Monthly Archives: January 2011

The greatest songs of all time (in my world, at least)

I wish there was an objective standard to measuring the quality of art. There is not, so we are left with subjective opinions, and popular music is no exception. While I acknowledge what I call the Citizen Kanes of contemporary music, such as Stairway to Heaven, Imagine, Purple Haze, etc., they don’t stick with me quite like some other lesser-known, but equally as relevant, works. In compiling my best of list, I focused on what incites passion and other intense feelings in me, as well as containing technical brilliance. This is what I found.

Top Ten

  1. Ballad of Casey Deiss, Shawn Phillips He may be one of the most accomplished songwriters whom very few know exist. He had his heyday in the 70’s when he penned this masterpiece, and faded into semi-anonymity recognized only by a small, devoted following. His work was never radio-friendly, nor did he aspire to that. His arrogance in floating somewhat sanctimoniously above the fray was a double-edged sword: His songs are brilliant and timeless, but he never achieved success in the traditional sense. This song is considered amongst his fans to be his opus, and rightly so. It was inspired by the true story of a man who was struck by lightening, but Phillips wove it into an epic fantasy tale. The music accompanying this allegory on the surface sounds complex; I was surprised to discover that the lead guitar is a simple rolling Am-C-G-Am progression. It was how he layered it with other instruments and his multi-octave vocalizations that keeps this listener coming back for more. I never tire of it. I saw him perform it in a small tavern years ago with only his acoustic guitar. At age 60+, he still reached the highest notes as if 30 years passed for all but him. He got a standing ovation, and I was moved to tears.
  2. Breakthrough, Shawn Phillips This sycophant can’t help herself—this guy was that good. This song is achingly gorgeous with arpeggiated guitar, orchestral accompaniment, and heart-felt lyrics sung so wonderfully and passionately, a surge of cool energy travels up my arms every time I hear it. He ended the song with soft, ascending notes that he sustained for an eternity. The soaring orchestra beautifully compliments his gentle falsetto.
  3. Children’s Crusade, Sting He is my top songwriting influence, and this song is a perfect example why that is the case. While the Children’s Crusades historically marked the march for Christianity back in the 13th Century, Sting poetically drew parallels to other wars: We send our children to fight for a cause they are too young to understand. He grabs the listener instantly after a spare musical introduction: Young men, soldiers, nineteen fourteen. Marching through countries they’ve never seen . . . Then reels them in as the music crescendos passionately to belie his resigned disgust: The flower of England face down in the mud, and stained in the blood of a whole generation. Gah! Here come the goosebumps.
  4. The Priest, Joni Mitchell Why does no one refer to this song when reminiscing about Joni? The artist herself didn’t even include it in her Hits and Misses album. Hell, I’d be satisfied if she considered it a miss. Just acknowledge it, for cripe’s sake. It is from her masterful Ladies of the Canyon, and like the other tunes on that album, it is just her and one instrument. Her quick finger-style guitar playing is the perfect backdrop for the setting of a Priest who is having a lapse of faith. He is resigned to the loneliness of an airport bar to contemplate the Father to whom he devoted his life. He took his contradictions out and splashed them on my brow. That line is beautiful in its simplicity. There are no complex words or references, but the symbolism speaks volumes. Her lovely soprano is the cherry on top; it makes the hair on my forearms stand at attention.
