Monday, November 30, 2009

1. The White Stripes "Fell in Love with a Girl" (2001)

Jack White, rock's MVP this last decade, was responsible for two incredible albums (Elephant and White Blood Cells), three great albums (De Stijl, Get Behind Me Satan, and Icky Thump), a pretty good side-band (the Raconteurs), an awesome collaboration (with Loretta Lynn), and some interesting one-off work (like the Cold Mountain soundtrack). The consistency of his output was unmatched by any other artist.

"Fell in Love with a Girl" is his greatest achievement. Its brilliance is its simplicity: it is as stripped down to essentials as music gets; with just three musical voices -- White's vocal, an electric guitar, and a drum kit -- and clocking in at less than two minutes, it is pure hook, with not a single extraneous note. It's noisy and breathless, a pure shot of adrenaline.

No one has embraced the garage-rock aesthetic like White, and no one is as responsible for its embrace in this decade. In a way, "Fell in Love with a Girl" is like a modern rewrite of "Louie, Louie," the apotheosis of irresistibly fun DIY rock. Both songs sound like they were tossed-off in a day, yet they contain the power that eludes the most bloated anthems.

"Fell in Love with a Girl" is as good as rock and roll, and as good as music, gets. Period.

Click here to view the entire list.

Friday, November 27, 2009

2. Bob Dylan "Mississippi" (2001)

It sounds like it took Bob Dylan his entire life to write "Mississippi." I see it as a response to "Like a Rolling Stone," the period at the end of the sentence "Rolling Stone" began. Where "Rolling Stone" condemned an unnamed person for being a worthless vagabond, "Mississippi" turns the scorn inward for staying somewhere for "a day too long." It's a song drenched in regret, yet leavened with a weary optimism unseen in Dylan's music before.

The song marks a turning point for Dylan. Yes, Time Out of Mind is an extraordinary record, but it was a sidestep. With "Mississippi" Dylan established the template for his most recent records, some of his best.

Lyrically, nothing Dylan has written matches "Mississippi." It's as good an argument as any for why he has a real shot at a Nobel in literature. His command of rhyme has reached its peak, as has his verbal eloquence:
Every step of the way, we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is piling up, we struggle and we stray
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City's just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, tryin' to get away
I was raised in the country, I been working in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don't even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, Pain pouring down
Nothing you can sell me, I'll see you around

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well, the devil's in the alley, mule's in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinking about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie's bed

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too

Some people will offer you their hand and some won't
Last night I knew you, tonight I don't
I need something strong to distract my mind
I'm gonna look at you 'til my eyes go blind

Well I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me

Everybody's moving, if they ain't already there
Everybody's got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind
So give me your hand and say you'll be mine

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long
Some people throw Dylan a bone and say he's still a great songwriter, but then dismiss him as a performer. That's nonsense. Just listen to Sheryl Crow's version of the song, which Dylan gave to her for the Globe Sessions record before he released it on "Love and Theft". I enjoy Sheryl Crow, but a side-by-side comparison shows why no one can perform a Dylan song like Bob Dylan. Her version is toothless and sterile. It's a small embarrassment compared to Dylan's impeccable performance on "Love and Theft."

It seems like Dylan knew how great "Mississippi" was when he wrote it. He recorded three other versions of the song, which were recently released on his Tell Tale Signs compilation. Each version is approached differently, yet the brilliance of the lyric remains throughout. Whatever the version, "Mississippi" is a huge achievement for an artist whose career is filled with huge achievements.

Click here to view the entire list.

[You can listen to the song on the Lala player below. It requires you get a free subscription to the service.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

3. Kelly Clarkson "Since U Been Gone" (2004)

I don’t think I need to convince anyone how improbable it was that an overblown talent show like American Idol (indirectly) begat a song as superb as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” (I know Eurovision begat “Waterloo,” but still.) It is, without question, the best pop song of the decade, a song so good everyone thought it was totally awesome when it came out.

It still is.

While there many reasons to love the song – the crunchy electric guitars, the Wall of Kelly that wails in the chorus, the loud/soft dynamic shift that still thrills – it’s all about the melody, which if slowed down would make a gorgeous ballad. It also helps that Clarkson is eminently likable.

