Top Ten Elvis Costello Songs

Elvis Costello isn’t just important to me because of his greatness, he is in some ways the model of who I want to be as a creative person. His example is one I take to heart, having the self-belief to take on any project that sounds like a good idea, without questioning whether its possible. I never know what the next idea I’m going to have will be, and it seems Elvis is the same way. So with the breadth of material he has been responsible for, picking just ten tracks is an enormously difficult task. What is surprising is how similar they all are.

1. “Man Out Of Time”: An unconventional pick, but this underrated gem is my favorite song Elvis has ever written. It has lush instrumentation from The Attractions, lyrics with the kind of cynical humor that typified the period for Elvis, and a restrained sense of melody that made the song stand out from so many of his others. It was possibly the most mature song he had ever written at the time, and it’s one that helped destroy the image of Elvis as one of rock and roll’s angry young men. It’s simply beautiful.

2. “Oliver’s Army”: One of the quintessential Elvis songs, and one that would not have been nearly as great without The Attractions. Elvis’ lyrics were controversial for their use of racial imagery, and they savagely attacked Margaret Thatcher’s administration, but the song had endured because of Elvis’ knack for pop melodies, and Steve Nieve’s genius piano line. That element is what turned a good song into a legendary one, and made Nieve an indispensable part of Elvis’ sound.

3. “Accidents Will Happen”: Opening “Armed Forces”, this song set the stage for Elvis’ best pure pop record. Beginning the record with the words, “I just don’t know where to begin,” was just the first of many word games Elvis would play. Few artists have been able to take bitter, angry sentiments, and wrap them up in the sheen of pop melodies the way Elvis can. This song is one of those examples of making a dark sentiment go down easily.

4. “Indoor Fireworks”: A portrait of a fractured relationship, it’s difficult to tell how autobiographical this song was. Regardless of the underlying truth, the song is an example of Elvis as a master songwriter. Without putting on the affectation of a sneered vocal, and without The Attractions to add shiny layers of sound, “Indoor Fireworks” is a representation of Elvis the artist. His voice never sounded more pure, nor the lyrics more important. It is merely a great, simple song.

5. “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”: Elvis had a knack for writing great pop melodies from the very start, though they were hindered by the band and production on “My Aim Is True”. This song is the rare exception, where the warmth of the melody was able to cut through. It was the first of many songs of his that could be enjoyed on several levels, but didn’t require a precise reading of the lyrics to appreciate. It was beautiful pop music on its own, which is why it stands out among the pack.

6. “Alison”: Elvis’ signature song, “Alison” is one that leaves itself open to interpretation. The refrain of “my aim is true” could be read as either a statement of his own fidelity, or an offer of violence to extricate the namesake from a tough situation. It’s the ability to write a song that can be such polar opposites at the same time that makes Elvis special. For some people, “Alison” is a tender love song, for others it coddles murderous thoughts. Either way, it’s a brilliant song.

7. “You’ll Never Be A Man”: Another song that is only brought to life through the force of The Attractions, this one is another stunning example of Elvis’ ability to mix bitterness and clever wordplay with sugary pop melodies. Bruce Thomas’ spastic bass line, and Steve Nieve’s piano drive the song, while Elvis ends the chorus with the pun, “I don’t want to be first, I just want to last.” This song surely has.

8. “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”: “This Year’s Model” quickly established The Attractions as a critical component to what would become Elvis’ signature sound. This song, built from the non-linear bass line, showed the power the band brought to Elvis’ songs. “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” wasn’t much of a composition, it was a rough sketch of a couple verses, but it became a wrecking ball when played by The Attractions. They give the song such power and vitality that the energy is undeniable.

9. “New Amsterdam”: As important as The Attractions were to Elvis’s records, they understood their role as servants of the songs. So when it came time to tackle “New Amsterdam”, the band understood they could not better the demo Elvis had recorded by himself. It’s a sparse story song, one that doesn’t scream with greatness. I can’t say exactly why I love it so much, but the mystery is part of the appeal.

10. “Either Side Of The Same Town”: A late career entry, this song is one that could only come with age. It’s a mournful reflection on what has come and gone, with some of the most affecting melodies Elvis has ever written. The chorus is mesmerizing, and when Elvis’ voice is on the verge of cracking as he reaches for the falsetto notes, it is as poignant as anything in his vast catalog.

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Classics: Great Or Lucky?

