"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
February 23, 2011
BASEBALL: Whither Wright?
The buried lede: unless I'm misreading the chart, does the Fangraphs data actually say that the percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone declined steadily leaguewide from 55.1% in 2004 to 46.5% in 2010? That's an enormous change and pretty much the opposite of what you would expect during a period of declining home run production. I wonder how much of that is attributable to changing pitching patterns and how much may be in some way a collateral consequence of narrower strike zone measurement due to QuesTec.
February 18, 2011
POLITICS: I Don't Want No Tea. It Gives Me A Headache.
February 17, 2011
BASEBALL: Wilmer the Kid
While he's an interesting story in his own right, Wilmer Flores will be an intriguing guy to watch to see (1) what the short-term impact of Sandy Alderson replacing Omar Minaya is on the Mets' player-development philosophy and (2) what the Mets think of the future of the vaunted left side of their infield.
As to the former, while this is his fourth year in pro ball, Flores doesn't turn 20 until August (assuming his birthdate in Venezuela is correctly reported), so there is no immediate rush to promote him, and like the early years of Fernando Martinez' prospect career there's a tendency to grade Flores' offensive output on the curve on grounds of being young for his leagues. After a strong year at age 16 in rookie ball and a weak one at 17 in the Sally League, Flores had a classic F-Mart season last year, hitting .289/.333/.424 between low and high A ball, belting a strong 36 doubles (with 11 homers) but otherwise doing nothing on the basepaths (4 steals in 9 tries) and struggling with the strike zone (32 BB, 77 K), both patterns throughout his minor league career.
In other words, a guy who will need a good deal more seasoning to move from a live young bat - .289 and 50 extra base hits is nothing to sneeze at from an 18-year-old - to a productive hitter. Minaya's philosophy was to keep pushing guys like that up the ladder to challenge them, but sometimes being challenged all the time prevents you from developing enough mastery to expand your skills. I tend to think Flores should be allowed to become a star in the low minors before he gets fast-tracked.
Apparently the Mets plan to promote Flores to AA this season, and Terry Collins is drooling over his ability to advance swiftly as a shortsop. That's not actually that encouraging, but it may be part of a broader team effort to motivate Jose Reyes to have a good walk year (or a tacit recognition that the post-Madoff Mets may not have the money to sign Reyes). The problem with Flores is that he's projected as either a SS or 3B, and of course the Mets are set at 3B, and moving Reyes to 2B was already tried disastrously once before.
February 15, 2011
BASEBALL: Wieters and PECOTA
David Pinto looks at the suddenly pessimistic PECOTA projection for Matt Wieters. But as the Hardball Times' Colin Wyers explained back in the spring of 2009, it was PECOTA that artificially inflated expectations of Wieters' immediate success in the first place, because the model used bad adjustments for the two minor leagues he played in in 2008.
Even the best formulas are subject to the old "garbage in, garbage out" rule. Wieters remains a promising young player, and it's not that unusual for a third-year player to bust out after taking a step backwards. That said, clearly his performance last season makes it less likely that he will become a Piazza-style dominant offensive force. Perhaps the Orioles' most important task as an organization this season is to make sure Wieters isn't dragged down by the disarray around him. Having Buck Showalter's energetic and competent management and the positive veteran role model of Derrek Lee may help (although Wieters hit just .255/.313/.389 after Showalter took over last season).
February 14, 2011
BASEBALL: Spring Training Open Thread
Once again, too busy with stuff to write.
February 11, 2011
WAR: Fall of the House of Mubarak
Today is a day for joy. Hosni Mubarak has stepped down immediately as President of Egypt. Following on the heels of the departure of Ben Ali in Tunisia, we are witnessing the hitherto unprecedented spectacle of the people of a Muslim Arab state rising up in protest, of their own initiative, and throwing off a remarkably well-entrenched dictator. We rejoice in the spectacle because we are Americans; it's who we are. We know our system, even in the worst of hands, remains the best in the world, and we want to see others share in those same blessings.
But after the initial wave of joy subsides, the Egyptian crisis is far from over, and there are some important lessons to be learned.
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1. The Price of Peace Processes: The United States has, for decades, been a major financial supporter and military supplier of the Mubarak regime. How'd that happen? The roots go back to the Camp David Accords that settled the conflict between Egypt and Israel that had been a major cause of the 1967 and especially 1973 wars. The Carter Administration, to facilitate peace, promised billions in aid to both parties, essentially in perpetuity. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat - no democrat himself - was assassinated in 1981 by Islamic extremists tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and his Vice President, Mubarak, seized power and instituted "emergency" powers, the Reagan Administration continued U.S. support, which has remained constant through the next four Administrations.
The Camp David Accords are justly regarded as the high point of the otherwise disastrous Carter presidency, and I don't criticize President Carter for being willing to pay off the Egyptian regime to buy what has turned out to be the closest thing to durable peace between Israel and any of its hostile neighbors. Nor do I fault subsequent presidents for determining that other priorities - including peace with Israel, the Cold War, the first Gulf War coalition, and the hunt for Al Qaeda - were more important for U.S. interests than liberating Egypt from the yoke of Mubarak's tyranny, even if that meant giving Mubarak a perverse incentive to use state-run media to stoke the radicalism of his own people and thus make the alternative to Mubarak even less palatable. But fans of diplomatic peace processes need to recall that honoring deals to prop up nasty dictatorships who play precisely that game is very often the price of negotiated peace. Every time we sit down to talk with Ahmadenijad or Kim Jong-Il or scores of other despots around the world, we enter into the very same compromise that Jimmy Carter made with Sadat and that has endured with his successor for three decades.
2. Obama Will Do Nothing For Democracy: As I said, I don't fault any American president for siding with Mubarak while he was in firm control of Egypt. The long-term goal of American foreign policy is the worldwide spread of democracy, free markets, the rule of law and human rights - but it has never been practical to demand all those things everywhere at the same pace. If you are against all dictators equally at once, you are actually a threat to none of them; that's why it's so misguided when liberal Democrats are so often hot to put pressure on any dictator other than the one the U.S. is most interested in toppling at a given time, ensuring that our efforts will be diluted to nothing. That being said, it is useful for the dictators among our allies to be reminded that they are our allies only so long as they remain useful to us, and not a second longer; we are permanent friends to liberal democracies, but unfaithful to tyrants who deserve no better.
It would have been better for short and medium term U.S. interests if the Egyptian people had not risen up against Mubarak...but once the people began demonstrating in the streets, the dynamic changed. The Administration had an obligation, if it intended to demonstrate American seriousness about the sincerity of our belief in popular sovereignty, to take up the cause of the demonstrators and call for Mubarak's ouster.
Obama couldn't do it. Mubarak's Cairo was, after all, the place where Obama had chosen as the site for his "address to the Muslim world" in 2009 (in which he grandly pronounced that "[n]o system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other"), ignoring objections at the time that he should not lend his imprimatur to Mubarak's tyranny. As Josh Trevino details, Obama has declined at every turn - from Cairo to Teheran to Honduras - to support democracy when it was in crisis abroad, refusing to speak up even mildly against Mubarak in his hour of crisis and sending Joe Biden out to whitewash the nature of his regime. Obama's fixation on negotiations with stable heads of state - like his recent arms deal with Putin's Russia - overrides any commitment to standing with the people. To the extent that the situation in Egypt can be read as a triumph of democracy (still questionable, but to the average Muslim in the street today it looks like one), nobody will have any illusion that Obama was more than a passive observer.
3. Obama Will Do Nothing To Head Off A Worse Outcome: Where do we go from here? For today, Mubarak is gone, although it's not entirely clear that we've avoided the Putin-esque result of a new government that is essentially still under his control. Reports at the moment also seem to suggest that his Vice President and previously presumptive successor, Omar Suleiman, is out too, taking with him his record of torturing prisoners. Assuming both are genuinely out, however, what we have in the short run is a military junta, and history doesn't give us the greatest of confidence that those are really temporary.
But if Egypt moves beyond a junta, there is a very real possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood will form a menacing part of the new government. Longtime Democratic pollster Doug Schoen details the support the Brotherhood has in Egypt. It's true, as was true in the pre-9/11 Taliban and of the original supporters of the Iranian Revolution against the Shah, that the Brotherhood's broad support includes a lot of people who don't mean to be backers of terrorism and sharia law, but if the Brotherhood gains power, the good intentions of the average Muslim in the street won't count for much, anymore than they did in Iran or Afghanistan, or for that matter the fact that not every German who voted for the Nazis in 1933 meant to create what followed. Michael Weiss details many of the things the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership has said even in recent years, and that's before you get to the extent to which the organization was in many ways the grandfather of radical Sunni terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Yet the Administration, consistent with its soft line on Hamas and Hezbollah, has refused to take a hard line against the Muslim Brotherhood's participation in a new Egyptian government, and the Director of National Intelligence actually, laughably tried to pass the group off as "secular" (a description that doesn't even survive contact with the first word of the organization's name).
To be sure, there is a shortage of good options to go around in Egypt, and real limits to what the United States can do (it will be especially hard for Obama, having sat on his hands during the protests, to try to take any seat at the table in telling the Egyptians what kind of government we will accept, even with the huge leverage provided by U.S. aid). But combined with serious questions about the competence of the people who are supposed to be advising the President on this, it's hard to have confidence that we'll see anything but a continuation of the Administration's policy of looking as weak and reluctant as possible.
4. Protest Is Contagious: It's still unclear how and when the protests in Egypt were planned and organized - popular revolutions generally require somebody to set the spark, and what we see in public (such as the self-immolation that set off the immediate round of protest) is not always the whole story. But clearly, they were triggered at least in part by popular awareness of the revolt in Tunisia, and the similar unrest in Yemen and Jordan seems to be following in Egypt's footsteps. Dangerous as the threat of takeover by Islamist movements may be, in the long run, this is a necessary step in the long-term reform of the Muslim and Arab worlds: the people of the region are sooner or later going to need to take responsibility for their own futures. That was, to many of us, the crucial element of the Bush Administration strategy that included the war in Iraq and showed its first (if mostly abortive) flowering in the spring of 2005: the idea that Iraq would provide an alternative model of self-governance to the continued toleration of failed states under brutal tyrants. That model still has a long way to go - as Christopher Hitchens argued for years, Iraq was in danger of a violent unraveling at the end of Saddam's reign whether we invaded or not, and as Meghan McArdle explains, much as in the former Soviet bloc, the elimination of centralized tyranny has made it harder to stamp out local corruption. But it remains nonetheless the case that as the Egyptian people agitate for the downfall of a tyrant, they have an example to look to of how a Muslim Arab country could move forward after being rid of one. (And Egypt is not Iraq; who controls Cairo, controls Egypt).
As Rany Jazayerli argues, another aspect of that contagion is Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera's biases are well-documented, but it is no friend of secularized tyrants, and it has been the most effective channel for informing the peoples of the Arab world of events in their region and the nature of their regimes. Combined with the internet, that creates a new dynamic - not one that can guarantee free government, but at least one that should frighten dictators.
5. A Deal To Go Is A Deal To Go: One wonders how much faster Mubarak - as the head of a famously corrupt regime - could have been removed if he'd been genuinely assured of a quick escape. But when a dictator is wobbling and is approached about leaving, he must always bear in mind the example of Augusto Pinochet, who cut a deal to voluntarily step down from a brutal dictatorship in Chile in 1990, only to be indicted and arrested by Spanish authorities eight years later. I shed no tears for Pinochet, but his escape deal, like a plea agreement, should have been honored for the precedent it set. Mubarak was undoubtedly reluctant to believe any promises that he could leave safely.
So, rejoice today in Egypt's moment of hope. But moments of hope have come and gone around the world before - the revolutionary moments of 1789, 1848, 1919, 1968, 1989 and 2005 all had more casualties than successes. The way forward will present Egypt with the twin threats of military dictatorship and extremist Islamist rule, and the Obama Administration can be trusted to provide neither competence, consistency, decisiveness, idealism nor realpolitik. Hope doesn't always end with change anyone can believe in.