“Since U Been Gone” is, of course, a kiss-off. But there doesn’t seem to be a shred of sadness in the lyric. The song is like an exuberant sigh of relief. I can breathe for the first time.

I used to work at a club, in the DJ booth. I remember how the entire dance floor would jump up and down, arms up high, when “Since U Been Gone” hit its chorus. That reaction has a name: pop bliss.

Click here to view the entire list.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

4. Animal Collective "My Girls" (2009)

I began working on this list right around the time Merriweather Post Pavilion was released. I caved and bought the album after reading the rapturous reviews it was getting. Listening to the record a few times, I was immediately intrigued by its first single, "My Girls." It's a slow-burn song, like the rest of MPP. But as I compiled my list, it worked its way into my mind. I've probably listened to the song a few hundred times now, so I feel comfortable making the next statement. "My Girls" is brilliant. Utterly, utterly brilliant.

A caveat: I am not a fan of avant-garde music. But "My Girls" (or MPP, for that matter) is not avante-garde, no matter what is said of it. It is pop music dismantled and put back together funny. At first it sounds structureless, which is why it invites the avante-garde label and why it is so slow-burn. Actually, its structure is fugal, repeating elements and themes until they bore their way into your ear, never to escape.

"My Girls" is an example of how, in music, the right element played at the right time can cause unadulterated joy in the listener. Here it's a well-timed hand clap, or an exuberant "wooooo," that does the trick. What at first appears to be a cacophony of sound becomes a glorious cacophony of sound.

Brian Wilson casts a long shadow in music nowadays, especially over this list. But "My Girls" is an example of how a band can channel Wilson while pushing his sound into new territory, and in this case, into the cosmos.

Click here to view the entire list.

Happy Birthday, Cultural Minefield!

One year old today.

Monday, November 23, 2009

5. PJ Harvey "This Is Love" (2000)

On the surface, "This Is Love" is Polly Harvey's most unabashedly happy song on an album full of them. Yet Harvey performs it with an almost malevolent ferocity. Even in love, Polly is not short on passion and theatricality.

"This Is Love" begins with one of PJ Harvey's best lyrics:
I can't believe life's so complex, when I just wanna sit here and watch you undress.
It's a remarkable line for an artist who has previously seemed tortured by life's complexity. Harvey goes on to chase her man-prey around a table, her head burning with lust. This is love? It sounds more like raging desire.

The music is as straightforward and accessible as PJ Harvey gets. A charging bass hook gives the song its menacing pounce, while her guitar shimmers with lovely arpeggios. Above it all, Polly roars like a lioness in heat.

It should be noted that "This Is Love" is the second song from Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea to make this list. It only goes to show the album's embarrassment of riches, and how high PJ Harvey towers over her peers when she's at her best.

Click here to view the entire list.

Friday, November 20, 2009

6. Loretta Lynn (feat. Jack White) "Portland, Oregon" (2004)

Jack White dedicated the White Stripes' second record, White Blood Cells, to Loretta Lynn. His admiration for Lynn is taken to its logical conclusion on "Portland, Oregon," a song about a septuagenarian cougar and a young buck meeting over sloe gin fizz and getting it on. The song somehow avoids being creepy, despite the extreme age gap of the duettists. In fact, it's the quintessential celebratory one-night-stand song, completely devoid of regret or shame.

Forget Conway Twitty, Jack White has become Lynn's partner in crime and, in her words, her "forever friend". "Portland, Oregon" begins with a meandering Jack White intro, but when the song kicks in, it's clear that Lynn has been reinvigorated by her collaboration with the White Stripe. In fact, White's garage rock aesthetic only heightens the outlaw country of Loretta Lynn.

Loretta Lynn hasn't been this relevant since the late 1970s, and it's not only thanks to Jack White. Her voice is as strong as ever, and she's been making some killer music. Few artists produce such amazing work at such an old age, especially not music this youthful.

Click here to view the entire list.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is Radiohead Overrated?

