It’s been 10 years since the release of Heartbreaker, Ryan Adams‘ first post-Whiskeytown effort, and these days he is sober, married and seemingly well-balanced. Unless you were paying attention, you might not know the whole story—with the endless string of movie-star girlfriends and the drug-fueled, spoiled-rock-star antics. There was a time when Adams physically threatened his critics and routinely threw violent hissy-fits with damage bills in the thousands of dollars. He was a brash, arrogant diva, partly due to his own buying-in to the vast amount of bullshit surrounding him and partly due to all of the cocaine and heroin he was snorting. I don’t think we’ve had another artist so roundly dubbed the “second-coming of Dylan” since Adams was given the designation a decade ago, so it might be hard for a 20-something listener today to comprehend the level of hype that was dumped on him when he was emerging as a solo artist. It was blinding. With a staggering amount of unreleased material—including multiple albums that were shelved and several website-only releases under numerous band names—he’s since become one of the most prolific recording artists of his time, inarguably responsible for some certifiable modern classics and future rock standards. This might not go well; judging by Adams’ vocal disdain for MAGNET in the past, just writing about him is going to piss him off. Nobody tell him where I live. Anyway, here are Adams’ five most overrated and five most underrated songs.
Talking Heads positioned themselves in NYC’s mid-’70s downtown arts scene at the most fortunate moment possible. With one ear trained on the punk and new-wave movements and the other cocked toward the art-rock and performance-art explosions that would come in the early ’80s, the Heads—David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison and Chris Frantz—undertook projects far beyond the scope and ambition of most of their counterparts, everything from choreographed minimalist live shows to full-length feature films, even as the band amassed a catalog of forward-looking albums, each with a unique mood and aesthetic. As time passes, though, Talking Heads’ legacy in the popular mind is largely limited to a ubiquitous handful of songs, most notably radio staple “Once In A Lifetime,” referenced everywhere from the opening credits for second-rate movies (Nick Nolte, we’re looking in your direction) to a series of Rolling Rock commercials. That’s a shame, since Byrne and Co.’s music bridges the gap between punk’s anything-goes aesthetic and formalist art rock’s high-concept composition. So for this week’s Over/Under, we survey the “Big Country” Byrne once sang about, thereby to take the lay of the land.
Platinum-selling. Grammy-nominated. These are not usually adjectives attached to indie/punk/alternative bands. Not good ones anyway. I thought Modest Mouse would go far, but if you had asked me in 1998 if the band was going to have its songs performed on a show like AmericanIdol, I probably wouldn’t have dignified such a ridiculous question with a response. The band has had a slow—if, at times, awkward—welcoming into the mainstream, but it is definitely there now, whether you have come to terms with that or not. But really, who would have imagined Modest Mouse was going to reach this level of ubiquity in pop culture? Hearing its songs on corporate radio was a surprise. The first time I heard the band on TV, I admit that I reflexively jumped out of my chair, yelling in disbelief. These days, you can find Modest Mouse songs in the background of national sports broadcasts, political talk shows, video games and over the sound system at Starbucks. I’ve seen the band about 10 times in the past 11 years, from warehouses in the middle of nowhere to the Hollywood Bowl. I was at that notorious 2002 show in Oklahoma City where Isaac Brock just started slicing his arm open and bleeding all over the stage. For many years, the band had been on the brink of self-destruction with numerous run-ins with the law and struggles with substance abuse. It is only for the past two albums that Modest Mouse seemed to mellow out a bit and give the impression it is in it for the long haul. And the band is only getting bigger. Now that Brock and Co. have cleaned up their act, made it big and are comfortably settling down with their families, is the music suffering? Hit the jump to find out the five most overrated and the five most underrated Modest Mouse songs.
This came from reader Stephen Sigl, who thought it was about time MAGNET had an Over/Under on the Rolling Stones.
I don’t interpret the Over/Under features in as harsh a light as most people seem to, just as long as there’s a distinction between the writer saying a song is “good but overrated” (as evidenced in the Built To Spill Over/Under)—this is good. Downright hostility toward someone’s guilty pleasure (Beck’s “Satan Gave Me A Taco”)—this is not so good. Being a Stones fan, I don’t dislike any of the overrated songs, but I do find them inessential. Here goes …
:: The Five Most Overrated Rolling Stones Songs 1. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
Easily the most identifiable Stones songs ever. The riff has the legacy of being recorded by Keith Richards just before he passed out, the song was cut by the band on the fly sans horn overdubs, and it became a mega-hit despite lyrics that pushed radio standards of decency at the time. I don’t dispute this song’s greatness; it is on the top of the overrated list only because it is the one song that die-hard Stones fans generally forget exists until the encore.