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February 9, 2011
POLITICS: Making Stuff Up
As anyone who has spent any time reading them knows, left-wing bloggers and activists tend to live in a world of their own, in which the most outrageous sorts of allegations against conservatives and Republicans are not required to be supported by any evidence. This is especially true when it comes to accusing conservatives and Republicans of bigotry and other improper motivations; left-wingers feel free to lecture us on how they know better than we do what motivates us and how we think, and leave conservatives and Republicans stuck attempting to disprove a negative.
In theory, the Washington Post is supposed to be a reputable newspaper and above this sort of thing. But Greg Sargent, the former Talking Points Memo blogger and the Post's current in-house left-wing activist, doesn't see himself as bound by such mundane considerations as having evidence before slandering an entire movement. Consider this Tweet today from Sargent:
Hah! RT @Redshift4 TP leader compares Tea Party to abolitionism, civil rights, & women's suffrage. // 3 things they want to reverse
I saved a screenshot here in case he takes it down:
Now, if you're familiar with Twitter, this Tweet is sort of odd, as he appears to be Retweeting a user named @Redshift4 and adding his own comment after the slashes, but @Redshift4 appears to have only Tweeted once and this wasn't in that Tweet. So, it's not clear at all how much of this Tweet is Sargent's "original" thought or, for that matter, what Tea Party "leader" (there are almost as many as there are Tea Partiers, which if you know anything about the movement is kind of the point) he's quoting. But it is nonetheless clear that Sargent is at least endorsing the notion that "they" - presumably all Tea Partiers - want to "reverse" the work of the abolitionists, the civil rights movement and women's suffrage and restore slavery, Jim Crow and the male-only vote.
This is outrageous. I realize that slandering grassroots opponents of the Obama Administration is considered necessary by the left-wing blogs, that left-wing bloggers are often so unfamiliar with ordinary Americans as to find their motivations inscrutable, and that Twitter lends itself to off-the-cuff oversimplifications. And I realize that grassroots movements, by their nature, include a broad enough array of opinion and attract enough cranks that you can find somebody in a movement of millions to support just about any old fool thing. But we are talking here about bedrock elements of our Constitutional structure - the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments - and legal and social changes that are by now deeply embedded in our society, none of which has anything to do with the stated purposes by which the Tea Party movement has attracted such a wide following. Sargent cites no evidence, and I expect him to cite none, that any significant sliver of the Tea Party movement, let alone the dreaded "they" that appears to refer to the entire movement, has designs on reinstituting slavery and segregation and denying women the vote. Even the 9/11 Truthers had more to work with than this.
The Washington Post should consider whether it stands by Sargent's characterization of the motives of the entire Tea Party.
February 3, 2011
POLITICS: It's The Coverup
I'm about due for the next installment of my "Science and its Enemies on the Left" series, last updated here, and doubtless another example will be today's scoop at RedState showing the Obama Administration deep-sixing the CDC's annual report on abortion statistics.
Really, I feel sorry by this point for anyone who fell for Obama's rhetoric about his fearless support for scientific integrity. Specifically, it's been a bad couple of weeks for advocates of concealing the reality of abortion, and it's going to get worse.
BASEBALL: Pettitte Retires
So, the Yankees go on without Andy Pettitte, which creates some real issues for their rotation. More on all that to follow. A few quick thoughts:
-Hey, you know who has a career record of 5-1 with a 2.59 ERA against the Yankees? Oliver Perez. Maybe they should check that guy out. (Somewhat more seriously, Jonah Keri suggests Barry Zito).
-Pettitte will make a very interesting Hall of Fame case, especially given two things: the PED issue and the fact that he started a staggering 42 postseason games (263 postseason innings, compared to 3055 in the regular season). Pettitte ends 102 games above .500; Bob Caruthers of the old American Association of the 1880s (218-99) remains the only eligible pitcher not in the Hall to finish 100 games over .500 (27 pitchers have done it; the others not in are Clemens, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Pedro, Mussina and Glavine; the furthest over .500 by a 20th century pitcher not in is Sam Leever at 194-100). Ranked by Quality Innings (ERA+ times IP), Pettitte ranks 111th among the 245 pitchers to win 150 or more games, but that's without counting his postseason work and without adjusting for the declining workloads of modern starters.
POP CULTURE: Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part I of IV - Overview)
Much as I love music, I basically went into hibernation on the current-music scene beginning in the years between 1995 and 1997, when - in the span of little more than two years - I got married, finished law school, started a full-time-and-then-some job and became a father. Oh, I kept up with new Springsteen and U2 releases and occasionally noticed things going on here and there, and I got majorly into the Irish pop/rock band the Saw Doctors, but for the most part I didn't listen to the radio, didn't get into new artists, didn't buy new releases by even some of my favorite veteran artists, and generally got left behind by the march of new music. For a long time, I assumed I hadn't really missed anything, but of course somebody's always making good music somewhere, and as fractured and degraded as the current music scene is, there is still good stuff out there if you look hard and have some help and advice.
I finally got an iPod for Christmas in 2007, and after spending a year loading CDs and buying up a lot of the stuff on iTunes that I'd been living without for years, I started exploring the music world again in earnest in the first half of 2009. Since then, I've dug hither and yon for "new" music, i.e., things released in the past decade or so. I've scoured iTunes, plowed through YouTube videos, music blogs, Twitter and message boards, hit up my wife's CD collection, begged help from siblings, friends and this blog's readers, scanned the pop charts, looked at everything - new releases by veteran rockers, the alt rock scene, the adult contemporary pop market, the American Idol and Disney pop factories, you name it. Ben Domenech was particularly helpful, and Keith Law's alt-influenced list of the top 40 songs of the decade of the 2000s was a valuable resource - I listened to all of them. And I should acknowledge as well that following Kelly Clarkson on Twitter and elsewhere was also very useful - other than Steve Van Zandt, there's probably not another major recording artist who spends as much time and enthusiasm promoting the work of such a varied collection of other musicians.
On to the results, broken broadly in two groups: rock and alternative, on the one hand, and pop and other radio formats on the other. Come with me as I emerge, squinting, into the light of today's rock and pop scenes.
Rock and Alternative: Overview
We live in an age without new rock giants, and there is a reason for this. Rock had its heyday, its period of riotous creative ferment, in the mid/late 60s and into the 1970s, and the format in a sense grew up and came of age in the 80s, with the maturation of the first generation of musicians weaned on rock and with perhaps the period of rock's greatest commercial success. But the pipeline of new artists and new, great music has been running ever drier since about 1990. There's still good stuff out there, but there's nothing and nobody as great as the best of classic rock.
This is the way of music. We won't have another Springsteen or another Beatles or Rolling Stones for the same reason we won't have another Mozart or Beethoven, another Gershwin, another Sinatra - when a genre of music starts being mined, a whole scene of talented people develops that's dedicated to tapping every available vein. But after a generation or so, they've run through most of the best ideas, and the really pathbreaking types of people are looking somewhere else. Look at the kinds of people who were session players, sidemen, studio whizzes and the like in the late 60s and early 70s, both the ones who went on to major stardom in their own right and the ones who stayed in supporting roles - Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Leon Russell, Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker, Elton John, Steve Winwood, Al Kooper, Phil Spector, Billy Preston, Chuck Leavell, etc. (one of my favorite factoids of that era: The Eagles were originally hired as Linda Ronstadt's backup band). But that time is over. Rock is not dead, but it is past its prime, and we shouldn't cling to the illusion that it's ever going to be 1969 or even 1987 again. Think: how many songs recorded since 2000 would earn a place in the canon of great rock songs that includes so many songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s? I can only think of three that would draw broad support - 'Beautiful Day' (U2), 'The Rising' (Springsteen) and 'Seven Nation Army' (the White Stripes). Probably a few others would make the list, but it's a short list, and you'd get very little consensus on its contents.
Is there an alternative source of great new rock? The "alt-rock" genre is something of a hybrid these days. On the one hand, I generally don't buy the argument that being an alternative or indie artist makes you somehow better or more noble (everybody's trying to make a living in the business) or musically superior, and specifically I very much doubt that the very best musicians ever go undiscovered or unsigned by major labels, at least not in the US or the UK. You were never going to find a guy singing clubs in Jersey who was better than Sinatra, or a garage band better than the Stones. Good acts can miss their chance at the margins, but you'd have a hard time convincing anyone that the very best music of the past century wasn't almost entirely made by artists signed to major labels.
And alternative music is usually alternative for a reason. Alt-rock bands often eschew the very things that make music musical - melodies, choruses, bridges, the basic building blocks of song structure. And in particular, alt rock is plagued with terrible vocals, either due to bad singers or what I think of as the alt-rock disease: mixing/mastering the recordings to submerge the vocals to the point of being barely audible over the music. This isn't a rock thing - guys like Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler were always front and center and crisply audible on most of their records - it's a deliberate decision to make the listener choose between working to hear the singer and the lyrics and just giving up on them. There's rarely a justification for that unless you're just going to go all-instrumental. And indeed, a clearly-mixed and produced record should also have crisply audible instruments that you can pick out each on their own.
As for the vocalists themselves, listen to enough alt-rock and indie bands, and you gain a new appreciation for Sammy Hagar, Replacement Level Rock Singer. Hagar's uncool and unglamorous and he'll never win you over on a song all by himself, but every time out, he gives you eight strong innings and gives the band a chance to win. So many bands out there fail for the lack of a replacement-level vocalist. A band with Sammy Hagar will never have that problem. (I put Ringo Starr in the same general class with Hagar as a singer, but Ringo was the fourth-best singer in the Beatles).
Tied to the alt-rock disease is the alt-rock worldview, the cloying attitude of fans who don't want their favorite artists to be commercially successful (see this handy chart from Cracked). I don't get this at all - I'll listen to music from people who are famous and obscure, cool and uncool, but all things being equal, I like seeing my favorite artists succeed and be recognized, have their music heard by other people and influence other artists. It heartens my faith in the music business, and it encourages imitation; if the Saw Doctors had the kind of success in the US as Nickelback or the Black Eyed Peas, we'd have a much better chance of seeing more bands with a similar sound.
For all of alt-rock's problems, there are nonetheless a lot of good bands working in the alt-rock or indie scene that really are just quality mainstream rock acts left orphaned by the contraction of the mainstream rock universe. There's no musical sense in which The Killers or Muse or the White Stripes or - of all people - Coldplay are alternative bands, any more than Pink Floyd or Rush or U2 or Led Zeppelin were alternative just because they were doing something musically a little different than the bands that immediately preceded them.
Pop and Other Current Radio Formats: Overview
What about pop, and the other styles of music that compete for airplay on today's current radio formats? Pop music is in a bad way these days, overrun by soulless machines, assembly-line corporate hip-hop and "singers" better suited for careers in silent films, but for all the failings of current pop, I still believe in pop music. Specifically, I believe in the idea, the goal of pop music as it's been since the dawn of the mass record-selling market in the 1940s: music that's fun, catchy, immediately accessible, and enduringly memorable. Whether it's traditional Big Band/pop, Beatles-style pop/rock, Motown-style R&B, 80s pop, or even styles like disco that I personally have little use for, a good pop song jumps off the radio and sticks in your head, to the point where you can sing along to it even if you haven't heard it in years. Good pop can be smart or emotionally powerful, can be uplifting or profound, can be danceable, but it doesn't have to be any of those things; it just has to be catchy and tuneful. But what's missing from so much of modern pop is the human element: real human voices, human beings playing real instruments, lyrics that speak to us on a human level. Instead we get machine-processed "voices" backed by machine-made "music" mass-produced by the same handful of paid corporate professionals, none of whom will ever have to present their creations to a live audience.
But all is not lost. The few remaining practitioners of quality pop music aren't all played on pop radio, but some of them are still soldiering on in those trenches. If you look hard enough, you can find them.
Part II of this essay is my look at the people still trying to make relevant rock in today's market, whether they're aging rock legends or young bands on the make, and whether or not they are considered "alternative" or "indie"; rock is rock. I also take a whack at a few of the acts that disappointed me, as well as some who are unique and off the beaten path. I'll pass over, however, artists like the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, the Who, Bob Seger and others who - however much I like them - simply aren't producing new music of note anymore. Part III is my overview of pop and other current radio formats: the good, the bad, the interesting and the disposable, the mass-marketed and the relative unknowns. Part IV wraps up with a look at the best albums of the past three years, a quick run through the artists I haven't covered here, and a few other odds and ends.
