lack of a better word. (The f-word is anathema to some artists and I understand why, but anyway…) It’s skeletal and stark, dark and haunting, beautiful and strange. It feels both familiar and alien. It’s great in the morning and great late at night. It’s versatile, but not comfort food. There are layers to it, but not overdubs. It’s an album of contrasts and contradictions, and I’m always mesmerized when it’s on.

It’s kind of the perfect vinyl record, because it’s not loud, you sort of have to pay close attention to it, and there’s an almost ASMR vibe about the tape hiss and finger-picked guitar. That might sound weird, but to me it’s heavenly.

When I think about it, most of the music I like could probably be construed as wintry or autumnal in some way. Which isn’t to say I don’t like pop music—I do! But I need to be in the right mood for that. Something like this, however, simply brings me into the right kind of mood automatically.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 359: Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out

For many years of my life, I listened to indie rock. I still do, and I still enjoy it, but at the time the indie rock that I was into was maybe more upbeat, noisier, weirder. So much of what I was super intensely into for years could somehow be connected to the early ’90s post-hardcore scene and sound, and as a teenage boy I think I just naturally connected to stuff that was angsty and abrasive. You know the drill.

At a certain point, though, I learned to love slower, prettier music. That happened well before this album came out, but I remember one weekend where I was home alone for a long period of time and, as I did frequently once I was equipped with my own car, went record shopping. (CDs, technically.) I picked this up, based on being a fan of Yo La Tengo’s previous album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, and man, it was something else. So slow, so quiet, droning and meditative. It’s a soft record, but it’s not a soft record. More Low, less Michael Bolton.

In fact, not long after this I got into Low, and more of what you could call “slowcore”, as well as the third Velvet Underground album, which is a great album, despite being maybe their least talked-about. But the thing is, eventually indie got a lot slower. What the kids are listening these days (chases them off lawn…) is actually a lot slower and softer and gentler and pillowy than what I remember listening to when I was in my teens and early twenties. The gist is still the same, though; while the ’90s were loud songs about how depressed everyone was (Nine Inch Nails, etc.), now it’s soft songs about how depressed everyone is. Everyone needs their outlet, it’s healthy. But it’s often hard for me to respond to something like, say, Cigarettes After Sex, when a band like Mazzy Star already exists.

But this album, it’s gorgeous. It’s haunting and atmospheric. It’s hypnotic and dense. “Everyday” is stunning in its minimalism. “Tears Are In Your Eyes” is my personal favorite, a gorgeous heartbreaker, and was featured in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, which is a plus. Downside: It was a Riley scene. Ugh.

Slow, soft music can be stunning, affecting, mesmerizing. On headphones, or on good speakers, this album is a lot to absorb. My vinyl copy was picked up at Other Music in New York City during a particularly blizzardy trip (the city literally shut down one day while we were there, so we went to Central Park and played in the snow—it ruled!). And this is true of a lot of records, but it’s better heard on vinyl than on CD, I think. It’s best not to do too much while you’re listening, but relax and soak it in.

Unless you’re not into slow music, I guess. Which I get.

Rating: 9.5

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 358: Led Zeppelin – IV

From the Beatles to Led Zeppelin! I’m just plowing my way through the Albums Everybody Already Knows and Loves (or very much doesn’t love sometimes—my wife’s not a Zeppelin fan, so there’s that). But once something is popular, it tends to stay that way; there was a recent sales report for vinyl that pretty much showed all the popular records selling now are the same ones that your parents bought in the ’70s. And I guess I’m a part of that, but for the most part I’m trying to find used copies instead of reissues (which are hella expensive, I mean I like Zeppelin, but $30 per record gets a bit much….). So that very well could mean that I did buy the copy your parents had.

I’ve pretty much been a fan of Zep since my brother played this album in the car once way back when I was a kid, and I’m sure it has a lot to do with me getting into metal later on. So much of metal owes a lot to Zeppelin (and Zeppelin owes a lot to blues, as does Sabbath—and Zep weren’t always great about giving credit where it’s due), that I don’t see how I couldn’t.

But the funny thing is over time, the things I like about Zeppelin have changed. I mean, I’ll still love songs like “Dancing Days” or “No Quarter”, but as I’ve come to be a fan of English folk rock bands like The Pentangle and Fairport Convention, I’ve also come to be a bigger fan of Zeppelin’s folkier stuff. (My colleague Paul wrote a similar thing once about he hadn’t listened to much Zeppelin before and learned that he loved III, which is different than my arc, but I’ve reached a similar place with regard to their music.)

And if pressed to name my favorite Led Zeppelin songs, “The Battle of Evermore” would definitely be one of them. It’s one of the songs on IV that’s maybe not as well known, if such a thing can be said. Everyone knows “Black Dog,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “When the Levee Breaks,” etc. This one’s more epic, more pastoral, even more psychedelic. It’s pretty great.

So yeah, Led Zeppelin were a crucial heavy rock band, but they were low-key a great psychedelic folk band. That’s the Zeppelin that kind of took over as my favorite in recent years. And that’s the Zeppelin that continues to intrigue me now.

Rating: 9.6

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 357: The Beatles – The Beatles (White Album)

The Beatles invite hyperbole. Such is the burden of being one of the most commercially and critically successful bands of all time. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s really hyperbole when you’re talking about a band of this stature. It’s just the kind of reaction The Beatles invite. Which is amazing when we’re talking about a band that broke up 50 years ago.

Weirdly, it seems that they’ve come up more recently, anecdotally, than in the past few years. People expressing their preferences over best or worst Beatle (John and Paul somehow manage to win both of these simultaneously depending on who you’re talking to), reflecting on the corniness of Ringo or what have you. And sure: Ringo is corny, John was an asshole, Paul did write some bad songs. I mean, they all did, except George, I’m pretty sure. He made every contribution count.

Then of course there’s the hyperbole about how The Beatles weren’t really that great, or were overrated. My friend Steve once said that he didn’t trust anyone who didn’t like The Beatles, though I wouldn’t go that far. However, I do think people that don’t like the Beatles (and that’s fine) can’t really deny how much of a cultural impact they had. It happened, whether or not you wanted it to.

Here’s my take: I like The Beatles. I also acknowledge they had some shit songs. Several of them are on the White Album. Ironic twist: It’s maybe the album of theirs I enjoy the most, simply because the highs are so high. A lot of my favorite Beatles songs are on this album, which is reflective of how fractured the band was at the time. It’s essentially a set of solo recordings from each Beatle, and naturally they broke up the following year. But there’s a lot of really outstanding tracks on here. Even Ringo, the least loved Beatle, has a great song: “Don’t Pass Me By.”

I grew up hearing a lot of Beatles songs, but I don’t think I fully showed much interest in the band until college, when I went on sort of a binge, and realized, “hey, I like this band!” But obviously they had their shortcomings and their flaws, artistically and as people or what have you. (I kind of roll my eyes at the whole cancel John Lennon thing because he’s been dead for nearly 40 years—he’s already been canceled permanently, guys.)

Anyway, I probably have the least hyperbolic take on The Beatles: They were a good and important band that also weren’t perfect. Shrug emoticon? But I like a lot of their music, and that’s cool. And of course I bought this used vinyl copy because I figured it was time I had it. That’s pretty much the gist of it. You can go back to your hot takes now.

Rating: 9.5

Sound Quality: Good/Great (some sides are scratchier than others)