Friday, May 22, 2009

"Archie, my Archie, why has thou forsaken me?" or "The Last Temptation of Jughead"

The first time I remember feeling betrayed by a force beyond my comprehension was the day Jughead fell in love.

Jughead Jones was my childhood hero, a lazy, gluttonous cynic who cast a welcome shadow on the generally sunny landscape of Archie comics. Aside from his insatiable appetite for hamburgers, his defining personality quirks were a loathing for romance and a general disinclination toward women. I had no particular problem with girls, but I always admired Jughead’s refusal to fit into the typical teenage box occupied by the rest of his lovestruck peers.

Then, some time in the early ‘90s, the Archie staff decided to shake things up by introducing a storyline in which Jughead not only fell in love, but did so with two girls at once. To make matters worse, my sedentary role model – a man with a talent for idleness if ever there was one – took a fast food job to support his newfound woo-pitching habit.

I was crestfallen upon reading this revolting development. The character who had taught me that it was not just okay but downright cool to buck the system and follow one’s own path was suddenly just another everyman, a dark-haired knock-off of his predictable pal Archie. In one fateful issue, the writers had reduced Bob Montana’s greatest creation (OK, so Montana lifted more than a little from E.C. Segar’s Wimpy) to a weak-kneed also-ran no better than old-school Archie knock-offs like Wilbur and That Wilkin Boy. Heck, Jughead even traded in his signature crown for a burger joint ball cap. I wouldn’t have been surprised at treatment like this from a conniver like Reggie, but coming from Jughead it really stung.

Thankfully, the majority of Archie fans shared my sentiments. Reader response was overwhelmingly opposed to the cuddlier, canoodlier Jughead, and his career as a romantic lead was scrapped almost as soon as it began. Me, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. I realized for the first time that the world of fiction is a malleable thing, and that the people who created the worlds and heroes that I loved might sometimes be misguided, cash-blinded or outright stupid. (All of those ideas were reinforced in spades soon after, when I first watched Superman IV, but that’s another story.)

I bring this up because Archie Comics has recently announced its latest “re-imagining” of its keystone characters. In a forthcoming storyline set in Archie’s post-collegiate future, Mr. Andrews will allegedly resolve his age-old love triangle by proposing to either Betty or Veronica. I’m no Reggie-come-lately to the Archie universe (as evidenced by my Archie-memorabilia-strewn home office), so I fully expect some convoluted scenario that will lead to our hero remaining unhitched and undecided. And that’s good. That’s as it should be.

What bothers me about this whole scheme (besides the fact that they’ve done it before, albeit in a weirder format) is the callous obviousness of the marketing ploy. I’m sure it’s not an easy time for Archie Comics. Their titles were fairly dated and pedestrian back when I started reading them, which was part of their strange appeal. Judging by my recent readings, they don’t hold up too well in the increasingly frenetic world of adolescent entertainment. I can’t really blame them for their frequent reboot attempts, which have included a creepily realistic art makeover, saddling Jughead with a baby sister, and launching yet another in a long series of uninspired animated shows. It’s just that this retooling never ends. When I was a kid, there were flailing efforts to re-cast Archie as a street-smart middle-schooler, a superheroic adventurer and, oddly enough, a remote-control racing enthusiast. Heck, even back in the ‘60s, the comics writers were shameless about trying to capitalize on the surprise chart success of a song from Archie’s Saturday morning cartoon show.

So yeah, I get that this supposed Big Decision is a desperate attempt to score some national press coverage and get losers like me talking about Archie on our barely read blogs. Obviously, it’s working to some extent, so kudos to the marketing department. But you know what else gets people talking? Quality.

I was originally drawn to the comics because of their universality. Some of my earliest memories as a reader are of Archie stories. The appeal was easy: they were peopled with lively, funny characters with whom I loved spending my summer afternoons. As I got a little older, though, I started to see more of the nuances. The crisp, exhilarating artwork of Samm Schwartz, for instance, was often filled out with surrealist background gags worthy of early Mad comics. Sure, a lot of the storylines were predictable, but there were plenty of weird, impeccably written little gems tucked in the pages of my Double Digests: a quirky piece in which Jughead is kidnapped by a crown-coveting religious cult, or a clever bit in which the denizens of Riverdale High can speak only in rhyme, or a fast-paced farce in which Archie throws the school into a panic using only a tackling dummy and a rubber mask.

Archie’s myriad creative teams have never gotten the kudos they deserve. With that in mind, it’s no wonder they now feel driven to chicanery like this marriage malarkey, but I think they’re underestimating the power of the internet. A stunt like this is a quick, cheap way to grab the spotlight. A better long-term solution would be to hire some sharp, new writers who could restore that long-gone sense of creativity and quirkiness while working within the established confines of the Archieverse.

Back when the Archie team was flexing its creative muscles more frequently, there was no real established network where people could spread the news, so those creative efforts went unnoticed. Nowadays, a sudden jump in quality would create a groundswell of buzz on the web, and a continued commitment to quality may very well engender a cult following. Countless cartoons and children’s books have proven that it’s possible to appeal to kids and adults at the same time by maintaining fresh, funny writing that works on multiple levels. Heck, I personally know a number of comics-experienced writers who would undoubtedly be up to the task (and I wouldn’t mind a crack at it myself).

