The Clash

Stop Caring About The Grammys

The Grammy Awards are a good idea in theory.  We like to recognize artistic merits in a variety of disciplines, and we feel good when we come together and come up with some sort of consensus decision as to what is “the best.”  The Academy Awards have worked pretty well for film over the years, and the Emmy Awards (despite never giving an award to the greatest television show ever) have done an adequate job as well, so why shouldn’t it be the same for music?  And yet, pretty much from the very beginning, the Grammys have always been garbage.

I remember the moment when I completely lost faith in the Grammys, and it should be noted that this happened when I was in middle school, because that is when any hopes and dreams you may have had about the music industry recognizing artistic merit should die, and you can then readjust your expectations accordingly.  It was when Radiohead’s ground-breaking, landmark album OK Computer lost out to probably Bob Dylan’s tenth-best effort (Time Out Of Mind) that I decided it was probably for the best that I stop giving a shit about this particular award.  I probably should have seen the signs from the previous year, when Beck’s Odelay and the Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness lost out to Celine Dion, but at that point I didn’t have the same investment in either of those albums that I did in OK Computer.  Even at that age, I knew that with that album I could divide my history of listening to music as pre-OK Computer and post-OK Computer, and no matter how good an album Time Out Of Mind may be, it wouldn’t be remembered in the same way.  If you want to view the award as an acknowledgment of the greatness of Highway 61 RevisitedBlonde on BlondeNashville SkylineThe Freewheelin’ Bob DylanJohn Wesley HardingThe Times They Are A-Changin’, and Blood on the Tracks, that’s fine, but that’s the only way to defend it.

It was then that my cynicism fully set in and I finally understood the rants of many alternative artists about the quality of the Grammys.  Here’s how I can best sum it up: “How many Grammy Awards did London Calling win?  That should tell you exactly how much attention you should pay to the Grammys.”  This is an album universally recognized as one of the greatest of all time, one that ends up atop best-of-the-decade lists for two different decades (because of its UK ’79/US ’80 release date), and it received exactly zero Grammys.  In fact, The Clash won precisely one Grammy in the course of their career, an award in 2002 for “Best Long Form Music Video” for the documentary The Clash: Westway to the World, long after the band had stopped making music.  And to top it off, the Grammys had the gall to put together a supergroup performance of “London Calling” to honor the life of Joe Strummer when he died, as if the Recording Academy gave a damn about the group at all when they were around.*

Consider this: Exile on Main Street… Loveless… NevermindIn the Aeroplane Over the SeaAre You Experienced?Who’s NextRemain in LightWilly and the Po’ BoysUnknown PleasuresFear of a Black PlanetThe Velvet Underground & NicoHunky DoryDoolittle…not a single one of these albums received a nomination.  And not only could I list dozens more examples, but I could point to a ridiculous number of artists who never won a Grammy of any kind.

Part of the issue may be with the nature of the Grammys themselves.  The sheer number of albums that are produced dwarf the number of films that are released or television shows that end up on the air, so the mere act of getting thousands of academy members to listen to the same records is enough of a challenge on its own.  Then consider the wide variety of musical genres that exist, and contrast that with the simple comedy/drama divide that characterizes film and TV–it’s even tougher to build any sort of consensus when you take this into account.  And then there is the simple nature of voting, which anyone with a background in political theory can point to as a potential stumbling block.  All of these issues make the Grammy Awards an exercise in futility, and yet for some reason people still get up in arms with the results every year.

Was Morning Phase the best album of the year?  According to us, probably not, though if one considers it in comparison with the other nominees, we agree with the decision.  Though it’s not Beck’s best (which is a nearly-impossible hurdle to clear, considering his incredibly consistent output and the Odelay/Mutations/Sea Change triumverate), if you judge it on its own merits, Morning Phase is a great album filled with gorgeous musical moments and poignant lyrics that will be remembered for years.  But let’s consider that if the Grammys were actually interested in honoring the best of the year in music, then they would have had to invite Death From Above 1979 and have them perform, and despite the fact that they’re only two guys they would have melted the faces off of everyone in the audience with their blistering performance, and then no one would be able to work on Monday.

