Friday, February 19, 2010

Jahnke's Record Collection: In Search Of The Perfect Album

Over at his MusicTAP website, my friend Matt Rowe regularly posits intriguing discussion topics and music-related surveys. I don’t participate in each and every one, although I do end up spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about all of them. For example, he recently concluded a poll of underrated guitarists. Sure, there are plenty of guitarists whose work I love. John Fahey is way up there, as is David Gilmour. But I don’t really know enough about the subject to know if these guys are generally considered underrated or overrated. Still, I had a good time thinking about guitar players for a day or two.

Every so often, Rowe, magnificent bastard that he is, will casually toss out a question that gnaws at me for days on end. In his innocence, I’m sure he simply thinks it’s an interesting little poser that will illicit several immediate gut reactions. For the likes of me, it becomes an unsolvable mystery not unlike the Riddle of the Sphinx. It starts an internal debate that rages on long after Matt has moved on to other worthy subjects. About a week or so ago, he asked one such deceptively simple question.

What do you consider to be a perfect album?

Now if he’d asked what are your “favorite” albums, there would be no problem. I can rattle a list of those off without blinking. But it’s that word “perfect” that makes things so difficult. “Perfect” means that there isn’t a false note or a mediocre song to be found. I quickly realized that very few of my favorite albums are in fact perfect. Maybe part of the reason that I love them so much is that they are imperfect.

Born To Run is a phenomenal album, one that I return to again and again. It’s the source of many of my favorite Springsteen songs, including “Meeting Across The River”, “She’s The One” and the more famous tracks like “Thunder Road” and the title tune. I wonder if I would love those songs quite as much if the album didn’t have “Night” stuck right in the middle of it. I’ve always thought “Night” was a terribly boring, generic song and whenever it comes on, I either can’t wait for it to be over or I skip it entirely, depending on how charitable I feel. But maybe all those other great songs seem even better in contrast to it. I hate that song but I can’t imagine the record without it.

I suppose I would consider Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to be perfect, although it’s not my favorite Beatles album. It was, however, the first Beatles album I ever heard and I listened to my mom’s original vinyl LP obsessively when I was a kid. The record even had the Sgt. Pepper cut-out figures still intact. I suspect Mom watched me playing with those with a mixture of panic and delight, though to her credit, she never yelled that those toys weren’t for playing with. It was probably the first album I knew by heart. Even the much-maligned “Within You, Without You” expanded my horizons and struck me as a mystical, transcendent musical journey, which is probably what George Harrison intended in the first place. He just didn’t realize that his ideal audience would be eight-year-old boys growing up in small-town Minnesota in the mid-70s.

Most of my favorite artists, folks like Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, The Pogues, and Nick Cave, don’t have any albums I’d consider to be absolutely perfect. Cave comes closest with Murder Ballads, which is pretty close to an absolutely pure distillation of everything that makes him and the Bad Seeds so compelling. From Mr. Waits, I love Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, Mule Variations and Swordfishtrombones but I’ve never felt the urge to listen to any of them exclusively for any length of time. Zevon’s last album, The Wind, is made perfect by its imperfections. They are constant reminders of the ticking clock Warren was working against to complete the record before his death. As for The Pogues, part of what I love about the band is how one second they can be completely in control of their sound and the next, they sound exactly like the bunch of unruly drunken Irishmen they appear to be.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I don’t care much for perfection in music. Music is both universal and deeply personal. If you can record one song that means something to people, you’ve done something to be proud of. If you can put five or six of them together, it’s downright remarkable. But an entire album where every song hits you in just the right way?That may be nothing short of miraculous. And that’s when I realized that there was one album like that for me. One album that still grabs me from start to finish, sounds constantly fresh but can also transport me back to when I first heard it. The first time I heard it, it was like nothing else I’d been exposed to before, and its arrival in my life did strike me as something of a miracle.