The most difficult part of being a music critic is knowing that no matter how great the next album you listen to is, it will never be able to crack the pantheon and become one of the all-time greats. The nature of our experiences with music tells us that nostalgia is a powerful drug, as is precedent, which makes it nearly impossible for anything new to overcome the odds stacked against it. It’s an unfair position we have put modern musicians in, but it brings to mind a bigger question than merely whether they are able to make great records. It makes us stop and ask; were the classics as great as we make them out to be?
It’s easy to answer in the affirmative without thinking much about the issue, and leave it at that. It’s easy, but it’s also lazy. To properly answer the question, we need to be honest about whether or not we’ve been led to believe something that simply isn’t true. As fans, from the first time we heard music, we’ve been told which artists and albums are the great ones, and most of us have accepted the prevailing theories without questioning how the opinion was arrived at.
One of the problems we encounter is a conflation of two principles; quality and originality. Many of the classic albums we worship are the ones that blazed new trails, that broke new ground for what music could be. Whether we’re talking about The Beatles re-writing the rules of pop music, or Metallica making metal acceptable to the mainstream, innovators are often put on a pedestal. But there is a distinction that must be made that seldom is, namely that being innovative does not by itself make music good. Plenty of albums have come down the pike over the last few decades that have tread new ground, while not setting the world on fire with their greatness.
Somewhere along the line, we became confused as to what is most important, the ability to make great music, or the ability to innovate it. Innovation is a wonderful thing, and I don’t discount the importance of the people who move music forward, but innovation alone is not enough to earn the status that the classic artists and albums are afforded. Merely being the first to play an instrument in a slightly different way doesn’t grant you a lifetime of respect. That is the kind of honor that must come from a career of producing great albums time and time again.
The first wave of bands in every sub-genre are almost universally considered to be the best. There is far too much coincidence in that statement for me to believe it’s the truth. The odds of the first bands in each new style towering over all who would come after are astronomical, and I dare say impossible. The likelihood is that as a genre develops, and as bands are able to find what works and what doesn’t, the quality of the music should improve with time, not winnow.
Instead, what we see is a constant derision from fans and critics that music isn’t what it used to be, and that the new bands are pale imitations of what used to be. The second half of that statement may in fact be true, as there is something to be said about the intentional stagnation perpetrated by many bands. There are sounds from the past they want to replicate, and they happily continue to do so throughout the careers. The days of massive innovation and whole-scale originality from a large number of bands across the spectrum are in fact over, but that is not the same thing as saying the days of good music are over.

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Looking back, as someone who was not there at the time to be impressed by the innovations as they occurred, it’s difficult for me to see how the idea that each genre has atrophied came about. Listening to the embryonic bands that gave rise to the specialized sounds, the common trait they all share is that they are a rough sketch of what would come later on down the line.
I can pick whichever genre I want, and that claim remains true. The fact of the matter is that the first-wave bands had not yet figured out exactly what their style was going to be, so many of the classic albums we hold dear are experiments that don’t resemble the finished product. For all the acclaim it receives, “Kill ‘Em All” is a record that would not be deemed ready for the light of day as we currently exist. It’s a rough, amateurish, in places sloppy record that bears little of the hallmark songwriting thrash would eventually be known for. Seeing the growth Metallica would go through by their next album is all the evidence needed to see that “Kill ‘Em All”, while important for its role in helping to define thrash, is nowhere near at the level needed to be a true classic.
I think it’s important to pause for a moment and re-emphasize that I certainly respect what the classic albums were able to do in terms of shaping how music would evolve in their wake. I would never try to deny the influence “Kill ‘Em All”, “Scream Bloody Gore”, “Awaken The Guardian”, or any other album of that ilk had. Their impact is undeniable, and if they were talked about as being the most important albums in metal history, no one would have any right to complain. But that’s not how they’re talked about, nor how they’re viewed. The perception isn’t just that they were the first, but that they were some of the best albums of their kind, a statement I don’t believe to be grounded in reality.
“Awaken The Guardian” is one of the landmark albums of progressive metal, one of the first albums that can rightfully wear the title. However, as progressive metal began to unfold, it wasn’t long until the album barely fit the description. While more progressive than anything else out at the time, “Awaken The Guardian” was more of an abstract take on Iron Maiden than a true progressive statement. The band themselves would undergo the same transformation as the genre, diversifying their sound, and delving ever deeper into the progressive waters. By the time they released their album-length concept piece “A Pleasant Shade Of Gray”5, “Awaken The Guardian” was but a fossil captured in the dust of time.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, the initial opinions of albums like “Awaken The Guardian” have changed very little. The albums that changed the rules are still looked at with reserved awe, when there have been countless others in each style that have raised the bar for what is possible. We are slow to admit this fact, because of a function of cognitive distrust. To admit that those album are not classics in the way we have always assumed is to admit that our judgment was either created by someone else, or has been entirely wrong for as long as we can remember. None of us want to admit to being so wrong about something so important, so we convince ourselves that we were right, regardless of the evidence. It’s a phenomenon we have seen countless times in art, as well as in politics. We bend the evidence to fit our beliefs, and not the other way around.
The end result of this thinking is a form of tunnel vision, where what was once true must always be true, lest the whole thing fall like a house of cards. Rather than making up our own minds as we listen and discover, we take it on faith that the previous generation has left us an accurate account of the music scene as they left it for us, despite both the fungible nature of taste, and the unreliability of witness testimony. Listening to a previous generation’s take on music, as it compares to what came after, is a useless bit of theater. Every generation, my own included, will rightfully claim that the music they grew up listening to was as good as it got, because that was the soundtrack to the ‘best years of their lives’. Asking them to embrace the inevitable change that comes with evolution, and then be a neutral arbiter of the relative quality of the following generation, is a task that can’t be rightfully expected.
I know from experience that this is true, as I have succumbed to the bitter realization that time does not allow us to grow along with the music scene. I have watched bands I once love adopt the sounds of progress, only to find that I could no longer go along with them, because they had betrayed my expectations6. Likewise, the bands that have arisen in their ashes are alien to me, as I cannot understand their appeal. We are all creatures of our time, and trying to be anything but will ultimately wind up being intellectually dishonest.