  5. Carry On/Questions, CSN&Y I must dance in glee every time this song comes on. Stephen Still’s song about moving on after his relationship with Judy Collins ended, is one of most uplifting tunes I have heard, ironically enough. His acoustic guitar starts the song full-throttle, with a forceful and frenetic strumming. The alternate tuning is ambitious with four strings at E and two at B. I’ve tuned my guitar to that at the risk of busting a couple strings, and did what I could to mimic his playing style. I turn to the quote in the liner notes of their boxed set: “Anyone who says Clapton is god has not heard Stephen Stills play acoustic guitar.” Carry On is the first part of the song; it seques to the second part—Questions—speculating on the how and why of their parting ways and if it was a wise decision. Both sides of the song could stand alone, as they are different musically, but still compliment each other as a natural transition to different phases of heartache.   
  6. Scarborough Fair/Canticle, Simon and Garfunkle Paul Simon is a brilliant storyteller and narrative songwriter. He took a traditional folk song and made it his own. Truth-be-told, I never completely understood the original lyrics, but when he wove his own words into it, it shed light on an interesting interpretation. Canticle seems to speak an anti-war message—And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotton—made me scratch beneath the surface. Is a soldier lamenting the loss of his love as he had to leave her to go to battle? With Simon’s one guitar, a soft, chiming bell, and Art Garfunkle’s beautiful harmonies, this song speaks passionately but elegantly. Are they singing for the voices that can not be heard? 
  7. Soul Cages, Sting Another masterful storyteller, Sting fashioned a mythical tale out of the hardship of the fishing industry. At least, that is the way I interpreted it. A boy challenges a fisherman to set one of the souls free that are locked in a cage. Are we imprisoned in our trades to eventually die soulless with only a shell of what we once were? Sting sang the song with a rasp, as if he was a hardened sailor, himself. Personally, this song would have been a far superior and apt theme for The Deadliest Catch, as opposed to the godawful tune that the producers of the show chose.
  8. Needle and the Damage Done, Neil Young I don’t get any arguments when I state this is Neil Young’s most accomplished piece. It just is. Besides his signature rhythmic guitar work with the descending bass notes, the lyrics brilliantly depict the pervasiveness of drug abuse. An underrated singer, he made the disgusting practice of milking blood to clean out the syringe sound touchingly poetic.
  9. Dog’s a Best Friend’s Dog, Tears for Fears I can bet my next paycheck the majority of readers have never heard of this song. It is Roland Orzabal sans his usual mate Curt Smith, in his album Elemental, and collaborated instead with Alan Griffiths. I read the lyrics as suggesting that many of us prefer to live life with the path of least resistance. It is alluring but does not accomplish much. What can feel like more of a pointless exercise than walking the dog around the block? Round and round we go without purpose, to just go to bed to prepare to do it all over again the next day. Tell Mr. Godot I’m walking the dog. Godot is thought to represent the Apocalypse. The life we live is boring, but strangely, we don’t want to leave it. Orzabal demonstrated here what a terrific singer and guitar player he is. He ends up screaming the title at the end to his fast-paced strumming on muted strings. He is defending his best friend—ignorance—as he is backed against the wall.
  10. A Christmas Song, Jethro Tull Ian Anderson is know for his caustic views on society (think of Sossity You’re a Woman). This song is a bonus track on This Was, and the gentle flute introducing the gorgeous mandolins is deliberate in misleading the listener. We think we are getting a folk Christmas carol, even with the biblical references in the first two lines. But then, the cynicism is revealed. We stuff ourselves at parties and celebrate the Christmas spirit by getting plastered. The song is short, but packs a wallop. It almost seems like the singer was sanctimonious, then caved to the social pressure to embrace the commercialism of the holiday. Hey! Santa! Pass us that bottle, will you?

