Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Hunger Games Has Left Me Satiated

More than a year ago, a friend recommended that I check out this book called The Hunger Games. It sounded good to me, but I didn't get around to it until last week. Lucky thing, too! Completely by coincidence, I picked up the first book of the trilogy six days before the final book was published—meaning I only had a short wait for the conclusion of the series. I finished Mockingjay last night, and I can't think of any word to describe it but incredible.

A word mainly to my family, who are the main (and probably only) readers of this blog: don't read my review until you've read this series. I'm serious. Move the mouse cursor to the right hand corner of the screen, and press the red box with the "X" in it. Did you do it? If not, then I'm going to assume you've already read the series. If this isn't the case, reconsider what I have said. You don't have to do this. Don't let me spoil a great story for you! Still here? Good. I'm glad you've read the books.

First, some general observations apart from the plot.

"Young Adult" Classification: To some extent, I can understand why. The protagonist is sixteen (later seventeen) years old and, despite some necessary maturing from an early age, essentially has the mental and emotional capacities of an adolescent. I understand that kids want to read about kids, but these books are just as appropriate for adults, if not more so. Frankly, I don't think teenagers will be able to fully appreciate the profundity of the ultimate messages of the series. Sure, they'll have an emotional reaction (it's impossible not to), but I just can't imagine a fourteen-year-old taking in a greater message than that she is sad or happy for the characters. Despite the classification for a younger audience, these books are at the same reading level as any of Dan Brown's or John Grisham's books—and better written, too. I suppose it's necessary to target a demographic, but it's a shame that many parents will push these books aside because their kids are reading them.

The Writing Style: At first I found the present tense jarring, but that lasted for only a few pages. I can't even imagine this book in standard past tense. The present tense adds to the suspense, the absorption, the investment. The first-person narration is nothing new, of course, but the execution—the way Ms. Collins draws you into the world and lets you see it through this troubled girl's eyes—is fantastic. Furthermore, she finds an excellent balance between descriptive storytelling and not burdening the reader with unnecessary details. Many things are left unsaid, but this is only occasionally frustrating.

Continuity: I don't know why I appreciate this, but the fact that all three books are approximately the same length (within fifteen pages of each other) really appeals to me. It just seems like they are three parts to the same story. In a series like Harry Potter, the longest book is nearly three times as long as the shortest. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that; it just places the emphasis on certain parts of the story at the expense of others. The Hunger Games trilogy has a great story arc. Each book has its own individual climax, yes, but there is also a clear goal that transcends the individual books.

If you read to this point and still haven't read the books, I suppose that's okay. But seriously, stop now. I'm going to start talking about plot, and you don't want to ruin it for yourself. I've given you every chance to walk away and go pick up the books. I wash my hands of the responsibility.

That's not true. Reader, I love you, but I don't trust you, so for your own protection, I'm going to avoid specifics as much as possible. However, I won't sacrifice my ability to share my thoughts, so I will stress again that continuing to read, if you haven't read the books, is a very bad idea.

I mentioned earlier the profundity of the message of the books, but it is a simple message: be nice to people; wars are bad; each human life is of worth. Maybe a fourteen-year-old could understand it, but if I had read the book when I was that age, I would have been wrapped up in the characters.

And getting wrapped up in the characters is so easy to do! Katniss, the narrator and protagonist of the story, is a fantastic character. To me, her greatest strengths are her weaknesses. It's so refreshing to have a protagonist who isn't perfect, who doesn't always know the right answers, who isn't even sure what she believes! It's not adolescent fickleness, but rather a depth of conflicting emotions and a response to the complicated world in which she lives. Katniss has a conscience throughout the series, despite being turned into a killer. It's this disparity that makes her such a great character. You don't know what she'll do next because not even she knows what she'll do next. At times she can be frustrating, but it only makes her more human.

The Peeta/Gale dynamic adds a lot to the story. Both are likeable, and I was never quite sure for whom I was rooting. Then, of course, I had to remind myself that it's possible Katniss will never open herself up to romance (for the best of reasons!). Nevertheless, they are both important to her, and you expect she'll have to make a decision eventually—unless one of them dies. I would have been okay with either decision, but her reasons for choosing who she does are all the right ones. And he certainly deserves it.

The real suspense in the books is the nature of the games themselves. In both books one and two, you are led to believe that only one of the characters will walk away alive. This leaves you with a sense of dread throughout the story, both because you like the characters and want them to survive, but also because you don't want Katniss to end up in a position where she is forced to kill someone like Rue. (Can you imagine?!) It's hard to beat that suspense, but in Mockingjay, where potentially everybody can survive, the suspense is arguably greater. When you know that they don't have to die, but very likely will, it leads to an even greater sense of urgency. Who will make it out alive, and how?

Snow manipulates Katniss in the end, but I believe what he tells her is the truth. And I'm glad Katniss did what she did. The real message here is that even the "good guys" aren't always good, but that doesn't mean the "bad guys" are either. Perhaps the idea is that there is no purity in the world. I could certainly get on board with that.

Finally, I appreciate that the author doesn't spare our feelings. From the first page of the first book, she's been willing to kill any and every character, except perhaps for the main three. Real life isn't fair, so why should a story about an unfair world end happily? At best, it's a bittersweet ending and at worst, it's soul-crushing. At first, I thought it was ridiculous to have both Peeta and Gale survive, but now I think that this was yet another way that Ms. Collins didn't pull any punches. If one of them had died, it would have been sad, but also—in a twisted way—convenient for Katniss. Instead, the decision of who to choose is put into Katniss's hands, which is ultimately more painful for her.

These were the first books in a long time which I absolutely could not put down. I won't recommend reading them at this point, because if you've made it this far, you should have already read them. And if you haven't, what's the point now? I may have avoided too many specifics, but I couldn't avoid them completely and you have pretty much ruined the series for yourself. So go read something else, and don't hold a grudge against me. I tried to warn you. I tried to protect you. Maybe next time you'll listen.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a Small, Small World

Yes, today I will be discussing my recent trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Are the names of theme parks italicized? I don't know. If not, don't consider my italics an error. Consider me being so excited that I had to emphasize the name of the park. Or maybe it was sarcastic emphasis. I'm not really sure.) I'll have to split up my analysis of the park into different segments so that I can figure out for myself how I really feel.

First: the ambience. This may truly be the best part. As you approach from the distance, a perfect replica of Hogwarts sits high upon a hill. But to get there, you must first pass through or by (depending on which entrance you take) Hogsmeade. Hagrid's hut completes the triangle. It's all very cool, but the fake snow on the rooftops in Hogsmeade isn't too convincing in the smoldering summer heat of Florida. If only it was real snow, walking around might not have been as insufferable. There are many fake shops, many of which are not actually from Hogsmeade, but Diagon Alley. To me, Diagon Alley is one of the coolest parts of the Harry Potter world, so I find myself disappointed that it wasn't included properly. Then again, it adds to the illusion of being at Hogwarts that Hagrid's hut and Hogsmeade are the only things close. Also, a healthy amount of alliteration never hurt anyone.

Everyone knows that you don't go to theme parks for the atmosphere, though. You go for the rides. I am so torn about whether or not to be pleased about them. Here's the thing: there are only three rides in the park (keep in mind that it is a subset of Universal Studios, not a complete park unto itself). Universal is pushing Harry Potter Land hard as the reason to come to their park, but with only three rides, it's somewhat disappointing.

One is basically meant for children: Flight of the Hippogriff (if italicizing park names is questionable, how about ride names?) is a standard roller coaster that moves at a decent speed, but is incredibly short and features nothing more than basic turns. The line takes you past Hagrid's hut and Buckbeak, but nothing is really special about the scenery. As a completionist, there was no way I was going to ignore a ride, but I will only ever ride this again if there is literally no wait.

The first thing we did upon arriving at the park was get in line at Hogwarts, or more specifically, get in line for Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey. The sign said the wait would be 60 minutes, but it only took 45. Before you can get in line, they make you put all of your things in a locker (thankfully, it's free while you ride). The beginning of the line takes you through some lower parts of the castle, where you pass a creepy statue (possibly Salazar Slytherin?), a door labeled "Potions Classroom," and the Mirror of Erised (far too small, and so murky that nothing is reflected). Next the line goes outside, passes a drink cart where you can buy beer and lemonade, and goes through the Herbology greenhouse. This part could have been much cooler, as there were basically just plants hung in the ceiling (I was very glad that the greenhouse ceiling was opaque, because making us wait in an actual greenhouse could accurately be considered torture). This is probably the longest part of the line.

Finally, you come to the back door of the castle. (I'm going to try to put it all together from memory, so please bear with me.) Once inside, you are introduced to moving and talking paintings. They're pretty realistic looking, although, funnily enough, when you take pictures of them the contents of the paintings are not visible. The house jewels (which I don't think are shown in the movies, but are mentioned in the books) are the first thing you see in the castle. There are also many statues, but none are labeled so it's impossible to know who they are meant to depict, if anyone specific. I don't remember the order, but the queue takes you through Dumbledore's office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and the Gryffindor common room. You also walk through one room that has hundreds of floating candlesticks in the ceiling as the only decoration. Truly, this may be the most entertaining line in which I ever had to wait. Finally, just before you turn the final corner to the front of the line, the Sorting Hat wishes you luck while giving you warnings and instructions.

