Obligatory Kurt Cobain thoughts and associated ramblings

When I was in high school in the early 1990s, I was a music director at the local college radio station. As with any small-town community radio station, it was populated by an eclectic mix of ex-hippies, young music geeks, local characters, and associated hangers-on. My thing was rap. There were the guys who did punk, who would occasionally make the papers with a censorship flap. There were the indie rock guys (back then meaning, I guess, the dBs, Del Fuegos, Pixies), who were always at the station despite being in their 30s and not having a title or being paid a dime. There were the guys who played the strains of synth that was in the process of morphing into industrial. The country-music woman. The jazz guys, who always had the best weed.

Top 40 radio was so bereft of new ideas that half-baked remixes of old Paula Abdul and Bobby Brown hits were getting fresh play, but there was a lot of different things going on in music and certainly at a place like a college-radio station. The diversity of the first two Lollapalooza lends some weight to that; when they announced that tour everyone at my radio station wanted to go, and could scarcely believe it was even happening (I was, however, too young to actually go). If Kurt Cobain was a scraggly-faced Sauron, who came along and layed waste to the pop-music landscape, then Lollapalooza was the One Ring to bind us.

About that. I still very clearly and distinctly remember coming into the station one day and there was a Nevermind banner over the door to the studio. In retrospect, plastering the Nevermind image over a wide assortment of disparate band stickers, flyers, and promo posters is kinda symbolic. At the time, I didn’t know what it was all about; the album had not come out yet. Within a month or two, the album was so massively popular that the banner was stolen. I just kept playing rap.

I liked Nevermind, sure. I always loved the early Beatles, for much of my childhood I loved them moreso than post-Rubber Soul Beatles, and it reminded me of that — just in terms of the energy, and of the hooks coming at Mike Tyson speed, like jab, jab, jabjabjab, UPPERCUT. I obviously wasn’t the only one who made the early-Beatles connection; the “In Bloom” video beat that connection over our heads. In fact, maybe the video came before I made that connection, I don’t know; it was 20 years ago. But it was minimal and visceral in a way that, say, Use Your Illusion wasn’t, is my point. And sure, I liked that first Rage Against the Machine album and that second Black Crowes album and Alice in Chains’ Dirt, stuff like that,more.

Jay-Z has said that Kurt Cobain delayed the rise of rap, and I’m inclined to agree. When I started high school, I was one of about 10 kids who loved hip-hop. Rap was never going to be fully embraceable to rural America in the form it existed in 1990; a lot of it was too smart, too insular, or too gimmicky. “Too black”? OK, maybe. But the cracks were starting to show, and then Cobain came along and sealed them up. When that began to subside, The Chronic came out, and very possibly did more for hip-hop than any other album before or since. While staying 100% true to its roots, and bridging classic-era rap with a youthful rising star, that album was just smart enough, insular enough, and gimmicky enough to break through as a party album. Everyone listened to it all summer of 1993, even in rural Maine — geographically and culturally as far as you can get from L.A. in America — and hip-hop never looked back.

(One interesting side note: I think one of the things that Cobain helped kill was Southern California rock, which had been fertile from the Beach Boys to the early 1990s and really never recovered. Even aside from the hair metal and Sunset-Strip bands of the 80s, you had Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction, Fishbone, the Chili Peppers — these bands were all very much cool in the late 1980s, a big part of alternative music before Alternative Nation. Grunge crushed that. That cachet never came back. Yet California essentially blew hip-hop up at the same time. Go figure.)

I don’t remember where I was I first heard Nevermind (I can tell you exactly where I was the first time I heard Death Certificate, to give you a sense). I do remember exactly where I was when he died. I was in the TV room of a frat house at MIT. One of the last places you’d expect dudes to be riveted to a television for the death of a “punk” icon yet there we were. Around this time I’d gone to my first rave (didn’t stick, wish it had) and Phish concert (did stick), the classic era of hip-hop was winding down and leaving us with a bounty classic albums, and I was pretty well tired of the “here we are now, entertain us” pose — really, not dissimilar to the bullshit that Millennials have to read about themselves in the press today. It would be intellectually dishonest to suggest that Kurt and his influence wasn’t massive, and part of me wouldn’t mind someone like that coming along and hitting the reset button on the current pop-music landscape, but we were entertained just fine.