2. The Brian Jones Era Hipsters who are generally down on blues-based rock do not like the Stones after ’68. The infatuation with the Brian Jones era is clearly a fallen-idol/fashion issue. Unless you are still awed by ’60s idealism, there is no reason to place the Jones era above the other two.
3. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” This is probably the definitive example of a “classic song” that blows you away when you’re 14, but ends up as anathema by graduation. The length doesn’t help any, either. File under “Stairway To Heaven” for been there, done that.
4. “Wild Horses” The best (and weirdest) analogy I can come up with for including this and “Satisfaction” on the overrated list is by admitting that I went to a Fugazi show about 10 years ago with some hard-core Fugazi fans and told them (at least more than once), “I hope they play ‘Waiting Room.'” That had to have been annoying, and that’s the criteria I’m using for this list.
5. “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” The overt urban-funk, pre-disco wah-wah pedal workout from Goats Head Soup is the album’s weakest moment, exacerbated by the aggressively topical nature of the lyrics (a theme that reached its apex on “Little Indian Girl” off Emotional Rescue). This song still gets moderate airplay, though “Fingerprint File” from It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll is more deserving and feels more natural to its era.
:: The Five Most Underrated Rolling Stones Songs 1. “Luxury”
Could it be that a great riff, an unabashedly faux-Jamaican accent and a sense of novelty make this the unheralded gem off It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll? Or maybe it’s because some of the slower songs on that album tend to drag (“Time Waits For No-One,” “If You Really Want To Be My Friend”) that this song brings the pace up and, for some reason, always strikes me as being the most unrecognized, underplayed song in the Stones’ catalog.
2. “Winter” The successor to “Moonlight Mile,” though the lyrics are not as abstract. It’s still amazing: Christmas imagery, references to past Kenneth Anger-induced occult practices (bell, book and candle … ) and Mick Jagger’s between-verses yelps (a la “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”) add a sense of life to the overall dynamic, which is something the band has retained (on record) since Andrew Loog Oldham left.
3. The Ron Wood Era Ron Wood’s tenure with the Stones marks their most critically maligned period. Only recently have people started to come around. Whether it’s Uncut magazine begrudgingly admitting a song from Undercover onto its 50-greatest-Stones-songs list or Rob Sheffield (of all people) praising Emotional Rescue. The Stones entered their “third” phase still willing to experiment musically but with no intention of playing it safe by conventional rock-star standards, which has got to be worth something.
4. “All The Way Down” At a time when almost all their contemporaries were tailoring their music to the pre-30-something baby-boomer generation’s attempts to come to grips with its collective mortgage payments, the Stones released an ’80s album that, outside of a few concessions, stayed true to the consistent formula of succinct songwriting, great guitar playing and blatantly sexual lyrics. There’s an earthiness to Jagger’s singing that is a vibrant remnant of the Stones’ early-’70s heyday.
5. “Tops” It’s always a revelation to hear someone mention that this song was recorded during the sessions for Exile, considering it has a sophistication no one listening to the Stones at the time would have expected. The soul element of the rhythm ‘n’ blues equation has always kept the Stones grounded in good songwriting and steered them clear of overbearing blues-rock banality.
You could make the argument—and several critics and historians have made it—that American hardcore punk begins with Black Flag. By any measurement, Black Flag was one of the most important bands in punk, a crucible in which the speed and energy of the genre later mixed with angular noise, jazz freedom and literate explorations of alienation, fear, rage and isolation. Guitarist/cofounder (with vocalist Keith Morris) Greg Ginn, alongside bassist Chuck Dukowski, all but set the template for DIY recording and touring, kicking open a space for punk bands to play locally and abroad, as well as release their own records when absolutely no one had done so before. It was an upstart process with very little in the way of a pre-existent business model, and Ginn’s SST Records eventually landed at the center of a number of legal actions and complaints about artists’ rights. But through SST, Black Flag issued a series of records of hardcore punk, spoken word and instrumentals, and experimental rock. Important albums by Sonic Youth, the Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr, in addition to several other acts, also found their way into the world through the pipeline that Ginn and Co. opened. And unlike most punk bands, when audiences had the temerity to act up and get violent, Black Flag gave it right back to them, handing back kicks and punches so that the group’s shows were often as much genuine guerilla warfare as guerilla art. The band’s story has been partially documented in books like Michael Azzerad’s historical overview Our Band Could Be Your Life and singer Henry Rollins’ Get In The Van: On The Road With Black Flag, drawn from his own 1981-1986 tour diaries. But the full story of Black Flag has yet to be published, and when that happens, let’s hope the book does the band’s impressive history justice. Until that time, as a gentle nudge to critics and historians, here’s our take on the most overrated and the most underrated cuts in Black Flag’s catalog.
