10. Beck “Devils Haircut”
(Beck, The Dust Brothers)
Odelay [DGC] • 1996
I’ve noted before that I hate when a piece of music is colonized by a film or TV show in the shared pop-culture imagination, so that no one can bring up, say, “Atlantis” without having to sit through a point-counterpoint on GoodFellas. But the opposite can happen too: the pilot episode of Reaper tried to stock up on cheap, unearned cred by using “Devils Haircut” in an opening scene. The snippet of Beck was the best thing about the show, at least as far as I was concerned; I haven’t watched an episode since.
But my choosing to open with this not-even-anecdote raises the question: what’s so great about the song — or maybe about Beck — that a forumlaic supernatural comedy on the CW would find clinging to its coattails valuable?
Saying something like “Beck is the most important musical figure to emerge in the 1990s” doesn’t really help: I mean, it’s true, but why? Here’s my best shot: Beck is valuable not because he’s an an innovator in any deep sense — everything he did had been done before — but because he’s a synthesist operating at a very high level. In that way, he’s comparable to Bob Dylan, who synthesized American folk traditions with rock & roll, or to Lennon/McCartney, who synthesized rock & roll with the skilled craftsmanship of classical pre-rock pop. Beck teased out the hip-hop strain embedded deep within the DNA of blues, country, folk, and rock, and brought that strain — talking blues, patter songs, off-kilter rhythms, bone-dry repetition — into the modern world of samples, electronics, distortion, and lambent meaning.
Not that he did any of this intentionally: one of the great things about such synthesists is that frequently they don’t even perceive the boundaries they’re crossing. Beck’s Los Angeles art-hippie upbringing reads like a dream of the 70s, and anyone with a more concrete grasp on the rest of the world would, it seems, have been unable to throw themselves so wholly into making every kind of music at once, rapping as though it wasn’t different from singing, singing as though it wasn’t any different from thinking, writing lyrics that say nothing in a literal sense but create worlds of associations, patterns, and dreamtime shifts that echo the way music itself operates.
“Devils Haircut” is the opening song to Beck’s most critically-acclaimed album — and Odelay is that rare album, an instant classic which has never sustained a meaningful backlash — and it’s a sort of showcase for the album itself, throwing garage rock riffs, funk breaks, 60s soul bass lines, modernist feedback, early electronic soundmaking, post-punk solos, a black man’s voice, and warm vinyl crackle into a blender and then slacker-drawling postindustrial SoCal mythopoeia over top of it all. Sometimes nonsense may say best what’s to be said. Everyone in our shellshock-and-concrete, rootless modern world knows what the briefcase blues are, even if no one can really explain it.
9. White Town “Your Woman”
Abort, Retry, Fail? EP [Chrysalis] • 1997
Version 1: The Triumph Of Poptimist Democracy Over Indie Orthodoxy.
Jyoti Mishra began his pop career in the late 80s with a shambolic indie band called White Town, playing twee, chuggy songs in the C86 tradition, with lo-fi production and lyrics which alternated between the emotionally self-indulgent and the politically radical. Guitars and confrontational miserabilism have a long and respected tradition in British indie; but Mishra wasn’t a particularly notable practitioner of the increasingly rigid and strictly defined limits of leftwing indie, and his embrace of the electronic dance forms of his youth was the move that enabled him to make the most effective pop of his career, with a thumping beat that sounds as good in the club as in the headphones.
Version 2: The Triumph Of The Personal Over The Political.
For a while in the 1980s, Mishra was a full-fledged Marxist — more specifically, a Trotskyite — and while he later abandoned the rigors of left-wing ideology for a more idiosyncratic blend of feminist, psychoanalytic, political, aesthetic, and economic theories (White Town’s first album included a fourteen-page polemic with academic citations), he never stopped being dissatisfied with the status quo. Casting that dissatisfaction in romantic terms gave “Your Woman” the kind of subterranean shock effect that sneaks political truth onto the dancefloor. I could never be your woman, any more than I could be your colonial, your proletariat, or your patriarchal construct.
