Rhythm Nation: Music, Poetry, Dance, Unity (Part 2)

If you are just joining us, we’re covering Janet Jackson in the late 80s and early 90s.  Last time, we discussed her breakthrough album, Control.  Today? We are a part of the Rhythm Nation.

Coming off the success of Control, A&M wanted Janet to continue the momentum by releasing an album to be called Scandal, which would continue with the theme of separating from her family.  Jackson was ready to move on from that part of her life, and instead desired to create a concept album about social injustice with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis again at the helm.  The result was Rhythm Nation 1814, an achievement in its innovation of programming and sampling as well as its unique voice in bringing social issues to the dance-pop-R&B arena.  What is remarkable about Rhythm Nation is its ability to maintain a consistent and cohesive sound while exploring different genres.  Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are able to tie together songs like new jack “Alright,” the poppy “Escapade,” and the hard rock “Black Cat” seamlessly.

As a companion to the album, Jackson put together a long-form video telling the story of two friends whose dreams are ruined due to drug use.  Admittedly, the story not very memorable, as my friends and I recalled it being about “gangs or something.”  It did succeed in introducing a distinct look and feel for Rhythm Nation, creating an image for the album that still holds to this day – black and white shots of gritty streets and warehouses juxtaposed with a military-style community of dancers.

To support the album, Janet kicked off her first-ever world tour, which remains the most successful debut tour by an artist to this day.  The tour not only promoted the image and message of Rhythm Nation, it also furthered Janet’s image as a role model for young women – many a teen in the early 90s would don the “Janet Jackson Look” of white shirts, black leggings and black jackets.

Janet did her best to make Rhythm Nation a way of life and a positive message for her young fans.  The album kicks off with the title track.  In a sense you can say Control is about the responsibility of taking care of yourself, and Rhythm Nation is about the responsibility of taking care of others.

The video again has a great look to it, but in terms of message, I’m not sure how helpful a Rhythm Nation is in fighting substance abuse.  It’s like, I’m at the lowest point in my life; it’s literally raining on my face, and I’m scared and afraid – how will I go on?… RHYTHM NATION DANCE TEAM, ASSEMBLE! Shoomp-Shoomp “Ho!”, Shoomp-Shoomp “Ho!” – ??? Joking aside, the music and dancing is pretty badass for Miss Jackson.

Continuing on with the social themes, we have “State of the World” and “The Knowledge.”  “State of the World” steps up the lyrics from the previous track, providing more of a landscape for the message of injustice.  “The Knowledge” is another good choice lyrically, fighting against ignorance and drug use.

Then? The album really takes off with the infectious Chaka Kahn-ilicious “Miss You Much.” It’s songs like this, “Escapade” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” that make you forget this is only one album.  On one hand you have the socially conscious songs, but you also have these feel-good songs about love and camaraderie.  These are solid pop songs with catchy melodies and a danceable beat.

If YouTube existed back in the day, I so would have tried to learn all the moves in this video and danced all day in my basement.

After the thoughtful “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make),”  camaraderie and good times continue with “Alright.”  The song is worth mentioning for its delightful video featuring legends Cab Calloway and Cyd Charisse (whose legs deserved a separate credit even at 67 years old):

The highlight of the “B side” of the album is the Jackson-penned “Black Cat.”  Crisply-produced with a touch of guitar-rock edge, the song gave Jackson crossover appeal and showed that like her brother Michael, she was fearless in exploring sounds outside her wheelhouse:
(video)

Finally, as a tie to the coming of age underlying theme of Control, Rhythm Nation and Janet, we have the smooth and breezy “Someday is Tonight,” which is a companion piece to “Let’s Wait a While.” It’s lyrics directly referencing the latter song off Control, this song is subtle and breathy, with Janet dipping her toes into the waters of sensual R&B.  In its quiet way, it is an introduction to her next album, an album that is a much more vocal celebration of  sexual liberation.  It really, really, celebrates the sexy. Next time? Get your hand fan and fainting chair ready, because we’re taking on Janet.
   

Janet, Miss Jackson if You’re Nasty (Part I)

Let me go on record as saying Janet Jackson ruled the universe between 1986 and 1994.

For any girl hitting her formative years in the late 80s and early 90s, Janet’s recordings during this time were a soundtrack for life.  She was a different kind of female role model compared to her contemporaries – strong, self-assured and self-efficient.  The three albums in this time frame, Control, Rhythm Nation and Janet represent a coming of age – the awakening that occurs when you see a world available to you that you never knew existed, with each album representing a different stage of this awakening.

With Janet’s name being tossed around as a potential judge on American Idol, this is as good a time as any to do a retrospective on these three albums.  After the Super Bowl brouhaha and a few albums over the past 10 years that didn’t leave an imprint on the music scene, it’s easy to forget how important Janet Jackson was in the late 80s and early 90s.  She not only helped influence and usher new jack swing into the Hot 100, she inspired young women everywhere.  Today we’ll start with her breakthrough album, Control.

