Music

The Unbearable Lightness of List Making

Terry Sawyer

Terry Sawyer lashes out at holier-than-thou music critics and gives PopMatters props, saying 'the writers here engage with popular music on an even keel, celebrating or thrashing it not like tiny gods demanding piles of first borns, but people intelligently grappling with the culture they're immersed in but not above'.

Buck 65

Apart from the obviously atrocious mass murders, one thing that stands out as particularly nasty about Nazism was its total conflation of aesthetics and morality. In Hitler's psychopathic vision for Germany, everything from painting and architecture to music served some insidious Aryan ideal. What is racism, after all, but narcissistic aestheticism anchored in phony science? We live with far more diluted strains of this impulse in American culture, where we skirmish over the content of the literary canon and catfight over the sexualization of "tweens" in top 40 pop, but these are usually diversionary battles in a larger war of "values"; rarely do matters of taste end in death. In our culture, these arguments frequently substitute for caste divisions or serve to socially organize people. Teenagers understand this all too well, as they form "in" and "out" groups on the basis of the conspiratorial language of cool. Whenever the opportunity for an end of year list comes up, I'm reminded of the precarious nature of music criticism and my own ambivalence towards the words I spill. How, given my own prejudices and baggage, given the number of albums I didn't even hear or didn't give the proper context or time, could I put on a poker face and roll out superlative adjectives for my own subjective spin? It's a mirage that, in part, depends on your belief in a critic's authority.

While I was studying lit theory in college, I repeatedly experienced the unpleasant triumph of the critic. As my education progressed, I read fewer and fewer pieces of literature and more and more books about books, as literary theorists elevated their task to a unified field theory of all language and culture, making the love of literature seem like some quaint Victorian pastime that went well with strawberries, fresh cream and fox hunting. I stopped reading fiction. Every piece of art or writing I encountered got fed through this elaborate matrix of interpretation. Criticism became a veil, an occluding language of secrets, that removed art from the artist and then spirited the remains away to an Ivory tower salon, where academic discourse could pick the last few stray pieces of gristle off the bone.

We spent inordinate amounts of time with postmodern art, which was essentially art commentary on a canvas. Rarely did I have some transcendental experience when looking at these intellectually brain vatted pieces of soullessness. It was as if art theory had devoured the artists, pushing out "mere" beauty to make room for the marginalized, envious, and quietly vengeful critic. Those who can't do, destroy. I kept my peace, hiding the fact the fact that I enjoyed the Italian Rennaissance more than Julian Schnabel, which would have been the equivalent of saying I'd prefer a peanut dug from my belly button to a four-course gourmet meal. I'd apply the theory I learned, figure out the little trick at the center of the painting or installation piece, and then experience the fleeting satisfaction of being in the inner circle of a cadre with little to say.

As much as it might piss a ton of people off for me to say this, I think the entire oeuvre of "noise" bands is precisely this: an intellectual pose and the point at which music criticism actually overtakes music. Thankfully, so many people with "bad taste" participate in the love of music and its consumption, that it would take someone like Hitler to completely sever music from its democratic roots and impose the rigid joylessness of the avant garde. Music's production lends itself to such wide dispersal, that no group of elites could have the kind of influence that poisoned some of the visual arts where museums, art shows, galleries, and the economics of scarcity cordon off the uninitiated so that the expert can have the shaky peace of mind that comes from condescension.

If you want to glimpse some of the ugly core of music criticism, witness the phoneomena of backlash, where critics champion a band only to lashingly discard them once they have too much of the musk of the common man (The White Stripes, The Strokes). Plenty of music critics don't want you and your friends to believe what they say, they merely want you to think they're more intelligent than you are, but once you've wiped the drool off your face, you should carry on with your pig trough purchase of Sum 41, in order to confirm their suspicions that only they stare into the heart of the light, while you're chasing shadows on the cave walls. Because they subscribe to the fallacy of aesthetic morality, too much of their identity gets tied up in critiquing music as a form of individuation; they literally carve out the boundaries of their psyche by dusting off unloved records. Sadly, many people never recover from Holden Caufield, believing that every act of championing the underdog is an act of courageous martyrdom. But sometimes the underdog just sucks.

Of course, that's not everybody, and one of the reasons I'm so happy to write for PopMatters, is that, on the whole, the people who write here take themselves no more seriously than your friend telling you why a particularly movie was a quick shank with a rusty blade or the person at work recommending a restaurant dish that sent their taste buds into a panting fit. What's more, the writers here engage with popular music on an even keel, celebrating or thrashing it not like tiny gods demanding piles of first borns, but people intelligently grappling with the culture they're immersed in but not above.

When I made my list, I tried to be hyper vigilant about the critic's anxiety of influence. I studiously avoided other top 10 lists and tried to simply judge it by the CDs I listened to the most. Sure, some CDs that didn't make my list probably deserve the title "groundbreaking" more, but if I don't like listening to them all that often, what difference does it make? I avoided the urge toward obscurity, though at least a few titles might be somewhat unheard of because I picked them up locally. I'm not immune to the things that I bitch about and many times I've written reviews where I struggled and strained to like something because of its critical acclaim or given something short shrift because it happened to be the piñata du jour. Add to that the whole psychological ruse whereby you turn around and defend something unpopular to prove yourself immune to popularity thereby reaffirming your enslavement to the concept, and you can see how music criticism, like all love-hate, is a Byzantine thicket of motivations, counter-motivations, and desires masked with objectivity.

That's the long and winding road that leads straight to the top 10 list I worked so hard to undermine. Until you're forced to read these lists with a bayonet prodding your rib meat, it's probably safe to assume that you can take it or leave it, ignore me or surrender to me as some Delphic arbiter of The Way. But just so you know, I make a lousy replacement for your indifferent father figure.