Just a brief aside before I get to the ride itself. Getting on the ride is much like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. There is a continuously moving conveyor belt, so the line is constantly moving. It seems a shame that the coolest environments in the entire park are placed in a line where you are constantly moving. Don't get me wrong: it's very nice not to be standing still. But there were moments when I wanted to check out some of the rooms in the castle, and in many cases take pictures, but the staff yelled at me and people behind me in line guffawed over holding it up. I'm sorry, but it's a long wait and if I'm not right behind the person in front of me in line, it's not going to increase the waiting time for anyone. It reminds me of the type of drivers that are upset if you're tailing the car in front of you at 50 feet rather than 20.

Okay, the ride. (Again, I'm going from memory. I may leave things out or take them out of order.) You and three companions are strapped into an "enchanted bench." Hermione throws some floo powder, and you're off. The ride alternates between a video screen and live action. At first, Harry and Ron lead you around the castle grounds on their brooms. Soon, Hagrid pops out with a chain and asks if you've seen his dragon. Before you know it, a dragon appears and you are flying recklessly to get away from it. Even though up to this point you've only been watching a screen, you really feel like you're moving. The benches themselves swoop around and go on their backs, but never flip over completely. You are drawn away from a screen and an animatronic dragon is right in front of you. It blows a red mist in your face, and you legitimately feel the heat. You fly around a bit more, and then you're at a quidditch match between Gryffindor and Slytherin (we're back to a video screen now). Harry leads you around, and Malfoy rams him. Suddenly, dementors attack! Taken away from the screen, animatronic dementors chase you. A very cool moment of the ride is when a dementor gets right in your face, and a light comes from its mouth that really gives the impression it's trying to suck out your soul. You avoid the dementors and fly past the Whomping Willow, which tries hard to crush you. Then you're in the Forbidden Forest, where Aragog spits (presumably poison) on you. Somehow you find yourself in the Chamber of Secrets and see the skeleton of the long-dead Basilisk (all of this is live action). Finally, video Harry finds you and leads you out of the Chamber, which is beginning to collapse. After some evasive maneuvers to avoid flying rocks, you are free. The Gryffindors commend you for your successful journey, and then you are brought to Dumbledore's office where Hermione and many other familiar faces wave and welcome you to come back at any time. With that, the ride concludes.

This is a fantastic ride. I've read that it lasts for four minutes, but it feels like twice that. You come off feeling a little dizzy from the changes in depth perceptions (it can be somewhat jarring going from a screen to live action), but it captures the awesomeness of the Harry Potter world very well. I couldn't ask for anything more out of a themed ride.

The third and final ride is the Dragon Challenge. This is a Triwizard-Tournament-themed ride, and is a legitimately awesome roller coaster. Delightfully, the wait sign indicated only 20 minutes and I don't think we had to wait that long. The outdoor section of the queue features flags supporting the four champions. When you walk inside (and it's a long walk once you get in there), you see the Triwizard Cup. A cupboard holding the golden dragon eggs (the ones that have the clue for the second task) can also be found. That's pretty much it for scenery before you get to the front of the line. Once there, you choose to go left for the Chinese Fireball or right for the Hungarian Horntail. Once in the final section, you look up and see what appears to be the top of a tent, and silhouettes of roaring dragons flying above. It creates the illusion that you are a champion awaiting your turn to battle a dragon while the other champions take their turns. Finally, you get on whichever dragon you selected.

Both "dragons" are slightly different rides, so you need to ride this one twice to get the full experience. Your feet dangle below while the roller coaster flips, twists, rolls, and bends. At least twice, you feel sure that you are going to collide with the group on the other "dragon," but you careen out of the way just in time. You definitely get off this ride feeling dizzy and a bit queasy, but it's worth it. Like I said, this is a legitimately awesome roller coaster.

So essentially, the park features a ride for adults, a ride for kids, and a ride for both (although I wouldn't take younger kids on The Forbidden Journey, as there's some scary imagery). While two of the three rides are incredible and there's nothing really wrong with the third ride, it's somewhat disappointing to complete them all in the first couple of hours at the park (even on the most crowded of days, it shouldn't take more than three hours).

That's not all there is to do, though! There are three "shows," as well. I use the scare quotes because the shows are absolutely minimal. Two take place in a tiny nook between Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, and people either must stand to watch or sit on the concrete. The first we saw was the dance from the fourth movie when the Bulgarian boys and French girls enter. We actually missed the Bulgarian portion, but I've seen the movie enough to know that they just pound their sticks into the ground in rhythm. The French girls do a little ribbon dance. The whole thing was very underwhelming, but they had a young woman as host who had a nice British accent (I couldn't tell if it was fake) and played the crowd well.

The other show in this nook was the frog choir. It's never mentioned in the books, but in the third movie there is a choir when Harry first gets to school, and half of them are holding gigantic frogs. It was a quartet (SATB), and they weren't half bad. The frogs appeared to be responsible for the accompaniment, although we were far enough away that it was hard to tell what exactly they were doing. The quartet sang four or five songs, and had pleasant voices. Their collars were four different colors, representing each of the four houses. I found myself a little jealous that I didn't have the job. They also had a fifth girl "conducting" that was clearly not really doing anything. At least she knew the conducting patterns…

The third show was the longest line of the day. Basically, you stood in line outside of Ollivander's wand shop for an hour to see him pick a kid out of the crowd and put on a little show of trying to decide what wand is right for her. It was a cute demonstration, and I have to admit that the actor who played Ollivander was very good. He was subtle, comical, and convincing. I'm glad we did it, but it certainly was not worth the wait.

Besides the small quantity of rides, the shops were the biggest disappointment. Dervish and Banges actually had a line to get into the shop. We waited for ten to fifteen minutes, and the inside was incredibly underwhelming. They had cheap plastic brooms, cheap plastic golden snitches, cheap plastic sneakoscopes, cheap plastic everything. As I made clear with my very first post on this blog, I am a true Harry Potter fan. I realize that these are toys made for kids, but if I want a true collectible, I want something made out of quality metal and glass, not gold and clear plastics in a shiny, colorful box. Generally, the only souvenirs we buy are magnets, but the only magnets in the store were ugly rubber magnets with one of the four houses on them. The Hogwarts Crest would have been fantastic, but I don't feel a particular draw to any one house. I expect if I went to Hogwarts I would be a Ravenclaw, but they make you feel like Gryffindor are the only good guys. And despite the graduate school I attended, I don't like the Gryffindor house colors! They had some cool key chains, but they were all very huge—far too huge for my pocket. I was very disappointed with the merchandise in this store, particularly because I had to wait in line for the disappointment. The exit of the Ollivander demonstration led into the other portion of this store, which was his wand shop. The wands were cool and came in nice collectible boxes, but were $30. My uncle said he would make us a pair, so there was no real temptation there.

Zonko's Joke Shop was arguably more disappointing. It was filled with generic junk: whoopee cushions, Jacob's ladders, trick hair brushes, "eyeballs" in bags, etc. Very few things were related to Harry Potter at all. It was a relatively large shop, but the same eight to ten items were just randomly placed on the shelves over and over again. I expected the shop to be cool, but it was horrendous. It sold things you can get outside the park (the same brands, even!), for a 200% markup.

Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods was the best shop, but I give that title only because the other two were so horrid. Many of the items were the same as found in Dervish and Banges, but there were some unique things. The dark arts items (Sirius Black and Voldemort-themed things) were found here, in addition to more cheap plastic junk. There were more magnet choices, but they were the unattractive rubber kind. We finally settled on one that was a replica of one of Umbridge's decrees, which said "No music is to be played during study hours." My wife and I both have music degrees, so we thought it was kind of ironic. Still: cheap rubber. Also, I expect to be overcharged for magnets in the $4-6 range, but this one cost $8. However, the most egregious crime against sane pricing was the $50 Marauder's Map. You read that correctly. Fifty. Five zero. For a piece of paper that folds in many fun ways. Oh boy. We were prepared to spend some relatively serious money on souvenirs, but only bothered with the magnet. Everything else was either stupid, made of cheap material, or so overpriced that there was no way we could justify it. The shops need some serious improvement in stock and pricing (and I'm comparing prices to other theme parks, not to Wal-Mart and the like).

On to the final item of business: food and drinks. My wife and I were most excited about the butterbeer and pumpkin juice. However, we were distressed to see that a 16 oz. bottle of pumpkin juice was $6 and a butterbeer in a small, plastic collectible mug was $11. After a few hours, we gratefully realized that one is simply paying for the bottle or cup (we had not purchased any to this point). You could get a plain plastic cup of either for $3, or a frozen butterbeer (like a slushy) for $4. Honestly, these are downright reasonable prices for a themed drink in a theme park. The butterbeer tasted like a very sweet cream soda to which they applied a buttery foam to the top (to make it more beer-like, I'm sure). It was good, but the sugar made me tired. The pumpkin juice was actually mostly apple juice with pumpkin flavoring and spices. I'm not a huge fan of pumpkin, but it was very good and 81% juice, which is not bad for something they could have just made a sugar water. The frozen butterbeer gave me the worst brain freeze I've had in years, but it was tasty all the same.

