Friday, May 22, 2009

1 Greatest Albums: Your Favorite Artist - 'Your Favorite Album'

Here we are at long last. The last entry on the Top 50 Greatest Albums. As I've said before, this is not a list in any kind of order. I rifled through the collection randomly and picked out whatever struck me as an album to highlight for that particular day. If I started over I might wind up with a completely different list altogether.

We've all heard that fun apocalyptic question, 'If you were stranded on a desert isle, what is the one album you would choose?'

The irony in this weighty hypothetical is that we ARE STRANDED ON THE PLANET. We are on our island and we have an infinite number of albums to choose from. When you think about what you might want to be stranded with, you could do a lot worse than lil' ol' Planet Earth. I have been trying to cultivate a new sense of gratitude and wonder and this list has been a big part of that.

How lucky am I that I own such a wide swath of seemingly disconnected music? If you look at this list without thinking about it, you might think that 50 random strangers were each allowed one choice. There is no overlying theme, no sense of singularity to this list. And the variety of what is out there to choose from is expanding exponentially at an almost frightening rate.

A mere decade ago digital recording was still quite expensive and unavailable to the home enthusiast. Now? Any musician with a healthy dose of perfectionism can create their very own masterpiece. Where will this trend be in thirty more years? Will we have direct links to our brainwaves so that once a creative stream is isolated it can be manifested merely through thought? Could happen.

I once dreamed that I was in a strange lush green atmosphere where an idyllic lawn was broken up all around me like in a Picasso cubist fantasy. I sat at a collage of a grand piano in a tuxedo and all around me an orchestra responded to my improvisation. To this date it is still my most treasured musical memory and it NEVER HAPPENED.

Could I retrieve that memory and make it a reality? Do we all have symphonies raging away inside of us just waiting for a chance to be heard? I would say it is more likely than unlikely. I would say that even the most depraved and violent and evil of us have our own personal soundtrack of music that only we could create. To be moving towards a time when those sounds will be more and more accessible is, to a music lover like myself, staggeringly exciting.

Today in the mail I received the latest album by my best friend Justin Brady. It is called 'The Bassoon Years' and it contains a song called 'Sui Generis' that he wrote in honor of my father who recently passed away. This album would have gotten a separate entry if it had come a bit earlier but that just hammers my point home even further.

Justin has been a de-facto O'Malley for decades and something of a son-by-proxy. If Justin and I had been alive during any other period of recorded or unrecorded history I would not have been able to listen to this song, unless he were singing it to me himself. So when people talk about how technology numbs people or leaves them less communicative I say they have a funny way of looking at a full glass and imagining it to be half empty.

So here, perched atop this jalopy of a joyride of a musical Top 50 list, I invite you to tell me what you would take with you if someone put a gun to your head. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Thanks to Mike for suggesting this list. What's next in this space? No idea. Maybe nothing. If you come back and check even once I'm grateful.

Brendan O'Malley
Top 50 List
Begun Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Finished Friday May 22, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

2 Greatest Albums: Dr. Dre - '2001 (Instrumentals Only)

I got this one from cousin Timothy and while it doesn't have the aorta piercing emotional resonance it more than makes up for it in the realm of sonic weight.

I'd loved this album when it came out with the vocals on it. Then Timothy moved out and I didn't hear it for a while. Then Timothy moved to LA and he gave me the version without rapping. I can't say it is better than the one with vocals because they are flip sides of the same big money coin. But anyone who thinks that rap music is just an artless theft of grab bag samples would do will to sit down with head phones on and listen to the sound of Dr. Dre's brain.

There are two producers who loom large over the last part of the 20th century. One is Rick Rubin who started with ghetto rap and wound up at Johnny Cash's bedside. The other is Dr. Dre. Rubin is more of a facilitator, a spirit guide, a shaman leading the artist through the wasteland of their own creativity. He has never felt the urge (or has hidden it quite well) to join in the spotlight, to throw his hat into the performance ring.

Dre came out of the gate doing both. On N.W.A.'s 'Straight Outta Compton' it was always Dre's voice that seemed to be the final word. He is without a doubt underestimated as a rapper/lyricist but that is like saying no one ever talks about how good a piano player Beethoven was.

To hear his work stripped of all literary infusion is to reduce it to an almost staggering power. Each snare is infinite, each keyboard plink becomes a bright jewel in a dark and endless void. It is like being enveloped in a finely tuned gleaming hot rod engine, slick oil keeping you from being crushed by the thrust of the pistons, keeping you cool amidst all the combustion.

I'm white and grew up sheltered from the terrible wrath racism and power imbalance wreaks on those who aren't white and sheltered. This album, stripped of words, fills me with the deepest compassion for those who have endured random stops by crooked cops, violent eruptions puncturing everyday life, the overwhelming sense of futility when the odds are so clearly stacked against you.

