Over the last 20 years, Delicious Vinyl has released some of hip-hop’s best singles, along with a few one hit wonders. From Tone Loc to the Pharcyde, the label has managed to blend catchy beats and complex sonic textures. Whether they’re sensual club-grinding narratives or jazz-flavored socio-philosophizing, Delicious Vinyl has continually shown its knack for releasing tracks that are loaded with head-bobbing hooks and the depth and substance to become timeless. It’s not an easy thing to do, but they did it consistently—if not with full albums, then certainly with singles. The decision to compile the anthology began when Peaches and Tone Loc teamed up to do a live remix of “Wild Thing” in November last year. From there, Delicious Vinyl compiled other hit tracks from its catalogue and handed them over to a handful of artists to take a twist of the knobs and slap a new sonic spin on a classic DV track that inspired them. Listening to the remixes reminds you just how well those songs captured an era when storytelling hip-hop and dance floor grooving converged to create songs packed with simplicity, sensuality, playfulness, and irresistible hooks that pushed hip-hop and electronic dance music even further into the mainstream playlist. [$13.98]
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There’s nowhere to run or hide. Soon, you’ll be inundated by top 10 lists for the year. To ensure that this cycle continues, editors send out notices to writers, reminding them to collect their faves for the publication. Labels also send (kind of) gentle reminders of their offerings for the year so that you’ll include them on your list.
And then we writers pretend that we’re omniscient and that we actually know what are the 10 best albums that came out this year… as if we had time to listen to even a fraction of them even once, much less enough times to try to really appreciate many of them.
What we don’t like to say is that we don’t know about most of what’s happening in the music world and that our list is actually just a subjective bunch of things that we got to hear out of a big pile of music that we managed to get sent or download.
The fact of the matter is that no one could possibly give every release that came out this year (or any recent year) the time it would take to listen and evaluate its worth. It’s just physically impossible. At best, we writers rely on other scribes and publications, word of mouth, blogs, social networks, instinct, luck, etc. to find all the goodies that we can and then chop it all down to a list of ten records.
And even though we may grumble that we hate them, lists are here to stay. Just ask Blender. Similarly, you’ll be seeing the Voice’s Pazz/Jop poll, the Idolator poll (hopefully) and just about any other music magazine will be polling their own writers and have them come up with lists. And no, I’m not excluding myself ‘cause I’ve already contributed lists to a few publications and I’ll likely do the same for other pubs (if they’ll have me) and I’ll even do one for Perfect Sound Forever.
At the very least, one good function of these lists is that you learn something, namely what came out that you missed and should hear. That even happens with the lists I collect from other writers for PSF and I’m definitely gonna scour the lists at Pazz, Idolator and Pitchfork to see what I missed.
Also, these lists provide great fodder for discussions and arguments. “How would they forget…?” “How the hell could they pick…?” That’s what we all think at one point when we read these lists and more than likely, none of them are gonna exactly match what you came up with (though it would be pretty cool if they did).
Another thing about these lists that I wonder about is how self-conscious we are when we put them together for public (and peer) scrutiny. I was arguing with a fellow scribe about what people came up with on their lists- that’s always a fun bit of discussion (“that one was so cool” or “they’re so lame!”). One writer had picked a list of pretty obvious releases that were either best-selling or from some of the most important and talked-up artists of the year. I didn’t know for sure but I thought that the writer might actually like those releases, regardless if they’re the hottest things to come out that year. I’d much rather that writers just pick the records that they really like instead of worrying what is or isn’t on their list. Of course, we’d all like to think that’s what we’re doing when we put our lists together, even if we can’t really do it in the end.
But wait, isn’t the album supposed to be dead or dying? Why do we bother with these lists then? Don’t ask me… I’m working on another list for another magazine…
1. Lykke Li - “Breaking It Up”
2. Goldfrapp - “A&E”
3. Lykke Li - “I’m Good, I’m Gone”
4. Gojira - “Vacuity”
5. Weezer - “Pork and Beans”
I’ve been reading Papa John, the autobiography of Mamas and the Papas founder John Phillips. I never thought much of him growing up, and would have thought reading his memoir would be tantamount to reading one by a guy from Three Dog Night or something. Now, with the benefit of having his solo albums readily available, I realize how grossly misinformed I was. For one thing, I stopped taking well-arranged harmonies for granted and came to see what a rare thing the Mamas and Papas were. And not only are their records unexpectedly deep, but even the hits have a surprising emotional ambivalence (not to mention a Sticky Fingers-like level of drug references). And Phillips’s first solo record, John, Wolf King of L.A., has become one of my favorite rock albums; on the surface it’s saturated in narcissism with lyrics confronting unnecessary failure in the midst of decadent excess, but beyond that it’s about a very recognizable kind of depression, of being able to recognize high expectations and even the means with oneself to meet them but balking at the effort and instead withdrawing into various fantasies and feints. I think I identify with that to an altogether unwholesome degree.