Control
A story of liberation from family

To give you a little background on Janet, prior to this album, her career was managed by her father Joe Jackson.  Joe Jackson’s “management style” for his children is both well-documented and well-speculated upon, containing lovely vignettes like how he demanded Janet stop calling him “dad” when she was seven because he was her manager.  Her two albums prior to Control were under his grip, containing music she had zero input on.  Ultimately, while still a teenager, Janet made the difficult choice of firing her father.  She escaped his world in Hollywood to join Prince proteges Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in Minneapolis to create an album far from the distractions and hauntings of L.A. Six weeks later, the 19 year-old Jackson gave us Control.

If there was ever a more suitably titled album, I cannot think of it.  From the start, the vision of the album is clear; it’s a statement of believing in your own power and not letting anyone get in your way.  This is a vision that is realized through lyrics and through an infectious sound you simply did not hear on the radio in 1986.  The opening track, “Control,” is the story of declaring your independence from family; it’s a statement that everyone must leave home and find their own way.  The opening dialogue to the song introduces the theme of the entire album: “This is a story about control, my control.  Control of what I say, control of what I do.  And this time I’m gonna do it my way.”  She then sings about the importance of calling your own shots and not letting people make decisions on your behalf.  She wants to  “take you by the hand and lead you in this dance, ‘cause what I’ve got is because I took a chance.”

You’ve got to hand it to Janet – to fire your own father, specifically a figure like Joe Jackson, was probably the hardest and scariest thing she ever had to do.  Fans of Janet like myself are grateful she took the chance, because where would she be if she didn’t?  I’ll give you a hint – you probably didn’t even know she had two albums prior to Control, did you?

Here’s Janet rocking it out in video:

Ironically, during the making of this video Joe Jackson was said to be a holy terror on set.  He reportedly lashed out at several people and physically threatened the producer of the video, Sharon Oreck.

Next up on the album is “Nasty”, a song inspired by men who harassed Janet when she was walking to and from the studio. It’s like “These Boots are Made for Walking” in that it is a rare song about a woman who demands respect and proper treatment – she’s not asking you, she’s telling you.  With a fantastic beat backing it, she lets young women know it’s okay to tell someone to BTFO, and you’re not a prude for demanding someone treat you appropriately.  If you look at the top 100 songs of 1986, I challenge you to find another song that has this level of assertion.

Plus? It has some killer choreography from Paula Abdul in the video (who also plays one of Janet’s friends):

If you did check that list of top 100 songs, maybe you did find one other song on the list to challenge “Nasty”: The third track on this album, “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” This is no “Can’t Help Loving that Man of Mine.”  All too often in pop music we have songs that are about women who oh-so-adorably-tee-hee can’t leave their asshole boyfriends because, OMG, they’re just so cute and amazing when they don’t completely suck.  The most extreme example of this is the worst song Carole King has ever written, The Crystals, “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).”  Janet turns this sentiment on its head and and puts the asshole boyfriend on notice.

This video has another appearance by Paula Abdul, and again features her choreography.  When you watch and listen to these videos it really drives home how lazy today’s pop music is as a whole – people have their bland voices auto-tuned onto bland, uninspired music, and their dancing is just…well, it ain’t this.

The final song I’ll cover on the album today is “Let’s Wait a While,” although if you are unfamiliar with this album I also recommend checking out Janet’s video for “The Pleasure Principle” – it is another great song, and I particularly love that this video is simply Janet dancing in a studio.  It’s mesmerizing from start to finish.

On “Let’s Wait a While,” Janet makes another important assertion – the song promotes abstinence and waiting for the right time in a relationship.  In the three albums we discover, this is the first song in a series of songs Janet covers about sexual intimacy.  For the final line of the song, she sings “I promise, I’ll be worth the wait.”  You kind of get the sense on Janet that she kinda followed through on that one, because, damn.

But, that’s a story further down the road – next up? We have Janet’s liberation in full bloom and her desire to shine her light on that path for others.  We’ve got Rhythm Nation 1814.
  

N.F.W.: Our New Gossip Commentary!

Even Stock Photo Girl Says, "No. F-ing. Way!"

Here at Menacing Kitten Headquarters, when we’re not drinking Chocotinis, heating inedible frozenstuff, or drooling over James Marsden, we are talking gossip.  We love our blind gossip from Crazy Days and Nights, our “Ding-Dang Y’all, Brittany’s Eating Wings!” exposés of TMZ, and our snarkilicious Dirt Bag from Jezebel.  Because gossip and schadenfreude are dishes best served with said Chocotinis, we decided to start our own little gossip commentary: N.F.W. as in No.F-ing.Way.  Why? Because, OMG, everyone loves an acronym.

So what is going on in the Celeb World on this fine day? Well, there are three stories circling the water cooler at the moment:

1.  STALK OF AGES. 
An entertainment show recently spent an entire half an hour to tell me that Tom and Katie broke up. I know: N.F.W.  Who saw this coming? (Put your hand down Mimi Rodgers, and you too, World).  The entertainment show showed me footage of Oprah visiting Tom and Katie, and they totally looked happy and gave her moccasins. And then Oprah hugged them.  How could they fail? I know, Entertainment Show, I know.  They touched the hem of her garment, yet they were not made whole.  This is really challenging my faith.

