What a year for music! SO many good albums came out this year — it made it difficult to narrow it down to the finalists (see the playlist below) and then to the final 25. A handful of records could have easily fit in the #1 slot, but there’s one that has remained in heavy rotation for a majority of the year: Ian Sweet’s Show Me How You Disappear. It’s a criminally underrated album that I haven’t seen on any “best of” lists this year and I don’t understand why — so I’m changing that!
Ian Sweet is the stage name of songwriter Jilian Medford, who had released two albums prior to Show Me How You Disappear: the quirky, angular debut album Shapeshifter (Listen) and the more confident, yet still melodically discordant, Crush Crusher (Listen). The song “#23” off Shapeshifter was my introduction to Ian Sweet back in 2016 and I’ve been a fan ever since — seeing them open for Ted Leo in November of that year:
Medford has pushed boundaries and her sound with each album and her latest is no different. Released in March on Polyvinyl Records, Show Me How You Disappear is Ian Sweet’s most complete collection of songs to date. This time Medford moves from discordant guitar-based songs on previous albums to dreamy, minimalist beauty. The songs on Show Me How You Disappear flow and swell, build up and fade away, producing an almost dream-like state with Medford’s sweet (and unique) melodies layered on top — it’s a fantastic listening experience.
Medford’s lyrics have always been heavily personal, but this album took that to a new level after she spent two months in intensive therapy following multiple severe panic attacks in January 2020. The journaling and self reflection process from those therapy sessions are the lyrical foundation of the album.
Medford via Apple Music:
“I don’t think I would have written this kind of record or had the strength to keep writing if I didn’t go to treatment,” she says. “I was processing things in real time. It is exactly what was happening in my life—I just made it to these songs.”
If albums aren’t your thing and you like a little more diversity, here’s a collection of almost 200 songs that I’ve collected over the year. Follow me on Last.fm to see more of what I’m listening to each week.
Doing these year-end recaps is a great way to reflect on how important music is to our lives. I’ve really enjoyed focusing on music again through these One Last Wish posts — the intentionality that’s necessary to dig in a little deeper on these albums really makes me appreciate everything about the process of creating music and the power these songs can have on the artist AND the listener. It’s certainly made a huge impact on my life and I’m now seeing that play out as I take my kids to their first shows — seeing them sing along with Beach Bunny in Cleveland or be blown away by Mannequin Pussy in Rochester. It’s amazing to see and I’m thankful to be able to give that experience to them at the same age I experienced those same feelings and excitement for the first time.
Well, I can only hope 2022 brings more joy to our ears. I’m certain it will and I look forward to every Friday to pour over those new releases to find my next favorite album. In the meantime, next up for One Last Wish is the year 1993. See you in a few weeks!
The year was 1992. Half of the year was me finishing 10th grade and the other half, the start of 11th grade. A critical time in any teenager’s life, as you transition to an upperclassman in high school. Music, of course, was still a huge part of my life as I started to branch out into new genres, including punk and hardcore music.
The new releases that meant the most to me that year (in the moment) were the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head, Smeared by Sloan, Predator by Ice Cube, Sweet Oblivion by Screaming Trees, and Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut. Shortly after, other 1992 releases like Sugar’s Copper Blue, Jawbreaker’s Bivouac, Farside’s Rochambeau, Shudder to Think’s Get Your Goat, and Sonic Youth’s self-titled album would be added to the list. It was certainly a good and diverse/creative year for music.
Picking this issue’s focus was a challenge! I narrowed it down by selecting two “in the moment” albums: Check Your Head and Rage Against the Machine. From the “later” records, I would pick Copper Blue and Rochambeau — maybe even Bivouac. To compromise, I decided to focus on Check Your Head, but I will also comment on the three “later” albums, since they ended up being pretty crucial in the grand scheme of my life.
The Beastie Boys are the group that combined the genres that have impacted my life the most: hip hop, punk, and hardcore. (As well as some other genres I came to like: funk, jazz, soul, etc.) In fact, Check Your Head was the first album where they connected all of these styles and influences to create a collection of songs that would ultimately define the group for the remainder of their careers. They played instruments on many songs, weaved in a political/social consciousness, and did it all unapologetically as only the Beastie Boys can do. They proved they could do anything. This album might not get the cult attention of Paul’s Boutique or the massive hits of Ill Communication, but Check Your Head is just as important for this fact alone: you could tell they were finally exactly who they wanted to be as musicians.
Do what I do professionally. To tell the truth I am exactly what I want to be.
Mike D on “Pass the Mic”
Let’s dig in to my highlights!
A funky, upbeat opening to the album (as well as the third single.) The song is a perfect opening to show off what the Beastie Boys were going to unleash with Check Your Head.
[MCA] This is a type of kinda like a formal dedication
[MD] Givin' out a shout
[AD] for much inspiration
[MD] All I ever really want to do is get nice
Get loose and goof a little slice of life
[MCA] Sendin' out love to all corners of the land
[AD] I jump up on the stage and take the mic in my hand
[MD] I'm not playin' the role
[AD] Just being who I am
[MCA] And if you try to dis me, I couldn't give a damn
“Surrender“ by Cheap Trick, from the album, Cheap Trick at Budokhan
“Happy Birthday“ by Jimi Hendrix, from the album, My Best Friend
“Foxy Lady” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, from the album, Are You Experienced
“I’m Chief Kamanawanalea” by the Turtles, from the album, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands
Originally an instrumental groove, Jimmy James was said to be a tribute to Jimi Hendrix.
Not much to this song, but to a teenager working their first low paying jobs, some with questionable bosses, it was enough.
“Funky Worm“ by Ohio Players, from the album, Pleasure
“Under Mi Sensi“ by Barrington Levy, from the single, “Under Mi Sensi”
“Bicentennial Nigger“ by Richard Pryor, from the album, Bicentennial Nigger
Pass the Mic
A Beastie Boys classic and the first single off Check Your Head. One of my all-time favorites.
Well I’m on 'til the crack of dawn Mowing down emcees like I’m mowing a lawn I go off like nothing can faze me You think we'll ever meet Stevie? one of these days, D But I can stand my ground and I am down To wax an emcee who acts like a clown But for now, I’d like to ask you how You like the feel of the bass in your face in the crowd?
“The Black Prince Has Arrived“ by Jimmie Walker
“Big Take Over“ by Bad Brains, from the album, Bad Brains
“So What Cha Sayin’“ by EPMD, from the album, Unfinished Business
“Big Sur Suite“ by Johnny “Hammond” Smith
“I Walk on Guilded Splinters“ by Dr. John, from the album, Gris-Gris
“I Wanna Know If It’s Good to You“ by Funkadelic
“Choir” by James Newton, from the album, Axum
The fourth single off the album with it’s instantly recognizable fuzzed-out bass guitar line. Another of my favorites. Pretty sure I got my wah pedal because of this song too.
Good times gone, but you feed it Hate's grown strong, you feel you need it Just one thing, do you know you What you think? That the world owes you? What's gonna’ set you free Look inside and you'll see When you've got so much to say It's called gratitude, and that's right
Another song the Beasties played live as a band, with it’s funk, soul and African musical influences. Good stuff.
Finger Lickin’ Good
The group returns to it’s more classic hip hop sound, though the did also play their instruments on the backing track.
Well they call me Mike D with the mad man style
I put the mic up to my lips and I can scream for a while
Created a sound at which many were shocked at
I’ve got a million ideas that I ain't even rocked yet
I’ve got the light bulb flashing on the top of my head
Never wake up on the wrong side of the bed
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues“ by Bob Dylan, from the album, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
“Breakout“ by Johnny “Hammond” Smith, from the album, Breakout (1971)
“Three for the Festival“ by Rashaan Roland Kirk, from the album, We Free Kings (1961)
“Dance to the Music“ by Sly & the Family Stone, from the single, “Dance to the Music/Sing a Simple Song” (1979)
An interesting aside on that Dylan sample:
Interviewed for a piece in Boston Rock, Mike D shed some light on clearing the Dylan sample: “Seven hundred bucks, but he asked for two thousand dollars. I thought it was kind of fly that he asked for $2000.00, and I bartered Bob Dylan down. That’s my proudest sampling deal.”
Another classic track and the second single off Check Your Head.
