I have found myself in the strange position this week of defending Michael Jackson’s place in pop culture.
It’s a strange position because I honestly didn’t think it would need defending. But after Jackson’s sudden death last Thursday at age 50, I’ve fielded many questions and remarks about the strange sideshow his life had become in the past 15 years, and had to remind a surprising number of people of the 25 years or so before that, in which Michael Jackson was pop music.
It’s hard to believe the man was only 50. He started performing with his siblings in the Jackson Five in 1966, when he was just eight years old, and they signed with Motown when he was 10. He released his first solo album, Got to Be There, in 1972, when he was 13. He was only 20 when he recorded Off the Wall. If you’ve heard Off the Wall, you know how insane that is. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was the first Michael Jackson original on record, and damn, what an opening gambit.
Then, of course, there was Thriller. Released in 1982, produced by Quincy Jones, recorded when Jackson was only 24, Thriller is an unimpeachably great pop record. It is a dynamic update of the Motown sound, bringing genuine Detroit soul to the mechanical music of the ‘80s. Let’s just run down some of the songs on Thriller, shall we? “Billie Jean.” (We could probably stop there – if Jackson had recorded nothing else, his place in pop history would have been assured.) “Beat It.” “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” “Thriller.” “Human Nature.” “Baby Be Mine.” “P.Y.T.” The closest this album comes to a loser is the sickly-sweet “The Girl is Mine,” but that’s an old-school Motown ballad in ‘80s clothes.
Thriller is the best-selling album of all time. If it weren’t, it would still be a great record.
And I think Bad, released in 1987, is almost as good. It takes some stylistic detours – the guitar-driven “Dirty Diana,” the goopy ballad “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” – but with Jones back in the producer’s chair, the Motown sound is given another ‘80s spin. “The Way You Make Me Feel” is an awesome little song, as is “Another Part of Me.” Call me a chump, but I love “Man in the Mirror.” And there’s no knocking “Smooth Criminal,” with its immediately memorable groove.
During these years, Jackson was inescapable. He was on MTV every 10 minutes. He did a hundred commercials. He was always in the news (for good stuff). I remember seeing Captain Eo in 3D at Disney World. Jackson was everywhere, the biggest pop star in the world. It’s difficult to remember now, but there was a time when crowds would go wild for him wherever he went. His hit streak continued with Dangerous in 1992, even though the album wasn’t as good – his biggest mistake was replacing Quincy Jones with Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, creators of the “new jack swing” sound. He left Motown behind on this record, and it suffered for it.
But you know, I still quite like a lot of the insular, paranoid, fascinating HIStory, released in 1995. It’s a crazy, schizophrenic record, Jackson spending half of it lashing out at his detractors, the other half trying to find his joy. The music is mostly minimal and danceable, but the attraction here is Jackson unleashed, striking out against his Disney-fied image. Alas, his final record, 2000’s Invincible, was a disaster, a confused and overstuffed attempt at a commercial comeback.
By that time, Jackson’s reputation was in tatters, his face on tabloids and his name in headlines for increasingly uncomfortable reasons. It’s important to remember he was never charged with a crime. Regardless, many in the court of public opinion convicted Jackson as a child molester, and he did very little to resuscitate his image. His sudden death was the sad last stop in a personal decline that, like the rest of his life, played out in public.
But none of that – none of it – can detract from the musical legacy he left. In particular, Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad are extraordinary pop albums, proof that when he was at the top of his game, Michael Jackson was ridiculously talented. His death still strikes me as surreal – I grew up listening to his stuff, and he’s been a part of the pop cultural landscape for my entire life. I honestly haven’t thought about Michael Jackson the musician for more than a decade, but like many over the past few days, I’ve pulled out my old copies and listened again. They more than deserve the praise I’ve heaped on them.
Rest in peace, Michael. And thanks.
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As many of you no doubt know, I’m a fan of Derek Wright’s Liner Notes Magazine.
