Friday, September 30, 2005

Top 5: Parental Advisory, Explicit Lyrics

Last Sunday was National One-Hit Wonder Day. I'm not sure how I missed it, because that's a favorite topic of mine. And in poking through the charts from this day in years gone by, I discovered an unusual theme--Other Hits by People Everybody Thinks Are Classic One-Hit Wonders of the 1970s. Since it's Friday, here are five of them.

Looking Glass: "Brandy" was Number One in late August of 1972, and if you know the record at all, you might think it would be hard to make another as perfect as that one. For the Looking Glass, it wasn't. On this date in 1973, a record every bit as good, "Jimmy Loves Mary Anne," reached its chart peak: Number 33.

Hues Corporation: "Rock the Boat" is one of the essential records of the 1970s, a Number One in July 1974. Not only wasn't it the group's only hit, it wasn't even their first hit. The same week Looking Glass made its return to the charts, Hues Corporation's first hit, "Freedom for the Stallion" stalled at Number 67. (After "Rock the Boat," they'd return to the Top 20 in the fall of '74 with "Rockin' Soul.")

The Stampeders: Their most memorable tune, "Sweet City Woman," was heading for the Top Ten on this week 34 years ago, but it would not be their only chart hit. They blew their one-hit wonder status a couple of times, most notably with a cover of "Hit the Road Jack," featuring DJ Wolfman Jack, nearly five years later.

Starbuck: "Moonlight Feels Right" is so perfectly realized that Starbuck would be some kind of musical legend if it had been their only hit. However, Starbuck actually returned to the Hot 100 on four other occasions. "I Got to Know," the followup to "Moonlight" was rising (get it? rising?) on this date in 1976. It tries to be "Moonlight," only faster--and makes the mistake of featuring another xylophone solo. (Play that funky music, white boys.) A couple of years later, Starbuck returned on the charts on the last day of September with "Searching for a Thrill," which was very different from what they'd done before--and probably deserved better than to peak at Number 58.

The Knack: "My Sharona" was in its last week at Number One on this date in 1979, but the second single from the album, "Good Girls Don't," was already roaring up the charts on its way to Number 11. (The G-rated version, that is: the lines "get inside her pants" and "sittin' on your face" from the album version were changed to "givin' you a chance" and "puts you in your place" on the single.) The Knack would make the Hot 100 on three other occasions, including the depraved "Baby Talks Dirty," which would just squeeze into the Top 40 in 1980.

Any others you can think of? Comment forthwith.

Over at the Daily Aneurysm, another Friday Random 10: Turn Up the Radio.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

History Lesson: That Ain't Workin'

September 28, 1991: Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis dies at age 65. Unlike other players who emerged in the postwar bebop period, Davis strived to play fewer notes, not more. His work in the 50s is marked by some of the most gorgeous jazz ever recorded. In the 1960s, he became one of the first jazz players to incorporate electric instruments and rock rhythms into his music, and over the next 25 years, challenged the very definition of what jazz is.

September 28, 1977: Only a couple of weeks before his death, Bing Crosby tapes his final TV Christmas special. Musical guest: David Bowie, who duets with Crosby on "The Little Drummer Boy," thereby creating one of the oddest Christmas perennials in history.

September 28, 1976: Despite the fact that he's been ill for several weeks and unable to work, George Harrison gets sued by his record company for failing to deliver an album on time. Thirty-Three and a Third is released a couple of months later, and was worth the wait, containing Harrison's biggest hit singles in three years, "This Song" and "Crackerbox Palace."

Birthdays Today:

Ben E. King is 67. King is best known for the solo hits "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem," but he also sang with the Drifters on "There Goes My Baby," "Save the Last Dance for Me," "This Magic Moment," and others.

Hilary Duff is 18. And already richer than any of us will ever be.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1985: "Money for Nothing"/Dire Straits.
Sting's "I want my MTV" wail was a gimmick, and there's no denying that this song's groundbreaking video helped push it to the top. But strip off the gimmickry and turn off the video, and you've got a great rock record left over.

1982: "Hard to Say I'm Sorry"/Chicago.
It was the ultimate case of "what have you done for me lately?" when Chicago got dropped by its record label in the early 80s after a couple of lean years following an unbroken decade of hits. This record, on their new label, launched them into a second career as power balladeers.

