Music helps keep us sane. I listened to a lot more music than usual this year, between lockdowns and working from home, and a couple dozen songs saw me through some of the tumult and craziness.
I alternated between comfort songs and raging at the void screaming songs, probably swinging like most of our moods did this year. Isolation, political carnage in my home country, sickness and worry… The soundtrack of 2020 is a schizophrenic thing.
Admittedly, I skewed heavily towards older songs this year, returning to the comforts of the familiar; also, I’m an old dude. A song can reassure you, like the still-fiery Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello’s latest works, it can lift you, like the looney chaos of TheCramps or the hypnotic rhythms of Alice Coltrane, or it can fire you up, like Lou Reed’s still-incandescent rage in 1987’s “Strawman,” or Pylon’s jittery “Stop It.”
This isn’t my “best of the year” list – but here’s a playlist of the 25 songs that helped me survive 2020:
Peter Gabriel turned 70 years old earlier this year. For a little while back in the day, he was a superstar, and I was kind of addicted to him. Then he walked away from it all.
I can’t quite overstate how ridiculous my Peter Gabriel fandom was back in the early 1990s. I listened to the tracks from his hit albums So and Us so much that they still feel tattooed on the brain. Pre-internet, I scoured the shops for rare B-sides and remixes. I did that thing where you listen to a particular album so much you’ve memorised every vowel, every chord. Where the music itself transforms into something bigger than it is.
To keep in silence, I resigned / My friends would think I was a nut
I dove deep into Peter Gabriel fandom at the precise moment that I graduated high school and moved to a college clear on the other side of America, where I knew nobody. I do not know what I was looking for with my Peter Gabriel obsession, but somewhere in there, I found it.
And like anything you fall for, you think the artist is speaking directly to you. “Red Rain”? Clearly about me leaving my hometown. “In Your Eyes”? First love, of course. “Big Time”? My sky-high hopes and dreams for the future. “Secret World”? Every traumatic fumbled breakup that ever was. The entire remarkable Passion soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, a grand and sweeping instrumental meditation on what felt like life, the universe and everything, swirling around my brain.
I was feeling part of the scenery / I walked right out of the machinery
After the smash hit of 1986’s So, Gabriel’s output slowed to a trickle. In 1992 came Us, his breakup album. Then in 2002 came Up, an album about ageing, death and transition.
That was 18 years ago now. In the meantime he’s been heavily involved in human rights and his record label. He’s also put out a couple of albums of somewhat lifeless re-recordings of his own songs, an album of cover tunes, and some soundtracks and instrumental work, but he hasn’t released an album of his own songs in close to 20 years. (There’s a “planned album” calledI/O that’s literally been in works since 1995 – I’m not holding my breath.)
Gabriel’s lyrics were never as dense as a Dylan or Costello – indeed, as his career progressed, he turned away from the surrealism of his Genesis days and his words became increasingly naked, declarative and stark, even as the music became more adventurous and layered, heavily influenced by his interest in world music.
It is a shock to see Peter Gabriel now, a bald and bearded senior citizen, when in my mind he’s still that ultra-cool guy bouncing around in the “Sledgehammer” video that MTV played endlessly once upon a time. Yet I look in the mirror and see my own face and the grey hairs and the lines that weren’t there when I picked up my first Peter Gabriel albums more than 30 years ago, and I realise we’re all going through the same thing.
I will show another me /Today I don’t need a replacement / I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
I listen to Peter Gabriel a lot less these days – not that I like him any less, but due to the paucity of any new material and the fact that I listened to the old stuff so many bloody times that it’s engraved into my DNA.
A lot of artists don’t know when they’ve drained the well of inspiration, to be true. There’s a lot of great musicians who I love but consider many of their later albums utterly forgettable. Of that great run from Peter Gabriel’s 1977 solo debut to Up, every single one of them rings with meaning for me. That’s not a bad legacy to have.
My heart going boom, boom, boom / “Hey, ” I said, “You can keep my things / They’ve come to take me home”
When I was a wee sprat in the pre-internet era, I’d often record songs off the radio, those poppy synth hits of 1983/84 or so, and I’d listen to them over and over in a strange fugue state, engraving them on my frontal lobes, trying to figure out the peculiar power that Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” or Prince’s “When The Doves Cry” held on me.
Nobody records the radio on cassette tapes any more, but sometimes, I still crave the calm of noisy repetition. Sometimes you just want to fall into a kind of trance state, and listening to 13 or so takes of a single song in a row can certainly get you there.
I’m ambivalent about the phrase “only for the fans” – as if there’s something wrong with being a passionate fan of something – but “complete studio sessions” type boxes probably do fall squarely in that category, I’ll admit. I’m a big fan of the Iggy Pop-led pivotal punk band The Stooges, and the completist in me has scooped up several “complete sessions” compilations devoted to them.
The Complete Funhouse Sessions is a brick of a box set collecting six entire discs of takes on The Stooges’ fiery second album, 1970s’ Funhouse, and if you crave screaming guitars, Iggy Pop at his howling messiah peak and the clattering anarchy of garage rock melted down to its core elements, this is the place to be. Be warned, there’s 26 takes of “Loose” at one point. This is not for amateurs. Another great set, Heavy Liquid, grabs together scraps and blueprints for the album Raw Power, where you can hear The Stooges breaking down “I Got A Right” 13 times over, slower, faster, louder, softer, clattering into instrumental versions, studio chatter, a scrappy take on “Louie Louie” and more. You become sucked into the rhythm of repetition. How many ways can you play a song?
The Stooges are music at its most basic – there’s not a lot of deep eloquence in lyrics like “She got a TV eye on me” or “I feel fine to be dancin’, baby”, but there’s a churning power to it that sometimes is all you want. It’s just rock.
I wouldn’t want to listen to “complete sessions” for every band, but there’s nothing quite like it to really get into the DNA of the creative process. You can hear how the song is made. The Beatles’ sessions that have slowly been coming out in the past few years are like getting a look into the birth of mythology itself, while stuff like the wild improvisations and alchemy found in Miles Davis’ sessions make the music feel as big and wide as the sky.
And in the Stooges, you’ll hear the churning chaos of their songs stretched, bent and swollen into a wall of sound that’d make Phil Spector jealous. So I’ll listen to takes on “TV Eye” ten times over some days when I’m in the right mood for it, slight variations and all, and it works.
Sometimes you just want to get lost in the bones of the song and let the noise wash over you.
…OK, that title is a bit of a joke, I’ll admit it.
But in listening to Bob Dylan’s masterful, dense new album, Rough And Rowdy Ways, and its epic closing track, “Murder Most Foul,” I find myself spinning back to make a most peculiar connection: This feels like Dylan’s homage to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”
I was a card-carrying Billy Joel fan in 1989. Joel’s easily digested, open-hearted everyman pop songs were everywhere in the 1980s, and what turned out to be one of his last big hits, 1989’s Storm Front album, got to me. In particular, his endearingly clumsy anthem “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”
I have a soft spot for it, coming as it did in the fall of 1989, when the Soviet Union abruptly crumbled and the Cold War we’d all been conditioned since birth to be afraid of just went away almost overnight. I was just turned 18, at that peculiar junction in life, between high school and whatever lies next, at the cusp of adult cares and fears. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” seemed a totem of that urgency, of being suspended between moments in history.
“We Didn’t Start The Fire” hasn’t aged particularly well, I’ll admit. Billy Joel’s songs were best when he went for the personal. When he tried to go big and broad on social issues, he wasn’t subtle – “Allentown,” “Goodnight Saigon” – but they were powerful, angry songs still, and anchored in human experience. The problem with “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is that it’s all huff and no puff, a list without much of a message.
Joel’s song is angry. He basically recites a list of cultural touchstones from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War, catchily rapping off names from Stalin to Elvis to Bernie Goetz, interrupting the lists with his chest-thumping chorus, “We didn’t start the fire / It was always burning / Since the world’s been turning.”
Now, that rhyme makes me cringe a bit. Yet I still kinda love that song. It’s awkward and befuddled and the only real message despite its urgency seems to be, “Hey, shit happens.” In the video, Joel pumps his fists and rages as the background bursts into flames behind him. Again, it ain’t subtle.
Now, take Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” at 17 minutes the longest song the bard’s recorded in his 50-year-career. If anything, Dylan’s song is even more of a laundry list than Joel’s. He peppers in Tom Jones lyrics, Freddy Krueger, Buster Keaton, BB King.
Unlike “Fire,” it’s structured around a narrative, a hallucinatory seance of imagery revolving around the assassination of President Kennedy, fragments of Americana scattered by the death of a dream: “They killed him once and they killed him twice / Killed him like a human sacrifice.”
Joel hits on JFK too, of course, with a particularly wince-worthy rhyme again: “JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say?”
Dylan is 79 now. He doesn’t rage, he contemplates. There’s a mesmerizing power to “Murder Most Foul,” even as the tempo barely changes, as the song just kind of chugs along without any of the fire of Billy Joel. It’s got the power of a mystic chanting around a campfire, a thousand years ago.
At one point Dylan asks, “What is the truth, and where did it go?” In 2020, nobody knows.
The difference is that “Fire” is a list, a yell. “Foul” is a sermon, a prayer, and in wrapping his summoning of all America’s highs and lows around the fateful events in Dallas in 1963, Dylan conjures up something sadder, more haunting than Joel’s outraged yelp. I’ve listened to “Murder Most Foul” many times so far, and each time it unfolds new facets.
Dylan’s become more of a magpie than ever in his autumn, picking up bits and pieces of pop culture strewn throughout history and saying something new with it. Who’s to say he didn’t perhaps find a kernel of meaning to redirect in Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as he assembled what might be his magnum opus, a song that stretches wide and high to try to define the indefinable?
One song seemed perfect for the perhaps misguided optimism of 1989. One seems just right for the muddy, uncertain waters of 2020. One was the sounds of being 18, and one hits home with me as I near a half-century on this strange, perplexing world.
Both songs grapple with that old chestnut, the American dream, a hope and a mystery nobody ever really seems able to solve.
I first encountered Guided By Voices in a pile of free CDs. It was 1994, I was working as an intern at Billboard magazine in New York City, and one of the undeniable perks of the gig was the massive amount of freebies that poured into the mag in that pre-Internet era.
I discovered a lot of great new music that summer, but nothing that blew my mind quite like the work ofRobert Pollardand his band Guided By Voices. While it may sound a bit absurd, it felt like I’d discovered a secret Beatles nobody knew about but me.
GbV’s seminal disc Bee Thousandhit me like a thousand surreal butterflies singing pop tunes, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Their very best songs make me want to scream along at the top of my lungs, anthems for those who didn’t know they needed an anthem.
It’s hard to nail down Guided By Voices. They’re a rock band with a strong power-pop vibe, and an often-nonsensical stew of lyrics that make just as much sense as you want them to. At their peak, each album from GbV feels like a message from another planet made just for me – lo-fi and crackling with pretty little mistakes, a radio stuck between stations on the coolest sounds around. On stage, they were a boozing, debauched riot far different from the brittle beauty of their albums.
I like bands that feel bottomless. Acts that have deep backlists, frequent changes in style and approach, and a dogged determination to see their own vision through. The Bowies, the Zappas, the Nick Caves, the Pollards. A self-proclaimed jock from Dayton, Ohio, Robert Pollard isn’t someone you’d pick to be one of the busiest songwriters of all time.
I mean jeez, I’m a pretty big fan, I’ve got something like 60 of Pollard’s various albums GbV and otherwise, and I’m still a long way from having it all. Still, nothing for me quite tops that absolutely golden stretch from album no. 3 (Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia) to album no. 11 (Do The Collapse).
A recent biography of Pollard,Closer You Are by Matthew Cutter, does a pretty good job of attempting to nail down GbV’s niche appeal. It’s particularly strong on the band’s early years, sketching Pollard as an eager young rock fan who became a professional teacher with musician dreams. Pollard was the kind of teenager who’d literally spend hours making up dozens of pretend album covers for his imaginary bands. The after-hours musician didn’t actually “make it” until he was in his mid-30s.
That can be to GbV’s detriment for some. Of their 13 (!!!) albums since 2012’s revival, there’s always a few great songs, a lot of good ones, maybe one or two dogs. The music has lost that mysterious edge it first had in the 1990s, but still has plenty of great hooks and riffs. But the constant flow of new material makes it kind of hard to sit down and soak them in properly.
That’s just Bob’s way, like it or lump it. Yet it’s kind of fun to pick up GbV album No. 26 or Pollard side project No. 37 and find a few songs that sound like they should’ve been massive hits in some alternate universe. He won’t stop. Maybe he can’t stop.
And maybe that’s the reason we Guided By Voices fans keep coming back, album after album after album. They’re songs just for us, in the coolest club in the land, and while they’ll never be as omnipresent as a Taylor Swift hit maybe, they’re magic all the same.
Fiona Apple is like a rare orchid. She blooms only occasionally, you’re dazzled and amazed by the colours she shows you, and then she fades away for a long time. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is her first album in 8 years, and it turns out it’s the isolation soundtrack of our strange days.
It sure sounds like a record about this moment, even if it’s one that’s been in the works for years. A fascinating New Yorker profile goes into Cutters’ long genesis and Apple’s idiosyncratic path from brief MTV pop star with the hit “Criminal” in 1996 to today, in her early 40s, carefully spending years crafting music. Whenever she returns, Apple is always worth listening to.
Cutters, only Apple’s fifth album in 24 years, is not a gentle listen – her stern, anguished voice and clattering, raw percussion are placed right at the foreground, giving it an almost rap/spoken word cadence, with the elegant piano of her earlier work only coming in as occasional flourishes. Recorded at her home, you even hear her dogs barking occasionally. These are songs stripped to the bone and always on the edge of collapse.
It’s stark and sometimes abrasive, reminding me a lot of Sinead O’Connor, Lou Reed or primal scream-era John Lennon, but it’s also full of wistful beauty floating in at unexpected moments and a welcome relief from pop songs so processed you can’t find the real core. It feels real. “I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure,” she spits out in “Relay.”
Broadly, Bolt Cutters is about heartbreak and betrayal – there’s a lot of anger and cutting lines. Apple’s lyrics are just opaque enough to be grabbed and molded into your own little mantras. “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up,” she sings. It’s an album that evokes singing to yourself in an empty room, of facing off against your inner demons and past.
We’re all coping with isolation in different ways, but there’s definitely a lot of stock-taking going on. Who are we, and in this peculiar pause in day-to-day rituals, who can we be? I suspect Bring Out The Bolt Cutters is going to playing in my head for a long time as we all try to make sense of 2020.
Hi all, just a quick linkpost today – let me turn your attention to a review/essay sort of thing I wrote over at Radio New Zealand during this crazy week: Finding a community in isolation.
As I wrote last post, Amanda Palmer has been touring New Zealand, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic played havoc with the end of her tour. She wrapped it up in style, though, with a livestream “ninja concert” Monday in Wellington featuring special guest star Neil Gaiman, puppets and more. I wrote about watching it and how we can all maybe find new kinds of communities until this weirdness passes. Amanda herself had a very kind word or two to say about it on her various platforms as she and Neil prepare to bunk down in NZ for a while.
Go read it. And I’ll just note one last thing, it’s pretty darned cool to have one of my literary idols Neil Gaiman retweet a tweet from his wife praising an article that I wrote. If it’s all gonna crash down soon, it’s not a bad way to go out.
…So this week has been one hell of a year, hasn’t it? There’s a growing sense of madness and uncertainty and are-we-all-living-in-a-Mad-Max-prequel vibe. The perpetual hysteria of the internet doesn’t help, and honestly, often feels like it’s making it all worse. Who knows what’s going to happen next?
So after an endless cascade of bad news, yesterday seemed like a good night for a four-hour intensely emotional concert with hundreds of other people.
I went to the fourth-from-last show of Amanda Palmer’s epic “There Will Be No Intermission” world tour last night, despite the voices in my head saying that a sold-out show was kind of a scary place to be after a day full of headlines about mass contagion.