I've said so before, with regard to Kid A and Amnesiac. I love Radiohead, but this article in Spin makes some good points:
They're the vanguard of music, a post-rock think tank, the absolute state of the art.

They've also been righteous, giving a confused music world a moral center. So we sit, wearing headphones and frozen grins, and continue denying that guilty, nagging feeling that actually, in some ways, when you think about it…Radiohead kinda blow.

Few, save for Liam or Noel Gallagher, dare speak this heresy aloud, instead couching it in longings for a "back-to-basics" album or a "return to form," despite the fact that Radiohead are at their critical and commercial peak. Civil (by Internet standards) discussions reside on Yahoo message boards with titles like "Why Did Radiohead Become Dull and Boring?" But while such almost apologetic criticism typically hides online or at water coolers, sometimes the elephant isn't in the room, but onstage.

At last year's All Points West festival, as their thin, stubbly faces filled massive video screens, Radiohead began their set with In Rainbows' "15 Step": an open-ended groove with a quirky electro beat, two-chord motif, and airy, abstract singing. Then they did the 2001 song "Morning Bell/Amnesiac": an open-ended groove with a quirky electro beat, two-chord motif, and airy, abstract singing. Then they kept going, one groovy tone poem into another, masterfully weaving beats, sound-washes, and misty vocals into an immersive experience of sound, light, pattern, rhythm, and utter, paralyzing boredom. By the encore, it was obvious what Radiohead had become: an exceptionally well-dressed jam band. That you can't even dance to.


The Wealth of Nations

Daron Acemoglu, channeling Paul Collier, has an excellent primer on development economics in this month's Esquire. A highlight is Acemoglu's comparison of Jeffrey Sachs and Jared Diamond to Montesquieu:
You can chart the search for a theory of inequality to the French political philosopher Montesquieu, who in the mid-eighteenth century came up with a very simple explanation: People in hot places are inherently lazy. Other no less sweeping explanations soon followed: Could it be that Max Weber's Protestant work ethic is the true driver of economic success? Or perhaps the richest countries are those that were former British colonies? Or maybe it's as simple as tracing which nations have the largest populations of European descent? The problem with all of these theories is that while they superficially fit some specific cases, others radically disprove them. [...]

And yet while Sachs and Diamond offer good insight into certain aspects of poverty, they share something in common with Montesquieu and others who followed: They ignore incentives. People need incentives to invest and prosper; they need to know that if they work hard, they can make money and actually keep that money. And the key to ensuring those incentives is sound institutions — the rule of law and security and a governing system that offers opportunities to achieve and innovate. That's what determines the haves from the have-nots — not geography or weather or technology or disease or ethnicity.

Put simply: Fix incentives and you will fix poverty. And if you wish to fix institutions, you have to fix governments.

Easier said than done, but true nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Wire: 100 Greatest Quotes

What a show.

(HT Radley Balko)

Has Civilization Peaked?

My friend Seth says yes, and he's dated the peak: August 14, 2003. He hasn't convinced me yet, but his blog is singular in its focus and interesting throughout. Recommended.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Win At Roulette in One Easy Step

(via BuzzFeed)

Health Care Shortages

This is why Greg Mankiw writes great economics textbooks: he's clear and concise. Here is his explanation of the economics of health-care socialization:
Let's review some basic principles of supply and demand: If a government policy increases the demand for a service, the price of that service tends to rise. If the government prevents prices from rising, shortages develop. The quantity provided is then determined by supply and not demand. In the presence of such excess demand, the result could be a two-tier market structure. Consumers who can somehow pay more than the government-mandated price will be able to purchase the service, while those paying the controlled price may be unable to find a willing supplier.
Or, if they currently live abroad, they travel to the U.S. to get procedures done.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Prove Your Greatness: Nirvana

I have always admired Nirvana, but to me their music has been associated with a specific time and place. I was eleven when Nevermind exploded -- I first saw the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video on a Saturday morning Nickelodeon variety show. I dutifully ordered the album via the BMG record service (with seven others for a pretty penny) and wore it out. I tried to like In Utero, but could rarely survive longer than "Rape Me." Kurt Cobain shot himself when I was in eighth grade. I remember my friends acting shocked and saddened, but we were too young to fathom what had happened. MTV Unplugged in New York dropped when I was in high school. By then I had long moved on, but Unplugged became on obsession. I used to play it before going to bed. The album made me feel deeply sad and safe at once, much like R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People. That was no coincidence.

