The Stooges: “1970” (Funhouse, 1970)

Scott Asheton died the other day. I’ve hardly written anything here this year, but I couldn’t let that pass without some sort of tribute. Asheton was the drummer for a lot of bands, but the one that really matters is the Stooges.

Formed in Ann Arbor in 1967, when the band hit the Detroit rock scene, it was truly something different for its time. Iggy Pop gets a lot of the credit for that. He was hte wild frontman, after all, and it’s pretty much impossible to spend much time around someone who’s been on the Detroit scene for more than 20 years without hearing some sort of weird story about him.

But Iggy getting shirtless and bloody and confusing the hell out of people is just a fraction of what made that band special. Asheton and his guitarist brother Rob each brought a sound to the band that hadn’t been heard before, and on record, where you can’t see any of the flailing, their presence is arguably greater and more important than Iggy’s to what the band left behind. (Dave Alexander was great too, but it’s honestly harder to carve out a space that’s totally your own as a bass player.)

I wanted to feature a track from their second album, because Don Gallucci’s production on Funhouse really puts Asheton’s drumming right in your lap, dry and unadorned. “1970” in particular is Asheton at his best, holding down a shuffling rock beat, but doing it in a way that simultaneously grounds and contributes to the sense of chaos and madness at the heart of the song. He rarely just pounded out a straight beat (ironically, the tightest conventional rock beat on the whole album is on “Loose”).

His drumming created the sense that everything could fly apart at any minute, but that we were going to keep surging forward as long as it held together. It was a little like the rivets on an airplane wing rattling out of place as the pilot barely avoided catastrophy by sticking a rough landing. If you wanted to be an effective rock drummer after Scott Asheton, you had to learn more tricks than just throwing in a fill here and there.

Asheton was great at what he did. He was influential—Mogwai even named an album after his “Rock Action” nickname—but he was also the kind of musician other musicians liked to work with, as evidenced by his extremely long CV. He’ll be missed.

Suede: It Starts and Ends With You (Bloodsports, 2013)

Sometimes, the best new things are old things. Suede is my wife’s favorite band, and we listened to them a lot in the summer after high school and during college. Over the years, they’ve come to be one of my favorite bands as well (I initially rode only for the Bernard Butler era, but these days I think the post-Butler stuff at its best is just as good; they simply became less consistent.

Suede came back this year, which was not a surprise, as they’d toured in 2010, and there’d been rumblings abut a new album for some time. What was a surprise is how good the album they made was. “It Starts And Ends With You” was one of my favorite songs for the year, and it hangs with anything from their classic era.

it is also essentially the epitome of a Suede song. Brett Anderson’s vocal line soars toward the title refrain, but every verse starts out much more downbeat, and Richard Oakes’ guitar line behaves like a second voice, conversing with it.

One of the funny things about Suede is the way that element of their sound stayed consistent even when they switched guitarists. Oakes was a huge Suede fan and learned some of what he knows from listening to Butler, but he has a different way of playing the same basic style that makes the band’s music a little more candy-colored.

I always thought A New Morning was only okay, and not much of a way for such a great band to go out. Bloodsports is a hell of a way for a band to come back, and it makes me hope they’re not done.

The Kinks: “Come Dancing” (State of Confusion, 1983)

In urban planning, we have a term, “place-making,” that refers to attempts to impart a distinctive character to a developed area, usually after all of the character it once had has been erased by bad development.

For one example, think of a small, old downtown, with two- and three-story buildings that abut the sidewalk and have retail on the ground floor, with offices, apartments and other things above. There are awnings and wide sidewalks with tree wells, maybe some al fresco dining or a theater marquee, with a narrow street running between, and maybe some parallel parking at meters. When you stand in the middle of the street (hopefully while no cars are coming), it feels little like being in a big outdoor room, with the buildings as walls. Maybe there’s even another wall at the end, where the square around city hall results in a t intersection that terminates Main Street (this feeds into a concept called “view shed”).

Then, one day, a developer acquires one of these blocks, rips down all the traditional Main Street buildings and throws up a cheap strip mall, with a parking lot in front, and all the storefronts have internally lighted signs (they have to, so you can see them from the street while driving). Stand in the middle of the street and suddenly, a big chunk of wall has been kicked out of your room. It’s getting drafty.