Pull up a chair.
POP CULTURE: Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part II of IV - Rock and Alternative)
The State of Rock and Alternative
Let's take a look at the surviving rock scene, one artist at a time. In addition to a thumbnail of my impressions of each artist, for those who have some songs worth checking out, I'm offering my list of their best songs since 2000 or so, so you can check them out for yourself if you're unfamiliar.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - I start, as always, with Springsteen, about whom I've written more than I could hope to summarize or even link here (see here, here, here, here, and here). As I've noted previously, Bruce has had a good decade or so since turning 50 in 1999; following 1998's Tracks box set of three decades of unreleased recordings, he got the E Street band back together in 1999, released the definitive post-9/11 album in The Rising in 2002, and has put out three other original studio albums (2005's Devils & Dust, 2007's Magic and 2009's Working On A Dream), an album of covers of classic American folk songs (2006's The Seeger Sessions), a classic concert album/DVD (the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show in London, his first overseas concert), two new live albums (2001's Live in New York City and 2007's Live in Dublin) and, most recently in the fall of 2010 opened the vaults again for The Promise, a 2-CD set of previously unreleased tracks from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. And, through it all, keeping up a punishing touring schedule that would wear down a man half his age.
The production of good studio albums isn't as effortless as it once was - a man who would once leave whole abums worth of great stuff unreleased has at least a few dull filler tracks on each of his last three studio albums - but Bruce is still making quality rock, and Working on a Dream was better and, oddly, more pop-oriented than its two predecessors, with many tracks reflecting, at last, his contentment at a stable marriage and desire to hang on to those days of relative youth that remain. Now into his 60s, Bruce is very much aware of his own musical mortality. I recent read Big Man, Clarence Clemons' quirky, impressionistic look back at his life and career with Bruce, and that's one of the core recurring themes of the book - Bruce's voice just keeps getting more gravelly, Danny Federici is dead, Clarence has a battery of problems with his knees, back and heart, Max Weinberg has a bad back, Nils Lofgren's had hip replacement...the band's days are numbered, and true to form, the only way Bruce knows how to deal with that reality is to keep playing show after show like each one could be his last. And as the Live in Dublin album attests, to this day, Bruce is putting new spins and reinventions even on some of his oldest songs.
As for The Promise, it's not really new music (although Bruce has been promoting it with the full-tilt enthusiasm of a man with new songs and something to prove) but it clearly illustrates how the track selection for Darkness worked. There are nearly no hard-rocking songs left in the vault, as those all made the album. There are a number of fun pop songs; of the songs on the album only 'Prove It All Night' was remotely pop, whereas poppier tracks like 'Fire,' 'Because the Night' and 'Talk To Me' are well-known songs by now because Bruce gave them to other artists. As for the slower, mopier songs that fill out the rest of the 2-CD set, those were clearly lesser songs than others in the same vein that filled out the album (I include the title track, and I know I'm a heretical Bruce fan for not liking it much; Joe Posnanski offers the majority view).
Best Tracks (since The Rising): 'Working on a Dream,' 'Radio Nowhere,' 'Save My Love,' 'Surprise, Surprise,' 'Gotta Get That Feeling,' 'Maria's Bed,' 'Ain't Good Enough For You,' 'Tomorrow Never Knows.'
U2 - They may be younger than Springsteen, but age has caught up with the best rock band of the past three decades. Bono, now 50, no longer has the effortless powerhouse voice that seemed to fill stadiums by itself, and the band had to cancel the US leg of its summer 2010 tour after he suffered a back injury requiring surgery. Their most recent album, No Line on The Horizon, is a good listen all the way through but is clearly their worst album since their earliest days, lacking any one standout song; it's like the second side of The Unforgettable Fire stretched to a whole album. Even the Spider-Man Broadway musical they scored has been beset by production delays. Meanwhile, Bono has taken up another sideline as an occasional NY Times columnist; he comes off as a smarter, less China-toadying Tom Friedman.
U2 is promising they're not done, with as many as three albums in production (including a new rock album, an album of the Spider-Man songs and, reportedly, a "dance" album with hot electro-dance producer David Guetta and - gag - Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas). They may be down, but I wouldn't count them out just yet. Here's a taste of some of the new stuff.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Walk On,' 'Beautiful Day,' 'Love and Peace or Else.'
The Saw Doctors - Longtime readers know I never pass up a chance to talk up The Saw Doctors, the great Irish pop-rock band about which I've written repeatedly (and have a longer profile piece still in the works). With their Beatles-style pop-rock with its twinges of Irish folk influences and their rollicking live shows, the boys from Tuam in County Galway are still going strong, and released their seventh studio album and third of the decade, Further Adventures of...the Saw Doctors, in 2010, following on the heels of a greatest-hits compilation (To Win Just Once) in 2009, a compilation of unreleased songs and live recordings (That Takes The Biscuit!) in 2007, and three live albums since 2004 (2004's Live in Galway, 2008's Live at the Melody Tent and 2005's rare but awesome tsunami-charity release Live on New Year's Day), plus a single recorded for charity (a cover version of the Sugababes' 'About You Now') that hit #1 on the Irish pop charts in 2008. They were last in the news playing the inaugural ball for Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.
The new album has a bunch of good songs, the standout tracks being the distinctive guitar riff and wistful lyrics of the lead single, 'Taking the Train' and the hard-rocking 'Hazared' (in which Davy Carton boldly declares "me, I'm back on the rock and roll"), but it does have two weaknesses: first, two corny, clunker ballads ('Be Yourself' and 'Somebody Loves You') that lack the usual Saw Doctors touch, and second, no songs by Leo Moran, the band's other frontman.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Taking the Train,' 'About You Now,' 'Villains,' "Hazared.'
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - I most recently wrote about Petty, Florida's gift to rock, here. Following on the heels of a really excellent 4-CD live anthology, Petty and his band were back in 2010 with a new studio album, Mojo, his first since 2002. Petty's voice hasn't changed in 35 years and his band's only gotten better (they recorded all the songs from this album in live studio sessions). There's nothing here as catchy as 'Refugee' or 'Runnin Down a Dream' or 'American Girl', but this is a quality vintage Petty album from beginning to end, rock with blues influences and tempered by Petty's general mellowness. Tom Petty's still in this for the long haul.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Running Man's Bible,' 'The Last DJ,' 'High in the Morning.'
The Killers - The best young (under-40) rock band, period. After they were recommended by a whole bunch of different people, I only had to sit through three or four of their songs to decide I'd go out and buy all their albums and wonder how I'd missed them before. With massive success in the UK in particular, over 15 million albums sold since their 2004 debut, and a sound that would fit comfortably on Top 40 radio if Top 40 radio still played rock, The Killers are the closest thing going to a logical successor to U2 as the world's best rock band.
You might be forgiven, especially if you were introduced to them by watching their music videos, for assuming that 29-year-old frontman Brandon Flowers is a gay Englishman who came up through the clubs (unsurprisingly, his favorite band growing up was the Pet Shop Boys), rather than a married Mormon father of three from Nevada, the band's home base. In fact, The Killers' blending and shifting of musical and visual styles is a big part of what makes them a compelling and evolving band (their videos are actually quite good, unlike much of what's done in that medium these days), but they remain unmistakably rooted in rock. The second and best of their three studio albums, Sam's Town, shows the repeated influence of Bruce Springsteen after Flowers went on a huge Springsteen kick between their first two albums; the lyrics to 'Read My Mind,' their best song, are sprinkled with little Bruce touches, and 'A Dustland Fairytale,' off their third album, Day & Age, could not possibly be a more obvious homage to Bruce. Flowers' crisp vocals stand in stark contrast to so much of the current trend in 'alternative' rock, and make the band's music immediately identifiable and accessible. If anything, his recent solo effort, Flamingo, was even more lyrically Springsteenish, but nonetheless a little weaker - as is often the case for solo debuts by band frontmen - for the lack of the musical backbone provided by the band. Fortunately, the band will end its hiatus with a return to live performance in April.
The Killers are slightly crotchety and prone to feuds with other bands, such as when Flowers blasted Green Day for filming a DVD of the America-bashing American Idiot before a UK audience, horrifying some left-wing music fans with what was really nothing more than simple patriotism (the band played a 2010 campaign rally for Harry Reid, so they're not exactly a right-wing outfit). They also put out an annual Christmas song, the best of which was 2007's tongue-in-cheek 'Don't Shoot Me Santa.'
Best Killers Tracks: 'Read My Mind,' 'When You Were Young,' 'All These Things That I've Done,' 'Mr. Brightside,' 'For Reasons Unknown,' 'Spaceman,' 'Human.'
Best Brandon Flowers Solo Tracks: 'Magdalena,' 'Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts.'
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals - If rock-fan readers of this post come away with nothing else, I hope you all go out and listen to the work of this Vermont-based throwback rock band, fronted by a tall, leggy 27-year-old with a serious Janis Joplin vibe and a powerful set of lungs (Potter is basically Janis if she was prettier and not wacked-out on drugs; in fact, while the music scene will always have its junkies and burnout cases, my sense is that relatively speaking there are fewer people on drugs in the rock and pop worlds than there have been for a very long time). My wife and I are going to see Potter in March at Manhattan's Irving Plaza, a tiny venue where I've seen the Saw Doctors twice. One major booster of the band is Peter Gammons, who has been a devoted fan since their appearance at the 2006 Boston Music Awards.
For my money, the band's self-titled third album is the best album released in 2010, with essentially no filler. It shows their continuing growth, as each album has had progressively more strong songs. You can definitely tell that the band is making a major push to break through commercially; they've followed a tireless promotional schedule (everything from the VH1 Divas "Salute to the Troops" to performing at the Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day), Potter did a duet with country superstar Kenny Chesney, and she has clearly made an effort to glam up her image, with blonder hair and shorter skirts standing in contrast to the slightly frumpier, more bohemian look you can see in older concert clips.
One part sugar/Two parts feeling... Three cups full of bottled lightning... Four parts water/Five parts believing... Mix it all together and put both feet in
Best Tracks - 'Hot Summer Night,' 'Mastermind,' 'Medicine,' 'Colors'.
Pearl Jam - Pearl Jam should be the best rock band in the business today, but even if they're something less than that now, they're still worth seeking out. I always liked them better than Nirvana, and their first three albums in the early to mid-90s were outstanding. If Kurt Cobain had somehow mastered his demons and lived on to 2011, Nirvana might well be where Pearl Jam stands today, a popular and successful touring act but generally considered past their prime and largely left behind by the music-listening public outside their fan base. Of course, to get from there to here, Pearl Jam had to wage a long series of self-destructive battles, from their war with Ticketmaster to ultimately striking out on their own independent label to pettier decisions like refusing to make music videos for more than a decade. Much as I enjoyed those first three records and their backing of Neil Young on 1995's Mirrorball, the last Pearl Jam album I bought was 1996's No Code, and other than the Eddie Vedder-less 'Mankind' (a very underrated song) I didn't bother replacing that album or any of the songs on it when I lost the CD in the fall of the Trade Center. It doesn't help that Eddie Vedder, while he has a great and powerful voice, so often sounds as if he's singing while eating a sandwich.
But their 2009 release, Backspacer, seems to signal a comeback to more listener-friendly music. After checking out a bunch of the songs I keep meaning to buy it (I can never find it in stores and there's like 12 different versions of the thing for sale on Amazon, but I'll get there eventually).