My mix cd for Spring 2014

I make 4 mix cds a year, one for each season. No Spotify playlist as I don’t what’s out yet and what is not (you’ll have to take my word that it clocks in at 1:19 and flows wonderfully).

No hip-hop as I listen to the cd in the car with a toddler, athough I will say that Future’s “Move That Dope” is my favorite song of 2014 so far, along with Hospitality’s “Last Words”. Here is the mix:

1. Todd Terje- “Oh Joy”

2. Liars- “Mess of a Mission”

3. De Lux- “I’ve Got To Make a Statement (No More Likes or Ums)”

4. Cibo Matto- “10th Floor Ghost Girl”

5. Pharrell Williams- “Come Get it Bae”

6. Woods- “Moving To the Left”

7. Beck- “Heart is a Drum”

8. The Donkeys- “Bahamas”

9. Wooden Wand- “Uneasy Peace”

10. Sun Kil Moon- “I Love My Dad”

11. The War on Drugs- “Disappearing”

12. Hospitality- “Last Words”

13. Future Islands- “Back in the Tall Grass”

14. Kelis- “Floyd”

15. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart- “Simple and Sure”

16. Against Me!- “Unconditional Love”

Here is my rolling spotify playlist of such songs:


Today I was talking to a great writer who is almost 20 years younger than I am, and this person had never heard Rickie Lee Jones’ “Chuck E’s’ in Love”. It occurs to me that you are probably much younger than I am also and that it’s possible you’ve never heard it either. So I’m posting it here because this is a good song to have in your life.

The sound of going grocery shopping with my parents as a kid.

A partial list of albums that came out in October and November 2000

Radiohead- Kid A

Godspeed You! Black Emperor- Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven

PJ Harvey- Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea

Jay-Z- The Dynasty: Roc La Familia

OutKast- Stankonia

Songs: Ohia- Ghost Tropic

Sade- Lovers Rock

Erykah Badu- Mama’s Gun

The New Pornographers- Mass Romantic

The Avalanches- Since I Left You

The Clientele- Suburban Light

Wu-Tang Clan- The W

The Sea and Cake- Oui

Also, EPs by Spoon, Boards of Canada, Gorillaz, and the last decent U2 album and the M.O.P. album with “Ante Up” on it, along with (insert your other favorite album from those two months).

Not too shabby.

My favorite albums of the 1990s

* that I am listening to in 2014.

These are the 90s albums that I’ve listened to the most this year. It’s not a “best albums of 90s” list, but it could be, why not. You could do worse.

10. Cibo Matto — Viva! La Woman (1996)

I didn’t have too much time for this when it came out; I guess I thought of it, fairly or not, like Grand Royal leftovers. My wife loves them, and put some of their songs on early mix tapes for me, and here it is in 2014 and I can barely remember not knowing much less not knowing this record. I returned to it before buying their new one, and their new one is one of my absolute favorites this year. This is how a band becomes a stowaway in your life. I’m cool with it.

9. Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson — VH1 Storytellers (1998)

This is the sort of record that feels more like family. It’s not mind-blowing but it’s comforting. I almost love the banter more than the songs; it reminds you that these guys, in addition to being badass, were kinda corny. The music reminds you that these guys had a healthy competitiveness but also both felt they were adding songs to the canon of standards that went back well before they were born. I’ve listened to this album a hundred times and still can’t tell if Johnny is jealous or not when he tells Willie how much he loves “Me and Paul.” He should be jealous; “Me and Paul” kicks pretty much any song’s ass.

8. Julian Cope — Peggy Suicide (1991)

I did not listen to this album at all back in the 1990s. I recently rescued a copy from a tag sale, and it reminded me how it felt to buy albums in the 1990s, when artists kind of reveled in showing off their musicianship and their range of interests and influences. This is different from today in that artists are shy about their skill and have relatively small budgets to play with. Peggy Suicide is the sound of someone who probably got more chances with a decent budget than he should have, and finally made it work. I also love the unashamedly shaggy, hippie-ish nature of it, which exemplifies that perfect balance of both uncool and cool that crunchy kids perfected in the early 90s and never quite got right before or since.