Y'all suckers write me checks and then they bounce
So I reach into my pocket for the fresh amount
See, I'm the long leaner Victor the Cleaner
I'm the illest motherfucker from here to Gardena
“I’ve Been Watching You“ by Southside Movement from their self-titled debut album (1973)
“Just Rhymin’ with Biz“ by Big Daddy Kane from the album Long Live the Kane (1988)
Time for Livin’
The story behind this hardcore influenced track:
The music is by a really great but unknown, and I believe unreleased, early ‘80s New York hardcore band called Front Line. Yauch was particularly fond of this one song by them and had asked Miles Kelly, Front Line’s guitar player, to show it to him. I kind of remember Yauch would just play it on his bass every now and then when we would be messing around. One day after playing it a bit with Yauch showing me the arrangement, we decided [to] put it on tape. As usual for the time, Mario C. was ready to roll. I think we did a few takes, and then we had it.
This mellow song has serious dub influences. From Ad Rock:
“Something’s Got to Give” is one of my all time favorites ‘cause of all the elements inside; mixing live music with samples of our live music, live vocals with samples of our vocals, the lyrics and their sentiment, and the fucked-up bass.
—Adam Horovitz, 1999, from Beastie Boys Anthology: The Sounds of Science
Some skronk-y funk. Not sure if that’s even a word! I can picture this on a soundtrack for a 70s blaxploitation film.
Yeah, you motherfuckers, I'm all that
I see you lookin' at me sayin'
How can he be so skinny and live so phat?
You know why, cause I'm the maestro
Richard Arnold “Groove” Holmes was an American organist who performed in the genres of hard bop and soul jazz. His most notable recording is “Misty” (1965). With virtuoso groove and technique evident in “rapid, punctuating, and pulsating basslines,” Holmes’ work is regarded as antecedent of acid jazz. One year following his death, Beastie Boys paid tribute to Holmes on this track.
Live at PJs
Another super funky live-band-backed track with Ad Rock on vocals.
Well! Back to the back to the beat, y'all
Down with the sound so sweet, y'all
Just how fresh can you get, y'all?
Those that are blessed say yes y'all
The fifth single off Check Your Head. Samples include:
“Give It Up“ by Kool & the Gang, from the album, Kool & the Gang (1969)
“Loose Booty“ by Willie Henderson, from the album, Dance With the Master (1974)
“I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Babe“ by Jimmy Smith, from the album, Blacksmith (1974)
To my mind I brought the image of light
And I expanded out of it
My fear was just a shadow
And then a voice spoke in my head
And she said, Dark is not the opposite of light
It's the absence of light
And I thought to myself
She knows what she's talking about
And for a moment I knew what it was all about
Listen to the whole record on Apple Music:
Beyond the music, the Beastie Boys were a big part of my friendship group, including road trips to see them at Lollapalooza in Saratoga in 1994 and later (1998) in Barrie, ON. We played in a very Beasties-like band in college called the Butter Cream Gang (named after we found this movie during a late night trip to Blockbuster) and jammed many times after that with my newly purchased wah pedal. Honestly, after probably Fugazi (more on them in a future issue!) and Run DMC, the Beastie Boys were one of the most influential bands in my life.
The first album from Sugar and Bob Mould’s first band (non solo work) after Husker Du. It’s an amazing collection of power pop breakup songs that only Bob Mould can write. It was one of those albums I fell in love with the first time I heard it from Chris Fritton on the bus ride to high school. Highlights include: “Changes”, “Hoover Dam”, “Fortune Teller”, and “A Good Idea”.
Funny enough, Husker Du had an influence on Nirvana, which in turn had an influence on Bob Mould and Sugar:
The popularity of Nevermind and its grunge sound had a profound impact on Mould. In an interview with NPR, Mould said: “When Nevermind came out, that album changed the way people listen to music. A lot of the songs that I had been writing in 1991 led up to my next group, Sugar — and had it not been for Nevermind, I don’t know if Sugar’s Copper Blue would have stood a chance in ’92.
Farside’s debut full length. At the time, this record broke every assumption of what a “hardcore” band could be with acoustic guitar parts and well sung, emotional and thought provoking lyrics. At the time they were essentially an alternative band with former hardcore band members (even Zach de la Rocha was in the band early on!), which automatically put them in the hardcore scene. For me personally, this made for an excellent gateway into the classic record label, Revelation Records, and an entire music scene. Farside went on to release two more classic albums, Rigged and The Monroe Doctrine — both of which are must listens. They are one of my favorite all time bands, for sure.
This was one of the first albums I bought based on a zine, more specifically Maximum Rock and Roll. I got it on cassette at the mall record store of all places. Jawbreaker is a top 10 band for me and this was the starting place. I started liking Jawbreaker because they were punk as fuck, but they weren’t stereotypical punks. They liked poetry and wrote music that wasn’t regular punk music – it was noisy, fast, aggressive, and poppy. Other releases to check out (all crucial in their own way): Unfun, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, Dear You.
With this issue’s focus on 1992, I put together a playlist of some great songs from that year. Listen on Apple Music.
Here are some new releases I’ve been listening to and enjoying:
More live music! This time it was Hop Along at Mohawk Place in Buffalo, NY. The band and crowd were amazing. We need more shows like this so musicians leave our town and encourage others to visit. Too many touring musicians skip over Buffalo for no good reason.
In her own words, Michelle Zauner, aka indie-pop artist Japanese Breakfast, didn’t grow up in a household of high culture. She wasn’t shown fine art, foreign directors, or classic literature by her parents in Oregon during the 1990s. What Zauner had was video games, first on a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and then on a PlayStation.
A pretty solid list and ranking, in fact I own 20 of these on vinyl. A few albums that shockingly aren’t listed: Being There by Wilco, Black on Both Sides by Mos Def, 100 Broken Windows by Idlewild, Relationship of Command by At The Drive-in, Mass Romantic by The New Pornographers, The Argument by Fugazi, Fantastic Damage by El-P, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood by Neko Case for example.
Thanks for reading this issue of One Last Wish! Next issue we’ll see you in 1993.
As mentioned in the last post, 1991 was an amazing year for music. While Nirvana was tops in rock music (and probably music as a whole), A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory was an instant hip-hop classic and the best rap record of 1991.
Like Nirvana following up Bleach, A Tribe Called Quest took things to another level with their second album. ATCQ’s 1990 debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is a classic as well, but The Low End Theory fine tunes everything from their debut and pushes their style to new heights.
My love for A Tribe Called Quest started with that first album, specifically the songs “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”, “Can I Kick It?”, and “Bonita Applebum” — all of which were in high rotation on MTV and Yo! MTV Raps at the time. ATCQ was a truly groundbreaking group, incorporating jazz and R&B with laid back, conversational lyrics. Between ATCQ, De La Soul, and Disable Planets, I found my favorite hip-hop style — one I still prefer 30 years later.
Over the next few years I wore my The Low End Theory tape out — it was my go to for almost every situation: skateboarding, playing video games, running track in high school. It was my soundtrack for the very early 90s.
Let’s dig in to each track:
Excursions sets the stage for the whole album — great lyrics over a jazz/bebop influenced track. A great opening and introduction to ATCQ.
Back in the days when I was a teenager Before I had status and before I had a pager You could find the Abstract listenin’ to hip-hop] My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop I said, “Well, Daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles? Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”
The beat samples “A Chant for Bu” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
A great song and Phife Dawg’s coming out party as a world class MC. The video for this track can be seen below with “Jazz (We’ve Got)”.
What an opening:
Yo, microphone check one, two, what is this? The five foot assassin with the roughneck business I float like gravity, never had a cavity Got more rhymes than the Winans got family
The bass is sampled from Jack DeJohnette’s song, “Minya’s the Mooch”. The drums were sampled from Dr. Lonnie Smith’s “Spinning Wheel”.
Rap Promoter is another track from ATCQ taking issue with the music industry (you’ll sense the theme by the end of the album.)
If there ain’t no dough then there ain’t no show So take your roly poly fat promoter (ass) To the Chemical Bank, and get my cash If you wanna see the people scream and laugh You best Quest, you ask the Quest, you ask real fast
“Rap Promoter,” is a pointed jab at the monetization of rap music in the music industry. Q-Tip warns up-and-coming rappers about venue promoters and their shady tactics of scamming money out of them.
The drums were sampled from The New Birth’s “Keep on Doin’ It”. The guitar sample is from Eric Mercury’s “Long Way Down.”
Phife Dawg takes this track with an autobiographical look at his girl problems:
1988 senior year at Garvey High Where all the guys were corny but the girls were mad fly Lounging with the Tipster, cooling with Sha Scoping out the honeys—they know who they are I was the b-ball playing, fly rhyme saying Fly girl getting but never was I sweating
The drum beat was sampled from Chuck Jackson’s 1968 rendition of “I Like Everything About You.”
