Tuesday, December 30, 2008

3. Everclear vs. Nine Inch Nails vs. Firewater

vs. vs.
"Queen of the Air"
by Everclear
from Sparkle and Fade
  "No, You Don't"
by Nine Inch Nails
from The Fragile
  "I Still Love You Judas"
by Firewater
from The Ponzi Scheme

"Queen of the Air" (3 plays at Last.fm, unranked): This was the song that made Everclear my favorite band for a while, after "Santa Monica" had prompted me to buy the record. There's a lot of mid-90's shimmer in here, but the structure also calls back to the abrasiveness of Everclear's first independent release, 1993's World of Noise. Maybe the most significant addition it makes to that structure is a terrific melodic bassline that has a really nice interplay with the slight guitar melody -- it's not overpowering the way a lot of contemporaneous songs are. The story that Art Alexakis tells is short and compelling -- the narrator's supposed aunt but actual mother jumping from a bridge to her death -- and I was surprised to learn to was totally made up. Alexakis uses so many harsh autobiographical details in the first three Everclear records that a story like this one doesn't raise an eyebrow, but it's of a piece with the working class heartbreak and drama that he used to be so good at.

"No, You Don't" (4 plays, unranked): Looking back on what Trent Reznor has done in the past nine years, The Fragile looks like the most important thing in the NIN catalog. You can hear bits and pieces of his subsequent three full-lengths and the Ghosts collection all over the place -- it's the beginning of a more cohesive sound than he ever had with pretty hate machine, broken and the downward spiral (though those are better works overall). When the album came out, the build and noise of this track were just what I wanted to hear (another NIN song, "the great collapse," appears later in the tournament for the same reason). It's a great singer and a great screamer, and I suspect largely underappreciated in a sea of album cuts from an oft-overlooked record.

"I Still Love You Judas" (9 plays, tied for #299): I discovered Firewater through their first album when hosting a college radio show at 3AM Sunday mornings, but it's their follow-up that I really love. Frontman Tod A is a terrific lyricist, but the band manages to create music that's both atmospheric and cinematic as an accompaniment. It's unfortunate that the band's style was so out in 1998 (it would've been killer in 1992 or 2006), because their vocal-driven, minor-key rock with strings could've developed a real audience in the right conditions.

VERDICT: This is a tough call, but I think Firewater wins out. The opening of the song has that spark to it, that when you hear it come up on shuffle you perk up, turn up the volume and get ready to submerge into the song.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

2. Hum vs. Liz Phair vs. Superdrag

vs. vs.
by Hum
from You'd Prefer an Astronaut
  "Divorce Song"
by Liz Phair
from Exile in Guyville
  "Gimme Animosity"
by Superdrag
from In the Valley of Dying Stars

"Stars" (3 plays at Last.fm, unranked): Hum is one of those mid-90's bands that found minor success before the label machine ate them, and "Stars" was their entree into that world. I think it's playing in a Cadillac commercial now. It's also maybe the best example of what the Smashing Pumpkins' explosion did for the Chicago fuzz-rock scene. It's a pretty simple song, really -- an uncomplicated melody and unassuming lyrics over a technically fancy lead guitar progression, lots of cymbal crashes in the background. The band and the song had a lot to do with what came later from bands like Cave In and the Life and Times, and even Ken Andrews' various late-model projects. The good news is that Hum is now out touring a reunion show, so maybe the density and energy of this song will be found again in a new record.

"Divorce Song" (9 plays, tied for #299): Oh, Liz. I've written before about the tragedy that is Liz Phair, and this song is in so many ways the prologue. Others might identify a different Guyville song as the epitome of what Liz Phair, the entity, meant in 1993, but for me everything is in this song. Compared with the rest of the album, it's one of the most expanded songs from what she'd done on the Girlysound tapes. There's the harmonica outro, the shakers, the extra guitar lines. Her low alto is as gruff-sounding as the lyrics are fatalistic, and titling it "Divorce Song" without including an ending in the song's story is an exceptional bit of framing. And it's a perfect story-song in so many ways, the sort of thing that really does sound like a direct counterpoint to the Stones' "Ventilator Blues." Hearing what Phair's doing now, it's like rewatching a movie when you already know the character in the tragic setting isn't getting out.