There is only one place to eat a meal in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: The Three Broomsticks. I was hoping for more Harry-themed meals—not things like "dragon legs" or "wizard potatoes," but things that Harry ate in the books. The restaurant itself seemed much bigger than described in the books, but, of course, this was out of necessity to feed the thousands of guests passing through each day. The restaurant's menu consisted of standard ribs, chicken, and salads. The British dishes were fish and chips, shepherd's pie, and Cornish pasties. The latter two were eaten in the books, and were also the cheapest things on the menu ($10 and $8 respectively) so we got those. Both came with your standard iceberg lettuce salad and packaged dressing. There were three pasties, which were very small (about as long as my thumb and twice as thick). They tasted good, but it was practically no food so we won't get those again. The shepherd's pie was fairly priced and more filling. It was layer of ground beef and veggies (they say, but you can't really see them) covered in a layer of mashed potatoes. It tasted good, but wasn't amazing. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the restaurant's prices. I would have liked more food, but I was expecting to pay a lot more at a theme park. For dessert, we had a chocolate trifle with strawberries that the man at the ticket booth recommended. It was small, but tasty. If you go in the back door of The Three Broomsticks, you will find the Hog's Head, which is a bar.

Connected to Zonko's was Honeydukes Sweetshop, which was basically satisfying, but can never live up to its description in the books. There were plenty of hard candies and chocolates (sugar quills, peppermint imps, chocolate frogs, Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, etc.), but we were much more interested in the pastries. Only a few from the books could be found. Others were themed items that were kind of lame; lightning-bolt-shaped rice crispy treats, for example. They sold all kinds of fudge and caramel apples, but those are not from Harry Potter so I tried my best to ignore their existence. The four pastries I remember being directly from the books were rock cakes (scones), treacle fudge, pumpkin tarts (which should really be called pumpkin pasties, but I let it slide), and cauldron cakes. We opted for a pumpkin tart and a cauldron cake.

We grabbed a butterbeer and pumpkin juice from The Hog's Head (the bearded bartender complimented my beard!) and went to enjoy our treats. Again, I'm not crazy about pumpkins, but the tart was okay. It was essentially a tiny pumpkin pie with whipped cream, pecans, and a chocolate wedge. The cauldron cake was awesome, though. Picture, if you will, a chocolate cupcake with the middle dug out. Chocolate whipped cream fills the cupcake, and the edges are frosted with chocolate icing. The bottom of the cupcake is covered in a hard chocolate shell, and a chocolate handle stretches from one side to the other. The chocolate goodness was almost too much to handle. I ate and drank more sugar in one day than I usually do in two weeks.

Overall, I'm glad I went to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I feel like the advertising made me think it would be much more extensive than it is, but after typing up this report, I realize that there was a lot to do. Two or three more rides and better merchandising would make it amazing, but as it is now, it is merely very good. It was a major coup for Universal Studios to get the rights to build this park, and I commend them for treating the fans with respect and not making it incredibly tacky. I would recommend a visit, preferably on a cool day when fewer people are visiting. Maybe I'll see you there!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Album Rankings: 10-1

10. Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender

A few years ago, I moved to a strange town 3,000 miles away from home for graduate school. I knew no one in town and it promised to be an interesting adventure. My first night in my new apartment, before I had even gotten a bed, I listened to this album at 3:00 AM surrounded by boxes and with only my iHome set up. That will always be the association I have with Ms. Newsom's most sparsely orchestrated work. Her vague but interesting lyrics are right up my alley—I prefer the ambiguity.

9. Joanna Newsom: Have One On Me

This is the most recent album on this list, and also my most recently acquired, so I haven't had a lot of time to spend getting to know it intimately. As a result, it could easily move up or down the list in another six months or so. That being said, from the moment I heard the opening violin, I knew it would be one of my favorites. Only one other album's release has ever excited me as much (Elliott Smith's From a Basement on the Hill). For now, my favorites are "Easy" and "Soft as Chalk," but that could easily change after I get to know it better. I am absolutely thrilled to hear so much piano on these discs. I hope she's writing and recording for at least another 30 years.

8. The Beatles: Revolver

This album would be in the top five if not for "Yellow Submarine." However, I can forgive that travesty, because everything else on this record is pure gold. I worked at McDonald's when I was seventeen and, needless to say, it was a horrible job. But after we closed and had to clean the restaurant, I was finally allowed to put on my headphones. This is what I listened to more than anything else. Therefore, I will always associate it with cleaning chemicals and greasy meat trays. Yum!

7. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Rastaman Vibration

This has been my favorite Marley album for a long time, so I am surprised to find out that most critics consider it one of his lesser albums. Clearly these critics don't understand awesome the way that I do, or, in other words, the right way. From the noggin-themed brilliance of "Crazy Baldhead" and "Who The Cap Fit" to the political and social import of the Haile Selassi I penned "War," I consider this Marley's strongest work. The title track has the uplifting message of many of the songs of Legend, but has a darker sound that makes it infinitely cooler. "Rat Race" closes out the album perfectly. I can't stress enough how underrated this album is. Why don't people understand awesome?

6. Love: Forever Changes

Remember my friend's dad who introduced me to The Velvet Underground? (See #40) This is the other album he gave me that day, and if not for him, I may have never discovered one of my favorite albums. Its only weakness (if it can be considered a weakness) is that every song is so great that nothing actually stands out. This is one of the few albums on this list from which I can't listen to only one song—if I turn this on, I'm listening until the final measures. And this is why it rests comfortably in the top ten.

5. Nick Drake: Bryter Layter

A few weeks ago, I was listening to some rock and roll. My wife requested that we listen to something a little softer, so I turned on this album. I later revealed that the joke was on her, because this is the most rocking album that Nick Drake recorded. Of course, if you're familiar with Mr. Drake's music, you are aware that that's not saying much. The lack of rocking aside, this album is incredible. When you can write, play, croon, and orchestrate the way Nick Drake does (I don't actually know if he did his own orchestration; I kind of doubt it, actually), then you don't need to rock hard. Nick Drake rocked just by being his mellow self, and it's a shame he never saw any dividends from his awesomeness. People always want to talk about the tragedies of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, but they were nothing compared to Nick Drake.

4. The Beatles: Rubber Soul

The Beatles are the most timeless, influential, and ridiculously awesome groups to ever spring into existence, and this is their finest album. I don't know how many likeminded people there are on this; I know of a few, but I think most people would disagree. But here's the thing: every Beatles album have one or two throwaway songs, but not this one. Every song is pure brilliance. Also, my favorite Paul McCartney song can be found here, "I'm Looking Through You." There's something about Paul's bitterness that is just intoxicating. After Linda came along, we never again hear anything like it. Also, I view this album as the one that bridged the gap between their Ed Sullivan days and their hippie days. Why? "Nowhere Man." Did you know this was the first original Beatles song not relating to girls or romance? Think about what a sad place the world would be without "Taxman," "I'm Only Sleeping," and "Rocky Raccoon." And it all started here.

3. Elliott Smith: XO

Elliott Smith held the hugely coveted position of my favorite musician longer than has any other band or person. He has been supplanted, but that doesn't mean I don't still love his music. XO is his very best work. Many of my favorite songs are on his other albums, but this is his most consistent and brilliantly written set of songs. "Independence Day," "Tomorrow Tomorrow," and "Sweet Adeline" are absolute masterpieces. The a capella "I Didn't Understand" is a perfect ending to an album: unique and haunting. I believe that albums with final songs that have novelties, but are not necessarily novelty songs, are superior to albums that end with more of the same. Elliott Smith pulls it off perfectly.

2. Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left

Up to this point, I have hesitated to throw around the word "perfect" in regards to albums. No more. This album is absolutely, positively perfect. It easily could have been ranked in the number one spot, but I decided to make it second. I know exactly how I discovered this record, too. Six or seven years ago, I decided that I really liked the cello, and was looking for pop songs that used it. Lo and behold, I discover "Cello Song." Thank heaven for that title. It helped me find the perfect album.

1. Joanna Newsom: Ys

This is the other perfect album on this list. I first heard it coming from my old roommate's bedroom. I don't know why—it's not really his type of music. At first I thought it was musical theater, which is even less his type of music, and I was intrigued. I don't think he listened to it again, but I got a copy from him and put it aside for a couple of months. Then I noticed that a good friend of mine had a copy of the record sleeve framed in his house. He told me it was one of his favorite albums. Finally, after a couple more weeks, I plugged in my headphones and listened to it. It blew my freaking mind. I listened to it repeatedly for the next several months.

