Tuesday, December 22, 2009

25 Best Tracks of the Decade: #10-1

#10: “A Loner”, The Tyde

I caught the last song of their opening set for The Pernice Brothers in 2003 and was hooked right away. They had that early 00’s sound but mixed with a genuine surfing ethos and great tunes, ideal for hazy summer afternoons. What has always struck me about this song from Twice is the sheer perfection of the solos in the latter part of the song: each a model of melody and economy, building off one another to construct a greater whole. That this shining example of teamwork comes in a song titled “A Loner” makes it strangely more touching, like a group of outcasts who had finally found a home.


#9: “Sun”, The Toms

This is less a song and more of a rickety, heaving steam-powered smile machine. A million things seem to be happening at once, clanging and giving off sparks, threatening to collapse at any moment – but it gets you to pure joy, lickety-split. “Darkness comes, and darkness goes away,” The Toms assert, “I’m waiting for the sun to shine.”


#8: “Beyond, Beyond, Beyond”, Joel Plaskett

I’m not much of a movie-goer, but the ones that I do love are inevitably those less concerned with plot and more with character. Films like The Big Lebowski and Dazed & Confused are more like hanging out with a group of friends than any linear story. By the end of Joel Plaskett’s feature-length triple-album Three, you feel you’ve come to know him, his parents, his band, and you find yourself missing his friends who’ve passed on too. With Plaskett the music-making Maritimer protagonist who loves his cat as much as he loves Tom Petty, it’s perhaps not surprising that I fell hard for Three. To borrow a phrase seen on many a movie poster, it made laugh, it made me cheer, and especially on this song, it made me cry.


#7: “Fresh Feeling”, Eels

This is a song that I play for friends and they always fall for it. They don’t know that its central orchestral sample actually comes from the previous Eels album, on an absolute tear-jerker of a song called “Selective Memory”. That Eels main man “E” takes a heartstring-tugging moment and repurposes it for a light, bouncy hip-hop flavoured song is typical, as the entire Eels canon is an extended triumph of hope over tragedy. (Look up his life sometime. Short version: everyone dies.) But as my friends can attest, sometimes what you don’t know can’t hurt you.


#6: “Rebellion (Lies)”, Arcade Fire

I have had a major skepticism for the Canadian indie band hype machine ever since people tried to pass off The Waltons as “the new Crowded House” in 1991. So I tried to resist this one, but there was just no way to hold out for long. It jumped the barricades, overpowered the guards and ran its inspirational banner up the flagpole. In its wake, it seems everyone tried their hand at writing similar four-on-the-floor anthems, but like the old Shredded Wheat slogan, this one is The Original And The Best.


#5: “I Ain’t Hurtin’”, Frontier Index

One of my all-time musical highlights was visiting Corey Hernden’s unkempt house on Nassau St. and having him play this song for me for the first time. A gentle hymn of devotion and gratitude, his band Frontier Index accompany it with a gentle, lapping wave of their Neil Young-meets-Radiohead sound. Unfortunately, their only album was criminally ignored here in Toronto at the height of “music collective mania” in 2005, presumably because there were only four of them instead of 16 people and some sock puppets. Here it is again, as a reminder that musical fashions come and go, but great songs last forever.


#4: “Ashes of American Flags”, Wilco

All the fuss over the backstory and the sound of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot overshadowed that the songwriting had taken another leap. Jeff Tweedy’s early, direct songs had given way to something much more complex: jumbled telegraphed phrases, unexpected details, punctuated with moments of plain-spoken directness. A lonely guitar line provides an unsettling hook, instruments fade in and out of the picture, and after saluting “the ashes of American flags and all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags”, it ends in a disjointed whirl of sound, briefly dropping out like a cellphone call. It was recorded well beforehand, but nothing captures the sadness, confusion and resignation of post-9/11 America like this.