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What the classic albums have in common is that they all benefit from having impeccable timing. There’s a reason why the first wave of bands in every genre become the best known and most successful. There are a limited number of slots at the top level of acclaim, and once they are filled up, rarely does anyone fall back to a lower tier.
Bands who are lucky enough to hit at the right time never have to worry about their futures. Queensryche has spent the better part of two decades disappointing fans over and over again, releasing albums that are loathed by the majority of their fans7. Despite this, they not only managed to continue selling out concerts during that period, but were never downgraded as one of the best progressive metal bands of all time. The thoughts are incongruous, yet they exist. If a band could have half of their career ridiculed for the embarrassment it has caused, they should not be allowed to be considered a great band, let alone one of the best. I consider it an indictment of the fans that we allow bands to get away with such chasms in their careers without reassessing their overall merits.
“Operation: Mindcrime” is a landmark moment in heavy metal history, but it’s one that has puzzled me from the start. As one of the first well-known concept albums, its role cannot be denied. Every metal band that has made a concept album since owes a great deal to the success Queensryche was able to find with it. However, the album itself is a testament to how the world of music has changed, and how our opinions have not changed along with it.
Even the most self-involved of concept albums needs to have a set of songs to carry it. What “Operation: Mindcrime” does is illustrate a time when metal bands were not yet attuned to the need to write actual songs. Metal was a new enough entity at the time that it could still get away with selling the power and heaviness, while neglecting the bits that actually make music enjoyable. Listening to “Operation: Mindcrime” all these years later, it comes across as a half-baked album that is more story than music. Everything about the music exists solely to progress the story, and without knowing the plot, the album is a tuneless slog through everything wrong with metal in the 80s.
The only thing the album had going for it is timing. “Operation: Mindcrime” was the first of its kind, and because of our internal bias towards innovation, it has benefited from an unhealthy coat of white-wash. It is not alone, however, as many of the classic albums of the day can have the same thing said about them. Release “Black Metal”, or “Images & Words”, or “Sad Wings Of Destiny” today, and they would get tepid reactions, if not laughed at. The truth is that metal has become more polished, and more proficient, to the point where the songwriting ability of the average band is nearly on par with that of the best of yesteryear. Originality may be waning, but the sheer skill bands possess to make music is higher than its ever been.
We seldom want to admit this, because is calls into question the countless hours we have invested in our favorite records. I struggle with this thought myself, the idea that the music I have poured so much of myself into is no better than the next disposable album I listen to. The answer isn’t simple either. What we have to do is something I have found myself capable of, but not many others have; compartmentalization. In my mind, I can separate the ideas of great music and my favorite music8. I am able to listen to music and switch between a critical observation of it, and listening as a fan.
Music doesn’t have to be great for me to love it, although it does help. I can listen to albums that I know are fundamentally flawed, and yet love them because they stir a feeling inside me. Likewise, I can listen to albums that are expertly crafted, yet evoke nothing in me. Perhaps if we all could better differentiate between the meanings of the words ‘best’ and ‘favorite’, we would have a more accurate assessment of the musical landscape.
But first, we need to differentiate between ‘important’ and ‘great’, because our confusion has created a situation where generations are being indoctrinated with false beliefs, and bands that don’t deserve to are able to ride the wave of history. Faith can be a benefit, but only when it’s placed in an entity that deserves it. The opinions of music fans of the past are not one of those times when faith is well-served. We would be better off, as a community, if we took a step back and looked at things with open eyes. Hindsight can be a powerful cleanser, and the time has come for a structural reorganization of the pantheon of metal history.

Digital vs Analog, & Collecting

The very nature of what constitutes music has changed drastically during my lifetime, a shift so radical the business has, in a sense, come full-circle. During my earliest years listening to music, the radio was the only source of finding out about new bands, other than digging through the vapid prose of underground magazines. It was through the radio that we discovered what music could be, and we were rewarded by programmers who still felt an obligation to play music of a certain quality.
Singles existed as more than a way to generate video plays, they were a business unto themselves. My first experiences buying music were going down to the record store to buy the single I had heard and loved twice an hour, every hour, for as long as it was still popular. This was back in the days before CDs became ubiquitous. Those early purchases were on cassette tapes, an important, yet utterly horrible, medium. The rectangular boxes they came in still sit on a shelf, reminders of a simpler time.
Bands were, in essence, machines designed to sell singles at that point. The album, as a format, was the profit driver, but those sales were dependent on the lead single to hook people into buying an unknown product. We walked into every experience blind, with no way of knowing whether that shiny new record was going to be the next revelation in our lives, or another notch in the long lineup of crushing disappointments.
There is a sense of nostalgia that resonates for those days, though it seems to mainly come from artists themselves. They yearn for a day when people weren’t able to pre-judge their music, when they couldn’t dismiss a band on the basis of thirty second clips that might be missing the best parts of the songs. What they’re really doing, though, is pining for a day when they were able to sucker listeners into buying records of questionable quality through the promise of that first single.
Countless times, I remember hearing a single that amazed me, only to find out that the band was nothing at all like that teaser. The digital revolution may not have started because of people of my generation feeling betrayed by the label executives playing us for fools, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case. Nevertheless, the album was the lesser product.
It would not stay that way for long, as the democratization of music that came along with the digital revolution would change the way we, as fans, experienced our music. Being able to absorb entire albums with a few clicks of a mouse, we found ourselves inundated with more music than we could have ever dreamed of. I went from being a casual fan who thought of music as pleasant entertainment to someone who became obsessed with seeking out as much music as I possibly could, because there was an entire world now at my fingertips. When I heard about an artist, I was no longer resigned to reading descriptions of what they had done, all the while waiting for the chance to pick up one album to find out for myself. I could experience an artist’s entire discography in relatively short order, soaking up enough music to forever alter my brain chemistry.
It was by digging through the digital swamp that I became acquainted with many of my favorite bands, a phenomenon that has greatly shaped the way I think. While I can understand the reticence of artists as they watched the world around them change, it was the the greatest thing that could have ever happened for music. The business suffered greatly, of that there is no doubt, but music has never been stronger or more vibrant.
The amount of music that is released with each passing year is staggering. I listen to as much as I think I humanly can, while still saving time for my cherished favorites, and even then I am barely able to scratch the surface of the limited scope of my interest. There is an inhuman amount of music out there, constantly being thrown my way. It is impossible to catch it all, and though it saddens me to think about how many great records I must be missing out on, I resign myself to knowing I’m doing the best I can.
Through this process, where music has become decentralized, democratized, and available to anyone who wants to make or listen to it, we have in a way moved back to the beginning. If file-sharing opened the flood gates for albums to regain their prominence, it would ultimately collapse under the weight of its own hubris. Music became so easy, and so plentiful, that there is no longer the collective attention span for all but a few bands to become noticed.
In that sense, the single has regained its foothold as the driving force. Knowing there are thousands of other bands waiting in line for their chance to impress me, every band is in some respect reduced to a three minute audition; the single.
In my role as a critic, I try to spend as much of my time as possible writing about good bands and great music. Doing that means having to sort through the endless stacks of albums, paring them down without investing the time necessary to fully judge their relative quality. I have to, though I am loathe to admit it, use the chosen single as a barometer. With each new album’s release approaching, the single is inevitable, and it gives me a framework of an opinion that holds true more often than I would have believed in my younger days.
In my youth, singles were designed to sell records. They catered to the mainstream sound, doing everything in their power to hook listeners, to convince them the rest of the album would follow suit. Today, singles (especially in the metal world) are about showing the essence of who a band is, and what they’re all about. They don’t pander to trends to the same degree as in the past, which has turned them into a solid vehicle for making snap decisions as to which albums to invest time in.
In a long, roundabout way, the shift towards digital music refined the old way of doing business, leaving us with the same format, but done in a more honest and effective manner. The days of feeling ripped of because a band’s hit song on the radio was a lie are over, but the importance of making that first impression is as strong as ever.

