Tag Archives: Radiohead

10 Albums That Shaped My Youth

I came home to Kansas City for the long weekend, to visit my family and to attend a high school friend’s wedding.  On the plane flight(s) to get here from L.A., I read an advanced reader copy of Sects, Love and Rock & Roll: A Memoir by Joel Heng Hartse, which is coming out soon and which I highly recommend. It’s a book all about Joel’s personal journey of musical discovery, as an evangelical kid who came of age in the 90s and loved Michael W. Smith, Five Iron Frenzy, Smashing Pumpkins and Starflyer 59, among many others. Reading the book felt like reading a chronology of my own musical past, and thus inspired me to think about which albums and musical experiences most shaped my own youth.

So last night, I rummaged through my stacks of old CDs in the room I grew up in–a room more or less preserved since I last occupied it about a decade ago. I pulled out 10 CDs that were either my most treasured or most listened-to recordings of the period from about 1995-2000 (more or less my high school years).  They are the albums that comforted me most in the tumultuous adolescent years, the albums that taught me how to truly love music.

Radiohead, Kid A (2000): I’m sure I’m not the only person of my generation for which this is true, but Kid A really did change my life. My life pre-Kid A was great, but post-Kid A was  a much bigger world. “Art” meant something deep, tangible, and exciting from that moment on. For all that followed, the bar was raised.  I think Kid A was also the album that put one of the first real nails in the coffin of CCM, at least for me. Why listen to more Third Day albums if Radiohead could provide me with something even more holy and transcendent?

Sixpence None the Richer, Sixpence None the Richer (1998): I remember seeing this album on the shelves in our local mall’s Christian bookstore and buying it because a) the album cover was cool looking, and b) I listened to it on one of those in-store CD players to sample it, and liked it. Little did I know at that time how important this album would later become for me personally, as well as for CCM at large (“Kiss Me” crossover success!).

OC Supertones, Supertones Strike Back (1997): Like most evangelicals of a certain age, I was once a huge ska fan. For some reason, Christians latched on to this genre and really made it their own. Having adored No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, I was thrilled when I discovered a Christian Orange County-themed ska band. I loved this album. Almost every song. And man were they amazing live. I think the numerous Supertones concerts I went to offered the friendliest mosh pits I’ve ever experienced.

R.E.M. Up (1998): A cool kid in band at my high school (I think he played trombone but loved the band Drums & Tuba, go figure) told me to get this CD, so I did. Previously my only exposure to R.E.M. had been “Losing My Religion” on the radio, but this album forever endeared me to them. Something about this deeply atmospheric, subdued album (especially the song “Walk Unafraid”) really resonated with my 16-year-old self.

Audio Adrenaline, Bloom (1996): I discovered Audio Adrenaline from my 7th grade English teacher (public school) who made no apologies for leaving copies of CCM magazine conspicuously lying around the classroom. We bonded over Christian music. AA’s Bloom remains one of the first CCM rock albums I truly held dear.Though most of this band’s other work seems in retrospect either totally corny (“Big House”) or just subpar (the entire post-Underdog catalog), Bloom was a gem of 90s CCM. A great rock record.

Will Smith, Big Willie Style (1997): The first hip hop album I ever bought. I was secretely listening to Biggie, Puffy, Tupac and The Fugees (thank you Napster!) in junior high, but I wasn’t about to purchase an album with a parental advisory sticker (shudder the thought!) Thankfully the Fresh Prince was not a real rapper and was suitably “safe.” And oh did I unabashadly love this album. I once sang “Gettin Jiggy With It” at karaoke and knew all the words without even looking at the screen. I still know all the words.

DC Talk, Jesus Freak (1995): So many memories of this record–arguably the best Christian album of the CCM heyday. I remember a DJ putting on “Jesus Freak” at a school dance once, and feeling awesome about jumping around with my secular public school friends, rocking out to Jesus (my Muslim friends too!). Then there was the time I auditioned to sing in a band by performing “In the Light” (still my favorite song on the album). That album was the pinnacle of the better parts of the CCM juggernaut.

