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Wednesday, Jan 5, 2011
Marrying hip hop elements to high-energy compositions and carefully-crafted productions, new jack swing was the cutting edge of R&B music in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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.


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Thursday, Dec 16, 2010
John Lennon agonized over his snapshot of youth seen through the glass hazily, and with the final touches of the indispensable George Martin, saw his simple reminiscence mutate into the surreal sound-bomb it remains today.

“Living is easy with eyes closed / Misunderstanding all you see / It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out / It doesn’t matter much to me”. Those aren’t just defining lines from a defining song by the defining band of all time, the Beatles. They are lines written by the closest thing we humans get to a super hero at the top of his game, having just shouted down from the mountain top on one of the most innovative, shape-shifting songs of all time, “Tomorrow Never Knows”.


If some people, understandably, think the everything-plus-kitchen-sink approach on the subsequent Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was in places a tad too haphazard and indulgent, no such concerns can apply here: songwriter John Lennon knew what he wanted, telling MVP producer George Martin he wanted his vocals to sound like “a hundred chanting Tibetan monks”. No worries, right? Martin, with appreciable assistance from an always-game Paul McCartney, sliced, diced, looped and spliced, and second by painstaking second, reel-to-reel tape transported the magic from Lennon’s mind. To say that this song set the tone for experimentation and was influential across multiple genres, including—or especially—ones that didn’t even exist yet, scarcely does it justice.


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Thursday, Dec 9, 2010
Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn't particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn't be.

December 4, 1993: impossible as it is (at least for me) to believe, it’s been 17 years since Frank Zappa passed away.


Zappa, to me, has always functioned as a corrective sort of converse to the Grateful Dead: he was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it’s difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy. Unlike the Grateful Dead, once the dust clears, it becomes obvious that Zappa’s dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding, and likely to be dissected several generations from now.


Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn’t particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn’t be. His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. Where many (most?) of the more adventurous prog-rock bands of the mid-to-late ‘70s were reviled for taking themselves entirely too seriously (a common sin), they also made music that sucked in almost direct proportion to their augmented self-regard (an unforgivable sin). Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer wore out their welcome not ultimately because of their insufferable pretension (although naming their double album Works was an invitation for a critical backlash that was well-earned), but because their inspiration could not keep pace with their egos. Or, to put it as plainly as possible, they just started to suck in the mid-to-late ‘70s.


Zappa, on the other hand, appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro”, and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he understood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music; he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious, and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.


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Wednesday, Nov 10, 2010
Tears for Fears don't get much respect. Even in the wake of Donnie Darko, they're mostly considered an afterthought in pop history. Yet, in an era that favors stripped-down, no-fi production, the sheer majesty of Tears for Fears' sound is surprisingly refreshing.

In the not-so-distant past, the roundtable of NPR’s All Songs Considered sat down to discuss the ‘80s. What was at times a thoughtful discourse on the much-maligned decade more often than not devolved into a bunch of aging hipsters laughing at synthesizers. At one point, a panel member (I can’t recall whom) brought up Tears for Fears. Immediately, Bob Boilen (the host) recoiled in disgust. After some coaxing from the forgotten panel member, he reluctantly began to spin “Head over Heels”. Before the synth-laden opening bars of the song could even give way to the first verse, he hit the faders, gasping, “I can’t even get past the damn opening keyboard!”


Nineteen eighty-five was 25 years ago. I wasn’t even born yet, but given my childhood worship of Marty McFly, that’s still pretty hard to believe. To many, Back to the Future is about the only thing worth celebrating from that year (the Goonies and The Breakfast Club notwithstanding). Yet seemingly lost on pop culture historians is the anniversary of another massively successful piece of pop art celebrating its first quarter-century: Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair.


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Tuesday, Oct 26, 2010
Halloween is coming, so don't forget to cue up one of goth's most overblown anthems to foster the proper gloom-and-doom vibe.

Halloween is less than a week away, and that means you need to start thinking about your party soundtrack for the night. Never mind the hackneyed, overripe “Monster Mash”—what you need is some goth. Defined by grim-faced performers sporting pallid complexions, an overabundance of black lace and leather, a fascination with all things olde and macabre, and vocal stylings that more often than not evoke an undead Ian Curtis, no other genre of music is better suited to score the spookiest day of the year.


So what is the most essential goth anthem to blast out of the speakers on Halloween? Popular wisdom would suggest Bauhaus’ debut single ”Bela Lugosi’s Dead” since it’s the song that kicked off the whole gloom-laden trip over 30 years ago in the first place. Sure, the nearly-ten-minute-long song has a fantastic eerie vibe and (just as importantly) conjures up visions of the funeral of Hollywood’s most famous silver screen vampire. But it suffers from one major flaw: you can’t dance to it. Anyone who’s ever been to a goth club night can tell you that whatever is playing at any sort of mass gathering of scary-vibe aficionados has to get your feet moving. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” doesn’t do that, but luckily there’s always the Sisters of Mercy’s pummeling seven-minute-plus goth dancefloor anthem “Temple of Love”, a track that’s not as well-known outside of goth circles but stands toe-to-toe with its spectral predecessor.


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