Monthly Archives: July 2016

ROCK N’ READ: The Rap Year Book

Earlier this summer I was in Barnes & Noble, haunting the Arts & Entertainment section. I was looking for a good book to read on the history of punk music, what I found instead was a really good primer for rap music. Shea Serrano, a former columnist on the now-defunct Grantland website, has crafted a nice introduction to the genre. Far from being definitive, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed provides a nice introduction to a rap novice (such as myself). Like the rather lengthy title suggests, the book is broken up into chapters by year starting in 1979 and ending in 2014, each chapter focuses on the most important song of said year. Serrano opens each chapter simply with a “What This Song Is About” and “Why It’s Important” section before proceeding to wax philosophically about the merits of that years song. This longer, essay portion of each chapter is followed up with a colorful infographic or illustration that ties somehow into the subject matter of the song featured. These are all really amusing, though I didn’t get to enjoy them as fully as I’d would have liked because I bought the Kindle version of the book and most of them didn’t display properly on my iPad.

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The Rap Year Book chronicles the maturation of the the genre and illustrates not only the massive creative talent behind the music, but also maps out the various genres and sub-genres that contributed to the birth of rap. Despite being a thoughtful, articulate explanation of why each song is most important song of a particular year, this book is divisive as hell. Anytime one tries to pick “the best of the year” in any subject, there’s going to be some hard choices made. Refreshingly, at the end of every chapter there is a “Rebuttal” section where another writer gives a brief explanation of why an entirely different song from that year is actually the best song. Some of these short mini-essays could have been fleshed out themselves into interesting chapters. I found this to be a ballsy move on Serrano’s part and helps to illustrate just how the author doesn’t 100% fully believe that his picks are the only correct picks for song of the year.

In case your’e wondering, here are Serrano’s picks/chapters of the book:

1979 “Rapper’s Delight” The Sugarhill Gang

1980 “The Breaks” Kurtis Blow

1981 “Jazzy Sensation” Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five

1982 “The Message” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

1983 “Sucker M.C.’s” Run-DMC

1984 “Friends” Whodini

1985 “La Di Da Di” Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick

1986 “6 in the Mornin’” Ice-T

1987 “Paid in Full” Eric B. and Rakim

1988 “Straight Outta Compton” N.W.A

1989 “Fight the Power” Public Enemy

1990 “Bonita Applebum” A Tribe Called Quest

1991 “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” Geto Boys

1992 “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” Dr. Dre, featuring Snoop Dogg

1993 “C.R.E.A.M.” Wu-Tang Clan

1994 “Juicy” The Notorious B.I.G.

1995 “Dear Mama” Tupac

1996 “California Love” Tupac, featuring Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman

1997 “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” Puff Daddy, featuring Mase

1998 “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” DMX

1999 “My Name Is” Eminem

2000 “Big Pimpin’” Jay Z, featuring UGK

2001 “Takeover” vs. “Ether” Jay Z vs. Nas

2002 “Grindin’” The Clipse

2003 “In Da Club” 50 Cent

2004 “Still Tippin’” Mike Jones, featuring Slim Thug and Paul Wall

2005 “Gold Digger” Kanye West, featuring Jamie Foxx

2006 “Hustlin’” Rick Ross

2007 “International Players Anthem” UGK, featuring Outkast

2008 “A Milli” Lil Wayne

2009 “Best I Ever Had” Drake

2010 “Monster” Kanye West, featuring Rick Ross, Jay Z, Bon Iver, and Nicki Minaj

2011 “Niggas in Paris” Jay Z and Kanye West

2012 “Same Love” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

2013 “Control” Big Sean, featuring Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica

2014 “Lifestyle” Rich Gang, featuring Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan

 Obviously the first chapter, 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, is an important chapter because it kicks off both the book and the genre itself. Other standout chapters (in my humble opinion) are 1989’s “Fight the Power,” 1990’s “Bonita Applebum” (cited here as the “first true rap love song”), and 2006’s “Hustlin.” I really enjoyed the chapter on Rick Ross’ “Hustlin” because I liked finding out what a complete and utter bullshit artist Ross is. The evolution of rap songwriting from brutally autobiographical to the fanciful bullshit stylings of Rick Ross is a fascinating transformation. I also really appreciate how well-represented Kanye West during the 00’s.

There’s a Spotify playlist available that features the songs mentioned in the book and it’s just as essential. Overall, I think the careful thought and intelligent analysis of The Rap Year Book make this a must-read for anyone even remotely interested it the both rap music and modern black art. Even if you don’t agree with all of the choices for song of the year, there is so much good analysis of lyrics, artist backstory, historical context, and in-depth interpretation this is one year book you’ll actually want to revisit.