This has happened to downtown districts all over the US and Canada since World War II, and modern planners, realizing that their forebears made a terrible error by allowing it, are trying to slowly regain the places that were lost by writing better rules for development. It can take a long time for a place so violated to come back, especially if its economy is in rough shape.

"Come Dancing" is a song about place, filtered through a man’s memory of his older sister’s teenage social life. It’s also a song about loss of place, something Ray Davies was often concerned about in his writing—The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society was an entire album about it.

The tears of Davies’ sister in this song when they tear down the palais she once went dancing at with her dates are telling. You could argue in the abstract that the palais was just a building, so what, there’s a new one there now where you can go bowling, but this argument is entirely wrong. A building like that is part of a community’s identity, a meeting place that’s not wholly replaceable by something else. I actually think the narrator’s town does relatively well—at least the bowling alley that replaces the dancehall is still a social place and not a bank branch with a drive-up window and a too-big building footprint with more parking spaces than it’ll ever use.

This second thing is what most towns got when their old landmarks came under the wrecking ball. In my area, I see examples of it everywhere, and if you look at the zoning codes and master plans of the small cities around me that have been adopted in the last ten years, it’s clear that their leaders have looked at the disjointed, bland, unwelcoming results of modern auto-centric development and grasped for ways to turn back the clock.

I hope they all succeed. There’s nothing quite like a vital, busy downtown district, with different people there at different times of day for different purposes. You don’t rub elbows the same way with your fellow citizens in a Wal-Mart or Target hypermarket. Without more and better public transit, it’ll stay tough for cities in Southeast Michigan, but better transit is, with luck, on its way to the region, far, far after it should have arrived (“better late than never” could double as a motto for our current bus system). We live for now in an autopia of our own design, chained to our cars to get anywhere, most often driving through no place at all.

Dum Dum Girls: “Season in Hell” (End of Daze EP, 2012)

My slow-to-die, kind of dumb devotion to the album as a distinct format kept me from putting it at #2 behind Godspeed You Black Emperor on my albums list, but Dum Dum Girls’ End of Daze EP is the record I listened to most in 2012. 

I got to write about “Lord Knows” for Pitchfork, but I really think that song works best as part of a whole—with “I Got Nothing” and “Season in Hell” it serves as the middle part of a remarkably coherent story arc, from numbness and coldness to regret and apology for that numbness and coldness to this song, which feels like it turns the corner into something better. And the dawn does truly look divine.

I know some of the people who were hooked by this group’s first album were disappointed by their second one, but this year, I spent more time with Only in Dreams than any other 2011 LP, and I’ve come to believe it’s better than their debut in every conceivable way.

I wish I’d spent as much time with it back in 2011, actually. It would’ve been all over my year-end lists; as it stands, I’d only heard it once when I put together all the year-end stuff last year. 

Anyway, Dum Dum Girls are one of the best rock bands going right now, and they definitely make the best, most complete EPs. This song makes me greedy for another album next year, but I don’t want them to rush it. If it takes longer, that’s cool. There’s no expiration date on my anticipation. I’ll take a song like “Season in Hell” any time I can get it.

Elbow: “Newborn” (Asleep in the Back, 2001)

This song came up of the shuffle when I was driving home from work the other day. I was alone in the car, and I had the volume up and the windows open. It was a moment for decompression. I always liked this song—it wouldn’t be on my iPod if I didn’t, but I don’t think I ever quite realized the flattening power of this song’s second half until that drive home. I just wailed along with the wordless part.

The Jam: “In the City” (In the City, 1977)

I’m back in school this week, headed into my second year working on a master’s degree in urban planning. I have ten credits on top of an internship with a local city planning department, so I have no idea what this place is going to look like in the months coming up. Probably sparser updates than usual.

I love what I’m studying, though. Urban planning is a kind of thankless field to go into—if you’re working in local government, you pretty much have to resign yourself to the fact that your advice will often be ignored; if you’re working for a consulting firm, you have be prepared for the fact that no one you work for will ever be satisfied, and even if they are, the people they answer to most likely won’t be.