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'The Fixer'
Sheryl Crow - The female Tom Petty, in terms of being an artist who's churned out quality music year in and year out with a minimum of fuss (not that she's lacked her own personal dramas, between a battle with breast cancer and a relationship with Lance Armstrong, and as with Pearl Jam, the less said of her politics, the better) and wears her Southern heritage lightly (she's from Missouri). Her sound's softer than Petty's and even at age 48 she's only been releasing albums half as long, but she's built up a considerable catalog of hits since 1992's breakthrough 'All I Wanna Do.' Crow's latest album, 2010's 100 Miles From Memphis, sees her back to her Motown roots (she got her start as a backup singer for Michael Jackson in the late 80s), with a record heavy on the horn sections. It's a good, mostly mellow listen, even if you aren't in the mood to sit through 'Say What You Want To,' a catchy but not very thinly veiled diatribe aimed at Sarah Palin and plunked down in the middle of the album.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Soak Up The Sun,' 'Peaceful Feeling,' 'Summer Day,' 'C'mon C'mon'
Jack White - Imagine a 2-person band consisting of a singer/guitarist and a drummer, in which the singer isn't especially good at singing and the drummer's not that good at drumming. You might expect a failure of a band, but instead the Detroit-based White Stripes made some of the best, most uncompromising rock of the past decade, and 35-year-old Jack White's guitar magic, eclectic influences and relationships with other artists have made him and his various bands vital figures in the rock world. The White Stripes officially announced their breakup yesterday, perhaps an inevitable development given (1) Jack and Meg White's divorce and Meg's remarriage (which finally put to bed the longstanding air of mystery they'd cultivated over whether they were husband and wife or brother and sister) and (2) the fact that Meg was really never musically necessary to the band and was never entirely comfortable with the limelight.
The White Stripes never reached the heights of the great rock bands of the 60s and 70s, in large part because of Jack White's limitations as a vocalist; while White, like Bob Dylan, could do more with his voice than you'd guess at first glance, he was never an accessible vocalist, and an even worse vocalist live (White's reputation as a live act rests instead on his guitar wizardry). But his musical virtuosity made the vocals take a back seat anyway. The band was also masterful in its use of iconography - the red-black-and-white motif of their outfits, equipment and album covers, the hypnotic video to 'Seven Nation Army' - one element of their success that is unlikely to be carried over as Jack White moves on to other projects.
I still need to check out more of Jack White's music across his many ventures, including his other bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. His most recent project, since relocating to Nashville and starting his own studio there, is backing an album by septuagenarian rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson, following on the heels of a prior effort for country legend Loretta Lynn, and with the White Stripes going the way of Cream, more collaborations are undoubtedly in the works.
Best White Stripes Tracks: 'Seven Nation Army,' 'The Denial Twist,' 'Icky Thump,' 'The Hardest Button to Button,' 'Catch Hell Blues,' 'Ball and Biscuit.'
Kings of Leon - In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and so it is with the Kings of Leon, a conventional, straight-up no-frills hard rock band that places in the top tier of young rock bands today. A Tennessee-based brother act fronted by 28-year-old Caleb Followill that originally hit it big in the UK, the Kings were on their fourth studio album when they had their crossover commercial breakthrough in mid-2009 with the success of 'Use Somebody' on the pop charts (it hit #1 on top 40 radio, an extremely rare accomplishment for a rock band these days). As Clarkson - a fan since seeing them open for U2 earlier in the decade - described the band to the New York Times on the eve of their breakout, "The rock category is not rock anymore, so I love that they're a rock band. Nothing about them is not rock." And indeed, Only By The Night, their 2008 breakout album, is a good rock album from stem to stern, without a weak song in the bunch, and I'd recommend it to anyone; the 2010 followup, Come Around Sundown, lacks the distinctive tracks that made Only By The Night a hit, but it's likewise a worthwhile listen.
But realistically, if the Kings of Leon had come out in the mid-70s, they'd have been ranked closer to Foghat, Golden Earring and Bachman-Turner Overdrive than Aerosmith or Zeppelin; it's only the weakness of today's rock scene that puts them near the head of the class. In a generation that would regard the second coming of Foghat as a blessing, it's good to be the Kings.
Best Tracks - 'Use Somebody,' 'Sex on Fire,' 'Crawl.'
Muse - Muse is a cross between pre-Joshua Tree U2 and Rush. A trio like Rush, with a reputation as a spectacular touring act, their sound is distinguished by the powerhouse vocals of 32-year-old frontman Matthew Bellamy, probably the most strongly Bono-influenced vocalist in rock (even more so than Flowers or Coldplay's Chris Martin), and they too have opened for U2. Musically, Muse is is even more synthesized and electronic than Rush, but unmistakably still guitar-driven rock. They're an intensely political British band; Bellamy is something of a 9/11 Truther and prone to pronouncements like "[t]he one thing religion has got right is that usury is a fundamental problem with the worldwide banking system." Originally successful in France and scorned at first in their native UK, they've backed into a lot of free publicity on account of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer being a fan and insisting on their music being used in the soundtracks of her massively successful film franchise. Bellamy is reportedly romantically involved with Kate Hudson, one of those useless bits of gossip-mag celebrity trivia I can somehow never avoid absorbing.
Best Tracks: 'Resistance,' 'Uprising,' 'Knights of Cyclonia,' 'Starlight.'
Nickelback - I really tried to give Nickelback's music a fair hearing, honestly I did, but their songs were so forgettable I sometimes forgot what they sounded like while they were still playing. There's nothing actively offensive about Nickelback other than that they take up airplay that could be given to good rock bands; they're by far and away the most-played rock act on radio over the past decade, which may have helped convince the public that rock is well and truly out of ideas. The only song of theirs I own is 'Into the Night,' the single Chad Kroeger recorded with Santana, suggesting that Kroeger's bland voice isn't the entire problem with Nickelback's music.
Coldplay - Like Nickelback, I worked hard to come to Coldplay with an open mind, knowing that both bands were hugely popular yet frequently derided. I didn't have an auspicious start: my initial reaction to the song 'Viva La Vida' was that it sounded like it was building up to really go somewhere, and never did. But eventually I was sold, not on Coldplay generally as a band, but on a handful of their songs. Given the narrow range of their style, I can't really imagine listening to an entire Coldplay album at one sitting, but they make a good change of pace on my iPod.
Best Tracks: 'Viva La Vida,' 'Clocks,' 'Speed of Sound,' 'Low.'
Slash - Back in the day, I was a very big Guns 'n Roses fan, and still listen a good deal to their best stuff from Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion albums, as well as more offbeat stuff like their superior but hard to locate cover of Jumpin' Jack Flash. Probably no other band has disappointed me as badly as Guns 'n Roses without the death of one of the key members of the band, to the point where I've never even mustered the desire to listen to The Spaghetti Incident and only just finally listened to the long-delayed, Slash-less Chinese Democracy after finding a copy of it in my older brother's car amidst the other possessions of his we ended up with after his death.
I'm probably overdue to catch up on Slash's work with Velvet Revolver, but I did pick up the 45-year-old London native's self-titled solo debut released in 2010, and it's very, very much worth it. The album features collaborations with a variety of vocalists ranging from Ozzy to Adam Levine of Maroon 5 to Chris Cornell, Iggy Pop and Lemmy from Motorhead. Slash also appeared on a recent single, 'Rock Star,' by Rihanna, about which I can only say I hope he was paid in cash.
Contrasting Slash with Chinese Democracy, which is in effect an Axl solo album and has maybe two good songs ('There Was A Time' and 'Catcher in the Rye'), you can definitely see that Slash - like Keith Richards and Pete Townsend - was the more important member of the band (in fact, Izzy Stradlin's 1992 solo debut Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds is also a vastly better album than Chinese Democracy, with hardly a weak track on the record).
Best Tracks: 'I Hold On' (with Kid Rock), 'Beautiful Dangerous' (with Fergie), 'Starlight' (with Myles Kennedy, who provides some of the album's best vocals and has toured as the vocalist for Slash's band).
Chickenfoot - Supergroups have a checkered history in rock, but Chickenfoot is a perfect situation for a supergroup: three low-key guys who know how to play in a band (two Van Halen veterans - Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony - and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith) unite with a spectacular talent who's never played in one (guitar god Joe Satriani). The result is a solid debut album that flat-out rocks, and more impressively, sounds like the work of guys who have been playing together for years.
Best Tracks: 'Future In The Past,' 'Soap on a Rope.'
Them Crooked Vultures - If Chickenfoot's album was a success for rock supergroups, I have to class Them Crooked Vultures as a failure. I really wanted to like this band, built around Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. But as I went through track after track on YouTube, I heard way too much jam and not enough song. It kept sounding like they were giving us the studio sessions instead of the album. A real missed opportunity.
Gov't Mule - An Allman-Brothers style classic rock jam band, and the Allman Brothers sound isn't coincidental, as 50-year-old frontman Warren Haynes spent almost a decade as a member of the reformulated Allman Brothers starting in 1989 (he's also toured with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead after the death of Jerry Garcia). Gov't Mule is more of a live act whose studio albums are just excuses to tour, so while the band's catalog of songs is solid, it features little in the way of standout signature songs other than 'Soulshine,' a good studio track that really shines in any number of live performances.
Best Track: 'Soulshine'
Arcade Fire - Arcade Fire was another band I genuinely wanted to like, given their reputation as a quality, rising rock band, and I gave the indie darlings fronted by a husband and wife duo from Montreal a couple of looks, even going back after seeing a clip of them performing with Bruce (maybe it's just me, but the song - 'Keep the Car Running' - reminded me of John Cafferty's 'On the Dark Side'). I did like one of their songs, 'Rebellion (Lies),' and found a second, 'Intervention,' to be adequate, and might have been a good song with better sound quality. But the band fronted by a husband and wife duo from Quebec just suffers too badly from the alt-rock disease of murky production and barely-audible vocals, and seeing one of the members of the band laud "that amateur sheen, that nonprofessional sheen that I treasure," suggests that perhaps the poor production values on their recordings is a deliberate way of keeping the listener at arms' length.
Best Track: 'Rebellion (Lies)'
Ben Harper - I'll refer you to my essay on the Lost Black Voice of Rock if by now you're thinking that this list is a little too white. Anyway, there's always somebody to provide the exception to the rule, and for now that's Ben Harper, a 41-year-old Californian who combines guitar theatrics with a distinctive, gritty voice. Whichever of his various backup bands he's playing with at any given time, Ben Harper rocks.
Best Tracks: 'Shimmer & Shine,' 'Why Must You Always Dress In Black,' 'Burn to Shine.'
Spoon - One of the poppier "indie" rock bands (the horn riffs on 'The Underdog' remind me of the old Motown classic 'Build Me Up Buttercup,' but maybe that's just me), featuring the slightly gravelly voice of 39-year-old frontman Britt Daniel, Austin, Texas-based Spoon has built a steady following with seven albums dating back to the mid-90s and a fairly consistent, listener-friendly sound.
Best Tracks: 'The Underdog', 'You Got Your Cherry Bomb,' 'My Mathematical Mind,' 'I Turn My Camera On,' 'Got Nuffin.'
The Black Keys - An Akron, Ohio-based blues-rock duo that loves fuzzy guitar and throaty vocals but sometimes loves the fuzz a little too much in both, the Black Keys sound like a throwback to 50s bluesmen, but with modern technology. Like Coldplay - a very musically different band - I find them better suited as a change of pace than a band I really have a hankering to hear ten songs in a row by. The one album of theirs I own is 2010's Brothers. Their videos are often darkly witty.
Oh, and this is just concentrated awesome.
Best Tracks - 'Tighten Up,' 'Howlin' For You,' 'Unknown Brother.'
Dave Matthews Band - The 1990s jam band isn't just still going; it's coming off its most critically acclaimed album in 2009 (following the death of saxophonist Leroi Moore) and is one of the biggest touring acts of the past decade. I have two Matthews albums (Crash and Busted Stuff), one of which I got as a gift, and I still have mixed reactions to the band - I like a handful of songs on each album, but I really don't get into them.
Best Track (since 2000) - 'Grey Street'
Elton John - Some people hang it up when they're done as pop stars, some keep soldiering on in obscurity. Elton John instead headed for a natural field for his talents in middle age, finding a profitable second career writing for Broadway and Disney movies. (At last check, he was working on, of all things, an Animal Farm stage musical, when he wasn't performing at Rush Limbaugh's fourth wedding - like Bono, Sir Elton is savvy about the virtues of entertainers being civil to their political opposite numbers).
