Category Archives: The Grind (defunct blog)

The Singles, Part 4 — Response Response

The common picks were great ones, and perhaps a couple were predictable. But I was pleasantly surprised by the differences. Confession: I shared both of our lists with a couple folks in Minneapolis, and they elicited greater delight at yours. The picks of yours that I didn’t recognize by their names were actually more than half, an embarrassing 8 (“Shooter”, “Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me”, “Since I Left You”, “In Transit”, “Irreplaceable”, “1 Thing”, “Valerie”, and “Ignition (Remix)”) I say “by their names” because when T sang the chorus to “Ignition” for me, it became obvious that of course I know that song, but I’d still never really listened to it. Your list does seem blacker/more mainstream, and I sure seem whiter for not knowing a lot of these. This inevitably will sound defensive, but I’d add that three of the near misses on my list might have changed that, and that looking at it again, my list seems streaky (check out 4-7: all hip-hop). As for yours, I’ll have more on a couple trends below. For now, I’ve got some comments on two specific choices.

“Someday” : We clearly agree this song is fantastic, but to an outsider, it’s perhaps surprising that both of us regard it so highly. The trio of music-loving MPLS dudes I shared the lists with seemed to shrug and be more like, yeah, that’s a good one, rather than emphatic about it, and I think that sums up the view of most music lovers. Why do you think that is? My best guess is it’s some combination of this (and other Strokes songs’) being somewhat overplayed to a certain clientele; anti-hype backlash (still); and the Strokes’ ability to sound so familiar and thereby seem less special than I think they are. (I’d argue that their combination of influences is at the very least masterfully executed, if not wholly original.) Long story short: perhaps the level of our love for this song is rarer than it seems.

“Izzo” : Now it’s time for my Jay-Z rant. I sympathize with a lot of what you said. His calculated/tailor-made-for-cash identity is well-documented, and at times it tires me, too. More on that in a bit. Of all the picks on my list, “99 Problems” was perhaps the one I struggled with most. As you might guess, this is why I want to do a Jay-Z list next. More than Kanye even (although he certainly did too), Jay-Z suffered on my list from the singles stipulation. It was only in crafting this list that I realized how many of my very favorite songs by the man are not singles. In fact, not to spoil, but it’s highly possible that neither “Izzo” nor “99 Problems” will end up on my Jay-Z list. It also may surprise you just how close “Empire State of Mind” came to making my list. (If I could revise it, it would, possibly even ranking as high as #5.) It came closer to making it than “Izzo,” and here’s why:

“Izzo” has a better beat than “99 Problems”, one that is not only much more my style, but also much more fun and more enduring (The Jackson 5 never hurt). But as much as I love it, that song represents what I think a lot of people don’t get about Jay-Z: it’s a combination of what you said—that his producers have made much of his success—and that (in an irony not wholly unlike The Strokes’ overhype/underhype), as an actual rapper (as opposed to some kind of hit-maker or mogul), his skill seems frequently under-acknowledged.

I mentioned this at our friend’s recent bachelor party, but one thing I’ve come to particularly like about Jay-Z is that he seemingly tries very, very hard to cram as many rhymes, jokes, and wordplay into almost every line, a trend that has only strengthened with time. He is not a freestyler, he’s a laborer, and I think that’s part of the reason why he wrote Decoded (to explain, legitimize, and get credit for his process).

For Kanye, rap is catharsis. For Jay-Z, usually, it’s craft. That strikes many (justifiably) as cold, but I tend to find it satisfyingly disciplined, even admirable. I haven’t listened to Watch the Throne, but his “Monster” verse and the third verse on “Empire State of Mind” are prime examples of this.

This trend toward more labored rhyming became stark with The Black Album, which was a turn away from party rap and toward a more serious and polished rap (seriously, even with songs like “Change Clothes” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”), and yes, a more calculated identity. By contrast, maybe I’m missing something or not listening closely enough, but for much of his career, at least after Reasonable Doubt and through The Blueprint 2, Jay-Z seemed less concerned with making his rap poetically skilled. Instead he seemed more interested in making hits, and that’s not meant to be an insult, since he made some of the best of his time (“Hard Knock Life”, “Big Pimpin”, “Izzo”, “Empire State of Mind”…the list goes on). To me though, Jay-Z individually belongs on this list—and also at or near the top of the mountain—at least in part because he is one of the best rappers of all time. And broadly speaking, although I would place it among the best Blueprint songs, I think “Izzo” is more a triumph of production, rather than of rapping. Jay-Z has songs—not singles—from The Blueprint and elsewhere that display both masterful production and masterful rapping, and those will be what you see on my top 7. I don’t think Jay-Z had an 00’s hit that has a prime example of both (an argument can be made for “Empire State of Mind”, a slightly weaker one, too, for “Song Cry”). I might seem a little hypocritical, since “99 Problems” doesn’t have a whole lot of “wordplay,” but the lyrics in that song are a triumph; the second verse in particular is story-telling worthy of Ghostface, and perhaps most importantly, it rings true, is smart, and unlike a lot of his songs, says something more nuanced than “I used to be poor and now I’m rich; don’t that make me the shit?” What’s a better complete package, “Izzo” or “99 Problems”? It’s still hard for me to say. But as for which one features better work by Jay-Z, the man…for my money, it’s what’s on The Black Album.