The good folks at Archie Comics have given me a lot over the years, and I’ll be forever in their debt. When I see them resorting to gimmicks like the supposed resolution of Archie’s eternal triangle, however, I get nervous about their viability for the future. Rather than cranking out one-shots that are maybe worth a glance, I sincerely hope they’ll direct more of their future energies toward crafting comic books that are genuinely worth reading. Perpetual adolescence and arrested development needn’t be one and the same.

- Ira Brooker

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Ira's Hot 100, part four" or "The end of the tour"

Well, it's been a delightful four days, but all mildly distracting things must come to an end. Here, then, are the 25 most important albums of this aging hipster's lifetime. You may be a bit surprised by what occupies the number one slot. Once I realized it, I rather was.

I'd also like to give a shout-out to my dad, Mr. David Lee Brooker, who made a conscious effort to introduce me to some of the music that most impacted him in his youth. He led me down a number of musical alleys that I might never have stumbled upon without his guidance. As far as I'm concerned, that's one of the finer things a father can do for a child.

25. Bob Dylan – Bringing it All Back Home

This was neither the first nor the best Dylan album I ever heard, but it’s the one that really did it for me. Somewhere between the bleak “darkness at the break of noon” of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and the surrealist bowling ball attacks of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” lies everything I like best about Bobby D.

24. Lou Reed – Street Hassle

My family moved into town for six months during my junior year of high school while our house in the country was being renovated. Street Hassle was the theme music to my chilly, unfamiliar room on the top floor, a gritty, sleazy album that blusters and curses and brings Bruce Springsteen in for a little cameo. Lou Reed has recorded three solo albums I’d call masterpieces. This isn’t the best of the three, but it’s definitely the baddest.

23. Patti Smith – Horses

Gloria” is amazing, “Birdland” is impossibly great, and then we get to that crazy stream-of-sex-and-violence-and-semi-consciousness that is “Land,” blazing off of the turntable like some kind of coked-up Faulkner. “He got PEN knives and JACK knives and SWITCHblades preferred!” “And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud go Rimbaud go Rimbaud.” “I put my hand inside his cranium / and we had such braniac-amour / but no more.” I’ve got CD and digital copies of this album readily available, but given my druthers, I’ll always go back to my vinyl edition. It’s just that kind of album.

22. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

The more I listen to Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece, the more I’m convinced it’s the greatest album ever recorded. Listening to Aeroplane is like re-reading a great book that reveals more about itself with every visit. I was hosting a college radio show when it first came out, and I remember being kind of nonplused when it first shuffled its way into my playlist. That’s probably because these songs are just not meant to be split up. This album is one organic whole, a seething, heartbreaking portrait of madness, atrocity and despair that’s somehow one of the most uplifting musical experiences imaginable.

21. Robert Johnson – King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume One

My dad gave me this cassette for my 15th or 16th birthday. In terms of long-lasting, life-shaping impact, that may have been the best birthday present I’ve ever received.

20. Lemonheads – It’s a Shame About Ray

Why Evan Dando? I don’t know, but something about this album made me feel the way other people seemed to feel about Nirvana’s Nevermind. Maybe I appreciated Evan’s good, honest songwriting in the face of the era’s pervasive tortured angst. My mom liked him because he smiled while he sang on David Letterman’s show. Maybe that had something to do with it too.

19. Prince – Purple Rain

C’mon. What do I have to say here? This is a perfect album. There’s not one thing about Purple Rain that doesn’t work. In the face of Prince, the rest of the 1980s didn’t stand a chance.

18. Sly & the Family Stone – Anthology

Possibly the last album I ever bought at a Sam Goody, this was an awakening. There was a vitality to Sly’s stuff that just couldn’t be classified. It wasn’t quite rock, wasn’t quite R&B – it was just damn good music, as pure as it could be. This was my go-to album when I got my first Walkman in the early ‘90s.

17. Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030

I’d been a fan of Del tha Funkee Homosapien ever since I first heard his I Wish My Brother George Was Here back in the early ‘90s. That still didn’t prepare me for the insane majesty of Deltron 3030. From the first spin, it was clear that this was a different kind of hip-hop disc, a post-apocalyptic concept album incorporating elements from all across the musical spectrum. If you saw me roaming the University of Minnesota campus in spring 2001, there’s a good chance this is what was pumping through my big old earmuff headphones.

16. Professor Longhair – ‘Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology

My dad brought this home one day when I was in ninth grade and told me I had to hear it. I could tell instantly that there was something different about ‘Fess. He sounded a little like some of the other old-time rock and blues players I’d heard, but with an off-kilter rhythm and bizarre delivery that knocked me clean out. When I moved to New Orleans, Professor Longhair was one of the few familiar elements I could find in my deeply foreign surroundings. The bust of ‘Fess in the entryway of Tipitina’s was like unto a religious icon for me.

15. The Dead Kennedys – Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

For a while there in my late high school/early college days, I considered myself quite the punk. In hindsight, I was little more than a dilettante on that scene, but while it lasted, this was my punk rock bible. Jello Biafra’s wit, profanity and political savvy got me amped up like nobody else in the genre. “Pull My Strings” became the undisputed anthem for my senior year of high school.