1973: "We're an American Band"/Grand Funk. The 45 was gold vinyl with a picture sleeve. I hope I still have it.

1968: "Hey Jude"/Beatles.
Their longest-running Number One single at nine weeks, and at better than seven minutes on your turntable.

1956: "Hound Dog"-"Don't Be Cruel"/Elvis Presley. I heard "Hound Dog" again the other day, and was shocked anew by D. J. Fontana's massive attack on his drum kit following the line, "You ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine." No wonder adults lost their minds when their kids brought this stuff home.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Hi, Bob

Bob Dylan is everywhere this week, as PBS broadcasts a new documentary by Martin Scorsese entitled No Direction Home. The soundtrack CD hit the stores a few weeks back, and once again, 40 years after he moved from folk star to rock icon, Dylan is the talk of the music world.

I got into music too late to experience Dylan during his most explosive period. During the 1970s, he was just another maker of hits--"Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Hurricane," "Mozambique," "Gotta Serve Somebody"--and all I knew of him beyond that was what I read, or heard from more serious fans. One guy I knew, who worshipped Dylan when we were in high school, finally got to see him when we were in college--in a letter, he told me that he felt like he was going to see God. He also said that tickets to see God wouldn't have sold out as fast.

In the 80s, Dylan moved chameleon-like from born-again Christian to farm-relief spokesman (a remark he made from the stage at Live Aid in 1985 led to the Farm Aid concerts, which have continued for 20 years), and released a string of critically flogged albums. But in this period, he was also one of the first artists to benefit from a box-set rerelease of earlier material (Biograph, which came out on vinyl in 1985 before CDs were commonplace), which reminded people of the force he had been.

In the 90s and the new millennium, Dylan has remained controversial, but not always for his music. For example, he made some weird career moves--a cameo on the sitcom Dharma and Greg, a Victoria's Secret commercial--but his critical stock has risen with a couple of acclaimed albums, Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. Now comes the Scorsese biography, authorized by Dylan. A review in Salon suggests it's Dylan's attempt to shape his legacy as his career winds down. Yet it's strange to think that Dylan might believe his legacy needs shaping. It's hard to find anyone who wouldn't put him on the same level with the likes of Elvis and the Beatles in terms of his influence on other musicians, and on the culture.

Take for example the book Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, written by uber-critic Greil Marcus, about the creation and impact of Dylan's most famous song. Salon's reviewer refers to Marcus and Paul Williams, who comment in the PBS film, as "heavy breathing critics," and Marcus' book is heavy breathing in the extreme. It's not that "Like a Rolling Stone" isn't a monumental, and monumentally important, record. It is. But much as he did with Elvis Presley--claiming that this unlettered Mississippi kid consciously set out to change the course of Western civilization and calculated his every move to that end--Marcus assigns intent and meaning to "Like a Rolling Stone" that no work of art can support. But as a work of scholarship and erudition, the book's an interesting read nevertheless--and it features a fascinating take-by-take analysis of the sessions that produced "Like a Rolling Stone." We often think that songs are written whole, rehearsed whole, and then recorded when they're good enough. "Like a Rolling Stone" took shape in the studio, frequently broke down, magically came together one time--the only time it was ever played through start to finish--was attempted a few more times, and then set aside. Such a process doesn't lend itself to conscious decisions about the purpose of art--but in the case of "Like a Rolling Stone," it was the times Dylan played it afterward (famous early instances are documented in the Scorsese biography) and the way people heard it that made it a monument.

As they say on TV, check your local listings for time and channel.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Top 5: No More Love on the Run

I have covered something like 1700 highway miles in the last couple of weeks, with more travel to come. Here's a list of five albums that have been in the CD player this week.

AM Gold: 1974. Of all the series of 60s and 70s music Time-Life has produced in the last 15 to 20 years, AM Gold might be the most impressive. It spans the years 1962 through 1979, and does a fine job capturing the flavor of AM radio in the era--mass appeal, playing lots of different things, some that sound pretty good yet today, and some that are cringe-inducing in the extreme. The series is limited to what it can license, of course--which is why you'll never find the Beatles or the Rolling Stones on such series. The 1974 disc might be the most fun of them all, with all of the year's essential trash in one convenient package: "The Night Chicago Died," "Billy Don't Be a Hero," "Rock the Boat," "Seasons in the Sun," and plenty more.