Since then I've listened very little to Nirvana's music. It just seemed too familiar, and I could never separate it from time and place. Now comes the release of Nirvana's much-bootlegged 1992 Reading Festival performance. I've been listening to in on repeat since I bought it on Tuesday. It is a revelation.

Live at Reading reveals the band not only at full-peak, but rambunctious and almost gleefully in control of their power. The material spans Bleach to a few early versions of songs from In Utero, with a couple of choice b-sides and covers thrown in. So in essence, it spans their entire career. Unlike the surprisingly inert live compilation From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, these live versions seem definitive. Moreover, they recast the band's music and provide a freshness an album listen can't.

I've now gone back and re-listened to all of Nirvana's records, and only now do I understand the band's legacy. The best songs are incredible, the average songs are great, and there really aren't any bad songs (at lease not beginning with Nevermind). So here I present a quick album by album reassessment, including the b-side collection Incesticide and Unplugged in New York.


Bleach is not a landmark first record. Like Radiohead's Pablo Honey, it's a slight album that has really good moments. "School," "About a Girl," "Negative Creep," and "Blew" are as good as anything off of Nevermind. The rest of the album merely points to what the band would achieve with their next record.


It's common to hear music snobs grumble about Nevermind's shiny production. Yet Butch Vig's production tempers the fuzz of Cobain's guitar, making Nevermind almost a really hard power pop record. Approached from that perspective, Nevermind is a triumph. What's most striking is the beauty of the songs' melodies. Cobain wrote lovely music, amplified. (This becomes most obvious on Unplugged, where the songs are de-amplified.)


is a wonderful mixed-bag of b-sides and covers. It shows Nirvana's playful side, which is largely absent from their proper albums. "Sliver," "Been a Son," and "Aneurysm" are awesome, and it's a little surprising that they never made the cut. There are a few Vaselines covers that punch up what were twee numbers in the Vaselines' hands. The rest of the material is what you would expect of outtakes: interesting curios that deserve to be heard.

In Utero

In Utero has aged well, and it's aforementioned "difficulty" has softened a bit for me. Except for a couple of the squawking later tracks, the album is roundly fantastic. However, Steve Albini's production is as stark as ever, making it a bracing listening experience. Notably, "Heart Shaped Box" and "All Apologies," the album's two best tracks, were remixed by Scott Litt (R.E.M.'s go-to for almost a decade). They are also the album's best-sounding tracks. Still, of Nirvana's three studio albums, In Utero remains their most powerful and exciting.

MTV Unplugged in New York

This is still my favorite Nirvana record, and it may be their best. Half of the tracks are covers, and they are what make the album shine. Nirvana's version of each of the six cover songs is better than the original. That these versions were all performed live is a bit remarkable. As for their own songs, "All Apologies" is even more heartbreaking, while "Dumb" works much better as an acoustic track. And then there's the Lead Belly cover "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," a song so wrenching that I still catch my breath at its howling climax. This is not a live album; it is the acoustic record Nirvana was always meant to make.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

7. M.I.A. "Boyz" (2008)

“Paper Planes” may be M.I.A.’s biggest hit, but “Boyz” is her best song. It's all sound and fury: the clanking, pounding tribal beats; the repetitive, almost nonsensical lyric; and an excellent horn sample, which somehow manages to one-up “Crazy in Love.” Oh, and it's also incredibly fun.

By deftly fusing non-western elements with rock, hip hop, and dance, M.I.A. has established her music as a genre unto itself. Yet for as high-minded and politically motivated much of her music is, I think M.I.A. really succeeds at being excellent good-time party music. She writes songs for the dance floor, and there is no shame in that.

Click here to view the entire list.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Rules of Shotgun

They have been codified. You have been warned.

Via BuzzFeed.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ayn, Everywhere

Just in case you missed it, Ayn Rand is everywhere.

(HT Tyler Cowan)