"Gimme Animosity" (10 plays, tied for #218): For some reason it took me until early 2000 to pick up Superdrag's debut LP, even though I'd loved their one hit ("Sucked Out") when it was released in 1996. After buying that record, I was consumed with anticipation for their then-upcoming release, In the Valley of Dying Stars. When I got it, this was one of a few songs that went on constant repeat for the rest of the year. The driving guitar and insistent vocals from Jon Davis keep things cranking during the chorus, and the way the bass swoops in during the verses is spectacular.

VERDICT: "Stars" is awesome to rock out to, but I'm not sure it would even win a Hum-only favorite song contest (look for their "The Scientists" to show up in a future round). "Divorce Song," on the other hand, is an all-time great: a fabulous piece of poetry, and an untarnished core sample of an indie explosion that never quite happened.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

1. Blink-182 vs. Nirvana vs. Splashdown

vs. vs.
"Adam's Song"
by Blink-182
from Enema of the State
  "Pennyroyal Tea"
by Nirvana
from MTV Unplugged in New York
  "Mayan Pilot"
by Splashdown
from Redshift

"Adam's Song" (1 play at Last.fm, unranked): When I first heard this song I knew Blink-182 for "Josie" and "What's My Age Again?," which are both enjoyable but completely by-the-numbers examples of the skate-punk that dominated early Warped tours. This was before it came out as a single and I was really surprised by both the musical and lyrical depth of the song (which were pretty obviously revamped for "Stay Together For the Kids" on their next album). It's a rare example of an explicitly post-teen angst narrative in a teenagers' genre and it paints a really effective picture by focusing on the space around the narrator and the hole that he leaves. Musically, it foreshadows a lot of what they would do on their self-titled break-up album, with more layering and piano, less chk-chk-chk-chk pop-punk.

"Pennyroyal Tea" (6 plays, unranked): I imagine that there is a substantial group of people like me, who get a bit of a chill hearing Kurt Cobain ask his bandmates, "Am I going to do this by myself?" before launching into his solo version of "Pennyroyal Tea" on Unplugged. It's such an anomaly in the set -- of 14 songs, six are covers and three are quiet Nirvana songs. There are no other songs whose studio versions carry the menace and noise of this one, particularly in the super-secret Steve Albini mix. That Kurt screws up his last run through the chorus makes it even a little bit better -- it caps the stand-out track from maybe the definitive Nirvana document; just as it's done, Dave Grohl compliments him, and Kurt tells him to shut up.

"Mayan Pilot" (8 plays, tied for #395): When I discovered Splashdown in 2000 it was a revelation of what the Internet could do for a music obsessive like myself. Here was an excellent band producing a sound that seemed difficult to market in the late 90's and getting screwed by their major label deal. It seemed at the time that I was discovering great new bands every week, but Splashdown were one of the few that stuck, and a big part of it was this funky but light track built on the sweet vocals of singer Melissa Kaplan. Their whole catalog is full of solid pop songwriting and creativity, but this is the tune that's consistently gotten lodged in my head over the past eight years.

VERDICT: Not a close call, really. I liked "Pennyroyal Tea" a lot when I first heard it on In Utero, but the details of the Unplugged performance have been seared into my brain for nearly 15 years. As much as I love the music itself, it's really the significance of it to my cultural upbringing that makes it so tough to beat it in the first round.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What's Your Favorite Song?

A couple days ago, a post at TheDailyPage.com raised an impossible question: What's your favorite song? It's a question I couldn't even begin to think of an answer to. I've got 500+ songs rated at five stars on my iPod and if I have one favorite song, it's in there somewhere. But how to distinguish it among flash-in-the-pan recent loves and other tunes that are great but not GREAT? Could it even be done?

Well, maybe. I thought about a series of head-to-head comparisons of 128 songs, widdling them done to one champion. So I took the list of fivers from the iPod and started striking songs that weren't legitimate contenders. Newer stuff got kicked. Almost all local songs were out, on the idea that part of what makes the favorite is a sense of a large community of fans existing somewhere out there. And in any case in which one album had multiple fives I tried to pick my favorite from those (e.g., Radiohead's "Just" knocked "My Iron Lung" out). And I was still left with over 200 tunes. So I took another whack at the list, got it down to 192 and decided to do three-way trials in the first round. I put them all in random order then grouped in threes for 64 sets. For each set, I'll listen to the songs, figure out which I like best, and write it up. In 127 posts I'll have a favorite song, just in case this ever comes up again.