You spend two or three years (three, in my case—Wayne State University’s program is longer than most) building up a suite of professional knowledge, and then you take that knowledge into the world and do your best in whatever situation you wind up in, knowing full well that you’ll never have enough power to affect all the change you want. 

I’m okay with this, though. If I can just do a little good in whatever career I have coming up, I’ll be happy.  if each of my classmates does the same, we’ll be on our way to something. Don’t get me wrong—I’d also love to be the guy who thought up some magic bullet that solved the problem of urban sprawl and kept everybody happy while doing it, but I don’t need to be that guy. I think this is why I’m glad I waited until I was in my early 30s to go back to school. In my 20s, I wouldn’t felt more pressure to try and do something big and would’ve missed the importance of the details and the stuff that no one gets a medal for. I would’ve been much more easily taken in by theory than practice, certainly—my radar for dogma wasn’t as finely tuned.

I have no idea where I’ll wind up working or what I’ll be doing, but I do know that I value the health of cities, and that working to make them better places to live is important. I take my classes in the heart of Detroit, so the magnitude of the work that needs to be done in some cases weighs on me all the time.  

I chose this Jam song to go with this post mostly for the fact that I hadn’t listened to it in a while an wanted to hear it again. It has the energy of a new band jumping into the game and getting its hands dirty. When I start this internship on Thursday, that’s what I’ll be doing, too. I’m looking forward to it, work and all.

Chicago: “I’m a Man” (Chicago Transit Authority, 1969)

Let’s talk about drums solos. People hate them, or at least claim to hate them. I’m talking about drum solos in a rock context, for the record—it’s a pretty different thing in the jazz world. 

I get why. Most drum solos suck. It’s the part of the song where everything a band had been developing together goes out the window, and the guy at the kit starts showing what he can do, which often involves technical demonstrations that fall well outside the rhythmic world of the song. Paradiddles on five different drums in a row! Disjointed patterns, played a few times then quickly abandoned for something else! Arrhythmic pounding! You’ve heard it all.

Sometimes, it goes on for a very long time. Sometimes, it happens on a rotating riser. If you’re Carl Palmer, it might happen while you change your shirt. The drum solo has become the emblem of egotistical display in rock. And not without cause. 

But do they have to be so bad? I present to you evidence that they don’t. The evidence comes courtesy of Danny Seraphine, the drummer for Chicago, who at this point were still called Chicago Transit Authority. He takes a solo on the band’s heavy cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” which the band often used as a starting point for lengthy jams in concert.

The studio version is seven minutes and forty-three seconds long. Seraphine’s solo begins at around 3:10 and lasts all the way to about 5:30, when he kicks back into the beat and guitarist Terry Kath takes the lead back. And for that whole time, it’s pretty awesome!

Seraphine tries to keep things within the rhythmic framework of the song, but he’s aided by the band’s horn section, which keeps a steady pulse on hand percussion, giving him something to bounce off of. He’s got some guidance, so the whole solo feels like it’s going somewhere. It’s the polar opposite of what tends to happen when the rest of the band stops playing and just leaves the drummer out there to try to do something interesting all on his own. There’s no breakdown, no ponderous silences, no desperate attempt to make things interesting by getting flashy. It’s musical, in short.

Does it single-handedly rescue the drum solo from the rock and roll doghouse? Well, no. No single good drum solo is that powerful. It does do a great job of defying the usual pitfalls, though, and makes a good case that we shouldn’t be totally dismissive of the idea of letting the drums take the lead for a while.

Radiohead: “The Tourist” (OK Computer, 1997)

When I filled out my People’s List for Pitchfork last week, I didn’t have to think too hard about what I’d put at number one. I knew it’d be OK Computer. I didn’t put it there because I think it’s the best album of 1996-2011 (it’s absurd to claim that anything is the definitive best of any time period) or because I particularly care about its overall importance as a landmark record (though it is a landmark record in many ways). I put it there because it’s the album that makes the most sense at #1 on my list.