7. Slowdive — Pygmalion (1995)

I guess this is thought of a shoegaze album, but I feel like it’s an early shot across the bow for Sigur Ros and some of the early ’00s post-rock. I guess that stuff came out of shoegaze to some degree. I’m a Neil Halstead fan who basically likes his career in all its permutations from this point on. It’s a good record. It scares children.

6. Morrissey — Your Arsenal (1992)

I didn’t even know this was getting a reissue when I rediscovered it recently. I’m not wild about the first few songs (I’m actually not wild about the first song on a lot of Morrissey/Smiths albums for whatever reason) but around track 4 this album goes on a scorching run in a range of styles. And it’s funny.

5.  A Tribe Called Quest — Midnight Marauders (1993)

This album makes me think about what a “classic” record means. It is undeniably a classic, but when those opening chords of “Award Tour” come up, I always wonder if it’s classic because those are the perfect chords for that album right then, or if it’s because they speed-dial 20 years worth of good memories? I mean, clearly it’s a classic album because gifted people did some of their best work on it, but there’s that other element too. Anyway, I still listen to it a lot because I have a 6-year-old and can’t listen to any good rap made after 1993 with him (I skip “Sucka N-gga”).

4. Depeche Mode — Violator (1990)

I started listening to this again last year because I bought a kinda-crappy Volkswagen that happens to have speakersthat synth-pop sounds fantastic through. I mean they sound so vibrant that “Waiting for the Night” comes off stronger than “Enjoy the Silence.” And those songs back to back? Good God. 

3. Aimee Man — Magnolia Soundtrack (1999)

This has a reputation for being one of the most depressing albums ever (I remember a friend telling me that his roommate listened to the album constantly and he was deeply worried about him), but I’ve always found that it cheers me. With the possible exception of “Wise Up,” it’s too good to be sad, with one woman’s career crystallizing into this perfect moment while incredibly dovetailing with her producer’s finest hour as well. I put it on in lieu of watching any movies after Philip Seymour Hoffman died and haven’t put it back on the shelf since.

2. George Michael — Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 (1990)

This is most famous for the hits “Freedom! ’90” and to a lesser extent “Waiting for that Day,” and those are monumental songs — the former is practically one of the Great Wonders of the World — but the album as a whole is terribly underrated, with layers of depth, hope, and empathy that slowly reveal themselves when the album is taken as a whole, and returned to like a pilgrimage.

1. Nas — Illmatic (1994)

There’s not really much about this album that hasn’t been said, but it just never gets old. This is how you make something really hard look really easy. I still listen to this album once every 3-4 weeks.



This seems like a good candidate for “Pink Floyd song for people who don’t like Pink Floyd.” It’s kind of impossible for me to imagine someone not liking this. I heard and enjoyed this for many years before knowing the crowd at the end was people singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at a soccer game (we had no Google then). 

If I were to make a list of my 20-30 favorite songs of the 1970s, this song would be on it.

(I am a Pink Floyd fan, however — every incarnation)

Steven Spielberg’s movies in chronological order (by setting)

The same deal as I just did with Scorsese, but now with Spielberg. It was a little easier this time, but I made judgement calls with Hook (I guessed about 20 years after J.M. Barrie’s story was published) and Tintin (I put it about the same time the Hergé comics on which the film was based came out). As with the Scorsese list, I shot from the hip a bit and may have made a mistake here or there.

Anyway, this would make a fun, if long, film festival. And is this guy passionate about the 1930s and 40s or what?

Amistad (1830s – 1840s)

Lincoln (1865)

The Color Purple (1900s-1930s)

War Horse (1910s)

Hook (1930s)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1935)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1936)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1938)

Schindler’s List (1939- 1940s)

1941 (1941)

Empire of the Sun (1940s)

The Adventures of Tintin (1940s)

Saving Private Ryan (1944)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (1957)

Catch Me if You Can (1960s)

The Sugarland Express (1969)

Duel (1971)

Munich (1972)

Jaws (1975)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Always (1989)

Jurassic Park (1993)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

The Terminal (2004)

War of the Worlds (2005)

Minority Report (mid 21st century)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (late 21st century)

Martin Scorsese’s movies in chronological order (by setting)

I thought it would be interesting to examine (and perhaps watch) Martin Scorsese’s movies in the order in which they are set, so I cobbled together the complete list, minus the docs and concert films.