Verses from the Abstract
Q-Tip takes this one solo (well, Vinia Mojica is featured on the chorus) with a very jazz/funk influenced flow that has since influenced many MCs:
I’m moving, yes I’m grooving cause my mouth is on the motor Use the Coast in the morning to avoid the funky odor Can’t help being funky, I’m the funky Abstract brother Funky in a sense, but I play the undercover Once had a fetish, fetish for some booty Now I’m getting funky in my rap and that’s my duty
The drums were sampled from Joe Farrell’s 1974 track “Upon This Rock”. The background instrumentation on the hook was sampled from Heatwave’s 1977 song “The Star of a Story”.
A cautionary tale about the record industry. The song was also the first song on the album to include guest artists/groups. For this one it’s Lord Jamar and Sadat X of Brand Nubian, as well as Diamond D of D.I.T.C..
Yo, I gotta speak on the cesspool It’s the rap industry and it ain’t that cool Only if you’re on stage or if you’re speaking to your people Ain’t no-one your equal Especially on the industry side Don’t let the gains just glide Right through your fingers, you gotta know the deal So Lord Jamar speak, because you’re real
The drums are sampled from Aretha Franklin’s 1971 song “Rock Steady”. The bassline is from The Fatback Band’s 1974 track “Wicki Wacky”. The guitar break is a ssample from Ferrante & Teicher’s 1969 song “Midnight Cowboy”. Other samples were taken from James Brown’s “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” and Gerson King Combo’s “Mandamentos Black.”
Vibes and Stuff
Some more great lyrics and flow from Q-Tip and Phife Dawg on this laid back jazzy track.
Here I am ghetto, full with a lot of steam Think I gotta, I think I gotta, I think I gotta scream Cause that’s how good it feels child Let your hair down, so we can get buckwild Do your ill dance, don’t think about the next man We must have unity and think of the bigger plan Division we will fall, we must stick together, see I’d like to take this time to say what’s up to Kool G
The song samples Grant Green’s 1970 song “Down Here On the Ground”.
Infamous Date Rape
1990 was an important year in the discussion of rape, date rape, and rape on college campuses in the United States. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg add their social commentary in this song, along with some casual jokes (maybe too casual for 2021) about sex in general:
Listen to the rhyme, it’s a black-ink fact Percentile rate of date rape is fat
The drum samples are from Jackie Jackson’s 1973 song “Is It Him or Me” and the keyboard sample was taken from Cannonball Adderley’s 1972 song “The Steam Drill”.
Check the Rhime
One of my favorite songs on the album and a hip-hop classic. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg use call and response to celebrate their roots and how far they’ve come together:
Back in the days on the boulevard of Linden We used to kick routines and the presence was fittin’ It was I, The Abstract And me, the Five Footer I kicks the mad style so step off the frankfurter Yo, Phife, you remember that routine That we used to make spiffy like Mr. Clean? Um… um… a tidbit, um… a smidgen I don’t get the message so you gots to run the pigeon
The hook samples Minnie Riperton’s 1975 song “Baby, This Love I Have” and the horn sample comes from Average White Band’s 1976 song “Love Your Life”. The drums were sampled from Grover Washington Jr.’s 1975 song “Hydra” and Dalton & Dubarri’s 1976 song “I’m just a Rock N’ Roller”.
Everything is Fair
Look at Miss Elaine who runs the fast lane Barely knows her name, struck by fame She just got a Benz, she rides with her friends Gotta keep her beeper in her purse to make ends Rollin’ down the block, checkin’ out the spots She winks at the cops, always give her props She knows she’s the woman, can’t nobody touch her Hangs with the elite, makes her papes from the gutter
“Everything Is Fair” is a social commentary about crime and survival in New York City in the early ’90s.
The hook was sampled from Funkadelic’s 1976 song “Let’s Take It to the People”. The drums were sampled from Willis Jackson’s 1972 song “Ain’t No Sunshine”. The bassline was sampled from Willis Jackson’s 1972 song “Don’t Knock My Love”.
Jazz (We’ve Got)
Another one of my favorite jams on this album. The lyrics are top notch.
Stern firm and young with a laid-back tongue The aim is to succeed and achieve at 21 Just like Ringling Brothers, I’ll daze and astound Captivate the mass, cause the prose was profound Do it for the strong, we do it for the meek Boom it in your boom it in your boom it in your Jeep Or your Honda, or your Bimmer, or your Legend, or your Benz The rave of the town to your foes and your friends
The video combines two songs: “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “Buggin’ Out” from earlier in the album.
The drums were sampled from Five Stairsteps 1968 song “Don’t Change Your Love”. The keyboard sample twas taken from Jimmy McGriff’s 1972 song “Green Dolphin Street”. On the beat, three samples are manipulated on the turntables from The Dells 1972 song “Segue 2: Funky Breeze/Ghetto Scene”.
ATCQ’s commentary on the importance of pagers in the early 90s. I know that probably seems crazy to younger people, considering what we have now. But yeah, pagers were a thing well into the 90s.
Those who don’t believe, see you’re laid behind Got our skypagers on all the time Hurry up and get yours cause I got mine Especially if you do shows, they come in fine
The drums were sampled from Sly and The Family Stone’s 1967 song “Advice”. The jazz sample heard in the hook was taken from Eric Dolphy’s 1960 song “17 West,”, featuring jazz bassist Ron Carter.
A short, uptempo track with many rhetorical questions from Q-Tip.
The sparse track entirely consists of a loop of the Paul Humphrey song called “Uncle Willie’s Dream” (1974). The track’s bouncy momentum culminates into a group shout of “What!!” that leads directly into the album’s crown jewel posse cut, “Scenario.”
Another classic and my favorite ATCQ song. What a way to close out the album. The song was my introduction to Leaders of the New School and Busta Rhymes, who went on to massive success as a solo artist.
The drums on “Scenario” were sampled from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s 1967 song “Little Miss Lover”. The bassline and other elements heard throughout were taken from Brother Jack McDuff’s 1970 song “Oblighetto”.
Since A Tribe Called Quest is this month’s featured artist, we’ll focus on hip hop from 1991. Enjoy! Listen on Apple Music.
Check the Rhime by A Tribe Called Quest
Mistadobalina by Del Tha Funkee Homosapien
If My Homie Calls by 2Pac
Mind Playing Tricks on Me by Geto Boys
How I Could Just Kill a Man by Cypress Hill
Check the Technique by Gang Starr
The Choice is Yours by Black Sheep
I Shouldn’t Have Done It by Slick Rick
The Creator by CL Smooth and Pete Rock
Case of the PTA by Leaders of the New School
Can’t Truss It by Public Enemy
OPP by Naughty by Nature
Live at the Barbecue by Main Source
Here are some new releases I’ve been listening to and enjoying:
LIVE MUSIC?!?! Since the last issue I had the pleasure of attending two concerts: an indoor show with the twin bill of Japanese Breakfast/Mannequin Pussy and an outdoor show with Wilco/Sleater-Kinney/NNAMDI. Both were very good.
The Japanese Breakfast show was thankfully vaccine + mask required, which definitely helped us relax. It was truly amazing to see live music again. Before the pandemic I definitely took it for granted. I’ve seen hundreds of bands over the years and the thought of standing in a hot sweaty room, packed in with other people was not appealing any longer, in most cases. That show 100% changed my mind. The best part of that show is we took Lu and two of their friends and they were blown away by Mannequin Pussy. Such a great, in person experience to give young kids.
Note from Jason: Wow, I procrastinated a lot on this one. This issue was like 90% done for weeks. The last 10% was the hardest – putting the focused listen into words. Maybe it’s because SO much has been written about Nirvana, I didn’t think I could do it justice? Anyway, here it is… I will attempt to follow up with another issue this month to get back on track. Thanks for reading!
1991 was a huge year for music – I’m thinking we’ll be stuck here for the next few issues, as there are a number of crucial records I really need to include in this project and it just happens to be the 30th anniversary. Nirvana’s Nevermind and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory will definitely make the cut for me.
Other classic records out that year: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Slint’s Spiderland, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish, Fugazi’s Steady Diet of Nothing, Sepultura’s Arise, Geto Boy’s We Can’t Be Stopped, De La Soul’s De La Soul is Dead, my most underrated album of the 90s: God Fodder by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, and many more — I could keep going.