30 Number One Hits/Elvis Presley.
This album isn't as strong as the similar Beatles' project, 1, because to make the claim that every song is a number one, it's got to cherry-pick from rock, country, R&B, and easy listening charts. Nevertheless, it's the Elvis CD to have if you're only having one--provided you program out "Wooden Heart," which is stupid enough in English, but goes off the scale when it features one verse in phonetic German with oompah band accompaniment.

Greatest Hits/Billy Ocean.
Ocean scored five top-five smashes between 1984 and 1986, including a couple of Number Ones, "Caribbean Queen" and "There'll Be Sad Songs (to Make You Cry)," but even if you didn't know any of them, you'd recognize them as mid-80s music strictly from the production. There wasn't a live drummer within a hundred miles of the sessions--drum machines only--and the songs have that cranked-up trebly sound so prevalent at that time. Nearly 20 years later, the uptempo numbers sound best--"Loverboy" is still great--but the ballads haven't held up at all.

You and Me/Phat Phunktion. A Madison-based R&B/hip-hop show band and one damn funky bunch of (mostly) white people. What they're doing isn't especially innovative--their debt to Earth, Wind, and Fire is audible on every track--but they're having one hell of a good time, and they're terrific live.

Kamakiriad/Donald Fagen. For Steely Dan fans, this album's 1994 release was a huge event, since we'd heard nothing from either Fagen or Walter Becker since the early 80s. It paved the way for the revival of the Dan in the late 90s--and for that alone, it's one of the most important albums of the decade. That said, it's not as good as Fagen's 1982 release, The Nightfly, or Steely Dan's 2000 Two Against Nature--but it's better than 2003's Everything Must Go.

More miles next week, more tunes to play. See you along the way.

Note: This is our regular Friday feature on this blog. There's another music-related Friday feature making its debut today at the Daily Aneurysm--the Friday Random 10, in which I put my laptop music collection into shuffle mode and list the first 10 songs that come up. (Other people do it with iPods. Sue me).

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

History Lesson: Pour a Little Sugar On It, Honey

September 20, 1976: The Captain and Tennille's variety show premieres on ABC. It becomes one of the most enduring hits in the history of television, remaining on the air until 1994. Its staggering popularity results in seven consecutive number-one albums, 24 top-10 singles, and the 1997 induction of Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Wait, maybe not.

September 20, 1975: The Bay City Rollers make their much-hyped American debut on the premiere episode of the ABC variety series Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell. This short-lived attempt to turn Cosell into Ed Sullivan is best remembered today as the reason Saturday Night Live, which premiered three weeks later, was forced to work its first couple of seasons under an assumed name: NBC's Saturday Night.

September 20, 1973:
Jim Croce dies in a plane crash after a concert in Louisiana. Croce had a short-story writer's sense of character development, and it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have taken up that craft in later years, a la Jimmy Buffett.

September 20, 1970: Jim Morrison is convicted in Miami of indecent exposure and public use of profanity stemming from an incident in which he reportedly dropped trou on stage. Man, they just don't stage concerts anymore like they did in the old days.

Birthdays Today:

Matthew and Gunnar Nelson are 38. Let's hope they invested the money from their 1990 number-one single "Can't Live Without Your Love and Affection," because their career since has been not much. Maybe because people confuse them with Hanson, which I do. All the time.

Chuck and John Panozzo of Styx are 56. Well, Chuck is. John died in 1996. Chuck is still playing with Styx. Do you think that Styx and bands like them really believed, when they started out 30 or 40 years ago, that they'd still be playing the same songs when they were damn near 60? I can't picture it.

Number-One Songs on This Date:
1993: "Dreamlover"/Mariah Carey.
Features a break in the middle in which Mariah does a wordless, Minnie-Riperton style climb to the highest notes in her register. It sounded so absurd to me that the first time I played the record on the air, I keyed the microphone in the middle and said, "Aw, honey, now you're just showing off."