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Iron Maiden Legacy of the Beast

Legendary British metalheads Iron Maiden are no strangers to merchandising. Beyond the usual band March (t-shirts, posters, hats, etc.) the band was one of the first acts I was personally aware of hawking their own brand of beer. These days, phone apps are where the money is, so it should come as no surprise that Iron Maiden have an iPhone game. Intrigued, I downloaded Iron Maiden Legacy of the Beast to see what it was like. What sort of game would it be? I had no idea. To my surprise, the game is a fanatasy turn-based RPG!


The game follows Maiden’s long-time mascot Eddie as he battles monsters on a quest to reclaim pieces of his soul. Along the way, a mysterious clairvoyant woman helps him and various monsters join your party. The graphics are pretty good for a mobile game. The visuals are fun but not gruesome, like many metal album covers, and the artwork skews very comic book-y. I’m not a huge fan of turn-based games, but I think this style of game play works well for a mobile game. I really liked the style of the creatures you battle and their various attacks. The game also features a ton of references to Iron Maiden’s music. The levels and creatures all have fun names that either directly or indirectly reference the band’s impressive musical legacy. Some of the sound effects for the menus and some of the attacks are also musical flourishes (drum strikes and guitar riffs and the like).


The game is free, which of course means the are micro-transactions. There are a plethora of power-ups and collectibles which I had a really hard time understanding. I played for about 20 minutes before I hit a wall and was asked if I wanted to pay a little money to get extra goodies. I think that if you’re able to resist the nickel-and-diming Iron MaidenLegacy of the Beast is worth checking out if you’re a fan of the band and need a pleasant enough distraction. Casual fans may enjoy the game, too but this game is pretty by-the-numbers and I have no doubt I wouldn’t have bothered downloading it were it not for the bands’s licence. Have you played this game? What are your thoughts and feelings?

I would love to see a GNR game set in a monster-filled LA. Now that’s a game I could really sink my teeth into…

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Please Consider Supporting Toxic Melons’ Kickstarter

Hello Friends. So remember when I asked you all to send me $900 so I could go see Kanye West perform in Las Vegas? Well perhaps consider donating instead to Paul Fairbairn’s Toxic Melon’s Kickstarter campaign. Paul releases excellent power-pop under the name “Toxic Melons” and hoo-boy does he have a fantastic E.P. in the works titled “Four Play”. Not only did this guy get guitar hero Eric Dover to participate…he got Roger Manning. Are you a fan of Jellyfish? You know, that band I won’t stop blathering about that everyone who’s ever heard them loves? Well if you pine for those golden power-pop days of yore, supporting Paul’s Kickstarter is a great way to see those days live again, people!!!

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Yummy.

So far Paul’s been able to raise roughly half the amount of money he needs in order to put the E.P. out as a physical product (delicious, delicious vinyl!). I can’t stress enough how important just about everything related to this Kickstarter is to us power-pop fans. Jellyfish connection? Check. Brilliant-but-under-appreciated starving musician? Check. The promotion of physical media as a great keepsake/vinyl release? Triple check. I know all of you were planning on sending me to see Yeezus, but spend your money on Toxic Melons instead.

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Spring/Early Summer 2016 Album Lightning Round: A Whole Lotta Love

My buddy Ovidiu Boar over at Tangle Up In Music has a really nice recurring column where he combines a bunch of short album reviews into one long post. I’ve got a pretty large backlog of albums to review that came out over the last few months so I’m adopting (read: stealing) his format in order to purge myself of these albums. I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so go check out Ovidiu Boar and his fantastic website.

Alright, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a couple of albums I’ve been meaning to review:

WEEZER (White Album) by Weezer

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Weezer are one of those bands that I sometimes wish would just stop recording and retire. But every time I completely write them off the band turns up with a decent album. The last time Weezer surprised me was back in 2008 when they released THE RED ALBUM, and that was nearly a decade ago. Since that time, the band has continued to tour and released albums. None of them were very good/memorable and when they came out, I didn’t hear anyone talk about them. I’m not sure what’s going on with Weezer, but when the best song your band’s put out in 8 years is a cover of “Unbreak My Heart,” it might be time to hang up your boots. Then last month, when I was listening to the new Monkees album, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my favorite track was written by Rivers Cuomo. Which got me excited about the new Weezer album, which is again self-titled and will henceforth be referred to by its color designation. THE WHITE ALBUM doesn’t have anything on it as good as his Monkee’s song “She Makes Me Laugh,” but the album isn’t a disaster. In fact, there’s some pretty good stuff on it. Before I praise the band, however, I have to acknowledge that once again the single is the worst part of a Weezer album. “Thank God For Girls” once again features Rivers embarrassing-as-hell rapping. I’m not sure who keeps telling him he can pull this off, but I wish they’d be honest with him. Rivers: you can’t rap, please stop.