Version 3: The Triumph Of Ambiguity Over Identity.
Mishra is an Indian-born heterosexual man singing as a woman (or a gay man) in the whitest form of music there is, indie dance. The permutations of possibile interpreations are, if not quite endless, at least much larger than the average pop song permits. His own intention, he says, was to make a song that could be read in any number of ways, including as a disaffected Marxist, as a straight man singing to a gay woman, as a gay man singing to a straight man, or as a woman singing to … Jyoti Mishra. The lack of key identifiers (neither the narrative voice nor the “you” are ever fully gendered), as well as of more subtle racial signifiers lets each listener choose what it is they hear. Or, like perhaps most listeners, you can choose not to choose, and revel in pure multivalency.
Version 4: The Triumph Of History Over The Tyranny Of The Present.
Googling around, I found that more than a handful of listeners were convinced that the iconic trumpet sample which opens the song and returns as a motif in the chorus was nicked from Star Wars, either from the Mos Eisley cantina scene or as a sped-up version of Darth Vader’s theme. Some people are very, very stupid. The sample actually comes from bandleader Lew Stone’s 1932 cover of Bing Crosby’s “My Woman” (to which “Your Woman” can be heard as a theoretical answer record), with a vocal by Al Bowlly and trumpet by Nat Gonella. And it is the crackly, nagging three-note riff that gives the song its peculiarly haunting quality: without it, “Your Woman” would be just another mopey bedroom-electro song. But with it, all the stored-up energy of ancient, forgotten 78s sitting and waiting in the counting-room of history, long ignored and worse than derided, unknown, bursts through, and time itself is dislocated.
Version 5: The Triumph Of Triumph.
But nagging riffs and thumping beats are not enough. Those are the stuff of one-hit wonders: what makes a song last is the mood it creates. The greatest songs are those which evoke a frame of mind so precisely and comprehensively that nothing else will do. In this sense, “Your Woman” is an “I Will Survive” for the literate and undemonstrative, a reclaiming of the self from a grasping, devouring Other. We will not be played that way. We will never be your woman.
8. Björk “Hyperballad”
Post [Elektra] • 1995
I’m a Yoko Ono fan. Not because I’m an enormous feminist, or because I have any intense interest in banshee caterwauling, or even (all that much) because I enjoy going against the received wisdom of 98% of music nerddom; but because every now and then, in the spaces between the shrieking harpy epics and the unhelpful sloganeering about Woman, she reminds me of Björk.
It’s unfortunate that Björk is only really thought of in two ways in the popular imagination: as The Woman Who Wore A Swan To Some Awards Show Or Other That One Time, or as the one-time indie-dance pixie who’s gone increasingly off the rails into unlistenable screeching, unwatchable films, and art music tedium. Both of those images capture something of the truth (I don’t think I’ve ever really enjoyed a post-millennial Björk album), but there’s more there than the summary judgment of an inattentive populace can really hear.
Or maybe I’m just too far up the ass of the experimental-music party to understand the Man On The Street’s point of view. (Counterpoint: Fuck the man on the street. We’re talking music nerdery here.) I am, after all, someone who listens to and enjoys György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Krzysztof Penderecki, Olivier Messiaen, Terry Riley, Morton Feldman, and Rhys Chatham; I am, in other words, part of the elitist, condescending elbow-patched arugula-eating problem. Real people can see through all that bullshit, including Björk and her weird-ass art-song tendencies.
“Yes, I know Björk,” a professor of finance at the University of Iceland says in reply to my question, in a weary tone. “She can’t sing, and I know her mother from childhood, and they were both crazy. That she is so well known outside of Iceland tells me more about the world than it does about Björk.”
Conversely, that statement tells me more about a certain U of I professor of finance than it does about Björk; so let’s stop talking about what people say about her and start talking about her.
Björk’s signal contribution to global pop was to hold it down and forcibly inject it with a viral transfusion of contemporary art music, much as Laurie Anderson had done in the 80s and John Cale had done in the 60s. The strange thing is that in the mid-90s art music was only a couple of feet away from the dancefloor anyway; the most-revered art-music figure in the world at the moment was Aphex Twin, and electronic manipulation had been standard in academic circles for a generation. So you might as well say that Björk introduced pop to art music — her extravagant theatricalism, her ear for sonic pleasure (as distinct from sonic originality), and her inimitable sense of pop dynamics, of build and release, for a brief shining moment made her the most interesting and important pop star/art-music composer in the world.
“Hyperballad” is actually one of her less profoundly explosive pieces; like the title says, it’s a ballad taken to logical extremes, which means that although it does eventually erupt into percussive splendor, it’s glacially paced and requires patience on the part of the listener. For some, that required patience extends to the ornate metaphor of the lyrics, in which dreams of loss serve to reinforce present happiness (a strange topic for a ballad, which are usually concerned with heartbreak neat, no ice). There are Sibelian strings, glitchy electronic beats, and (finally, transfiguratively) pounding dancefloor ecstasy.
In some ways this is the North-Hemisphere twin to Shakira’s “Ojos Así” — both Björk and Shakira are global pop stars who incorporate a lot more thought and compositional variety into their music than they’re generally given credit for, but only one of them has honor in her own country.
7. OutKast “Rosa Parks”
(Andre 3000, Big Boi)
Aquemini [La Face] • 1998
Ah hah, hush that fuss. I know there are people who hear this song as Outkast’s sell-out moment, when they abandoned their loosely-structured P-funk alien gangster hardcore hip-hop and went for the screaming teenybopper audience that haunts the nightmares of every strict constructionist music fan, as the early tremor that presages “B. O. B.,” “Mrs. Jackson,” and (shudder) “Hey Ya.” But as you’re sick of hearing me say by now, whenever pop is defined in opposition to anything, I’m on the side of pop.
In point of fact, “Rosa Parks” is the halfway point between the overstuffed, shaggy, and fitfully intelligible material Dre and Boi made their name on, and the increasingly direct, engaging, and elegant music they’ve made since blowing up. With a killer, even prophetic hook (“We the type of people make the club get crunk”), a BPM that encourages dancing more than getting high, and a busy arrangement that finds room for a nonsense Andre vocal (“lackalackalacka lackalacka”), an all-but-inaudible Curtis Mayfield sample, and a honking harmonica breakdown, it’s the perfect marriage of pop simplicity and the idea orgy that made (and continues to make) Outkast Outkast.
A word on the title. The late Mrs. Parks sued Outkast for misuse of her name in a song which had apparently nothing to do with her; lawyers got greedy, record labels got involved, and it all came more or less to nothing. But it highlights a breach which tends to be invisible to white people (just as white class identifiers can puzzle black folk) — the first black generation gap, usually described in terms of the Civil Rights generation vs. the hip-hop generation. In a way, it’s a measure of progress that black Americans can finally afford to not maintain solidarity; the very struggle over what it means to be black means that the question is, for the first time ever, open — that is, not imposed from the outside. (Which ain’t sayin’ racism is over, kid; I ain’t that dumb.) Anyway, Dre and Boi used Rosa Parks’ name in order to symbolize a historic turning point: they will now begin leaving all their peers in the dust. Which, yes, that’s what they proceeded to do, but still, man, that’s kind of a reductive thing to do to the woman.
Because it’s not like they can boast of an ignorance of history. The fellas’ increasing obsession with black musical history, reaching past the funk breaks which basically constituted hip-hop, can be seen as starting here, too. Idlewild, the movie and the album, are heavily flawed, but there’s a peculiar energy to it that can be found nowhere else in modern hip-hop, the way country blues, second-line marches, and the holy 40s triptych of swing, boogie-woogie, and jive are overhauled and rebuilt for the twenty-first century. The harmonica solo here is only a glimmer of that time-traveling future, but it performs the same function: field-holler stomps, Little Walter in Chicago, and the spirit of Mr. DeFord Bailey (both the first harmonica-playing recording star and the first performer on the Grand Ole Opry, and he was black) shimmer into being while Organized Noize (right?) lays down the kind of juke stomp that makes you want to fuss and fight and, er, carry on. Bump and shlump, baby, bump and shlump.
6. Blur “For Tomorrow”
(Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, Dave Rowntree)
Modern Life Is Rubbish [Food] • 1993
Few impulse purchases have had such a lasting impact on me as the moment when I picked up a used copy of The Best Of Blur in the summer of 2000 on the strength of the cartoony cover art and the fact that I recognized them as the ones who did “Song 2,” which I thought of as just about the perfect hard-rock song at the time. (While reading around in preparation for writing this, I came across the following description of what appealed to me about it: “The song is practically over once it’s begun, something that just never happened with lethargic grunge.” It took the jump-up-and-down dynamics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and removed the boring old angst; it was awesome.)
Let’s set the scene. It’s 2000; I have been slowly getting into music history for about a year, thanks to Napster, end-of-millennium best-of lists, and copious free time. I have found something of a spiritual home in the 1960s British Invasion: the Beatles yes of course, but also the Stones, the Zombies, the Kinks, the Who, the Animals, the Troggs, the Moody Blues, the Creation, the Hollies, the Yardbirds, the Small Faces, etc. etc. This music, and classic rock in the Jimi-Zep-Floyd mold, and also a bit 80s synthpop, is filling a need in me that the stuff I hear on the radio increasingly isn’t. (Because I’m listening to the wrong stations; but that’s another essay.)
I don’t actually remember the experience of listening to The Best Of Blur for the first time. I know where I probably was; I know what I was probably doing; I just listened to it so often that it became part of my mental furniture, ready to pack up and move along with me to the next stage in life at a moment’s notice. Every time I listen to a Blur album, there’s (still) a twinge of “hang on now” when the goosey club track “Girls And Boys” isn’t followed by the Kinksian knees-up “Charmless Man,” or the Eurosophisticate sigh of “To The End” isn’t succeeded by the modernist electro-buzz of “On Your Own.”
But the effect was electric. There were people making music in my own time that compared with the pop rush, guitar buzz, and (let’s be honest) exotic Englishness of the Sixties music I loved! A magical few years would follow, when vista after vista would open up to me, punk and new wave and glam and soul and country-rock and post-punk and shoegaze and somehow Blur would always still be waiting for me there, waving a friendly hand and saying, “see, this is where we nicked it from.” I burned CD after CD, trying to express through the medium of compilation what I felt to be true, the truth to which Blur introduced me: that pop has no one master, that it’s really all just music, that hooks and harmonies and rhythms and wit are all one ever needs. How did Blondie and the Jam and 4 Non Blondes and Radiohead sound next to Blur? Great; how did the Clash and Wilco and Joan Jett and Madness sound? Still great. In fact, just about the only people who didn’t sound great next to Blur were Oasis.
“For Tomorrow” became my default Blur track, for reasons I can’t really remember. (Parklife, predictably, became my favorite Blur album, but Modern Life Is Rubbish was my first.) I’m pretty sure “For Tomorrow” got me into soul music, thanks to the horns. More explicitly, I understood horns as an awesome sound in themselves for the first time on “For Tomorrow,” which enabled me to hear past the lack of (what I recognized as) guitar on classic soul records. It still strikes me as unanalyzable, like the most basic element of pop. I know it isn’t; in fact, I know the record’s got flaws, because I can think of some. But I can’t hear them.
Last thing, and then I’ll shut up. This very nearly wasn’t the Blur song on the list. One of the things I did last December to prepare for compiling this thing was to sit down and listen to all of the 90s songs from The Pitchfork 500. I saw “For Tomorrow,” furrowed my brow and muttered, “which one’s that one again?” and then when I heard it almost physically recoiled. No. No. Too deeply ingrained; too personal; too too. It was like having the poetry you scribbled in the back of your notebook read aloud to the class; poetry you’d forgotten you’d written, and were now ashamed of, not because it was bad poetry (necessarily), but because you were no longer that person.
I was going to be firm. I was going to put “This Is A Low,” or maybe “To The End” on here. But then I listened again, and sigh. La la, la la la, la la la la la la lalala.