Participating in a list like this always makes me think about the idea of canon, and specifically about collective canon versus personal canon. There is a real possibility that my #1 could wind up being the collective #1. It could also land at #25—I don’t know what will happen, which is part of the fun. 

I think in this digital age, there’s a real case to be made for collective canon. Everyone has to start somewhere on the path to becoming an engaged listener, and the final result of this list, taken together with other compiled lists, can help give someone a starting point in an environment where nearly everything is available all the time. 

The collective canon can become self-reinforcing, though, so I think it’s important that Pitchfork’s People’s List feature lets everyone who fills out a ballot share their own list, their personal canon, with whomever they choose. Because once you’ve got a sense of the music that a lot of people agree is really good, it’s up to you to start figuring out how to branch out from there. Finding people who share your listening sensibilities is one good way to do that.

When I was young (dinosaur alert), we found about this stuff from books and magazines, and from sharing within a usually very small group. When you found something you really loved—hardcore punk from the 80s, say—you might seek specialized publications that could clue you in on what the specialized sub-canon was, and it was easy in your small group to find your tastes coming together. Subculture was incredibly powerful.

Now, though, you’re not limited to a small, in-person group of peers who will recommend things to you. The group is much larger now, a combination of those same in-person people and people you find online. And because the group is so much bigger now, I think it’s harder to become boxed into limited listening habits, where you identify strongly with a certain genre or subculture because that’s what you have available. Your circle is much more likely to be breached by someone who loves what you love and can turn you on to something you never thought twice about. And then you can easily go get that thing.

I wonder what this means for subcultures. The internet can, of course, abet self-reinforcement, but you have to really try to limit what you’re exposed to, because all the feeds in the sidebars of the sites you visit, and the reblogs you didn’t expect from the person you just started following, will find you. Most of the personal canons I’ve seen feature quite a bit of variety, and I think that’s the wave of the future. You might dress goth or put your wallet on a chain and slick your hair back, but it won’t reflect the music you listen to, necessarily.

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Anyway, my personal canon for the range of years in question here is actually quite a bit more expansive than my list of 100 albums might suggest—if we were to break it down to tracks, it’d be much more all over the place in terms of genre. There are, for me, certain types of music that lend themselves to the album format better than others, so the medium skews my list.

Radiohead makes it to #1 on my list for many reasons. I love the record, which is the most important reason, but it also came into my life at a certain point where it was bound to loom large over other albums. When I bought it, I listened to very little other new music, and it, more than any other album, opened a door for me to what was going on in music now, rather than before I was born, which was the era I’d gravitated toward naturally (and honestly, I still listen to more music from prior to my birth in 1980 than I do from after I was born).

It took me a long time to notice the two songs stuck way at the end of this album. Maybe it’s just that the arrangements of “Lucky” and “The Tourist” aren’t quite as novel as the ones before them, or that they’re more subtle, but they came into focus much more slowly than everything else. “The Tourist” almost seems designed to be out of focus, with its drifting rhythm and guitars that hang in the air like seed pods on a windless day.

Is the “slow down” refrain prophetic? Did this band see how fast our lives were going to get when instant communication became the norm and try to warn us to take things easy? Probably not. But sometimes it reminds me to get up from my computer and say OK to something else.

Deep Purple: “Hush” (Shades of Deep Purple, 1968)

It’s looking like this will be a full week of obituary posts. Yesterday, we lost Turkish experimental composer Ilhan Mimaroglu (a tribute to him will come tomorrow), and keyboardist Jon Lord, who was the heart of Deep Purple and also played in Whitesnake and bunch of other bands. 

For me, it’s his work in Deep Purple that stands out. Lord had studied classical piano since he was five, and when he formed Deep Purple in 1967 with Nick Simper, Rod Evans, Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Paice, he was already nearly a decade into a professional music career. He played in several blues bands, including the Artwoods, and made money as a session player while he tried to get an acting career off the ground. He was present at the arguable birth of hard rock, playing the piano part on the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”

In 1966, Lord briefly helmed an outfit of his own called Santa Barbara Machine Head, where he first experimented with the heavy organ sound he perfected in Deep Purple—the other members were future Faces and Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, future Pretty Things and Pink Fairies drummer “Twink” Alder, and Birds/Creation/future Badger bassist Kim Gardner, and it’s interesting to imagine what might have been if that band had persisted. 