In general, I dislike the harp. Why then, you may wonder, is my favorite musician a harp player? It's the way she plays! First of all, and really most importantly, she completely avoids glissandos. The glissando is the worst thing that ever happened to harp music, and makes me want to break down in tears whenever I hear it in an otherwise brilliant piece. Second, she plays incredible contrapuntal accompaniment patterns and picks out melodies that most classical harpists fail to accentuate every time. She's an absolute virtuoso. (On the other hand, I don't really know anything about the harp. It's possible that everything I just said is nonsense. But the fact remains: I generally find harp to be an unpleasant instrument, but in Ms. Newsom's hands, it is angelic.)

The subtleties of the orchestration are incredible. Van Dyke Parks should earn just as much praise as Ms. Newsom for the brilliance of this album. I've never heard anything like it. My one minor, minor complaint is the lack of orchestration in "Sawdust and Diamonds." Sure, it's a brilliant song, and I certainly have no problem with the solo harp on her other records, but what truly makes this my favorite album is the orchestration. It's a fine song without, but with some added instruments it would have been absolutely celestial. As it stands now, this album must settle for merely perfect. Such trials I must endure! Oh, well. It stands proudly and strongly as my absolute favorite album.


Now that this vast project is over, I would like to know what the three or four people who read my blog think! I welcome praise for my brilliance and support for my obviously correct rankings, but, even more, I hope you disagree with me. Then I can tell you why and just how wrong you are. Or, I could be super humble and respect your opinions! Either way, I will feel good about myself, and isn't that what life is all about? Making me feel good? Assuming some people did, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Album Rankings: 20-11

20. Elliott Smith: Elliott Smith

The one time I saw Elliott Smith play live, he played "The Biggest Lie." I had never cared much for the song before, but it quickly became one of my favorites. Now, nearly every time I pick up a guitar, I play the solo from that song.

19. The Beatles: Help! (UK Version)

Did you know that "Yesterday" has been played on the radio more times than any other Beatles song in history? (Of non-Beatles songs, it is only beaten out by the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'.") And did you know that Paul McCartney is the only Beatle to have participated in the writing and recording of that song? It's no wonder that Paul and John had a falling out.

18. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Exodus

When I was an undergrad, I took a race and ethnicity class. The teacher pointed out that whenever a white person is hanging out with a black person, they, without exception, turn on Bob Marley. And, inevitably, the only album they own is Legend. In general, that was a really good class, but talk about hypocritical racial stereotyping! Also, haven't white people basically appropriated Bob Marley? To me, Legend is a sub-par compilation. It includes only the most pop-oriented songs, ignores every major political and social statement Marley made, and completely ignores the Tosh/Wailer days. Because five of the fourteen songs on Legend are drawn from Exodus, sometimes I unfairly judge this album. But when it really comes down to it, it's an incredible collection of songs, and I can't disrespect Exodus by placing it any lower than this.

17. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Uprising

There are so many good songs on this album. Generally, I consider posthumous releases to be inferior, but how can you argue with "Coming in from the Cold," "Real Situation," and "Forever Loving Jah"?

16. Nick Drake: Pink Moon

Pink Moon is made up entirely of good songs, but it's so short! Honestly, at less than 30 minutes, I had to give it a deduction for brevity. Still, the sparse instrumentation is a fantastic change of pace from his first two albums.

15. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Natty Dread

Every single Bob Marley album is fantastic, and I think that's what makes him so lasting and important. This is another collection of great songs, with possibly a greater emphasis on the political side of his music.

14. Elliott Smith: Roman Candle

Something about basement-recorded four-track records is really, really appealing to me. When they're at the quality of Roman Candle, they easily earn a spot among my favorite albums of all time. The title track is incredible, but to me the highlight is "Condor Avenue." It may be my favorite chord progression of all time.

13. Less Than Jake: Losing Streak

This album is incredible. Less Than Jake may not be my favorite punk band, but this is definitely my favorite punk album. There is literally no song on this disc that is worth skipping. It is the very definition of awesome.

12. Elliott Smith: Either/Or

If Kurt Cobain was my beginning guitar teacher, Elliott Smith was my intermediate guitar teacher. It was through his music that I learned most chords and to be quick with my hands. "Angeles" is one of my favorite songs of all time, but I've never been to get my mind wrapped around that rapid finger picking pattern. I can only hope that someday I will be able.

11. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV

This will always be Led Zeppelin IV to me—I don’t buy into that "Zoso" nonsense. Say what you will about "Stairway to Heaven." Overplayed it may be, but it is the perfect rock song. "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll" may be less well known as Zeppelin tunes, but may be even more recognizable to the public at large. Overall, this is Zeppelin's strongest work.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Album Rankings: 30-21

30. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Catch a Fire

This is the best album that Robert Nesta did with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. "Concrete Jungle" is one of his best songs, too.

29. Nirvana: Nevermind

Every song on this album is overplayed, but that doesn't make it any less brilliant. It will ever stand as Kurt Cobain's masterpiece.

28. Simon and Garfunkel: Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits

If not for the fact that this was forced to endure a greatest hits penalty, it would have easily been in the top ten. Simon and Garfunkel had some incredible songs in their day, and I grew up with my dad listening to this album in the car all the time. The only song I feel lukewarm about is "Feelin' Groovy." Otherwise, it's a model compilation of brilliant songs.

27. NOFX: White Trash, Two Heebs, and a Bean

Nearly every song on this disc is a gem. No joke. There's not much more to say.

26. The Beatles: The White Album

The Beatles' insistence that several sub-par songs go on this album keeps it from possibly being the best album of all time. George Harrison's crowning achievement, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," is brilliant, but my personal favorite of his is here as well: "Long, Long, Long." Of course, he also wrote the horrendous "Piggies." Paul McCartney was responsible for the brilliant songs "Blackbird" and "Rocky Racoon," but then recorded the vomit-inducing "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." And don't even get me started on John Lennon. This album includes some of his best work, one of my favorites being "Cry, Baby, Cry," but then comes track 29, "Revolution 9." Easily the worst thing The Beatles ever recorded, this single-handedly keeps The White Album out of the top twenty.

25. Elliott Smith: From a Basement on the Hill

Elliott Smith's posthumous album is one of the few albums I have purchased on its release date. I listened to it nonstop for quite a while, but I'm amazed at how poorly it holds up after time. Don't get me wrong—it's a great album. But I can't help but think it would have been better if he had been around to complete it. Then again, word is that he was intending this to be his White Album, and I just got finished ranting about that one. It would have been worth a few junk tracks for him to still be around, though.

24. Slightly Stoopid: Live & Direct: Acoustic Roots

This album is fantastic. If there's one thing you don't often hear, it's two-person, acoustic reggae. This suffers from a live album penalty (although I'm not sure what the story is here—there's absolutely no applause or crowd noise of any kind), but is probably my favorite non-Marley reggae album. This might be a blasphemous thing to say, but I stand by it. I don't even know why they bother with electric guitars and drums. They should just do things like this forever.

23. Rancid: …And Out Come The Wolves

I've heard Rancid where they play what is essentially hardcore screamo, and I've heard Rancid where they mix in some more groovy, ska-like elements. I definitely prefer the latter. This is an album where there is absolutely no song that you need to skip. "Ruby Soho" was my favorite in high school, but picking out a favorite of an album that churns out good song after good song seems a bit pointless.

22. Crosby, Stills, & Nash: Crosby, Stills, & Nash

I'm pretty sure that CSN don't include the comma after "Stills," but it hurts my heart to not place it there, so there it is. I like Neil Young, don't get me wrong, but the group should have stayed CSN instead of CSNY, because this album is a masterpiece. The first time I heard a song by CSN was in a rock and roll history class, where the teacher played "Helplessly Hoping." Those vocal harmonies blew my mind, and I checked this record out of the music library that same day.

21. NOFX: Punk in Drublic

This was my first NOFX album, and I would have a hard time finding a punk song that I like better than "Linoleum." The mixture of styles and the classic tracks on this album make it the best NOFX album ever recorded, hands down. All hail Fat Mike.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Album Rankings: 40-31

40. The Velvet Underground: Best of…Words and Music of Lou Reed

This is the only time on this list I am including a greatest hits compilation for a band whose legitimate albums I know very well. But this compilation was huge for me.

I've already told my story about how Elliott Smith pulled me out of listening to only punk. All of a sudden, a world of music was open to me. I had grown up with the Forrest Gump soundtrack, and I liked almost everything on it. It's sad to say now, because the song is really pretty lame, but I really liked The Youngbloods' "Get Together." So I decided I was into 60s hippie music. The problem is that, at that point, I didn't really know any of it.

So I'm over at my friend's house, talking about music, and his dad says he has something for me. He burns me a copy of this compilation and says that it is some of the best stuff to come out of the 60s. I absolutely loved it. Here's the funny part: I was completely under the impression that this was 60s music, and that these guys were a bunch of hippies. I laugh now, because this couldn't be further from the truth. What The Velvet Underground was doing was the very antithesis of what was going on in their time. Ironically, this was the punk rock of the 60s. So where I really thought I was getting into some new stuff, I had really just gone back to the roots of a style with which I was very familiar. In any case, I can't stress enough how much I loved this compilation, especially after I found out that Elliott Smith was a big fan of the Velvets.