13. Johnny Cash – American Recordings

Along with Boogie Down Productions’ Ghetto Music, the first CD I ever bought, at a seedy pawn shop in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin. So dark and moody, and a bit rougher than Johnny’s other “American” albums. I consider this the pinnacle of one of the most amazing careers in music history.

14. Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes

“Take one, one, one ‘cause you left me and two, two, two for my family…” Another key piece of my emergence as a music fan, again with an assist from my pal Nathan. Not only do the Violent Femmes bring all their equipment on the bus, they were probably the first band I got into whose name drew only befuddled looks from my peers at school. And I love drawing befuddled looks.

12. The Beatles – The Beatles

I pay no heed to the endless debate about which Beatles album is the greatest. It’s “The White Album,” no question about it. The darkest, strangest conglomeration of sounds and ideas the group ever came up with, this album is great because of, not in spite of, its lack of cohesion. When I first read Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever in 6th grade, it seemed ridiculous that Charles Manson could have thought The Beatles wanted him to kill. When I finally heard The Beatles about a year later, I still knew he was nuts, but I could see where he was coming from. And I dug it.

11. They Might Be Giants – Flood

I was a nerdy, bookish kid in my early teens. They were They Might Be friggin’ Giants. What else needs to be said?

10. Warren Zevon – Mr. Bad Example

Late night TV introduced me to a lot of great music in the ‘90s. I videotaped Warren playing the title track from this album on “Late Night with David Letterman” and re-watched it until I knew every word. I bought the cassette from my ever-reliable Best Buy cut-out bin a few weeks later and thus launched my ongoing relationship with my favorite songwriter of all time. Warren’s passing shook me more than any untimely celebrity death since Phil Hartman.

9. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the 36 Chambers

I liked hip-hop before Wu-Tang, but I’m not sure I really understood it until I heard my first RZA production. The intricacy of the Wu-Tang sound, the attention to detail and the striking interplay of personalities made me see for the first time that at its best, hip-hop is one of the most complex art forms in the world of music. This is the rare album that still sounds as fresh and weird today as it did in 1993.

8. David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Possibly my favorite album of all time (it jockeys with Diamond Dogs depending on my mood), this is David Bowie at the peak of his ‘70s perfection. Every word, every note, every inflection is classic. “It’s a god-awful small affair / to the girl with the mousy hair” ranks alongside “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” in my pantheon of literature’s greatest opening lines. Also, the cover art graces one of my favorite t-shirts in my considerable collection.

7. The Dead Milkmen – Beelzebubba

I owe more to The Dead Milkmen than I probably even realize. My pal Nathan picked up this album some time during our freshman year of high school, and there was no turning back. Here was snide, snotty, soft-core punk rock with no higher aim than to be entertaining and generate a few laughs. It was pretty much everything I’d ever wanted out of an album without realizing it. A massive influence on every ridiculous, pop culture-infused song I ever wrote.

6. KRS-ONE – Return of the Boom Bap

And here’s where my love of hip-hop really begins. As usual, it started in my pal Nathan’s basement, where I was blown away by the literate rhymes and raw beats of KRS-ONE’s first solo release. I’d dabbled in the works of Ice-T and Christian rappers like Michael Peace, but nothing had connected for me quite like this. This album is about as hardcore as KRS ever got, and it sounds just as good today as it did booming out of my parents' minivan in 1995.

5. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico

If you heard this album in your formative years and were neither amazed nor repelled, I don’t think I want to know you. For me, it was the former. Sitting in the back of a rented van, heading to the wilds of southern Illinois to attend a Christian rock festival, my pal Nathan and I huddled around a battery-powered boom box and reveled in the scary decadence of “Venus in Furs,” “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and, of course, “Heroin,” the song that became my pump-up anthem before high school sporting events. Never had it, never will, but there’s something universal about Lou Reed’s paean to his chosen source of ecstasy.

4. Pavement – Crooked Rain Crooked Rain

Something broke wide open when my pal Nathan dubbed Crooked Rain Crooked Rain onto an old Amway tape for me. What this band was doing didn’t even resemble the music I was accustomed to. It was raw and new and so, so exciting. When I took my first solo drive in my parents’ minivan, this was the album cranking from the tape deck.

3. Lou Reed – New York

My pal Nathan and I huddled around a boom box at Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park, listening to the Lou Reed cassette I’d just dubbed from my friend Paul. When “Last Great American Whale” came on, we froze and listened in silence to an epic about a marine mammal fighting crime and racism on the Carolina coast. This was something we had not heard before, and I knew it was something I wanted to hear much, much more of. This wasn’t the first Lou Reed album I owned, but it was the one that launched an obsession that continues only slightly abated to this day.

2. The Beatles - Rock & Roll Music

Originally a lazy compilation slapped together in the mid-‘70s to try and milk a few more bucks out of the long-defunct Beatles, this homely little hodgepodge became the cornerstone of my musical education when I sifted it out of the discount bin at my local Pamida. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the thought process that led someone to wedge “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Revolution” into the same album, but I’m glad someone did. That mishmash of older and newer hits and misses provided a perfect primer for a small town Wisconsin kid looking to learn about The Beatles. And once that gate was opened, all manner of stuff came a-flooding in.

