Autobiographical Order No. 242: Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city

Kendrick Lamar is an unstoppable force. I can’t really name another artist, in hip-hop or otherwise, who has had five years as amazing as those he just wrapped up. I feel pretty comfortable saying he’s the best rapper active right now, and it’s really not even a competition. Run the Jewels are obviously amazing, as is Vince Staples, who is young enough to still have a lot of growth in the future. And Danny Brown I’d still say is consistently underrated and always amazing. (Enter everyone who’s gonna say “but Kanye!” and yeah he’s fine but if he’s in the top 5 he’s not at the top).

The first time I listened to good kid, m.A.A.d. city, though, I didn’t entirely get the hype. I liked it, but I didn’t necessarily love it. A few more spins, though, and the complexities of it, both production wise and lyrically, began to blow my mind. Kendrick weaves an intricate narrative (ostensibly autobiographically) through these 12 tracks (well, 16 on vinyl) that act as both great songwriting and storytelling. And yeah, it’s got hits: “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” (single edit is “Trick Don’t Kill My Vibe,” which is like, c’mon, guys), “Swimming Pools,” “Backseat Freestyle,” etc.

It’s an ambitious album for being just a second record. And that’s ultimately why it didn’t take me long to go from “This is pretty alright,” to “This is the greatest!” You don’t hear everything on the first listen. You can’t hear everything on the first listen. But there’s always something new to pull you in, to bring you deeper into the world the record inhabits.

I bought this at a time when I realized my vinyl hip-hop collection could use some growth (I still haven’t picked up some ’90s-era classics like Enter the Wu-Tang because the pressings are so universally maligned). But this was also the time that I decided I needed to fill in my Beatles collection and other classics, so if you interpret this as me equating Kendrick Lamar to the Beatles, that’s unintentional, but I’m cool with it. And if for some reason you find that offensive, then I dunno, maybe loosen up a bit.

There’s no question that good kid, m.A.A.d. city is best-of-decade material, and I don’t even think it’s his best album! (We’ll get to that in a while, and you’ll definitely fight me on it, but I’m not backing down.) This is how insanely talented this dude is. Not only that, he managed to put together a record of songs produced by 12 different people and not only make it work, but they all flow together seamlessly and cohesively. That’s some incredible orchestration right there. So there’s a chance that when Treble does its Top 100-200 albums of the ’10s (following up this halfway-point preview), there could be two or even three Kendrick Lamar albums in the top 10. Can’t say it’s not warranted.

Rating: 9.5

Sound Quality: Great

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Autobiographical Order No. 241: Tones on Tail – POP

The Internet changed how we consume, listen to and interact with music. That’s maybe for the worse depending on who you ask; not paying for music isn’t great, and I’ve always found people who were proud of the fact that they never paid for music to essentially be assholes. Look, we get it, everybody streams or downloads or whatever, but I don’t really see why that’s something you should boast about. Making art is expensive, and if you like it, at least buy a damn T-shirt. (Sorry, I get worked up over this. Support artists. Don’t be a douche.)

But there were inarguably some great things to happen when file-sharing exploded. Namely, people discovered a much broader range of music than they ever had before, and copying hard drives and trading music meant hearing something you had maybe never heard or even heard of, and it offered a difference of perspective. We all stepped outside of our comfort zones because new music just sort of fell into our laps—also because there was no consequence to clicking on something. You could just listen to it without any risk of investment. If you didn’t like it, you could delete it. Because of this people ended up with massive collections of music, comprising a magnificent hodgepodge of sounds and flavors. Remember when Spin declared YOUR COMPUTER as Album of the Year in 2001 or so? Yeah, that happened. (That was dumb, btw)

In the early ’00s I discovered a lot of music, simply because new channels opened up. Every poorly-distributed indie title of the ’90s that I had wanted to check out but couldn’t find? They’re on the Internet! But I also dug through a lot of old, archival material, taking on my own rock ‘n’ roll history lessons. I made a series of about 30 mix CDs—one for each year starting with, I think, 1963?—each with music from that year, and the simple process of figuring out how to fill those comps meant I heard something new each time. A lot of the fun was during the post-punk era (1977-1984 or so) when I basically found a bunch of what are now my favorite bands, like Tones on Tail, a short-lived side project of Bauhaus.

Bauhaus had already grown into one of my favorites, thanks to my goth girlfriend (now wife, which makes me goth by marriage), but they had a bunch of offshoots, including solo projects by each member, plus Love and Rockets, Dali’s Car, etc. Tones on Tail was one of them, featuring Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins, and it was the most fun of all of them, simply for its diversity. Their sole album POP flowed like a mixtape, with stuff that ranged from freaky goth-funk (“War”) to dark cabaret (“Happiness”) to darkwave (“Twist”) to psychedelic coldwave (“Lions”). It’s catchy, weird, all-over-the-map stuff, and it became an instant favorite, also because of a pair of singles they released, their sole hit “Go!” and the darker, eerier synth jam “Performance.”