39. The White Stripes: Get Behind Me, Satan

Okay, so I know I just said that Elephant was their best album, but I like this one more. This is the first White Stripes album I heard. I originally thought they sounded like a cross between Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, but now I don't know what I was thinking. I stand by my belief that while a limited guitar player, Jack White is a hell of a songwriter, and "The Denial Twist" and "My Doorbell" indicate that this is most definitely the case. And I still think he's Johnny Depp in disguise.

38. Matisyahu: Shake Off The Dust…Arise

I don’t even have to mention Matisyahu's music for you to know this is a great album. Just look at his beard.

37. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Live!

This album gives us what are basically the definitive versions of two great songs: "No Woman, No Cry" and "Trenchtown Rock." However, I gave it a large brevity penalty, as it is only seven songs long.

36. David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

David Bowie has done some great songs over the years, but to me, this is the only full album worth owning. Almost every song is fantastic. It almost makes the spandex suits forgivable.

35. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Babylon By Bus

In all honestly, Live! is probably a better album than this. But this one has so many good songs that it doesn't get the brevity penalty, so it scores slightly higher. Also, you have to love the attitude of Bob Marley to refer to the places he toured as "Babylon."

34. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II

Besides "Stairway to Heaven," the first Led Zeppelin song I heard was "Ramble On." Thus, it will always have a special place in my heart. "Whole Lotta Love," "The Lemon Song," and "Thank You" are also fantastic. The only downside to this album is "Moby Dick." Drum solos have no place on studio albums. Period.

33. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova: Once

This is the only soundtrack to make this list, and for good reason. Sure, it's a soundtrack, but if the movie had never been made, this could have been released as an album and no one would have ever suspected it was for a movie. All the songs on the disc are very strong, and Marketa Irglova offers a nice, calming presence to Glen Hansard's passionate belting.

32. The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night

This is one of the highlights of The Beatles' suit-and-mop-top period, as some of their best songs are on this record.

31. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin

Debut albums are usually one of, if not the, best albums a band records, and there is no exception with Zeppelin. "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" is my favorite Zeppelin song. And I just learned something new! While checking to see if a comma went after "Babe" (the answer is no), I found out that it is a cover! I feel slightly ashamed to have not realized this before, but I can't know everything (or can I?!). In any case, their original material is just as good. "Dazed and Confused," of course, isn't a cover, but absolute theft. Does this make Zeppelin any less awesome? Quite the opposite, my friends, quite the opposite.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Album Rankings: 50-41

50. The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground with Nico

I think Lou Reed was right to hate Nico's contributions and want to sing all the songs himself. If that had happened, this album might be higher in the rankings. Still, "Heroin" and "Waiting for the Man" are the indisputable forefathers of punk rock.

49. Led Zeppelin: House of the Holy

This album is overproduced, but there's no denying that the songs are all awesome. Robert Plant's voice sounds a little too polished, but it's not as bad as it got with later albums.

48. The Pixies: Surfer Rosa

When I was going to community college, I had this English teacher who was really a huge snob and a horrible lady. Admittedly, the semester wasn't my finest academic hour, and I certainly wasn't putting my full effort into my studies the way I did in later years. Still, I was doing B or C work, but this woman gave me a D or F on practically every assignment. I was very obsessed with music at this point in my life, and I tried to work both subtle and overt references to my favorite bands and songs in every assignment. I titled my final project "Where Is My Mind?" After it was graded, it was handed back to me and she had written, "Do I get extra points for knowing this is a Pixies song?" I was surprised, but after she gave me a D in the class, I was in no mood to give her any respect. I still think, deep in my heart, that I was treated unjustly.

47. The Offspring: Americana

Big fans of The Offspring don't like this album, but to me, it's the best work they've ever done. I admit, the MTV hits "Pretty Fly for a White Guy" and "Get a Job" were what made me aware of it, but it's everything else that makes it great (actually, I'm so sick of those two songs that I gave a large deduction to both of them for an "overplaying penalty"). To me, this album will always be closely related to Final Fantasy Tactics, as I listened to it repeatedly while I played my way through that epic game, which is in my top five favorites of all time.

46. Björk: Debut

The first time I heard Björk, I was sitting in a car with two friends. "Human Behavior" came on, and I inquired about it. My buddy told me it was Björk, and when I admitted ignorance, he said, "Björk's crazy." To this I say: Yes. Yes she is.

45. The Beatles: Beatles for Sale

My dad talks fondly of this album, as it was the one he had when he was just a young'un. It's not their best album, obviously, but I think "No Reply" and "I'm a Loser" don’t even get close to as much respect as they deserve.

44. Ben Harpers and the Innocent Criminals: Live From Mars

For me, a show that is split between a full band and a solo acoustic set is ideal. I'll say again what I've expressed before: Ben Harper is either really good or incredibly dull, but given that this is a live album, he sticks mostly to his good stuff. The cover of "Sexual Healing" is better than the Marvin Gaye original. About 70% of the rest of the songs on the album are also incredible. If I had to choose only one Ben Harper album, there is no doubt at all that this would be the one.

43. The Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense

What a great concept for a live show: start with one musician and add one for each subsequent song. I don't know why it's ranked so low, except for the fact that there was the requisite live album deduction. David Byrne is the very definition of a mad genius. Every song is brilliant. I can't stress the awesomeness of this album enough.

42. The White Stripes: Elephant

This is probably The White Stripes' best album, as every song on it is good. I've already said my piece about Meg and Jack White, so there's not much more to say.

41. NOFX: I Heard They Suck Live!

One of the greatest regrets I have about my punk days is that I never saw NOFX play live. This album just reinforces that sadness. Again, it's a good live album because the banter is there, and they play a great mix of old and new (at the time) songs.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Album Rankings: 60-51

60. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin III

Led Zeppelin—and again, I'm truthfully avoiding hyperbole this time—rocks harder than any band that ever rocked hard. "Immigrant Song" is one of their best loved songs, and certainly very worthy, but the album has several other songs worthy of notoriety. The non-hits on this album are weaker than several other Zeppelin albums. But what's weak material for Zeppelin is better than what many other bands will ever achieve.

59. NOFX: Pump Up The Valuum

This is a spot where my subjective attitude becomes very apparent, I think. I loved NOFX in high school, and this is definitely not their only album on this list, but it may be ranked a little too high. Here's the thing: this was a brand new album when I was most heavily into punk, and there's something invigorating about discovering an album when it's new, unlike my experience with the vast majority of this list. Still, the justification may be unnecessary, because there are lots of good songs on this disc. But there's also some total junk.

58. The Nobodys: Generation XXX

Okay, this is probably the most unjustifiable, subjective ranking on this list. This album is profane, disgusting, immature, ridiculous, and could only be loved by a person that is all those things. If that's the case, then I am all those things, because I love this album.

In ninth grade, my exposure to punk rock was pretty much limited to The Offspring and (shudder) Blink 182. (I didn't know those bands by the term punk rock, but in retrospect, I know their roots and can actually recognize the elements of the music.) Then I met this awesome and very attractive girl who was constantly talking about punk this and punk that, and I really had no idea. She gave me this album and the impact it had on me was undeniable. Practically overnight, all I listened to was punk, and I was doing lame things like sticking safety pins through all my clothes and dying my hair purple. Despite the unfortunate style choices, I will always enjoy the great memories of my punk days. And it all started thanks to this album.

57. G. Love & Special Sauce: The Best of G. Love & Special Sauce

This is all I've heard from Mr. Love, and I like it. Some guy I barely knew gave me a copy of this many years ago. I listened to it a lot. And I like the way it sounds. There's not much else to say.

56. Minor Threat: Complete Discography

Their entire output fits on a single disc, and it's an anger-filled explosion of awesome. I decided to not give it a deduction for being a greatest hits compilation, given the fact that it's every song ever. There's no picking and choosing here. However, every song is awesome. And short.

55. Johnny Cash: At San Quentin

Johnny Cash is awesome, this album has many of his most awesome songs, and it offers what good live albums should offer: entertaining banter. But a twist is added, in that the entertaining banter takes place between Cash and potentially violent inmates of California's grand institution, San Quentin Prison. I can't believe they brought June Carter along.

54. Nirvana: Unplugged in New York

Kurt Cobain was my beginning guitar teacher. In all seriousness, I've probably played every well known Nirvana song at least once. Cobain wasn't a gifted guitar player, but he wrote good songs that you wanted to learn to play. And since I have always preferred acoustic guitar, this album was a great one to emulate. MTV hardly ever does anything right, but their Unplugged series was a really good idea. I just wish some of my favorite groups would have participated over the years.

53. Sublime: Sublime

This one imitates radio pop a lot better than 40 Oz to Freedom. But it's still some pretty grooving 90s white-boy, rock-infused reggae, and it's always a good thing to make the masses more aware of reggae. These are the songs that every college kid loves, but I can't hold that against Brad Nowell. So I ignore the annoying dreadlocked white kids and admit that at least they have some taste.