Anyway, here’s my thoughts on the songs of yours I hadn’t yet heard before:

Lil Wayne is one of those guys for me that so many people love that I’ve never given a chance because of his voice and my own laziness/cheapness. I’ve never heard any of his songs with beats like this, only more club-ready stuff like “Lollipop”. But this song makes me think it’s about time I really give—at the very least—The Carter II some listening time. Amazing beat; with more like this, he could truly be our generation’s Sly Stone.

“Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me”
Exactly what you expect a song by a modern-day band called The Pipettes to sound like, and that’s a good thing. Good times, with girl power, and a melody so sweet it almost masks the bitterness of the lyrics that could make any two-timing scumbag want to treat his squeeze better.

“Since I Left You”
Ronsonesque; a blend of genres so fun and head-boppable it should be picked for a Soderbergh or Guy Ritchie flick sooner or later. A soundtrack for youthful strolling and mopedding around France or Italy if I’ve ever heard one, with all the insouciance, glamor, aimlessness, and wistfulness that such meandering might entail. Endlessly re-listenable.

“In Transit”
For a second Strokeman, AHJ sure leads with all the best lessons from Room On Fire. Sounds like Track 3 off of the follow-up to that album that should have been. Great melody, great riffs; his echo-y, tenor voice gives puts some California in The Strokes that Casablancas’s N.Y. growl couldn’t capture if he wanted it to.

Clearly a pop hit I missed out on. Beyonce and Jay-Z share the confidence, vengeance, and discipline to make don’t-take-any-shit hits like this. Reminds me, too, of another popster I kind of forgot about on my list, J.T.. Freal.

“1 Thing”
Another pop/rap hit I’d criminally never heard. Those drums are sick and her voice is kinda magnetic. What immediately struck me about this song is that, for how rich it seems, for most of the song, it’s just a drum set, a guitar, a bass, and her voice. With a live band, this song would tear the fucking house down in a mid-sized club.

The most fun I had going through your list. I should probably jump on the johnny-come-lately-Amy-Winehouse-bandwagon bandwagon. This and “Since I Left You” were the songs on your list that most excited those MPLS guys. Great tune; between this and “Just,” I need, at the very least, this Ronson album.

“Ignition (Remix)”
This has been in my head all week. I thought for sure I had heard some other club-version of this song that had a more abrasive beat and some kind of thump-thump-thump. Certainly, in my memory, the music was not as infectiously soulful as this. In any case, all those times this must have glided past my ears at parties or the mall now seem like crimes. The most deliciously sex-drenched song I’ve heard since “Spread“.

There are two broad trends on your list I noticed: a strong influence of Rock & Roll (see: Pipettes, “Gold Digger”, even “Someday” and “Since I Left You”), classic soul (“Shooter”, “Izzo”, “Valerie”), and the places where those two meet. The only definitively 21st Century songs I hear on it are (like on mine), “Paper Planes”, “Hey Ya”, and “All My Friends”. Of course, part of what makes those all so great is that they all pull from all of popular musical history to stake their claim in it. Broadly, it’s made for an incredibly fun playlist on my Grooveshark that I’ve come back to again and again this week, and will for some time. So thanks.

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The Singles, Part 3 — John Responds

by John Kuroski

I’m glad we were pretty different, which feels a little weird to say, because, in ten whole years, five of our picks (and three of our top six) were the same. Aside from those five, I had never heard six of your picks (“Grass,” “Seventeen Years,” “Everything Hits At Once,” “Hoppipolla,” “Stay Cool” and “Crying”). Which of mine hadn’t you heard, and were you compelled to listen? If so, I’d love to hear your reactions. You’ll find my reactions to yours below. But big picture, I’m not terribly surprised by either one of our lists. If I can be glib and reductive, mine seems definitely more mainstream and slightly more black. Like I said, I’m not surprised by either of those things, nor am I sure what to make of them, if anything. You notice any other big picture trends?

Since psychedelia, indie and Pitchfork make me hesitant, these guys are near the top of my didn’t give them a chance even though they probably deserved it list of the last decade. After a few listens, Merriweather is starting to take shape in my head. This is good too. Melodic and accessible in a way I wasn’t expecting. I’m not sure if either of those adjectives would/should be read as compliments. Either way, this is enough to keep me exploring.

“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”
Again, Pitchfork. So I didn’t listen to the album until December 2010, six years or so after it came out and plenty far removed from the hype. I literally couldn’t get past this song for at least a dozen listens. I would sit down to listen to the whole album and be so blown away by this song, that I had to stop and turn it off. I still can only barely recall the second half of the album. It’s all swallowed up by this song. Vomit of praise aside, they aren’t my thing, but still, it only barely missed my list.

Like I once told you, Eminem is very high on the list of people I respect but don’t enjoy listening to. I love his brand of asshole, but mostly I just can’t get past the voice. The only song on your list I just can’t embrace.

“99 Problems”
Twenty years from now (or has it already begun?), when hip hop gets the full canonization treatment, I’m glad that Jay will probably be at the top of the mountain. I love him, and it could be so much worse. That said, I’ve got plenty of problems with him. And that doesn’t surprise me. Like Elvis or Sinatra or Ray Charles or any other monument/ambassador, he’s just too big to not have some gripes with. This isn’t exactly the song to pin my Jay-Z hating on (although clearly I’m having trouble resisting the urge), but it does bring to mind two of his (for my money) dirty little secrets: 1.) for someone as good as he is, a little too much of his aesthetic identity hinges on his producers, 2.) although I have no idea what it was like to grow up the way he did, and although he has brilliantly used his autobiography as source material, and although forgetting those two things shows a fundamental misunderstanding of hip hop, I have, to put it glibly, gotten a little tired of hearing his life story, especially by the time this album rolled around, not just because he was more dollars removed from his upbringing, but because The Blueprint felt like the culmination of his past as source. Anyway, this beat is, though not exactly my type, very well done, as is the autobiography, so, like I said, this isn’t exactly the song to pin my Jay-Z rant to.