As it was, Lord met Simper while playing with the Flower Pot Men , and by the end of the year, Deep Purple was a going concern. It’s fascinating to pay particular attention to Lord as he finds his unique style over the course of the band’s first few albums. His playing still had a strong classical influence—and it was Lord who led the charge on the band’s experimentations with a full orchestra on its two 1969 LPs, Deep Purple and Concerto for Group and Orchestra

Where Keith Emerson went full-on into classical rock, though, Lord embraced the blues playing of the bands he’d established himself with, and wound up with an interesting hybrid style that he made his own with his signature distorted Hammond organ tone. He was able to work as part of the rhythm section or as a soloist with that sound, and when he and Blackmore combined on a riff, they could just about take your head off.  

In 1970, the band replaced Simper and Evans with Roger Glover and Ian Gillan and instantly got a lot heavier, becoming one of the first true hard rock bands—Lord’s classical background gave the band a progressive edge that grew stronger as he slowly embraced early synthesizers. He also kept a sporadic solo career going on the side that indulged his most openly classical ambitions. 

When Deep Purple broke up in 1976, Lord and Paice formed Paice Ashton Lord with keyboardist/vocalist Tony Ashton, which was actually a quintet (Bernie Marsden and Paul Martinez didn’t get their names on the marquee), but the project only lasted long enough to produce a single album, 1977’s Malice in Wonderland, and Lord found himself back in the studio session world, a world he frequented even after joining Whitesnake in 1978 (he was pretty underutilized in Whitesnake anyway).

Deep Purple reunited several times, often in its full Mk. II configuration, and Lord finally quit the band in 2002 to focus on other projects, including a revival of his classical work. He’d been fighting pancreatic cancer and died of a pulmonary embolism yesterday. He was 71.

I struggled a little with which song to feature here, whether to go for a deep cut like “Shield” or “Speed King” or maybe a solo track from Sarabande or settle for something a little more obvious, and, well, the obvious songs are often obvious for a reason, so I wound up going with Deep Purple’s funk, catchy cover of Joe South’s “Hush,” which features a phenomenal organ solo from Lord that occupies almost the full last minute and a half of the song.

Before the solo, though, you can hear Lord trucking away as part of the rhythm section, using his organ to push the song along in a little game of push-and-pull with Nick Simper. This is the track that put Deep Purple on the popular map and helped make all of Lord’s orchestral experimentation possible—if they hadn’t sold records, their record company likely wouldn’t have indulged them. Lord was still figuring out his sound here, but his playing already had all of the dynamism and life that made him such an interesting keyboardist.

The Funkees: “Salam” (Now I’m A Man, 1976)

I recently wrote an article for a forthcoming issue of One More Robot, in which the Funkees featured prominently. It had been a little while since I’d listened to the band’s albums, and it was nice getting back to them—this band was one of the best rock groups to come out of Nigeria in the 70s, during that country’s post-Civil War musical explosion.

They formed in the eastern university and oil town of Warri, in Delta State, and the members were veterans of the Biafran Army; their connections to people who traveled abroad often gave them access to a lot of British and American records that competing bands couldn’t hear. Much in the same way that Jamaican soundsystems tried to get their hands on records no one else had, band in Nigeria would try to build unique covers into their set lists to set themselves apart, so it was a valuable resource for the band.

After a series of singles, the band upped stakes and moved to London, where they recorded two LPs. “Salam” is one of the highlights of the second one, Now I’m A Man, mixing a little bit of every ingredient that made the LP interesting into a sharp proto-disco rock song. 

The band didn’t last too long beyond this LP. Band leader and guitarist Harry Mosco became a top producer and popular solo performer on his return to Nigeria (his 1980 Afro-disco LP Peace & Harmony is worth tracking down). He passed away in March. If you’re looking to hear more Funkees but don’t want to have to track down the band’s LPs, either in real life or online, Sound Way just released an awesome overview compilation of the band called Dancing Time