1. Paul Simon – Graceland

This is pretty much where I became a music fan. When I was nine or so, a friend of my dad’s brought this cassette over to listen to as they remodeled our living room. At the time, Amy Grant’s El Shaddai was about as cutting edge as the music got in our household, so Paul Simon’s cacophony of guitars and drums and African harmonies blew me out of the water. From here on out, music wasn’t just something to sing along with or play in the background. It was something to absorb, to dissect, to experience. If this was a list of my 100 favorite albums, Graceland wouldn’t make the cut (although it’s a damn fine record). When it comes to importance, though, there’s not much that comes close.

This concludes our broadcast day. Thanks for reading.

-Ira Brooker

Sunday, May 10, 2009

“Ira’s Hot 100, part three” or “Three friends like this link”

Continuing my countdown of the 100 most important albums of my lifetime. I’m really enjoying finding representative video clips for all of these albums. YouTube seems to have something applicable to just about everyone. (Well, everyone except Prince, whose legal staff is allegedly quite draconian about removing any trace of the Purple One from video sites.) Remember a few years ago when YouTube didn’t exist? My god, what kept mankind alive?

49. Black Randy and the Metrosquad – Pass the Dust, I Think I’m Bowie

I grabbed this out of a used bin because the title and cover art – Black Randy striking Bowie’s Hunky Dory pose – made me chuckle. Turns out it’s the best punk-funk fusion album ever made, all weird and sleazy and sassy and totally late-‘70s California. I can’t hear “Marlon Brando” often enough.

48. David Bowie – Diamond Dogs

I love a post-apocalyptic concept album, and this is the greatest of all time. From the opening poem about fleas the size of rats feeding on rats the size of cats to the final chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family, Bowie’s Orwellian future vision is so bleak and ugly that I just can’t help but grin.

47. Otis Redding – The Very Best of Otis Redding

“These… arms… of… miiii-iiine…” That’s all I have to say on the matter.

46. The Smiths – Singles

Why should the poetic musings of a disaffected, sexually ambiguous British millionaire be such a universal balm to the insecure souls of small town teenagers? Damned if I know, but Mr. Morrisey was a godsend when I was 16, clumsy and shy.

45. Trainspotting – Original Soundtrack

As I’ve mentioned before, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was one of the most important movies of my life, and the soundtrack was a big part of that. The atmospheric blend of Brit-pop, glam rock and electronica set the mood for many a late night cruise in my great big Chevy sedan.

44. Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator)

For a while in 2002, WWOZ in New Orleans seemed to play “Elvis Presley Blues” every time I got into my car. I was mesmerized enough to buy the album, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful, harrowing records I’d ever heard. The lyrics to “April the 14th, Part One” never fail to make me shiver.

43. Eels – Daisies of the Galaxy

I think E is my favorite personality on the contemporary music scene. He has no trouble with announcing to the world that he’s an unfriendly, unhappy person, and I respect the hell out of that. Electro-Shock Blues is generally the critical favorite, but for me this album does all of the same things with a bit more subtlety. “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” alone would earn it a spot on this list.

42. Tom Waits – Bone Machine

Amazed by the creepy brutality of “Earth Died Screaming” when I first heard it used in 12 Monkeys, I ordered this album immediately and was pleasantly horrified to find that Tom Waits could go even darker than that. “Roadkill has its seasons, just like anything / There’s possums in the autumn and there’s farm cats in the spring.”

41. Digable Planets – Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)

I didn’t have cable growing up, so videos didn’t much figure into my music experience. But when I caught an episode of NBC’s “Friday Night Videos” featuring that super-cool black-and-white beatnik clip for “Rebirth of Slick,” I knew then and there that I would love this group. I’ve come to regard Blowout Comb as the better DP album, but this was the one that originally got me jazzed.

40. Buddy Holly – The Buddy Holly Collection

Care to hear genius boiled down to 50 songs? Right here, pal. One of my lifelong fantasies is to be a teenager in the 1950s listening to “Rave On” for the very first time.

39. The Beatles – Abbey Road

My brother and I were big Beatles fans already when we found this record in a stack of LPs in my grandparents’ attic, and we couldn’t have been more excited if the sleeve had been spun from pure gold. Abbey Road stayed on the turntable for pretty much the entire summer of my 7th grade year. Looking back, it’s not the band’s best work by a long shot, but you couldn’t have told me that at the time.

38. Lou Reed – Berlin

Lou’s epic of bitterness is the most exhilarating downer of an album ever made. I can still recall the icy horror that rolled through my gut the first time I heard “The Kids.” Right around the point when those terrified children start screaming for their mommy, Berlin becomes legitimately hard to listen to but impossible to turn off. I don’t think I can say that of any other album.

37. Charles Mingus – Epitaph

I got into this one while working a daytime jazz and blues shift at KQAL. The idea of a jazz-classical hybrid had never really occurred to me before, but when I heard it, I loved it. Mingus’ vision is remarkable, even if it took a handful of Marsalises to make it a reality.