1986: "Stuck With You"/Huey Lewis and the News. The first single from the long-awaited followup to Sports, which would be released later in the year. Fore! started a genre of its own--suburban dad rock, in which hanging out with the wife and kids becomes the ultimate rock-star move.

1975: "Fame"/David Bowie.
One of the strangest-sounding Number-One singles of the 70s, with that ominous fade-in and various weird guitar noises. Co-written by John Lennon.

1969: "Sugar Sugar"/The Archies.
Bubblegum music's "Stairway to Heaven." Do not let its cartoony origins fool you--you want to understand American popular music in the last half of the 20th century, you need to listen to this. For their contributions to that history, on this record and others, Jeff Barry and Andy Kim belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and this time, I'm not kidding). Bubblegum aficionados go weak over Toni Wine's vocal line: "I'm gonna make your life so sweet." She's gotta be singing Veronica, because Betty ain't got that kind of soul.

1955: "Ain't That a Shame"/Pat Boone.
Yes, as a matter of fact, this safe-for-white-folks cover of Fats Domino's original is a shame.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Christmas Comes Early

I decided not to wait until Christmas, and picked up the deluxe edition of Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy on Friday. As I wrote last week, it's Elton's finest album, and not only that, it's one of the handful of albums I'd have to take to the proverbial desert island. So I guess the fact that I didn't wait for Christmas isn't as much of a surprise as the fact that I waited until Friday.

Opening a CD is rarely an aesthetic experience, but opening this package was. It's a gorgeous double-size paper foldout with clear plastic trays for the discs. (I'm not crazy about paper foldout cases generally, but for two-CD sets they make sense, because the alternative is to attach the discs to one of those black plastic trays that's hinged within the jewelcase, and they inevitably break no matter how carefully they're handled.) The inside design of the package contains a collage of press clippings taken from the "scraps" book that's also part of the package. The discs lie on the middle two panels of the foldout. They're silk-screened in contrasting colors--the original album with bonus tracks is white with blue and silver lettering; the second concert disc is blue with silver and white lettering. The album's original extras are tucked in a pocket--lyrics book, scraps book, and a reproduction of the album-cover poster. (The poster hung on the wall in my bedroom from the day I got the album home until long after I'd moved out of my parents' house, coming down only when my youngest brother took over the room for himself in the early 80s.) The package also includes a new booklet containing notes by Elton and Bernie Taupin and an essay by music critic Paul Gambaccini. You'll need a magnifying glass to read the scraps, especially the four-page comic-book biography of Elton--so it goes when shrinking the contents of a 12-inch LP package to CD size.

The sound on both discs is excellent, which is a good thing, because Captain Fantastic is Elton's most elaborate and richly layered album. I heard some new things in old familiar tunes, and the audio from the concert disc is surprisingly good for 1975.

Elton-o-philes are going to buy the album for the concert disc, which was recorded on June 21, 1975 at Wembley Stadium in London. (Based on the stage announcement opening the album, Elton was the headliner of an all-day festival.) Although Captain Fantastic was recorded with Elton's original band (and the "Philadelphia Freedom" 45 was credited to the Elton John Band), the concert featured Elton's new band, which would appear on record for the first time on Rock of the Westies later in 1975. With Elton's fame at its peak in the summer of 1975, it was a bit of a gamble to devote the majority of a show to playing a new album from start to finish, especially when the audience would have been primed to hear five years' worth of hits instead. Doing it with a brand-new band only increased the risk.

Nevertheless, the show is pretty good. It's great to hear the songs changed up--for example, the live version of the title song has the country-rock feel the studio version only hinted at. Other highlights are "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows," which is a lot different without the sound-of-Philadelphia string section, and "Curtains," which builds at the same hypnotic pace as the studio version before revving up to a rockin' finish. The concert includes two encores, "Pinball Wizard," which was on the charts the day of the show, and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." The latter is the only disappointment on the concert disc, but not an unexpected one. Like all the other live versions of "Saturday Night" I've heard, the band works hard, but Elton never seems convincing as a hard rocker. Somehow, it worked in the studio, but it never seems as effective onstage.