This issue I’ll focus on the album that made the biggest impact of all those listed above: Nirvana’s Nevermind. Released on September 24th, the album knocked pop music off the charts – taking over the #1 slot from Michael Jackson on the Billboard 200 in early 1992. Over 24 million copies have been sold and it’s obviously on many “best of” lists – including #17 on Rolling Stone’s all-time top 500 list. Beyond the mainstream success of Nirvana, this album inspired and opened the gateway to success for many, many alternative rock bands from that point forward.
I received the cassette version for Christmas that year. It turns out, I wasn’t alone:
Nevermind had its best sales period during Christmas week of 1991, when it sold a spectacular 374,000 copies in a mere seven-day frame
Like most of us at the time, I was sucked in by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the short ride. Overall, I think Nirvana epitomized the Gen X experience: noisy, angsty sly sarcasm, and enough hooks to get you through it all. As a teenager, you couldn’t ask for anything more.
Beyond music, Nirvana obviously wasn’t the reason we moved to Seattle in 1999, but the introduction to the Seattle music scene was a huge selling point. We lived in Seattle for five years and enjoyed many bands during that time at some of the classic Seattle venues: The Crocodile, Showbox, Paramount, Rock Candy, Neumos, El Corazon/Graceland/many other names, Cha Cha Lounge, The Comet, Paradox, and many more. The 1999 to 2004 period was amazing for us in terms of shows – I can’t imagine experiencing all of the scene history that pre-dated that time.
Anyway, enough of the blathering – we all know Nirvana and Nevermind – let’s get on to the focused listen! (I just hope I can do it justice – so much has been written about this band.)
Smells Like Teen Spirit
The debut single off Nevermind, it was certainly the song (and regularly played video) that jumpstarted the success of the album. Not to mention help it become one of the most recognizable songs of the last 30 years. In fact, Rolling Stone named it #9 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Turns out, Nirvana was trying to rip off The Pixies (another of my favorite bands). Cobain in a Rolling Stone interview from January 1994:
I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.
Lyrically, Nirvana is one of those bands that seem to have two distinct camps: one group that think it’s all non-sensical to fit the melodies and cadence and another group that dissects every single line for meaning. To me, I think the non-sensical has a purpose for Cobain, so I lean toward the “find meaning” camp in most songs. (When this project is complete, you’ll notice I tend to love bands that have meaningful lyrics, if you haven’t already.)
As a shy introvert, my favorite part of this song has to be:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
I don’t think there are many songs that sum up that feeling for me as well as this one does… the constant feeling of having to entertain others just to be heard, the feeling of failure when you aren’t heard, and finding those “dark” places where you can feel comfortable being yourself. It’s quite perfect.
In the end, it’s hard to not say this is the best song on the album, given all of the accolades, though I think “Drain You” is a very close second.
Another video I remember seeing a lot on MTV. The song was an ode to the fans the jumped on the Nirvana bandwagon, yet didn’t understand anything about them – which became commonplace for alternative/underground rock bands in the 90s, think Rage Against the Machine, Fugazi, and the like…
The best part is the song is so damn catchy and easy to sing-a-long to — it’s the perfect honey trap.
He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he don’t knows not what it means
Don’t knows what it means, when I say
He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he don’t know what it means, don’t know what it means, and I say, “Yeah”
Come As You Are
Originally intended to be the main single on Nevermind, it was put on the backburner after the surprise success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
I get why “management” picked this song as the lead single, since it has a low key, catchy almost sonic feel to it. It’s a good, safe song. Though in context of the rest of the album and Bleach before it, I think it’s a pretty non-representative sample of who Nirvana was at the time. Maybe I am wrong – I’m not a millionaire music executive after all. 🙂
Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy
Take your time, hurry up
Choice is yours, don’t be late
Take a rest as a friend
As an old memoria
This song could be on Bleach – it’s certainly the most caustic, aggressive song on the album. Lyrically, Cobain focuses on getting stuck in the stereotypical “middle America” life:
Even if you have, even if you need
I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed
We could plant a house, we could build a tree
I don’t even care, we could have all three
“Lithium” is a perfect description of manic depression, where every line is both happy and sad, up and down, while having references to God recalling when Kurt lived with a devout Christian family.
Musically, Cobain once again goes the Pixies route – I’d argue even more so than“Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It’s certainly catchy.
My favorite section of lyrics:
I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head
I’m so ugly, that’s okay, ’cause so are you, we broke our mirrors
Sunday mornin’ is every day for all I care and I’m not scared
Light my candles in a daze ’cause I’ve found God
This is probably my least favorite song on the album, though I learned something new about it:
This song is about the actual kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl. In 1987, she was returning from a concert in Tacoma, Washington when she was abducted by a man named Gerald Friend. He took her back to his mobile home and raped her. The girl, whose name was not released, was tortured with a whip, a razor, and a blowtorch. She managed to escape when Friend took her for a ride and stopped for gas. He was arrested and sent to jail.
Lyrically, you can certainly hear that story after learning of the background.
The most traditional punk song on the record – fast and aggressive. Lyrically, Cobain stuck with that theme as well, focusing the rage on the mistreatment of Native Americans and women. From Cobain:
On one hand “Territorial Pissings” references Native Americans – people smashed by raging attacks. And at the same time it’s about appreciating woman.. I hate the violence they suffer, the daily injustices for belonging to a different sex.
It all starts with the classic opening – spontaneously included by Krist Novoselic – which was directed at the Baby Boomer generation since they seem to have forgotten the ideals The Youngbloods sang about in the classic hippie anthem “Get Together” from the 60s:
Come on, people, now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now
My second favorite song on the album. The chorus just ripping through while Cobain sings:
One baby to another says, “I’m lucky to have met you”
I don’t care what you think unless it is about me
It is now my duty to completely drain you
I travel through a tube and end up in your infection
It’s the classic Nirvana sound that I love.
The next two songs kind of do the same thing for me – similar vibe (generally a loud, catchy ripper) – though I probably prefer Lounge Act of the two, since it’s got more dynamics and better lyrics:
And I’ve got this friend, you see who makes me feel
And I wanted more than I could steal
I’ll arrest myself, I’ll wear a shield
I’ll go out of my way to make you a deal
We’ll make a pact to learn from who
Ever we want without new rules
And we’ll share what’s lost and what we grew
They’ll go out of their way to prove they still
Smell her on you
They still smell her on you
Smell her on you
In fact the lyrics from Lounge Act are probably the most straightforward on the album – almost traditional, well as traditional as Cobain would get on this album.
Another ripper, with the controversial ending: “God is gay.”
In a 1993 interview with The Advocate, Cobain claimed that he was “gay in spirit” and “probably could be bisexual.” He also stated that he used to spray paint “God Is Gay” on pickup trucks in the Aberdeen area—he did attend church throughout his youth, but became dissatisfied with religion.
On A Plain
Another one of my favorites, with some of the catchiest riffs on the album. It definitely lays the foundation for many alternative bands to come. I can hear bits of Weezer and The Posies to name just a few.
I’ll start this off without any words
I got so high, I scratched till I bled
I love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do?
The finest day that I’ve ever had
Was when I learned to cry on command
Love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do? (Ooh, ooh)
Something In The Way
A mellow and mournful end to the official track listing.
Underneath the bridge
Tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings
Overall, I’m pleasently surprised how well this album held up over the years. It’s a classic for sure and definitely one of most important albums of my generation.
Since this album had such a huge impact, I also asked some internet friends for a tweet-length reaction from their 1991 self:
Honestly, my first impression was: “mmmh, fine, nothing fancy but I like the songs. This album won’t change the world, I dont get all that hype”(disclaimer: for me in 1991 the revolution was RHCP blood sugar sex magic)
1991 I worked in a record store. I didn’t get why lightning struck for Nirvana over many other bands that sounded similar on the same record label or from the same scene. They had some nice hooks and that Butch Vig sound.
Since Nirvana is this month’s featured artist, we’ll focus on rock music from 1991 – such a diverse mix of sounds in the (mostly) alternative scene. Enjoy! Listen on Apple Music.
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Rusty Cage – Soundgarden
Reclamation – Fugazi
When You Sleep – My Bloody Valentine
I Am One – The Smashing Pumpkins
Alive – Pearl Jam
Arise – Sepulture
Underlord – Into Another
P.S. New York is Burning – Jawbreaker
Impossible Figure – Jawbox
Spectra Sonic Sound – Nation of Ulysses
Kill Your Television – Ned’s Atomic Dustbin
Strong Reaction – Pegboy
Selfish – Seaweed
Red House – Shudder to Think
Seed Toss – Superchunk
Gun – Uncle Tupelo
Enter Sandman – Metallica
One – U2
Losing My Religion – R.E.M.
Alec Eiffel – Pixies
Mouth Breather – The Jesus Lizard
The Concept – Teenage Fanclub
Rave Down – Swervedriver
Counting Backwards – Throwing Muses
Stickin in My Eye – NOFX
Alice Said – Screaming Trees
Little Bones – The Tragically Hip
Whatever’s Cool With Me – Dinosaur Jr.
Running Like Thieves – Bold
Nosferatu Man – Slint
Those Who Fear Tomorrow – Integrity
Values and Instabilities – 4 Walls Falling
Here are some new releases I’ve been listening to and enjoying:
Open Mike Eagle and El-P talk about El-P’s career from Company Flow to Run the Jewels. I was super into Def Jux back in the early 2000s, especially El-P, Mr. Lif, and Aesop Rock, so it was amazing to hear about it first hand. A must listen if you are into indie hip hop.
That wraps up the sixth issue. Feel free to send me feedback, questions, ideas — anything. I’d also love if you shared this newsletter with anyone you think would enjoy and encourage them to subscribe.
Quick Note from Jason: This month is the first issue published from my brand new site at OneLastWish.club. If you subscribed to the email via Substack you are all set – no need to re-subscribe, in fact you can manage your subscription by clicking Login on the new site.
If you subcribed via RSS or read issues by visiting the Substack site, you will need to update your links. This will be the permanent home for One Last Wish from here on out.
I’m super excited about this for a few main reasons:
I can own my content and not worry about Substack going away or changing for the worse.
I can publish other posts, without having to include it in a newsletter.
I can offer a way to support the site through Cash App and PayPal tips.
I am looking into offering perks for supporters, including record giveaways and other benefits. (More on that once I can finalize details.)
Thanks for reading and following along. Last month was the most successful issue to date, so I really appreciate all of the interest.
Onward to issue five! (I hope it’s worth the wait – it’s a long one.)
Believe the Hype: Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet
While Living Colour was my first true experience with overtly political lyrics, the next logical step, given my love for hip hop, had to be Public Enemy. My first PE purchase (and the focus of this issue) was the cassette version of Fear of a Black Planet – released in April of 1990.
Public Enemy was formed in 1985 by Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Fear of a Black Planet was Public Enemy’s third studio album — a followup to 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1987’s debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show. The album is certified platinum by the RIAA and both “Fight the Power” and “911 is a Joke” both reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart.
My first exposure to Public Enemy was music videos off the It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album via MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps. Songs like “Bring the Noise”, “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Rebel Without a Pause” certainly sold me on Public Enemy – they were the real deal.
In addition to MTV and their first two releases, Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee had a big impact on me – not only as the debut of “Fight the Power”, but the overall message and power of the Lee’s work. It’s still one of my favorite movies to this day.
The absolute peak of my Public Enemy experience was at the 1994 University at Buffalo Fall Fest during my freshman year of college. There you would have seen eighteen year old me, up front for PE, getting a high five from Flavor Flav after he came to life out of a casket on stage early in their set. It was an otherworldly experience I will never forget.
Now that we have a little backstory, let’s dig in to my focused listen:
1. Contract on the World Love Jam
PE was no stranger to criticism, so what better way than to open your third album with samples of that criticism. Face it head on.
“A lot of the samples on ‘Contract’ came from me taping radio stations, taking bites of interviews and commercials. Sometimes I might go through the dial, just sampling at random, keeping it on a cassette, listen to the cassette, and say, ‘Well, being that I’m the lyric writer, how should I arrange these fragments so they’ll add up to a kind of a song?’ That’s how ‘Contract’ came along.
2. Brothers Gonna Work it Out
The first full song kicks off Fear with PE’s classic sound – driving bass, borderline caucaphonic noise, and that classic hip hop beat. Chuck D’s lyrics don’t hold back either:
History shouldn’t be a mystery
Our stories real history
Not his story
In 1995, you’ll twist to this
As you raise your fist to the music
United we stand, yes divided we fall
Together we can stand tall
Brothers that try to work it out
They get mad, revolt, revise, realize
They’re super bad
Small chance a smart brother’s
Gonna be a victim of his own circumstance
Sabotaged, shell-shocked, rocked and ruled
Day in the life of a fool
At almost 14 and questioning everything I’d been taught, Public Enemy could get you hyped and teach at the same time. It’s exactly what I needed at that age… and still enjoy today.
3. 911 is a Joke
Probably one of PE’s most recognizable songs (and video) – this was Flavor Flav at the top of his game. Only he could deliver this message:
4. Incident at 66.6 FM
Chuck D on this track:
“Incident At 66.6 FM’ was actually a live radio interview that I did at WNBC in New York before a show we did with Run-DMC at Nassau Coliseum. Those people you hear in the record actually called the station.
5. Welcome to the Terrordome
This song was Chuck D’s response to the Professor Griff anti-semitism controversy and the media focus.
Never be a brother like, “Me go solo”
Laser, anesthesia, maze ya
Ways to blaze your brain and train ya
The way I’m livin’, forgiven, what I’m givin’ up
X on the flex, hit me now
I don’t know about later
As for now, I know how to avoid the paranoid
Man, I’ve had it up to here
Yeah, I wear got ’em going in fear
Rhetoric said and read just a bit ago
Not quitting, though signed the hard rhymer
Musically the song is a banger, with samples from James Brown, The Temptations, Kool & the Gang, and The Jackson 5. So damn good. Chuck D is in attack mode lyrically the whole damn song too. It’s a treat.
Dabbling a little in the homophobic territory of early ‘90s rap on this controversial skit, Public Enemy speaks on the then recent subject of AIDS in the black community.
8. Anti-N***** Machine
Chuck D’s commentary on how the police system, government, and laws work to censor Black Americans – whether it’s literally censoring music, voting, or the taking of one’s life at the hands of the police. Still very relevant 30+ years later, as we watch George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and sadly many others… as well as Republican controlled states rush to make voting more difficult after the 2020 election.
9. Burn Hollywood Burn
A criticim of Hollywood and the treatment (and stereotypes) of Blacks in media:
Hollywood or would they not
Make us all look bad like I know they had
But some things I’ll never forget, yeah
So step and fetch this shit
For all the years we looked like clowns
The joke is over — smell the smoke from all around
Stepin Fetchit (the name is a variation of the phrase “step and fetch it”) was the stage name of the black film actor Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. He played the “laziest man in the world” in dozens of movies in the 1920’s and 30’s.
10. Power to the People
This feels like a song that was made to take the listener out of Side A. Not necessarily a throw away song, but not one I’d target to listen to on an album this good.
11. Who Stole the Soul?
PE jumps back into side two head first. The song focuses on the continued attack on Black people’s soul – their creativity, home, family and livelihood. All while having to experience holidays and other symbols of America that have some relation to slavery and the plight of Black Americans over the generations. That in itself has to be soul killing.
We choose to use their ways
And holidays notice some of them are heller days
Invented by those that never repented
For the sins within that killed my kin
The song features samples of The Beatles, James Brown, and the Magic Disco Machine.
12. Fear of a Black Planet
The title track – another song that is still relevant today, with the increasing popularity of white nationalism and white supremicist ideas/policy.
13. Revolutionary Generation
This song deals with America and the black community’s poor treatment of women.
Cause I’m tired of America dissin’ my sisters
(For example, like they dissed Tawana)
And they try to say that she’s a liar
My people don’t believe it, but even now they’re getting higher
Tawana Bawley is an African-American woman who accused 6 white men including police officers of raping her. The judgement and racial stereotypes that ensued from the media and, ahem, whitey caused people to think she lying.
14. Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man!
Another Flavor Flav jam. Love it – he was certainly on his A game this record.
Runnin’ for your life, by the knife
Runnin’ from your wife, yikes!
You should’ve stuck with home
Off your mind to blow your dome
It was you that chose your doom
You built the maze you can’t get through
I tried to help you all I can
Now I can’t do nuttin’ for you man
15. Reggie Jax
A freestyle from Chuck D – very Run DMC in flow – with some references to previous songs and recycled themes/phrases.