But in late 2010, Elton John went all the way back to his earliest musical roots, recording a new album, The Union, with that other early-70s piano legend, Leon Russell. (The Oklahoman Russell, now 68 and white-bearded, was last seen performing at the 2010 Grammys with the Zac Brown Band, a young country group that looks like they got lost on their way to the Lonely Mountain). The result? I went through on iTunes and found too many slow songs to be worth buying the whole album (the last thing I need in my life is nine new Elton John ballads), but the remaining tracks are really good stuff, as the gruff, flinty Russell curbs Elton John's maudlin side and brings out the best of his old time rock n' roll side.
Best Tracks - 'Hey Ahab,' 'My Kind of Hell,' 'Jimmie Rodgers' Dream,' 'If It Wasn't For Bad,' 'Hearts Have Turned To Stone.'
Kid Rock - I would never have predicted, a decade ago, that I would grow to like Kid Rock, but he has gradually been winning my respect. He's always been a guy who defied genre boundaries, and is now firmly established as a rock-country-rapper, not necessarily in that order. He's a gritty vocalist and a devotee of the sound of his fellow Michigander Bob Seger, especially his latest, the 80s-esque anthem 'Born Free.' I hated 'All Summer Long' at first for its utterly shameless use of those 70s classics 'Sweet Home Alabama' and 'Werewolves of London,' but it like Kid Rock himself, it grew on me.
He's also one of the few open Republicans in rock (he's campaigned with Sarah Palin), which is worth some good will with me but not enough that I'd listen to a Ted Nugent album voluntarily.
Best Tracks - 'All Summer Long,' 'Born Free,' 'I Hold On' (with Slash), 'Rockin' My Life Away' (with Jerry Lee Lewis and Slash).
Daughtry - Kind of a junior Nickelback, to the point where Daughtry even opened for Nickelback on a recent world tour, but Chris Daughtry does have a much better voice than Chad Kroeger, and occasionally that comes through on his songs. The 31-year-old North Carolina native also seems like a really likeable guy. I still find the band's music boring and disposable and have yet to buy any of it, but a couple of the songs are at least listenable, and I haven't ruled out Daughtry the way I have with Nickelback.
Green Day - Most of this list consists of artists who range from politically liberal to hard-shell leftist, but usually the politics is off center stage just enough to sit back and enjoy the music. Not so with Green Day, a once-juvenile punk band that must have read a few mimeographed pamphlets somewhere and decided to declare themselves public policy solons. Now, they've sent American Idiot and its Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-bashing message to Broadway. Dude: even Neil Young got over Nixon eventually.
Bon Jovi - I have to say, speaking of defying expectations, I never imagined, back in 1987 or so when I was in high school in North Jersey and listening to their albums (few of my favorite artists of that era have aged worse, besides Def Leppard, although I do still love 'Runaway'), that Bon Jovi would still be trucking along in 2011, still putting out records that get played on the radio in addition to Jon Bon Jovi's Lifetime Movie acting career; the band's put out five studio albums since 2000, and according to Wikipedia, each has sold between 3 million and 11 million copies worldwide. They're less hair band, less New Jersey and less obviously Van Halen-meets-Springsteen these days, but still very much Bon Jovi.
Best Track (since 2000): 'Who Says You Can't Go Home' (with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland; I was astonished, after hearing the song, to discover that Nettles was a skinny white girl), 'It's My Life.'
John Mellencamp - The fifth pillar of American roots rock, along with Springsteen, Petty, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Seger, the 59-year-old Indianan produced a lot of good pop-oriented rock in the 80s, and two of my favorites of his (the hypnotic 'Human Wheels' and a cover of Van Morrison's 'Wild Night') were recorded in the early 90s. The last Mellencamp album I own (or rather that my wife owns) is 2001's Cutting Heads, although I also liked his 2005 anthem 'Our Country' even after it was beaten into the ground by Chevy truck ads. Unfortunately, Mellencamp's latest album went the folk/acoustic route, so I've taken a pass.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Our Country', 'Peaceful World'.
Paul McCartney - True story: the first album I ever purchased, in vinyl, was 1982's Tug of War (don't judge: I was 10. 'Take It Away' is the only song from that album I still listen to). I basically stopped listening to his stuff after that, even when he drew good reviews for 1989's Flowers in the Dirt and 2007's Memory Almost Full, two of the eleven solo albums Sir Paul has turned out since then.
After my older brother died in November, we've been cleaning out his apartment and dividing his stuff, always a grim duty, but that means carving up his extensive CD collection. I made off with a huge amount of Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, a bunch of Hendrix and Janis Joplin CDs, and a variety of other stuff, one of which was Memory Almost Full. And it's pretty good. A McCartney album inevitably disappoints on the first listen - for all his pop gifts, you have to listen more than once to stop expecting a Beatles record - but with only a few exceptions (the hideous 'Gratitude') it's an album you can hear through without skipping (including a number of songs in the album's second half that run together, not as a single composition like the Abbey Road medley but more like Sgt. Pepper). McCartney's voice is well-preserved for 65 (he's 68 now); you can hear the age on some songs, but not the miles. 'That Was Me' is the one track that sounds like it could have been recorded by the 1970 version of McCartney.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'That Was Me,' 'Ever Present Past,' 'Dance Tonight.'
Santana - No, I didn't expect Carlos Santana to become a pop radio star in his 50s either, and anybody who predicted that in the early 70s could only have done so by imagining a pop music landscape totally unlike the one that welcomed Santana with open arms beginning with 1999's Supernatural. His guitar style remains as distinctive as ever.
Best Tracks (since 1999): 'Smooth' (with Rob Thomas), 'The Game of Love' (with Michelle Branch), 'Into the Night' (with Chad Kroeger).
Aerosmith - To be honest, I haven't heard any Aerosmith songs other than horrible pop ballads since 1989's Pump album, and if I never heard another of those post-1990 ballads again it will be too soon. From what I can tell, Joe Perry feels the same way. For all of that, for all the band's hard-living history and threatened breakups as recently as the spring of 2010 and recent injuries (Steven Tyler's fall from a stage, Perry getting rear-ended while driving his motorcycle), they've endured remarkably well - Tyler's vocal range seems undiminished after 35 years of wailing, and they're still touring and promising new studio work, and of course Tyler is now a judge on American Idol.
Fountains of Wayne - I mentioned the Saw Doctors above as a modern heir to the Beatles' sound, but the New York City-based alternative band Fountains of Wayne qualifies as well (bassist and songwriter Adam Schlesinger wrote three songs, including the title track, for the early-60s-pop-homage Tom Hanks-written film That Thing You Do! and is also in the band Tinted Windows with members of Hanson, Smashing Pumpkins and Cheap Trick). Some of their best songs aren't entirely appropriate for mainstream radio for content or language reasons (although this didn't prevent their signature song 'Stacy's Mom' from being a hit of sorts).
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Bright Future in Sales,' 'Traffic & Weather'
The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand - Two highly similar alt-rock bands other than their geographic roots (The Strokes are from New York City, Franz Ferdinand from Scotland), both of which alternate between (1) good songs that rock over a solid grounding in pop melody and (2) songs that succumb to the alt-rock disease of unnecessarily submerged vocals. (The Killers, with the addition of a superior vocalist, are sort of the evolutionary, mainstream version of these bands, to the point where Entertainment Weekly's review of their first album quipped, "isn't it a little too early for a Strokes tribute band?").
If you've heard the Rolling Stones' 'Dance No. 1,' you have heard the roots of every Strokes guitar riff ever.
Best Tracks (The Strokes): 'Last Nite,' 'Someday,' 'You Only Live Once'
Best Tracks (Franz Ferdinand): 'Take Me Out,' 'No You Girls'
Razorlight and The Jayhawks - Two pop-rock-oriented "indie" bands with a few catchy tunes, Razorlight from England, The Jayhawks from Minnesota.
Best Tracks (Razorlight): 'Who Needs Love,' 'America,' 'Golden Touch.'
Best Tracks (The Jayhawks): 'Save It For A Rainy Day,' 'I'm Gonna Make You Love Me.'
The Wallflowers/Jakob Dylan - It's debatable who is rock's most disappointing band of the past two decades; the competition from acts like Guns n Roses, Nirvana and Living Colour, and to some extent Oasis and the Black Crowes, is stiff. But The Wallflowers are definitely on the list, a band that showed a lot of promise (and of course the Dylan pedigree) as a breakout mainstream rock band with 1996's Bringing Down The Horse. But their second album, Breach, was a step backwards and they've deteriorated ever since. I listened to a sample of each song from Dylan's last project, 2010's Women + Country, and couldn't turn it off fast enough.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Letters from the Wasteland,' 'Sleepwalker'
Radiohead - I listened through about six Radiohead songs recommended by friends and they were all slow, whiny and turgid, at which point I gave up. I know Thom Yorke has a reputation for having a great voice, and at least you can hear him loud and clear on their songs, but I ran out of patience with Radiohead before I found anything that would impress me with his vocals. They've recently made a splash in the record industry by announcing that they're abandoning albums and focusing entirely on selling individual digital song downloads.
The Ben Folds Five - I listened to a song by this band (I forget which song) and I came away thinking they were a pretty talented act that made catchy, poppy music, but that the song made me want to punch Ben Folds in the face. Fair enough, a lot of artists record something like that, so I tried another one, and another, and another - maybe about five songs. And each time, I kind of liked the music, but I still wanted to punch Ben Folds in the face. I couldn't even exactly put my finger on it, the way I can with Green Day's politics. But eventually I decided that, whatever the reason, Ben Folds' smug, hipster face would be safer if I gave up trying to enjoy his music.
Susan Tedeschi - Another female blues-rocker with a fantastic, gritty voice; I need to dig further into her music.
Best Tracks: 'Evidence,' 'Tired of My Tears'
The Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly - Given my enthusiastic following of the Saw Doctors and enjoyment of another local NY Irish band with a national following (Black 47, although I only have the one album, 1999's Live in New York City), I gave a look at some other distinctively Irish bands. Now, the Irish are probably second only to African-Americans in their impact on American music; besides Irish imports like U2, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and the Pogues, the roster of musicians of Irish or significantly part-Irish descent includes John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, John and Tom Fogerty, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Harry Connick, Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, Tim McGraw, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Rosemary Clooney.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of Irish music: the kind you listen to after three beers at a party, and the kind you listen to after twelve beers at a wake. Your mileage may vary, but my own preference is for the former. (After one of my freshman roommates in college bombarded me with their music for a year, the only Pogues song I came away liking is 'Blue Heaven,' which not coincidentally is not gargled by Shane McGowan). The Dropkick Murphys, at least, have some upbeat songs worth a listen - I love their guitars-and-bagpipes instrumental version of 'Amazing Grace,' and 'Tessie' is an enormously fun song, plus you cannot possibly stop me from loving a song about the 1903 Red Sox that takes reasonable care to know its history (with shoutouts to Cy Young, Chick Stahl, Bill Dineen, 'Nuf Ced McGreevey and his Royal Rooters). It's maybe the best baseball rock song ever written, surpassing even John Fogerty's 'Centerfield.' They're also Springsteen fans - Bruce will appear on their next album on a new version of the nearly century-old standard Peg O'My Heart, and guitarist Tim Brennan even proposed to his girlfriend from the stage of a 2009 joint appearance with The Boss.
I'm less enamored with Flogging Molly, no doubt to the consternation of my RedState colleague Moe Lane - they're more the latter type of Irish music - but Moe has at least sold me on their song 'Float.'
OK Go - An alternative band with faintly catchy music and irritating vocals, I have to list them here because they make the best music videos ever, videos so good they landed the band's lead singer a lengthy spread in the Wall Street Journal on rethinking the economics of the music business. Really, go here and here if you've never seen one of their videos. Go now. I'll wait.
Jars of Clay - Few phrases frighten true rock fans away more quickly than "Christian rock," which conjures up images of cheesy, overly-earnest hair bands singing ham-fisted lyrics about Jesus. Yet, as I alluded to in my most recent Springsteen essay, Christian spirituality infuses the work of many of rock's giants (Bruce, U2, Van Morrison, for a time Bob Dylan) and even the occasional classic song by ordinarily non-religious artists (see The Who's 'Who Are You'). Questions of faith are too profound, and faith is too huge a part of human life, for popular music to ignore it. The difference is that artists pigeonholed as "Christian rock" acts tend to try too hard to squeeze explicit Christian witness into song rather than letting the pervasive influence of their faith flow naturally.