52. Elliott Smith: Figure 8

I can't stress the impact Elliott Smith had on my musical development enough. I mentioned that The Nobody's Generation XXX pulled me into punk rock, and for more than a year I listened to nothing but punk rock (Nirvana got a pass, eventually, because I was using them to learn to play guitar).

So, I listen to nothing but punk rock. I'm really into AFI, and Davey Havok starts a new band called Son of Sam. I search for songs by this band on Napster (yes, this is before Metallica and Dr. Dre threw their hissy fits), and Elliott Smith's song, "Son of Sam," comes up. I knew my uncle was a fan, and a good friend had also mentioned him to me. So I downloaded it. It's no stretch to say that Elliott Smith single handedly pulled me out of my punk-only phase. I've preferred acoustic music ever since.

This is my least favorite of his albums, but that's only because the others are so good. I would never stoop to disparaging Figure 8.

51. The Vandals: Live Fast, Diarrhea

I don't have much to say about this one. A gross title, yes, but an energetic album that I like a lot.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Album Rankings: 70-61

70. Rusted Root: When I Woke

I used to be a theater kid, and I did three plays with a choreographer who used to play this during stretches. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought it sounded rather like African music. It’s filled with percussion, yes, but it just shows my ignorance. I didn’t know anything about world music then, though. This album starts off with five or six very good tracks, but gets kind of boring at the end. I still tend to listen to it fairly often. “Ecstasy” is just too good a song to ignore.

69. Sticky Fingers: The Rolling Stones

This is one of the Stones’ finest efforts. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” is one of my favorite songs, and is also featured in every cocaine scene of every movie, ever. Seriously, pay attention to what song is playing during scenes where characters are doing cocaine. Every time.

68. Eminem: The Slim Shady LP

In eighth grade or so, “My Name Is…” was playing all over the radio and MTV, and for some reason I decided I liked it. So one night my dad takes my sister and myself to The Wherehouse (is that even a franchise, or was it a local shop in my town?), where we are given some money to buy one CD each. In the car, he asks what we bought. I show him the cover, carefully covering the “Parental Advisory” label with my thumb. My sister, who was in fourth grade or so, is aware that it was a naughty album and tells both my mom and dad as soon as we got home. They demand to see it and—if you’re familiar with the track listing, you’ll understand why—are suitably shocked. I am driven back to The Wherehouse, where I am instructed to return the album. The clerks give me the edited version. What’s funny about the edited version is that the only swear word they delete is the “F” word, and also names of drugs. However, the names of drugs are filled with the sound of someone using the drugs. I remember a mention of pills censored with the sound of pills being cascaded onto a table. Incredible censoring, guys.

67. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Like their final two albums, this one is also overrated, but perhaps not as much. It really isn't as amazing as people seem to think. From everything I've read (and it's been a lot), it did seem to have a huge impact on the world. But it's not even close to being their best album, despite what all the hippies say.

66. System of a Down: Toxicity

Fans of actual hardcore will scoff at me when I say System of a Down pushes the limits on how hardcore I like my music, but I'm not really concerned what fans of actual hardcore think. System of a Down rock hard in a way that is not too intimidating, and the singer's voice is incredibly unique. They're also not profane, at least not too profane, which is nice with this type of music. I used to play guitar with a guy who had figured out how to play every song on this album by ear. I don't like it that much, but it's a pretty damn good album and easily worthy of a place on this list.

65. The Violent Femmes: The Violent Femmes

I saw The Violent Femmes play live about four or five years ago. It was fun. I remember the bass player had a single-string bass that was played by pulling a stick to change the amount of pressure on the string. I don't really know how to describe it. Their debut album is the only one with which I am familiar, and I don't feel a particular urge to explore further. Why mess with success?

64. The Rolling Stones: Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!

Despite being a live album, this is my favorite Rolling Stones record. That might be a giveaway for what's not coming later, but I don’t really care. The performance of "Stray Cat Blues" is perfect.

63. AFI: Black Sails in the Sunset

When my great-grandpa gave me his guitar ten years or so ago, I rushed to a computer to print off some tabs and learn to play some stuff. The very first song I played? "God Called in Sick Today." A stupid and somewhat insulting title, yes, but a nice riff for a beginner, and the beginning of a long and epic journey for me.

62. Sublime: 40 Oz to Freedom

What I like about Sublime is that they're a good mix of punk and reggae, but lean towards reggae. Usually, a band that mixes punk with another genre favors punk, but not Sublime. They are a reggae band that throw in some punk flavor every once in a while. "Badfish" is my favorite Sublime song, and there are plenty of other gems here, as well.

61. The Velvet Underground: Loaded

The rest of the album is pretty good, but there are really only two songs that are necessary to mention. Completely avoiding hyperbole (seriously, this time), "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" are two of the best rock songs ever.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Album Rankings: 80-71

80. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells

The White Stripes are an interesting group. Only two members—who play real rock and roll as opposed to acoustic guitars—with questionable musical talent? I’ve been criticized for my love of this group before, and I’m sure I’ll be criticized again. To Meg White, I say “meh,” but I think Jack White is an incredible songwriter. The songs are simple, unique, and relatively diverse. Also, I have a man-crush on Johnny Depp, and I’m 99% positive that Jack White is Johnny Depp in disguise.

79. Dashboard Confessional: The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most

Alright, this is embarrassing. I’m seriously, legitimately embarrassed, but I’ve got to be honest with myself, right? These songs are catchy. The lyrics are whiny and depressing and often make me cringe (“As for me I wish that I was anywhere, with anyone, making out…”). I won’t even try to defend the lyrics. They’re bad. But I love acoustic rock, and I love catchy tunes, and I think Chris Whatever-His-Last-Name-Is has a good voice. I just wish that he would write songs about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Instead we get songs about heartbreak, loneliness, and wanting to make out.

78. The Who: Tommy

Arguably Pete Townshend’s master work, and a really cool concept for a rock album. This was a little difficult to rank, because some songs were written more for the plot than to be awesomely catchy songs. Most of the songs manage to be catchy, anyway. One time, I had a Rock and Roll History teacher who claimed The Who were a power trio. I understand that they have one guitar, bass, and drums, but I will never accept a band who has a fourth member as a power trio, even if he plays no instruments. Cream was a power trio. The Who was just a rocking band.

77. AFI: The Art of Drowning

In high school, when I was really into punk rock, my friend gave this to me for my birthday. I had never heard of AFI, but I took to them like [insert cliché simile here]. I really liked them. Davey Havok’s hair, of course, was awful, but they hadn’t reached the annoying dark-pop-punk that they are now. This album was leaning that direction, but it was still legitimate. I don’t really listen to them anymore, but tracking this CD down brought back some memories.

76. The Shins: Oh, Inverted World

The first time I heard The Shins, they really reminded me of The Beach Boys. I’m not sure why this was the case, to be honest. I listen to this album now and can’t really hear any Beach-Boy-like elements, other than, you know, the use of the same basic instruments. “New Slang” is the highlight here.

75. Save Ferris: It Means Everything

In middle school, this was my absolute favorite album. “Spam” is horrible, but every other song has something to like. However, no song even comes close to “Eileen,” which is pretty much my favorite cover ever. To me, it is a Save Ferris song. Forget about that 80s band whose name I do not know.

74. Jack Johnson: Brushfire Fairytales

Jack Johnson writes really catchy songs and he plays the acoustic guitar. What else is there to be said? There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but I like it.

73. The Doors: The Doors

Remember how I said Gwen Stefani’s voice gives me syphilis? Well, Jim Morrison’s voice gives me herpes, gonorrhea, and syphilis. The funny thing is that I used to adore him. I read two biographies about him, attempted to replicate his hair, and even attempted to digest some of his “poetry” (if you know me well, you’ll know this is a big deal. I don’t read poetry. I’m a prose guy through and through). Nowadays, I can’t listen to him without squirming uncomfortably from exposure to self-righteousness. In the movie Almost Famous, the Lester Bangs character says Morrison is a drunken buffoon posing as a poet. This pretty much says it all. Still, this first album is the most bearable, and has mostly great songs. The band could have benefited from a bass player and a less annoying singer, though.

72. Michael Jackson: Thriller

Did you know that eight of the nine songs from Thriller went to number one on the pop singles chart? And do you know why? Because Michael Jackson is awesome. The end.

71. Eminem: Marshall Mathers LP

Eminem makes me feel icky, but there’s no denying that he’s got talent. I was completely opposed to rap until Eminem hit the scene. Based on this incredibly relevant and completely acceptable sample size, I’m declaring the following fact: Eminem = Elvis Presley. Don’t you see? Elvis brought traditionally black music to white people, and then Eminem came around and did the exact same thing. Scholars: back off! This is my theory. It’s off limits to all but my epically wonderful pop music textbook that I will probably never write.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Album Rankings: 90-81

90. Carole King: Tapestry

Until Thriller hit the scene, more copies of this album had been sold than any other record, ever. Carole King, of course, was a hit songwriter, and many of these songs had been recorded by other artists. I like the album, obviously, but I don’t really know how it was so successful. It’s really fairly generic, but maybe that’s the secret. I mean, when you listen to what’s on the radio today, it all sounds generic.

