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by Sean Murphy

15 Dec 2009


Part One: 29 Years Ago

Where were you?

I was in my mother’s bedroom, kissing her goodbye before I caught the school bus, and I heard the horrible news on the clock radio (incidentally, I was in this same room when news of Len Bias–the other devastating death of the decade–flashed across the bottom of the TV screen). As a burgeoning Beatles fan (fanatic), this hurt. And I was old enough to know that this was a major blow: on an artistic, social, human scale.

John Lennon’s death, not too many people would debate, was our generation’s JFK. I think people my age might more easily remember where they were when the Challenger blew up on that frigid day in 1986 (or the aforementioned Len Bias tragedy, which still manages to shock, in June of the same year). But the murder of Lennon (like JFK), by gunfire, was the same brutal, irrevocable blow that never really registers. We do our best to make sense of what we’re left with, but the act itself is never really reconcilable or, in many regards, believable. I still can’t quite believe John Lennon was killed, right outside his home, a few weeks before Christmas (and less than a month after the release of what turned out to be his last proper album, the remarkable return-to-form Double Fantasy).

by PC Muñoz

14 Dec 2009


“The scene was littered with glass and band equipment, so we went to work salvaging our gear as the paramedics arrived. That’s when I had one of those life-defining moments. I found my vocal microphone out in the middle of the freeway, and I knew right then that music was what I was supposed to be doing. The mic still works; I sing on it every show.”

This is how Damon Castillo, songwriter and vocalist for the San Luis Obispo, California-based Damon Castillo Band, describes the revelation that visited him after a freeway accident in which his band’s van flipped over a number of times. The group later memorialized the moment for their fans by including an image of the wrecked vehicle on a t-shirt: a celebration of a serious and life-changing event… with a sly grin.

This kind of interplay between the deadly serious and the humorous, and the steely perseverance required to keep-on in spite of it all, is something Damon Castillo does with deceptive ease. His gorgeous voice, which can alternately caress a melody with a tender jazz feel, seduce a crowd with slow-jam sizzle, or spit rhymes with rhythmic yet characteristically laid-back precision, is a real-life wonder; one of my personal favorite discoveries of the past decade. His lyrics run the gamut from the whimsical (“Annie Hall”) to the quietly philosophical (“Revolving Door”) to the confrontational (“Claim to Fame”), while his ridiculously tight band cooks like a living, breathing, road-tested, California-pop-soul organism.

by AJ Ramirez

11 Dec 2009


“Welcome to Paradise” first surfaced on Green Day’s second album, the 1992 Lookout! Records release Kerplunk. Re-recorded for Dookie, the 1994 version packs a much more effective punch than the original. As the composition is unaltered, the Dookie incarnation demonstrates what wonders better production and an extra two years of practice can do for a song. Here, the guitar tone is less brittle, the drums hit with a greater wallop, and Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals have more conviction and less of a warbling quality compared to the performance on Kerplunk. Reprising this song for Dookie (where it fits in naturally, despite having been written for another album) almost note for note was the best piece of evidence Green Day could produce to shut up holier-than-thou punks who criticized the group for “selling out” by signing to a major label.

In both forms, “Welcome to Paradise” is an exhilarating listen, a sheer roller coaster of musical momentum that knows how to deliver at the right spots. Opening with a verse riff that vaguely recalls The Clash’s “Complete Control”, the band then launches into a sharp drop at the start of the chorus, rising up and down as the chords change, and ultimately screeching to a halt for a brief instrumental pause (during which Billie Joe Armstrong sarcastically utters the title phrase) before setting out for another go-round. As usual, Armstrong carries the song’s melody with his vocals; this allows him to twist simple lines like “It makes me wonder why I’m still here” into indelible hooks that burrow into the listener’s head. The highlight of “Welcome to Paradise” is the interlude section, a demented surf/punk breakdown centered on chromatic chord progression that builds up in intensity until all three musicians in the band are blazing away on their instruments at full charge. That section alone made “Welcome to Paradise” my favorite song on the album for years.

Lyrically, the song was inspired by Armstrong’s crash pad experiences in the rougher areas of Oakland, California. The song’s verse structure relies on a basic framework where key lines are repeated throughout, while certain words are swapped out for others over the course of the composition for effect. For example, in the first verse Armstrong is singing “Dear Mother can you hear me whining”, but by the last verse the line has become “Dear Mother can you hear me laughing”, which highlights his gradual acceptable of “a wasteland I like to call my home”. This approach may give the impression is that Armstrong is playing lyrical Mad Libs, but the end result is more accomplished than that implies. He isn’t hindered by the framework he has set up, and he’s always willing to swap his patterns for evocative lines like “A gunshot rings out at the station / Another urchin snaps and left dead on his own” when necessary. Using these techniques, what Armstrong is ultimately able to convey is his gradual acceptance of living away from his parent’s place, going from trepidation to exhilaration in the process.