On the recommendation of Steve Dillard, I have recently started checking out the Christian band Jars of Clay, which has more in common in terms of sound and in terms of the more abstract, poetic lyrical style with bands like U2, The Killers and Muse than they do with Stryper, and thus far I'm positively impressed, but haven't delved far into their catalog.
Best Tracks: 'Work,' 'Good Monsters.'
Gogol Bordello - A band that mixes punk rock with Romanian folk music and sounds pretty much exactly like what you'd expect from that description. They were recommended by a reader; not my speed, but worth a look on YouTube if you're in the mood for something very different and think that might be to yours.
Wasted Tape - Patterico pointed me to HUTT, a free-for-download collection by this LA-based indie band that makes quality rock, at least some of it pop-friendly to my ears (not pop-rock, but more the kind of stuff you get from, say, the Kings of Leon if they were fronted by the Gin Blossoms' Jesse Valenzuela). I haven't explored the rest of their stuff but it's a good album.
Best Tracks: ''Too Far Gone,' 'The Bean King,' 'Friend The Monster.'
POP CULTURE: Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part III of IV - Pop and Other Current Radio Formats)
The State of Pop and Other Current Radio Formats
Kelly Clarkson - The best thing going in current pop, and an interesting personality to boot, for reasons I explained at exhaustive length in this essay and this concert review, is the original American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, now in her creative prime at age 28.
Among Clarkson's virtues is that she's the best balladeer in current music. As should be clear from some of my comments in Part II of this essay and below, I'm fairly picky about ballads (defining ballads broadly to include any sort of slow or quiet song); I love a good one, but not everybody's cut out for them, and the presence of a whole bunch of them on an album is as often as not a sign of creative failure. Instead, too many artists seem to think that doing slower, quieter or acoustic songs is some sort of statement of artistic credibility rather than a failure to properly practice their craft. (There's a reason why I prefer the live versions of virtually every song on Springsteen albums like Nebraska and Ghost of Tom Joad). As a rule of thumb, if you have more than two ballads on an album, you better have a very good reason, and few do. Even the greatest balladeer of all, Frank Sinatra, really needed to have about half the songs on any given album be more uptempo or risk inducing the snooze. Clarkson's last album had, depending how you count them, four or five ballads, and even for her that's getting close to the limit.
Clarkson doesn't seem to be done with her famously acrimonious relationship with her record label; it appears that she's back in record-company limbo, unable to release her followup to 2009's excellent All I Ever Wanted, possibly due to a management shakeup at her label. Since I last wrote about her in 2009, however, she has managed to keep doing the things she does best. She's produced more impressive live covers; I was particularly taken with her cover of When in Rome's 'The Promise,' which took a classic 80s pop song and replaced its mournful tone with a decidedly Springsteenish edge of desperate commitment (it reminded me of 'My Love Will Not Let You Down.') She lent her voice to 'Don't You Wanna Stay,' a power-ballad duet with country star Jason Aldean. She performed the National Anthem at Game 3 of the World Series in Texas, raving afterwards about meeting Nolan Ryan (aside from current and former owners like Ryan and George W. Bush, Clarkson is about all the Rangers have in terms of celebrity fans). She's continued to find herself in controversies sought and unsought, from a broadside against the head of Taylor Swift's record label for dissing American Idol to finding herself caught in the crosshairs of a coalition of left-wing anti-smoking zealots and fatwah-waving mullahs after the promoters of her Asian tour lined up a cigarette company as a sponsor for her show in Jakarta (Clarkson complained about being "used as some kind of political pawn," but the sponsorship was ultimately pulled). Clarkson also got a bunch of her unreleased demos stolen by German hackers who apparently had a fairly sophisticated scam to hack the computers of a bunch of pop stars; while others, like Ke$ha and possibly Lady Gaga, seem to have paid the Dane-geld when threatened by the hackers with blackmail, Clarkson went to the FBI after receiving a tip from her German fan club, leading to the hackers' arrest by the German authorities. Clarkson joined Twitter about a year ago, and characteristically alternated between touting other artists, indulging her goofy sense of humor, sharing pictures of her farm animals, sniping back at random nutjobs bashing her on the internet, and indulging her music-industry-curmudgeon streak with tweets bemoaning lip-syncing, pantsless pop stars, and the poor quality of current radio hits. Typical of her relationship with her fans, on one occasion she announced on Twitter that she was headed to a bar in Nashville to do karaoke with whoever showed up off the street (you can see her in the middle doing her best Axl Rose impression here).
Best Tracks - 'Addicted,' 'How I Feel,' 'All I Ever Wanted,' 'Walk Away,' 'Never Again,' 'Since U Been Gone,' 'Close Your Eyes.'
Maroon 5 - I covered Maroon 5, the best pop band that still gets played on the radio today (which says maybe more about the state of pop bands today) and a 21st century answer to The Cars, in this summer concert review. Since then, the band has released its third studio album, Hands All Over, continuing their run of deep-in-quality records.
Best Tracks - 'Won't Go Home Without You,' 'Little of Your Time,' 'Wake Up Call,' 'The Sun,' 'Stutter.'
Hanson - I've written previously about the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based 1990s boy band's single 'Thinkin' Bout Something' (and its Blues Brothers homage video), which for my money is the best pop song of 2010. Hanson is all grown up now, ranging in age from 25-30 (oldest brother Isaac on the brothers all being married with kids: "I actually don't think that we're off the majority of this country's standards. I think it's mostly a coastal thing"). Despite clever viral promotion, the band's residual name recognition and high-profile TV appearances on shows like Letterman and the Today Show, as well as the simple fact that it's a better song than their worldwide hits of 13 years ago, 'Thinkin' Bout Something' got essentially ignored by Top 40 radio, a tribute to the difficulty of getting played on the radio without the support of a major record label.
Going beyond one song, let me now sing the praises of the entire album, Shout it Out - it's basically a Southside Johnny album (note: this is a high compliment), like Sheryl Crow's latest a deliberate homage to the Motown/Stax sound with vintage Motown horn arrangements and Ray Charles style keyboards. The band takes its influences seriously, saying the album "harkens back to the type of music they listened to as kids - '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll, Motown and R&B, like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin." (And more contemporary throwbacks as well - on one recent tour, they regularly did a passable cover of Gov't Mule's 'Soulshine'). Granted, Taylor Hanson (the middle brother and primary vocalist) doesn't have Southside Johnny's thick, soulful voice, but he and his brothers do fine with the album's numerous upbeat tracks; the only downside is that they all lack the voice to pull off ballads, of which the album has two ('Use Me Up,' sung by drummer Zac, is especially excruciating, and 'Make It Through Today,' sung by guitarist Isaac, is also a dud), but that's a small price to pay for a talented band that's making good, fun, lively new music in a genre that's lain fallow for far too long, and doing it their way after going the indie route following a bitter and draining war with their record label.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Thinkin Bout Something,' 'And I Waited,' 'Make it Out Alive,' 'This Time Around'.
She & Him - She & Him is, as you may know, the indie-pop band that grew from Zooey Deschanel deciding to branch out into music as a recording artist rather than just an occasional on-film singer, culminating in the release of the band's first album, Volume One, in 2008. Surprisingly, not only does Deschanel have a gorgeous voice, she's also the band's principal songwriter and keyboard player, with guitarist M. Ward handling most of the rest of the musical arranging.
Basically, Zooey Deschanel is Katy Perry if Katy Perry had talent and class instead of big breasts. I'm not sure if Perry would take that trade. Yet despite the fact that Deschanel was a winsome, famous movie star for years before Perry arrived on the music scene in the same year (2008) and has more musical talent and makes incredibly catchy pop, She & Him remains a niche music act unknown to pop radio audiences. Granted, pop songs don't market themselves and the rollout for She & Him was deliberately low-key, but it's still an indictment of the current pop scene that the Top 40 radio stations that once gave Eddie Murphy a hit record wouldn't try their hand at She & Him's songs.
2010's Volume Two is in the same style as Volume One, but not quite as good; continuing my complaint about ballads there are a few many slow/quiet tunes. Still, enough good stuff to be worth buying if you enjoyed the first go-round.
Oddly for a successful actress, Deschanel's stage presence has tended to be rather wooden and disconnected from the audience (her voice is still great in clips of her live performances); or maybe not so oddly, since her stock in trade as an actress has been her deadpan, monotone expressionlessness. Either way, more recent appearances promoting Volume Two have seen her get a lot livelier and more comfortable as a live performer.
Best Tracks: 'Sweet Darlin,' 'Black Hole,' 'Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,' 'I Was Made For You,' 'In the Sun,' 'Don't Look Back.'
Gin Blossoms - One of the very best pop bands of the 1990s reunited after breaking up in 1997, and put out a new album, Major Lodge Victory, in 2006, and a second, No Chocolate Cake, in the fall of 2010. Both had the old Gin Blossoms sound - the new stuff isn't on par with their earlier albums, but it's listenable and each had a few good songs. Odds on them recording another 'Hey Jealousy' are slim. The Arizona-based band has been on the road visiting the troops overseas and performed a free concert after the memorial in Tuscon following the recent shootings.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Come on Hard,' 'Wave Bye Bye'.
David Cook - The winner of the seventh season of American Idol in 2008, Cook has the vocal chops to be the next Bob Seger (I admit I'm sort of arbitrarily listing him with the pop artists and Daughtry with the rock artists, but Cook is still establishing himself). The question mark is his material, which on his first album leaned far too heavily on ballads. Don't get me wrong: I liked the album and Cook can deliver a good ballad, but it dragged in spots and could have used some crisper uptempo numbers. Judging from early clips of his next album, there seem to be some tracks with a Police influence. I'd love to see Cook have some pop hits, if only to prove that a non-rapper who sounds like a grown man can still get played on the Top 40.
Cook has suffered family tragedy - the death of his older brother to a brain tumor - and on a lighter note, the 28-year-old Missouri native is also a dedicated Kansas City Royals fan, which should give him plenty of blues to sing for the foreseeable future.
Best Track: 'Light On'
Harry Connick; Brian Setzer Orchestra - I covered these two veteran crooners here. I'm still hoping for something livelier from Connick.
Best Tracks (since 2000): Connick: 'Your Song,' 'Jambalaya (On the Bayou).' Setzer: 'Americano,' 'Mack the Knife,' and a couple of tracks off his Christmas albums.
Michael Buble - A fantastic Big Band singer like Connick and Setzer, albeit with fewer original songs or arrangements; the 35-year-old Canadian crooner mostly sticks to singing the standards, which he does quite well. Unlike Connick, he shows no signs of departing from the formula that serves his talents best. Buble can sometimes overdose on the bombast, as with his version of 'Cry Me A River'.
Best Tracks: 'Haven't Met You Yet,' 'At This Moment.'
Melody Gardot - Traditional if quirky torch singer with a compelling, unique voice.
Best Track: 'Baby, I'm A Fool'
(I could add a writeup here on Norah Jones, who has one or two songs worth a spin, but Ravi Shankar's daughter is way more well known than there is anything interesting to say about her).
Pink - Pink (or, if you must, P!nk) is one of those artists with a decidedly schizophrenic body of work. On the one hand, the 31-year-old from Doylestown, Pennsylvania made her name singing what amounts to club music, which I can't stand, and her public image always seemed deliberately obnoxious. On the other hand, she's got a fantastic voice, with that Joan Jett/Joplin style throaty rasp, and since she started recording more pop-rock type tracks with hitmaker Max Martin, she's won me over on a few songs, especially 'Who Knew,' one of the best pop songs written on the subject of grief. The Funhouse album also has some good bluesy-rock-ish album tracks behind the singles. And from what I've seen of her in interviews, she's blunt (eg, her assessment of Kanye West) but otherwise fairly laid-back. She's also made a name for herself with her acrobatic live performances, like singing while suspended upside-down from a trapeze. Strangely for someone with her vocal talents, however, Pink's ballads are just awful, dull and lifeless; she needs somebody to get her a ballad worthy of her voice. Pink is presently on something of a hiatus while expecting her first child, but still spinning pop hits off her recently-released Greatest Hits album.