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The digital revolution changed everything in another manner; the medium through which we listen.
I grew up at the tail end of the age of cassettes, a time when music was portable, though highly inconvenient. Cassettes were a better alternative than vinyl, at the time, although they were a rudimentary solution to a problem that deserved much better. The task of scanning through the black filament in search of the song you wanted to hear was frustrating, all the while accompanied by the drone and hiss of the tape rubbing against the heads. We lived with it, because it was all we knew.
CDs brought digital music to the world, and installed a set of problems and beliefs that have yet to be discarded, even after all these years. By all estimation, the switch to a digital format should have been the answer everyone was looking for. Such thinking is laughably naïve, which time has borne out.
The era of the CD was a boom for both the industry and the fans. We were able to get music in a convenient package, one that for the first time removed the obstacle of avoiding the songs we knew weren’t worth listening to. Getting past them took one press of a button, a task we had previously only wished for. The industry was happy as well, having an audience more than eager to snatch up as many of the wonderful plastic discs as they could make. What no one noticed was that faulty thinking was built into the equation.
That period of time didn’t just feature new albums selling by the boatload. Collectors who had amassed towering piles of vinyl and cassettes were repurchasing their favorites, artificially inflating the numbers. Later, when the music industry started to spiral down, it was those bloated statistics from which the death march was started. It was a dishonest argument that didn’t ring true for many who lived through the days when record companies could get away with anything, and as such sympathy was not free-flowing.
Along the way, the actual product, and not the business behind it, took a turn for the controversial. A legion of audiophiles popped up, all of whom swore we were being sold an inferior product. An argument for quality is one I appreciate, but this crusade was quixotic.
Fans of vinyl have always sworn analog audio is superior to digital, but they do so without a full understanding of what it is they’re hearing. The initial comparisons were indeed skewed in vinyl’s favor. The first generation of CDs were thin, brittle, and generally of less than ideal sonic quality. At the time, technology had yet to catch up to possibility, so engineers hadn’t yet figured out the optimal way of producing music for the new medium. Taking the vinyl master and throwing it onto a CD was never going to sound as rich and full as it did on vinyl, because frequencies had to be cut out to prevent the needle from skipping out of the groove. Without the inherent coloring of vinyl, the master was thin, brittle, and lacking in depth and low end. It was the nature of the medium.
Over time, producers adapted to the format, and CDs began to sound better, deeper, and richer than every before. Without the limitations of a needle and groove, CDs were able to utilize more of the original sound than ever before. Unfortunately, the seemingly limitless ability of CDs moved producers too far in the opposite direction. The envelope was pushed year after year, with bands trying to outdo one another by making the loudest record possible, thereby garnering the most attention.
What happened was that a breaking point was found, a phenomenon known as the loudness war. The loudness war is not just a battle over the fidelity of the music we listen to, it’s a fundamental shift in the balance between art and commerce. Recordings were pushed so far that the actual sound began to bend and distort, the lush sonic landscapes so carefully recorded crumbling under the weight of poor decision making.
Culminating in the most high-profile example, Metallica’s “Death Magnetic”1, the loudness war has been a blight on music as an entity. Bands and producers spent inordinate sums of money to make records that even they knew didn’t sound as good as they could. Despite a growing outcry from a small percentage of listeners, the trend could not be stopped. Year after year, more and more albums were crushed to the point of being painful to listen to, some to the point where it became torturous to endure the whole record in a single sitting.
Artistry was thrown out the door. Making an album with beautiful sounds was no longer a possibility. Even bands that took pride in their compositions as something beyond crass commercialism were victim to the shifting tide, their albums stripped of the vibrancy and dynamics that were built into the songs. Some, like Rush’s “Vapor Trails” would later be completely remixed to fix the problems that were baked into the original version. That such a drastic step needed to be taken should have sent a message, but has not. The average record today is far too loud, and less pleasing to the ear than they ever should be.
It is in this light that the resurgence of vinyl makes sense. Those who can hear the mutilation of music that is pervasive in every genre today harken back to a time when music was made to sound its best, not to compete when broken down to a waveform.
The uptick in vinyl sales is predicated on the belief that vinyl sounds inherently better than its digital cousin. The argument is flawed, because the entities being compared are not equals. Vinyl from the classic days sounded better than the first CDs, because the music was made to be pressed to vinyl. Music today sounds better on vinyl, in some cases, not because of the superiority of the format, but because separate mixes are made specifically to be pressed to acetate. In the majority of modern vinyl records, the exact same music that is on the CD version is filling the groove, and the listener’s preconceptions are what make it sound better.
Our minds are better equipped to trick ourselves than we would like to admit. Our senses are not reliable recorders of the information we take in, which leads us into wrongly formed assumptions. If we already have the idea that vinyl sound better in our heads, we will be inclined to agree with that thought, regardless of what we hear. It is a phenomenon called bias reinforcement, which occurs throughout life. Whether in a political argument, or here with music, we want our beliefs reinforced, whether they are true or not.
The truth of the situation is that CDs and digital files are capable of being superior to the old formats. They do not have built in limitations the way that vinyl did, meaning that a properly produced record can be more faithfully translated through digital channels. That they aren’t is not an indictment of the format, but a black stain on the bands and producers who have allowed their art to become subservient to the whims of the marketplace. Louder music may get attention on the radio, but it slanders music as an art form, and has the same effect as colorizing a classic black-and-white movie.
We must add to the decision the hipster fetishism of all that is inconvenient. The subset of people who drive trends are the people who are most concerned with being ahead of the curve, of being the first to arrive at the next big thing. They believe that once something becomes popular, it is their duty to shun it. There is a race to embrace the past, to romanticize the simpler time they never knew as not being as different from today as we would like to think. These are the people who most embrace vinyl, a collection of the misguided who prefer being cool to being right.
There exists an even smaller group who worship at the alter of cassettes, and even those who prefer 8-tracks, but their numbers are minute enough to be invisible. Even they realize the idea of simplicity they have in their minds is incompatible with the sub-standard quality of those formats. Vinyl, however, carries enough cache, through the misguided beliefs about fidelity that permeate, to make the needle move. No amount of technical evidence, or even blind listening tests, will ever be enough to sway them from their convictions. Vinyl, for them, is more a lifestyle than an actual musical choice.