89. The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed

The Rolling Stones are made for greatest hits compilations. Every single album they ever produced had way too much crap on it, and three or four great songs. Honestly, I may have overrated this one (in fact, I rated it lower on my first review). But it does have “Gimme Shelter” and “Midnight Rambler,” two of their best songs. And that’s got to be worth something, right? Right? Maybe not. Looking at their albums compared to The Beatles, it’s incredible that they even managed to compete. It must have been Mick Jagger’s Tina Turner impersonation. It’s the only explanation.

88. Black Sabbath: Paranoid

Pretty much, the first four songs on this album are incredible. Epic masterpieces that deserve to be enshrined in a golden conch shell for eternity. Everything else on the album is forgettable, and not worth my time. This album gets all its points from the first four songs, thus why it places so low.

87. Madonna: The Immaculate Collection

When I think of what a metalhead’s reaction would be to the idea that I would place Madonna above Black Sabbath, it makes me laugh to myself. But this is an incredible collection of songs. The last few are not as exciting as the first 75% of the compilation, but Madonna’s early career of straight dance music was awesome. I might be the only person in the world whose favorite Madonna song is “Borderline.” More people should recognize how awesome I am for this.

86. The Ditty Bops: The Ditty Bops

The tight harmonies and hauntingly sweet melodies on this album make it incredibly entertaining. It gets old after a few listens, but it’s always nice to come back after several months. I’ve never seen pictures of these women, and now I wonder: are they good looking? I just looked it up, and the answer is not really, but occasionally. Also, they are lesbians. I had wondered, and now it is confirmed.

85. Nirvana: In Utero

One time, when I was about 8 or 9, I was in the car with my mom, her brother, and her sister. Her brother flips through some stations and settles on one. At some point, my uncle gets out of the car and goes into a building (it might have been my dad’s office. The details are fuzzy! It was a long time ago! Quit scowling at me!). Anyway, this station is on, loud enough to hear but not loud enough to stifle conversation. So my mom and aunt chat, while I’m just sitting there, half listening to the music. Then this song comes on, and the singer is singing “Rape me/Rape me, my friend/Rape me/Rape me again.” Being 8 or 9, I was shocked, yet intrigued. So I’m listening to this song, and then when Cobain screams “Rape me! Rape Me!” at the end, my mom and aunt finally notice, and one of them says, “What did he turn on?” and turns it off. It would be another 6 or 7 years until I discovered In Utero, and all of a sudden I had some context for this interesting memory of mine.

84. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite For Destruction

Despite the general disparaging comments about 80s rock nowadays, there’s no denying that Appetite For Destruction is a masterpiece. Axl Rose is now a joke, and Slash spends too much time playing Guitar Hero, but this work still stands of a fine achievement in rock and roll. Some songs are better than others, but none are really worth skipping over. I would choose “Night Train” or “Mr. Brownstone” over some of the more popular tracks, but that’s just me.

83. The Beatles: Let It Be

I was tempted to give this a huge deduction for Phil Spector’s horrendous additions, but since The Beatles didn’t like his work, I opted to forgive them. Still, there’s obviously some collateral damage, because ranking a set of Beatles originals this low will be considered blasphemy by many. I love The Beatles, I really do. But I think this album is vastly overrated, as is Abbey Road. I just provoked many to rage, but I don’t care. Keep in mind that this is still on a list of albums that I like. It’s just that I like it less than 82 other albums.

82. Ben Harper: Fight For Your Mind

Ben Harper is like the Rolling Stones, in that when he is good, he’s really, really good. It’s just that there are too many songs that make me want to jam pencils in my ears. I discovered in my quest to identify my top 100 albums that, in general, I hate slide guitar. It works only one time in twenty. The rest of the time, it makes me spit with indignation. This album scores relatively high because there seems to be less slide guitar than his other albums (or at least less pain-inducing), and it contains several outstanding songs, most notably “Power of the Gospel.”

81. The Beatles: Abbey Road

I already gave away that I don’t like this album as much as most people, so no big surprise here. Again, I say: overrated. There are some good, catchy songs here, yes. But it’s definitely a band that was ready to break up. It saddens me to say this; I would have loved to see where The Beatles went in the 70s, and maybe beyond that. But it was time to end it. It is too bad they didn’t get around to playing a reunion show, but if John Lennon hadn’t been killed, I think it would have happened some time in the 90s. May we ever curse Mark David Chapman’s name.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Album Rankings: 100-91

100. Tenacious D: Tenacious D

Okay, okay. They are crass. They are juvenile. They are downright satanic. But they are funny, and more importantly, their music is catchy and surprisingly intricate. The songs on this album are brilliant, but I gave a huge deduction for their betrayal of their acoustic roots; they never, ever should have even considered full band arrangements on these songs. Their whole shtick is that two guys with acoustic guitars can rock harder than nine-piece heavy metal bands, but they apparently don’t really believe that, because there was way too much distortion on this album. Listen, JB and KG, you are better than that! Get back to acoustic rock and roll and leave the electric guitars to the Jonas Brothers. Do you really want to be associated with them?

99. No Doubt: Tragic Kingdom

This was a favorite of mine when I was 12 or 13. As I listened to it for the first time in years, I realized that Gwen Stefani’s voice gives me syphilis. She just sounds like she’s trying too hard! The rest of the band is pretty good, and the songs are very catchy. It’s just that they need an attractive singer with an attractive voice. Don’t get me wrong, though. This is a good album. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be on this list.

98. Simon and Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park

Simon and Garfunkel have a lot of great songs, and Paul Simon’s solo career has spawned a good number as well. (Art Garfunkel’s solo career has been less successful musically, although I’m pretty sure that his hair has been a principle inspiration for the wonder that is Phil Spector.) Many of these great songs appear on this album, including probably my favorite Paul Simon song, “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover.” That being said, there is too much of Simon’s solo stuff, and the album suffers from quality issues from the crowd. All live albums have this problem to some extent, but many are made enjoyable because you get to hear entertaining banter between the crowd and the performers. No such luck with this one. Just applause and yelling, which makes this a low-quality greatest hits album with annoying pauses in between songs.

97. Björk: Vespertine

Björk was at her best when she did dance music, but that was just for one album, and then she decided to start experimenting. Though a couple good songs can be found on Post and Homogenic, they are, for the most part, horrible. I am unequivocal on this point, despite what crazy hippies may say (and we all know that crazy hippies are the biggest followers of Björk). Vespertine actually came through with lots of interesting and relatively catchy songs. I haven’t listened to any of her albums after this one, but I think it shows the first real effectiveness of the direction she started taking with Post. To me, Björk is kind of like Schoenberg: she started off doing things that were relatively standard, but then started pushing the boundaries of music. This analogy completely breaks down, however, when you consider how many tickets Björk sells compared with the amount you hear any Schoenberg work being played by a symphony orchestra. Of course, one is a relatively attractive, eccentric female and the other was bald, cocky old guy.

96. Ben Folds: Rockin’ The Suburbs

I don’t really have much to say about this one. I don’t follow Ben Folds at all and I don’t really know anything about him other than that he plays piano and sings. Years ago, a friend gave me this album. It’s got some catchy songs with some catchy piano licks. Sometimes I think they’re a little too catchy, but that’s okay, I guess. It’s the lyrics that weird me out. Sometimes I think they are songs about nothing. But they’re catchy, and catchy goes a long way.

95. Elton John: Greatest Hits 1970-2002

I saw Elton John play live a few years back. It was a good time, and he’s definitely the biggest name I’ve ever seen play. His songs from the seventies are great, but in his later years he has become a little overproduced for my taste. I have a feeling that if this was a Greatest Hits album from 1970 to 1985 or so, it would have scored much higher. But despite growing up knowing most of his best songs, this is his only actual album (or compilation, as the case may be) that I own. So it gets ranked, but loses points for the more recent hits he’s written.

94. Please Please Me: The Beatles

I’m not really sure whether or not I agree with the lack of comma between the two iterations of “please.” I mean, I think that it works without the comma, but that first please is a nonessential part of the sentence, which I generally (but not always) think should be divided from the rest of the sentence with a comma. I guess it’s okay, but I always question it. I digress.

The reason a Beatles album ranks this low is because of the abundance of covers. The Beatles didn’t really hit their stride until they did all original music a few albums after this. Of course, without the covers, we never would have gotten “Twist and Shout,” which, as everyone in the world probably already knows but I will mention it here anyway, was done in one take at the end of a day’s recording, so John Lennon’s voice was shot.

A fun anecdote about this album: when I was sixteen or seventeen, I was in Sunday School and for some reason I mentioned the Beatles’ first album, Please Please Me. Everyone in the room was shocked. They thought I was being a smart ass and that The Beatles would never name an album so suggestively. Despite my protests that I was not, people thought I was being a jerk. I mean, I was a jerk, but in that case I was innocent.