The power that Dr. Dre wrings out of cold soulless technology is astonishing. This is not some kid making a collage. These compositions are at the cutting edge of both modern human technology and artistic expression. They are perfectly rendered, to the point that you can take the words away and the meaning remains. Try that with a Nirvana record, or a Neil Young record, or a Bob Dylan record. Great as those artists are, the work minus the words is a mere echo.

With Dr. Dre, there is no echo. He shows you the whole canyon. With these instrumental pieces he shows you that there is nothing to be shouted into the canyon. You cannot escape his vision. You may wish you could, but you can't.

Put the headphones on. You will see danger on every corner. You will feel the simple joy of a drive in a convertible with the top down. You will feel that joy drain away in a flash when a power hungry automaton tries to take you down a peg. You will turn to weed to numb the pain but it will only make you angrier. You will wish for the love of a good woman to help you cope with what you face on a daily basis. You will be disappointed when she turns out to have been just another crack in the dam. You will want to lash out in rage against anyone to restore your sense of power. You will feel remorse for the result of that power. You will see danger on every corner. You will feel the simple joy of a drive in a convertible with the top down...

So, yeah, fuck the police.

If they tried to step on Mozart's toes I'd say the same thing.

Monday, May 18, 2009

3 Greatest Albums: Mike Doughty - 'Skittish'

Once again I was driving the streets of southern Rhode Island late at night. These streets are the geography of my soul, the areas I travel regardless of where I actually live. In this case I was physically in Rhode Island but in a larger sense I will ALWAYS be driving the streets of southern Rhode Island late at night.

I was listening to WRIU, the radio station at the University of Rhode Island. This is the station that I first heard The Replacements on, the station that was the soundtrack to my high school punk misadventures, the station that was like a small dark portal to the outside world the entire time I went to college which feels like it lasted 25 years.

Cut to a post 9/11 me. I am a raw nerve. I am struggling mightily to handle the aftermath of a painful divorce, balancing that with the joys of a new relationship, the difficulty of adjusting to a new model of parenthood, one that necessarily must include time spent away from my son. Throw in a little hint of drug/alcohol addiction and major financial stress and what you have is a walking powder keg. 9/11 has left me incapable of dealing with any of this in a healthy way. I'd probably been losing that fight before those motherfuckers blew up my city.

I am back home for a summer stretch. Somewhere in some little dusty studio some college DJ plays a song. It shoots out into the ether. What are the odds that I would be one of the few to hear it? The station can't have a very large audience, especially in the summer and this was a late night show. If there a thousand people tuning in I would be flabbergasted.

The song was an acoustic doozy and it contained the refrain, 'Thank you, lord, for sending out the F train to me'. It also referenced Park Slope, my neighborhood, and basically seemed like someone had read the secret diary of my heart and put it to music.

I had to pull over. I cried. I had a cathartic response. I don't think I had my cell phone on me so I had to wait til I got back to my parent's house to call in to find out what it was. As usual the DJ didn't say anything about it when he recapped his play list. I listened and listened hoping that he would say, 'And that song was...' but he didn't.

There was no answer at the station. The next day I called again and spoke with someone who told me who the DJ was and that they didn't keep logs of what they played. So I'd have to call again when his show was on. In the meantime I feverishly searched for the song on the Internet using key words...'F train'. 'Park Slope'. The show had been categorized as an emo music hour. None of these combinations came up with anything on google.

The unnamed song haunted me. I asked music aficionados if they'd ever heard anything like it. No one knew what I was talking about. I didn't have the artist name or the song name. All I knew was that it was a song about the 'F train'.

Finally I hit upon the right mixture of words and something came up. Mike Doughty. He'd been the lead singer of a band called Soul Coughing that had had some success in the 1990's. One song I knew called 'Circles'. I liked it but it was nothing compared to the stripped down clarity and emotional wallop I'd experienced.

The song was indeed called 'Thank You Lord For Sending Me The F Train'. The album was only available through Doughty's website. I quickly ordered a copy and prepared myself to be underwhelmed by everything else on the album.

My fears were unfounded as 'Thank You' is merely one of many transcendent songs. There is a burning quality to this album, something perfectly realized yet totally out of control. I have heard other Doughty songs and albums and while I can appreciate them - this is one for the desert island.

I'd take you through the songs and try to describe the perfection inherent in each. But that would be like trying to print the echo of the map I have of the streets of southern Rhode Island into your brain. You have your own maps to navigate. I just got lucky enough to hear someone sing about a street I was living on.

And Mike Doughty, if you're out there, I need to let you know that you somehow built a bridge from Park Slope right to those Rhode Island streets, you clued me in that I had a new home, that I'd put down roots, that my homeland had been attacked and that my response to that was about as appropriate as could be. Thank you lord indeed.