Doug Martsch cannot hear you. He thinks the world has plenty of Built To Spill albums. This summer he told Pitchfork, “We’re not in any hurry to put anything out. There are plenty of Built To Spill records—no one is in a hurry to hear something new.” He’s wrong, though. Martsch should make more albums. He should make more BTS albums, but I think that he should also start a Robert Pollard-esque program of pseudonym bands where he releases several albums a year in different styles. Remember that fantastic closing track on There’s Nothing Wrong With Love that was a preview of the next Built To Spill record and it was a bunch of snippets of joke songs? That joke-song montage had a handful of tunes that were far better than a lot of bands’ earnest efforts. He could do albums just like that—as a joke—and still make year-end top-10 lists. If he doesn’t start recording under his own new band names, he should at least be a bit more mercenary and hire out his guitar work. More side projects and guest appearances, please. In 17 years, Built To Spill has released only seven studio albums; naturally, over that stretch of time, the band has gone through several musical phases: the early lo-fi charm of Ultimate Alternative Wavers; the poignant, small-town pop genius of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love; the epic, jammy, post-rock groove of Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like A Secret. (Martsch may have saved the guitar solo and possibly even the guitar altogether on those two records.) The next two BTS albums, Ancient Melodies Of The Future and You In Reverse, though lacking the definition of the earlier LPs, found the band nestling in to its sound and couldn’t have been made by any other group. Martsch has said in interviews that Built To Spill isn’t innovative, that the band isn’t creating anything new. And maybe he’s right. But what band is? Aren’t they all just a synthesis of their influences? Martsch might sound at times like J Mascis or Neil Young, but Built To Spill sounds only like Built To Spill. Though the band never found mainstream success and has yet to have a hit single, its most recent LP, There Is No Enemy, cracked the top 50 on the Billboard album chart, the highest spot for any BTS record to date. How else can we say it, Doug? More albums, please. Some of the best songs of the past 20 years are Built To Spill songs, certainly, but I can’t praise them all. Look, I know what you’re thinking. “Car” didn’t make either list.
:: The Five Most Overrated Built To Spill Songs
1. “Built To Spill” (1993)
The self-titled track. Bands should never do this. It always feels forced, not to mention indulgent and clumsy. Like the titular line in a movie. Of course, audiences love to hear this Ultimate Alternative Wavers track live because it name-checks the band they’re currently watching. Outside of the concert setting, it kind of takes me out of it, though.
2. “Joyride” (1996)
An adolescent punk song about heartbreak with a sense of humor. Possibly the most meta, self-conscious song since the “Song That Never Ends,” though only a fraction as annoying. With the lines “This part of the song is called the second verse/Sounds just like the first verse but with different words/It only has three chords and they are A E D” and “You’ve heard it all before/It’s the same old shit,” it’s a bit too much. The riff that links the verses is catchy. And I like the field recordings (the beer can opening, the birds chirping, engines revving and then the sound of the car crashing), and the way they fit in with the music and overall song is great. Unfortunately, the kind of snotty way Martsch sings it, combined with some of the lyrics, makes me cringe and outweighs all the positives.
3. “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” (2001)
I’ll admit the first time I heard this Ancient Melodies Of The Future track, it made me very happy. It had been a few years since anything had been released by the band, and out of nowhere it dropped this upbeat gumdrop. The song could be an Apples In Stereo song. After repeated listening, though, it feels emotionally thin compared to some of Built To Spill’s other really great pop songs (“The Weather,” “Twin Falls,” “Car”), not to mention it sounds overproduced and gimmicky. It’s surprising “Fly Around” didn’t become a huge hit single or at least soundtrack a commercial, considering how catchy the melody is. I’ll be trying to get it out of my head for days.
4. “Center Of The Universe” (1999)
Don’t look now. Thankfully, this one is under three minutes. The chunky lead octave riff that opens this song reminds me of great headaches I’ve had throughout my life. It’s a bit out of tune and sea sick. A song about not being able to get your point across. Built To Spill has better songs about the same subject. The weakest spot on Keep It Like A Secret, the band’s best album.