I came late to London Calling. When the album was first released, I was all of ten years old, so the British punk scene wasn’t exactly high on my radar. If I had to guess, I’d wager my first exposure to the band came somewhere around 1983, most likely by seeing a video for “Rock The Casbah” or “This Is Radio Clash” on Night Flight. Even then, it would be another couple years before someone specifically steered me toward London Calling. The first song hooked me, filling my head with apocalyptic visions. But it was the way the album built on that foundation that really grabbed me. I’d never before heard an album that felt so electric and spontaneous, but also so perfectly controlled. Every song leads into the next with laser-sharp precision. Even today, if I hear one song off this album, I immediately want to listen to the whole thing so I can place it in its proper context. Hearing “The Card Cheat” by itself without “Koka Kola” leading in to it seems somehow wrong.

London Calling was a revelation for me and a gateway album to countless other bands. I’d never heard a voice like Joe Strummer’s before. I’d never heard a band use instruments this way before. After this, everything I’d been listening to sounded too slick, too professional, too controlled. It led me to explore punk music more in-depth and while I liked much of what I heard, it often sounded too chaotic, like a lot of these bands honestly had no idea what they were doing and if they recorded something great, it was kind of by accident. There was nothing accidental about London Calling. It’s a passionate, sprawling record full of songs I’m always tempted to listen to again as soon as they end, but before I have the chance, the band has already grabbed my attention with something even better. It’s an album I can’t listen to just once and I can’t listen to in pieces. It’s all or nothing. Death or glory. And that, to my ears anyway, is perfection.

Monday, February 1, 2010

It Was Twenty-ish Years Ago Today...The 100 Best Movies of the 90s!

In my recently completed 100 Best Movies of the 00s feature over at Jahnke’s Electric Theatre, I made a couple references to a similar project I’d undertaken ten years earlier. Much to my surprise, several people asked to see my 100 Best Movies of the 90s. Unfortunately, the complete essay has been lost to the vapor of defunct computer storage. I probably still have it somewhere…most likely on an unlabeled floppy disk. One day I’ll go through all that stuff and if the essay turns up, I’ll post it in all its glory (with the caveat that it was written with an intended audience of about five).

But even without my scintillating prose to jazz it up, I thought it might be interesting to post the list of titles. Looking at my picks today, I still think it’s a pretty strong lineup. Primarily though, it helps put the whole idea of these lists in context. There are some major omissions here, including Audition and Being John Malkovich, neither of which I’d seen when I originally came up with this list. If I were to redo the list now, some titles would move up (notably Magnolia and The Big Lebowski), others down (I still think The Rapture is a great movie but is it really top ten material?). There’s nothing on here that embarrasses me, as in, “Gawd, did I actually try to argue that The Phantom Menace was a great movie?” (For the record, no…I never did.) I could still make a case for every movie on this list, even those that would have to fall away to make room for new favorites.

What interests me the most about this list is how it transports me back into my early 2000 mindset. Back then, I didn’t have a cyber-soapbox for my half-baked ideas. I was just a movie fan working a job that left him with waaaaaaaay too much time on his hands. Looking at these titles in this context, I can instantly remember the way I felt about them at the time. Those feelings have changed over time but it’s valuable for me to remember what my feelings were then. Obviously you won’t get that but I hope seeing this list will be of some interest nevertheless.

Since I already revealed the number one pick, I’m dispensing with the whole countdown schtick and presenting the list in order. For the record, my pick for the top spot has not changed in all this time. And I apologize in advance to Elijah Olson and anyone else who feels I should not have grouped all three Lord Of The Rings movies into one. This list is really gonna drive you up the wall.