But in the end, I went, because over and over again in my life when things have gone to shit, art is what lifts me out of the ditch.
For “There Will Be No Intermission,” she’s crafted a hardcore show – yes, four hours! – that combines lengthy “stand-up tragedy” monologues about love, “radical compassion”, life and death with piano-pounding selections from her career. She cites the touchstones of Nick Cave, Nanette Gadsby, and others, but Palmer makes the night uniquely her own style.
It’s intense stuff – Palmer talks candidly about her sexual life and in particular her three abortions in riveting detail. It’s the kind of frankness you rarely see in a public figure and while it’s sometimes unforgettably hard to listen to, Amanda also pulls out as much black humour as she can. I mean, this is a woman who wrote a song called “A Mother’s Confession” that features a chorus of “but at least the baby didn’t die.” An expert storyteller, she knows exactly how far to take the audience before dispelling tension with a bit of wit.
An artist’s job, she said, “is to go into the dark, and make light.”
It all wrapped up in an explosively cathartic, hilarious yet heartfelt rendition of “Let It Go” from Frozen, disco ball glittering light shadows through the audience, and we finished the night wrung-out and worn out, but you know, it felt good. Palmer got two standing ovations, and while the dramas and fears of the world outside never entirely left the room, for a few hours, they receded a bit.
One of the appeals of Palmer’s music and ethos is that intense sense of community, and right now when the very idea of community is kind of freaking everybody out, it’s good to know there are other people like you out there, even if you’re just seeing them from afar in your own form of self-isolation.
I don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. But I’ll try to make light, because it beats the alternative.
And it’s just a ride / It’s just a ride
And you’ve got the choice to get off anytime that you like
It’s just a ride
It’s just a ride
The alternative’s nothingness / Might as well give it a try
Nick Lowe isn’t quite a household name, but he should be. He’s a music geek’s musician, who’s written some fantastic earworms over a 50-year career. “Cruel To Be Kind,” “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass” – all Lowe’s work. He also produced Elvis Costello’s first five albums, a streak of genius rarely matched in music history, and The Damned’s debut. He was even Johnny Cash’s son-in-law for a while.
Lowe’s songs are cutting yet warm, a gentler reflection of Elvis Costello perhaps. With Los Straitjackets (a Mexican wrestling mask-wearing surf guitar instrumental rock band, and yes, that’s as awesome as it sounds), it was one heck of a good show.
And there was that one song.
2. BAD THOUGHTS
Blue on blue / How has it come to this
It’s harder to control things lately. The 2010s sucked in a lot of ways, with death, professional turmoil, sickness and disillusionment, and the ever tick-tocking drumbeat of time passing. To cap it all off I had a life-threatening health crisis almost exactly two years ago, which left me taking pills for the rest of my life and feeling diminished.
I know by any normal metric, I’m an incredibly lucky guy. My problems are nowhere near as bad as a lot of other people. Intellectually, I know that. But the problem is that somewhere inside me it feels like a regulator broke down a while back, and it’s harder to take control of how I feel sometimes. That I’m at the mercy of chemicals or biology or some angry cloud. That’s when everything is blue. Or black.
3. POWER OF POP
I can’t sleep/ For all the promises you don’t keep/ I wanna run but I’m in too deep
Lowe’s set was terrific, engaging and fun, but there was one song that just hit me much harder than anything else. It’s a song in my head, and it keeps going around.
“Blue On Blue” is the name, from the EP Love Starvation. It’s a simple, elegant little ode to love lost, and yet for some reason, in the way a song does, it stopped time a little bit for me. Inches from the speakers, front of the club, I felt like Nick Lowe was singing it only to me. Just a guitar, a spotlight, a 70-year-old man with white hair and a song.
It’s not even a song about depression. It’s a romantic ballad, about not being able to leave her behind, and the pain that lingers. It’s a beautiful little song, and at one point as Lowe’s backing band dropped out and he sang a verse alone, the crowd silent, it felt like the power of pop sliding into my veins. Slightly sad songs have always made me feel things more than others. That’s why power pop is kind of beautiful, because the great bands like Big Star and Badfinger and Teenage Fanclub and Cheap Trick and Nick Lowe all master the art of pretty, glittering songs that are still kind of sweetly melancholy in their cores.