Anyway, I expected his autobiography would shed more light on that aspect of Phillips’ complex character, but instead it mostly reads like just another symptom of his peculiar malady, an at times appallingly unreflective memory dump that seems a dodge, a cop out. His music clearly reflects how acutely he is aware of the limitations of hedonism, but in recounting his decisions to indulge in it with no regard for his companions or his own health, he is generally powerless to do anything but register his own selfishness as if it were an inevitable fact. He habitually flees responsibility and rather than figure out what makes causes his flight, he instead evinces a pathological expectation of total forgiveness for all his transgressions. The only excuse he can muster is a kind of cretinous hippie hedonism, typified by such passages as this: “The France was as elegant as you could get. We had our own wine stewards and did our best to consume as much of the dope as possible. We Swam, read, sunbathed, drank, and I stayed high the whole time.” Sometimes there’s a dash of philosophy: “The dope was out on the tables, in vases and bowls, and money never seemed to change hands. That’s how I wanted it in my house. We were there to share and party. And the partying never let up.” Probably an interest in making the book commercial led to to an emphasis on such scenes, and Phillips offers all sorts of sensationalistic details—he claims to have had a threesome of some sort with Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda, and he says he turned down an invitation to go party at 10050 Cielo Drive the night the Manson family showed up and murdered everyone on the premises.
In running through the inventory of outrageous parties and famous fucked-up friends and sexual partners, it’s weird how Phillips seems like a spectator to his own memories; he sounds like he’s trying to convince himself of what a great righteous time it was even though he seems to have been somewhat passive in the face of everything that overwhelmed him. Unexpected success on an unfathomable scale seems to have permanently disoriented him, made all his choices seem arbitrary or choreographed by some mysterious outside force. Throughout the book, it’s clear that he had no special aspiration to express the ideals of the 1960s, yet he ends up claiming them even as the zeitgeist co-opted his songwriting skills. After all, one of his signal achievements was to turn the youth movement into a jingle by writing “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”. And lost in the hype he generates for his past, Phillips seems to forget that the money had to come from somewhere. The square record-buying public’s funds were ultimately fueling this drug-consumption spree, and they didn’t really get to share in the piles of pills at the Bel Air party. The best we get is the vicarious appreciation of his lifestyle as it filters out in gossip magazines, self-referential songs and biographies like the one I’m reading.
This brings me to something I often wonder about, which is the degree to which people like Phillips are aware of the vicarious potential of their own decadence—if they feel driven to it as a kind of marketing program, particularly since selling pop music is as much about lifestyles as it is hooks and choruses. His memoir offers few clues. That’s probably inevitable since any sign of self-consciousness on this front would render the whole edifice inauthentic. But I suspect that the fantasy demands of a mass audience impose themselves on celebrities without their knowing quite what they are facing. They end up violating all these bourgeois norms (fidelity, prudence, thriftiness, hard work, punctuality, etc.) out of compulsion more than pleasure. (A lyric from Phillips’s “Someone’s Sleeping” captures this: “From a second-story window I caught a glimpse of someone’s life and it was mine, and my face was dark and dirty and I cried.”)
Stars’ boundless notoriety makes the illusion of their absolute autonomy all the more intoxicating, while in truth they have no more control than the rest of us. They merely confront a different set of limits. They seem forced to adopt decadence or peculiarity as a kind of defense, an escape from the mania that inadvertently fuels it further. The more remote they become from ordinary life, the more intriguing they become and the force that pushes them further out into inexplicableness becomes more and more powerful. If they give in to it, they achieve a kind of pure celebrity that has no pretense of a connection to any sort of achievement. Just look at what happened to Michael Jackson and Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, et. al. This happened to John Phillips as well, though as he faded to obscurity, he was left with the far more conventional fate of being a straight-up dope fiend.
Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 - The Whiteness of the Whale)
Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate—figuratively speaking—because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans like so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.
It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of The Beatles—every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many folks would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper’s (let me stand up and be counted here).
In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis (something PopMatters writers did quite brilliantly all last week). What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (”Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”). Which ones have never ceased to astonish, even after a thousand listens? (”Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The tunes themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obsessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.
That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased—and listened to—actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped.
All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”—or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?
Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1″ opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?
I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9″ was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as suitably. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.
Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ‘68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9″ (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ‘67 and ‘69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.