I had most of these burned on to one CD-R, the likes of which everyone had in the early ’00s: The order’s a little off, they’re not all the same bitrate, maybe one live version by mistake. Ah, the good old days when everything sounded like crap, but hey, it was free. 12 years later or so I found a used copy of the album at Record City, which was an immediate must-buy. In a way, it’s a little bit like those old CD-Rs—the track order doesn’t match up with what’s printed on the sleeve, the cover’s different than the original UK release (which has a naked child on the cover, though it’s fairly innocent, nothing sexualized) and “Performance” is swapped out for “Go!” I love the latter, but was bummed about not having the former, so I bought the 7-inch a year or so later. Wise decision, that.

I can thank the Internet and its many weirdos for introducing me to new and more interesting music, and it feels sadly ironic to be discussing this today, when the FCC opted to strip away Net Neutrality protections. Not that this is a done deal by any means, just another obstacle toward a better society. Kind of depressing—guess I’ll go listen to some goth.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Also: Try to watch this video edit without a stupid grin on your face.

Autobiographical Order No. 239/240: The Beatles – Revolver/Abbey Road

A report was published this week by The Guardian about how “dad rock” reissues are pushing indie labels out of the vinyl marketplace (or at least making pressing waits a lot longer). This isn’t really a new problem—I had to wait two months back in 2012 to get my copy of Converge’s All We Love We Leave Behind because they were in the queue behind the Beatles reissues that were pressed that year. At the time I was annoyed, but I ended up buying one of them, as you can see (the other is an old pressing).

“Dad Rock” as defined in the article is essentially classic rock—Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the like, as well as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which is one of the best selling reissues of the past few years, and that seems odd to me because I bought it for $2 and there are literally millions of copies throughout the world that you can find without looking too hard. The Beatles certainly qualify as “dad rock,” as everyone has a dad who listened or still listens to The Beatles. Though I don’t actually remember ever hearing my parents play The Beatles when I was younger. More recently, I do, but when I was a kid my dad listened to The Doobie Brothers, Sting and Phil Collins. The Doobie Brothers, as far as I’m concerned, are the ultimate dad-rock band.

The Beatles, as long as I can remember, were something that always existed and will always exist—a ubiquitous monocultural phenomenon that forever changed pop culture. This is still true. Even if you don’t like The Beatles—which is fine, but chill the fuck out about it already you’re not impressing anyone—this is true. I don’t think I really paid attention to The Beatles until college, however. It might have been around the time that George Harrison died that I began to dig back through the archives and realize what I had been missing. Mostly I knew the hits, a lot of which ended up in commercials thanks to Michael Jackson licensing them after buying the rights to their catalog (a crime for which many have still never forgiven him, though that’s since changed after he died, and it’s not like Paul McCartney doesn’t have more money than god).

Seeing as how this was the age of file-sharing, I essentially downloaded all of their albums, bought several of them on CD and binged. I can’t say for sure which is my favorite. I like The White Album for its diversity and weirdness. I like Rubber Soul for containing some of their greatest pop songs. I like Let It Be for succeeding in spite of itself. I like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band mostly for “A Day in the Life,” a song I duetted with a friend at karaoke with, which was fun. (I was Paul. Though I feel in reality I’m probably more of a George. Which is good because he’s the best Beatle anyway. Don’t @ me.)

Anyhow, in 2014 I—FINALLY—became one of those jerks enabling the dad-rock reissues. I bought Revolver, which is often regarded as the best Beatles album by British publications and hipsters, primarily on the strength of being their first truly psychedelic record. It contains “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which Oasis and The Chemical Brothers kind of revived in the ’90s, and yeah, it’s amazing. (Also there was that scene in Mad Men where Don Draper was like ‘holy shit what am I listened to’ and got freaked out. Parents, amirite?) It also features some of their corniest material, namely “Yellow Submarine,” but whatever. It’s still amazing.

I also, however, bought a used copy of Abbey Road, which made me realize why people like the reissues over the used copies—”Come Together” is a bit scratchy on my copy. Yet, with some cleaning it sounded a lot better. This is arguably the real crown of the band’s discography, as its second half mostly comprises a lengthy medley of pieces, and also features a variety of other trippy, ambitious material, like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which has grown to be one of my favorites.

I don’t listen to The Beatles all the time, and I understand the cynicism about their importance. They’re ubiquitous to nearly a fault in our culture, though I’d say that’s not so much the case anymore. (Nirvana, though…) Still, I have to refer to my friend Steve, who once said he didn’t trust anyone that didn’t like The Beatles. I have to agree, especially because most people I know who didn’t like The Beatles had awful taste. One person said they were “too soft,” even though they liked Christian rock and OneRepublic. Paul McCartney, who’s guilty of some truly corny material, helped create a template for heavy metal on “Helter Skelter,” and that owns.