Everyone’s blue sometimes.
Sometimes a song doesn’t mean what it means. How a song gets to me doesn’t mean it’ll get to you.
Everyone has those tunes that stick in their mind, glued to a place, a time, a person. Peter Gabriel’s “Solisbury Hill” is about my graduating high school in California and moving to the other side of the country. Sebadoh’s “Ocean” is about the girl who got away. The Bangles’ “Different Light” will always be the soundtrack to my first kiss. Lou Reed’s “Magic And Loss” is about pushing through the darkness. Freedy Johnston’s “The Lucky One” is about taking a chance and changing your life.
And for some reason, that night at the club, Nick Lowe’s “Blue On Blue” felt like a reminder that a song can be the best medicine.
It’s the power of pop, of a song to get to you. Blue on blue is how I feel sometimes, pushing through.
It’s 2020, and I’m still getting used to that fact. While I’m recovering from three weeks in California and a return to New Zealand summer, let’s hit my 12 favourite pop-culture moments of 2019!
* It’s an obvious pick, but … Avengers: Endgame, Captain America and that hammer. Marvel fanboy bliss in a movie full of great moments and the culmination of an act of movie world-building this comic book geek couldn’t have imagined possible back in 1984.
* Exploring the bizarre world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with his novels The Scar and The Iron Council. Superb reads and a doorway to exploring the whole remarkable “new weird” genre for me (latest obsession, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Area X trilogy).
* Accepting middle-aged manhood with a newfound appreciation for jazz and sax men, mainlining Miles Davis and Coltrane riffs, and catching an awesome Auckland show by Kamasi Washington. The wails of a saxophone soothes the savage breast of a middle-aged dude.
* The Chills are some of the greatest pop musicians New Zealand has ever spawned, and a fantastic documentary on the ups and downs of their mastermind Martin Philipps is a great look at their career. Seeing it at a special showing with Philipps himself in attendance and singing a few songs was fantastic. More reading: Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills
* The Hulk can be anything, and Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk continues to be the best comic book Marvel’s done in ages, combining horror, heroics and awe as we discover there’s life galore in the gamma giant yet. This is the only entry to repeat from last year’s list, which tells you how good it is.
* Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a cinema for the first time in years on Halloween night in a benefit hosted by creator, songwriter and actor Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien. Go-go dancers, flying toilet paper and profanity, spooky, hilarious fun and sweet transvestites galore.
* Rediscovering Akira Kurosawa. Even though I love Seven Samurai, Ikuru and the Yojimbo series, my knowledge of Kurosawa’s deeper filmography has been sadly lacking, until now. High And Low, Stray Dog, Red Beard, The Bad Sleep Well and so much more are like full-course meals for the head and heart.
* Volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe for a third season this year and, particularly, seeing their fine version of Hamlet at least 8 or 9 times, each time the performances and bottomless wisdom of the play getting deeper and deeper for me. More reading: Hamlet, the play that never ends
* Superheroes are everywhere, and it’s impossible to see every movie and TV show, but a real highlight this year was DC’s quirky, foul-mouthed Doom Patrol series, which captured the surrealism and horror of Grant Morrison’s epic run nicely. More reading: It’s the end of the world and I like it
* Bong Joon-Ho’s astounding Parasite and those stairs. Best movie of the year in a year with a whole lot of great movies? I have to suspect it is.
* The opening of the heartfelt and gorgeous Tongan/New Zealand documentary For My Father’s Kingdom at the NZ International Film Festival, in a colourful gala packed with Tongan spirit, music and pride. Tongans are among my favourite of New Zealand’s rich tapestry of diversity, and in a year that also brought us the horror of the Christchurch attacks, this night at the movies was an inspiration of what this country is really all about. It was a privilege to witness this. More reading: Film festivals are the best-ivals
Next time, I’ll get negative with a look back at a few cultural lowlights of 2019!