There are a couple of caveats. Scorsese often favors stories that span decades, and in those cases I placed it in order according to the primary decade in which the film was set. If a film was set in whatever the modern times were, I went with the release year (not the year in which it was filmed). I used my own judgement, and I may have made a mistake or three.

Interesting to note that aside from The Departed, he has not made a film that wasn’t a period piece in quite some time. Even Bringing Out the Dead (1999) is set several years earlier than its release, and Cape Fear (1991) is a fairly anachronistic remake.

The Last Temptation of Christ (0)

Gangs of New York (1860s)

The Age of Innocence (1870s)

The Aviator (1920s - 1940s)

Hugo (1931)                                        

Kundun (1930s-1950s)

New York, New York (1940s)

Raging Bull (1940s – 1960s)

Shutter Island (1954)

Goodfellas (1960s & 1970s)

Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Mean Streets (1973)

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Casino (1970s & 1980s)

The King of Comedy (1983)

After Hours (1985)

The Color of Money (1986)

The Wolf of Wall Street (1980s & 1990s)

Cape Fear (1991)

Bringing out the Dead (early 1990s)

The Departed (2006)

juanalikesmusic asked: What do you think of the new St. Vincent album? I know that you don't like how her career has progressed and since this new album is being highly acclaimed I was interested to know what you think about it.

I’ve only listened to it twice and, while I will listen to it more and form a stronger opinion, my snap judgment is that I think the downward trend is continuing with her albums. I think what you said in your earlier post about it being mega-St.Vincent but not really Annie Clark is very pointed; I think that even with the imagery surrounding the record (the publicity shots, the cover), she is kind of morphing into late-period Tim Burton, where it all comes off a bit too spastic and weird for the sake of being spastic and weird, disappearing into a character and losing track of the heart at the center. Maybe that’s the point; some of the album’s imagery suggests as much. I do like art rock and don’t want to suggest she not follow a more eccentric muse, but I think she found a nice balance between the art and rock two albums ago and I’m not wild about her adventures deeper down that rabbit hole.

Along those lines, it all reminds me of Station to Station-era David Bowie, which is not Bowie’s most-spastic album but arguably his most paranoid, coked-out album. Not saying Clark does cocaine, in fact she seems very healthy, but the album sounds like a cocaine album (and she does sing about snorting the Berlin wall which, now that I think of it, is imagery that has multiple late-70s Bowie layers). On that album, Bowie disappeared into the Thin White Duke persona and sang about fearing his TV. So Clark shrinking into an alter-ego and doing the same all seems kind of familiar. Would I have liked Station to Station if I was my current age in 1976, or would I have thought it was kinda full of shit? I dunno.

The glowing reviews have in general disappointed me. Not because the critics like the album (there’s clearly a lot there to like!) but too many of the reviews seem to be reviewing Annie Clark the person and not St. Vincent the album — the album itself is almost treated as an afterthought — which is always bothersome to me, whether it happens with her or Kanye or Justin Vernon or whoever. But I get all that; Annie Clark the person is great! Right now I’m listening to her on the Nerdist podcast and it’s a wonderful interview. She’s phenomenally talented and someone worth admiring — virtually anyone you can compare to Station-era Bowie with a straight face is worth admiring — I just wish I liked her current music more.

All this said, I do think “Birth in Reverse” is a cracking song. I just don’t want an album of it, at least for the time being.

Spike Jonze’s “Her” and fashion, Buddhism, and Beck


I got a new phone two weeks ago, and was surprised to find it came with the phrase “lifelong companion” written in robotically elegant cursive across the top of the lock screen. Being a techno-idiot, I had no idea how to remove this, so I tried instead to find an image to match. I originally had a picture my son on my lockscreen, but that wouldn’t do. I swapped it out for a photo of my wife, which seemed the natural choice, but even that seemed really weird. You don’t necessarily want a reminder of your marriage vows and (by default) death’s inevitability every time you get a a text message. At long last, it occurred to me that the “lifelong companion” was not intended for the subject of a photograph, but for the phone itself.