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What digital music cannot do is recreate the fanaticism that comes with being a collector. Through several generations of media, music fans have been collectors, amassing stacks of albums that are a visible representation of who we are.
A record collection is not just a pile of vinyl and plastic, it represents a lifetime of memories captured through sound. Songs and albums trap our emotions, intertwining with the events that shape who we are. By pulling out an album and looking through the liner notes, we can transport ourselves back to an earlier time, and dive into the memories that are sometimes fuzzy. Listening to those songs again can stir up feelings that are hard to recreate any other way.
All of that is lost in the digital world. A hard drive filled with portable music may be convenient, and certainly has its place, but it divorces us from a fundamental part of loving music. The connection between artist and listener is only as strong as the handle by which we hold on, one that is non-existent in a digital file. Existing as bits of data and a list of file names is not the same thing as picking up a physical record and being able to feel it in your hands. We don’t really own the music, and everything that comes along with it, if it can disappear at any moment.
For all the benefits of digital music, the drawbacks are nearly cataclysmic. As easy as it is o find and acquire music, it’s just as easy to lose it forever. One mistimed crash, and an entire life’s worth of music has to be gathered once again from scratch. Such a loss should strike fear into the heart of a true music fan. No matter how vast the collection, the idea of being separated from my favorite records is one that I could not fathom. While it is easier than ever before to reacquire the music, it’s impossible to remember every song and every album that means something. There are too many emotions and memories tied up in music for me to have to rely on my mind to keep an accurate list. Physical records are the great reminder, an ever-present stack of catalysts ready to take me on a trip back in time.
Furthermore, digital music erases the pride of being a fan. It used to mean something to be a fan of a band, to have all their albums. It showed dedication, because keeping those albums near you is an act of intimacy. When thousands of bands can fit on a device and exist to you only as names on a digital screen, being a fan means nothing. The effort it used to take to buy a record, take it off the shelf, and play it, was a sign of dedication. Today, music is so easy we lose sight of what it used to mean. It has become a disposable part of our lives, a sad state of affairs I try my best to avoid being a part of.
Maybe it sounds old-fashioned to say, but there was an elegance to the old standard of being a fan. Times change, norms shift, and I can’t say I blame anyone for taking the easy route. What worries me is that when we, as fans, treat the music as disposable, what incentive is there for the artists to pour their hearts and souls into their music? That we could be responsible for lowering the quality of the music available to us is my greatest fear, one I can’t write off as paranoid. It is becoming more and more real with each passing year, and though I will continue to love music as I always have, I sense I am soon to be one of the few.