I’m here to live for the love of my people
Kickin’ it all about rebuildin’ so all the children
Avoid the self-destruction
So long I’m gonna do y’all a favor
Cause I got the flavor yea yeah
16. Leave This Off Your Fu*ckin Charts
17. B Side Wins Again
Musically, a driving bass line and PE’s patented style help make this one of the better tracks on Fear. Featuring samples from Kool & the Gang and the Commodores. Lyrically, the song pulls no punches:
And the suckers on the right get cynical
Cause the record’s to the left and political
And you search the stores
Attack the racks with your claws
For the rebels without a pause
18. War at 33 1/3
This song aim to challenge the status quo and the history taught by schools and the media – whether it’s portraying Black people as the enemy in the media or simply not given them credit for playing a major part in building the country:
Can I live my life without ’em treatin’
Every brother like me like I’m holdin’
A knife alright time to smack Uncle Sam
Who don’t give a damn, look at the flag
My blood’s a flood
Black and close to the edit
I fed it, you read it, just remember who said it
There are a lot of theories as to why the song is titled the way it is – one is a reference to the speed of the song, which is way faster than most PE songs.
19. Final Count of the Collision Between Us and the Damned
20. Fight the Power
One of PE’s best and well known songs. Chuck D on what inspired it:
I wanted to have sorta like the same theme as the original ‘Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers and fill it in with some kind of modernist views of what our surroundings were at that particular time.
The lyrics definitely hit hard:
As the rhythm’s designed to bounce
What counts is that the rhyme’s
Designed to fill your mind
Now that you’ve realized the pride’s arrived
We got to pump the stuff to make ya tough
From the heart
It’s a start, a work of art
To revolutionize make a change nothing’s strange
People, people we are the same
No we’re not the same
‘Cause we don’t know the game
What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved let’s get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness
The music is anthemic, featuring samples from James Brown, Bob Marley, Rick James, Sly and the Family Stone, Trouble Funk, Afrika Bambaataa, and many more. The classic PE sound.
Then there’s the video. I definitely remember watching that on Yo! MTV Raps:
Listening to these songs and prepping for this issue, I couldn’t believe how good this album was – even 30+ years later. This was Public Enemy at it’s creative peak. It Takes a Nation of Millions may be their breakthrough and an important album on it’s own, but the confidence PE exudes on Fear is just palpable.
One of my favorite things about Public Enemy and music in general is it’s ability to teach and experience empathy – whether it’s political in nature, a culture you may not have much exposure to, heartache, or immense joy. Listening to and experiencing someone else’s feelings is one of the most crucial life skills in my opinion. I imagine as this project ages, that will become even more clear with each new issue.
In terms of this album specifically, I know it set the stage for who I am in terms of my beliefs and interests. It’s certainly what helped open me up to punk/hardcore music, reading books by folks like James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and having an interest in politics/social justice in general. I know I will be forever grateful to Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and Public Enemy.
Here are a few recently released albums (well more than a few – it’s been a good few weeks!) I’ve been listening to:
Family Album by Lia Ices (Listen) — she returned to more of an indie folk sound on this album, but the great songwriting remains.
Clothbound by The Sonder Bombs (Listen) — for fans of Beach Bunny and Paramore. Solid all around.
Collapsed in Sunbeams by Arlo Parks (Listen) — awesome bedroom indie pop. Been looking forward to this for awhile.
Uppers by TV Priest (Listen) — post-punk in the vein of The Fall, Gang of Four, Nick Cave and newer bands like IDLES and Shame.
Ignorance by The Weather Station (Listen) — a mix of Broken Social Scene, Fleetwood Mac, and Talk Talk. Super good.
Stay Gone by Calyx (Listen) — a mix of Lemuria, Husker Du, and Swearin’. Fast, noisy, chaotic, and sometimes catchy punk. Like it a lot.
Pastel by FRITZ (Listen) — a little shoe gaze, dream pop, and alt-rock all mixed into one — think Alvvays crossed with Hatchie. Love it.
Little Oblivions by Julien Baker (Listen) – to be honest, I haven’t put as much time into this album and I really want to focus on it. The songs I have listened to are everything you would expect from someone as talented as Baker. I am pretty confident this will end up on my year end list.
Life is Not a Lesson by Glitterer (Listen) – fuzzy grunge pop from the bassist of Title Fight. One of my favorite releases from the last few weeks. Perfect spring time, driving with the window down, turn it up loud music.
The Shadow I Remember by Cloud Nothings (Listen) – sounds like Cloud Nothings and that’s perfectly fine by me. Saw them in 2017 opening for the New Pornographers. Super good band.
Show Me How You Disappear by IAN SWEET (Listen) – One of my favorite albums so far this year. I saw her in 2017 supporting Ted Leo. I liked her debut Shapeshifter a lot, but this one is better. Quirky, well done indie pop. Please check it out!
Driver by Adult Mom (Listen) – bedroom/indie pop similar to what the Crutchfield sisters do in their solo work, Waxahatchee, and PS Eliot. Like it a lot.
As the Love Continues by Mogwai (Listen) – one of their best albums in years.
And a few older ones on repeat:
Ices by Lia Ices (Listen) — more of an electronic sound than her other albums. The songs features lots of loops, a tropical feel at times, and general happy sound all highlighted by her awesome vocals. Perfect for the winter doldrums.
An End Has a Start by Editors (Listen) — Strangely I wasn’t familiar with this band prior to seeing it highlighted on an acquaintances Instagram feed. Interpol crossed with Frightened Rabbit and The National. Right up my alley.
Luca by Alex Maas (Listen) – psych-rock/indie folk from the singer of The Black Angels. Some really great moments on this album.
Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans (Listen) — a classic from one of my favorite bands. I picked up the vinyl as well.
Population by The Most Serene Republic (Listen) — one of my favorite live bands. Quirky indie-pop similar to Broken Social Scene.
That wraps up the fifth issue. Feel free to send me feedback, questions, ideas — anything. I’d also love if you shared this newsletter with anyone you think would enjoy and encourage them to subscribe.
This story is as old as time: parents try to show their kids “good” music, kids roll their eyes and proceed to put their headphones back on / tune out / leave the room. Whatever that generation’s go-to “blow your parents off” move is… I did the same to my parents and my kids have done the same to me.
For me, my musical journey to date had involved discovering hip hop through Run DMC and rock music through Living Colour. Getting into rock music brought me to many new places, from liking Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue to INXS and Depeche Mode. One place I had yet to explore, mainly due to “hearing” it so often from my parents, was classic rock.
That all changed when my friend Brian continually talked about how good Led Zeppelin was and I did my best to pretend I knew exactly what he meant. Of course I knew the name Led Zeppelin. In fact, I heard them many times over the years, but I didn’t actually listen.
Luckily, my parents had a few records and tapes I could listen to when they weren’t home or paying attention. I got hooked. (I also listened to their Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Black Sabbath, and Heart records while I was at it…)
My favorite Zeppelin album has to be their sixth, Physical Graffiti, the double album released in 1975. (Listen) It’s a long listen, but I also think it’s the band at their creative peak — exploring and combining many of their styles and influences like Middle Eastern music, funk, metal, jazz, pop, country, folk, blues, and prog rock. It’s quite the journey.
I was overjoyed to come across a used copy at Revolver Records a few years back, as I was browsing the “just in” used crates. It’s a regular spin that we like to enjoy — and by “we” I mean the entire family. Amazing how that worked out!
Here are the notes from my recent focused listens:
Zeppelin kicks off their album with an upbeat groove — wound up, loud blues with lyrics chock full of Robert Plant’s patented sexual double-entendres.
The band continues the high powered album opening with a combination of Southern rock, blues, and metal. Serious swagger. Some of Jimmy Page’s best guitar work, in my opinion.
In My Time of Dying
My oh my, John Bonham’s drum playing starting at around the 3:50 minute mark are some of the craziest beats — literally playing along with the guitar, matching Page’s riffs. The Bonham video I included in the video section below highlights many of the ways he was a unique, innovative, and powerful drummer at the time (and his legend has only grown since he passed away.) It’s a long song, but that passage alone is worth hearing.
Houses of the Holy
Originally recorded for Zeppelin’s previous album of the same name, it finally made the cut and we’re the better for it, as it’s one of their most popular songs. I hear some pop influence, which definitely carries over into the next song.
Trampled Under Foot
Influenced by Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, this song rocks the funk/Southern rock/blues crossover with serious swagger again — love it.
My favorite Zeppelin song. Absolutely epic in every way. Apparently it was written after a long trip down a straight, seemingly never ending road in the desert of Morocco. We played this song many times on our two cross-country road trips, so it makes total sense. A perfect song for driving. A perfect song.