36. Victoria Williams – Swing the Statue!

My pal Nathan introduced me to Victoria via the Sweet Relief tribute album. I soon found that I liked her music best in its original format. No cover could do justice to that strange, chirpy voice of hers. She delivers her impeccable lyrics with something between naïveté and wisdom. The whole album is a masterwork, but I place “Summer of Drugs” among the greatest songs I’ve ever heard.

35. Pavement – Wowee Zowee

When this album dropped, Pavement was as close to the cutting edge as I’d ever gotten, and the distinctly different sound of Wowee Zowee both freaked me out and fascinated me. As the years have passed, I’ve become increasingly convinced that it’s their crowning achievement. Nearly every track is some kind of mini-masterpiece, with the whole album covering an amazing range of musicology. It’s hard to say if Stephen Malkmus’ methods are unsound when you can’t see any method at all.

34. Crooklyn – Original Soundtrack

Not only is Crooklyn one of the few Spike Lee joints not bogged down by an interminable Terrence Blanchard score, it’s a film buoyed by a genuinely great soundtrack. A lot of these soul and R&B cuts are standards for anyone who listens to oldies radio, but this is also where I discovered lesser known artists like Manu DiBango and Joe Cuba.

33. Crosby , Stills, Nash & Young – So Far

It wasn’t called “classic rock” yet, but this album was my introduction to it. I was about nine or ten when my dad got this cassette from a brief BMG membership. Up to that point, my rock and roll tastes were understandably juvenile (I think the Beach Boys’ “409” was my favorite song at the time). The chilly darkness that runs through CSNY’s best work was revelatory to me. “Guinevere” both scared and seduced me, and “Ohio” made me want to run out and make something happen, even before my mom explained to me what it was all about.

32. The Coasters – 20 Greatest Hits

A key “bridging the gap” album for me. This was one of the first albums I ever bought, back in my grade school days. The original appeal was wacky stuff like “Charlie Brown,” “Love Potion Number 9” and “Yakety Yak,” but as I got older, I started to really dig on rarer ‘70s cuts like “Soul Pad,” “One Foot Draggin’” and “Down Home Girl.” The Coasters deserve to be known as more than a novelty act.

31. Neil Young – Zuma

Music for cold autumn days when the sun never makes an appearance. Coming in from a chilly walk in the woods, I’d flop down on my parents' bed, crack open a comic book and melt into the sublime despair of “Danger Bird.”

30. The Kinks – Soap Opera

The first Kinks tape I owned, plucked from the cut-out bin at Best Buy. I love concept albums in general, and the theme of an artist battling the crippling mundanity of a workaday office job becomes more relevant to me with each passing day. “Drinking helps us to forget who we are / We leave the office and head straight to the bar.” Amen, Brother Ray.

29. Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender

I had no idea who she was when I saw her open for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy at the Logan Square Auditorium, but that funny-voiced hippie chick with the harp stole the show. Her use of alliteration and wordplay far outstrips anyone else recording today. Lord help me, I just can’t fully embrace the overstuffed Ys, but The Milk-Eyed Mender might be my favorite album of the decade.

28. Warren Zevon – Excitable Boy

Dude, the second track on this album is a piano-driven ballad about a Norwegian soldier-of-fortune seeking revenge on the traitor who shot off his head. There is nothing about that that was anything less than amazing to 16-year-old me, and the rest of the album kicks just as much ass.

27. Various Artists – Goofy Greats

The first album I ever bought was this cheap-o collection of re-recorded novelty hits. You know, songs like “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Alley Oop” and “Surfin’ Bird” – stuff that little kids can dance and sing along to. Although, really, looking over that list, that’s not a half-bad roster.

26. Wally Pleasant – Houses of the Holy Moley

First of all, Wally was funny, and that went a long way for my youthful musical tastes. Second of all, Wally was friendly. He put his phone number in his liner notes, probably as a service to booking agents. My pal Nathan, however, took the initiative to call up Mr. Pleasant and chat about life, music, and our fledgling rock band, Inflatable Grandpa. Even if his songs weren’t pretty great – and they are – Wally’s willingness to mentor a couple of dorky teens from Wisconsin would make this album hugely important to me.

Tune in tomorrow for the eagerly awaited grand finale!

- Ira Brooker

Saturday, May 9, 2009

"Ira's Hot 100, part two" or "Who wrote the Facebook of love?"

Here’s the second installment of my four part series on my 100 most important albums of all time. Ranking in terms of importance rather than favoritism means I’ve had to leave off a number of bands I really love. So I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to The Rolling Stones, Outkast, Luna, Wilco, Sonic Youth, Archers of Loaf and anyone else who may feel slighted at being excluded. It isn’t that I like MC Hammer any more than I do you. Trust me, it really, really isn’t.

74. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version

Sure, I could probably write up a complex thesis about the spiritual progression from Buddy Bolden to Cab Calloway to Howlin’ Wolf to Chuck Berry to Bootsy Collins to Morris Day to ODB, but I’ll leave it at this: I believe the late Russell Jones was a legitimate genius.

73. Butt Trumpet – Primitive Enema

Musically, it’s barely listenable. Lyrically, it often borders on moronic. But this big, noisy, utterly filthy album totally kicked my sheltered white ass back in the day. A nasty chunk of anti-grunge Seattle punk featuring tough chicks singing about guns and anal sex? What’s not to love?