“All Falls Down”
Good choice and very eloquently analyzed. Kanye, more than anyone else, suffered on my list because of the singles stipulation. How about you (Kanye or otherwise)?

“Seventeen Years”
Not quite the up I was expecting, probably because it wasn’t quite the rhythm machine I was expecting, but pretty good. And guitar tones like that can make you forget about rhythm anyway.

“Stay Cool”
You’re absolutely right about Black Thought. It’s indisputable.

Not my thing at all, but I have a vague, totally uninformed sense that they do it well. Also, fuck Vanilla Sky.

“Everything Hits At Once”
Very close to the top of my all time list of bands I should have listened to more of, for every possible reason, except that I just didn’t get around to it. This one confirms that well. And has there ever been an ugly, white dork with a voice as sexy as Britt Daniel’s?

Up there with Animal Collective among bands to whom I unfairly gave no chance. Unfairly. Yeah, this is a great song.

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The Singles, Part 2

Jack emailed me with no introduction, only a prompt: favorite 15 singles released from 2000 to 2009. It’s an interesting proposition, because it limits the list in time, and because he stipulated that the songs had to have been released as singles. This isn’t the same as favorite songs. It requires overlooking favorite tunes and even artists. I immediately assumed Radiohead would make my list, but none of my favorites from their ’00s albums are singles, and Kid A yielded precisely zero singles (not even “Idioteque”). This is one of those lists that I’d revise if I remade it, as I’ll explain in a future post. For now though, here are my singles, along with some words about each.

15.) “99 Problems” – Jay-Z
The Black Album wasn’t the end, but it was a turn. A song so simultaneously funny and serious can’t help but be proud of how clever it is. As with his best (and his trunk…har, har), there’s more to unpack than meets the eye.

14.) “Seventeen Years” – Ratatat
Rock, hip-hop, and dance in equal measure. Hookier than most songs with words, too. If this doesn’t put a smile on your face, there’s something wrong with you.

13.) “Everything Hits At Once” – Spoon
So they’re the decade’s most consistent band. They’re so understated and modest in their growth and manner that few realized they’re also one of its best. Proof: this song’s mastery of rhythm, melody, and mood.

12.) “Stan” – Eminem
Other than his mom and Kim, nothing inflicts him with more pain than his own fame. Luckily for us, that pain is his inspiration.

11.) “Hoppipolla” – Sigur Ros
A hymn of such hope and beauty, it may just be my desert island song.

10.) “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” – Arcade Fire
The song that sold me. Devastating beauty: more than any other contemporary band, they capture it.

9.) “Crazy” – Gnarls Barkley
Infectiously danceable confusion and pain, for you and your grandmother.

8.) “Grass” – Animal Collective
The most concise and powerful example of everything that’s great about them: visceral, entirely unique, and damn catchy.

7.) “Stay Cool” – The Roots
Black Thought may be his generation’s most underrated emcee. But who cares? With ?uestlove’s Miles/J.B. horns, globalized keys, and strutting drums, it kinda doesn’t matter what the rapper says.

6.) “All Falls Down” – Kanye West
Shoulda been Lauryn on the hook, but no matter; unstoppable beat and maybe the best rhymes of his debut. It foresees his decade of triumph, angst, and lost humor.

5.) “Hey Ya!” – Outkast
There’s nothing like it. Catchy as fuck doesn’t even begin to describe it, though it is. Ask yourself this: how far is this from something you could write? Spoiler: pretty funking far.

4.) “Paper Planes” – M.I.A.
I know, I know. But the fact is its swiped Clash chords and gun blasts grab you by the collar, throw you to Mumbai, and then laugh in your face for buying its swag. When I first heard it, I thought it was crack; when I’m 90, it’ll still have me shaking my ass.

3.) “Crying” – TV on the Radio
Tunde Adebimpe’s voice could melt most pants off; his coo is this straight-up tune’s sturdy spine. While the beat incites us to dance, the mournful lyrics urge movement to stop the titular tears. If someone is crying as we steer toward the ends of the Earth, the outro’s horns and keys provide a lovely descent.

2.) “Someday” – The Strokes
Another song that marries bright chords with glum lyrics, with that drum and bass breakdown that perfectly reiterates their plea. Overhyped? No. This gem and its brethren slew nu-metal. If anything, underhyped in retrospect.

1.) “All My Friends” – LCD Soundsystem
The aging anthem. Perhaps, too, the decade’s most joyous melancholy. The real irony is that, ultimately, it’s timeless.

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The Singles, Part 1

by John Kuroski

Had non-singles been in consideration, about half of this list would most likely have been different.