If you're intrigued by this album, I suspect it might be a little hard to find in stores. I had to visit my favorite record store here in Madison after being unable to find it at several megastores in the Twin Cities during my business trip last week. As is the case with most deluxe editions and boxed sets, it's aimed at serious fans. Most of the buyers will likely be people who bought the original in the 70s, upgraded to CD in the late 80s or early 90s, and now are upgrading again. And this is a major upgrade--better sound, better package. If Captain Fantastic was/is one of your favorite albums, it's the version you have to own.

Coming in a couple of weeks: Yet another rerelease I'll have to buy, when Boz Scaggs' 1997 album Fade Into Light, available only as an import hitherto, gets the deluxe CD/DVD treatment. So many albums, so little disposable income.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Top 5: Nobody Loves Me But My Mother, And She Could Be Jivin' Too

Blues legend B.B. King celebrates his 80th birthday today. King started making records in the late 1940s, and scored major hits on the R&B charts into the 1980s. His biggest pop hit, "The Thrill Is Gone," came in 1969--although you don't hear it much on the radio anymore, it's been anthologized everywhere. King still plays about 300 shows a year, although he sits down on stage now. Nobody seems to mind as long as Lucille is on his lap with him.

King has been an icon for so long, much as Ray Charles was, that most people know only the icon without knowing much about the music. To get a sense of classic King, there's the 1965 album Live at the Regal, featuring "How Blue Can You Get?", which you might know from the movie Blues Brothers 2000. And there's 1971's Live in Cook County Jail, which was my introduction to King, thanks to a knowledgeable college friend--although at the tender age of 19, the venue in which the album was recorded seemed more exotic to me than the music did. King's 2000 collaboration with Eric Clapton, Riding With the King, got some lukewarm reviews, but it's a good introduction as well.

I'm a latecomer to the blues, although in another sense, I am typical--the average blues fan today is a white guy in his 40s. I owned records by Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and Bonnie Raitt, and I understood that many rock performers were influenced by blues artists, but I knew almost nothing about the history of the blues itself until a couple of years ago, when the PBS series Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues started me exploring. And on my travels, here are five things and/or people I've discovered, all of which are fit for further exploration:

The extent of American blues' influence on British artists. Most of my favorite British artists were deeply influenced by American blues artists: Clapton, Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac. Even singers like Tom Jones and Lulu got the bug--Jones' blues chops were the big surprise in the film Red, White and Blues from the Scorsese series. Much of these artists' early exposure to the blues came from the radio, and later, from the handful of American blues artists who toured Europe in the 1950s and early 60s, especially Big Bill Broonzy, who is revered over there, but not nearly so well-known here.

Robert Johnson. Johnson's recordings from 1936 and 1937 are tough for modern ears to listen to because the technology of the time was so primitive--but it's easy to hear why they've captured the imagination of so many musicians. Because these deep rural blues are all we've got to remember him by, we get a skewed picture of Johnson as a ghostly poet, when it's more likely that he was a gregarious and outgoing entertainer entertainer who'd sing whatever people wanted, right up to Broadway show tunes, to make a juke joint jump and fill his pockets. Essential track: "Come on in My Kitchen."

Keb' Mo'. The erstwhile Kevin Moore has the worst stage name in showbiz, and an inaccurate one. Far from being the Delta rustic his name implies, he's actually a smooth performer and talented songwriter. Essential album: Slow Down.

Wisconsin's contribution to blues history.
In 1913, a furniture company based in Ozaukee, just north of Milwaukee, started making cabinets for Edison phonographs. In the 20s, the company formed a subsidiary, Paramount Records, and recorded such important artists as Ma Rainey, Charley Patton, and Skip James. And right in the heart of polka country at that.

The infinite possibilities contained within 12 bars.
When I was younger, I dismissed the blues as dull--"Every blues song sounds alike," I said. To a certain degree, that's true. The classic 12-bar form is everywhere, and if you concentrate only on that, you'll get bored very quickly. But as is true with many things in life, it ain't what you got, it's how you use it that makes it memorable--as my favorite blues artists, those listed above and others, like Susan Tedeschi, the Westside Andy/Mel Ford Band, and Ronnie Earl, prove over and over again.