Best Tracks: 'Who Knew,' 'Please Don't Leave Me,' 'One Foot Wrong.'
Rob Thomas - The former Matchbox 20 frontman grew up as an Army brat; now 38 and with solo albums released in 2005 and 2009, he's one of the most reliable producers of mid-tempo pop-rock in the business, the most successful artist in modern 'adult contemporary' radio, occupying roughly the musical space inhabited by Phil Collins in the 80s.
Best Tracks: 'Smooth,' 'Her Diamonds.'
Colbie Caillat - An understated singer; as a vocalist, Caillat is a female James Taylor, though she's obviously not his match as a songwriter. The 25-year-old Californian actually auditioned for American Idol and failed to get out of the auditions, which is maybe unsurprising given her anemic reputation as a live performer, but her records are pleasant and mellow, good filler for a large iTunes playlist.
Best Tracks - 'Midnight Bottle,' 'Don't Hold Me Down,' 'Never Let You Go.'
The Black Eyed Peas - I hate the Black Eyed Peas, and all their works, and all their empty promises. The band's brand of mechanized hip-hop combines so many different forms of awfulness, from its repetitiousness to its artificiality to the near-complete absence of any human emotion, that it's almost impossible to list them all. It's easier to note what's missing: melodies, good vocals, instruments, and lyrics that connect with either head or heart. Their only redeeming feature was when their manager punched out Perez Hilton, who may be the most awful person on the entire internet (a crowded field). I am halfway tempted to boycott Sunday's Super Bowl rather than have to see even a promo for their halftime show.
It gets worse: listening to Fergie's song 'Beautiful Dangerous' on Slash's album and a few of her other live performances of rock songs (see here and here) only made me hate the Peas all the more for the fact that she's wasting real talent as a rock singer on this band's crimes against music (as well as her own heinous solo work). If the Peas traded Fergie to Nickelback for Chad Kroeger, both bands would be improved immeasurably (tell me you could picture Chad Kroeger singing 'My Humps' and not crack a smile).
Fun fact: Fergie got her start doing the voice of Sally on some Peanuts specials in the 80s.
Taylor Swift - I'm not a teenage girl, never was one and frankly never understood one, so Taylor Swift is not on my playlist, but through my wife and older daughter I've been bombarded with her three albums. The gangly, elfin 21-year-old pop/country singer's talent as a crafter of pop music is undeniable - you can't teach the ability to write a melody like 'You Belong With Me' (which Swift wrote with a writing partner who's collaborated on a number of her hits), to say nothing of her ability to write lyrics that capture the fairytale princess world that girls cling to as their last defense against the freighteningly cynical and responsible world of adulthood. Unusually for a country artist, Swift is from Eastern Pennsylvania, but then her monster hit record Fearless is more a pop than a country album, and its successor, 2010's Speak Now, is really not that much more country. As a vocalist, she's basically Avril Lavigne without the permanent sneer.
Swift is a pleasant, appealing personality who seems like a good role model and has good sense of herself. Parents of preteen and teen daughters agree: the world could use more like her. One hopes she'll remain relatively unspoiled by her early and enormous success, although a long string of Hollywood boyfriends is probably not the way I'd recommend for her to do that. It remains to be seen if she can seamlessly navigate the tricky transition to adulthood, musically, commercially and emotionally.
Maybe it's just me, but the tune and pacing of 'The Story of Us,' from Speak Now, sounds a lot like the Killers' 'Mr. Brightside.'
Best Tracks - 'You Belong With Me,' 'Love Story,' 'I'm Only Me When I'm With You'
Lady Gaga - Comedy, tragedy, or all just an act? Nothing about the 24-year-old Manhattanite is certain; performance art is the name of the game, so it's always an iffy proposition to take her statements, or much of anything in her biography or carefully crafted public image, at face value. The onetime Stefani Germanotta has a good voice - when she's not burying it with mechanical effects - and is a talented pianist, and she apparently started off as more of a rock artist (her stage name comes from the Queen song Radio GaGa, and she's a professed Springsteen fan), although the extent to which she moved into electronic dance music as a natural musical development, an effort to get noticed, or a marketing strategy handed her by others is subject to some debate. (She does, however, write her own stuff; the talent is genuine, just as her impact on the rest of the pop music scene is undeniable). Judging by her appearance on this MTV show from 2005 (she's the one in black), she was also once a fairly normal-looking Italian girl, not the walking freakshow in a suit of meat or Kermit the Frog heads she is today.
Gaga's mechanical music pretends to be ambitious, but that's not the same as saying there's any real content to it, as hilariously illustrated by Christopher Walken's dramatic reading of the lyrics to 'Poker Face.' She has a knack for writing memorable choruses - I even confess to liking the anthemic, ABBA-style chorus to 'Bad Romance' - but they're just brief respites from the throbbing monotony of the rest of her songs.
If Katy Perry is - as discussed below - all about the joy of lust, Gaga is her opposite. As Camille Paglia has noted, Gaga may present herself as drenched in sex, but her image and music are full of sex without fun, sex without passion, sex without genuine emotion, and of course her image is that of a sickly drag queen, devoid of even an attempt to appeal to heterosexual men. (Her marketing to, and bond with, gay men is another subject in its entirety, and certainly central to her career). Taken seriously, 'Poker Face' is nothing if not a renunciation of intimacy. In that context, her declaration of celibacy - again, if taken at face value - seems less the useful caution it might appear, and more a symptom of emotional dysfunction. "I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone, they're going to take my creativity from me through my vagina," she contends.
What makes Gaga a potentially tragic figure is the possibility that some of this isn't an act, that like Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, she has demons that are inseparable from her talents and driving her to an inevitable doom. She's confessed to using cocaine, and of course no cocaine user can ever really be trusted to accurately describe the extent to which they have it under control. Her weight has fluctuated and at times plunged dangerously, and she's collapsed a few times on stage, possibly for real (there are recurrent rumors of her record label worrying about her health). Her video and stage imagery is full of what might be cries for help, as she's frequently shown injured or bathed in blood. As dissimilar as they are, artists like Clarkson, Perry and Beyonce give off a certain zest for living; Gaga seems as if she might well prefer to be a martyr, to be hung on dorm room walls with John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix.
Or maybe she just wants you to buy the poster.
Katy Perry - Practically the dictionary definition of an "It Girl," the shapely, bug-eyed 26-year-old Californian has mastered the art of being ogled; listening to Katy Perry on the radio makes about as much sense as watching Joe Cocker with the sound off. She's the worst live vocalist I have ever seen, completely lacking in singing talent of any kind; even her studio recordings can only do so much to mask this. She can't dance or play an instrument, either, and while she's playful and occasionally witty, it's never not about her sex appeal. Even her controversial appearance on Sesame Street ended up being nixed because she insisted on wearing a low-cut dress completely inappropriate to the occasion. Her husband, chronically disreputable British actor Russell Brand (his bio reads like his life has been scripted by Ricky Gervais), won the UK Sun's "Shagger of the Year" award so many times they renamed the thing after him.
Like Lady Gaga, Perry isn't entirely what her public persona makes her out to be; her real name is Katy Hudson (discarded for obvious reasons), and she was raised by Christian preacher parents and started her career as a gospel singer, the residue of which was briefly on display when she griped in the aftermath of one of Lady Gaga's Madonna-esque videos that "Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke". (Anyone familiar with Perry's Twitter feed will notice that she has nothing against fart jokes, lots and lots and lots of them). But Perry is all about selling records these days, so she swiftly issued an unclarification. God forbid the girl should have any principles.
Perry's verbal wit makes her an occasionally clever songwriter - the two songs she wrote for Clarkson's last album were good pop songs, and at least 'Hot n Cold' had a memorable chorus - but as long as she's limited by her own voice and hemmed in by the need to sell sex with every syllable, she'll remain a blight on radio.
Beyonce - Diana Ross 2.0, upgraded and fully armed and operational, the New York Yankees of pop. The 29-year-old from Houston is an unstoppable commercial and entertainment juggernaut, probably the most commercially successful musician since Michael Jackson and Madonna. Even if - like me - you don't like her style of music, you can't help but respect her beauty, her tremendous voice, her dancing skills and her all-around work ethic; her success is comforting if you want to think of pop music as a meritocracy that rewards talent, effort and discipline. On the other hand, she also comes off as cold, imperious and ruthless (she's been sued multiple times for copyright infringement), and that can't help but be projected in her music; she's no more capable than Madonna of conveying real emotional vulnerability, no more a likeable underdog than Derek Jeter.
John Mayer - Mayer, a 33-year-old from Fairfield, Connecticut, is living proof that being an interesting and talented guy is not the same as making interesting music. Mayer is certainly good copy - he's smart, good-looking, independent-minded, a near-legendary Lothario with a long string of celebrity conquests, and can be wickedly funny, as illustrated by his once-frenetic Twitter feed (since discontinued; the highlight was his savage and thoroughly deserved mocking of Perez Hilton after the Black Eyed Peas incident, but some reports blamed his excessive tweeting for his breakup with Jennifer Aniston), his broadside against the Huffington Post, and his self-satirical FunnyorDie video. None of that is the same as saying he's an admirable guy, as he's courted controversy for interviews where he used racial slurs and talked wayyyy too much out of school about the famous women in his sex life. And that's before we get to his oddball politics, such as his mouthy support for Ron Paul for President.
Mayer is reputedly a very talented guitarist in concert, but his languid singing style seems to lack even the energy and ambition to finish a sentence without trailing off, and his musical ambitions seem limited to whatever can get him into the next bed. Which seems unnecessary; the man's a rock star. It's not as if, say, the members of Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones ever had trouble with the ladies. But Mayer simply won't try to be anything more.
Jack Johnson - If you found John Mayer asleep and nursing a wicked hangover and shot him full of elephant tranquilizers, he'd be Jack Johnson, a singer so mellow he makes Fred Rogers sound like Motorhead. You might not hear John Lennon's 'Imagine' and think, "this song is way too hard core and needs to be slowed down significantly," but that's why you're not Jack Johnson. Suitable only for lullabies.
Jason Mraz - 33-year-old former tobacco-store operator from Mechanicsville, Virginia, Mraz is a light-pop singer but jauntier and more energetic than Mayer's ilk, and enjoyed colossal success with the 2007 hit 'I'm Yours,' which is kind of overrated but still a fun song. Mraz is living proof that if you take a goofy-looking guy and have him wear a porkpie hat everywhere, all anyone will remember is the porkpie hat.
Best Tracks: 'I'm Yours,' 'Butterfly,' 'Make It Mine.'
The Fray and The Script - Honestly, it took me a while to be convinced that these were two different bands (The Script are the ones from Ireland). I may eventually be won over to a couple of The Fray's songs, but it will take some persuading.
Mariah Carey - Has anybody ever wasted as much talent on as much terrible music as Mariah Carey? The 40-something from Huntington, Long Island is a beautiful woman with a gorgeous, almost unbelievable voice, but nearly all of her music is awful, and on top of that she's gotten progressively loopier over time. The only good stuff she's ever produced is the Motown-style tunes on her 1994 Christmas album. Presently expecting twins. It seems too late in her long and inarguably lucrative career for her to come to her musical senses.
Christina Aguilera - Same story as Mariah Carey, and despite her obvious gifts the 30-year-old ex-Mouseketeer from Staten Island seems to be sputtering commercially due to her persistently awful material and charmless public persona. Then again, her performance with the Rolling Stones suggests that maybe despite her natural vocal talents, Aguilera's not really that skilled a vocalist; given the chance to sing a rock classic, she didn't do much more than growl. (I love the sax solo in that video, by the way). You can confirm the same impression by going here to hear her do to 'Imagine' what Mark David Chapman did to its composer. She has her sights next on the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.
Whitney Houston - Drugs are bad, hmmkay? Hard living and age seem to have destroyed her once-beautiful voice.
Britney Spears - Lament all you will Britney Spears' dolorous impact on our culture and on the pop music world over the past 13 years and I will join you in every note. The Louisianan ex-Mouseketeer long symbolized the oversexualization of underage girls, needed all sorts of studio help with her voice to produce acres of terrible music, and has a rap sheet of stupid or provocative behavior a mile wide. (Clarkson, yet again, had the definitive reaction when Britney shaved her head).
