Sunday, March 26, 2023

I Get Down on My Knees and Pray: New Order


The Dossier
Joy Division was a very young but innovative British New Wave band that was on the verge of making it in America when their lead singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself at the age of 23. The remaining members regrouped as New Order and made good on the promise of Joy Division by releasing some of the best dance music of the 1980s. They placed only two singles in the U.S Top Forty (“True Faith” and “Regret” but not, surprisingly, “Bizarre Love Triangle”) but a whopping 14 tracks in the Top Ten of the U.S. Dance Club chart. Robert Christgau called them "the greatest disco band of the 1980s except for Chic, and these guys outlasted Chic."

Why I Should Vote for Them They were distinctive, influential, and stormingly good. While synthesizers were dominating dance music in the 1980s, New Order stripped things down to primarily bass and guitar, with the keyboards there for color. It was as if Booker T and the MGs had moved to Manchester. All four members had a strong melodic sense – yes, somehow even drummer Stephen Morris – which made their songs multilayered and dense while remaining gorgeous and danceable.

I don’t really care about England, but New Order dominated the 1980s there, running 17 singles up to the No. 1 spot on the U.K.’s indie chart. In fact, they had 20 consecutive singles reach the top three on that chart. There were a lot of great post-New Wave dance one-shots in the 1980s  -- “If You Leave,” “A Little Respect” --  but New Order put out song after song at that level.

Don’t forget we are including Joy Division here too. They released two hugely influential albums and a handful of singles in their brief career and landed “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in a fairly high slot on every iteration of the Rolling Stone Greatest Singles of All Time list, despite its barely being heard in America. One wonders whether Joy Division would have had as much impact as New Order; Ian Curtis had a much more distinctive voice than Bernard Sumner, and was a better lyricist, so maybe so. But Sumner very effectively used his vocals as just another element of the mix, and he deserves credit for that.

Why I Shouldn’t Vote for Them New Order’s direct impact on American shores was fairly minimal. I wish they had more hit singles, not just because that would make it easier to vote for them, but because they’re great to hear on the radio.

Also, they did that nerdy thing where the titles of their songs generally did not appear in the lyrics. I suppose Led Zeppelin pioneered that, but that’s no reason to continue doing it. “Bizarre Love Triangle” has a perfectly memorable chorus from which you could choose a title phrase – but no, we’re stuck with “Bizarre Love Triangle.” I still have to remind myself which one is “Blue Monday.”

The Verdict The best thing about writing this essay was that I got to listen to New Order all weekend. I’ve been listening to their music since the 1980s, and I still hear new textures and melodies in there. The second best thing about writing this essay is that I get to say that I’m voting for New Order.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

No One Sings Like You Anymore: Soundgarden


The Dossier: The bands that emerged out of Seattle tended to get lumped under the rubric of “grunge,” but they all had their own sound. Nirvana didn’t sound all that much like Pearl Jam, who didn’t sound like Candlebox. Soundgarden emerged from that scene, but they weren’t nearly as melodic or dynamic as Nirvana. What they did have was a powerhouse vocalist and a mercurial guitar sound that separated from their peers. Their third album, Badmotorfinger, put them on the map, then their fourth, Superunknown, ruled 1994. Their next album, Down on the Upside, was almost as big, but it’s forgotten today, and it would mark the end of their run.  

Why I Should Vote for Them: Back when guitar bands were important, Soundgarden was one of the most important. Badmotorfinger was a favorite of the cognoscenti, spawning several MTV hits, then Superunknown catapulted the band into the stratosphere. The album debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts upon its release in March 1994. “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman” and “Fell on Black Days” were enduring hits with their own feel and sound, not like much else that was happening on MTV in those days. “Black Hole Sun” won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance while “Spoonman” won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance, and if you can explain the distinction between those two awards, you’re a better critic than I.

Chris Cornell, who wrote most of the band’s songs, had a voice that was both powerful and supple – he landed at No. 9 on one Rolling Stone Greatest Lead Singers poll. Kim Thayil never seemed content to get the same sound out of his guitar more than once. At their best, Soundgarden was totally on top of their game.

Why I Shouldn’t Vote for Them: Soundgarden’s 1996 followup, Down on the Upside, was almost as big as Superunknown in terms of sales and hit singles, but has been almost wholly forgotten. ("Pretty Noose" and "Burden in My Hand" were the first singles, and I don't remember a thing about them.)   Is it just me, or did this record – double platinum! – disappear in terms of its cultural movement? At any rate, after a frustrating tour, the band broke up in 1997.

So that last record made no lasting impact, and Badmotorfinger was more of a critic’s record than anything else. That leaves their legacy mostly reliant on Superunknown. That album was hugely popular and critically adored, but it’s also not exactly Revolver. If your reputation is based largely on a single album, it helps if it's Revolver.

Some might argue that the various Chris Cornell offshoots – Temple of the Dog before Soundgarden hit big, and Audioslave afterward – should accrue to Soundgarden’s benefit. I might be more inclined to pay attention to that argument, except that it’s not going to move the needle much for me, although I did like Temple of the Dog.

The Verdict: I fully expect Soundgarden to get in, if not this year then sometime soon. I’m not enthusiastic about this, although there are worse bands in. For now, though, I’m not voting for them.