72. Andi Hoffman & B-Goes – 937 Dante Street

On a whim, I Googled a few of my former addresses and was amazed to find that my New Orleans abode was the subject of an album. Turns out it’s just the title track, but still – listening to song about somebody else living in your house is a mighty trippy experience. It helps that the song is utterly lovely and the album is uniformly excellent. I once sent Mr. Hoffman a MySpace message about our intersecting paths. He was quite friendly in response.

71. The Pixies – Surfer Rosa

Roaring into the Dairy Queen parking lot in my eight-cylinder Chevy Caprice on a sunny afternoon in late April, Pioneer tape deck cranking “Your bone’s got a little ma-chiiine” as I shoot a friendly middle finger to all my skater buddies loitering by the benches. Good times, man.

70. Spearhead – Home

When Home dropped, wasn’t quite like any hip-hop I’d heard before. It was “conscious” without being preachy, the rhymes were solid, and the whole thing was just flat-out fun. Michael Franti seemed like a rapper you could just hang with. Incidentally, the same NPR interview that introduced me to Michael Franti also inspired me to see my first indie film in the theater, Wayne Wang’s Smoke. Also, Franti was one of the most enjoyable subjects I’ve ever interviewed, so I guess the album earns a few extra importance points.

69. Negativland – Escape From Noise

My high school friend Dylan tried his damnedest to get me into industrial music and noise rock, but most of his favorite bands did absolutely nothing for me. Negativland was the exception, and this aggressively weird conglomeration of sound bites, musical clips and electronic doodads has endured for me. I still can’t hear the word “eleven” without mentally responding, “It’s not even funny.”

68. of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

Kevin Barnes is such a pretentious, bitchy little prick that I can’t help but adore him. Being a genius producer and a psychotically great songwriter doesn’t hurt either.

67. Nina Simone – Wild is the Wind

Another staple of my coffee shop days. When Nina died, I made a little R.I.P. poster for her and put it by the cash register. A customer asked me if she was someone who’d worked there.

66. Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon

When I was a child, I had a fever while listening to this album. In my altered state of mind, “He Played Real Good for Free” became the most profound statement of artistic freedom ever penned, and “Woodstock” was a dystopian vision on par with the Book of Revelations. When I came down from the fever, it was still a pretty damn great album.

65. Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

This was the official soundtrack to rainy afternoons during my first year in New Orleans. I aspire to Stuart Murdoch’s aptitude for crafting stories that are simultaneously mannered and sort of sleazy.

64. Tom T. Hall – 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection

If there’s a greater country songwriter than Tom T. Hall, I don’t know about it. Songs like “A Week in a Country Jail,” “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” and “Ballad of 40 Dollars” capture a kind of upbeat melancholy that I can’t put into words. He’s written songs that I rank among the saddest I’ve ever heard, even though there’s little about them that’s expressly sad.

63. David Bowie – Outside

Without question the most underrated entry in the David Bowie canon. An ugly, genre-hopping narrative about a fictional “art murder,” this was the soundtrack to my freshman depression throughout my first year of college.

62. Crooked Fingers – Reservoir Songs

Eric Bachmann is one of my favorite musicians and songwriters, so it’s a little odd that it’s his covers album that impacted me the most. On this amazing EP, Bachmann accomplishes a pretty remarkable task – taking iconic tracks by Kris Kristofferson, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Queen and reshaping them in his own image. It doesn’t hurt that I first saw Crooked Fingers live on their Reservoir Songs tour, and that their set ranks as probably the best live performance I’ve ever seen.

61. Eels – Blinking Lights (and Other Revelations)

There’s just not a lot that can be said about life and death that isn’t said somewhere in the course of this album. E allegedly worked on it for more than a decade, and it shows. It’s an amazing labor of love, loss and resignation.

60. Ed’s Redeeming Qualities – Big Grapefruit Clean-Up Job

CMJ compared ERQ to TMBG and mentioned that they wrote the original “Drivin’ On 9,” which was all I needed to hear. I somehow found a copy at the Onalaska, WI Best Buy and was hooked immediately. The lyrics ranged from clever to hilarious, the sound was homemade and welcoming, and the literalist cover art amused me to no end.

59. Devin the Dude – Just Tryin’ Ta Live

Just as I was starting to grow bored with all the Rhymesayers soundalikes on the indie rap scene, several friends clued me into Devin. He was, indeed, just what I needed to re-ignite my interest in hip-hop: a goofy yet sometimes profound MC who was as dirty as Too $hort, as funny as Eminem and as good a storyteller as Slick Rick.

58. MC Hammer – Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em

I wish I could claim that my initiation into hip-hop was someone cooler, but I ain’t gonna lie to you – it was Hammer all the way. Hey, the hooks were catchy and the lyrics were clean enough to mollify my parents. My pal Nathan gave me a pretty sweet MC Hammer poster for my 13th birthday. I wonder if I still have that somewhere?

57. Arrested Development – Zingalamaduni

I don’t get the universal derision heaped on this album. In my mind, it’s a darker, moodier improvement on the group’s sometimes frivolous Three Years, etc. Songs about racist landlords and African unity may not have had a lot of obvious relevance to a backwoods white kid in 1995, but Zingalamaduni made me feel like maybe they should.