93. Al Green: Al Green’s Greatest Hits

Here’s the thing about Al Green: he is super awesome. If you try to dispute this, you will probably be struck by lightning, especially because he went from soul to gospel later in his career. Speaking of his gospel music, “Belle” is one of the greatest songs on this album. In fact, I’m recanting on the qualification. It is the greatest song on this album, and if you don’t believe me, then you clearly hate your family, friends, and community.

92. Billy Bragg: Workers’ Playtime

Billy Bragg’s delightful British accent tickles me to death. About half the album is brilliant, while the other half is incredibly generic. I understand that this album was considered a betrayal for his fans, due to the addition of other instruments besides guitar. I can definitely empathize with that, but since these are the only Billy Bragg songs I’ve heard are right here, I can’t say I’m upset. I think the sparse keyboards, bass, and drums are charming. As is his accent. Did I mention that already?

91. Flight of the Conchords: Flight of the Conchords

I am remarkably generous to place this album on the list at all, and as I type this I wonder if it was a mistake (for those who may be wondering, Paul Simon’s Songs from The Capeman was unlucky #101). But one thing I’ve learned is that I should never doubt my gut, especially when it suggests that I eat disgusting but delicious foods. The reason I may not agree with my gut is that I haven’t really listened to this album more than once. I rated it based on the TV show, from which all of these songs were drawn. Oh well. It’s just how it’s going to be, because I am incapable of deleting anything I ever write. When FOTC are on, they’re really good (“Robots,” “Hiphopopotamus Vs. Rhymenocerous,” and “The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room),” for example), but sometimes their songs are stupid and not compelling musically or comically. I still like them. It just might not be fair to put them on this list. (I am listening to the album now, though. I inspired myself!)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Intro to Objective-Subjective Analysis

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of music. Why have I been doing this, you—the hypothetical and nonexistent reader of this blog—may ask? Certainly not for enjoyment! No, mythical reader, I have been doing it for a project I have wanted to undertake for some time now: ranking my personal favorite top 100 albums. You see these rankings everywhere. Rolling Stone does a new one every three months or so. My album rankings will be much more subjective (obviously) and much more limited than those of Rolling Stone. Here are a couple spoilers: you won’t find any Weezer here, and you certainly won’t find any Metallica. If this makes you, phantom reader, want to leave the page right now, I say this to you: GOOD. If you think generic hogwash like that goes on my top 100 list, I don’t want you to read my blog—not that you’re reading it anyway.

Ranking this many albums is harder than you, my imaginary reader, might think. How do I decide what gets ranked above what? Do I really like this more than that? After much thought and many feeble ideas, I came up with the following system:

“Hit songs”: Tally the number of songs that are absolutely, positively indispensable to the album. Normalize to ten (so that albums with more songs don’t get an unfair advantage).
“Skippable tracks”: Tally the number of songs that are so boring or sonically unpleasing that one would have to be in a drug-induced coma to not skip them. Normalize these to ten, and subtract them from the total.

Each of the following categories received a one to ten score:

“Hits versus filler”: Many albums have some songs that can’t really be considered indispensable, but are certainly not skip-worthy. How do these songs measure up to the best songs on the album? Is there great disparity, or is the quality of the music basically maintained throughout?
“Catchiness”: This is somewhat self-explanatory, but I also considered how likely the songs were to get stuck in my head. Not that only good songs can get stuck in one’s head (sadly, it’s often the opposite), but it does indicate some level of catchiness.
“Memorability”: How well do I remember the songs on the album? If I listen to an album that I haven’t heard for a long time, are there songs I don’t remember, or does every track feel familiar?
“Tendency to Return”: How often do I listen to this album? Do I tend to come back to it every few weeks, months, years? I have fond feelings for many records I listened to in middle school, but rarely listen to them nowadays. On the other hand, some albums I discovered in my teens are still constantly being played as an adult.
“Impact”: This is a hard one to define, really. It’s more of a gut feeling I have about the album. I thought about including cultural impact for this, but I decided that this was my rankings about my favorite albums and it all has to be about me. Besides, how do I judge the cultural impact of something for which I wasn’t around? (I listen to lots of old music.) Basically, this category considers the mental, emotional, or musical impact an album has or had on me. There are a lot of factors that went into my decision on how many points to award an album, but you, ethereal reader, will just have to accept that it is perfectly, 100% accurate and not arbitrary in any way.
“Bonuses and Deductions”: Sometimes for songs that I either really love or really hate, I add or subtract half a point. Other [NOT] arbitrary decisions were made on a case-by-case basis, as will be discussed when I get to the albums.

In total, this is essentially a 60-point scale, although with the bonus system I suppose an album could have received more than 60 points. As it turned out, the highest score was 59.5, so we’ll call it a 60-point scale. I’m not going to give the actual scores the albums received, as my illusive readers will surely nitpick. I might mention specific bonuses and deductions. We’ll see how it goes.

The hard part is trying to decide what to review. My decisions on questionable content I describe here:

Classical music: No question. Classical music was excluded for the purposes of this project. I’m sure I’ll write plenty of stuff about classical music (as I have done extensively in the past), but these are pop albums that I am ranking.
Musical Theater: This is closer to being pop music, but I opted to exclude these from my rankings as well.
Greatest Hits Compilations: In some cases, all I know of a band is a greatest hits album. However, due to the very nature of this type of compilation, an unfair advantage is given. But that doesn’t mean I excluded them. Instead, I deducted six points, or 10% of the maximum score. In every case but one, I did not include a greatest hits album if I am very familiar with the studio albums of a group in question.
Live Albums: Live albums are similar to greatest hits compilations, as most bands are going to play their best songs live. However, they are legitimate albums, unlike “Best of...” records. I opted to deduct three points for live albums, or 5% of the maximum score.
Movie Soundtracks: I excluded movie soundtracks, with one exception, which I will not reveal now. I have my reasons for this exception, and will talk about them when it comes up.

When I first started this project, I tried to start ranking albums from memory, without even listening to them. No dice. I realized it was not going to work, except for the very few albums that I know so intimately that I’m practically living in sin. This meant that I was going to have to listen to every album I ranked, and how would it be fair unless I listened to every album I have ever loved? This meant, for example, that I had to track down Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other, which was my favorite album in ninth grade. Honestly, I expected it to make the top 100, but (SPOILER) it did not. Sad day. In total, I listened to more than 150 albums, some of which I didn’t even bother to rank, and others which scored very, very low. I did not even bother to track down at least another 100 albums with which I am familiar, as there was no way they were going to make the list.

Given the fact that I was trying to speed up the process, I did skip past songs on albums that I know very well. One ironic thing about this song-skipping is that songs that I love were often skipped (you know, those “non-skippable” tracks that are indispensable and got the album extra points?), but tracks that were more questionable or even absolutely horrible were given a more earnest listening, in an effort to be fair. This is the exact opposite of what I was giving and subtracting points for in the first two categories listed above!

Really, though, it was a lot of fun. I had to rack my brain and come up with all of my favorite albums from ever since I started listening to pop music. It was challenging, and I’m sure I missed some. For example, I realized, as I was writing this post, that I completely ignored Aerosmith. Now, Aerosmith isn’t one of my favorite bands, and I’ve mostly only listened to random tracks here and there, but I do recall that I used to like Hot Rocks. Theoretical reader, you might just see Hot Rocks, if I can track it down, on the list. I’m really afraid that I will think of a crucial album in the middle of this epic series of posts, and it will mess up the entire order I’ve come up with so far! And yet, if I haven’t thought of it by now, it’s going to score a one on both impact and tendency to return, and that will make it nearly impossible to make the list. We shall see. Perhaps I will curse this whole project before long and just give up. It’s not like anyone actually reads this blog and will be upset that I stopped at number 50.

One last point: I listen to a pretty diverse set of music, but my tastes are by no means exhaustive. Country and rap do appear on this list, but they are underrepresented. Some bands that I like a lot do not appear on this list, or appear very low in the rankings, because I like songs by the band, but not necessarily albums. If I had readers, they might say (spoiler!), “Hey, where the heck is Jimi Hendrix?!” And if that question were asked, I would point out that I love the song “Hey Joe,” and that Jimi Hendrix is basically all right, but I think his albums are filled with a lot of junk sitting beside the gems. There’s a large chance that if a band doesn’t appear on this list, I’m familiar with them and like some of their songs—just not enough of them from any one album.

I’ve spent enough time on this post that was written “For No One” (foreshadowing!). Soon, probably tomorrow, I will begin the list. My plan is ten posts, with ten albums for each post, counting down from 100 to 1. One final spoiler: Pink Floyd is not appearing on this list. I hate Pink Floyd. I try really hard to like them, and even listened to two albums for this project (Dark Side of the Moon and Piper at the Gates of Dawn), but I just hate them. Sorry. They’re not as bad as Metallica, but no one is as bad as Metallica (really, the final spoiler: The Black Album is in the number one spot. Count on it).