#3: “Seven Nation Army”, The White Stripes

Last year, a friend of mine had a job singing in a cover band in Morocco. Intrigued, I asked her what was the biggest song from their set and she answered, without a moment’s hesitation, “Seven Nation Army”. And why not? Language is no barrier to its all-conquering martial riff, instantly one of rock’s all-time greatest from the very moment of its release. Flattening everything in its path, even non-rock radio stations played a dance remix of it on high rotation. And any questions about whether The White Stripes could repeat the success of White Blood Cells were not only dispelled; they were stomped on, set fire to, and put on a pike. Everyone knows about it, from the Queen of England to the hounds of hell.


#2: “Do You Realize??”, Flaming Lips

In the original, low-budget premiere version of the video, blinding light emanates from within Wayne Coyne’s guitar. Or is it his heart? With its junk-shop synth orchestration, “Do You Realize??” evokes long-lost Hollywood show-stoppers like “Over The Rainbow”. But while that song offers a promise of heavenly salvation, this is decidedly humanist: daytime and nighttime are illusions, we live on a mass of rock in a desolate universe, everyone you love will die. Yet these truths only serve to emphasize the uplifting message: what really matters is how you treat the people you care about while you’re here. Tell them how much you love them, Coyne’s fragile voice urges − the light comes from within us.


#1: “One More Time”, Daft Punk

The thing about dance music is that it’s inherently bittersweet. It’s so intent on celebrating the moment that the unspoken implication is that nothing can ever be so good again. The party will end, life is short and hard, so let’s enjoy this moment of joy right now while we still can.

As celebratory and anthemic as it is, “One More Time” understands and acknowledges this. In fact, it gives it equal time, suddenly detouring from the pulsing dancefloor beat into a descending chord pattern as old as music itself. They’re the descending chords of church music, of folk ballads, of “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys, and their nostalgic mix of major and minor is both sad and reassuring. “Celebrate, don’t wait too late”, the voice says, and you wonder if it IS too late. Life keeps passing, day jobs creep in, friends and lovers have come and gone − and all you really want is one more time. One more time to be young. One more time with the people you love. One more time of feeling like this, right now. And the music obliges, bringing back the exhilaration − until an ominous church bell tolls.

Daft Punk called their tour album Alive. “One More Time”, in its own simple, universal way, is a celebration of being alive – the innocence, the experience, the joy and even the sadness. And I don’t know about you, but every time I hear it, it reminds me of all those things and I think, “yes, one more time, please.”


Monday, December 21, 2009

25 Best Tracks of the Decade: #25-11

Well, you knew I was going to write about music sometime here.  I was recently invited to take part in Two Way Monologues' "Top 50 albums of the Decade" poll, and through that exercise I realised that I scarcely liked any full albums from the past ten years.  Whether that's just me being old and ornery, or whether artists no longer have the focus to string together a strong, coherent album, I couldn't tell you. However, there were scores of individual songs that I felt were worthy of mention, so I whittled it down to a Top 25 of the '00s.  Part II will come soon!

* * * * *

#25: “Astounded”, Bran Van 3000

A throbbing bassline starts quietly and distantly, as if you’ve just entered a warehouse somewhere in Montreal, and it gets louder as you approach the party. Then suddenly, the door opens and 70’s soul strings usher you in as the ghostly falsetto voice of the late soul legend Curtis Mayfield. Within moments, you’re in the midst of the longest kiss of your life.

Or, maybe I just watched the video for this way too many times back in 2001.


#24: “Music Is My Radar”, Blur

Having made their name with ultra-British pop, Blur had gone “more experimental” towards the end of the 90’s and then went “unlistenable” with 2003’s Think Tank. In between, this new song added to their Best Of managed to combine the best of both. Mumbled nonsense words, guitar noise, melodica and a pitter-patter drum part are not the usual recipe for “catchy as hell”, but Damon Albarn pulled this off and pointed the direction towards the Gorillaz albums to come.


#23: “Anthems For a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”, Broken Social Scene

When BSS emerged to an avalanche of indie praise in 2003, I didn’t get it. Everyone talked about how “pop” it was and this seemed to them to be some big revelation. Personally, I could barely find a melody on the entire album; it seemed more like some college radio station’s B-side compilation. All except one slow-building, spellbinding dirge that, despite its title, didn’t sound much like what its main character would ever listen to.