The Wallflowers, Bringing Down the Horse (1996): I remember the first time I heard “One Headlight.” We were in the family suburban, on a roadtrip to Lake Tahoe. I think we were somewhere outside of Reno and we had (for some reason) a music radio station on that was not Rush Limbaugh. The song was “One Headlight,” and the lyric about it being cold and feeling like Independence Day stuck with me. I bought the album when we got home and listened to it more than anything else my freshman year in high school.

Switchfoot, New Way to be Human (1999): Before A Walk to Remember made them huge stars, Switchfoot were just a humble, quality San Diego trio. This album was the best of their work–and a record that got me through many stressful nights in high school. The album’s strongest songs are its ballads–“Sooner or Later,” “Let That Be Enough,” “One Hope,” and “Amy’s Song.” These are songs I still go back to.

Jars of Clay, Much Afraid (1997): I remember how excited I was the day this album came out. There’s nothing like going to the record store to pick up the sophomore album of a band you love. Luckily, I was not disappointed. I remember lying down on my bed in high school listening to songs like “Frail” and “Hymn” in my headphones, being tremendously comforted by them. What a fantastic album. One of the few 90s CCM albums I still listen to regularly.

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Best Albums of the 2000s: My Picks

I think it’s a bit silly to be making end-of-decade lists this early (there is still 2.5% of the decade yet to be lived), but Pitchfork has gone ahead with their “Top 200 Albums of the 2000s” list, so I figure I might as well put mine out there now too.

I’ve been adding and subtracting to this list for years now, and doubtless the list will change with time (in a month, some album might come out that outshines everything… and so I’ll adjust this list accordingly). But for now, in the waning months of this first decade of a new millennium, here are my picks for the decade’s 20 best albums, accompanied by a few words about what the top ten have meant to me personally.

First, 20-10:

20) Rufus Wainwright, Poses (2002)
19) Cat Power, The Greatest (2007)
18) Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (2008)
17) Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (2006)
16) Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (2009)
15) Low, Things We Lost in the Fire (2003)
14) Doves, The Last Broadcast (2002)
13) Pedro the Lion, Control (2002)
12) The Shins, Oh, Inverted World (2001)
11) Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009)

And here are my picks for the top 10:

10) Explosions in the Sky, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003): I didn’t discover Explosions in the Sky until the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights (which used much of this album on the soundtrack), but once I found them I knew they were a band that perfectly fit my temperament. They make music that is sort of the instrumental equivalent of a Terrence Malick film, and the title of this wordless album perfectly captures the essence of what Explosions’ soaring guitar melodies evoke.

9) Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights (2002): When I first heard “NYC” it was at some coffeehouse at Wheaton College, and I immediately inquired about the band behind this haunting post-9/11 New York anthem. It was Interpol, and their debut album remains one of the best expressions not only of the decade’s musical trends but also the spiritual tenor of a city, nation, and generation working through new waves of cynicism, fear, love and paranoia.

8) Beck, Sea Change (2002): This album was such a change from the Beck we were used to. It was so melancholy, sweeping, dramatic in a Love is Hell sort of way. But for anyone dealing with relational angst, breakups, or the pangs of moving on, the album was utterly perfect. This was one of my go-to albums for cold weather days during the long Chicago winters in college.

7) The Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004): This is quite possibly one of the most generational/zeitgeist-capturing works of musical art to have come out in the 2000s. An album about family, youth, death, and discontent, Funeral announced the arrival or at least the first shout of a new sort of drum-beating, baroque sincerity. Seeing them play live at the Hollywood Bowl the summer after graduating from college remains one of my favorite concert memories.