That may have been the point of Her. I don’t know; I was too busy looking at the clothes. I’m skeptical of digital filming, projection, and HD in general — for a host of reasons — but one thing I love is how these tools frame clothing and fabric in such extreme focus that it feels like you can reach into the screen and run your hand across them. You can practically count the fibers in Her’s cardigan sweaters and high-waisted wool pants, and it’s the perfect film for to have that level of texture in it — it’s a course counter to Spike Jonze’s sleek, technologically advanced, near-future utopia.

Costume design plays a crucial role in every film, but it’s rarely laid out so plainly as with Her. Not only does the design add an impressive layer of detail (no denim, no leather) to the consistency and plausibility of this world — one can easily imagine entire catalogues that Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly may have shopped from — but also the wardrobes helped convey the film’s themes.

More on the clothes in a second; first, the themes. The “point” of Her is pretty much up for grabs, thanks to a script that spreads itself over a lot of thematic turf without committing heavily in one direction. It could be about love, tech, or gender. Or more. You hear how Phoenix’s character is an unlikable monster, and that’s true (if not terribly different from any protagonist of the Jonze-Kaufman-Gondry era of “indie” cinema). They all know they’re creating monsters. Her is the latest in a line of fairly typical movies in which an emasculated male seeks a woman who will save him without his having to apply much elbow grease, but who he can also feel superior to. That’s what a whole lot of “indie” rom-coms amount to, going back many years before Natalie Portman put those headphones on Zach Braff.


With that protagonist and overarching plot, along with a lush, melancholy tone similar to Beck’s sad-sack opus Sea Change (with a color palette not far from the album cover), Her seems like it should fall into that mold. And it does, but the science-fiction elements and the richer themes take it deeper than that. The standard arguments about gender can be shelved to some extent, because the movie is about the shifting of gender roles. It’s about the singularity — but not, as it seems on the surface, between people and technology (although there’s obviously that, too) but of men, women, technology, everything. There’s a harmony inherent to hypothetical utopian societies; a balance. The film explores what that means to the concept love.


This march to androgyny is apparent before you even enter the theater. The movie is called Her; on the posters, this pronoun is placed below a close-up photograph of a man drenched in pink and red, wearing a mustache so absurd-looking that it serves the opposite effect of the Ron Swanson. Looking at that poster, who are you supposed to think the “her” is referring to? The man is named Theodore Twombley — an oddly androgynous name, for reasons I can’t place (perhaps it’s the “womb” right there in the surname). He falls for a computer operating system called Samantha, a name that is often confused for a masculine name when shortened to Sam. Twombley writes other people’s correspondence for a living, no matter what the gender, race, or age of the letter’s intended author. He’s good at his job.


This is also where the fashion comes in. The ubiquitous button-downs, cardigans, and warm colors are worn by both genders, but it’s the much-ridiculed pants that are particularly fascinating. High-waisted pants have a unique place in the leveling of gender roles, having gained widespread popularity with women in the 1940s. The men were off in World War II, and women entered the blue-collar workforce to fill the vacancies. Pants were more practical, and furthermore, a shortage of money led many women to raid their husbands’ closets for clothes to wear. Coco Chanel was quick to hop on this trend, and began designing and marketing high-waisted trousers for women. The crew of Her captured this back for their own story about men and women inching closer still to equality.


 The movie is more or less about everyone — including our technology, rapidly approaching artificial-intelligence levels — achieving singularity. The perspective that the film pushes the definition of love in the digital age is basically the same argument. That’s certainly where all the Buddhist imagery comes into play; there’s an old joke about the Buddhist monk at the hot-dog stand who says, “Make me one with everything.” And while that isn’t an accurate portrayal of Buddhist philosophy, there is some truth to it, and enough people believe it to be true that the repeated presence of Buddhism is a reliable signpost in your movie that is (ostensibly) about the singularity. Or maybe it is about Buddhism; all the reds, oranges, yellows, and pink in the fashion recall clothing worn by Buddhist monks. Life is long, and full of suffering, so it’s best to find companions where we can.