#22: “10 A.M. Automatic”, The Black Keys

It’s not as though minimalist white-boy blues was invented in the early 21st century; you can find examples going back to the 50’s. But it did seem to be at its most popular in the early-to-middle years of the ‘00s, and when you listen to Dan Auerbach’s guitar literally roar out of your speakers, it’s easy to see why. It’s not necessarily the best song in the Black Keys’ repertoire, but the hurricane of an ending is unforgettable.


#21:”I Want Love”, Elton John

Anyone watching the stark video for a glimpse at troubled-yet-compelling Robert Downey Jr. was no doubt pleasantly surprised to hear the kind of Elton John song that hadn’t been heard for 25 years, aka good. The classic early 70’s sound was revived to back unflinchingly direct lyrics that resonate not only with any knowledge of Sir Elton’s life, but surely scores of ordinary listeners as well.


#20: “Look Good In Leather”, Cody ChesnuTT

Before this became an AXE commercial, it was a little-heard, low-fi soul song recorded on a 4-track full of joyous, good-natured boasting – and a lot of swearing, which you won’t be able to hear in the cheesy video below. Unlike most of the so-called R&B from this decade, there’s no showboating vocals, no claims to be consuming more expensive brands of alcohol; just a simple, surely undeniable assertion that he looks good in leather. And isn’t that enough?


#19: “Maps”, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

I’ve never understood why this is called “Maps”. But it was a revelation to learn that Karen O could actually sing, instead of scream, look insane and, well, act insane.


#18: “1,000 Times”, Tahiti 80

Beginning with Daft Punk and Air in the late 90s, French bands came out of the perceived wilderness and into the mainstream. Tahiti 80 were almost one of those bands, but never quite made it, perhaps because they just seemed light and fluffy as a blancmange. This song only reinforces that: it’s like a double-scoop ice cream in a sugar cone on a summer day. Apparently, people didn’t like that in 2002.


#17: “Dynamite Walls”, Hayden

A friend pointed out Hayden’s house to me a few weeks ago while walking the Toronto’s west end. It was much nicer than I’d expected, if only because I’d never equated Hayden – and his Eeyore-meets-Leonard Cohen voice – with success. Yet he is certainly successful on this epic, the aural re-enactment of driving through the empty highways that cut through the Canadian Shield.


#16: “1,2,3,4”, Feist

Knowing that radio play is available exclusively to the Nickelbacks and Mariah Careys of the world, most of today’s musicians would now consider placement in an Apple ad the peak of their commercial aspirations. “1,2,3,4” is, of course, one of the ones that made it, and it truly made Feist a worldwide name. You would think that a song like this would be a hit anywhere, in any era, but sadly, that’s not the case anymore.


#15: “Impossible Germany”, Wilco

I saw Fleetwood Mac this year, and when the crowd went nuts about two-thirds of the way through a 10-minute guitar solo by Lindsay Buckingham, I was reminded that once upon a time, audiences loved and expected long guitar solos. They’ve all but disappeared from the musical landscape now, having been made unfashionable by several generations of punk music, but Nels Cline provided perhaps the most memorable one of this decade. More like this, and they might make a comeback.


#14: “Golden Age”, Beck

Beck has done so many different things over the years, it’s hard to recall how surprising it was to hear him seemingly channeling Gordon Lightfoot in a sad, desolate and, most shockingly, direct fashion on “Golden Age”. Instead of “heads are hanging from the garbage bag trees/mouthwash jukebox gasoline”, he gave listeners “hold on/these days, we barely get by/I don’t even try”.


#13: “Dirty Harry”, Gorillaz

What do you get when you mix a children’s choir, a synth line that belongs in a Middle Eastern pop song and furious political rap? A walk through Kensington Market, yes, but also the kind of hit song that you would expect from a dissatisfied former pop star, a cartoonist and whoever happened to be walking past the recording studio at the time.


#12: “We’re Going To Be Friends”, The White Stripes

Everything about The White Stripes was palpably old school, from the strict red and white colour scheme to low-fi recording to promo copies released on vinyl to thwart file sharers. Fortunately, that extended to Jack White’s ability to write truly classic songs in a way that few still can. Here, he expertly crafts a nursery rhyme that is both amusing and touching: old school, indeed.