Now, both TMZ and Rupert Murdoch are stating that the Church of Scientology is stalking Katie.  According to their credible sources who are photographing her apartment and wiretapping her phones 24-7, this is REALLY CREEPY. Apparently these sources bumped into someone else skulking in the bushes and they were like, who the hell are you? And the person was like, I’m the totally heterosexual, engram-free gardener! And then they were like SCIENTOLOGIST! **snaps photo**

2. TODAY SHOW: WHERE TEARS = SWEET, SWEET CASH:
Once upon a time, there was a morning news show that dominated all morning news shows.  Ruled by the jingle-riffic Katie, Matt, Al and Ann quatrofecto (is that a word? If not, it is now), it was a pleasant show that delivered news in that non-threatening, pre-Regis and Kelly (or was it Kathie Lee?) way, but still managed to get the point across.  In this fair land, reporters gave families a little space after their grief.  They’d wait a few days, possibly a few weeks to allow a family to properly mourn, and they’d have a sit-down interview all in good time.

I remembered the exact moment when this changed.

Following Columbine, Katie Couric sat down with two family members who lost a loved one to the tragedy only a day prior.  At the time, I felt uncomfortable that the Today show procured an interview with someone in mourning so fresh on the heels of tragedy.  Was this appropriate? Was this sensational? I wasn’t entirely sure.  The family’s story brought me to tears, but I couldn’t help but wonder if we should be seeing this.  Even now, I’m not sure what my answer is.

This interview was a defining moment for Couric, and it seemingly changed the landscape of reporting and interviews – everyone clamored after the mourning, looking to get that unforgettable, tears-inducing, ratings bonanza moment.

Fast forward 13 years, and morning news has gone meta – the Today Show, still a part of NBC news but looking more like the Entertainment Show mocked above, decides nothing would be more delicious than to feed the ratings beast the bland diet of everyone’s favorite Human Quinoa, Ann Curry.  Yes, Ann Curry, who has been a loyal employee to the ‘Cock for years, had the pleasure of seeing her name plastered all over the gossip rags thanks to some carefully placed leaks saying she sucked and her bosses wanted her out.  She got to read stories about how her colleague of just as long wouldn’t sign a long term contract unless they booted her.  And then she got to step on television at the height of this feeding frenzy her bosses salivated over, to say through tears that she was canned and her dreams have been shattered.  Then every employee of NBC News made a bully circle around her and pushed her back and forth amongst each other while calling her names and breaking her glasses.  Pig’s blood was dropped from the rafters, a good time was had by all.

I’ll be the first to admit, I haven’t really watched the Today Show in years, and I felt Curry was an odd fit for that role.  She always came across as a low-key, down-to-earth kind of chick. That sort of personality just doesn’t fly when on one side of you there’s Matt Lauer interviewing the Kardashians promoting their new Klassy Krap Kamp for Klepto Kids, and Al Roker’s over there on the other side, puppeteering a live lobster as Guy Fieri or whoever the fuck is making Pop Star Poppers for that American Idol finale party you had no intention of throwing.  Look, I used to really enjoy Today – I don’t even mind some of the fluff. But after seeing all of this BS, how can you place it all on Ann Curry? The way they handled her exit is all you need to know about the state of the Today Show and where it’s headed. And NBC – the hell? Is it even remotely possible for you to handle a high-profile firing with even a modicum of decency or common sense?

3. HOLY POO, A TV PERSONALITY HAS A SEXUAL ORIENTATION!
Again - N.F.W.! A charming silver fox who I’ve had a crush on yet always knew in my heart of hearts it would never be reciprocated told everyone he is gay.  The world minus Gawker was like, we all kind of knew this and didn’t care either way, no? Because the world loves the Silver Fox, no matter who he loves.  For those who don’t love him, I don’t count you, because you probably don’t like pina coladas, white Christmases or Singin’ in the Rain either.  DEAD TO ME.  Anyway, he came out, and I long to see the day when no one cares about the gender of the person you love, and this sort of statement isn’t considered newsworthy.  On the other hand, I suppose it will remain newsworthy as long as two men or two women can’t walk around in public simply holding hands without worrying if someone is going to harass them.  Because you know what? That’s still happening.  As a nation, we are still kind of judgey Neanderthals.  Except Neanderthals probably didn’t give a shit if someone was gay.  They probably saw two gay cavemen and were like, huh, that’s a different way of going about things, shrugged their shoulders and resumed punching a bison in the face.

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Boob Tube

College? I was so kicking ass.  3.8 my first semester and I procured a good-looking boyfriend – not bad for someone who didn’t have a date to Senior prom, eh?  I killed it in my non-performance music classes.  I was solid in my Gen Ed. Classes.  Yeah, I was a rock star.  When I was in junior high school, one of my family members made a crack that the only “A” I’d ever see was the one in my name, and the rest of my family chuckled knowingly.  Now? 6 As and one B on my first report card from college.  Hell yeah! I thought I had the college thing figured out.