(Technical note: If you want to leave comments on this blog, from now on you will have to type in a verification code. This will keep spammers from clogging up the comments section, which is a growing problem even in this sparsely populated Internet precinct.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Even More Fantastic

Just last week I wrote about Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy as the best album of Elton's career. Now this week I have learned that it's been re-released--again.

Many of Elton's albums were reissued by his record company as part of a "classic years" series 10 years ago, and collected the various single-only releases and B-sides sprinkled through Elton's catalog. So there's already one Captain Fantastic reissue out there, featuring "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "One Day at a Time," and "Philadelphia Freedom." Now Captain Fantastic is being reissued yet again, with a boatload of extras--all those tracks, plus the unissued B-side of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," "House of Cards," and a second disc featuring a concert performance of the entire Captain Fantastic album, recorded in London shortly after its original release in 1975. The package includes reproductions of the album cover poster and other extras from the original release, plus new liner notes and comments from Elton and Bernie Taupin.

It's an album for the Christmas list if ever there was one.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Top 5: Between the Lines

Big records, little holes--here are the top five albums on the Billboard chart, 30 years ago today. All of them held the Number-One spot at some point. This is the order they were in on September 9, 1975.

5. The Heat Is On/Isley Brothers.
Despite making the original recordings of the rock classics "Twist and Shout," "Shout," and "This Old Heart of Mine," despite scoring 36 Hot 100 hits in a lengthy career, the Isley Brothers were, by the mid 1970s, selling far more albums than singles. The Heat Is On featured the top-10 hit "Fight the Power," which was one of only three top-10 hits the Isleys ever managed. Pop quiz: Can you name the other two? Answer below. Hint: None of them was "Twist and Shout," "Shout," or "This Old Heart of Mine."

4. One of These Nights/Eagles.
Three great singles--"One of These Nights," "Lyin' Eyes," and "Take it to the Limit"--but not much else that's memorable. Not as good as its predecessor, On the Border (which featured such non-45 classics as "James Dean" and "Ol' 55"), and not as monumental as what would follow it, Hotel California.

3. Between the Lines/Janis Ian. In an era when singer-songwriter confessionals were common, "At Seventeen" was one of the most unusual, and its honesty resonated with millions of young women. It singlehandedly propelled Between the Lines to the top, as nothing else from the album made the singles chart.

2. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy/Elton John. I've said it before and now I'm saying it again: This is the best album Elton John ever recorded, a song cycle about the struggles of aspiring musicians. Despite the fact that it didn't include "Philadelphia Freedom," Elton's monster 1975 single, it was the first album ever to debut at Number One, and it did so in an era when this wasn't as common as it is now. For good measure, Elton would do it again less than six months later with Rock of the Westies.

1. Red Octopus/Jefferson Starship. The retooled Jefferson Airplane first appeared with Dragon Fly in 1974, but this album, featuring the sensuous "Miracles" and the equally great but lesser-known "Play on Love," was their breakthrough record. Although they kept moving further and further from their psychedelic San Francisco roots, they'd remain consistent hitmakers for the next decade plus.

Pop quiz answer: In addition to "Fight the Power," which reached Number 4, the Isley Brothers' other top-10 singles were "It's Your Thing" (#2, 1969) and "That Lady" (#6, 1973). Of the Brothers' 36 Hot 100 hits between 1962 and 1981, only seven others made the Top 40. That essentially means they got lots of airplay on black pop stations, and not as much on white pop stations.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

On the Subtle Art of Picking Road Music

For several weeks each spring and fall, I travel on business. (I'm leaving on a short trip later today.) It's mostly in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, so the trips are almost always by car. And a critical part of preparing for any car trip, far more important than checking the oil or the air pressure in the tires, is deciding what music to take. If I were an iPod guy, I could take everything I own everywhere I go--but that's cheating. Life is about choices and decisions, and picking a subset of my vast music collection to take with me when I travel is one of the more pleasurable decisions I am required to make. So why would I want to give it up?

When I bought my current car (2001 Ford ZX2, midnight blue), a single-slot CD player was standard equipment. I upgraded to a six-disc changer in the trunk and a cassette deck--not necessarily because I wanted the changer, but because I really wanted the cassette deck. It's what I use most of the time for my day-to-day travels. The CD player gets its turn on longer trips for business or pleasure.