“(Girl We Got A) Good Thing” should have been the single! It’s a great pop ballad that actually would have fit nicely on that Monkee’s album I keep mentioning. A fun, throwback pop song, it’s the kind of track the band’s marketing should be pushing. The album opener, “California Kids” is another track I really enjoy.  Both of these songs have a Beach Boys-by-way-of-The Cars sound that I really dig it.

“Do You Wanna Get High?” has a catchy chorus that (subject matter notwithstanding) also would have made a good choice for an album single. Near the end THE WHITE ALBUM loses steam, particularly on “L.A. Girlz” which is as dumb as the track’s spelling. Thankfully, the album redeems itself with the  fantastically sublime campfire singalong closing track “Endless Bummer.” This is hands-down my favorite track on the album, mostly because it’s the kind of sad sack song Weezer used to be really good at writing.  Any song (or album for that matter) with the lyrics “kumbaya makes me violent/I just want this summer to end” can’t be anything but awesome. Weezer, I’m glad you’re still out there plugging away. Hopefully it won’t be another 8 years before they put out another good album.

 

PAGING MR. PROUST by The Jayhawks

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The Jayhawks are one of those great 90’s college rock bands I don’t ever hear enough people talk about. I’m not exactly sure why they never reached the same legendary status of their peers R.E.M, but they really should have become household names. The last Jayhawks album I listened to was RAINY DAY MUSIC from 2003, which if you haven’t heard is fantastic and worth checking out. The Jayhawks are an Americana/Folk-Rock band that sometimes sound an awful lot like Neil Young & CSNY so if you’re a fan of that kind of music, The Jayhawks are probably your next favorite band.

PAGING MR. PROUST features the same brilliant harmonies and guitar playing one would expect to find on a Jayhawks album, but with an extra shade of darkness. I’m not sure how to explain it, but this music reminds me of autumnal sunset. There’s a cool edge bleeding into the band’s warmth and a lonely feeling permeates the album. PAGING MR. PROUST opens with “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” a song drenched in 60’s era folk. The harmonies kick in and I suddenly remembered why I love this band so much. “Lovers of the Sun” with it’s quiet melancholy is achingly beautiful and my favorite track on the record. My second favorite song is the harder edged “Comeback Kids,” which is a great love song that isn’t afraid to sound a little spooky. Another standout track, “The Devil In Her Eyes” features a stratospheric guitar solo at the end that recalls Mr. Young’s PSYCHEDELIC PILL record from a few years back.  “Dust of Long Dead Stars” with it’s Romantics-esque guitar riff is another standout track.

Not everything on the album fires on all cylinders, and there are sadly a few duds on the album. I have tried to love “Lost the Summer” but just can’t connect with it. The track’s intentionally cold, detached feel is no doubt the barrier preventing me from enjoying it. I can intellectually see that it’s great, with some fantastic guitar work, but it just doesn’t move me. Similarly, the scratchy/glitchy sounding “Ace” is more filler and less album track. I’m not sure why the band felt that this needed to be included on PAGING MR. PROUST. Still, these minor blemishes can’t distort the overall beauty of this Jayhawks album.

 

THE GETAWAY by Red Hot Chili Peppers

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I nearly copied and pasted my opening paragraph from my Weezer review. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are yet another 90’s band that I sometimes think should just give up the ghost and retire as legends. I found their last album, 2011’s I’M WITH YOU, to be pedestrian and highly forgettable. The band’s last truly great album was 1999’s CALIFORNICATION (I really liked parts of STADIUM ARCADIUM but being a bloated double-album take it down a few notches in my book), which if you’re keeping score was a really long time ago. I’ve never really been a real big Chili Peppers fan, but back in 2012 and 2013 the band released a bunch of songs recorded during the I’M WITH YOU sessions–songs that weren’t featured on the album. These songs, collected as I’M BESIDE YOU, are some of the best songs I’ve ever heard from the band. I actually need to sit down and do a write-up on these tracks because they are outstanding. So, these amazing b-sides are what piqued my interest for THE GETAWAY.