5. “Stop The Show” (1997) I’m gonna say it: Perfect From Now On is overrated. Recently resurrected by the band for a tour of full-album performances, the record is too jammy and the songs are too long and sleepy compared to the LPs that came before and after. I think that both There’s Nothing Wrong With Love and Keep It Like A Secret are not only better albums, but better suited to full concert performance because of the “hits” each album contains. Perfect From Now On has a lot of great jams, but it’s virtually singleless and would not be as effective at whipping up a crowd as the other two. I think a big part of what is worth praising about this record is that this was the band’s major-label debut. BTS had just put out an album with “Car” and “Twin Falls” (two songs with huge radio potential), signed to Warner Bros. and then released this eight-song middle-finger of a record with some of the songs pushing nine minutes and none of them coming in under four-and-a-half minutes. It seemed almost like overcompensation against claims of “sell out.” This song in particular is a good example of the extra fat that should have been trimmed. For the version on 2000’s Live, the band edited out the three-minute drowsy intro—getting right to the good part.
:: The Five Most Underrated Built To Spill Songs
1. “Time Trap” (1999)
This song builds from a slow ethereal crescendo to some heavy-swinging riffs that cut out right before what must be one of the grooviest, funkiest chord progressions I’ve ever heard. Then it speeds up and builds again to the end with soaring guitars and a pounding tribal rhythm. You can’t help but move to this Keep It Like A Secret track. “Do you want to save your life?” I think you just did.
2. “Virginia Reel Around The Fountain” (1998)
“Virginia” isn’t a Built To Spill song, so it can’t fairly be considered one of its underrated tracks, but I picked this Halo Benders number to make a point: Martsch doesn’t have to make Built To Spill albums. He could collaborate with any number of great singers and musicians and put out a good record. He has said recently that another Halo Benders album is in the not-too-distant future and that he and Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse) have discussed getting together and jamming. Can’t wait.
3. “They Got Away” (2007) Martsch has long professed his love of reggae and soul, and in 2007, BTS released this single (with a b-side cover of “Re-Arrange” by the Gladiators). This song shows that Built To Spill doesn’t have to sound like Built To Spill. After hearing this, I wish the band would make a reggae record. Actually, Built To Spill could do a series of different genre albums that would probably be amazing.
4. “Lift” (2002) Martsch solo album Now You Know is a stripped-down, mostly acoustic and slide-guitar blues record. It sounds miles away from Built To Spill. It was well received critically when it was released, but what if the same album had been put out as a Built To Spill record? Would it have been received any differently? It might have sold more copies, based on name recognition, but how would critics and fans have reacted if this had been the BTS release between Ancient Melodies and You In Reverse? Minds might have been blown. Which is probably why he had to release Now You Know under his own name.
5. “Hindsight” (2009) The new album. Sure, it’s Built To Spill’s highest charting release to date and it’s been critically praised already by just about everyone. How could that be underrated, right? Well, some people had written the band off after the last two records. But There Is No Enemy is diverse and inspired, definitely one of the best releases of this year and—what’s even more impressive—one of the best of the band’s career. There’s the heartfelt pop of “Hindsight,” the shimmery disco of “Good Ol’ Boredom,” the post-punk “Pat” (which could be a Wrens song), the mariachi horns on “Things Fall Apart.” Built To Spill is still doing new and interesting things, and There Is No Enemy is definitely worth a listen if you got off board at some point.
This email came from reader Zachary Malkinson of Boulder, Colo., in anticipation of a Yo La Tengo Over/Under. Anyone else want to steal our thunder?
I realize these columns aren’t democratic, but I wanted to add my two cents for consideration when compiling the inevitable Over/Under on Yo La Tengo:
:: The Five Most Overrated Yo La Tengo Songs (In No Particular Order)
1. “Tom Courtenay”
They play this at every show. It’s a good song, but not even close to their best. I’d rather see “Autumn Sweater,” “Big Day Coming” or anything from May I Sing With Me than “Tom Courtenay.” I can’t figure out where the adoration comes from. In October, I saw them play an acoustic version, which was a treat, although the dude behind me continued to shout a request for “Tom Courtenay” for the rest of the night.
2. “Blue Line Swingers” This is the song where my wife always leaves to go to the bathroom. It’s a very good song, but there are a limited number of extended guitar riffs they will play on a given night, and they play it a lot. I would rather hear “Story Of Yo La Tango” any day.
3. “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” Another good song that is overplayed. (See above entry on spreading out the swirling-guitar jams.)
4. “Nuclear War” We saw them play this at the Fillmore in San Francisco while Iraq War protests were swirling in 2004. It was poignant and funky. Recently, they played this in Denver, and it lost some of its luster.
5. “Season Of The Shark” Why this was included on the greatest-hits compilation evades me. It’s a perfectly fine song, but a hit? Nah.
:: The Five Most Underrated Yo La Tengo Songs (In No Particular Order) 1. “We’re An American Band”
From the slow, hushed, road-music beginnings to the sprawling guitar work of the climax, this song really shows the range Yo La Tengo can pull off.