Of course, figuring out college wasn’t just about getting good grades and attractive boyfriend procurement; like other freshman, I had to figure out how to live on my own.  I had to figure out how to do my laundry without getting clumps of detergent stuck on my clothes, or how to eat when all sorts of fried and Alfredo-dipped options lay out in front of me.  I had to figure out how to live in a 10X10 cell with another human being without shanking them or being shanked.  Finally, I had to figure out what was essential, and what was non-essential.

There was one thing I deemed essential that was sorely lacking from our dorm room fall semester: a television.  For four months, I lived without my beloved soap opera – the soap opera everyone’s grandma watched since 1937: “Guiding Light.”  The summer prior to college was one of the finest in GL’s history, and damn it, I was missing out on all the plot resolution.  What happened with Bridget and Hart? Did he learn about her having his baby in secret?  Did he return her affections? I needed to know these things.  I missed out on a variety of plot points, and in soap opera years, a few months meant you missed out on someone’s entire childhood.  Jesus, Bridget’s little baby was probably running Spaulding Enterprises now, and I was missing it!

Following winter break, I flew back to Arizona and walked back into my little cell in the Manzi-Mo dorm.  Emily and her boyfriend Tony were in the process of setting up a small television on her desk.  My eyes widened with glee.  I felt like I was transported back to the 50s, when a television was the centerpiece of one’s living room and social life.  Emily and I could finally reconnect with the world outside of campus!  We excitedly discussed what we’d watch – Fresh Prince, Animaniacs, Guiding Light!  Well, I was excited about Guiding Light.  Emily was not a fan of soap operas, but she was kind enough to give me 2-3pm to watch my show.  I had Music Literature at that time on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but that was fine – everyone knows the best soap days are Fridays and Mondays.

As soon as the antenna was adjusted, a warm, seductive glow filled the room.  Emily and I stopped our conversation mid-sentence and stared at the moving pictures in awe.  Oh, Television…where have you been?

Catching up on lost time, I started watching my soap again.  I was surprised to find out goody-two-shoes Julie turned bad after sleeping with Hart on her wedding day and was promptly dumped by then-fiancée Dylan.  She now had her sights set on Frank, who was going through a rough patch in his marriage to Eleni (played by the lovely Melina Kanekredes).  When I first watched, Emily rolled her eyes, but surely enough, she began to get engaged.  “Eleni’s pretty…” she said.  “How did she wind up with Frank?” I told her the torrid history of boring, dopey Frank, amazing Eleni, and their entire wacky family, gladly answering every question to come my way.  After coming back from Music Lit one day, Emily nearly tackled me when I walked in the room.  “Girl, you won’t believe what happened today!” She proceeded to tell me about the results of the beauty pageant that pitted sweet Lucy (Frank’s kid sister) against evil Julie, and all the chaos and underhandedness that ensued.  Yes – I had her hooked!

In reality, we both became addicted to television – before you know it, soap operas, Rikki Lake and The Price Is Right became a higher priority than class; I mean, what if they played Plinko today? You don’t want to miss that, do you?  We became fond of the NBC affiliate’s elderly weather guy.  Every Friday night, he’d celebrate the weekend by pulling five pieces of confetti out of his beige blazer pocket and let out a mild “yay” as confetti and old blazer lint unceremoniously scattered across the news desk.  Within a month, we went from a reaction of “what the hell is this?” to declaring him a national treasure.  We were Podlings and TV was our Dark Crystal – it captured our gaze, and we were unable to turn away until the last drop of essence was sucked out of us.

One afternoon, Emily and I lay on our beds and stared like zombies at the television.  A rerun of MASH came on.  To most people, that would indicate there was nothing left on television.  The natural response to this predicament would be to go to class and get the education we were paying so dearly for.  But that would involve getting up and leaving the Boob Tube for a couple of hours.

As the theme for MASH played in the background, Emily and I looked at each other somewhat desperately.  “Doot do-do doot do doot do…” No.  No.  Can. Not. Watch.  Where’s the remote?  “Doot do-do doot do doot do…” Damn, it’s on top of the television – who put it there?? Hurry!  Emily weakly lifted her arm up and attempted to retrieve the remote via Jedi Mind powers.  She released a meek “ehhh,” expending all of her energy to will the remote into her hands.  It was not working.  The force was weak within us.  “Doot do-do-doot-doo, doot do-doot doot! Doot!”  Shit, I don’t want to watch Alan Alda! DO SOMETHING, DAMN IT.

Emily was still frozen, fully focusing on her Jedi powers, letting out a more desperate “ehhh!!!” with her fingers outstretched.  In a jolt of energy, I burst out of bed and ran to the television, simultaneously grabbing the remote and hitting the “down channel” button on the television.  I tossed the remote to Emily and collapsed back on my bed, exhausted from my effort.  Emily’s arm relaxed and fell over the remote.  She sighed in relief, as if her Jedi powers worked after all.  Our panic over the prospect of watching MASH put us in a semi-catatonic state, so we settled on the channel I had switched it to.  Tucson PBS.  Sigh.