When I'm traveling long distance by myself, I carry a mix of cassettes and CDs. Over the years, I have assembled a formidable array of car tapes, and they're still my preferred travel companions. I have assembled a few compilation CDs featuring my favorite artists, however, and I have aspirations to convert some of my favorite car tapes to CDs, eventually.

One thing I want when I'm on the road is variety--so in addition to compilation cassettes and homemade CDs, I often find myself grabbing commercially released CD compilations from Rhino, Time-Life, and others. What I'm going for is the mix of tunes a really good radio station would provide, without the talk. (The irony of an ex-DJ who was in love with the sound of his own voice actively avoiding DJ talk today is a bit painful.) But like most radio listeners, I'm also looking for familiarity. An advantage to taking the highly familiar on the road is that you can usually sing along to it. Singing is how I keep myself awake and alert when the road gets long or the hour gets late. (It's not singing you'd want to hear--or that I would want you to hear--but that's not the point.) Familiarity is important also because I also find the car is not a good place to listen to a new CD. Classics and warhorses work a lot better. With them, it doesn't matter so much if you're not paying attention. And you probably know some of the words.

Music you'd use to chill out doesn't work in the car either. I'm a big Bill Evans fan, but he'll play on my bedside CD player 100,000 times before he'll make it into the stack for a road trip. I find that most jazz generally doesn't work at 70MPH, unless it's really smokin'--I'm thinking here of soul-drenched or bluesy Hammond B3 stuff, Charles Earland or Jimmy Smith, or a blues band that prominently features keyboards, like Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, or Madison's own Westside Andy/Mel Ford Band.

Blues records are often prominent in my road stacks, and I tend to break my familiarity rule where the blues is concerned. The blues are a uniquely American art form, and it's possible to argue that the road itself is a unique sort of American icon. The two belong together. (For several years, I have kept a harmonica in the glove compartment of my car, because when you're on the road, you never know when the blues will break out.) Even if I don't know the record or the group all that well, if they're following the rules for the blues, I'm glad to have them along.

So I can tell you what kind of music works for me on the road, but there's no one-size-fits-all formula you can follow to pick flawless stacks of road music. Like making car tapes, making such choices is highly personal and therefore, quirky. But if you have some sure-fire, guaranteed-great road music to suggest, or if you'd just like to tell the whole class what you listen to behind the wheel, click "Comments" and have at it.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Top 5: Hurricane

Given the scope of the unfolding disaster along the Gulf Coast (about which I have been writing extensively over at the Daily Aneurysm), this is probably not the time to do what I am about to do here. I don't want to minimize the disaster in any way, and I'd encourage you, if you haven't already, to make a contribution to one of the many organizations undertaking relief efforts. But I started fooling around yesterday with a list of songs having something to do with hurricanes, and here are five of them.

"Oh Babe What Would You Say?"/Hurricane Smith. In a way, "Hurricane" was the perfect name for the old-timey music hall/vaudeville act of EMI Studios engineer Norman Smith. And his song is the diametric opposite of . . .

"Rock You Like a Hurricane"/Scorpions. Or as they sing it in their German-accented English, "rawk you like a hurri-can."

"Hurricane"/Leon Everette.
This was a big country hit in 1981, and you'd think it had been written by someone with direct knowledge of hurricanes:
Well I was born in the rain on the Pontchartrain
Underneath that Lou'siana moon
Don't mind the strain of a hurricane
She comes 'round every June
You'd think that, of course, until you realize that June is not remotely hurricane season in New Orleans. But "August" and "September" don't scan as well.

"Jumpin' Jack Flash"/Rolling Stones.
Belongs here entirely for its classic first line: "I was born in a crossfire hurricane."

"Hurricane"/Bob Dylan. Not about a storm at all, but the story of boxer Ruben "Hurricane" Carter's imprisonment on dubious murder charges. Dylan's lyric is awkward in some spots and strident in others, but has the irresistable forward motion the best storytellers use to keep you hooked.

I trust you will contribute other suggestions by clicking "Comments," and that you will contribute money to Hurricane Katrina disaster relief by choosing an organization here.