So yeah, I’m pro-dad rock I guess.

Rating: 10.0/10.0

Sound Quality: Great/Good

Autobiographical Order No. 238: The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead

In 2008, a group of friends (who rotated out a few times) joined me for a pretty long series of participation in a monthly (and later quarterly) music trivia night at the Whistle Stop in San Diego. Dubbed “Musical Pursuit,” it featured a few different categories each time, and one of them, inevitably, was a name-that-tune round that often featured a local band performing different songs. I don’t remember all of them, but one of the hardest was just drum intros.

As it turned out, our team ended up becoming the most-winning music trivia team in its entire run. We had a streak of about five or six wins going when we were finally dislodged from the winner’s circle, for which I offered an interesting wager of sorts for the host to consider. If we lost a trivia night, we’d volunteer to be a name-that-tune band. So in early 2009 we did just that, calling ourselves the Dancing Killer Queen Bitches of the Stone Age Is Dead, with a lineup that included guitar, keyboard, drum machine and tuba. You should have heard “Waiting Room.” That was a knee-slapper.

Based on our name, we could have done a whole section of songs referenced in our name: “Dancing Queen,” “Killer Queen,” “Queen Bitch,” “The Queen is Dead” and something by Queens of the Stone Age. We only did one of those—”The Queen is Dead”—and it ended up being one of the most fun to play, in part because it’s a pretty powerful anthem, and in part because of Morrissey’s wit and wordplay (“So I broke into the palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner/She said I know you and you cannot sing/ I said ‘that’s nothing, you should hear me play pi-an-o’“).

The Queen is Dead, the album and by extension the song, is why people love The Smiths. It’s a perfect album, a versatile blend of indie rock songwriting, literature allusions, politics, personal anguish and an all-around fantastic guitar presence from Johnny Marr. In fact, I dare say Johnny Marr is one of the reasons I play guitar—hearing how he shaped the sound of The Smiths captivated me, and though my fingers will likely never be as nimble as his on the fretboard, it’s still fun to play through the classics.

But see, Morrissey—frustrating foot-in-mouth disease carrier that he is—is brilliant throughout The Queen Is Dead. At times his approach is to capture a certain kind of loneliness and hurt (“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” “I Know It’s Over”) and at others it’s to simply show off his own cleverness, as when he steals from Oscar Wilde on “Cemetry Gates” (who famously said that talent borrows and genius steals). It’s maybe an exaggeration to say The Smiths were lightning in a bottle, but they didn’t last long, and what they did while they were around was great. Nowadays I just want Morrissey to go away and stop talking, but The Smiths…I still love The Smiths.

It’s maybe because of how often Morrissey frustrates me that I took my time finally buying this on vinyl, but the album is undeniable. And Johnny Marr is still the greatest. Maybe one day I’ll catch up with his abilities, but it’s still fun to fake my way through it.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 237: English Beat – Special Beat Service

Earlier this year, my wife and I went to go see a show by a friend of ours who was on tour. We didn’t really know anything about the headliners, and we weren’t really planning on sticking around past her set since we had just been to several shows a few nights in a row, but we support our friends and good music and all that, so at least we could hang out a couple hours even if not the entire night. We observed a few things right off the bat: 1. We were the oldest people in the room (aside from one of the openers…) 2. Some of these kids were wearing costumes—it was almost like being at Comic-Con and 3. this was a very different crowd than we were used to being part of. We soon realized… this was a ska show.

Why the suspense? Because out of all the realizations you can have at a show, figuring out that it’s a ska show is perhaps the most hilarious. I mean, ska’s fine. I have nothing against it, but it’s definitely a niche genre, and if you’re not into it, you’re definitely not into it. Me? Not into it. I’ve definitely enjoyed some ska in my lifetime, mostly the second wave 2-Tone stuff like Madness and The Specials. But by and large I don’t really do ska. It might have something to do with being 35?

But I do definitely love at least one ska band: The English Beat. To say they’re a ska band might oversimplify things, actually. Especially on their final album, Special Beat Service. It’s essentially a New Wave album, with lots of spectacular pop songs. “I Confess,” “Save It For Later,” “Sugar and Stress,” “Rotating Head” (as remixed and featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and “Sole Salvation” among them. The funny thing is I can hear contemporary indie bands covering these songs in my head. Destroyer would probably kill “I Confess.” Cloud Nothings could tear up “Sugar and Stress.” “Ackee 1,2,3” basically sounds like Vampire Weekend already. Etc. Etc. That’s a good idea for a tribute album that someone should think about doing.

