Part 1 of 3 part series on How to Write about Music.
I worked in the music industry for around 10 years between 1989 through 1999 having the honor of sharing the stage with acts such as The Shins, Cracker, Blues Traveler, Pylon, Soul Asylum, Meat Puppets, Juliana Hatfield, Yo La Tengo and played over 500 shows. In 1989 I received a phone call from a humble and assertive 18 year old named Neal Langford. He wanted to open for our band. The problem was the bar called "Fat Chance" was a 21 an older bar but somehow I convinced the manager named John Ice to let the kids play. We all had to dummy up some "permission slips" from the parents ( Jesse Sandoval, Marty Crandall, Neal Langford and James Mercer.) The band played under the name Orange Little Cousins would then become Flake, then Flake Music then finally arrived on the name The Shins. I would later become a quasi-successful piano composer, wrote some strange jingles and then retired from music in 2007. Not bragging. Only setting the stage of why I'm qualified to write about music.
Here is the killer criteria I deploy when evaluating music and to date no one's presented a better grading system.
Here is how it works:
1. Degree of infection - After you hear the song can you hum the song again and again, does the bloody song stick in your brain ?
2. Degree of originality - Is the artist doing something hyper-creative, disruptive or transformative versus delivering a derived sound?
3. Quality of lyrics - Is the artist saying something new? changing the narrative? or just so damn clever that it leaves you scratching your head? Do the words provoke a new paradigm or strike newfangled nerves in your spine or soul so you weep at best or stoke nerves that were previously dormant? Is their use of rhyme, rhythm and repetition masterful vs formulaic and boring.
Let's roll w/ a List that I defy beats any other list.
Listed in No Particular Order:
Beatles Rubber Soul
Rubber Soul - Entire Album right above, courtesy of YouTube
I have never heard a better album. Period. "I'm Looking Through You" (starts at 23:42 in this YouTube video) in my opinion is The Best Pop / Rock song I've heard. Other gems like "You Won't See Me" "Michelle" "In My Life" - When I hear people arguing who was better The Beatles or The Stones I have a hard time not going BerZerk. You can't argue apples vs oranges in music or in life but you won't see a Rolling Stones Album appear in my top 20. Of course The Stones were legendary they just come in at around #21 which is pretty Fucking Good
Bee Gees - Main Course or Saturday Night Fever
Queen - Sheer Heart Attack or a Night at the Opera
"You're My Best Friend" is one of the sweetest songs this writer has ever heard..but they had about 15 better. Farrokh Bulsara, known professionally as Freddie Mercury kicks ass. Here is what is insane, even if you take him out of the band their original band Smile may have made this list. But back to Queen..the vocal arrangements and musicianship is on par with bands like Genesis, King Crimson, UK, & Yes but the vocals of Freddie Mercury can't be ignored. In my humble opinion he is the best rock vocalist I have ever heard, then the icing...the phrasing, bridges, and overall orchestration is unmatched.
The Who - My Generation
The Who's single I can't explain released in 1965
Peter Gabriel - So
Unbelievable Story. I started buying up Genesis albums in the cutout section at a Woolworth's Dimestore in New Mexico in 1979. My first purchase was "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" which was their sixth studio album. After geeking out over it I returned to the cutout bin again at the same Woolworth's and snagged all their albums. "The Music Box" and "Return of the Giant Hogweed" still stick in my skull. Genesis was part of an emerging art rock / GLAM movement from UK that included other names like Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, ELP, Bowie but Genesis had 'em all beat. The combination of Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel & Phil Collins were lethal. Foxtrot and Nursery Cryme were wildly popular and about as eclectic as music was at the time. This beautiful track titled "The Voice Again" wasn't even released as a single. I chuckle at the comment section where some troll accused Gabriel as sounding like the Police (Pah LEEZ, I beg to differ, vice versa) PG kills it every time.
a glorious song by Gabriel is Solsbury Hill.
Michael Jackson - Thriller
the prettiest rehearsal I've seen, Human Nature = OMG
The Ramones - Too Tough to Die
REM - Murmur
The Police - 'Outlandos d'Amour'
The Cure - Boys Don't Cry
Guided by Voices - Bee Thousand
song titled "I am a Scientist" by GBV
Liz Phair - Exile in Guyville
prior to this 1993 release there had been plenty of chicks in rock such as Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Stevie Nicks, Heart, Blondie, Pat Benatar et al...but no one moved the needle like Liz Phair and Exile in Guyville may be the most groundbreaking album of the 1990s just for lyrical and melodic mastery coming from the an unlikely source. Every track on the album is a solid.
Liz Phair - Liz Phair
Liz Phair, Extraordinary - Listen to this song. If you can think of a better so called indie pop song using my 3 criteria then you win the Grand Prize. Her self titled album came quite late in Liz Phair's roller coaster career. The album drew harsh criticism from her so called fan base. Her cult following deemed this very album as a "commercial sell out" Of course these fans couldn't have been so ignorant about the merits of this album. They just mistook pop pure genius for selling out. I hate people that hate this album.
and this song is just as astounding, Liz Phair's "Why Can't I ?"
Why Can't Other people write songs like this
The La's - debut Album
Kacey Musgraves - Pagaent Material
This little songbird is in the same conversation w/ Dolly, Loretta, Tammy, Patsy and Reba. Yes I just said that. This is neither grandiose nor delusional. I can prove it. I believe she is tied with all of 'em or better.