6) Sigur Ros, ( ) (2002): This album may be the apex of post-rock pretentiousness (an album full of untitled songs with only parentheses as a name?) but it is also some sort of strikingly human, universal catharsis—songs of pure feeling, passion, and transcendence that many a hipster church has played during worship services. And believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced “Untitled 8” in concert.

5) Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002): It was never all that cool to love Coldplay, but whatever. I love their music. I remember buying this album the day it came out at a Tower store (remember those?) and listening to it in the car on the drive home. The opening song, “Politik,” was already so different than anything on Parachutes. And then when “Clocks” came on, it was utterly clear that Coldplay was on the fast track to arena rock status. Seeing them the next year at Red Rocks was definitely a highlight of my “decade in concerts.”

4) Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005): Where to begin with this album? It wasn’t the first great Sufjan album (and hopefully not the last), but it was the one that catapulted him to indie/hipster rock God status. And as the soundtrack to the summer after I graduated from college and left the “Land of Lincoln,” it will always be an album I remember with great fondness. It’s a near-perfect piece of art and an iconic bit of musical transition on the indie/hipster/Christian timeline.

3) Over the Rhine, Ohio (2003): This double-disc album from Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist (aka Over the Rhine) still stands as one of the most important albums in my own personal musical journey—and I think it can be rightly counted among the best (or at least most cohesive and lyrical) American albums of the decade. These are songs about place and home, memory and history, brokenness and hope… and the changes that come at every turn in life. I still consider the concert I saw Over the Rhine play on their Ohio tour the very best show I’ve ever been to.

2) Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002): From the opening words (“I am an American Aquarian drinker”) of the first song (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”), to the final resigned-but-hopeful emotions of “Reservations,” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is as beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful an album as anything that came out this decade. Jeff Tweedy’s personal demons inform every line of this album and yet it manages to stand for something much bigger and broader: love among the ruins of a deconstructed America. Released halfway between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War, Yankee evokes in my memory that peculiar stage in my life where my Midwestern, enchanted analog American youth began to fray at the edges as uncertainty, growth, nostalgia, and education coalesced to shake my paradigm and push me forward as an independent thinker.

1) Radiohead, Kid A (2000): When this album came out in October of 2000, I was a senior in high school. I had only recently begun to expand my musical horizons (I grew up mostly listening to Christian music), but when I bought Kid A, everything about the way I approached music changed. The eerie beauty and boundary-pushing creativity of this album stunned me and made me realize that the potential for transcendence in music had as much or more to do with a spirit of exploration and experimentation than anything else. To create something so new, so true, and so exactly of its time, was a feat only Radiohead—post OK Computer—could accomplish in the first year of our new decade. They ushered us in to the Y2K era with an album that systematically dismantled the 90s, embodied the dot-com culture of its time, and prophesied a decade of silicon chaos and modernist collapse—a frenetic decade in which the surreal and the real would collide in terrifying fashion and we’d be confronted with the wages of avoidant fantasy. As Thom Yorke sings on “Idioteque”: We’re not scaremongering / This is really happening, happening…

Honorable Mention:
Radiohead, In Rainbows
Radiohead, Hail to the Thief
Jay-Z, The Black Album
Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Outkast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below
U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind
White Stripes, Elephant
Kanye West, Late Registration
Gwen Stefani, Love, Angel, Music, Baby
Hem, Rabbit Songs
Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism
Joanna Newsom, Ys
The National, Boxer
Wilco, A Ghost Is Born
Panda Bear, Person Pitch
Justin Timberlake, Futuresex/Lovesounds
Joseph Arthur, Redemption’s Son
M83, Saturdays=Youth
Bon Iver, For Emma Forever Ago

Top Ten Music Videos of 2008

Though there is no cultural center of music video exhibition anymore (MTV’s venerable Total Request Live closed up shop this year), the music video as a form is alive and well. You just have to seek them out on YouTube. The following are my favorites from the last year:

10) Justice, “Stress”: It’s a manic song from French dance genius Justice, and it’s a suitably manic video.