Classic Review: Meat Loaf – Bat Out Of Hell II

Sixteen years after the most unlikely success story in music history, and after suffering through a decade of declining sales and vocal problems, Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman got together once again to try to recreate the magic of their partnership. Steinman mined his life’s work, picking the best songs that he had written since separating from Meat Loaf, and writing a few new songs to add to the mix. Meat Loaf honed his voice, finding his best vocal form since recording the original “Bat Out Of Hell”. The result was a sequel, “Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell”.
Calling back to the sounds of the original, “Bat Out Of Hell II” opens with the metallic sound of a revving motorcycle, grinding the album out of neutral, preparing it for the musical journey. A lone piano pounds away, thumping a percussive rhythm that sounds impossible for one man to play. Guitars swirl over the top, building the intensity, until the music falls away, leaving only Meat Loaf’s plaintive vocal. “And I would do anything for love,” he sings, making you believe with the honesty in his voice. For the next ten minutes, Meat Loaf confesses to the listener the limits of his love, as the music ebbs and flows, building to dizzying heights, then stripping itself down to nothing, only to rise again. After his confessions, a female voice answers, pleading with him to give everything he has. Like the song, Meat Loaf has given everything he has to this epic piece of musical mastery. Steinman crafted a rock opera within the confines of one song, going over the top as only he can. Critics be damned, this is his vision. As he once said, “if you don’t go over the top, you can’t see what’s on the other side.”
Having run the gamut in the opening song, a lesser album would fall apart, having run out of ideas. “Bat Out Of Hell II” is only getting started. A slithery guitar riff opens “Life Is A Lemon And I Want My Money Back”, the most rock Meat Loaf and Steinman had ever gotten. Meat Loaf thunders his vocal, raging against anything and everything, fully of bitterness and cynicism. The song breaks down into a call and response where Meat Loaf curses himself, God, life, and the hope of the future. With nothing left to believe in besides the music, a guitar cuts through, playing a violent solo as the song marches to its conclusion.
“Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through”, a song originally from Steinman’s own solo album, settles the pace. Carrying on the theme of music being the only thing left to believe in, it is a cry to the musical gods, thanking them for the gifts they have been given. Meat Loaf delivers another strong vocal, culminating in a stunning shout to end his musical prayer. Steinman dips into his bag of tricks, infusing the song with everything from a sax solo to slap bass, the textures of music sounding like a note between lovers.
“It Just Won’t Quit” and “Out Of The Frying Pan (And Into The Fire)”, two more refugees from Steinman’s earlier works, are a pair of piano-dominated pieces of hyper-melody. Steinman throws everything into his songs, filling every inch of the mix with little details, tossing off classic melodies as though he’ll never run out. Both are mini-epics, filled to the brim with moments that will stick in the listener’s head. From Meat Loaf’s howling of a love “cheaper than spit”, to the tender tinkling piano figure that opens “Frying Pan”, both songs are expertly crafted pieces of progressive pop music.
“Objects In The Read View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” is the centerpiece of the album, a ten minute epic telling the story of lost life and lost love with a cinematic flair that only Steinman could conjure on record. The song, based in part of Meat Loaf’s own experiences, features the most impassioned vocal performance of his career. From plaintive sadness in the verses, to the building intensity that comes with each climax, Meat Loaf’s vocals are pitch perfect, singing the song as an actor, and not merely a singer. Few in the realm of pop music can pull off such a feat, and none with the honestly and believability of Meat Loaf. He makes you believe every word is sings, and turns ten minutes into one of the greatest listening experiences possible.
“Wasted Youth” is another throwback to the original “Bat Out Of Hell”, a spoken word piece delivered by Steinman, setting the tone for the next song. “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” is, on the surface, the most out of place song on the album. Simplistic by Steinman’s standards, and littered with juvenile lyrics, the song continues the theme at play of music being the only thing in this life we can depend on. Steinman includes enough melodic inventiveness to keep the song interesting, ultimately reprising the main melody on bagpipes as an outro.
“Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)” is another retooled song from Steinman’s past, this time peppered with a horn section that gives the song a sleazy, noir feel. Meat Loaf delivers the song with an appropriately strong vocal, clearly inspired to be singing material of this quality after years of questionable choices.
“Lost Boys And Golden Girls” closes the album, a piano ballad in the tradition of “For Crying Out Loud” from the original “Bat Out Of Hell”. Without building into a frenzy, the song glides on a simple but tender piano figure, while Meat Loaf’s restrained vocal carries the emotion of a plea to never grow old. The acknowledgment that our wishes to stay young are futile, and that our music remains one of the few connections we have to those memories, returns to the theme and is a powerful note to end the album on.
“Bat Out Of Hell” is the standard bearer by which Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman will forever be judged, but it is not their best work. Fifteen years after their introduction to the world, the two men created their masterpiece. On an album that is darker, more emotional, more melodic, and more sophisticated, the two have crafted one of the most stunning pieces of art to ever find a home on the pop charts. Millions of people bought the record, but few could ever see past the hit singles and understand the depths of the album, or what they were witness to: “Bat Out Of Hell II” is simply an album without peer.

Desert Island Discs

The classic thought experiment; trapped on an island with nothing but a box of records to keep you company, which ones would you choose?  It’s a simple question, but one that requires complex thinking.  The choice is more involved than merely picking your ten favorite albums.  You need to examine all your tastes and moods, and try to bring a package of music that can best serve all of them.  Sometimes this requires the sacrifice of a dearly loved album that is too similar to another you’ve already chosen, and sometimes it means denying yourself of an element of music you love because you can’t bear to part with any other albums to make room.

In deciding on my desert island list, I tried as best I could to make it as inclusive of all the music I love.  The goal was to give myself the widest range of sounds and emotions, while taking as many of my absolute favorite albums as was possible.  If I didn’t love everything I picked, this would have been a miserable failure.

I hope to never be stranded on a desert island, but if I am, these are the ten albums I want to have with me.