In the Light
One of the few songs Zeppelin was never able to play live, as they couldn’t replicate the synthesizer sound outside the studio. It was also meant to be a follow-up to “Stairway to Heaven”. Almost orchestral, the psychedelic keys and slow groove would have surely been a crowd pleaser for the era.
Down by the Seaside
Another holdover from a previous recording session, this song slows things down even more after the instrumental interlude of Bron-Yr-Aur. Written almost 40 years ago, the lyrics are still so appropriate for today’s fast paced, over scheduled world:
Down in the city streets
See all the folk go racing, racing
No time left, oh no
To pass the time of day
Ten Years Gone
Lyrically, one of my favorite songs. Like this opening verse:
Then, as it was, then again it will be
And though the course may change sometimes
Rivers always reach the sea
Flying skies of fortune, each a separate way
On the wings of maybe, downing birds of prey
Kind of makes me feel sometimes, didn’t have to go
But as the eagle leaves the nest, got so far to go
Musically, there are little hints here and there of Zeppelin’s usual groove. The bulk of the song is slow with a pop and orchestral influence, which fits well with the break-up theme of the lyrics.
I’d put this as the weakest song on the album. Thankfully it closes out the slow section of the album, as tracks 7 through 11 really took things down a notch after the blistering opening.
The Wanton Song
Zeppelin is back with the loud, blues influence groove on this track. The song began as a sound check during the 1973 tour and eventually morphed into what it became on Physical Graffiti. I really dig the main riff.
Boogie With Stu
An impromptu jam with Ian Stewart who played piano on Zeppelin recordings (as well as with the Rolling Stones.) Stewart didn’t play live with Zeppelin, so this song was also never played in concert.
Black Country Woman
Another song intended for Houses of the Holy. An acoustic track recorded in Mick Jagger’s garden. Essentially another filler to extend the playing time to fit a double album.
The closing track — an uneven song about a groupie. The song shines in moments, but falls apart just as quickly.
And as a final note to parents out there: don’t give up. Most importantly keep listening to music together, no matter what. Music is such an important part of our world… it brings people together, it can teach empathy and love, it can be political on one end and it can be a mindless, fun release on the other.
I’ve been known to enjoy a few pop songs that my kids dig. Thankfully, my girls have done the same with musicians I like, in fact we took the family to see Snail Mail for one daughter’s 11th birthday, including a front row spot and a guitar pick / set list from Lindsey Jordan herself. Another daughter is learning Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for her bass recital and my third daughter is playing a Beach Bunny song for her drum recital. So proud.
Wampire, Jesca Hoop, Old Canes, The Good Life, Into Another, Owls, Bold, Dungen, Embrace, Deer Tick.
What bands do you think are underrated? Share in the comments!
That wraps up the fourth issue. Feel free to send me feedback, questions, ideas — anything. I’d also love if you shared this newsletter with anyone you think would enjoy and encourage them to subscribe.
Whereas Run D.M.C.’s Raising Hell was my first album and my first music purchase, Living Colour’s Vivid was my first rock album. Released in May 1988, I was just about to turn 12 years old and was finishing my 6th grade year. I started skateboarding that year, reading Thrasher magazine, and generally expanding my horizon through many new experiences.
One of my biggest memories from the 6th grade year was skating with my friend Chris in the church parking lot near my house, boom box on the curb, and blasting Vivid and Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction as we learned how to skate.
Looking back, Living Colour was the gateway that eventually got me interested in punk and hardcore music. In fact, I’ve come to realize it’s thekeystone of my interests — hip-hop, punk, hardcore, pop music, and progressive politics.
The album has become so important to me, I was overjoyed when I came across a vinyl copy at my favorite local record store, Revolver Records, a couple years back. It’s a treasured part of my collection.
With that, I think it’s time to dive in and look back at each track. Here are some highlights from my focused listens over the last few weeks:
Cult of Personality
The Living Colour song everyone alive during that era knows… the iconic music video, the driving main riff, and my oh my the lyrics. It was certainly the first political song I liked and it hit at a perfect time. My daughters are currently 12 and 13 and this is exactly the time you start learning about injustice and what the world is really like in school. My parents weren’t as outwardly political as my wife and I are, but the social studies curriculum certainly starts to open eyes at this age.
You gave me fortune, you gave me fame You gave me power in your god’s name I’m every person you need to be Oh, I’m the cult of personality
Couldn’t be any more appropriate 30+ years later.
I Want to Know
A love song with a heavy pop influence. I definitely enjoyed this song in the 80s, but not so much now. Other than nostalgia, of course.
An ode to being OK with who you are and not chasing other people’s expectations. I can certainly appreciate this song now as an adult, but at the time I wasn’t quite sure of the message.
‘Middle Man’ came from a suicide note Corey wrote when he was a teenager. “I was maybe 16, 17 years old, and I was just fed up with everything,” he said. “I was feeling just down and depressed. When I initially started writing it, it was going to be an open letter to anybody that found me, that I was tired of being caught up in everybody’s mess. I was tired of being in the middle of things. I’m tired of being the middle man. And then in the midst of me working this out in my head, it dawned on me that this was not a bad place to be in some cases, that at least I was somewhere. It doesn’t mean that it’s the best place in the world, but it doesn’t mean it’s the worst, either. So it actually got me out of the idea that I needed to stop being. It changed my life.”
– from Genius.com
Another favorite of mine. The main riff is so good. Glover’s lyrics focus on, what I assume is, the drug culture of the 80s and the lengths people went to in order to fit in. Between “Just Say No” of the Reagan era and my own personal beliefs to not drink or do drugs at the time (that lasted well into my college years), I could certainly relate to this song growing up.
You get your sunshine from a tab of paper Then you’re sittin’ in a spinning room The clock is tocking, it’s laughing at you Your life’s a mystery without a clue The crowd you’re in thinks you’re so amusin’ They’re oh so flattering and so sincere They stand and laugh as they watch you crumble And when you cry for help they don’t hear
Open Letter (to a Landlord)
This song is on the slower side, but it’s well written and I love the political lyrics. Glover addresses gentrification, capitalism, violence, and drugs in a very personal manner. Certainly my first exposure to these subjects as a white, suburban middle class 12-year old in 1988.
More political, funk/hip-hop-inspired thrash featuring Chuck D and Flavor Flav from one of my other faves: Public Enemy.
Memories Can’t Wait (Talking Heads cover)
I had no idea this was the Talking Heads song until a few years ago! It’s certainly a Living Colour-influenced take on this classic. The Talking Heads version is very post-apocalyptic and dark, so I can see why they (as a metal band) would be drawn to this song. Their version is very good and one of my favorite tracks on the album.
A slow, plodding love song that fit the era, but seems out of place in the grand scheme of the album.
I certainly remember this video and enjoying this song in 1988. The riff in the chorus is pretty solid, but in the end it’s a song that fits the 80’s well. Beyond the nostalgia it’s hard to sync songs like Broken Hearts and Glamour Boys with the band I remember and the influence it had on me as a 12 year old.
What’s Your Favorite Color? (Theme Song)
Which Way to America?
An overtly political song on inequality and racism. Another one of my favorites from the album and one of the songs, like Cult, that epitomizes the funk-influenced metal that is Living Colour. It’s also the most metal song on the record.
I look at the T.V Your America’s doing well I look out the window My America’s catching hell – I just wanna know Which way do I go To get to your America?
Bonus: Should I Stay or Should I Go? (The Clash cover – CD bonus track)
I certainly wished I heard this version in 1988, if only to get me on to The Clash earlier. I did get into Big Audio Dynamite a few years later, mainly due to their song Rush, so the dots were already connecting in many ways.
Living Colour is Corey Glover on vocals, Vernon Reid on guitar, Muzz Skillings on bass, and Will Calhoun on drums. Vivid reached #6 on the Billboard 200 and “Cult of Personality” won a Grammy for best hard rock performance.
That wraps up the third issue! Feel free to send me feedback, questions, ideas — anything. I’d also love if you shared this newsletter with anyone you think would enjoy and encourage them to subscribe.
2020 was something else, right? Beyond the pandemic and resulting economic destruction, a lot has changed — some for the better and, unfortunately, a lot took a turn for the worse, including so many needless deaths from this virus.
Small businesses, including many of the bands and musicians I love, had to re-invent themselves when they relied so heavily on in-person commerce. Curbside pickup, contactless delivery, and paid livestreams all became commonplace during this year.
As an introvert, I couldn’t help but like a lot of these changes, though one thing I can’t imagine living without is live music. I’ve been to so many concerts and seen hundreds of bands since my teenage years — the experience of seeing live music is really hard to beat. (Though as I age, standing for such long periods of time is starting to be much less enjoyable!)
