The Beach Boys are my favorite band. I still can’t seem to give up the idea that the Beatles were the “greatest”. They never released a bad album, and were the prototype for all rock bands to follow. The Beatles were elite for a longer stretch of albums, but at his peak Brian Wilson topped them. The shining star of pop, Wilson achieved the highest levels possible in the realm of popular music. He wrote, arranged, and produced. The Beatles + George Martin wrapped into one. All following pop composers are compared to the incomparable standard of Brian Wilson, the true pop genius. Here’s my top ten Beach Boys LPs.
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Roughly 20 years ago was the popular apex of new jack swing, a subgenre of R&B that was the conclusion of the path that the musical form had explored for much of the 1980s. Hands down my favorite style of R&B, new jack swing marked the point when the genre began to fully acknowledge hip-hop, working its rhythms and raps into tight, well-oiled pop-funk compositions that valued high-stepping energy and intricate production above all else; the now thoroughly-blurred overlap between R&B and hip-hop in mainstream music is the style’s enduring legacy. New jack swing was club music—while certainly Bobby Brown or Guy would be wooing the ladies with every lyrical opportunity, it wasn’t the bedroom but the promise of a vibrant dancefloor that was the destination of choice—that was a much as feast for the discerning ear as it was fuel for a weekend out party-hopping.
A large part of new jack swing’s appeal is its irresistible energy, achieved through busy arrangements that incorporated stuttering grooves, swooping synth stabs, and confident, self-assured rap interludes. Mainstream R&B of the 1980s was by and large upbeat and uptempo, and new jack swing maxed out those qualities as much as possible, making extended 12” vinyl remixes mandatory to keep the dancefloors happy. Part of what drew me to the genre as a kid which I only recognize now was its modernist nature: here was pop music that sounded daring in its slick construction and incorporation of (new to me then) sounds, not at all as dinky as technologically inferior synth-based efforts from earlier in the decade. The artists look the part, too—decked out in flattops and colorful outfits, they looked urban and urbane, the hip embodiment of the age.
Last year, Yoko Ono released the Wouldnit remix EP, wherein she took a song that she had been revising for years (most recently her 2001 Blueprint for a Sunrise album) and let a field of dance producers have at it, resulting in some rather fascinating, unexpected results. After all, Ono has been working in the dance arena for some time now, especially after a noted 2003 remix of “Walking on Thin Ice” had her climbing to pole position on the US Dance Charts, soon leading to a slew of similar chart-toppers not long after. In short, Yoko Ono has inexplicably turned into the most popular septuagenarian that you’ll ever hear at a club.
Wouldnit, though, is a noted change for Ono, as now that she’s worked with the likes of Basement Jaxx and Felix Da Housecat, she felt like it was time to give some new up-and-comers a chance to shine. Speaking to PopMatters through e-mail, Ono sat down to talk to us about how she feels about hearing her works reinterpreted, how some of the remixes continue her “dance of life”, and how she views her dance-diva image not as a career change, but just another step in the right direction . . .
Claiming “Cowboy Dan” as your favorite Modest Mouse song marks you as a particular type of fan: someone with too much pent-up aggression to choose “Third Planet”, or more appreciative of pure volume than those who would pick “Dramamine”, or in desperate need of an epic, sprawling fix that “Broke” just can’t provide. If The Moon & Antarctica stands as the Rubicon that divides the band’s devotees into two camps (pre-or-post high production values, more or less), “Cowboy Dan” is the near-consensus pick for the Holy Shit Have You Heard This Yet Shut Up and Listen award in the band’s catalog for fans allied to Modest Mouse’s true indie days. These types of fans (whose ranks include your writer, for what it’s worth) tend to treat Isaac Brock as a reverend, a firebrand preacher of a decidedly singular and manic-depressive gospel. “Cowboy Dan”, if you follow, is Pastor Ike’s strongest sermon. Think Jonathan Edwards in overalls, spewing forth not “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, but “God in the Hands of Some Seriously Angry Sinners”.
As mentioned in this series’ previous entry, “Doin’ the Cockroach” lays the emotional foundation for the track, that song’s final moments of cathartic vitriol giving way perfectly to “Cowboy Dan’s” more sustained rage. “Doin’ the Cockroach” takes its time to boil over, but “Cowboy Dan” scorches right from the start. Brock generally shies away from directly narrative songwriting, but here he gives us a protagonist in the literal sense, a titular character through whom he’s able to color his vision of the American West as a sun-bleached and soul-scarring wasteland. In the opening verse, he sings: “Well, Cowboy Dan’s a major player in the cowboy scene, he / Goes to the reservation, drinks and gets mean, he / Goes to the desert, fires his rifle in the sky, and says / ‘God, if I have to die, you will have to die!’”. This is Blood Meridian in 4/4 meter. This is an American songwriter stabbing blindly at his culture’s open-air failures. “Float On”, this is not.
Klinger: Before we begin, Mendelsohn, we should probably establish one ground rule: avoid discussing whether this should have been cut down to a single album. That parlor game has been played since November 1968, and I’d say it’s pretty well played out. That being said, this is an unruly tangle of an album, and even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times, it still feels like a lot to digest.
Mendelsohn: I’ll adhere to that ground rule, even though I’ve groused about just such things in previous installments. But just so we’re clear, I don’t think this album should be consolidated—I think it should be chopped up and re-released as three separate albums. The Beatles (Pretty, Well-Orchestrated Songs), The Beatles (These Songs Rock a Little) and The Beatles (We Are Taking Copious Amounts of Controlled Substances and Then Recording the Results and Selling It to the Public as a Lark).
Seriously though, I love this record. Mostly because it’s full of gems and it documents the Beatles slowly unraveling. It’s like watching them realize they are stuck in a very small box. They do their best to push against the boundaries but after failing to break out they turn their aggression on each other. And then it’s just a free-for-all. Well, maybe not for Ringo.