So really, the fact that the Grammy Awards don’t recognize the best music of the year is more of a public service than anything.  Just don’t get up in arms when they make the “wrong” decision.  They were doomed from the start.

*This is not to disparage any of the performers that participated, all of whom I assume had a great amount of respect for Joe Strummer and The Clash.

Feats of Strength: The Good, The Bad & The Queen

The supergroup The Good, The Bad & The Queen has largely been forgotten these days, even though it has been less than a decade since their debut album; if they are remembered at all, it is solely as an odd footnote, only to be invoked when listing the wide variety of projects that frontman Damon Albarn has pursued outside of his original work with Blur.  Damon was fresh off his recent work with Gorillaz, and at the time there were plenty of people that were intrigued to hear what the unconventional combination of Albarn with The Verve’s guitarist Simon Tong, The Clash’s bassist Paul Simonon, and Feta Kuli’s drummer Tony Allen would create.  Most listeners probably did not expect the hazy and melancholic depiction of modern London that the album didn’t turn out to be, and as a result the record was left to be a curiosity to be occasionally puzzled over when stumbled upon in a record store’s bargain basement bin.

This album came out during my time working in radio, and I remember being one of those eager fans who feverishly anticipated its release.  I ended up playing the single “Herculean” on our specialty music show for a few weeks, even though I found it to be a strange choice–though it had a nice groove and some pleasant melodic ideas, there was no real hook to draw in the listener.  I borrowed a copy of the album for personal use, and eventually found it to be agreeable study music since it didn’t force me to shift away my attention from my reading.

My opinion of the album radically shifted the first time I listened to it on my iPod.  Before, I only paid attention to the finger-picked acoustic guitar arpeggios of “History Song”, but now with the benefits of headphones I was greeted with a surprise in the first thirty seconds.  Hey, I can finally hear Paul Simonon’s contributions to the album!  When I was listening to the band either through the speakers in the studio or through my laptop, the mix was improperly balanced so that Simonon’s bass was swallowed up and barely noticeable.  The speakers were usually not a problem, but there was a sweet spot where the particular tone and level of the bass didn’t come through on this album as it did on others (or I had been lazy with my listening and only could pay attention when I had speakers jammed into my ears for the first time–either explanation works).  Simonon’s bass was a revelation, because it turned what I had previously perceived to be a gentle acoustic ballad into a dank, reggae song.  Listening closely to his part, I was reminded of his classic Clash contribution “The Guns of Brixton”* and marveled at how his dub influences totally changed the feel of the song.

Now that I was fully alerted to Simonon’s presence, my opinion of the album completely shifted.  His bass provided a captivating counterpoint to the album’s more prominent textures and melodies, and now that I could identify his bass lines, each song became much more compelling.  Simonon is able to accomplish a lot even with relatively simple lines, as in the title track–the bass grounds the song even as everything is falling apart around it, making the overall effort much more effective.

The Good, The Bad & The Queen is proof then of how the bass can subtly affect the perception of an album–or that you need to make sure to listen to a record through several sets of speakers before finalizing your impression.

*Oh hey look, there’s Paul Simonon on one of the greatest album covers of all time!  Remember that for all your future trivia needs.

Over the Weekend (Dec. 15 Edition)

Some fun links as you laugh at all the Best Of lists that were ruined by a surprise album release last night…

Once again, we’ve got links to a veritable bevy of lists this week for your perusal.  Pitchfork released their 100 Best Tracks list, with several RIJR favorites well-represented throughout the countdown (including multiple slots for Spoon, The War On Drugs, and Run The Jewels).  Then there’s The FADER’s 116 Best Tracks list and CMJ’s 65 Best Songs list for your oddly-numbered reviews, as well as Drowned in Sound’s 50 Favourite Albums of 2014 to help fill out the rest of your day.