2. “False Alarm” Not only is this song a little funky and a little caustic, it is incredible to see live: Ira Kaplan shaking maracas while tormenting the organ: an absolute delight. One of their most exuberant moments.
3. “Today Is The Day” For the same reasons, we love “Cherry Chapstick,” “Sugarcube,” “Nothing To Hide” and “From A Motel 6.” This song has all the fuzz with classic understated vocals.
4. “Magnet” This song really captures what it is like when the band goes to the front of the stage with an acousitic guitar and Georgia Hubley uncomfortably singing. It is pretty and sweet with a perfect country shuffle.
5. “And The Glitter Is Gone” This is so good, I can’t believe they don’t play it every night. See the rooftop performance of this tune: brilliant.
‘Scuse me, sir? You with the Devendra Banhart haircut? And you, ma’am, in the vintage prom dress and cat’s-eye spectacles? Don’t look now, but Bunnybrains are playing an unannounced in-store with Yamakata Eye on vocals at the Atomic Soundz record shop, about a block and a half up. Me? No, no, I developed tinnitus from playing Mission Of Burma in the car on long drives. Can’t be around the loud stuff anymore. But go, go, have fun … Whew. OK. Now that those guys are out of the room, let’s talk, you and me, about Sonic Youth. And let’s be sensible. When it comes to Sonic Youth, I’m that guy; should the house ever go up in flames, my local fire brigade has standing orders to rescue: 1) the cats, and 2) my life’s-work collection of SY albums, singles, bootlegs, vinyl pressings, VHS tapes, cassette tapes of individual band members’ side projects, photocopied zine articles, books and sundry merch. Everything else can go to ashes. I’m that kind of fanatic. Like you, though, I try not to be a pain in the ass about it. I just love the stuff. Not only does SY’s career link late-’70s cerebral art noise to ’80s no-wave and hardcore punk, the ’90s alt-rock boom and bust and early 21st-century experimental composition (an arc no other band can even approach), the group also happens to rock, when it wants to. Maybe due to the band’s embedding in those very disparate muso-freak camps, each hyper-conscious of its own peculiar notions of “integrity” and “credibility,” Sonic Youth seems to trigger a visceral reaction in enthusiasts and dissenters alike, which means we fans have an unfortunate tendency to get snotty about what we do and don’t like. But really, I can’t think of a conversation more tiresome than the one about whether every release since 1988’s DaydreamNation describes a downward spiral. And I don’t quite get how a band so openly suspicious of corporate-controlled music acts could fetishize Madonna, ironically or not, but so what? Each to their little inconsistencies, is what I say. And frankly, I couldn’t care less what anyone—including the members of Sonic Youth themselves, always rather obsessive on this point—think about whether they’ve sold out to corporate interests. Over nearly 30 years, Sonic Youth has been able to move from tiny to mid-size to major labels and back again, release a string of consistently interesting if sometimes uneven records and pull a bunch of other great bands into the spotlight in the process. That’s doing God’s work, no matter how you fine you cut it. So let’s come to the gargantuan Sonic Youth catalog not as fawners or snobs—but as people who dig good music—and see if we can talk about which tracks we find overrated or underrated. It’ll be more fun than trying to one-up each other by posing out over our own coolness, and … Oh, hi, you’re back! What? No Bunnybrains? Huh. Sorry about that. Maybe I got the date wrong. Who, us? Nah. We weren’t talking about anything.
The alt-rock world has produced very few acts as willfully weird, deliciously different, long-lived, ancient and justified as Oklahoma City’s Flaming Lips. Regardless of the band’s lineup or era, frontman Wayne Coyne and whomever was around him at the moment (Michael Ivins and a ragtag band of fugitives from normal society who’ve darted in and out of the act during its two-plus-decade run) have created a body of work that—at once—stupefies in its lysergic brilliance, baffles in its Beach Boys-from-Mars juxtapositions and translates to perhaps the most memorable live experience of the past 20 years. The typical Flaming Lips performance features everything from fur-covered costumes, balloons, puppets, video projections and stage lighting that would make Pink Floyd blush with envy to giant hands, barrels of confetti and a man-sized plastic bubble in which a Dolce & Gabbana-white-suit-rocking Coyne communes with, and passes over, his audience. (All of which makes perfect sense when you consider that the band made its live debut in a transvestite club using instruments stolen from a local church hall). The Lips have suffered through their share of drama over the years—members who’ve left to pursue their spiritual calling, one (current multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd) whose decade-long struggle with heroin addiction saddled the band with a weighty psychic anchor and one (Ivins) who was the victim of a bizarre hit-and-run accident in which a wheel from another vehicle pinned him in his car—but have endured to become, perhaps, the elder statesmen of the indie era. The sort of act whose frontman responds to media questions with rejoinders such as “If someone was to ask me what instrument do I play, I would say, ‘The recording studio.’” Ladies and gentlemen, oh my gawd! … the Flaming Lips. And their five most overrated and five most underrated songs.