1. Buck 65, This Right Here is Buck 65 (V2)
I've fallen in love with Buck 65's music so many times that it should come as no surprise to me that he's now been making records for 15 years. This is more than just a greatest hits compilation, it's an album in its own right, with brand spanking new tracks that exponentially dwarf his past output and reworked versions of classics that bring cold water freshness to songs that I've played so many times, you could practically trace their loving ruts in my brain. If you've never heard this Nova Scotian wildcat, there's no better place to begin than with a collection of some of his finest moments. With a voice that sounds like a mountain goat smoking crumbled rock from a corncob pipe, Buck 65 spins the most literary pub yarns you've ever heard over music that's like hip-hop haunted by Johnny Cash and Tom Waits. I can't begin to gather the sort of altar words I'd need to convey how fucking genius this is.

2. Of Montreal, Satanic Panic in the Attic (Polyvinyl)
Kevin Barnes finally shed the esoteric and pompous excess of previous Of Montreal records and channeled the remnants of his Beach Boys obsession through a giddy free-for-all of heavily harmonied dance pop. Queen, The Shins, Gang of Four, Fela Kuti and Prince all drop in to shade the grooves, which arrive in a non-stop rush that will make you want to have pillow fights and bob your head like you're drawn by Charles Schulz. Not to mention the lyrics: dandy bouquets of travelogue poetry and bad love drawn with calligraphy tears.
   :. original PopMatters review

3. Matt The Electrician, Long Way Home (self-released)
I guess I'm a loyalist when it comes to artists. I'm not a fickle fan, the kind of person who thinks of musicians should be jukeboxes. As a consequence, every year that Missy Elliot, Buck 65 or Matt The Electrician put out a record, it will probably land near the top of my list because my love for their work borders on cultic awe. Thankfully I need no blind adoration to appreciate Long Way Home for the giant leap forward in craft that it is. As far as Matt records go, it's the most nakedly confessional (fudged book reports, a father's life advice, the magic of being in love), stripped down to frame the scrappy beauty of Matt's warmly strained voice, and nearly the most serious, though even the saddest songs get knotted with punch line bungee cords for the quick dips into sorrowful melody and flirtations with loss. Only the best singer-songwriters can carry the troubadour and storyteller torches in tandem, and Matt juggles both with impish acumen.

4. The Weepies, Happiness (self-released)
If there's a thread throughout my choices this year, it's a preference for music drenched in harmony, perhaps as some sort of passive compensation for a year almost entirely without it. The Weepies, made up of Deb Talan and Steve Tannen sound like the acoustic coffee shop version of The Mamas and The Papas. Talan's milky hum is Joni Mitchell hickory smoked out of melancholy. When she blends into Tannen's light climbing lilt, they make the loveliest blossoms together. I want to play the tambourine for them on tour with cinnamon sticks in my hair.

5. Jolie Holland, Escondida (Anti-)
Like Norah Jones, Jolie Holland got scuffed with the NPR-label early on, and unfairly abandoned by hipsters who wrote her off as Sarah McLachlan with a fiddle. Untrue and unfair, since Holland is much more like Elizabeth Cotten and Billie Holiday filtered through the warm taffy slur of a Texas twang. Her voice is pure treasure, a dusky mumble where she toys with each word like a professional wine taster, singing in a cadence that's has all the rhythmic unpredictability of a kite string in a cross breeze. Holland sounds haunted by her influences, on a record that's not so much timeless as it is gorgeously spooky. It also includes my favorite lyric of the year: "Sister don't you worry, because the world is almost done".
   :. original PopMatters review

6. DJ Krush, Jaku (Sony)
This was a singles year in hip hop; I listened to few releases as wholes, scavenging many for their bright spots. But Jaku almost demands that you sit meditatively enrapt from the first shakuhachi (Japanese flute) note to the end. Hero should have opened its stodgy classical score to DJ Krush's panoramic, liquid night turntablism. But the sound here is far darker than any martial arts movie, an opium laced nightmare with beats that go bump in the night and grooves slickened with an oddly relaxing sense of fear.
   :. original PopMatters review

7. Mason Jennings, Use Your Voice (Bar-None)
Jennings has one of those embarrassing underground followings that consist of frat boys who smoke pot and fancy themselves countercultural for having bought a Phish bootleg on Ebay. Fuck 'em. Jennings voice, somewhere between Donovon and Dylan, has an agility with melody that's astounding and his unabashed penchant for bloodletting can be wrenchingly honest. "Lemon Grove Avenue" constantly gets stuck in my head in a way that reminds me of my favorite songs in elementary school music class.
   :. original PopMatters review

8. Holly Golightly, Slowly But Surely (Damaged Goods)
I was sincerely hoping that Jack White's inclusion of Golightly on Elephant, would launch her into the record selling, stratosphere, but for some reason her snide garage glamour never caught on. With a voice she drags around like a dirty chain and songs that collide where old school country meets gutbucket R&B, she followed up Truly There Is None Other with this dangling cigarette collection of smoldering slow songs where Golightly cements herself as one of the most blissfully out of time musicians working.

9. The Cars Are The Stars, Fragments (Chez Moi)
If Sigur Ros and Four Tet had to soundtrack a submarine's descent, it might come close to the expansive ease of Fragments. Technically released in 2005, I've been playing this nonstop for the past couple of months, still finding new caverns and pockets that I'd previously missed.

10. Camera Obscura, Underachievers Please Try Harder (Merge)
Would you like a spot of jam and some ginger-lemon tea with your catchy chorus? A lighter shade of Belle & Sebastian, these fellow Scots make precocious and coy pop with a sweetly girlish delivery and a bookish angst. Like The Marvelettes, if they were two Scottish thrift shop owners.
   :. original PopMatters review

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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