56. John Coltrane – My Favorite Things

This is my favorite era of jazz, just before things got all experimental. I don’t claim to be a jazz expert or a connoisseur, but everything about this album – and most of Coltrane’s body of work – feels perfect to me. I also love using the title track as an example whenever someone badmouths groups like The Bad Plus for doing “novelty” covers of pop songs.

55. The Kinks – Something Else By The Kinks

I’d been a card-carrying Kinks fan for a long time when I picked this one up at Know Name Records in Minneapolis, but Something Else made me hear one of my favorite bands in a whole new way. “Waterloo Sunset” has to rank as one of the finest lyrical achievements of the rock era.

54. Warren G – Regulate… G Funk Era

Even though I was pretty much just a geek off the street, and far from handy with the steel, this near flawless slice of Cali hip-hop grabbed me hard back in the day. This was probably only the second album I ever got into while it was still getting regular Top 40 airplay. (The first was Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, but I don’t wanna talk about that.)

53. Prince – Around the World in a Day

It’s not his greatest work, but it’s my sentimental favorite, the only album that makes Prince seem at all like a real human being whom I’d want to hang out with. “Paisley Park” especially is just a little handful of loveliness.

52. Joe Byrd & the Field Hippies – The American Metaphysical Circus

When I was younger, I remember my Mom citing this album as an example of the kind of weirdness my dad got into after he came back from Vietnam. A few years ago, he tracked down a vinyl copy and passed the torch to me. My mom was right – this is some weird stuff, a conglomeration of hippie influences, doomsday cultism and psychedelic nightmares. I love everything about it. Instead of palling around with those weenie Beach Boys, Charles Manson should have been mooching couch space from the Field Hippies.

51. Lou Reed – Magic & Loss

Whenever someone close to me dies, I listen to Lou’s magnificent, album-length meditation on life and death. It makes me feel a little better.

50. Neil Young – Time Fades Away

Neil himself doesn’t seem to look too kindly on this album, as it’s never had a proper CD release in the U.S. Sure, it’s essentially a cobbled-together collection of live ‘70s tracks that never made the studio cut. For some reason, that worked for me. “Don’t Be Denied” is one of the best songs he ever recorded, a bittersweet ballad with just enough angst to be affecting.

More to come tomorrow!

-Ira Brooker

Friday, May 8, 2009

"Ira's Hot 100, part one" or "Thanks for the meme-ories"

If you spend any time on Facebook, you’ve surely seen the “Five Albums that Changed my Life” meme. I’ll admit to having a soft spot for meaningless musical lists, but five is an awfully limiting number for a guy with 11,000 (and counting) songs on his iPod. And so I embarked on the following exercise in narcissism: listing the 100 most important albums of my life to date. Note that these are not necessarily my favorite albums, just the ones that had the biggest impact on my musical tastes and life in general. I’ve broken it up into four 25-album installments, for the sake of everybody’s sanity.

Before I start, I’m going to throw a special shout-out to my pal Nathan, who, I realized while compiling this list, figured prominently in introducing me to an awful lot of great music. And away we go…

100. Death Cab for Cutie – The Photo Album

A fine album, and probably my favorite of the Death Cab canon, but it makes this list for one reason only – it was the first album I ever reviewed professionally, in a rambling piece for Where Y’at magazine that betrayed my youthful ignorance of indie rock many times over. I hope I’ve made up for it since.

99. The Kinks –Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One

I usually hate when singers harp on the hardships of being famous. Leave it to Ray Davies to craft a concept album that mostly forgoes the whining and humanizes the experience of being a jet-setting rock star.

98. Know One – Know One’s Home

An immaculately produced, critically acclaimed, eminently listenable album by an artist who just happens to be a dear friend of mine, this one serves as a constant reminder that my own artistic dreams may not be as futile as they sometimes seem.

97. Various Artists – Southern Country Blues

I believe I paid five bucks at Best Buy for this revelatory three-disc collection of early blues recordings. Even if the set had done nothing more than introduce me to the woodwind-laced troubadoring of Henry Thomas, it would have been well worth the money. Throw in the raunchy swagger of Lucille Bogan, the weirdness of the Memphis Jug Band and old favorites like Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt, and you’ve got one of the finer musical educations a college boy could ask for.

96. Donovan – Open Road

A staple of my working-from-home, freelance writing days. Not much sounds better on a sweaty Chicago afternoon than Side B of this record. “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” “Clara Clairvoyant” and “Poke at the Pope” add up to an atypically aggressive album for Donovan, and it rather rocks.

95. Sandy Nelson – Let There Be Drums / Drums Are My Beat!

Bam-b-bam-bam-bam-bam! Bap-biddidy-bap-biddidy-bap! Boom-bam-be-boom-boom-boom!

94. The White Stripes – Elephant

I was deep into my wussy indie rock period when Elephant dropped. No knock against wussy indie rock, but a full-on rock & roll record was exactly what I needed right then to snap me back to my senses. Jack White blusters and storms better than anyone in his generation.

93. Mason Jennings – Use Your Voice

Living in New Orleans during a time of political turmoil, I can’t express how comforting it felt to hear Mason Jennings sharing my mourning for Paul Wellstone and “trying to make some sense of this / 2000 miles from my family in Minneapolis.”