#11: “Décrocher les étoiles”, Keren Ann & Benjamin Biolay

Just quite how I first heard this song has been lost to me in a decade’s worth of late nights, day jobs, travel adventures and band rehearsals. But I am certain that from the first moment I heard it, I was hooked on its pulsing bass/whole note piano verses with oh-so-French duet voices over top. And all the obvious comparisons are moot when the beautiful chorus takes wing.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

All creatures great and small and pricey

When I lived with my friend Dennis many years ago and our apartment consisted of a foam chair, a table hockey board and a Britney Spears poster Dennis “ironically” cut out of the Toronto Star, we had a variety of characters and scenarios we created in order to stave off boredom. One of these involved an Australian true-crime show where a sheep was condemned and hanged. (“The public felt the sentence was tough, but fair.”) Another was a character called “The Bad Father”, which was basically Tom Waits ordering his son to get him another can of Michelob, only to become enraged when he returns with a warm one. Trust me, this stuff was hilarious. Really.

Anyway, these days I am feeling a bit like a bad father, if not our mythical “Bad Father”. I took my cat Edison in to the vet last week out of concern for a cut paw, only to instead be told that he has a cavity and needs a tooth removed. “That’ll run you from between $800 and a grand”, the vet blithely mentioned, as if she was guessing how much he weighed. “You need to do it soon, too, because that’s quite painful for him.”

Now, Edison is an expressive cat. Like his owner, he’s blonde, occasionally charming and generally won’t shut up. Yet at no point has he given me any indication that he’s in any kind of mouth pain, unless he’s actually been saying “Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.” for three years. And so, like a bad father, I find myself questioning whether to pay for this operation that would be in my pet’s best interest. I find myself saying, “Well, what would I get out of it? I’d still have the same cat. And I certainly won’t feel any better as a thousand dollars vanishes from my bank account.”

It’s particularly galling because I have been paying for pet insurance for three years which has yet to actually cover anything. I’ve actually spent more than the cost of having his tooth removed on do-nothing insurance. I’m starting to subscribe to Ned Flanders’ belief that insurance is a form of gambling. In this case, I’ve gambled on caring – and lost.

Or have I? I definitely plan to get a second opinion. Or maybe look for one somewhere less tony than the Annex – a farm vet somewhere near 6th Line Cross Road, wherever that may be. I’m also toying with finding some shabby clothes, pouring water on Edison to look like Cat at the end of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and doing my best Dickensian street urchin impression: “Please sir, e’s the only breadwinner in the family ever since I lost me job as a bootblack. E’s ever so nice, sir, look at ‘im.”

Ultimately, I’m sure I will give in, do the right thing, and get his hurty tooth pulled. It will be expensive, and I don’t expect a sudden windfall to make up for it. At least not in cash, anyway. Right now, I’m hoping to offset it by winning whatever contests I can find online. An HDTV, or a year’s worth of steak, or a fabulous weekend getaway to scenic Mobile, Alabama would make up for it, I’m sure.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

It's A Start (unreleased demo version)

There’s no manifesto here.

Nor is there any lasers-and-lights launch for this little corner of the writing world. In fact, odds are you are actually reading this only after scrolling down through all the brilliantly witty, genuinely moving and inevitably life-changing posts that I will surely write after this one.

Right now, though, I’m not yet sure what I will put in this space. Like all writers, I can’t stand a blank page, so I’m scribbling in it now as a start. It’s amazing how just seeing a block of words – sometimes any words – can help provide the motivation and the imagination to press on through a sentence, a paragraph, and on to another page. And before you know it, I’ll have prattled on about a particular French café, the importance of wind conditions to history, Tom Petty’s Wildflowers album and the time I missed my train in Japan and learned to ride a bike as a result.

And maybe that kind of unfiltered rambling will be what you’ll read here. Truthfully, I have no idea at this point, though anecdotes and music appreciations are probably a given. What I do know is that despite the fact that I make my living as a writer (in the advertising game), I do precious little of my own writing.

So let’s see what unfolds. The page is no longer blank. It’s time to move on. It’s time to get going.