Specifically, his bi-weekly podcasts, in which he dissects six new albums each time out. Full disclosure – I’ve contributed to those podcasts, on the occasions Derek is nice enough to invite me. But I’d be listening anyway, even if I didn’t know him personally.
In his last missive, Derek gave high marks to the two albums on my docket this week, saying they’ve been all but anointed the best records of 2009 so far by the indie-minded press. And he’s right – it’s a strange quirk of the now-now-NOW music press that they feel they must be the first to proclaim the best stuff of the year. Even if they have to do it the year before – I started hearing best-of-2009 buzz on one of these records, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, last November.
The other one, the Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, seemingly came out of nowhere. But the acclaim it’s gathering has been deafening, at least when it comes to the critics. I am sure, if you walk down any street in America and grab 10 random people, you’ll find just about none of them has even heard of Grizzly Bear or the Dirty Projectors. Such is indie hype – it happens in this little bubble, and only the people inside the bubble truly care.
I do often feel like my invitation to the bubble got lost in the mail. I will admit it, though: I feel guilty if I don’t at least hear hyped-up records like these. Like I’m not doing my job. Veckatimest has been on my list for some time, since I bought and (reservedly) enjoyed Grizzly Bear’s last album, Yellow House. But I picked up Bitte Orca strictly on the strength of the reviews. And perhaps it’s a reaction to the hype, but I haven’t fallen in love with either album so far.
Let’s take Dirty Projectors first. I’m a newbie, so I won’t be able to compare this to their last album. Although as I understand it, that last album (Rise Above) was an attempt to cover Black Flag’s Damaged from memory, so perhaps the comparison wouldn’t be very strong anyway. The Projectors have been around since 2002, a rotating cast of characters surrounding the band’s visionary, Dave Longstreth. Bitte Orca is their seventh album, and reportedly their most concise and accessible.
I can see where it would be. Longstreth’s songs are all over the place here, but you can almost hear him reining himself in. Opener “Cannibal Resource” is a weird mix of afro-pop and Led Zeppelin, with layers of extraordinary backing vocals darting in at odd times. It sounds like it would be impenetrable, but it’s actually pretty accessible stuff. Second track “Temecula Sunrise” is full-on Yes – the acoustic guitars could not be more Steve Howe. It’s here that you get your first really good listen to Longstreth’s voice, part Jeff Buckley and part Antony Hegarty. Some will love it, some will hate it. I am on the fence.
The album goes on like this, like some sort of Cuisinart version of global pop. “Stillness is the Move” is part Japanese rock, part modern soul, with lead vocals by Amber Coffman. “Two Doves” is the record’s prettiest moment, a chamber-pop excursion with a complex melody and a terrific string arrangement. It’s probably my favorite thing here, and Coffman’s supple voice works wonders with it. Longstreth doesn’t do quite as well with the Radiohead-tinged “Useful Chamber,” the album’s longest song at 6:28. I do like the guitar fills on “No Intention,” and its soaring chorus.
Still, I’m finding that Bitte Orca is keeping me at arm’s length. Part of it is that, while I find the mix of styles and sounds compelling, the songs themselves aren’t doing much for me. I’m on my fourth listen now, and some, like “Remade Horizon,” are just starting to stick – that one combines a lounge music verse with an Afro-pop chorus, complete with distorted electronic bass. But it’s repetitive, and even over four minutes, it wears thin. And some songs, like “The Bride,” have failed to register at all.
It could be that Bitte Orca is a grower that’s just taking a while, but so far, I’m responding to this the same way I respond to Fiery Furnaces albums: I’m working to parse it, instead of sitting back and enjoying it. This is by no means a bad album, but it is a difficult one, and I’m not finding the beauty in its corners that some have. And perhaps it’s because this is my first Dirty Projectors album, and I can’t marvel at how streamlined it all is in comparison. I understand this is their least difficult work, a tasty reward for those who have followed along.
I haven’t, but I will stick with Bitte Orca anyway, and hopefully come to love it. I can see how I would, eventually. As it is, I respect and appreciate it, but I’m not feeling it yet.