But I'll give her this: Britney Spears is a survivor. Nobody thought she'd still be a major music star at age 29 (around 1999 I'd have made book on the big-voiced Aguilera outlasting her), and earlier in this past decade you'd have had even odds she'd be dead, in jail or in a mental ward by now. Instead, even with her meager vocal gifts, she's still cranking out top-10 singles, is still a first-name-basis household name, seems to have passed over the worst of her acting-out-and-possibly-mentally-ill stage, and is virtually the only under-40 artist on the annual lists of best-selling tours even though she lip-syncs her live act. Maybe the self-destructive three-ring circus of her personal life is only on a temporary lull - there are still signs of that - but for now, given the limitations of her talents and personality, she's had the last laugh.
Justin Timberlake - I knew Justin Timberlake for his comedy (he's the funniest man in music and could legitimately make a living as a sketch comic), his tabloid romances, his stylish image (three piece suits are always classy) and his involvement in the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction," but I'd never actually listened to any of his music. Turns out I'd missed nothing. Comparing his whiny hit 'Cry Me a River' to the Joe Cocker version of the classic of the same name is enough to make you weep not only for the state of music but of manhood itself. Stick to the funnies, Boo Boo.
Ke$ha - Just when you thought pop starlets could not possibly get any worse, along comes Ke$ha, the 23-year-old icon of poor hygiene and faux rap. Other pop starlets have some redeeming quality - they have a good singing voice, or are good writers, or are good dancers, or are pleasant to look at, or play an instrument, or if all else fails seem like reasonably wholesome characters or compelling personalities. Ke$ha (I believe the dollar sign is supposed to be stupidly ironic instead of just stupid) strikes out on all counts - she's basically just postured 'attitude' and marketing. Maybe this explains how she got that way.
The chorus to her hit 'Your Love is My Drug' owes a major debt to Hall & Oates' 'Your Kiss Is On My List.'
Orianthi - Picture Joe Satriani or Stevie Vai as a slim, exotic-looking twentysomething blonde woman, and you have Orianthi, a guitar hero badly miscast as a pop starlet on account of her gender, age and looks. She can axe but she sure can't sing, and hopefully will move on to a role better suited to her gifts. Like Sheryl Crow, she got her big break working for Michael Jackson, as a guitarist in his final tour (she was hired after playing the Eddie Van Halen solo for the Gloved One, once).
Avril Lavigne - I admit a few guilty pleasures among the earlier works by the diminutive, sneering black-eyed Canadian pop-rocker, who amazingly enough is still only 26.
Best Tracks: 'Complicated,' 'My Happy Ending,' 'Sk8ter Boi.'
Sara Bareilles - A similar kind of female singer-songwriter to Caillat who'd been talked up by a number of people, but while I gave her a listen, none of Bareilles' songs really had a catchy melody (too many stops and starts), and in combination with her too-precious-by-a-half lyrics, I gave up after about three or four songs.
Train - I admit it: I liked Train's earlier hits, stuff like 'Drops of Jupiter' and 'Calling All Angels' and even 'Meet Virginia.' They seem like they aspire to be Huey Lewis & the News for the 21st century. But their comeback has been utterly insipid, fueled by the trying-too-hard 'Hey Soul Sister'. A band with this little soul to start with shouldn't sell what was left. (This assault on that song is over the top but good for a few laughs.)
Owl City - I had the misfortune of seeing Owl City live this past summer, opening for Maroon 5; I wrote up the experience here, and hope not to relive it.
Carrie Underwood - If you were to set out to create the perfect female country star in a laboratory, you'd end up with something very closely resembling the winner of American Idol's fourth season in 2005: a pretty, blonde Oklahoma farm girl with a relatively demure personality with no rough edges and a powerhouse voice. My country collection is pretty slender, so I can't say I've heard anything from her I'd listen to voluntarily, but Underwood is precisely what Idol needs to find more of if the show wants to survive.
Jordin Sparks - Besides Clarkson, the only American Idol winner to make her home on Top 40 radio, and do so with some measure of success. Sparks seems like a sweet, wholesome kid with a good voice, but her music is bland and unmemorable. Physically, she's enormous, almost certainly the only female pop star I can recall who's built more like a WNBA center. She's also co-chairing a project with Nick Jonas to raise youth awareness of Ronald Reagan in time for the Gipper's 100th birthday this weekend.
Leona Lewis - In the category of Most Boring Ballad Ever Recorded, nobody's scored more entries than Leona Lewis, the best-known winner of the X Factor, the UK's version of American Idol. Last seen doing underwear commercials; she's probably the only female pop star who could make underwear boring. Her more upbeat pop track 'Bleeding Love' is listenable.
Best Track: 'Bleeding Love'
The Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber - Yesterday's and today's pop stars du jour for teenyboppers. The Jonas Brothers are, in the classic Disney tradition, inoffensive and seemingly squeaky-clean, and their watered-down pop-rock, while without any real appeal, at least doesn't make me immediately feel the need to flee to another station. They are what they are.
As for Bieber, the 16-year-old Canadian (he was a month old when Kurt Cobain shot himself, if you want to feel old) makes the Jonas Brothers sound like Otis Redding by comparison; even his hairdo, which Tom Brady appropriated in an effort to determine what it takes for a supermodel-dating, Super Bowl winning NFL quarterback to overdraw his Man Card, is more annoying than the Jo Bros' malt-shop pompadours. That said, I do admire the kid's pluck for making his own career path; he basically marketed himself over the internet to get famous.
Best Tracks: No, really, you didn't ask me that.
Miley Cyrus - If you enjoyed the Lindsay Lohan Experience the first time, fear not, you'll get to watch it again! A completely predictable train wreck, still in the relatively early stages.
Unfortunately, what Cyrus didn't inherit from her father Billy Ray is a good singing voice.
Bruno Mars - No, I couldn't pick his music out of a police lineup from that of Jason DeRulo, Taio Cruz, Jay Sean, Enrique Iglesias, or about fifteen other of these guys that seem to come out of a factory somewhere, singing prefabricated machine-driven corporate hip-hop that sounds as if it was designed by a committee and produced by a focus group. (I at least know who Jamie Foxx is from his movies, but his music is in the same vein). The whole lot of them should be locked in a room somewhere for a month with a turntable and a stack of Wilson Pickett, Four Tops and Temptations records and told not to come out until they know what soul sounds like.
Amy Winehouse - Musicians are famous for their dissolute lifestyles, but only occasionally are they so comprehensively messed-up that it becomes impossible to enjoy their music; I like the style Winehouse works in, but she's so repellent - and her singing style so idiocyncratic - that I just can't get into any of it. A shame.
Jewel - The best, or at least most tolerable to my ears, of her generation of Lillith Fair female folk singers (Sarah McLachlan has a lovely voice but bores me to tears; Alanis Morrissette's sneering is unlistenable), the 36-year-old yodeling Alaskan is still trucking along, now married to a prominent rodeo cowboy and expecting her first child. Jewel hit it big in 1995, but she's put out five studio albums since 2000, two since moving to a small label. Her preening pretentiousness can be tiresome at times, but at others she pulls off some decent songs, especially on the pop-oriented 0304, released in 2003. She's also got a sense of humor, as seen in this FunnyorDie video of her doing karaoke undercover, and was a rare dissenting voice of sanity in the 2009 flap over Roman Polanski.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Standing Still,' 'Run 2 U,' 'Sweet Temptation,' 'Yes U Can.'
KT Tunstall, Duffy, and Natasha Bedingfield - Three female singers from the UK who seem to have had trouble following up their hits. Tunstall, a 35-year-old Scottish folk/pop singer who hit it big with 2004's Eye to the Telescope, has effectively disappeared from popular consciousness without a trace despite releasing two subsequent albums, in 2007 and 2010. Duffy, an odd-looking 26-year-old Welsh pop singer, had huge success with 2008's Rockferry, but from my early listen to her followup, I don't hear anything worth a second look. The same goes for Bedingfield, a 29-year-old English R&B singer, who had a couple decent enough tracks off 2008's Pocketful of Sunshine.
Best Tracks: Tunstall - 'Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,' 'Suddenly I See,'; Duffy - 'Mercy,' 'Rain on Your Parade'; Bedingfield, 'Pocketful of Sunshine,' 'Put Your Arms Around Me.'
Kris Allen & Lee DeWyze - While I've never watched American Idol, as you can see from this list, I do give the show credit for doing a decent job as a gatekeeper in identifying talented singers. But nothing emblemizes the decline of Idol as a talent pipeline more than the show's last two winners, both of whom are basically in the John Mayer mold of low-wattage male singer, too light and mellow either for rock or for Top 40 radio. I can't see either of these guys having any significant upside as recording artists, which is what a show like Idol is supposed to promise. Maybe the judge the show really needs is Bluto.
Jay-Z - I'm no rap guy and never will be - I own just a few rap songs, mostly pop-rap from my college days. But there are a few things about Jay-Z that I can at least respect. First, the man legitimately cares about music; unlike a number of his rap colleagues, he seems to make an effort to incorporate actual instruments and women with singing talent into his songs, and even went so far as to record an anti-Auto-Tune song, 'DOA (Death of Auto-Tune).' And second, he's a fantastically successful businessman, arguably far more successful as a mogul than a musician. The 41-year-old from Bed-Stuy is also pushing the limits of age in a field where the leading rappers have tended to be dead by his age. His marriage to Beyonce made them music's ultimate power couple, all the way to the White House Situation Room.
POP CULTURE: Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part IV of IV)
The Best Albums of the Last Three Years
Top Ten Albums of 2010:
1. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
Honorable Mention - Kings of Leon, Come Around Sundown; Gin Blossoms, No Chocolate Cake.
Top Ten Albums of 2008-09:
1. Kelly Clarkson, All I Ever Wanted
Honorable mention: Pink, Funhouse; Michael Buble, Crazy Love
That concludes my look at the people I've had enough exposure to to have something worth saying about them. Here's a quick look at the rest.
Not Worth My Time
There are a bunch of other recently active acts I've sampled or been exposed to and come away unimpressed, but who weren't really worth a full writeup:
I'm not done; there are definitely a host of other artists I know I need to give a longer listen to, including:
-Wilco, which I'm hesitant to judge on a quick first impression.
-Most of Weezer's catalog (I only know 'Buddy Holly,' which is a really good song and a better video, and 'Island in the Sun'; I'm assured that there's more good stuff out there - they've put out nine studio albums - and Rivers Cuomo has a good pop music voice).
-Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, an old-school R&B act.
-Airborne Toxic Event (I've liked what I've heard so far, especially 'Gasoline' and 'Sometime Around Midnight,' I just haven't gone far enough to figure out how many good songs they have).
-Josh Ritter (I like 'Rumor' and 'Mind's Eye')
-Alter Bridge (Myles Kennedy, the lead singer, did a couple of solid turns on Slash's album)
-AC/DC's output since 1981's For Those About To Rock, especially 2008's Black Ice.
-Bob Dylan's output since 1990's Under the Red Sky; I have a few of his later CDs now from my brother's collection.
-Rush's albums since 1991's Roll the Bones.
-Paramore, which has a couple decent-sounding songs, although I suspect I won't like enough of their stuff to buy more than a song or two.
-The rest of Black47's output besides 1998's outstanding Live in New York City.
-Metallica's post-Black Album output (I did check out their album of covers, and didn't like most of them other than their cover of Bob Seger's 'Turn the Page,' which - this being neither here nor there - was used as Adam Dunn's music at Nationals Park).
-Possibly a few more of the suggestions from the comments to this post.
One Song Only
Other artists I've picked up just one post-2000 song by, but haven't yet heard anything suggesting I should dig deeper:
The Fratellis - 'Chelsea Dagger' (now that is a pop song).
The music scene is more fragmented than ever, and the golden age of mainstream mass-market rock, pop-rock and rock-influenced R&B will never return. But fans of Sixties pop, old time rock n' roll, Motown and Big Band shouldn't give up entirely on today's music world. If you look hard enough, there's still good music being made, interesting careers to follow, and good live shows to be attended.