Honorable mentions (in no particular order):

  • I’ve Been Waiting for You, Neil Young This is another really short tune that packs a punch. The lyrics are spare to not detract from the hypnotic and compelling music, juxtaposing a distorted, fuzzy guitar with a beautifully chiming one. David Bowie’s cover is arguably just as good, albeit more complex. 
  • Woodstock, Joni Mitchell This one is iconic. Enough said.
  • Daylight Again/Find the Cost of Freedom, CSN Stephen Stills did it again, and added Art Garfunkle as a guest singer, and threw in a banjo, to boot. Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground. Can the Republicans come up with as compelling poetry to speak in support of the war?
  • Woman King, Iron and Wine Sam Beam has a high regard for women in his lyrics. Women are often relegated to thankless tasks, and are not rightfully praised for their work. I always picture a black country woman in her backyard, beating the clothing dry that hangs on a line. She is utterly fatigued, but guided by obligation and duty. Even if the words don’t move you, the music is transfixing.  
  • The One I Love, REM This selection is based purely on raw emotion. The song had heavy radio play during a painful time where my own mortality became aware to me when an 18-year-old coworker/friend was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Every time I hear it, I am pulled back to that intense period of reflection.
  • God, Tori Amos While musically she hits the nail on the head 99% of the time, her lyrics tend to fall short. This song was an exception. Voicing her dissatisfaction with her god along with the discordant electric guitar created the perfect marriage to convey her message that perhaps, we shouldn’t blindly put faith in a deity.  
  • When the Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin I can’t think of any band that combined blues with rock better than Zeppelin.
  • Tomorrow Never Knows, The Beatles Yeah, this song is trippy, but I can’t picture a better way to deliver it. Although, Genesis and Our Lady Piece did kick-ass covers of this tune.
  • Black Queen, Stephen Stills See #5 above. He is one of the best rock/blues acoustic guitarists alive.
  • Badge, Cream The lyrics make little sense, and the title came from Clapton misreading George Harrison’s note indicating “bridge”. I don’t care; Clapton’s solo is pitch-perfect.
  • Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles The anxious strings and lamenting background vocals contrast a story of an old woman who is waiting it out as she is destined to die alone. This clearly is their most accomplished piece. Who would have thought something with such classical influences would be radio-friendly?
  • The Mummer’s Dance, Loreena McKennitt This Canadian singer continues to write timeless songs that are perfectly performed with traditional folk instruments, such as harp and violin. I don’t know what a Mummer’s dance is, but I have a clear vision of the choreography when I listen to this song, and am compelled to move to that rhythm.
  • Temples of Syrinx, Rush This is why they are one of the best progressive rock bands of their era.
  • Fanfare, Eric Matthews He is not well-known, and his lack of inclination to perform live does not help. However, this song grabbed me right away when I first heard it, and I could not wait to acquire the CD. He plays his own fanfare horn to his spine-tingling electric guitars as he sings his characteristically enigmatic lyrics.
  • Optimistic, Radiohead This is classic Radiohead, with the ironic title and Thom Yorke’s bitterness showing through in what is, to me, their most engaging song.
  • Possession, Sarah McLachlan  The synthesizer, distorted guitar, and her lilting soprano, combine into one of the most compelling songs I’ve heard. She is in rapture over the object of her obsession. This song does indeed, take my breath away. 
  • Jeremy, Pearl Jam Eddie Vedder’s intense lyrics, brilliantly setting the stage by describing an angry child’s drawing using the all-familiar Crayola names, e.g., lemon-yellow sun, are perfectly matched by Jeff Ament’s music. As it crescendos to the climax, Vedder emulates the child’s journey down the bottomless well with frantic “oohs”. What can he do but thrash around like a bug on its back? Plenty. He breaks into a growling wail as he executes his final solution.

I wonder if ten years from now, this list will at all change. Not from the current state of music, unfortunately. These songs take me back to the times before Auto-Tune. Those days are gone. Alas.

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The Ploy of Painting

Who doesn’t know Bob Ross—the inordinately hirsute art instructor and television personality? His half-hour program, The Joy of Painting, aired from 1983 to 1994, and brought the creation of decorative art into millions of homes around the world.

Don’t get me wrong by my sarcastic pun of the title—Bob Ross had a significant influence on the art world. He discovered and shared a way to make painting accessible and inviting to those normally daunted by the idea of picking up a brush and applying it to canvas. He made it fun and leisurely, and sparked creativity in children who happened to catch his program on public television, including yours truly. He was also philanthropic; he donated his programs and paintings to public stations, and made his living only from the sale of his books and instructional videos. He can’t be faulted for that, right? Of course he can!

First off, I must point out the obvious: What was UP with that frizzy ‘fro, and why so much of it? To top it off, it was a perfect sphere around his skull, like a halo in a medieval painting. How was hair that unruly cut in such a way that every last coiling strand was tucked into a pristine bubble? It was like Mr. Miyagi went all bonsai tree on him every time before the cameras started rolling. Was that beard a continuation of the mop growing from his scalp? It was like he bought it by the yard and wrapped his head and face in it like a keffiyeh.    

Bleh. I just got bitch-slapped by an annoying thing called my conscience. I logged in fully intending on ripping this poor guy to shreds until only a pile of viscera and fringe was left in my wake. I just can’t do it, for the simple reason that this guy was just too darn nice. Besides the aforementioned generosity, he clearly made a career out of doing something that he loved. Plus, he worked up until the year before his untimely death—of cancer, no less. Why did it have to be cancer? Bah! Grabbing onto his nappy coif and dragging him through the mud just would not be sporting. I might as well kick a terminally ill child’s puppy while I’m at it. Dammit. Blast you, Bob!