There are definitely ska songs on this album, but this isn’t a one-genre-only kind of thing, which is what makes it a fun album to listen to just about any time you feel like it. Plus “Save It For Later” is a perfect song. Perfect. Don’t @ me.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 236: Cal Tjader – Soul Burst

Getting into jazz can be a tricky thing for a lot of people, especially when you don’t have much exposure to it outside of your own personal investigation. You can download all the top-rated jazz albums from AllMusic or whatever, but if all you’ve ever listened to was pop, then it might be hard to get into. This, I’ve learned, was the case with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was heavily influenced by jazz records; if you’re not a jazz person, then a lot of it isn’t going to make sense. I was lucky enough to be exposed to jazz early on because my dad was always a big fan. Once I remember buying him a Cal Tjader compilation for Christmas on his request (at least I think that’s what happened), even though I knew next to nothing about the guy. He put it on almost immediately after opening it, and when I heard it, something clicked immediately. Maybe it’s because it’s not particularly abstract or avant garde; Tjader was a vibraphonist that mostly played Latin jazz standards, and for the most part they were all pretty accessible, even catchy. And in his most atmospheric and arty moments, his music could be downright gorgeous.

Soul Burst ended up being one of the first jazz CDs I ever bought, along with Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um (and I think I also bought a Will Haven CD on the same trip, and this was before I had Napster so I was just going for it, as you can tell). I was stunned, particularly by the final track, “Curacao,” which was loungey but haunting, and not at all dated sounding in spite of the somewhat hokey sound of some exotica records of the ’60s and ’50s. By the standards of the jazz canon, this is a minor release, but it’s pretty damn great, all things considered. And like all mid-’60s Verve releases, the cover art is awesome.

I ended up picking up a copy used about 15 years later at M Theory, a pressing from the ’60s no less. It’s not a perfect one; there’s a fair amount of surface noise at the beginning of each side, and like all vintage records it had some dust in the grooves. But it’s a lived-in, loved record, and I’m happy to be able to give it a home, dropping it on the turntable anytime my wife and I have a “Latin brunch,” or just when I need a reminder of one of those records that got me here way back when.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Good (Mostly decent sounding, with some surface noise in parts)

Autobiographical Order No. 234: Talking Heads – Remain In Light

Remain In Light isn’t like many other albums. It was something of a hit, thanks to single “Once In a Lifetime” being the group’s entrypoint to MTV, and that song is still celebrated today. It was also a critical success, named one of the best albums of the ’80s or all-time by just about everyone, and with good reason. It’s a massive step forward from their arty but comparatively simpler albums of the ’70s. And they got here in just a few short years. To put into context, the band I’m in now only has a couple years to get to this elaborate, polyrhythmic Afrobeat phase. Guess we have some practicing to do!

It’s not like Remain in Light is monocultural though. It sold pretty well, but not Michael Jackson sales—it went gold in 1985, five years after the album was released. (Though their next three albums went Platinum, so certainly it elevated them to a new level.) And when an album is this experimental and takes such an artistic risk, it doesn’t appeal to everyone. It shouldn’t appeal to everyone.

But it blew my damn mind. I knew “Once in a Lifetime” from when I was really young. I was born in the early days of MTV, so it was already out there, established. I always had some idea of the reputation the album had, even if I hadn’t heard it, and eventually I bought the CD in high school from… Best Buy? Most likely that was the case.

The first spin of “Born Under Punches” was like hitting reset for my brain. Everything I knew about music was totally turned upside down. This track was repetitive, full of groove, but never got boring, never lost what made it exciting or interesting. It was urgent and intense, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. This, in turn, introduced me to Afrobeat, which that particular track (and several others on the album) were heavily influenced by (both David Byrne and producer Brian Eno have been major, outspoken advocates for African music over the years) and now I’m kind of addicted to Afrobeat, Afrofunk, Ethiojazz etc.

The rest of the album is amazing as well, and though I bought a handful of Talking Heads albums before I bought pretty much any other albums, this one took a little while to snag, and I think I paid more for it than the others (but this is also because of the changing market; back then nobody bought vinyl and it didn’t move quickly, while now an $8 Talking Heads album would go for $15 minimum probably).

I don’t really know anyone who actively dislikes Talking Heads, though I certainly know plenty of people who like them without loving them. Not me though. I’d easily consider them one of the greatest bands of all time, and musical geniuses. If they reunited, I’d go. If they headlined Coachella, which I actively avoid, I’d go. But it’ll never happen, simply because David Byrne is the kind of artist who isn’t interested in living in the past and rekindling old glories (though they did perform together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I can imagine it probably wouldn’t take long before there was some kind of disagreement).

In terms of what shaped my own musical tastes, cravings, and whatnot, this album is high on the list. Remain In Light is an album that can’t be celebrated enough.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great