:: The Five Most Overrated Flaming Lips Songs
1. “Do You Realize??” (2002)
It may now be the official rock song of Oklahoma—an honor the Lips won in March, beating out J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” and Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” (co-written by an Oklahoma schoolteacher), among other worthy contenders—but when you really listen to it, “Do You Realize??” is basically John Lennon’s “Mind Games” with different, more morbid lyrics: some kinda druid dudes lifting the veil, doing the mind guerilla, just like Lennon said. Big ups for featuring so prominently in a Hewlett-Packard ad, though; who’d have thunk the brainfry boys responsible for “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” would help sell PCs to the soccer-mom massive?
2. “She Don’t Use Jelly” (1993) You can debate this tune on its (relatively slight) merits—it’s silly, kind of an alt-rock campfire song for the Lollapalooza crowd—or you can recall that back in the day, these guys made a surreal lip-synch appearance promoting the track on cheeseball teen drama Beverly Hills 90210, which prompted Ian Ziering’s eternally trying-too-hard character Steve Sanders to proclaim, “I’ve never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!” Guilt by association/epic fail.
3. “Race For The Prize (Remix)” (1999) The Soft Bulletin may very well go down as one of “best albums of the ’90s” as so many have suggested (although not MAGNET; it didn’t even make our top 10 in 1999), but did the Lips really need an R&B remix to crack the airwaves? Were they that desperate for a hit? Evidently they must’ve thought so if they went to the trouble of bringing in Peter Mokran (whose credits include remix work for such luminaries as child-rapist R. Kelly, Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, Billy Ocean and perma-bent former TV host Paula Abdul) to give this track a spin through the wash. The musical tale of scientists taking on god and/or one another in a quest for glory could just as easily be Yes as the Flaming Lips. Ugh.
4. “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt. I” (2002) At the time this album came out, I couldn’t get my head around its concept-ness and wrote a review that raised the ire of at least a few readers (MAGNET staff, too?) by suggesting that it was little more than Coyne adopting “faux-Power Rangers horror-movie shtick … puzzling and disappointing.” These days, I think it’s cool that the Lips had the huevos to name an entire album after Boredoms Yoshimi P-We, who also contributed to it sonically. And I also marvel that the album may or may not be, in the online words of one fan, about “a girl in a Japanese all-girl’s band that has cancer (pink robots) and her fight to survive the chemo and treatment.” Whatever. The song’s still D.O.A. by Lips back-catalog standards.
5. “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” (2006) Lips labelmeister Warner Bros. has recently taken to calling the band’s recent (some might suggest, welcome) return to weirdness, Embryonic, a “man, what’s going on?” moment in their catalogue. The assessment is probably more hyperbole than fact given the group’s first decade worth of work, but this particular ditty came at the tail end of the band’s decade-long “blatantly commercial” period, to the point where Kraft actually used the track for a salad-dressing commercial (advantage: Flaming Lip$). I’m pretty sure At War With The Mystics completely slipped by my range of field awareness when it was released—you can call the Lips a lot of things, but “boring” usually isn’t one of them. Paul Simon for the oughts?
:: The Five Most Underrated Flaming Lips Songs
1.“Turn it On” (1993)
Back when it first poked its head above the grunge lite surrounding it, Transmissions From The Satellite Heart was the CD that accompanied my subway ride from the Upper West Side to Midtown—all the better to prepare myself for the bizarro world of Manhattan-based Corporate America, ’90s-style. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how the album’s lead track, “Turn It On,” escaped the notice of radio programmers (who did try to grab someone’s interest, albeit, unsuccessfully) or, more importantly, the indie kids themselves, who gave it a big miss despite its vast superiority to “She Don’t Use Jelly,” the album’s flukey hit single. “Turn it on and all way up, in the houses when you wake up,” Coyne sang before ending the affair with a giant dose of squalling feedback of the sort the band had been expertly conjuring for a decade or so. Awesome.
2. “Mountain Side” (1990) In A Priest Driven Ambulance was probably the first Lips album that could truly be called classic; in hindsight, it stands as one of the group’s top three releases, a work so completely prescient in its acid-fried magnificence that the entirety of Mercury Rev’s career can be laid at its feet. (Which stands to reason, when you consider that Rev mainman Jonathan “Dingus” Donahue was a card-carrying Flaming Lips guitarist during this timeframe.) A rip-roaring, slash-and-burn bit of amphetamine hotrodding, with Coyne singing and playing as if his hair is on fire and the alt-nation watching every crooked move, waiting in the wings for their turn.
3. “The Sun” (1992) The Lips have churned out a ton of b-sides over the years that probably better qualify as “underrated” (or hell, at least, “under-known”), but Hit To Death In The Future Head remains the least likely major-label album I’ve ever heard before or since. Carole King ripoff “The Sun” (replete with its tremolo-infected guitars, Magical Mystery Tour warped strings and catchy-as-hell verse-as-chorus) is absolutely, positively the loveliest bit of Syd Barrett-issue pop these guys have ever recorded. Not necessarily stoned, but … beautiful.
4. “Christmas At The Zoo” (1995) Hey, Bob Dylan: If you’re going to record a Christmas song (oh, that’s right, you already have), you could do one helluva lot worse than this number from the hella underrated Clouds Taste Metallic, the Lips’ flopperoo follow-up to Transmissions From The Satellite Heart that was equal part Pet Sounds and All Things Must Pass. You’ll find me under the tree December 24th singing lustily along (probably with an egg nog or four around me) to one of the Lips’ finest moments: “There wasn’t any snow on Christmas Eve, but I knew what I should do/I thought I’d free the animals all locked up at the zoo.” Rumors that John Tesh is considering recording this prime bit of Lips-meat for an upcoming holiday album are, so far, unsubstantiated.
5. “Zaireeka” (1997) Long before the uber-geeks at Wired magazine first coined the term, the Flaming Lips were already well acquainted with the concept of crowdsourcing. Zaireeka (the word is a combination of “Zaire” and “eureka,” which Coyne made up to symbolize the fusion of anarchy and genius represented by the band’s so-called “parking lot experiments” shows conducted in ’96-’97 in which he would create 50 cassette tapes to be played in synchronization, then invite fans to bring their cars to covered parking lots to play the 20-minute composition in unison, creating a decidedly Lips-like “surround sound” experience) is a four-disc album meant to be played at volume, on four different machines, to disorienting, dizzying effect. While the whole thing qualifies as a mindblowing journey to the center of your mind, “Riding To Work In The Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)” is everything The Soft Bulletin and its follow-ups wanted to be, but ultimately weren’t. Find three friends, get the disc and a half-rack and have yourselves a night of it. “Riding To Work In The Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)”:
Beck came to most people by way of MTV wearing a stormtrooper mask and rapping about “getting crazy with the Cheez Whiz.” The video was “Loser,” and the song was recorded as a joke—on a friend of a friend’s eight-track in a span of six hours. The white-boy slacker-rap song went to number 10 on the Billboard charts. He seemed like a one-hit wonder, but now he’s in the running to be considered one of the most influential pop musicians of the past 20 years. No other artist in recent memory has so thoroughly blown apart any attempts at categorization. In the span of single songs, Beck has been known to fuse hip hop, Latin, funk, punk, classical, R&B, soul and delta blues. (I could have kept going.) The diversity he’s shown in his ability to take on different musical styles makes it obvious he could make any album he wants. He’s even started remaking his favorite records; his online-only Record Club project has him gathering with a group of friends once a month to re-record classic albums in a weekend. The first two installments were The Velvet Underground & Nico and Songs Of Leonard Cohen. For the next round, Beck got together with Wilco to cover Skip Spence’s Oar: not exactly easy lifting. He may be the hardest working slacker in show business. After 11 full-lengths, he’s written a ton of great songs, but there are a few that get undeserved praise and a mountain that get neglected. Here are the five most overrated and the five most underrated Beck songs.
:: The Five Most Overrated Beck Songs
1. “Devil’s Haircut” (1996)
This second single from Odelay followed “Where It’s At,” but maybe it should have just stayed a deep cut. Don’t get me wrong, it’s kinda catchy, and it obviously has some radio potential, but the lyrics are so negative and angst-ridden when compared to some of Beck’s other work, it just sounds like he wrote the song while in a bad mood. The chorus is numbingly hypnotic and repetitive, which is probably the reason it did so well on the radio. I’m not sure what Beck is writing about here, but to me, this would be a good song to soundtrack a serial-killer movie. It sounds like it could be about someone falling apart: turning to the dark side because there’s nowhere else to go. I prefer Beck when he’s writing songs to soundtrack convertible drives or getting ready for a night out.
2. “Nausea” (2006) This track sounds like Beck had been listening to too much Modest Mouse. It’s like a woozy-yet-frantic sea shanty. To his credit, it is nauseous, though that’s probably not something you should strive for when writing and recording music. Unless you like that kind of nervous, oh-no feeling you get when you know you’re going to throw up and you can’t do anything about it. This was the first single from The Information. Why anyone would choose this song to be repeated over and over on the radio is a mystery to me.
3. “Satan Gave Me A Taco” (1994) This stupid song from Stereopathetic Soulmanure gets endlessly requested by loud morons at concerts. It’s just the same chord progression and melody repeated over and over, and lyrically, it’s about as pedestrian and teenage as any of Beck’s songs. Sure, it pays homage to the “Alice’s Restaurant” story-song style of Arlo Guthrie, but it’s meandering and pointless. An anthem for Beavis and Butt-head. If Beck spontaneously made up this song during a live performance, it would be charming and funny. As a desperate rarity request, it’s just annoying. The man has farted better songs since.
4. “Debra” (1999) Sure, Beck is doing his best Prince and R. Kelly, but this song sounds like an Andy Samberg SNL parody. Beck wrote it around the Odelay sessions but ended up shelving it because he was afraid it was too much of a joke. It it. Once audiences got a hold of the song though, it quickly became a fan favorite and a highlight of live sets. “I met you at JC Penney/I think your nametag said Jenny/I cool step to you/With a fresh pack of gum/Somehow I knew you were looking for some.” Maybe Beck should do an entire comedy album. That could be pretty good. Even though it’s about a three-way and name-drops one of my favorite restaurants, Zankou Chicken, this song from Midnight Vultures gets unfair attention.
5. “E-Pro” (2005) Beck phones it in. It’s almost like he thought he found his hit-single recipe: Take one distorted acoustic groove, put a punchy beat behind it, rap a bunch of lazy non-sequitur lyrics over the top, sprinkle on some synth for flavoring, then stir. The chorus to this Guero track is just “na-na na-na-na-na na-na.” It’s catchy and proves his ability to make adequate music without really thinking about it, but is it really necessary? Beck has already made better versions of this song a few times over. Maybe it would have been decent, if it weren’t so uninspired.
:: The Five Most Underrated Beck Songs
1. “Brother” (1996)
From the scrapped Tom Rothrock/Rob Schnapf sessions for Odelay, this heartfelt, ethereal song was among a small number of sparse acoustic tracks that were shelved because they didn’t fit with the sample-laden, ramshackle hip-hop sound of the rest of the album under new producers, the Dust Brothers. “Brother” first saw light in 1997 as a b-side on the “Jack-Ass” single, and it was later re-released as part of a Japanese-only b-sides collection called Stray Blues. Beck has recycled tunes before (“It’s All In Your Mind” originally appeared on One Foot In The Grave but was re-recorded for Sea Change), and this song should have been given another shot.
2. “Go It Alone” (2006) Supposedly, “Go It Alone” was written in five minutes. The instrumentation is sparse, with nothing but handclaps and a groovy bass (courtesy of Jack White) making up the foundation for the verse. Some of Beck’s best songs are minimal numbers like this one. It’s not really until the final chorus where the song really gets pumping and you can hear White, with his trademark overdriven vintage-amp sound providing a heavy, broad accent. For some reason, this Guero track is a rarity live, but it’s one of a few that should have been chosen as a lead single over “E-Pro.”
3. “Supergolden Black Sunchild” (1993) Lo-fi experimental glam from the pre-Mellow Gold era. With grander production, this Golden Feelings track could sound like something by Bowie. The wavering tremolo Beck affects on the vocal line sounds like he’s shivering underwater. Probably never played live before, but this one might be worth revisiting with a full band for a once-in-a-while nugget. It would be a good tune to open the first encore.
4. “Cyanide Breath Mint” (1994) Beck liked this song enough to name his publishing company Cyanide Breathmint Music but not enough to play it live that often. Probably the catchiest track from One Foot In The Grave, this diatribe against show business proves that Beck can write a solid, linear song (he has loads more) and doesn’t always have to rap nonsense like he’s narrating channel flipping or he’s some schizophrenic bum walking down the sidewalk in Los Angeles.
5. “Lord Only Knows” (1996) Jangly acoustic, fuzzed-out bass and slide guitar get this song swaying. It’s got a classic folk/Americana feel, reminiscent of Neil Young or the simpler songs of Dylan, but with a warm buzz on the low end and a shredding (MXR Blue Box?) solo. This song destroys “Devil’s Haircut” in almost every way and would have made a much better single. It’s dynamic. The lyrics make sense. The vocal melody isn’t mind numbingly boring. Beck hasn’t been playing this one the past few tours, and it’s a shame. Do the hot-dog dance!