Meat Loaf – Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell

Nothing else sounds like the music of Jim Steinman.  His music is not for everyone, but if it speaks to you, there is nothing else like it.  His mix of Wagnerian drama and soaring theatrical bombast is one-of-a-kind, and something I couldn’t imagine being without.  “Bat Out Of Hell II” was the first album I ever owned, and remains a mainstay of my collection.  Every time I listen to it, I get lost in the grandeur of the music, and am transported back to my youth.  It’s one of the few albums that can move me in such a way, and aside from simply being great music, it’s a trait that would be most useful on a desert island.

Tonic – Lemon Parade

“Lemon Parade” is my favorite album of all time, and would appear to be an easy pick to include.  It wasn’t, however, as it’s follow-up “Sugar” may be the more appropriate album for this dilemma.  “Sugar” is the more balanced, diverse effort, the one that would pay dividends after long stretches of repeated listening.  Ultimately, I chose “Lemon Parade” because of what “Sugar” isn’t; gritty and real.  “Lemon Parade” isn’t a polished jewel of pop music, it’s a raw rock and roll record.  That honesty makes all the difference.

Dilana – Beautiful Monster

How could I not include an album by my favorite singer on the planet?  I couldn’t, in good conscience, and “Beautiful Monster” made any doubts I had disappear.  Dilana’s voice is a thing of wonder, and it was impossible for me to imagine never hearing it again.  While I loved “InsideOut”, that record was spotty enough to make me nervous about including it, but “Beautiful Monster” has no holes.  It is, simply put, one of the most beautiful collection of viscerally emotional songs I’ve ever heard, sung by a voice that makes me weak.

Black Sabbath – Heaven & Hell

My love of the heavier side of music must be addressed, and there is no better way to do it than with “Heaven & Hell”.  The seminal Black Sabbath album is everything a metal record should be; at times heavy, majestic, driving, soaring, and a testament to songwriting.  I commonly refer to it as the blueprint upon which metal should be drawn, which makes it a perfect choice for inclusion.  That it also happens to feature the immortal Ronnie James Dio, perhaps the greatest voice to ever grace a metal record, is icing on the cake.

Elvis Costello – King Of America

Picking an album from Elvis Costello’s vast catalog is not an easy task.  His diversity is remarkable, and his best songs run the gamut of styles.  What “King Of America” did better than any other album he has made is capture a mood.  The somber, dusty sound that comes through these songs is a special blend.  Though sparse in arrangement, there is a wealth of beauty to be found in these compositions.  I have learned so much from this album about songwriting, and it remains my favorite choice as the soundtrack to a dark mood.

Dan Swanö – Moontower

For those moments when you feel defeated, and need an outlet for your frustration, we tend to turn the dial towards the more extreme.  What that means for each of us is different, and for me it means turning to “Moontower”.  There are times when you want to be run over by music, and nothing can do that better than death metal.  But while most of that music would be unbearable after long, “Moontower” is a unique beast.  Every time I listen to it, I find something else to love about it.  It’s ugly enough for the times it’s needed, but is still beautiful enough to never been unwelcome.

Elton John – The Captain & The Kid

For the sake of diversity, I need to include something that isn’t guitar-centric.  I love the sound of a thundering piano as well, and “The Captain & The Kid” is my go-to piano album.  Elton John’s string of hits is rightly revered, but never before did he have such a sense of relaxed freedom about his music.  His writing isn’t concerned with pleasing anyone but himself, and telling the story of his career was a masterstroke of inspiration.  You can hear in every song how much they mean to him, and that makes it a joy to listen.

Wallflowers – Rebel, Sweetheart

Every time you ask me, I will tell you “(Breach)” is the Wallflowers’ greatest work.  I was floored by it the first time I heard it, and remain convinced of its genius.  But for the purposes of this exercise, it is not the right choice.  “(Breach)” is many things, but fun is never one of them.  Those brooding songs are beautiful in their own way, but would become weary if they were all you knew.  “Rebel, Sweetheart” is a close second in quality, but provides a vastly different outlook.  It is sunny where “(Breach)” is gray, wrapping the band’s best qualities in a record that is a slow sugar-fix.  Sometimes you want to sit back and smile, which “Rebel, Sweetheart” will allow you to do.

Matchbox Twenty – Mad Season

I often recount the pearl of wisdom, “there’s nothing better than a three minute pop song.”  I believe it to be true, and this album is my finest evidence.  I grew up on pop music, and maintain a soft spot in my heart for when it manages to meet my expectations.  “Mad Season” is a brilliant album that encompasses the various forms and sounds of the pop music I grew up with.  It’s a perfect distillation of all the best days of the radio had to offer a wide-eyed kid such as myself.  I couldn’t make a list that avoided pop music altogether, and “Mad Season” is the easiest gem to fit in the setting.

Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope

Progressive music seems like a natural fit for this scenario, with its layers upon layers of weaving sounds and meandering structures a perfect way of breaking up the routine of four minute musical bites.  “Kaleidoscope” is more than my favorite progressive album, it’s the natural choice for this list.  The dueling epics are filled with the requisite musicianship to amaze me for as long as I listen, but it’s the diversity that wins out.  They music is epic in every sense of the word, but throws in a touching ballad, and one of the most riotously catchy songs I’ve ever heard.  It has a little bit of just about everything imaginable.

With these ten albums, I believe I have touched upon every base I would want covered.  They could never provide me with all the music I could ever want to hear, but they do the best job any small collection could.  If they were all I could listen to for the rest of my life, I can’t say I’d be entirely disappointed.

One Song Per Track: Tonic

Talking with a friend yesterday, I was challenged to make an album consisting of my favorite song, by track number on an album, by the Beatles.  It was a fun exercise, so I decided to use it to tackle my favorite band of all time: Tonic.