15. “Shooter” – Lil Wayne
Lost among the slinky lope of the groove is some strange (though what isn’t with Wayne?), fractured, funhouse take on hip-hop, scat, and soul, with an “intro” that lasts 1:24, no hook, no chorus, a kinda jarring back and forth between a singer and a rapper that sound like two different kinds of six-year-olds, a completely groove-stopping monologue, and just 49 seconds of (extremely hot) rhymes on a 4 minute and 45 second (ostensibly hip-hop) song.

14. “Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me” – The Pipettes

Doing a postmodern, feminist girl group thing is easy. Doing it with such a small amount of apparent irony (especially on a B section this jarringly, earnestly pretty) isn’t.

13. “Since I Left You” – The Avalanches
“Welcome to paradise”

12. “In Transit” – Albert Hammond Jr.
Like Rosie did innocently on “Angel Baby” and Lennon did not as innocently on “Anna,” the key to the poetry and dramatic sweep of 50s/early 60s teen pop was its fragility—straining and, often, not quite making it; arrangements that sound like the heavens juxtaposed with voices that sound like they can’t quite reach that high yet. Maybe Albert Hammond Jr. knows this, or maybe he’s just not a great singer.

11. “Irreplaceable” – Beyonce
Close enough to a million others, just better. More nuanced (the way she trips and chews on her “n’s” and spits her “b’s”) and shrewd (the “to the lefts” that have nothing to do with dancing). And the way “So don’t you ever for a second get to thinking” doesn’t quite resolve melodically the way you want it to until the end.

10. “Crazy” – Gnarls Barkley
Don’t they say the endless fascination with the Mona Lisa is that you just can’t read her face?

Remember their shtick? Dressed up like Austin Powers characters or something, blank looks on their faces. Same with their name: a deadpan, ham-handed take on something neither culturally relevant nor obscure. What the hell was that? Neither lame, cool, nor so lame it’s cool. A voice whose natural strength suggests sincerity and sympathy, but was it? A beat whose bounce suggests ebullience and dance, but was it? Where exactly the hell were these guys coming from? Which is probably what’s scariest about those who are crazy.

9. “1 Thing” – Amerie
Take a drum break (and, crucially, just the break) from The Meters. Get a girl to sing her balls off for a few minutes. Seems so simple.

8. “All My Friends” – LCD Soundsystem
Almost makes you feel like elegy and exuberance belong together, which maybe they actually do, or maybe James Murphy just gave a seven and a half minute gift to all those who felt they were losing their edge, and everyone else.

7. “Gold Digger” – Kanye West
With easy (not a dig) humor – starting with the hook and ending, like the twelve bar blues it almost is, with a nice punchline – and groove, the perfect Kanye-lite to have made his mark on the Hot 100.

6. “Hey Ya!” – Outkast
In which the poetry of fourteen consecutive repetitions of the word “alright” is the apotheosis of pop art.

5. “Paper Planes” – M.I.A.
One thing that perhaps terrifies (white) people more than almost anything is (non-white) kids that just don’t give a fuck. With (other than a slight hop in the bass drum) an extremely straight beat like what a ten year old would play, a repeated verse structure tied to a see-saw nursery rhyme melody and a singer who knows exactly how cute she can be when the moment’s right, and, in case you didn’t get the point, actual kids brought in for the chorus, singing—worse than gleefully—indifferently about shooting you and taking your money, perhaps the decade’s foremost masterpiece of message and medium.

4. “Valerie” – Mark Ronson/Amy Winehouse

3. “Ignition (Remix)” – R. Kelly
If the defense of pop trifle as art is that you can fully enjoy the ride without the slightest exegesis, this is the height of the form. I can get lost in the raindrop synth, the hesitation of the snare, the roll of the piano, the unstoppable flow of the melody…or the eccentricities of a brilliantly multifarious persona that, in two of about 7,634 examples (no joke; like I said, probably the most simultaneously silly and dense song on this list), gets away with “freakin’ weekend” and “you must be a football coach, the way you got me playin’ the field” while still remaining sexy, and on and on…

2. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” – Jay-Z
I subscribe to the oft repeated theory that we go to Jay to bask in his confidence. Start with the positively life-affirming “uh” in the intro and go from there. And the beat’s pretty good too.

1. “Someday” – The Strokes
There’s magic, some sort of pensivel glow, in the relationship between the add9 and the root (it’s A, Aadd9, Bmadd9, Bm, Bmadd9, Bm, Aadd9, A in the intro, and throughout, chugging by in something like brisk slow motion or a reflective boogie or some other stupid oxymoron). That sort of thing is probably the best distillation of why I listen to music.

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Top Five Rationalizations

Here’s the thing. A big part of me doesn’t want to fill this blog with lists. Too often, bloggers, magazines, and countless other publications use them as a cheap way to lure in readers, and offer little in the way of interesting commentary about their preferences. I don’t want to become another one of those writers who constantly concocts new lists because they’re too lazy to write anything else more challenging. Moreover, the journalistic purveyors of lists often present theirs as the definitive and immutable 10, 27, or 500 Best, capital B. Putting them in print this way makes discussion and evolution of preference impossible, when in real life, our preferences change constantly and our knowledge is far from encyclopedic. One of the reasons a 9-year old might say that Speed is the greatest film ever made, for instance, is that it is, in fact, his favorite film that he has seen. Most publications’ lists uphold a pretense of omnipotence that is impossible to maintain outside of the professional-critic world. There is simply not enough time to hear every album, see every film, read every book. And yet readers flock to the lists as authoritative. In this flocking, I too am guilty.

That said, one of my closest friends (John) and I have been trading lists since we were nine years old. Back then, they weren’t very sophisticated (#1 Film of all time by 9-year-old me: Speed). These days, while I wouldn’t call them sophisticated, our lists often prompt what I think are interesting discussions and arguments about the merits of some of our favorite pieces of popular culture, and about why we prefer certain works to others. Since John lives in New York and I live in Chicago, these lists and discussions invariably occur over email.

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing these lists and conversations in this space. As you’ll see, none of our preferences are authoritative, objective, or immutable. On the contrary, they are entirely subjective and are ripe for debate, further discussion, and revision. In fact, my mind has already changed about a few of them, as I’m sure it will continue to. If you have any favorites, additional thoughts, or vitriolic disagreement, please share.


The Flooded End: Lollapalooza 2011, Sunday

This is the final part of a collaboration with Tea and Celluloid. Read about Friday on that blog; it’s a great write-up. We recorded a conversation about Saturday, which can be heard both here and there.

T and I awoke late Sunday morning creaking and exhausted from Eminem’s thrilling Saturday night set. By this third and final day, I fancied myself a pro, dressing and packing more appropriately than I had the previous two days. It was going to be hot (supposedly)and rain was in the forecast, so some old Umbros and a poncho would serve me well.

Walking around the grounds all weekend, I was shocked at how many people seemed ill-prepared for standing outside on a summer day. Jeans–really, man? It’s a hundred freaking degrees out and you’re supposed to dance. And ladies, I know you think knee-high furry boots look hot with your short-shorts, but trust me, it won’t snow today; by dusk, your feet will be rank. Don’t be a fool; as Sunday would prove, we are not immune to nature. But I digress.

T and I faced a dilemma. One of the acts I anticipated most for Sunday was Titus Andronicus, a band whose music I’ve enjoyed, if not thoroughly dove into. My excitement mounted because so many have raved about their live performances, and because my friends J&C are extras in one of their latest music videos.

Titus was to play at 12:45PM, but we weren’t jazzed about any of the other acts until 3PM. So in order to make the show after our late start, breakfast, dressing, and packing, we’d have had to rush downtown, only to dawdle around for an hour and a half sampling acts that didn’t excite us. Our need to run errands and our overall fatigue sealed our decision; I’ll be keeping a close eye out for the next time Titus frontman Patrick Stickles’s epic beard blows through Chicago.

After errands and a late lunch, we finally arrived at around 4:25PM to catch the end of The Cars’ midday set. A few reviews I’ve seen called them wooden and uninspired. While these assessments are fair, frankly, in 2011, I wasn’t seeing The Cars to see an energetic, enthralling performance. I, like presumably most of the crowd, just wanted to hear their new-wave-pop-rock hits, and that’s what I got. They were tight, and Ric Ocasek’s voice hasn’t aged too much. It was fun, which is enough for me.

Afterward, we crossed the south field and caught a couple songs from Portugal. The Man, a band I’ve gotten to know and like a little bit through They’re often described as “psychadelic indie,” which is almost accurate, although it exudes a strangeness that the band doesn’t quite project. Unlike The Cars, P.TM’s show was pretty energetic and prompted me to consider delving deeper into them. Nevertheless, we decided to cut out of their set a bit early to wander the central grounds before our packed evening schedule.

This is the moment we accepted our impending doom:

The sky looks like this when The Gods derisively guffaw at pitiful mortals.

Remember a couple paragraphs ago, when I said “we are not immune to nature?” The tens of thousands in Grant Park were about to learn as much. Just before the thunder erased any hubristic doubt about the coming deluge, Portugal. The Man closed their set with a rollicking cover of “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” the Oasis hit against whose charms I am powerless. As the first drops fell, T and I frantically threw on those ponchos and, standing with our poncho-less friend D, submitted to nature’s wrath. All we wanted was to see the Arctic Monkeys play a good set, but perhaps as recrimination for all the ridiculous outfits on display, we were pummeled for an hour by a torrential downpour.

I could handle getting wet, but unfortunately, the rain awakened the crowd’s previously dormant savagery. Perhaps one should expect Woodstock-style mudplay when storms strike these festivals, but I wasn’t prepared for the numerous morons who decided to slide through the mud and/or slingshot it at innocent bystanders merely trying to stay relatively dry and sane. I sound like a curmudgeon, but when the crowd is so tightly packed, sliding through the mud and jumping up and down in the puddles isn’t lighthearted; it’s impetuous and inconsiderate. While the mudpeople had their fun, the rest of us bitched about getting caught in the crossfire. We weren’t the only ones miffed; the damage done to the fields has closed Grant Park for the final month of the summer while festival promoter C3 Presents spends hundreds of thousands to repair and re-sod Chicago’s front yard. If only there was a way to obligate the mudpeople to contribute dollars or labor to the restoration effort.

Thankfully, the clouds eventually cleared, and the Arctic Monkeys strode triumphantly to the stage. The storm truncated their set, but the British band still managed to put on the best show of the day. Drummer Matt Helders rocked particularly hard. Singer Alex Turner, sporting a black Union Jack tee, had some of the festival’s best inter-song banter, having fun with the American crowd by cracking that his lads hailed from “Sheffield, Australia.” My one complaint is personal: they didn’t play “A Certain Romance,” one of my favorite songs not just by the Arctic Monkeys, but by anybody. But hey, that’s a good excuse to see them again. I’m glad we powered through the rain; what a show.