1. The Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, White, Red - 1993-94, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

2. Barton Fink (1991, Joel & Ethan Coen)

3. Edward Scissorhands (1990, Tim Burton)

4. Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)

5. Babe (1995, Chris Noonan)

6. Breaking The Waves (1996, Lars von Trier)

7. The Rapture (1991, Michael Tolkin)

8. Fight Club (1999, David Fincher)

9. Heavenly Creatures (1994, Peter Jackson)

10. Joe Versus The Volcano (1990, John Patrick Shanley)

11. The Double Life Of Veronique (1991, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

12. Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)

13. The Reflecting Skin (1990, Philip Ridley)

14. Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson)

15. The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel & Ethan Coen)

16. JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)

17. Husbands And Wives (1992, Woody Allen)

18. Out Of Sight (1998, Steven Soderbergh)

19. The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch)

20. The New Age (1994, Michael Tolkin)

21. Bullet In The Head (1990, John Woo)

22. American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes)

23. A Simple Plan (1998, Sam Raimi)

24. Chasing Amy (1997, Kevin Smith)

25. Fargo (1996, Joel & Ethan Coen)

26. Babe: Pig In The City (1998, George Miller)

27. Pecker (1998, John Waters)

28. La Belle Noiseuse (1991, Jacques Rivette)

29. Lone Star (1996, John Sayles)

30. Run Lola Run (1999, Tom Tykwer)

31. The Fisher King (1991, Terry Gilliam)

32. GoodFellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)

33. Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino)

34. Queen Margot (1994, Patrice Chereau)

35. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills (1996, Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky)

36. Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993, Francois Girard)

37. Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control (1997, Errol Morris)

38. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Henry Selick)

39. Delicatessen (1991, Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro)

40. King Of The Hill (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

41. Mars Attacks! (1996, Tim Burton)

42. Lost Highway (1997, David Lynch)

43. Flesh And Bone (1993, Steven Kloves)

44. Twelve Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)

45. Brother's Keeper (1992, Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky)

46. There's Something About Mary (1998, Bobby & Peter Farrelly)

47. Last Night (1999, Don McKellar)

48. Crumb (1994, Terry Zwigoff)

49. La Femme Nikita (1990, Luc Besson)

50. L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)

51. Schizopolis (1996, Steven Soderbergh)

52. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997, George Armitage)

53. Darkman (1990, Sam Raimi)

54. Army Of Darkness (1993, Sam Raimi)

55. The Quick And The Dead (1995, Sam Raimi)

56. The City Of Lost Children (1995, Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro)

57. Bitter Moon (1992, Roman Polanski)

58. Waiting For Guffman (1996, Christopher Guest)

59. The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996, Milos Forman)

60. Hard-Boiled (1992, John Woo)

61. Olivier Olivier (1992, Agnieszka Holland)

62. The Iron Giant (1999, Brad Bird)

63. Proof (1991, Jocelyn Moorhouse)

64. The Grifters (1990, Stephen Frears)

65. Men With Guns (1997, John Sayles)

66. American Movie (1999, Chris Smith)

67. Smoke / Blue In The Face (1995, Wayne Wang & Paul Auster)

68. Crash (1996, David Cronenberg)

69. Secrets & Lies (1996, Mike Leigh)

70. Big Night (1996, Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott)

71. Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson)

72. L.627 (1992, Bertrand Tavernier)

73. Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch)

74. Wag The Dog (1997, Barry Levinson)

75. Wild At Heart (1990, David Lynch)

76. Strangers In Good Company (1991, Cynthia Scott)

77. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990, Joe Dante)

78. Ruby In Paradise (1993, Victor Nunez)

79. Naked Lunch (1991, David Cronenberg)

80. Cemetery Man (1994, Michele Soavi)

81. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)

82. The Player (1992, Robert Altman)

83. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

84. The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)

85. eXistenZ (1999, David Cronenberg)

86. Dead Man Walking (1995, Tim Robbins)

87. Leon - The Professional (1994, Luc Besson)

88. Shakes The Clown (1991, Bob Goldthwait)

89. Defending Your Life (1991, Albert Brooks)

90. Simple Men (1992, Hal Hartley)

91. Exotica (1994, Atom Egoyan)

92. Election (1999, Alexander Payne)

93. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, David Lynch)

94. Matinee (1993, Joe Dante)

95. Summer Of Sam (1999, Spike Lee)

96. The Matrix (1999, Andy & Larry Wachowski)

97. Frankenhooker (1990, Frank Henenlotter)

98. Freaked (1993, Alex Winter & Tom Stern)

99. The Kingdom / The Kingdom II (1994-97, