“‘baby’ one” – u2 (2011)

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A lot of people can name their favorite album at the top of their head like that.  However, I am not that way.  When it comes to the albums that mean the most to me, I have had several make their way in my life, be important for a brief period, and then get shelved away to get rediscovered and reloved later on.  That is not to say those albums become less important for me.  It is just that whatever need I had that required them was ultimately fulfilled.  Some of these special albums reappear back in my life more frequently than others.  While I do not have a single favorite album, there is one that returns to me more so than the rest.

When I first became actually aware of U2 was when I was on the cusp of turning 13 and the “Beautiful Day” single dropped.  That was a really big song and it became one of the best in their catalog. I even bought their album All That You Can’t Leave Behind when I visited Ireland in 2001 (perfect).  I was aware of them as an entity and had heard songs of theirs before, but nothing had quite resonated with me until the release of “Beautiful Day” and then I bought a compilation disc of their 90s hits a year later.  After that album release, they fell off my radar for a long time.  I remember 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb being released, but it didn’t have an impact on me.  Neither did 2009’s No Line on the Horizon.  I wouldn’t pick U2 back up during casual listening until late 2009.

I was an intern at Country Music Television at the time and I had my own desk, name plaque, and cubicle which was a really big deal for me at the time.  Working alone at my desk is when I actively started listening to streaming music services.  Pandora was my go to because I liked all the artist and genre customization.  At that time, I was big into the Police (and still am) and their station was always my first pick in a listening session.  As songs would get rated with a thumb up or a thumb down, the recommendation algorithm would change, and then I would get something slightly different as time went on.  Eventually, I started hearing more U2 on my Police Pandora station.

I mostly got cuts for their 1983 live EP Under a Blood Red Sky and that was key.  To this day, as a big fan, I will always say that U2 are better experienced in a live setting.  Listening to cuts from that album opened doors for me because there was an energy and power that wasn’t present on All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  This prompted me to create my own U2 station and that’s when it all started.

On my U2 Pandora station, I, of course, would get the radio hits.  But what captivated me were the deeper album cuts from their 80s and early 90s albums.  I remember hearing “So Cruel” and could not believe it was from the same album as “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways,” two Achtung Baby cuts that appeared on The Best of 1990-2000 compilation I bought in 2002.  I think this is when I started to transition to appreciating albums as a whole as opposed to selections on compilations (not unique to me as that was the music trend in 2000s).

Before the end of 2009, I would buy my own copy of Achtung Baby and listen to it non-stop.  It was on my iPod. The disc was always in my car’s CD player.  My girlfriend at the time would complain that I was always listening to it.  It had such an impact on me and I just couldn’t stop listening to it.

Achtung Baby, I believe, is the band’s crowning achievement. However, it is also a product of my biggest complaint against the band.  Quite frankly, U2 do take themselves way too seriously and don’t take criticism well.  1987’s The Joshua Tree was a monumental success, but the subsequent album and film release of Rattle and Hum in 1988 painted that band as pretentious devoid of humor.  And the band heard this message loud and clear. Achtung Baby would be the follow-up and even Bono would describe it as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree;” a perfect summation of how reactionary their best album was.

U2’s new image and musical direction for Achtung Baby was miles away from their 80s catalog.  Where the 80s brought them criticism as being too self-righteous, too serious, and too unbelievably reluctant celebrities, the 90s would bring humor, irony, and excess.  This was a band gambling over a decade of hard work on a new direction that could’ve destroyed their career.  And it almost did.

There are a lot of stories about the fighting that occurred while recording Achtung Baby.  Some are truer than others and even the band would play coy about it with the release of the 2011 documentary From the Sky Down which celebrate the 20th anniversary of the album’s release.  While history may have eliminated some details, what remains true is that the band almost broke up recording this album.

What ultimately saved the band during the recording process was the track “One.”  After numerous fights and an ever-increasing tension within the band, the Edge was improvising on the guitar and created what would eventually become the signature track.  “One” was a major hit for the band both critically and commercially and has since become one of their touring staples.  It is an incredible song about coming together while realizing we are not the same.

In 2011, the band reissued Achtung Baby for a 20th anniversary release.  The reissue resulted in five formats; a single disc album, the album with a bonus disc, vinyl, a ten-disc box set, and the ten-disc box set with lots of extra non-music material such as magazines and a pair of sunglasses.  I remember being quite annoyed with the reissue.  Unlike previous reissues from the band, this album was not remastered because it didn’t need it.  However, that wasn’t the problem.  Much of the material had already been previously released and what had not been previously released were only available on the super expensive box sets (the biggest one retailing for $600 at the time).  While the discs included B-sides, single, and remixes, the one disc I wanted as advertised as Kindergarten – The Alternative Achtung Baby; an album containing early versions of all the songs from Achtung Baby.  Referred to as the “baby” versions, this wasn’t Achtung Baby, but more of a Achtung Newborn.  The early versions of these songs were raw and unpolished.  As an avid fan of what would become the final album, it was always interesting to hear what had and hadn’t changed.  In some cases, the songs were nearly final very early on.  In others, the baby versions sounded completely different.

“’Baby’ One” is a real treat on the Kindergarten.  It is a strictly acoustic affair full of raw emotion.  The band sounds so close together as if they are bonding over the song that would become the hit that would save their career.  There’s a real passion and love here.  While the final version of the song is absolutely perfect, I do find myself enjoying the “baby” version more often.

Kindergarten is a musical example of finding out how the sausage gets made.  But while the magic of the end result may be lost for some people, it only elevates it more for me.  Achtung Baby is a very important record for me and knowing how it came together doesn’t diminish the love I have for it.  It is a powerful record of lust, love, loss, regret, and suffering.  It starts with a blast of energy, but ends in melancholy.  The range this record has narratively, musically, spiritually, and physically is dynamic and breathtaking.  You’re going on a journey when listening to this album.  The boys from Dublin had no idea where this album would take them, and neither do you when you hear it for the first time.  After 25 years, the album is as important as ever.

 

“i’ve got plenty to be thankful for” – bing crosby (1942)

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I think it is safe to say that 2016 has been a crummy year for pretty much everyone collectively.  Not only that, but we still have a whole month left.  American democracy became at risk of imploding when a demagogue lost the popular vote, but was still elected thanks to an antiquated electoral system.  Immigration and refugee crises continue to create an international emergency.  The effects of pollution on the environment are now declared to be beyond repair.  And we lost a higher than average of globally revered entertainers that managed to give us hope during times of trouble (four of whom were personal favorites).

Looking at all of this on social media, you would think the world was ending tomorrow.  And it just might.  But then again, it may not.  A lot of people are upset and hurting, and rightfully so.  There’s a lot of wrong happening right now and people are working hard to fix things.

Though, the questions remains: Why 2016?  Why is this year the one that seems the worst year in decades?  Is it because it actually signifies we are near the end, or does our media consumption and fear-mongering enable us to think this way?

I don’t know about you, but 2016 was a very good year for me all things considered.  I try not to be selfish about this fact.  There are a lot of people who are suffering right now and I try my best to remember that and minimize their hurt if possible.  And while losing Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, and Sharon Jones were influential losses and the election of Donald Trump worries me sick, I have a lot to be thankful for this year.

The last few years involved a lot of personal sacrifice and had their fair share of heartache for me. 2014 was the hardest year of my life and 2015 was me putting the pieces back together.   But 2016 was the year where I could sit back and enjoy the product of my hard work.  I’ve had a stable job this year and I make more money now than I have before.   I went on my first family vacation in over a decade (to Disneyworld).  I fought back some envious wanderlust and travelled across three distinct cities in Europe over two week (London, Rome, and Amsterdam).  I’ve got tickets to “Hamilton,” the hottest show on the planet.  I have friends that support me a family that loves me.  I feel really good about all of that.

Naturally, I know that satisfaction and good times come and go.  I’m enjoying a lot about life right now and that enjoyment can be fleeting.  Things will change and some bad times will come.  However, I’ll be older and more experienced in handling the bad stuff.  And it doesn’t mean I cannot enjoy my own personal accomplishments, triumphs, and privileges along the way.  Life is short and we need to be happy.  And I don’t have any guilt in expressing that happiness.

Holiday Inn was a 1942 film starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.  In the film, Crosby and Astaire have a popular nightclub act in New York City.  After some heartbreak, they meet a year later at an inn.  There, Marjorie Reynolds’ character catches their eye and has them falling head over heels.  It is a fun romantic comedy from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Most famously, the film introduced Crosby’s iconic “White Christmas” to the world.  And rightfully so. It is an incredibly song.  But, it isn’t Christmastime yet.  We’re talking Thanksgiving today.

I love the track “I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For” because it is clear and concise.  And frankly, I do have a lot to be thankful for.  Penned by Irving Berlin, the song is about appreciating what you have.  While you may not have everything you want, you still have a lot to be thankful for.  And that is very true.  I know what I want out of life that I don’t have yet and I work hard to try to make those things happen.  Until then, the goal is to live in the now and appreciate what I have.  I don’t have a big yacht or a private car, but I’ve got all my limbs and can still see (I have my health as they say).

Thanksgiving is truly a great holiday.  When I was younger, it was a way to get out of school which was always appreciated.  The true meaning of the holiday never really sank in with me until I got older.  Now, it is becoming one of my most cherished holidays.  It gives me an opportunity to reflect on my life and be happy about what I currently have because it won’t be around forever.  And wherever you are, take a look around and know that it could always be worse.

“death of a ladies’ man” – leonard cohen (1977)

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“I am ready to die,” Leonard Cohen told The New Yorker in the weeks leading up to the release of his latest, and final, studio album You Want It Darker.  I was in London on the day Cohen turned 82 and released the single of the same name.  I remember listening to it at night in my hostel with the lights off.  I remember thinking it was a change of pace from his two previous albums.  For one, this track featured a male choir when Cohen typically uses female backing vocals.  Also, 2012’s Old Ideas we Cohen cleaning out his attic and 2014’s Popular Problems was the sound of Cohen enjoying his late career renaissance.  The new generation of fans clamored for a return to tonal form.  They wanted the Cohen who could sing of misery.  They wanted it darker.  Not only was it a gift to his fans, it was a conscious statement that Cohen accepted he wouldn’t be around for long.

When I listened to “You Want It Darker,” I knew it meant more than just a n aesthetic shift.  I could hear what Cohen was saying.  He knew he didn’t have much time left when he made this record and he shared that revelation with me.  So, when news hit me last week that Cohen had passed, I was shocked.  Saddened, yes, but it was expected.

I really hate writing in memoriams.  I really do.  Mostly, this song this is meant to talk about songs I have been thinking about lately.  But, it also a way for me to pay tribute to certain artists who have had an impact on me.  Though, I try to be careful when I write about them as I have a rule to never repeat an artist.  For artists that I truly love, the time should feel right to talk about just one song in their entire catalogue and try to summarize why they mean so much for me.  When I write about an artist that recently passes, the narrative of everything changes and it becomes an unfortunately timed tribute amidst an entire digital landscape of tributes.  I waited too long so death dictates the message and that message becomes eclipsed.

Cohen’s career is one of few where I appreciate everything he’s done.  Prior to becoming a musician and songwriter, he was already an accomplished poet and novelist.  I’ve read his early poetry as well as his controversial novel Beautiful Losers.  I do enjoy the critically-acclaimed parts of his early career which gave the world “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire.”  From there, Cohen loses his touch and his music becomes overproduced and hokey.  Albums such as Death of a Ladies’ Man, I’m Your Man, and The Future.  But, you know what? I love those albums too!

Later, broke and irrelevant, Cohen joins a monastery for several years where he lives a disciplined life and writes poems that would later appear in his 2006 collection Book of Longing.  When he checks out of the monastery, this is the start of a career renaissance.  Tours during the late 2000s proved to be commercially and critically successful (I even attended a 2009 show in Nashville).  He tests new songs out on the road which would late be recorded for the trio of albums that would make up his comeback.  Thanks to help from his son Adam, Cohen dropped that highly stylized production in favor of a more stripped down aesthetic and created a new mystique that enticed old and new fans alike.  While many people his age would’ve just called it quits, Cohen went to find himself and came out stronger for it.

As I said, I love every part of Cohen’s career.  If I had written this piece on him prior to his death, I probably would’ve picked a track from my favorite album I’m Your Man.  However, he is gone now.  I’ve been listening to him since 2007, so I have had ample time to explore his career.  While new fans may look towards the classics or even his releases within the last few years, I want to focus on the album that represents his commercial and critical low point.

1977’s Death of a Ladies’ Man, despite being a maligned record, is one I absolutely love.  First off, the album sounds astonishingly different than anything else he had recorded prior or since.  At the production helm was Phil Spector, the legendary and notorious record producer who gave the world “The Wall of Sound.”  If you had ever listened to Cohen prior to 1977, you would know that Cohen’s quiet presence doesn’t mesh well with a sonic wall of orchestral instrumentation and swirling background vocals.  You can hear Cohen get lost in the mixing as everything around him overpowers his voice.

The closing track “Death of a Ladies’ Man” is where Spector’s wall of sound is the most evident.  Exceeding nine minutes, the track is a melancholic opus about a man’s frustration with women.  Most likely about Cohen, there is defeat and loss throughout the record.  But, there is a lot of love there too.  Something is being lost between two people.  Could they be lovers or just people with a shared brokenhearted view of love?  Lyrically, it’s a very complex and vague song that bears repeated listening while reading the liner notes.  Musically, it is an overproduced mess that has charm.  Spector’s work gives the song a distant and unearthly feel that makes it seem like a fairy tale more than something Cohen experienced.

While the album Death of a Ladies’ Man will never be held to high regard as some of Cohen’s other work, it isn’t one that should be missed.  It has it’s own unique appeal that signifies that start of a period in Cohen’s career where production overshadows the songwriting.  And it wouldn’t be something he corrected for another 35 years.  Cohen is missed.  The whole world felt his passing.  Even Saturday Night Live commemorated his passing when Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, appropriated the song for the purpose of instilling hope in people disappointed in last week’s election (myself included).  However, please do yourself a favor.  Cherish “Hallelujah,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Suzanne,” but don’t forget the songs where Leonard lost himself for there was still light in the darkness.

“a change is gonna come” – sam cooke (1964)

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Finally, it has arrived.  Election Day in the U.S. is always a chaotic and special time.  For over a year, candidates square off each other for the toughest job in the world.  One by one, candidates get eliminated until there are just two left.  A veritable “Thrilla on Capitol Hilla.”  Two candidates enter, one President leaves.

I realized today that I have never voted for a white male President.  I was 17 during the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry.  So, my first vote went to Barack Obama in 2008 and then again in 2012.  With my vote cast for Hillary Clinton in 2016, my progressive politics streak is still alive.

Everyone is worried about the outcome of today’s election.   Donald Trump, as the Republican nominee, has disgraced not only his party, but American politics in general.  His history of assaulting women, bankruptcy, racism, insulting the handicapped, and the countless other bigoted, misogynist, and racist things he’s done have made him the most unfit candidate in the history of our country.  More than worried, I’ve been embarrassed.

I have been overly optimistic about the results of tonight’s election.  I feel like I have to be.  The safety and security of millions of Americans rely on Trump losing tonight.  I have friends and family that would be affected negatively by a Trump win.  I couldn’t let myself go down that dark road that fear paves.  So, with my natural stubbornness and faith in blind optimism, I’ve maintained an unmoved position that I would not be worried about the outcome of the election.  I’ve got so many things in my life to worry about and I couldn’t let this add to it.

Friends and loved ones haven’t always shared my optimism.  Polls and media outlets paint a picture that the election has be extremely close for some time now.  I refuse to believe any of it.  My belief stems from sound reasoning on polling trends and the fact the media thrives financially on a close election, but it mainly came from my unwillingness to give into fear.  If I allowed myself to worry about the election, I would contribute to the negative cloud hanging over everything and I could somehow be at fault if Trump wins.  I know that is a silly thing to think.  But, there is power in collective fault.  Worry and fret about something with enough people around and it spreads like a virus.

My stubbornness to give into fear and perceive Trump as a legitimate threat has resulted in my being called complicit, delusional, stupid, an idiot, moronic.  And these were from my fellow liberals!  How could you expect to have your candidate win when the voting base is so negative?  I fought against that as much as I could.

I’ve been more political this election cycle than I have ever been before.  When Bernie Sanders was in the race, I marched for him.  This past weekend, I was in Iowa canvassing for Hillary Clinton.  I wanted to contribute because it was another way I could positivity in my fellow Americans and help them regain the hope they’ve in the last year.  We are too strong to let fear win.

With the polls closing in the next few hours, I am more adamant than I have ever been that tonight Clinton will win in a landslide.  We all need her to win in order for this country’s voting populace to get their confidence back.  I’ve been so exhausted reading people’s social media posts and hearing arguments that are defeatist.  As much as it has affected me, I have to work harder to be positive and optimistic that things will be fine.

A change is gonna come.  Released 11 days after his tragic death, Sam Cooke’s timeless 1964 tracks has been a symbol of the civil rights moments and what people can change through the power of progressive politics.  “A Change Is Gonna Come” still powerfully resonates 52 years later as this country is hours away from potentially electing it’s first female president after our first African American president successfully completed two terms. That’s is no small feat.  It’s message is real and relevant.  Racism, bigotry, and misogyny are still rampant today and a candidate for the highest office in the land aims to exemplify and amplify those terrible messages.  While those awful things will always be here, the voters still have the power to keep them out of office.  We have the power to take that change and have it now.  A change is gonna come?  A change is already here!

Hillary Clinton will win tonight.  How do I know? Because I refuse to let anything else happen.  Plus, I’m 2-0 on voting for winning Presidents.

“in my room” – yazoo (1982)

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Synth-pop was a genre of pop music that I didn’t appreciate until after I graduated college.  Not sure why, though.  Perhaps it could have been lack of exposure or something that I just needed to warm up to.  I listen to a lot of it now and I recently traced back my musical progression to understand how I got to this point.  First, I listened to a lot of punk in high school.  In college, punk led me to new wave.  And after that, breaking down new wave led me to synth-pop.  Makes sense looking back, but I’m sure the 15-year-old version of me would laugh at me now.

Synth-pop, and a lot of music in the 1980s, gets a bad rap.  A lot of music listeners talk about purity and authenticity as if these are things that can be measured with some form of standard metrics.  They are just bullshit words that people use to elevate their own tastes over others.  We all use these or similar terms, and we all put down some form of music, but 1980s music gets it the worst.  It stems from this notion that artists who use synthesizers or drum machines are not real musicians.

The 1980s were an experimental time in music.  New technology in the world of instruments and production were being introduced.  Some of this new technology were just merely toys while some produced stellar results.  Many artists, fresh and established, tried their hand.  While the sound of the 80s wasn’t kind to legacy artists such as Neil Young or Bob Dylan, up-and-coming artists now had an in to make a big splash on the radio.

One of the most underrated artists in music, and not just the 1980s, is Vince Clarke.  You may not know his name, but Clarke is a pioneer of synth-pop and new wave.  Early in his career, Clarke was a founding member of Depeche Mode performing on their debut album Speak & Spell.  Clarke left shortly after over creative differences, but his career didn’t end there.  He would eventually become one-half of the synth-pop duo Erasure, a phenomenal group that still performs and releases music today (and you might know their song “Always” as being the music featured in the game Robot Unicorn Attack).

However, between his brief time in Depeche and the success of Erasure, Clarke teamed up with Alison Moyet to form the synth-pop duo Yazoo (or Yaz in the U.S.).  Yazoo released only two studio albums, Upstairs At Eric’s in 1982 and You and Me Both in 1983, until the duo disbanded.  Despite making two amazing records that sound incredibly cohesive, Clarke and Moyet just couldn’t get along.  This is such a shame because this was a group where two already talented people elevated each other.

While both of Yazoo’s records are solid, Upstairs At Eric’s is superior choice.  Each song contributes something unique and special to the overall listening experience.  The album opens with the high-energy single “Don’t Go.”  “Bad Connection” is playful and has a little fun with the production.  “Midnight” features vocalization from Moyet that is unmatched elsewhere on the record.  “Situation” and “Only You” are amazing radio hits.  And “Goodbye 70’s” is an empowering anthem about change.

This record is such a classic, but one song stands above all the others for me.  “In My Room” is an undisputed masterpiece from the duo.  It musical arrangement is subtle and reserved compared to the energy and intensity of other tracks found on the album.  It also features experimental spoken-word vocals from Moyet and creepy cool backing vocals that repeat lines from the Lord’s Prayer amongst other things.  Moments of serenity in the song are quickly disrupted by shattering glass.  It is an experimental track that works well.  There’s a reason they reference the song’s title for a reissue collection of the band’s entire discography in 2008.  It is a stellar track that break the rules of pop radio and defines what synth-pop can be.

Despite some reunion shows a few years ago, don’t expect any new Yazoo material.  Those days are long gone as both Clarke and Moyet have pursued other interests.  And I don’t think that is a bad thing.  Many of the great pioneering artists only released a handful of albums.  Yazoo could’ve just stopped after one and they will still be one of the greats.