We stared quietly as a forgettable, non-offensive melody on the acoustic guitar played and cheap font lettering appeared on the screen: “Sewing with Nancy.”  A blonde woman in an 80s-era blouse came on to tell us in a soft, monotonous voice that today we would be making a children’s quilt with little wagons on it.  She pronounced “wagons” as “waygins,” which immediately qualified her for mocking by Emily and I.  Way better than MASH.  Nancy was gifted with the whole sewing thing – she was most certainly a Publicly-Funded Martha Stewart, except she seemed terrified of the camera.  We watched and giggled at the cheap production and “waygin”-making.  At one point, Emily lifted the remote to switch the channel and I protested.  “Wait! I want to see how this ends.”  Ultimately, Emily won, and she found an infomercial for us.  We regained our strength, reassured that we now had an alternative to MASH.

We continued in our Podling state well into the night, watching Conan O’Brien and whatever extra late night show they had beyond him.  A few infomercials and Bewitched episodes later and we were stunned.  A US Flag came on the screen and the national anthem began to play.  It shook us out of our state.  I turned to Emily, confused.  “What?

She calmly watched the screen, deeply analyzing what was happening.  I was in denial.  What’s going on? What’s happening?  Something seems wrong here.

Then? Bars of color.  Is this a new show? What is this?  Nothing else happened.  No sound, no moving pictures.  My jaw dropped.  We came to the end of television!  What the hell is this, 1977 Romania?  This is America – television doesn’t just end!  I turned to Emily, baffled.  “I…I didn’t know this could happen in this day and age.”

Emily shook her head.  “Tucson.”

Tucson?  Tucson?!? That’s it?  “But…where did the television go?”

“There’s no more programming!”

My mouth remained agape.  “They can’t put an infomercial on? There isn’t a rerun they can show?  The Honeymooners?  The Odd Couple? Something?” …Just not MASH.

“All the old people in this town are in bed by now, so they turn the station off.”  Her lack of concern was upsetting.

“Who does that??”

“Tucson.”

Arghhh! What are we going to do?”

Emily turned off the television and hopped into her bed.  “We sleep.”

I crawled into bed and we turned out the lights.  The room was quiet and dark for about five minutes.  “Anne-Ma-RIE?” Emily would often say my name with an amusing rhythmic cadence when she wanted something or was about to tease me.

“Yes?”

“Do your Sewing with Nancy Voice!”

“I have to turn the light back on, because you have to see my face.”

“Okay!”

I turned on the light on my side of the room.  I touched my comforter like it was going under a machine.  “…and then you put the little way-gins on the quilt…”

We laughed and mocked our TV shows for a good hour until we finally fell asleep.  In our slumber, the stations magically turned back on, resumed programming, and the universe seemingly returned to its proper order.

Every so often, I’ll come across something that reminds me of one of the classes I didn’t attend; I’ll hear a musical piece that I crammed in my brain before a test in Music Lit, yet I can’t quite place it and can’t tell you anything interesting about it.  A news item will cover something in the world of anthropology – the topic will seem vague to me, yet I have no real knowledge to provide background or insight on the news item.  In those moments, I sit and wonder about that semester; I wonder if all those hours watching “The Price is Right” was worth it.  I mean, if someone actually won the 25 grand in Plinko, it totally would have been for sure… but obviously that didn’t happen. [Total side note here:  a Virgin to Life Mini-Event is when Plinko goes from being the best game on The Price is Right to the worst game on The Price is Right.  I think that moment is the first indicator you’re becoming a grown-up.]

I then think about my friendship with Emily.  In some odd way, as we were delighting in Julie’s conniving ways on Guiding Light or mocking an inarticulate self-righteous audience member on Rikki Lake, we formed a family-like bond.  Because of that television, we actually chose to hang out together in that 10 x 10 cell.  In our mocking and joking, we’d start to talk about life – where we came from, where we wanted to go, and where we didn’t want to end up.  Emily became that rare kind of friend you can lose contact with for long periods of time, but pick up right where you left off at any time.  Just like a re-run of The Fresh Prince.

So, yeah, the TV was worth it.

The 10 Best Guitar Riffs OF ALL TIME

Every so often, a song will come up on my iPod, and I’ll think, “that’s got to be one of the top 3 best guitar riffs ever!”  After doing this 20 different times, I decided it would be fun to finally sit down, get all Kanye on you and list the best guitar riffs OF ALL TIME.  I took to Facebook to get some suggestions, and sure enough my friends came through with some really great ones! Thank you to Jacob, Matt, Jenique, Chrissy, Shemeka and Celeste for your input and suggestions – you opened my mind!

10. Crazy Train – Ozzy Osborne

I can’t decide if it’s the opening notes of the song, or the galloping rhythm in the verses that put this at number 10, edging out Pearl Jam’s “Alive.”  All I know is I crank up my stereo when I hear “ALL ABOOOARRRDDD HAHAHAHAHAHA,” ready for Randy Rhodes to do his thing.   And by “his thing,” I mean shredding the hell out of this song and making you forget about the legendary front man for a few minutes.

9. Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love – Van Halen

Really, almost all of the songs off of Van Halen’s first album could go into a “best riffs” list; I chose this one because the riff is one of the most distinctive for their openings.   Their first album kicks off with a mad fury, and allows only a few moments to breathe.  “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” is one of those moments – compared to “Atomic Punk,” “On Fire,” and “You Really Got Me,” it seems almost understated.  After all these years, I still love the song and Eddie’s legendary “brown sound.”