92. Bill Withers – Lean On Me: The Very Best of Bill Withers

The soundtrack to so many caffeine-addled mornings spent slinging lattes to the tennis moms and real estate brokers of New Orleans. It’s fitting that I established a number of lasting friendships while listening to this album, as Bill Withers comes off as the friendliest man who ever set voice to wax.

91. Fela Kuti – Open and Close

This blows my mind as consistently as any album I own. It’s jazz, it’s funk, it’s rock, it’s unclassifiable. In my estimation, Fela at his best embodies everything good about the very idea of music.

90. David Garza – The 4-Track Manifesto

The soundtrack to much of my freshman year of college. Upbeat, soulful music that could have been designed for driving the bluff roads of Southern Minnesota in late spring. I celebrate David’s entire catalog, but I don’t think he’s ever topped this EP.

89. Pulp Fiction – Original Soundtrack

Who wasn’t rocking this album in the mid ‘90s? I love that Quentin Tarantino made Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” a standard 30 years after the fact, and that he worked Maria McKee, Ricky Nelson and Kool and the Gang onto the same million-selling album.

88. Ice Cube – The Predator

No disrespect to Dre and Eazy, but Cube is the NWA alum who really got through to me, and The Predator is the peak of his solo career. The anti-white sentiments of his earlier albums are toned down (though not entirely absent), the West Coast beats are exemplary and Cube is even relatively upbeat. Who could resist “It Was a Good Day”?

87. Low – Things We Lost in the Fire

It’s full of dread and beauty and pain and celebration, and it’s not like much else I’ve heard before or since. Low connects with me on a deeply Minnesotan level.

86. Too Much Joy – Cereal Killers

Purchased on a whim out of the Best Buy cut-out bin back in my high school days, this one knocked me out with some of the most literate lyrics ever set to a power-pop backdrop. For quite a while, I held “I’m afraid of people who like ‘Catcher in the Rye’ / Yeah, I like it too, but someone tell me why / People he’d despise say, ‘I feel like that guy’” as my favorite lyric ever.

85. Built To Spill – The Normal Years

My wife Myra used to play this album constantly when we were first dating. I hated it at first, but eventually she wore me down. I think I realized I loved The Normal Years right around the same time I realized I loved her. Built To Spill went on to become one of my favorite bands, and Myra became one of my favorite people.

84. Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It for the Money

The best, most thorough deflation of the Love Generation myth ever set to vinyl. Take that, hippies!

83. Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming

Back in its day, this probably served as a bridge to Christian rock for a lot of secular Dylan fans. I crossed that bridge going in the opposite direction, starting out on the contemporary Christian side streets and following Dylan backwards into his older stuff. You better believe that opened some doors.

82. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois

It’s like a collection of sad little short stories set to music, one of the more evocative albums I own. I can’t listen to “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” without getting chills, or to “Casimir Pulaski Day” without feeling heartsick.

81. Burnt Oak – Religious Nuts

I was raised on “contemporary Christian” music, a genre that’s generally just as bland as it sounds. When my pal Nathan found this album in a cassette bin at a music festival, it was a revelation – a Christian recording that dared to be weird, playful and even a little irreverent. The product of a couple of born-again new wavers from New Zealand, it filled the space between Michael W. Smith and They Might Be Giants. (Note: this album is now impossible to track down. The link above is the only trace of its existence I've ever found on the internet. Anyone with any info on Burnt Oak or “Religious Nuts,” please drop me a line!)

80. Tom Waits – Heartattack and Vine

It’s not one of the most universally beloved Tom Waits albums, but the sleazy strut of this dirty little record caught my teenage fancy more than any of his other ‘70s output. I love how easily Tom moves from pretty to grimy.

79. Isaac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul

On a sweltering summer night, how could you not give in to the seduction of Ike’s voice and massive orchestrations? Bought it at Rolling Stones Records in Chicago, in a super-cheap import version that contains weird auditory pops and clicks, as if it was transferred directly from a turntable. I think that only improves the experience.

78. Lyle Lovett – I Love Everybody

How could I not love hearing Lyle Lovett slagging on fat babies, dying grandmothers and guys with skinny legs? Probably the oddest album he’s ever released, and certainly my favorite.

77. Goodie Mob – Soul Food

My introduction to the Dirty South, courtesy of a free “Soul Food” cassingle I picked up at Ragstock in Dinkytown. I still regard it as one of the coolest hip-hop albums of all time. Plus, it introduced the world to the inimitable Cee-Lo Green!

76. Mark Olson & The Creek Dippers – December’s Child

I adore Victoria Williams, and this album makes it evident that Mark Olson did too. It may be the purest musical encapsulation of a loving marriage I’ve ever heard. It still makes me sad that Mark and Victoria split up a few years ago.

75. Sunny Day Real Estate – How It Feels to Be Something On

In the fall of ‘98, I was convinced that this album was pretty close to what John Lennon would have been producing if he’d lived. It makes me think of cloudy afternoons lying in Myra’s twin bed in a cruddy college house in Winona, Minnesota.

Stay tuned! More to come!

- Ira Brooker