Grizzly Bear actually suffers from the opposite problem: rather than taking in a million influences and diving from style to style, Veckatimest stays within narrowly defined parameters for its entire running time. As a result, the album is dull and meandering on first listen, and only after a few spins does it start to take shape.
By all rights, I should love Grizzly Bear. They play a low-key form of acoustic-based mood music, rarely rocking their own boat – it’s float music with an earthy feel, if that makes sense. I usually respond well to this sort of thing, but every Grizzly Bear album has been hard work for me, and it comes down to the same problem that plagues Bitte Orca: these songs, on their own, just aren’t very compelling. The best thing on Veckatimest is single “Two Weeks,” which strides forward on a ‘60s-style piano part and vocal arrangement. But Brian Wilson would never have settled for the simple melody at the core of this song.
Once again, though, I very much admire the sound of Veckatimest. Over three albums, the Bears have grown from a bedroom project for Ed Droste to a full-blooded band, and they’ve used the studio as another instrument here, adding sonic depth without ever abandoning their lo-fi roots. “Two Weeks” is simply gorgeous, particularly the vocals, and it provides ample contrast for the relatively sedate “All I Ask,” sequenced next. They incorporate choirs and strings on this record, and yet still come away with something that sounds homespun.
I wish they’d put as much work into the songs. “All I Ask” is a good example of what’s wrong with this album – it wanders around in search of any kind of melody for more than five minutes, ending up where it started. Chords shift with no real momentum, no build to anything – the song kind of happens, then it stops happening, and the world remains unchanged. Sadly, the same thing happens six more times in a row, before “While You Wait for the Others” charges in to save the second half.
That song brings the electric guitars to the fore, and gets those Brian Wilson vocals going again, giving them their best “ooh-ooh” melody since “Two Weeks,” more than half an hour previous. The final two songs keep the forward momentum going – “I Live With You” is almost psychedelic in its ebb and flow, choirs ringing in to fill out the sound, and “Foreground” is the album’s most lovely moment, its slowly cycling piano augmented by dark strings. But it’s too late – the bulk of Veckatimest is given over to dull pieces that just kind of lie there. Even “Foreground” seems to peter out without reaching any sort of climax.
It probably just comes down to what I’m looking for, which I know is different from what a lot of critics want in their music. Both Bitte Orca and Veckatimest are sonically stunning albums, but they don’t contain any songs I’ll be singing by year’s end, and I expect by next month, I won’t even feel compelled to keep working at them. From a certain standpoint – sonic exploration, sounds that Move Music Forward – I can see how these records would be competing for best of 2009. As it stands right now, I don’t think they’ll even be fighting for an honorable mention on my list.
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Speaking of my list, it’s time for the Second Quarter Report.
For newbies: every year I have a running top 10 list, which I add to and subtract from as new music comes out. For a few years now, I’ve been posting that list-in-progress at the end of each quarter, so readers can see where I’m headed before the big reveal in December. Halfway through 2009, the top five on my list is pretty amazing – I’d be okay if nothing changed there before the end of the year, but I’m still hoping something else (Armistice? Please?) comes along to shake things up.
Still, I’m pretty happy as it stands. I do have a tie for the #10 spot, and if this were the final list, I would choose one to receive an honorable mention. But it’s not, so I won’t. That aside, here’s what my top 10 list would look like if today were December 31:
#10. The Bird and the Bee, Ray Guns are Not Just the Future; Richard Swift, The Atlantic Ocean. (tie)
#9. British Sea Power, Man of Aran.
#8. Loney, Dear, Dear John.
#7. Tinted Windows.
#6. Duncan Sheik, Whisper House.
#5. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion.
#4. Bat for Lashes, Two Suns.
#3. Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown.
#2. Quiet Company, Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon.
#1. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love.
Next week, progging out with Dream Theater, the Mars Volta and Devin Townsend. After that, a little Wilco, a little Michael Roe, and a little Dead Weather.
See you in line Tuesday morning.