As for the surprise album mentioned in the intro, D’Angelo stunned the music world last night when the long-awaited followup to Voodoo was released last night, and the early response has been an endless series of raves for Black Messiah.  It’s available on iTunes and Spotify, and a few hours ago all the tracks were uploaded to YouTube on D’Angelo’s Vevo channel.

There will be a Mad Season reunion of sorts, as Chris Cornell and Duff McKagan fill in for the deceased members of the grunge supergroup for a special performance on January 30th in Seattle.  Mike McCready and Barrett Martin will be reprising their original roles and will have the Seattle Symphony providing support on multiple songs.

And finally, just in time for the 35th anniversary of the Greatest Album of All-Time, Joe Strummer received the rare and prestigious honor of having a new species of snail named after him.  After reading up on the snail, spend some time figuring out what the best five songs on London Calling are.  The fun part is you can make an argument for just about any five tracks on the album!

Over the Weekend (Mar. 10 Edition)

Some fun links for your Monday afternoon, as you realize that the name of this site could double for a True Detective fansite.

Let’s begin with a guitar workshop from Alan Sparhawk of Low.  The video begins with the mechanics of an electric guitar and how the sounds are created, which is pretty handy for novices.  Of greater interest to experienced players is the second half of the video, where Alan shows the different effects pedals that he uses, including one with his own added innovation.

We’ve got links to a few new tracks that are worth your time.  First, I recommend listening to this collaboration between Frank Ocean, Diplo, Mick Jones, and Paul Simonon.  The laid-back, island vibe is great for easing into the week, but don’t get too comfortable, because things get a bit more lively.  Frank Ocean will probably need all the good vibes he can get, as he deals with legal issues stemming from a dispute with Chipotle.  And continuing with the theme of seemingly bizarre collaborations, there’s Kendrick Lamar rapping over Tame Impala’s “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”.  I think it would have worked better with a smoother flow, like the style of “Money Trees” (which is proof that Kendrick can rap with great results over an indie rock track), but if you approach it as a Kendrick Lamar song instead of a remix of Tame Impala, the snarl works better.  And there’s Taylor Hawkins, drummer of the Foo Fighters, who got bit with the side-group bug like Dave Grohl, and his new outfit “Birds of Satan”.  Not only does the name recall Eagles of Death Metal, but the music does as well.  That to me is a good thing.

While we mentioned the 20th anniversary of Superunknown on Friday, it was rather fitting that we didn’t link to an appreciation of The Downward Spiral from Stereogum, which celebrated its anniversary on the same date (I say “fitting” because Soundgarden beat out Nine Inch Nails at the top of the Billboard chart (and to add to the discussion of “fitting”–there is talk of a possible joint Soundgarden/Nine Inch Nails tour)).  There’s some great insight into how important the album was at the time and its place in rock history, especially considering it was the first exposure to “dangerous music” for many kids (I still remember getting nightmares from my first viewing of “Closer”, coupled with the thrill of watching something I knew I was not allowed to see).  However, this piece gets a few demerits for not mentioning the brilliance of “A Warm Place”, especially in between “Big Man With A Gun” and “Eraser” in examining the album’s exploration of the light/dark dichotomy.

Also worth checking out is an interview from The Quietus with Mike Watt where he discusses his favorite albums.  Consider this the best homework assignment ever if you haven’t listened to these albums or are at least familiar with these artists–I can think of few better teachers than the bassist for The Minutemen.  And if you’re unfamiliar with The Minutemen (though I know you know at least one of their songs), track down a copy of Double Nickels on the Dime as quickly as you can.  I’ll expect an essay in my inbox next Monday.

In new album news, The Dandy Warhols are releasing a live album from their recent tour for the 13th anniversary of Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia.  I happened to be at one of the hometown shows, though I’m unsure if it was the one that was recorded (or whether the album will be a mix from both shows). That’s an album that should be considered a classic (perhaps the subject of a future TL;DR?), and any time you know that you are guaranteed to hear “Big Indian”, you should take that opportunity.

And while I was typing up this roundup, I saw a message from Spoon on Facebook.  This is great news indeed.

Finally, if you didn’t catch The National on SNL this week, please do so now.