Friday, March 17, 2023

Willie Nelson: I'm Crazy for Loving You


The Dossier One of the greatest Nashville songwriters of the early 1960s, writing hits like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young. By the 1970s he had become the leading progenitor of outlaw country with songs like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Bloody Mary Morning.” When his songwriting muse started to dry up, he became the country Frank Sinatra, covering classics old and new like “Always on My Mind” and “Blue Skies.” All told, 25 of his singles went to Number One on one chart or another, and he’s sold 40 million albums.

Any one of the three phases of Nelson’s career would have made him a legend; when you combine all three, it’s one of the most impressive and important bodies of work in American music.

Why I Should Vote for Him He has one of the most impressive and important bodies of work in American music. The history of country music is inconceivable without Willie Nelson. “Willie Nelson could, as they say, sing the phone book and make you weep,” Bob Dylan said. “He could also write the phone book.” He’s also a great guitarist: “You hear a Willie Nelson solo, he doesn’t play real fast, but it's so melodic and beautiful,” said John Densmore of the Doors. The Doors! “I don't have a favorite song that I've written,” said B.B. King. “But I do have a favorite song: 'Always on My Mind,' the Willie Nelson version. If I could sing it like he do, I would sing it every night.” B.B. King!

Snoop Dogg says the highest he has ever gotten was smoking with Willie Nelson, and I’m guessing there are a lot of instances in which Snoop Dogg has gotten high. Everybody loves Willie Nelson. Everybody.

I could list a lot more songs and albums, but you know all the high points. And he’s still out there, you know – there’s a massive 90th birthday celebration coming up in April, with everyone from Neil Young to Miranda Lambert to Beck. Beck, you know, is inconceivable without Willie Nelson.

Why I Shouldn’t Vote for Him
For many years, I have resisted voting for people whose career didn’t really have anything to do with rock & roll. I didn’t vote for Dolly Parton last year, even before she said she didn’t want the recognition. I didn’t vote for John Prine a few years back, a decision I now regret, because as great as John Prine was, he wasn’t a rock artist. And now he's dead. I didn’t vote for Joan Baez, which I still think was a good choice.

But the Rock Hall has clearly welcomed these people, and it’s time for me to give in. As an American musician, there is no way to withhold this recognition from Willie Nelson. The only reason not to vote for him is because he doesn’t have anything to do with rock & roll, and if that’s not a factor, the choice is clear.

The Verdict
I am voting for Willie Nelson.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

It Can't Be That Bad: Sheryl Crow

 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Balloting, Part I 

The Dossier
 Sheryl Crow started her professional career as a massively bewigged background singer on Michael Jackson’s Bad tour before launching her solo career with 1994’s Tuesday Night Music Club, which contained the hits “Leaving Las Vegas,” “All I Wanna Do,” and “Strong Enough.” She’d go on to have six more Top 20 hits, not counting the egregious “Picture” with Kid Rock, on which she was listed as a guest artist. She has won nine Grammys, including the dreaded Best New Artist in 1995, has released six Top Ten albums, and sold 50 million albums all told.

Why I Should Vote for Her The late 1990s were in some ways a fertile time for an  alternative-leaning female singer-songwriter to launch a mainstream rock career - Lilith Fair ran in 1998 and 1999 -  but Sheryl Crow and her rootsier sound were a bit out of step. Nevertheless, she was probably the most enduring of that generation of women singer-songwriters. 

Those early songs hold up pretty well, too - I still hear “Soak Up the Sun” and “If It Makes You Happy” all the time. They had a distinctive vibe, kind of a Stones-in-L.A.-in-the-Nineties thing. “All I Wanna Do” is probably the best of them, a ridiculously specific tour through a Hollywood bar in mid-morning with a collection of losers. She wrote (or at least co-wrote) all the familiar hits, too. Billboard named her the 5th Greatest Alternative Artist of all time, which, whatever, but it’s hard to argue with it.

Back in 2003, when she had just turned 40, Sheryl Crow posed for the cover of Stuff magazine in a pair of short shorts, with her heinie turned to the camera.  I had the privilege of working as an editor at Rolling Stone at that point, and in our year-end issue,

we ran a blip on how Sheryl’s year had gone, and I inserted a reference to “that embarrassing Stuff cover.” But I was just feeling competitive, and there was nothing wrong with that Stuff cover – she looked great! I’ve always regretted that comment, and this would be my chance to make it up to Sheryl. But hey, I’m still better than Lance Armstrong, right?

Bob Dylan originally cut “Mississippi” for Time Out of Mind, and when he didn’t like the results, he offered the song to Crow, who put it on her album The Globe Sessions. She said that Bob ended up being a mentor for her. If Bob’s that much of a fan of hers, who am I to argue?

Why I Shouldn’t Vote for Her The career was not especially long, lasting about a decade as a hitmaker, and there were only three Top Ten hits (again, not counting “Picture”). I’m also not getting the feeling that she had a whole lot of lasting artistic significance; are there any female singers or songwriters who claim to have been influenced by Sheryl Crow? I know the Dixie Chicks covered her cover of “Mississippi,” so if that influence exists, it’s probably with country singers that I’m not especially familiar with.

The Verdict I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Sheryl Crow get inducted – in fact, I expect her to – but given that it’s her first year on the ballot and the ballot is stacked this year, I’m going to reluctantly pass.