"I'm Fine" could be the prettiest waltz I've heard in years..note the way the song builds, it's not an ordinary waltz, the influx of strings, pedal steel with some of the prettiest lyrical lines ever. Listen how the cello is introduced starting in the second verse. These elements combine to form one of the most brilliant love songs in history. The third verse starts "Just like the circus, you always leave town I can't help but cry when that big top comes down But I leave the light on and when you get back home We'll be fine" after the verse there is tear jerking bridge and in the last verse the instruments are in remission with the exception a plucking and sparingly lovely harp sound. This backdrop becomes an opportunity to hear just how gorgeous the KMusgraves vocals are. It is a brilliant example of using dynamics to convey emotion and once again it yields a tear within the listener's journey.
Kacey Musgraves has established a pattern exhibited in her last 3 albums. She packs her most beautiful songs towards the end just to showcase the depth of her songwriting. In her typical album of 12 songs all are way above average - This country / western Texan chick is for real.
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Some of the best crafted songs I've heard to date. This isn't Country, Folk, Alt County, Pop..this just kicks f*cking ass. Adheres to the aforementioned criteria of a.) degree of infection b.) creativity c.) lyrics and now I'm adding a 4th and 5th dimension....overall astounding
Follow Your Arrow - perfect example of infectious, clever & fun.
Handsome Family - Through the Trees
Throughout my Life I've admired the great lyric writers. Tim Rice who is a writing partner with Andrew Lloyd Weber, Bernie Taupin (writes the words Sir Elton John sang) and the great Bob Dylan are all industry leaders. But there is a glorious angel named Rennie Sparks that tops the list. Here are some snippets for your soul to digest.
Their tune "The Giant of Illinois" is ridiculously brilliant and is as infectious as it gets: If this song doesn't make you weep then stop reading this article.
Let's keep discussing lyrics. Try topping these...No one can.
Tesla's Hotel Room
In the last days of wonder
When spirits still flew
Where we sat holding hands
In half-darkened rooms
Nicola Tesla in the Hotel New Yorker
Nursing sick pigeons by the open window
Dreamed of a death ray to disintegrate matter
Detected Morse Code from far away planets
He couldn't stand the touch of hair or of skin
But stroked feathers gently on trembling wings
Drew plans for a camera to photograph thoughts
Vacuum tube lights, wireless phones
In the last days of wonder
When spirits still flew
Round bubbling test tubes
In half-darkened rooms
Edison and Westinghouse
In silk brocade
Ate oysters rockefeller
With French champagne
But Tesla grew thin
Eating only saltines
Going days in his lab
Without any sleep
Dreaming of God
As an x-ray beam
He was hit by a cab
While crossing the street
Lying on his bedspread
He struggled to breathe
The light bulbs exploded
The air filled with wings
In the last days of wonder
When spirits still flew
His half-darkened room
The Handsome Family makes waves in their cult circles being considered "Goth Country." Moreover they are considered "The Beatles of Folk." Andrew Bird released an album entirely comprised of Handsome Family songs. Let that sink in. We've all heard of tribute albums where famous bands each will do one Bob Dylan song for example. But for a music critic darling like Andrew Bird to all of a sudden release an album entirely of Handsome family tunes, while in his prime, indicates a Gold Seal endorsement of Handsome Family's excellence. Moreover they've been covered by Jeff Tweedy, Neko Case and many other legends. The song "Back in My Day" w/ the opening lyric, "We had maps that unfolded back in my day" could be the most brilliant line in play today. There's a CRESNDO that occurs twice by singer Brett Sparks. It is the most profound part of this tune. Brett's glorious voice is one of the best in the business. His low notes are deep and sit where they should, his quivering highs send shivers and make the hairs on your arms stand high. Furthermore, he has a breathy whisper he can release at the right moment when the dynamics call for it. Lots of people consider their music dark but there is usually some subtle humor nearby to counter the depressive themes.
Jackson Browne - Saturate Before Using
The song "Opening Farewell" is so lovely.
Jackson Browne joined by Bonnie Raitt.
Note the tight harmonies & overall song craftsmanship.
Opening Farewell is pure melodic gold and pure lyrical genius.
A child's drawings left there on the table.
And a woman's silk is lying on the floor,
And I would keep them here if I were able.
To Lock you safe behind this open door.
In part 2 of this article we will touch on other brilliant artists such as:
The Rolling Stones
Jesus Christ Superstar
AC / DC
Black Sabbath, Master of Reality
Tears For Fears - Songs From the Big Chair
Beck , Sea Change
The Shins, Wincing the Night Away
The Smiths Debut Album
Minor Threat, Out of Step
and more...such as:
Carl Petersen solo , Leave Me Here
I beg of you listen to Carl's album titled Leave Me Here
Listen to the way the bass guitar does not track the chords. No one has content or lights up the board based on the aforementioned 3 elements that create badass music. The basswork and off kilter drumming compliments Petersen's raw yet sweet vocal quality. Petersen almost always follows a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus formula but then throws some twists and turns that are beyond mind boggling. In the past 5-7 years some say he has had trouble w/ live performances. I'm not sure this is entirely fair. No one else could pull of these songs and that sometimes includes the author himself. Or maybe he is just aging to the point where resurrecting these miracles live is unrealistic for anyone. But even if he is at 50% of where he was in his prime he is still a champ. Leave Me Here are 12 songs. They are all incredible. Below are 5 standouts