8. Pinball Wizard – The Who

Every time I hear the opening to Pinball Wizard, it makes me want to play guitar.  Now sure, I own a guitar and noodle on it often, but when I hear this song, I become fully aware that I don’t “play” the guitar.  This is one of the best rhythms ever, and it makes you totally okay that the song is about a deaf, dumb, blind kid who plays pinball by sense of smell.

7. Sweet Child O Mine – Guns N’ Roses

In the late 80s, so many guitarists were trying to emulate Eddie Van Halen.  The videos would show some frizzy-haired pretty guitarist finger-tapping, tremolo picking and whammy barring the hell out of their custom-painted BC Rich Warlock while looking amazed at their own virtuosity.   Enter Slash.  Faceless – a sea of unkempt black hair under a big hat; barely coherent, most certainly drunk and/or high, casually plugging in his Les Paul and ignoring all the rules of late 80s hard rock guitarists.  He didn’t play to show off his licks – he played the music he carefully crafted, giving every riff and every solo it’s own story with its own beginning, middle and end.  His riffs and solos sing rather than wail, and I can’t think of a better example of his style than “Sweet Child O Mine.”

6. Blister in the Sun – Violent Femmes

On some mornings, I wake up, and I can’t seem to get enough coffee in my bloodstream to make me want to go to work.  I’d rather stay at home and work on my blog, or watch YouTube videos for hours.  On those days, I get in my car, I plug in my iPod to the stereo, and I blast “Blister in the Sun.”  If you are driving past me, you will see me bang my head and thrash around happily as I’m driving on the freeway.  It looks kind of like a happy crazed Muppet dance.  The song fixes everything that is down inside of me and before you know it, I feel like I can body-slam any crap that comes my way.

Then? “Maneater” or one of the other 80s MOR songs I secretly love will come up next on my playlist, and I’ll quickly turn my stereo back down and slink deep into my car seat for the rest of the trip.  Pay no attention to that part if you see me.  No, I’m not belting out “Hard Habit to Break,” you’re imagining things.

5. Ventura Highway – America

The opening two-guitar riff in this song sets up the mood and the imagery before you even hear a lyric.  I picture an idealized, nostalgic California – a California that existed decades before I ever lived there, when there were a few less houses and a few more mom and pop shops.  I picture an ocean breeze creating waves over fields of golden-colored grass and a windy road allowing you to escape from LA to Ventura or even Santa Barbara.  As you leave LA proper, the scenery and sky open up, with those giant alligator-lizard clouds appearing as far as the eye can see.  It’s not quite what Southern California is these days, but you can listen to this song, close your eyes, and pretend for a few minutes that it still exists.

4. Layla – Darek and the Dominoes

The year is 2030.  There is an old man, sitting in a wheelchair at the old folks home, happy the grandkids decided to pay a visit.  They came by right at meal time, and he unenthusiastically pokes at his bland lunch as they fill him in on their busy lives.  The topic of nostalgia comes up, and one of the grandkids asks, “Grandpa, what was music like in the 90s?”  Grandpa sits back and smiles, recalling memories long forgotten.  “In the 90s, everyone had an unplugged album…sometimes, they would not ‘unplug’ themselves at all, and it would be kind of awesome.  Sometimes the artist would cover one of their own songs, and it would be…okay.  People would say they really liked the cover, but really, it wasn’t very good or even a likeable version of the song -  it was just different.  Radio stations would push the new version of the song on their listeners, and with each listening, you’d realize how lacking in energy the new unplugged version was.  With each play, interest turns to disinterest, disinterest turns to dislike, dislike turns to hatred, and before you know it, you’re begging your radio to STOP! STOP PLAYING THAT GODFORSAKEN SONG! But they don’t listen because someone somewhere loves the damn thing, and so the radio keeps playing it over and over AND OVER UNTIL EVERY LAST OUNCE OF LOVE YOU ONCE FELT FOR A CLASSIC IS SUCKED FROM YOUR SOUL AND YOU ARE REDUCED TO GOUGING YOUR EARS WITH A SPORK TO MAKE THE REPITITION STOP! MAKE IT STOP!” The nurses quickly pry the spork out of the old man’s cold, knotted grip, give him a blue pill, and wheel him away before he gets a chance to tell the kids that “Layla” was once an awesome song before MTV Unplugged ruined it.

3. Beat It – Michael Jackson

In the initial stages of creating this list, I wanted to create a solid list from a variety of eras.  I knew I was leaving some obvious choices off, so posted a request on Facebook.  My friend Jenique mentioned this song.  I love the choice – when you think of guitar riffs, you don’t think of Michael Jackson, yet the riff is unforgettable and catchy.  It’s exactly what you want from a great riff.  The more I thought about this inspired choice, the more I found it climbing up my list, and here it rests at number three.

2. Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones

Honestly?  I don’t really like this song.  I know, sacrilege.  I prefer the Devo version, in all of its weird, funky dissonant glory.  “Satisfaction” doesn’t even rank in my top five favorite Rolling Stones songs.  All the same, I can’t deny it is a legendary song with a guitar sound that practically defines a generation.

1. The Ocean – Led Zeppelin

What can I say about this song that isn’t completely obvious by just listening to it?  Led Zepplin were the gods of the Rock Groove.  Of course they are going to be number one on any list – they set the standard.  Earlier I said any song off of Van Halen’s first album would be worthy on a list like this; just about any Zeppelin song on any album is worthy of making the list.  I chose “The Ocean” because it has such a killer groove, made especially killer due to the alternating time (4/4 and 7/8 for you music nerds).  There’s not much else I can say – just take a listen and rock out to it!

Disagree? Want to add your own favorites? Comment below! I’d love to hear from you.

Gimme Some Lovin’!

When I first think of the British Invasion, I think of the bubblebum girly stuff that emerged in the early 60s: “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Glad All Over,” “I’m Telling You Now,” etc., etc.  It’s not to say those aren’t good songs, but at the same time, there was so much more to the British Invasion as it evolved.  Because the internet doesn’t have enough “Top 5” lists, I compiled my 5 favorite songs from the British Invasion:

5. She’s Not There (1964)
I love The Zombies.  Their music was kind of dark, sexy and smooth.  My favorite from them is “Time of the Season,” but that doesn’t technically fall in the “British Invasion” era, which ended in 1967.  “She’s Not There” is a contemporary of the bubblegum songs mentioned above, yet it sounds a few years ahead of its time.  The Beatles were dreamy in 1964; The Zombies were brooding.  What girl isn’t attracted to the brooding guy?

For other great Zombies songs, check out their album “Odyssey and Oracle”- released in 1968, I feel it is the pinnacle of their creativity and musicianship, and holds up remarkably well over the years.

4. Paint it, Black (1966)
[Note from much later: Forgive the imagery here; at the time I had just watched a horrible Brian Wilson made-for-TV movie and much of it was pretty much as described below...]

When I hear “Paint it, Black” I picture the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Brian Wilson all hanging out, getting high, dropping acid, and exchanging crazy ideas for songs.  I imagine the conversation turning to how awesome it would be to combine a Phil Spector-style percussion with a sitar.  In a moment that is both serendipitous and reminiscent of Walk Hard/Dewy Cox, Mick starts rambling about dead girls and black doors, Keith mutters a bunch of f-bombs in that drunken British way that makes it sound like “ffffahk” or “fffaahking,” and Brian Jones is off in a corner simultaneously playing with George Harrison’s sitar and impregnating a young woman.  Somewhere in that 60s drugged-haze lovefest, this song is born and the rest is history.

I’m pretty sure that’s not quite how it happened, but I have no doubt they were high – who the hell writes a song for a sitar, anyway?  Regardless, it is a great song and contains some of my favorite Stones lyrics.  I’m more of fan of the late 70s-era Stones, but as far as their 60s stuff goes, this is as good as it gets.

3. I Can See for Miles (1967)
Like the Stones, I am more of a fan of The Who’s music in the 70s, but I still love their music in the 60s.  Even from early on, in songs like “Substitute” or “My Generation,” you could tell that The Who was offering something different.  They are an introduction to Pete Townsend’s gift for crafting memorable riffs and intelligent lyrics.

As the British Invasion neared its end, “I Can See for Miles” song came out, and let the world know that The Who had only just begun.  Their music was approaching another level – not far off on the horizon, “Tommy” would be born, and further down the road, “Baba O’Reilly” and “Who Are You?”  Even though I regard The Beatles as being the best British Invasion act, The Who are my favorite.  Their music and sound doesn’t age.

2.Gimme Some Lovin’
To my generation, Steve Winwood was this older dude who had hits like “Higher Love” and “Valerie,” and was the kind of artist that you could listen to with dad.  To the current generation, if they are reading this, they are probably thinking, “who the hell is Steve Winwood?” This, is Steve Winwood, my friends.  In the video above, he has a voice that doesn’t seem like it could possibly come from a lanky teenager.  After all these years, he still blows me away.

I rated this at number two because although The Spencer Davis Group was considered a British Invasion band, they seemed to “get” American rock and roll more than their contemporaries.  This song could have easily come out of early Motown and has a perfect balance of soul, energy and a solid British Invasion-defining backbeat.  Love it.

1.Eleanor Rigby
What, you think I could do a British Invasion list and not include The Beatles?  I wanted to place only one Beatles song on this list, and it was hard.  I took to Facebook to ask for suggestions, and everyone had great selections – “Paperback Writer,” “We Can Work it Out,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Day Tripper,” “A Day in the Life”… The Beatles are to 60s music what Wilt Chamberlain was to 60s basketball – they were such a cut above everyone else; you almost can’t put them in the same category.

I settled on “Eleanor Rigby,” because I think it really marks a departure for their music – while you have the trademark McCartney lyrical melody, you have beautiful orchestration backing him, yet it doesn’t distract from the vivid imagery of the lyrics.  I picture Father Mackenzie’s calloused hands wiping away the dirt every time I hear this song.