The Arctic Monkeys were followed by Explosions in the Sky, whose name and atmospherics provided a particularly apropos soundtrack to the thunderstorm’s aftermath. I like EITS, but truthfully, I expected them to be somewhat of a snooze live. However, as we slogged our way through the mud toward their stage, the band’s booming drums and reverberating guitars proved me the fool. One problem I sometimes have with EITS is that they’re too consciously soaring, as though they’re desperate to move me. Far from cloying, though, they seemed thrilled to be rocking out before a crowd that was–for once, perhaps–as massive as their sound.

After a couple turkey burgers, T and I prepared for the festival’s final acts. It may be apparent by now that a theme of Sunday for me was lower expectations than previous days, and the headliners were no different. The acts to bring it home were Kid Cudi, the Foo Fighters, and Deadmau5. My fandom of both Kid Cudi and the Foo Fighters is tepid, and as for Deadmau5, I was basically clueless. T, by contrast, was pretty excited about Dave Grohl and company, so that’s where we’d spend most of our time.

Mama Nature wasn’t done. As the show began, she let loose once more with deafening thunder and pouring rain. By this time the temperature had dropped considerably, and my old Umbros no longer seemed like the wisest choice. In fact, I was shivering. This storm didn’t back down as easily as its predecessor; it petered on for the rest of the night.

Despite the rain, we made it through about half of the Foo Fighters’ set, albeit from the back of the crowd. I have to admit, I was happy to hear some of those ’90s hits off of the band’s self-titled debut and follow-up, The Colour and the Shape. Like Coldplay’s Friday night set, the FF’s show reminded me that the band isn’t some malevolent, hit-chasing money-grubber; on the contrary, it seemed more like simply a few guys with a band. Sure, that band has been wildly successful and has made its members very rich, but at the end of the day, the Foo Fighters (and Coldplay) are four dudes with guitars and a drum set. In the heat of arguments and posturing over tastes, too often, it’s easy to forget that.

About half an hour later, T and I trudged over to Perry’s Stage to catch a bit of Kid Cudi. Maybe it was the persistent drizzle, the exhaustion of the last three days, the claustrophobia of the tent, or the less-than-stellar sound, but frankly, I was underwhelmed. He worked his ass off to pump up the dripping crowd, but it just wasn’t enough for me. Perhaps I didn’t stay long enough to properly assess the performance, but that was part of the problem–I wasn’t particularly compelled to stay. Kid Cudi is talented, unique, and charismatic; within a couple years, he may mature into the massive hip-hop/r&b/pop crossover star he seems destined to become. But to me, he still seems on the cusp of that potential. That said, I’m looking forward to watching him reach it.

I must be losing my edge, because by the time we left Kid Cudi, after three days of standing and dancing in the August sun, capped off by two thunderstorms, I was drained. We ambled back toward the Foo Fighters, who were finishing up their ’97 hit, “Monkey Wrench.” When the band  broke into a newer number (“Let It Die,” according to Google), T and I decided that getting warm and dry appealed to us more than remaining another half hour just to hear “Everlong.” And so we called it a festival.

Walking north out of Grant Park, we got a taste of Deadmau5, who was pumping some heavy house under his glowing mouse-head mask. As I mentioned above, I was completely unfamiliar with the DJ, and I’ve never been the biggest house fan, so I don’t feel like I missed out on much. But my friend P insists it was one of the best shows he’s ever seen. Oh well.

As T and I walked toward the train, Michigan Avenue seemed as packed with pedestrians as it was on Election Night 2008. My legs were freezing, and when we finally collapsed on the Brown Line, we endured some hysterics from teenage fans, who mysteriously delighted in repeatedly honking an older man’s shrill bike horn. Sigh. More than anything I wanted to get home and pass out.

After the teenagers disembarked at Fullerton, T rested her head on my shoulder and we rode back in an exhausted quiet. Back home, we put on dry clothes and examined the tan lines left by our entry bracelets. Lollapalooza–with its silly name and silly fans; its stellar and satisfying acts; its unforgiving heat and rain; its $20 wine thermoses and $6 pulled pork; its crushing crowds and open spaces; its power chords and powerful beats; its singers and its dancers, both awkward and impressive; its pavement, grass, and mud–it was over.

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Lollapalooza: An Introduction And A Collaboration

My brother E doesn’t seem to put much stock into calendars. I usually have to tell him when a family birthday, anniversary, or holiday is coming up. Nevertheless, he doesn’t forget if he’s missed an important milestone, and when he acts on it a month or two later, he gives the best gifts. This year, his birthday gift to me was late again, but it didn’t disappoint: two tickets to Lollapalooza–the annual music festival held in Chicago’s Grant Park–for me and my girlfriend T.

Since Lollapalooza launched as a Chicago-based festival in 2005, I’d never been, mostly because I couldn’t afford tickets, but also because it seemed daunting in comparison to the Pitchfork Music Festival, which I was lucky enough to attend in 2009 and 2010. In contrast, before this year, my interaction with Lolla consisted principally of two things: complaining about the teeny-bopper attendees who inundated the Loop and the CTA, and envying those who could afford tickets when the lineup was particularly salivating.

In addition to the teeny-boppers, I was apprehensive about the massive crowds (there were over 270,000 attendees this year, all in less than one square mile) and about the price of food and drink once inside. Finally, while I eagerly anticipated many acts, I worried that the size of the park and concerts would make some of the shows feel distant or stale.

Thankfully, these worries turned out to be unfounded. The point of the festival (other than for its organizers to make mountains of cash), after all, is the music, and much of the music was fantastic.

So E, thank you again. I don’t care that your gift was late; I had an amazing time.

Lollapalooza 2011 has come to a close, and T and I will be writing our impressions, reviews, and reflections of each of the festival’s three days. Since we attended the festival for the first time together and are both huge music fans, we thought it’d be fun and interesting to collaborate.

Here’s the format: T will independently write a review of Friday over on her excellent blog Tea & Celluloid; we will cross-post a joint piece about Saturday on both blogs; and I will post an independently written review of Sunday on this blog.

Stay tuned.

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Irrational Confidence

During the recent, epic NBA Playoffs, popular sportswriter Bill Simmons marveled at the trope of the irrational confidence shot. Simmons has previously observed this phenomenon, which states that when a team is on a roll, in high-pressure situations, a mediocre player on that team tends to take numerous risky, low-percentage shots, many of which miraculously go in. Simmons singled out Jason Terry of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks for irrational confidence; after the Mavericks won the title, in no small part due to Terry sinking several threes he had absolutely no business taking, Simmons named him the captain of the Irrational Confidence All-Stars.

Sports metaphors are tired and easy, so please forgive me, but in this early stage of adulthood, I feel like I’m seeing a lot of Jason Terrys (Terries?).

Now, I don’t mean that my peers are mediocre; on the contrary, they’re mostly extraordinary. What I mean is that they’re pursuing goals that, by sheer numbers, seemingly have a low success rate. I have to confess, I tend to think of myself in this regard: with so many others trying to do what I’m trying to do, isn’t there a very small chance that I’ll actually be the one to break through? Isn’t this confidence in success irrational?

There are nearly 7 billion people in the world, over 50% of whom are under 30 years old. Of that 3.5 Billion+, 1.16 Billion are between the ages of 20-29. If you throw in a modest estimate of the number between 18-20, you can pretty safely assume that there are about 1.2 Billion young adults on Earth, most of whom we can presume are looking for work. In the U.S. alone, there are over 40 million young adults in this age group. Even if only 1% of the American population between 20-29 is pursuing the field you’re pursuing, there are about 430,000 people trying to get the same jobs as you are.

As a result, oftentimes when I’m in the midst of preparing for the future, and trying to take the right steps to get where I want to, I just get overwhelmed by these odds. And in the face of them, I marvel at the confidence with which many peers are striding ever-forward. How do the odds not make many more people feel that they might be deluded in their confidence? How does anyone honestly believe, that out of all the people in the world competing with them, that it’ll be s/he who’s one of the lucky few to succeed?

I guess the answer is that it’s because there’s no other realistic choice. When I was out of a job in the worst months of the recession, these sorts of odds didn’t really make me resigned to the fact that chances were low I’d get something desirable, nor did they make me want to take literally any job I could find (although I did spend time working in a bar, in a parking lot, and at a convention, and my job-search gradually and considerably widened with time). Rather than make my career path more utilitarian, thinking about the odds was and is paralyzing.

There’s this old New Yorker cartoon, in which a doctor is trying to comfort a distraught patient by saying, “Look at it this way: Why not you?” It’s pretty morbid humor, and a scary thought.  Because the fact is, many more people do get sick than stay healthy. Many people do compromise or fail to achieve their goals. And many more of Jason Terry’s three’s do miss than go in. But the fact is, some people die peacefully in their sleep or simply of old age. A lucky few people do end up with the life they want. And as for Jason Terry, his 3-point field goal percentage rose from 36% in the regular season to 44% in the playoffs. When the time came, irrational as it may have been, he raised his confidence, and he raised his game. Why not you?

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I Got A Story To Tell, Part 2

When I first starting thinking about Part 1, I wanted to figure out not just why, but how I started listening to rap. My parents and friends didn’t really get me into it. I didn’t just wake up one morning and think, “You know? I’d really just love to jam out to “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit.”

In my immediate recollection, I thought that for most of my childhood and adolescence, I was a rock-and-jazz nerd, the type who claimed to like pretty much everything but “rap and country.” Upon reflection, though, it’s clear that rap played in my ears about as early as I can remember. I have these vivid memories of my brother E’s bedroom, at 5 or 6 years old, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sweats, dancing hard and arrhythmically to his Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer cassettes.

If trying to turn a skeptic, this is probably the worst introduction to rap one could conceive (other suggestions?). If you nostalgically think these guys were just fun, and not truly terrible at what they did, perhaps you haven’t listened to “Ninja Rap” in awhile:

Thankfully, it wasn’t too long before I had an album by a rapper who didn’t wear balloon pants. Indeed, the first hip-hop album I really remember loving was Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival, which E bought shortly after it dropped in 1997, the year that Biggie was shot, and (for better or worse) a new era of the genre was afoot. I was 11.

At this point, The Carnival was an anomoly in my fledgling music collection, which remained dominated by the popular alternative rock of the day. I spent much of middle school mocking and trashing the shallowness and showy gangsterism of popular rap while secretly bobbing my head to “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” and “Ghetto Superstar,” two of the catchiest singles of their time, both of which can still light up a dance floor. It’s sad the performers on these hits left us before their time. I miss you, Mase and Pras.