9) Radiohead, “House of Cards”: This video was made not with lights, but lasers!

8) Britney Spears, “Circus”: After a string of misfire videos, Brit Brit returns to form with this stylistically cohesive, energetic video.

7) Bjork, “Wanderlust”: Bjork is crazy. Nothing new there. But this Where the Wild Things Are-esque video is her strangest video yet.

6) Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”: It’s a total Wes Anderson knockoff, but I’m okay with that!

5) M83, “Kim and Jessie”: Not to be confused with that abysmal sitcom “Kath and Kim”…

4) Weezer, “Pork and Beans”: A fitting homage to the short history of viral video sensations.

3) Kanye West, “Heartless”: Kanye sure does love his Pop Art!

2) Beyonce, “Single Ladies”: This is how dance videos should look. And that metallic hand!

1) Sam Amidon, “Saro”: Repurposed archival and vintage American footage creates the perfect visual landscape to this deeply evocative song.

In Rainbows… And Pots of Gold

radiohead_inrainbows.jpg

Radiohead is so much smarter than the recording industry. Well, pretty much anyone is smarter than the recording industry, but that’s beside the point. Radiohead has always been a forward thinking band (OK Computer changed rock music, Kid A further expanded it, etc), but this week they have established themselves as perhaps the most influential band of the 21st century.
 
By now, everyone in the world has heard of Radiohead’s “pay what you want” stunt. If not, check it out (and participate!) here. It came as a surprise when they announced it via their website two weeks ago, but the sheer novelty and unexpectedness of it has made it all the more of a pop culture frenzy. The experimental move is sheer and utter genius. Let me count the ways:
 
1) Giving the album away via download has no distribution costs. Thus, any goodwill payment (and people have largely been paying SOMETHING, if only a pound or two) is nearly pure profit. No record label to siphon away profits, no physical goods to ship. It’s a transaction directly between Radiohead and consumer, and early numbers show it’s paying off… big time. Cutting out the middleman is the exchange of the future.
 
2) There is one thing (and it’s a BIG thing) that you have to do in order to download the album: you have to provide your personal information (name, address, email, phone number, etc). In today’s world of target-marketing and audience-as-commodity, this data (which can be sold to advertisers for big bucks) is where the real value is.
 
3) Radiohead has realized what the recording industry apparently has not: in a market that is increasingly overcrowded, the problem is not piracy, it’s obscurity. By becoming a “news story,” Radiohead has already won half the battle. As Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams write in their 2006 book, Wikinomics: “In today’s information-soaked environment … content creators need to find ways to permeate people’s consciousness. Giving away content and building loyal relationships are increasingly part of the arsenal creators use in the battle for people’s attention.”
 
4) Essentially what Radiohead has done here is build up an incredible buzz machine, all because of a three sentence message that showed up on their website a few weeks ago (it wasn’t sent out to the world in a massive e-blast… it had to be sought out and spread virally). In the networked world we live in, linkage and bottom-up marketing is the generator of real value. It expands the sphere of an artist, allowing more and more people to be drawn into the Radiohead world–where they will eventually spend some money (either on concerts, an $80 special edition box set, or a physical copy of the CD) and reward the band for instilling a sense of trust.
 
5) More than anything, the circumvention of the record companies is a move that establishes a rapport with an increasingly active audience–sick and tired of being attacked, harassed, and generally manipulated by corporations shoving crappy music down their throat. Kids are more savvy and want to be respected as an audience, not just treated as a Pavlovian mass that buys on impulse or command. They WILL get music for free, regardless of if it is legal, and when a band does it willingly (like Radiohead, but also others like Derek Webb), the fans respond positively, and word of mouth takes over.
 
It remains to be seen if Radiohead’s experiment will pay off in the long run, but I’m going to bet that it will. In a year’s time–after all ancillary revenues, tour sales, etc are tallied–I expect that Radiohead will be swimming in money and accolades. And I bet there will be many more artists who follow suit.