So, I am left with going gentler on his legacy. I’ll try to still make it fun.

Even as a kid, I noticed the preponderance of pine trees in his paintings. It seemed like everything had a pine tree. If you don’t believe me, here are a few examples:

See? There they are on the left.

They moved to the right. Those sneaky bastards.

And they mated and multiplied. Horny rascals.

There is more evidence, but frankly, I was getting annoyed uploading these photos and positioning them. They aren’t in every painting, but they are in a lot of them. A lot. Plus, he painted them the same way. He scooped up paint with his palette knife, made a line on the canvas to suggest the trunk, then took a dark green mixture (probably ivory black and phthalo green) on his brush and whoosh whoosh whoosh, painted the foliage by smashing the brush in alternating angles down said trunk. It was difficult for this method to not be singed into the viewer’s memory, because he did it so often. What does this mountainous landscape need? A pine tree! How can I make this river scene idealic? A pine tree, of course! What shall I do to round out this galactic tableau? Whoosh whoosh whoo . . . okay, that probably didn’t happen. I think I’ve made my point with this one and can conclude that the dude really dug pine trees. I’m partial to painting skulls, knives, and droplets of blood in my pieces, but as Bob would always say, “It is your world.”

While an art student, I posed the following question to some of the faculty: Would Bob Ross do well in their class? Every time, I got a resounding “no”. It turns out that Mr. Ross’s mane got tangled in the craw of many professional artists, and was apparently keeping Thomas Kinkade company (that’s a different post and I refuse to pull punches). Why the animosity? Because, he made it too easy. Basically, he took the art out of art, or more to the point, he removed the mystery. How can artists who devote their lives to their craft have it be reduced to such simplicity? They spend months on each piece, laying their emotions bare on the canvas, to only have it trivialized by one man, albeit a well-intentioned one. I admit, as an artist myself, I find the argument compelling. Painting is an extremely difficult undertaking, and takes years to master, if at all. The greatest artists don’t necessarily rest on their laurels; even Rembrandt felt like he still had much to learn. I, along with many others, have spent years and thousands of dollars on an education to achieve the goal of creating lasting works. Truth-be-told, I don’t care to have my passion rendered inconsequential by some hack. There, I said it.

Excuse me while I spit out the sour grapes. PLORK! Okay, I’m over myself. While it is uncomfortable to dilute contempt that positions our egos on a high horse, it is the magnanimous thing to do. While the quality of his art is questionable, I must credit him for starting me on the artistic journey I will be on until the end of my days.

Thomas Kinkade is a whole different story. He’ll reap the whirlwind once I decide to critique him.

Psychopathy: The game the whole family can play

I didn’t think it was possible, but the Fred Phelp’s clan has sunk to an all new low. It is no surprise that they seize on any opportunity to further their message and vilify the Hell-bound heathens of this world. However, I’ll admit that preying on the tragedy of a young girl’s death, just to prove their point, was not a possibility that came to mind. But yet, that is precisely what they are doing as I write this. Like jackals, they are vomiting on the tragedy of others as they feed on it.

Let’s call a spade a spade with this one: Fred Phelps is a psychopath. He has gotten this far in life because he hides it behind religious sanctimony in the form of Westboro Baptist Church. He has spread his mutated seed to a family bred of pathologies. If his minions were not born that way, they certainly were raised to be like that. Call it what you will: nature versus nurture; psychopathy versus sociopathy—it all results in the same carnage, emotional or physical.

“Thank God for the shooter!”  Really? They want to thank a deity for making someone “mentally unhinged” (that is a whole different issue) enough to lay waste to a group of people who were peacefully supporting their beliefs? Again, really? I am compelled to point out that Jared Loughner was also described as a “pot-smoking loner.” Isn’t partaking of the evil weed a sin in the eyes of their god? I am struggling with the paradox there. Oh wait, it’s just hypocrisy. That makes more sense.

Don’t think for a minute that they are completely blinded by their delusions. They are very calculating in their actions. Notice that they only incite violence, not commit it. Because of that, they can build a fort out of the First Amendment as they shoot their vitriol from behind it. That doesn’t make them less nefarious. There are a lot of psychopaths who do not get blood on their hands. Charles Manson is one who comes to mind.