So what are your favorite British Invasion songs? Share with me below!

Dig If U Will

Lately I’ve been thinking about that rare moment of genius and beauty in a song.  There is something either delightful or tragically unexpected in its delivery, and it evokes an intense emotional response.  I’ve decided to compile a list of a 5 songs I believe achieve that level of genius and/or beauty in their own unique way.  I’m not going to be pretentious and analyze them.  Instead, I’ll just give you the songs and my random thoughts on them:

 “Hey Jude” by The Beatles

“Hey Jude” is my earliest memory of music.  I remember being three years old and sitting on the floor in my family’s house in Bristol, CT.  My dad asked if we wanted to hear my mom’s “song,” and he pulled out a record with a big green apple on the label.  The needle was placed on the record, and I was instantly mesmerized.  When the song climaxes with the “na na nas,” I remember hoping the song wouldn’t end any time soon.  I asked my dad if we could listen to it again.  McCartney’s melody is magical.

 “When Doves Cry” by Prince
[Note: Prince hates the internet, so it's difficult to find anything on You Tube of his that isn't promptly removed]

When I think of “When Doves Cry,” my mind immediately goes to the opening – the wild guitar virtuoso accompanied by smooth drum beats; 10 seconds in and the song is already dripping in sexuality.  In my mind, I can still see the video: the double doors open, and Prince is rocking the scarf in the bathtub.  See, all due respect to JT, Prince doesn’t even need to utter a lyric to bring the sexy.  When I talk about geniuses in music, I’m talking about people whose minds are operating in a place you or I cannot comprehend.  They can see and hear things in a way that I cannot.  Not only can they envision on a grander scale, they can actually execute the vision.  Where we dream of stylized images, they dream of the veins in each leaf on a tree.  Long story short?  I would love to vacation in Prince’s brain when he created the music for “Purple Rain.”

“The Flat Earth” by Thomas Dolby

While “When Doves Cry” has surprisingly little instrumentation, “The Flat Earth” is conversely rich in texture.  It’s loaded with samples, keyboards, and backing vocals.  Most songs are portraits; “The Flat Earth” is a landscape.  It is a Miyazaki landscape, animated and fluid, where every detail is carefully drawn regardless of whether or not the audience will even notice.  I chose this particular link because I think it’s really cool watching Dolby reconstruct the song live.  You don’t get to hear the harmonies of the original recording, but I still really like this version.

“Lover, You Should Have Come Over” by Jeff Buckley

When I close my eyes and listen to this song, I think of when I was 19 and lying on the cold tiled floor of my dorm room.  It was the moment after I cried as hard as I ever cried.  The choking and sobbing stopped, and I silently stared up at the fluorescent lights above me.  Depression tore me one way, anxiety tore me the other, and I was left with nothing to tie my tiny shred of hope to.  I didn’t listen to Jeff Buckley until long after that moment, but somehow, this song places its fingers over that memory and gently tugs it out from under the rafters.  Even though the song is about his lover, the loneliness in the song feels like something no one person could possibly cure.

“A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke

It amazes me to think how many pop classics Sam Cooke wrote in such a short time – “You Send Me” was released in 1957, and he died in 1964 at the age of 33.  In only 7 years he had 29 top-40 hits.  The album “Ain’t That Good News” was the last album released in his lifetime, and contains some of my favorite songs of his – the title track (which has a great banjo part), “Meet Me at Mary’s Place,” “Good Times,” “Another Saturday Night,” and this song.

When I was in high school, my music teacher knew I was a fan of Sam Cooke, and let me borrow the CD “Sam Cooke: The Man and His Music.”  There were a number of songs I never heard before, including “A Change is Gonna Come,” which closed the album.  His first three notes gave me chills, and I immediately knew I was listening to something extraordinary.  So much of Sam Cooke’s music is pleasant and innocent.  On the “Ain’t That Good News” album, and on this song in particular, there is an incredible honesty and soulfulness in both his voice and his lyrics.

One more thing about this song – I feel it is one of those songs that 99.999% of the population should not even try to cover.  When I hear someone cover it, I typically get Bad Cover Rage.  At one point in college, I was in the middle of a pleasant make-out session with a boyfriend and the Roger Clinton version of this song came on the radio.  I tore away from my boyfriend mid-kiss, and exclaimed, “what the f— is this!?!”

“Who cares?”
“But…it’s just awful!  Who the hell does he think he is?”
“Let it go…”
“He has no right to sing this!”

Needless to say, Roger Clinton killed the mood, and to this day I have not forgiven En Vogue for their participation in that atrocity.

On Facebook, I asked people to name a few songs that blew their mind.  Here’s what they came up with:

“Linger” The Cranberries

“First of the Month” Bone Thugs N Harmony

“Wuthering Heights” Kate Bush

“Holiday in Cambodia” The Dead Kennedys

“Signs” Five Man Electrical Band

“Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” Elton John

“Eternity Road” Moody Blues

“Silence & I” Alan Parsons

“Just What I Needed” The Cars

“Forever Lost” God is An Astronaut

What about you? What songs blew your mind?