One of the artists that seemed to immediately jump in to this new world was Phoebe Bridgers. In many ways it was forced, as she kicked off the promotional efforts for her new album on February 26th with her video for Garden Song — right around the time everything got really bad in Italy, New York City, and other places around the world.
Since then, Bridgers has done many livestreams, whether it’s solo on Instagram or live performances with her band on talks shows, virtual festivals, and YouTube. She certainly isn’t letting the pandemic slow down her art.
A couple of my favorite live performances were her appearance on the Seth Meyers show:
And her Tiny Desk Concert on NPR Music:
The thing I enjoy and envy most about Phoebe Bridgers is her honesty and transparency — how comfortable she is with herself, doing whatever she’s doing. She not only bares all through her songwriting, but in interviews too. With humor and introspection. It’s a marvel to witness.
When I started this newsletter I was a little concerned that modern albums wouldn’t impact as me as much as older music or as quickly as I’d need to include them in an edition. Luckily, artists like Phoebe Bridgers exist and Punisher is not only good enough to be my top album for 2020, but one of my all-time favorites.
Let’s dig in to some highlights.
I was lucky enough to score the indie-exclusive version on “red and swirly” vinyl from Revolver Records in my hometown of Buffalo. The record came with this awesome, diary-like booklet that included lyrics, doodles, and drawings that accompany each song. Reading along with each song and taking in the artwork brought me back to my bedroom in college, when I poured over the inserts of my favorite hardcore records to learn every word of every song. Such a welcome addition in 2020. I wish more musicians put in as much effort.
The best part of the album are her lyrics, which compliment 2020 really well. As she told Apple Music, the theme is: “the idea of having these inner personal issues while there’s bigger turmoil in the world—like a diary about your crush during the apocalypse.”
Musically, my favorite songs are the upbeat Kyoto, which tells a story of both loving and hating something at the same time.
A less upbeat (but more upbeat than most of the songs on the album) ICU (aka I See You), which is about a relationship she had with her drummer. The feeling of being depressed, then falling in love and hoping the person can fix you. Then ultimately breaking up after developing a codependency.
And then she saves the best for last — the final song, I Know the End. The song starts out slow and meadering, then builds and builds into the final verse and releases with the glorious cacophony of the final chorus, including horns, noises, screaming… a perfect way to end a perfect album in 2020.
Over the coast, everyone’s convinced
It’s a government drone or an alien spaceship
Either way, we’re not alone
I’ll find a new place to be from
A haunted house with a picket fence
To float around and ghost my friends
No, I’m not afraid to disappear
The billboard said “The End Is Near”
I turned around, there was nothing there
Yeah, I guess the end is here
Enough of me blabbering on about how great this record is — just go listen to it already, will you?!
And I’m sure there will be a 100 more by the time I hit publish.
That wraps up the second issue! Feel free to send me feedback, questions, ideas — anything. I’d also love if you shared this newsletter with anyone you think would enjoy and encourage them to subscribe.
As we start this newsletter journey, I felt the natural place to start was at the beginning. For me, the true joy of music, discovery, and finding my own taste started with Run-DMC’s Raising Hell.
Not only was was Raising Hell the first cassette I bought with my own (10th birthday) money – purchased at K-Mart in Lockport, NY shortly after release in 1986 – but it was the first album I listened to repeatedly, memorizing all of the lyrics. It was also the first record I bonded with friends over: my friend Alex and I would listen repeatedly in his bedroom or while playing Sega Genesis – we’d each take turns being Run or DMC, nailing our parts as we went through each song.
The love of Run-DMC evolved creatively as well – we eventually started writing our own raps as Run-PVD (as creative a name as you could expect from a 10-year old) with our friend Eric. We even performed in the hall for our 5th grade student teacher the following school year.
The discovery of Hip-Hop was universe expanding for me in many ways – especially after a childhood of exposure to classic and yacht rock via my parents. Run-DMC led me to LL Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, and the Fat Boys’ Crushin’. From there: Public Enemy, Slick Rick, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Erik B. & Rakim, Nas, BDP, 3rd Bass, Black Sheep, Digital Underground, the D.O.C., Geto Boys, Ice Cube, Young MC, and Digable Planets. I was hooked.
Highlights From My Focused Listen & Reflection
1. “Peter Piper” – 3:23
Wow, that drum and cowbell combo, sampled from Take Me To The Mardi Gras by Bob James, is so iconic. The lyrics, relying so heavily on nursery rhymes and fairy tales, made for a relatable introduction (for a 10-year old, at least) to the album.
2. “It’s Tricky” – 3:03
We are not thugs (we don’t use drugs) but you assume (on your own) They offer coke (and lots of dope) but we just leave it alone It’s like that y’all (y’all), but we don’t quit You keep on (rock!) shock! cause this is it…
As a ten year old, drugs and alcohol weren’t really a thing yet, but these lyrics did influence me as a young person. I didn’t drink alcohol until I was 21 and I’ve (still) never done drugs. Hardcore music and straight edge helped me get through the teenage years, but hearing this early on definitely had an impact.
Easily identifiable samples: Mickey by Toni Basil and My Sharona by The Knack.
3. “My Adidas” – 2:47
One of my favorites. This song definitely sparked my desire for Adidas in elementary school. For the record, I had black with white stripes.
Got a pair that I wear when I’m playin ball With the heel inside, make me 10 feet tall
4. “Walk This Way” – 5:09
Given my childhood to date, I was obviously familiar with Aerosmith, so this song was a weird mix of familiarity and something so new.
The Walk this Way video sums up my relationship with music and Run-DMC as a whole for me at that point in time: my parents were obviously Aerosmith playing their music loud and I was rebelling against it, experimenting with my own tastes, and putting my own spin on things. Such a good video.
5. “Is It Live” – 3:07
6. “Perfection” – 2:52
7. “Hit It Run” – 3:10
Now how devastating can an MC be? My name is Darryl, but you can call me D Hit it Run!
One of the hardest/toughest songs on the album. Run kicks it with some fast, aggressive beat boxing, while DMC’s rhymes don’t hold anything back… it’s certainly a precursor for modern day Hip-Hop music.
8. “Raising Hell” – 5:32
The title track continues the momentum started on Hit it Run — this time with an awesome metal-influenced guitar riff. Had Walk this Way not been a single, this track would have gotten way more attention.
The lyrics to start the track were some of my favorites:
Kings from Queens from Queens come Kings We’re raisin hell like a class when the lunchbell rings The king will be praised, and hell will be raised S-s-s-suckers try to faze him but D won’t be fazed So what’s your name? D.M.C.! The King is me! Your High-ness, or His Majesty! Now you can debate, you c-c-c-concentrate But you can’t imitate D.M.C. the Great!
9. “You Be Illin’” – 3:26
Man, this song! I vividly remember doing this song with Alex in his dining room area. Such fun, corny lyrics… how can you not enjoy this song?
(To)day you won a ticket to see Doctor J Front row seat (in free!) no pay Radio in hand, snacks by feet Game’s about to start, you kickin’ popcorn to the beat You finally wake up, Doc’s gone to town Round his back, through the hoop, then you scream “Touchdown!” You be illin’
Short Songs for End Times by The Casket Lottery (Listen)
Their first album since 2012. I vaguely remember seeing this band when we lived in Seattle in the early 2000s, though I wasn’t ever a super fan. This release however, was exactly what I needed at the moment it game out. Their sound is a good mix of post-hardcore and emo — think the almgamation of The Get Up Kids, Sparta, Thrice, Snapcase, and Grade. I only wish more of the bands I loved in the 90s and early 2000s released new, better recorded material like The Casket Lottery.
Side note: I rediscovered the band Small Brown Bike while listening to this, so that’s a bonus. They’ve been on rotation ever since. Check out The River Bedand Dead Reckoning.
Not officially out until 2021, but based on the collection of singles that have been released, I’d guess this album will be on many “Best of 2021” lists. Part bedroom indie pop, part R&B… all super talented songwriter.
I love smooth jazzy beats and loops — classic hip hop. Lyric Jones delivers that and more on one of my favorite hip hop releases from 2020.
Hopefully you enjoyed the first issue! Feel free to send me feedback, questions, ideas — anything. I’d also love if you shared this newsletter with anyone you think would enjoy and encourage them to subscribe.
Until next month! (I’ll be tackling my “Best of 2020” picks next issue.)