What will it take to stop them? As long as they only speak—sticks and stones and all that—they have a right to air their stench. I argue that it isn’t a fundamental right but a priviledge. As usual, there has to be someone out there to abuse it and spoil it for everyone else. Given enough rope, they will hang themselves. But, at what cost? If we put a gun in their hands to see what they do, while at best a social experiment, risking the consequences is not an option. What must be addressed is, again, what has been hard-wired in this congregation. While they may not be very effective or galvanized individually, as a group, they have tremendous potential. They are a (cross)hair away from being no different than the Nazis.  

If you think that is an overly dramatic fear tactic, think about this: About 3% of the population is homosexual. It is a difficult statistic to capture accurately, as society has conditioned themselves to think it is wrong, hence many don’t ask and certainly don’t tell. Based on this number, if the Westboro Baptist Church had their way, they’d surpass the Holocaust by a factor of three. Genocide, anyone?

More Miscellaneous Musings

Here is my second installment of ponderings. They’re just as random as the last batch.

  • Ms Ryder, Winona, if you really were called an oven-dodger, you should be outraged. No one deserves that level of disrespect. Regardless, I still don’t like you.
  • I hate to break it to the Robert Pattinson adoration society, but technically, his vampire from Twilight is a pedophile. Think about it. He met her when she was 17 and he was 109; he is over six times her age. That’s just creepy.
  • Speaking of, it seems only in religion can abstinence be preached and pedophilia practiced at the same time, and get away with it.
  • The person who decided to train cashiers to sandwich the receipt between the currency and coin, needs to be bludgeoned with a pillowcase full of register tape rolls. 
  • Just because I don’t have time to talk about gay marriage, animal rights, etc., doesn’t mean I am against it. I just don’t care to show my support while standing outside in inclement weather and talking to a complete stranger, all while missing my train. Nothing incites that level of devotion in me.
  • Why do people on television or the movies make out after drinking coffee? A garlic and shit sandwich is the only thing that might result in worse breath.
  • I think we should all practice reverse psychology on ourselves and make New Year’s Irresolutions instead, and list all the things we want to do as things we don’t want to do. What’s the worst that could happen? 
  • What is reality tv like in Bizarro World?
  • Why is it good to be the salt of the earth, but bad to salt the earth?
  • While I don’t subscribe to the concept of heaven and hell, I think proof of the latter may be in the growing popularity of skinny jeans.
  • How can celebrities be so image-conscious, yet go out of their way to arouse suspicion that they might be insane?
  • So what you are saying is that your soul—Thetan is it?—was dropped in a Californian ocean . . . from Venus? Really?
  • In any other occupation, Tom Cruise would be institutionalized.
  • I think L. Ron Hubbard was looking to recruit all people named Diane into his cult. He failed with me. Neener neener booyah!
  • Who is the arbiter of which religion is the right one? I haven’t met that entity yet.
  • Why is it that people who believe in angels are considered normal, but those who do of fairies are touched in the head? They’re both chicks with wings, just like Victoria’s Secret models.
  • Now . . . why do we need pennies?
  • Am I the only one who gets freaked out by the tests of the Emergency Broadcast System?
  • When will the general public realize that Taylor Swift is not talented?
  • I’m just going to say it. If Justin Bieber removed his helmet of hair, he’d look like the poster child for St. Jude’s Hospital.
  • What does it take to get Gary Oldman an Oscar nomination? The British actor played an American who was a psychotic, perverted, paraplegic, self-mutilating, homosexual pedophile who FED HIS FACE TO DOGS! For cripe’s sake, a role doesn’t get much more challenging than that. 
  • News flash! It isn’t special anymore to own a mobile phone. There is no important person’s club, and even if there was, you couldn’t be a member. So zip it!  
  • If someone farted during a moment of silence, I suspect that person would use the remaining time to pray no one heard it. 
  • I wonder if Alfred Fielding popped a pimple in the mirror and said, “Eureka!” Then, he invented bubblewrap.
  • The person who could create a laxative for writer’s block would become a bazillionaire, then collapse into bankruptcy and ruin once it is discovered it causes colon cancer. Figures.
  • If a married human had sex with a humanoid, is it cheating? I hope not; it would seriously corrupt my Jude Law AI fantasy.

And again, where do I end this mess? There was an overwhelming religious and deviant sex theme with this group. Hmm.