How is the album? It’s pretty good. Nothing on the album is as great as those b-sides from 2012/2013, but there are some good stuff on THE GETAWAY. The title track is a great, classic late-era Peppers-sounding track. With a funky beat and that distinct electric bass that’s come to define the band, it starts the album off right. Sadly the album can’t maintain this momentum and becomes a bit underwhelming, with one too many un-funky tracks for my liking. Besides the aforementioned “The Getaway,” I also enjoyed the equally good “Dark Necessities.”

And while the album never drops off, never to regain the heights of that one-two-punch, there are good tracks sprinkled throughout the rest of the album. For example, I enjoyed “Detroit” the band’s love letter to that hardscrabble Michigan city. The buoyant “We Turn Red” sounds like a single waiting to happen, it’s a great song that recalls the band’s earlier efforts. I wish the bulk of the album had been as energetic, the only other track on THE GETAWAY that comes close to being as interesting is the shimmering dance track”Go Robot.”And while I don’t think it’s fantastic, it’s worth checking out the album closer “Dreams of a Samurai” which besides being very strange, seems to reference the recent death of Scott Weiland.

Sadly, I don’t think I can recommend THE GETAWAY but there’s enough interesting stuff on the album that I also can’t outright dismiss it. If you’re a diehard fan you’ll probably be pleased enough with the record, everyone else should just stick to the singles. And, of course, stay tuned for that post on those amazing b-sides the band put out a few years ago.

 

That’s it for now. I imagine I’ll have to do one more of these to get myself fully caught up. Chime in below if you’ve heard any of these albums and agree/disagree with me (I love hearing how wrong I am).

 

 

 

 

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Send Defending Axl Rose To See Kanye West

Hello. Well this is awkward. A few weeks ago I found out that Kanye West would be touring in support of his latest album/magnum opus THE LIFE OF PABLO. Normally, this would be great news except he wasn’t coming to the city I live in. I was pretty bummed out. Then, a few days after my birthday, my parents got to see Guns N’ Roses in Kansas City. While very happy for them, this also really bummed me out. I should have gone to that show, but unfortunately a new job and a new baby (plus lack of money) meant that I’d have to skip seeing GNR. I’m barely able to live with myself, people. I swore that the next time a “Holy Fuck!” artist went on tour I’d do everything in my power to go and see them.

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Which leads me to Kanye. I was once offered free tickets to see Kanye open for U2, but I had already made unbreakable plans was was forced to pass up the opportunity. My relationship with Kanye started in the fall of 2005. I was living in the dorms at the University of St.Louis-Missouri when hurricane Katrina hit. The kids studying in New Orleans were distributed to colleges all across the nation. I remember sitting on the front porch of my dorm building, smoking Camel cigarettes, when a van pulled up and deposited two such refugees. The school representative helped them with their luggage, gave them vouchers for food, and then basically said “good luck” and drove off. I could tell that these kids were shell-shocked and in need of help. I didn’t really know anyone in St. Louis at the time, having just moved there myself, so I sympathized with them. I took them out for lunch and we became friends. They introduced me to Budweiser (up until that point I did not know there was any variety other than Bud Light), Tyler Perry movies, and Kanye West. LATE REGISTRATION had just dropped and they insisted that I hear it. That was my gateway to rap music, a gift that continues to enrich my life over ten years later.

This year’s LIFE OF PABLO is my number one favorite album. It’s the album I listen to when I run and when I speed to fast on the highway. In short, I need to see this man, but I can’t afford a trip and concert without help. Please take a moment to consider donating to my Go Fund Me campaign.  It feels weird asking for this money, but at the same time you’ll be getting something out of this, too. For starters, I plan on writing extensively about both the lead-up to the concert, the concert, and my post-concert thoughts/feelings. Maybe some of you would pay to NOT get my thoughts on a Kanye West concert, to those people I say: “Why are you still reading this post?” I’m going to reward my top donors with a thank you package and wear the names of everyone who donated to the fund on a special t-shirt when (if?) I attend the show.

I promise not to be annoying about this and post about it ad nauseam. I also won’t make this a “thing” that I do for every concert I go to. I can afford a $35 ticket to see Weezer in the city where I live, I don’t expect people to pick up the tab on that sort of thing. I do feel like I’ve turned my readers onto good albums and songs over the years. And I know I’ve made you laugh (at least once) even it was at me and not necessarily with me…that has to be worth a buck or two, right?

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