Here are my picks:

1. Roses (A brutal choice. “Future Says Run” is one of my favorite Tonic songs, with those odd chord voicings.  “Roses” wins out because of how heavy it sounds when the riff kicks in, and how gorgeous the harmonies are.)

2. You Wanted More (“Take Me As I Am” is a close second, but “You Wanted More” is a perfect encapsulation of what guitar pop can be.)

3. If You Could Only See (One of my favorite songs of all time, so the obvious winner.)

4. Soldier’s Daughter (I love “Do You Know” as well, but “Soldier’s Daughter” is one of those songs where Tonic stretches themselves a bit, and the mood is so beautifully depressing.)

5. Sugar (I love “Bigger Than Both” nearly as much, but I can’t deny how great “Sugar” is. It has one of those solos that is so simple, yet so unforgettable.)

6. Mountain (Another of my favorite Tonic songs, an easy winner. The acoustic section that opens the song is great, and then the electrics are so dirty that the song has a ton of bite.)

7. Queen (One of those songs that proves Tonic can rock when they want to. It’s dark and beautiful.)

8. Wicked Soldier (One of my favorite guitar tones ever. The whole thing sounds like a massive explosion of rock and roll power.)

9. Mr. Golden Deal (A beautiful ballad.)

10. Bigot Sunshine (A quick burst of energy that is as hard-edged as Tonic can be.)

11. Torn To Pieces (Another quick rock song that has a nifty riff and a killer chorus. Perfect Tonic.)

12. Top Falls Down (Tonic at their heaviest. That riff is crushing for this kind of band.)

13. Love A Diamond (The only choice, but still a good one. A beautiful way to end an album.)

Album Review: UFO – A Conspiracy Of Stars

I spend some of my free time frequenting a few message boards dedicated to music, and one of the lines of commonly accepted fact is that veteran bands are never producing music as good as they did when they were younger. If I believe what I read, after about five albums, no band has ever made an album that wasn’t at best ‘decent’. I don’t believe this line of thinking, but it seems to perpetuate in the music scene like a virus of stupidity. I have my own theories as to why people think this way, which is the subject for another column, but suffice it to say that veteran bands rarely get much respect for their new music.

UFO, having been around for forty years at this point, is one of those veteran bands that gets more attention for still being together than for any of the music they make. This is one of those cases where I think the disregard is actually warranted. Since the last reunion with Michael Schenker, which hit its apex with the very good “Walk On Water”, UFO hasn’t done much of anything that I would consider worth seeking out. I have nothing against the current incarnation of the band, nor do I have any particular love for Schenker, but the most recent albums have been UFO by-the-numbers, without many songs that are going to endure by the time the next record comes along.

I bring all of that up, because “A Conspiracy Of Stars” is one of those albums that destroys the myth of the decline of veteran bands, and single-handedly makes the last twenty years of UFO worth the ups and downs. Yes, it is that good a record, and this will be controversial to say, but I’ll lead off my critique by saying I find this to be the best album of UFO’s career.

Kicking things off with “The Killing Kind”, we get UFO at their bare-bones best. With a simple bar band riff, Phil Mogg spins the kind of melody he’s trademarked, with vocals that have only gotten more interesting with age. His voice is just the right amount of weathered, with the limitations encouraging him to stay in his best range. He’s emotive beyond the capabilities of most rock singers, and his tone is uniquely his own. There is no one else like Mogg, and he has always been UFO’s calling card.

Moving deeper into the album, we can hear two very different strains running through it. The songs written by Rob De Luca and Paul Raymond are old-school UFO, the kind of songs that recall the three chords and a chorus days. They serve as the short, sweet bites in between the more expansive Vinnie Moore penned songs.

Vinnie Moore has never quite seemed to find his voice as a writer in UFO, but that changes here. He is responsible for seven of the album’s ten tracks, and there isn’t a single one of them that is less than killer. He moves beyond what you would expect from UFO, and plays a bluesier style of rock that fits the mature swagger men of this age should have. “Ballad Of The Left Hand Gun” rips with some stinging slide guitar, and lyrics that I interpret to be about someone now in the band’s past. It has that spaghetti-western tinge to it, and provides an ample canvas for Mogg to spin his story.

But the real meat of the album is still to come. “Sugar Cane” is as good a song as I’ve ever heard from UFO, a blues-soaked rocker that slows the tempo to Moore’s fantastic riff. Mogg is in his best form here, with the tempo being perfect for his voice, and his melody hitting hard and sticking with you. “Precious Cargo” is a similar song, perhaps a bit softer than you would expect from UFO, but hitting all the right marks. This is a band that has found what they do best at this stage of their career, and play right into it.

As if that wasn’t enough, the album closes with the one-two punch of “Messiah Of Love” and “Rollin’ Rollin'”, two of the catchiest songs of their career. There are a couple of sketchy lyrics about stripper poles and ‘galvanized porn’, but damn they are undeniably great songs. The common theme throughout this record is that Phil Mogg is on fire, writing his best melodies since the solo album he put out with the $ign Of Four. You could argue that his voice has been better, but as a writer this is his finest moment. From start to finish, every song here has a chorus that would have been the standout of the last several albums. To gather them all together for this record is amazing.

What we have here in “A Conspiracy Of Stars” is UFO digging deep and turning out a late-career gem. Bands this far into their careers aren’t supposed to make records that are this good, but UFO has done it. I think this is their best album, and while I’m sure most won’t agree with me, we should all be able to see that this is the best UFO has been in at least twenty years. “A Conspiracy Of Stars” is a remarkable record, and one of the best albums of 2015.