“Welcome to Paradise” is one of the highlights of Dookie, but it remains its most underappreciated single. This probably has to do most with the lack of a music video. The band refused to let Reprise do a huge promotional push behind the track, in spite of receptive rock radio airplay (it peaked at number seven on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, and reached number 20 over in the United Kingdom). For Armstrong, the song reflected a certain period of his life and that was that; he didn’t care if there wasn’t a music video to help make the song a monster hit like “Longview” and “Basket Case” had been. Despite its lower profile compared to the album’s other hits, “Welcome to Paradise” is an excellent track that proved that Green Day lost none of its spark by leaving its indie label roots behind.

by Jennifer Cooke

10 Dec 2009


Reviewing Robbie Williams’ new CD Reality Killed the Video Star made me feel a) a bit guilty that I couldn’t give it an unmitigated rave even though I am a huge fan, and b) nostalgic for his earlier brilliance. Since 2009 is almost over, I can just get in under the wire to pay homage to the 10-year anniversary of our first taste of Robbie on these shores: The Ego Has Landed.

A decade ago, Williams was just another boy band refugee gone solo. Take That was a bona fide phenomenon in its native UK and almost every other pop-loving country in the world, but the US never cottoned to ‘em—a fate largely shared by Williams himself to this day. It was difficult to shake the prefab pretty-boy stigma, and some might say he never has—Noel Gallagher still gets mileage from a quote from 2000 when he called Williams “the fat dancer from Take That”. Credibility has been hard to come by, regardless of the dizzying success Williams has experienced worldwide.

So I feel it’s best to let the music speak for itself. The Ego Has Landed is actually a compilation of Williams’ first two albums, which were not released domestically, Life Thru a Lens and I’ve Been Expecting You. It came out in May 1999 and spawned his two biggest hits stateside, “Millennium” and “Angels” (the latter sparking a slew of cover versions by artists including Jessica Simpson and American Idol alum David Archuleta).  The album got 3.5 stars and a glowing review from Rob Sheffield where he called it “easily the kickiest Elton John-style album anyone has made since George Michael’s Faith, packed with Vegas flash, disco beats, rock energy and hipster wit.”  And I don’t know about you, but I think Rob Sheffield knows a thing or two about pop music.

by Sean McCarthy

9 Dec 2009


Regardless of your music taste, coming up with a list of the influential artists of this past decade is relatively easy. The White Stripes, the Strokes, Kanye West, Animal Collective and a few ‘90s holdovers like Radiohead and Jay-Z would certainly make the list. These were just a few I could rattle off in about 30 seconds. However, as I gazed at this list, I started to wonder what was wrong with it. It was lacking…something.

Estrogen.

Not to generalize: Mathangi Arulpragasam (M.I.A.) is on the short list for “Artist of the Decade”, and artists like Neko Case and Cat Power have made some of the best albums this decade. But compared to the breadth of female trailblazers that broke out in the ‘90s, this decade has come up somewhat on the short end. And as a result, popular music in general has suffered from this.

When I was making my “Decade’s Best” list ten years ago, I could rattle off nearly a dozen female artists who made a significant impact on popular music without batting an eye. Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Lauryn Hill, Lucinda Williams, Courtney Love, Missy Elliott, Ani DiFranco, PJ Harvey and Björk for starters. With this decade, I was struggling to list six that emerged in this decade. Yes, after a few minutes of research, I could easily list a dozen heavy hitters this decade, but in the ‘90s, female artists were often overshadowing their male counterparts.

Take the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll for example. For those unfamiliar, it is a poll comprising 500 critics’ “Best of the Year” selections. In the ‘90s, four of the ten top albums of the year were by female artists (1993’s Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair, 1994’s Live Through This by Hole, 1995’s To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey, and 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams). Total number of top albums awarded to a female musician in this decade by the Pazz and Jop poll: zero.

This exclusion has surfaced on several notable “Best of the Decade” lists. Pitchfork and AV Club’s Top 10 did not have a release from a female artist or a female-fronted band. Paste’s list is a notable exception as Gillian Welch (Time (the Revelator)) and M.I.A. (Arular) made their top ten list.

It would be foolish to dismiss the relative male dominance of these lists as sexism. Albums that have received multiple mentions, such as OutKast’s Stankonia, Radiohead’s Kid A and the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells deserve to be mentioned based on their own merits. But for a genre (mainly indie) that prides itself in progressiveness, it’s hard not to hearken back to Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, an album Phair said was in part recorded as a response to the male-dominated Chicago indie/alternative scene.

The ‘90s saw such a flood of high-profile releases by female artists that the movement spawned the massively successful Lilith Fair. That movement even produced a bit of a backlash as critics hoped edgier artists like PJ Harvey, L7, and the Breeders would share the roster. What made the ‘90s such as huge decade for female artists? Why didn’t it carry over into this decade?

The answer could just be coincidence. Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Björk, Luscious Jackson, Hole, Garbage, Missy Elliott, and Lauryn Hill all released albums that were critical and commercial hits around the same time. With such a wealth of talent, it sort of produced a “perfect storm” of great albums by female artists. Whether this coincidence can happen again is anyone’s guess, but I sure as hell hope next decade we’ll see a similar storm form.

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