While I loved these songs, it wasn’t until I was a high school freshman that I outwardly embraced some rap. E (3rd time this guy’s shown up; in conversations with friends, older siblings seem to play a big role in shaping these tastes) had been turned by some older friends of his, and his rap collection grew. On rides to and from school he would pump this stuff into my head, classics of the genre like 36 ChambersLife After DeathAll Eyez on Me, The Chronic, and Doggystyle. This year (2000-2001) coincided with the height of Napster’s popularity, and E exploited it to great effect, compiling mix after mix of hits, classics, and rarities.  Those mixes–and notably Doggystyle–cemented my appreciation of rap on a superficial level. Sure, rap could be shallow, sexist, homophobic, crass, stupid even. But some of it was damn good fun.

Certainly, this was the primary appeal Doggystyle held for me. Snoop Dogg was the most laid back motherfucker alive, as far as I was concerned. His casual vulgarity shocked me. Songs like “Ain’t No Fun” and “Tha Shiznit” contained a joyous, profane (and indeed, misogynistic) vitality that nothing in my alternative rock collection came anywhere near matching. Although the album was nearly a decade old when I discovered it, it was fresh to my ears, and entirely unique to what my friends were pushing on me at the time (mainly classic rock albums by Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead).

I loved the old Snoop and other classics from those mixes, but I still didn’t really respect the genre. Besides a few exceptions in my brother’s catalogue–such as some 2Pac and Big L–I loved the rap I was exposed to in those days because it was shocking, funny, or catchy. I didn’t love it because I thought it was great music. In this way, rap remained ghettoized from the rest of my music for much of high school.

Then, mysteriously, during my senior year one underground rap record took much of my high school by storm: Immortal Technique’s Revolutionary: Volume 2.  

It’s hard to overstate how strange this phenomenon seems. This album is still only a minor underground success–Immortal Technique isn’t even much of an underground star, in terms of popularity. And yet, in my small, 85% white and Catholic hometown, word of mouth and CD-Rs made it spread like a pregnancy rumor. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but R:V2 might have been more popular in my high school than in any other in America.

I can’t speak for my classmates, but Revolutionary: Volume 2 struck me for a few key reasons: One, it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. Instead of rapping about asses and chains, Technique rapped about his disgust with GITMO and Fox News. His raps gave voice to my teenage angst and anger about the War on Terror and the Bush Administration. The album is aggressive and powerful, even if its message is not always the most nuanced, and even if its political statements are sometimes over the top (it occasionally pushes 9/11-as-an-inside-job conspiracy theory). Still, political songs like “Peruvian Cocaine” and “4th Branch” have character and force that match any rhymes this side of Public Enemy; “Leaving the Past” is downright beautiful. In these songs and others, Immortal Technique can frighten and incite. Unlike some other rappers who glorify or even fabricate their violent pasts, IT makes his listener believe not only that he went through some hard-hitting shit, but more importantly, that he came up through a scary world that his listeners wouldn’t know, want to, or survive.

Perhaps the album’s greatest triumph is “You Never Know,” which to me, stands alongside classics like “Suicidal Thoughts” as among the most moving songs in all of rap. A story of lost love, “YNK” details Technique’s relationship with the woman that would have been the love of his life, it would seem. Not only does he respect her (unlike other women he disparages in his occasional rhymes of sexual conquest); he makes the listener believe that this woman’s death is the source of any misogyny he retains. Moreover, the heartache in his voice makes it hard to believe this story isn’t true. What was the last rap song you heard that made you feel for the MC? That nearly brought you tears? “You Never Know” does both.

Now, I’ve come to hold certain critiques of Immortal Technique. On his raps, he can sometimes be self-righteous, an egoist, a sensationalist, homophobic, and a conspiracy theorist. But I’ll probably listen to Revolutionary: Volume 2 for a long time, because it was the record that made me take rap seriously. On this winding path, it was probably the most consequential turn.

After R:V2, I sought out more socially and politically oriented hip-hop, falling inevitably on the more popular artists known for (and sometimes derided as) “conscious rap,” namely 2Pac, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and The Roots. In college I started to accumulate much more, and eventually embraced more mainstream rappers, in particular the Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie, OutKast, and Kanye West. I’m at a point, three years after college, where I don’t have the time or money to explore or buy all the hip-hop I want. I feel like I’m playing catch-up on two decades of classics–from Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest to Jay-Z and Eminem–discovering old albums like I did with classic rock when I was in high school. It’s exciting and invigorating. By dismissing an entire genre, especially one as large and diverse as hip-hop, I didn’t realize what I was missing out on–a veritable golden age that passed while I was growing up. It took me far too long to love hip-hop, but better late than never, I suppose.

I realize that tracing this path is probably not very interesting to the few people who may read this, and I apologize for navel-gazing. But I want this blog to be more exploratory than explanatory. I want writing to help me organize my thoughts and to help me understand the world around me. I’m just trying to figure out how I got here.

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Ms. Hill

Nowhere near a unique insight here, but sometimes I’m still simply amazed by the singular and prodigious talent of Lauryn Hill. If she never makes another proper record, many will continue to say that her career is somewhat tragic.

But fifteen years after The Score and over ten years after The Miseducation, does she really owe us anything more? Wow.

Addendum: To anybody in San Francisco, LA, New York, or Boston, you’d better try to go to this. You owe it to yourself.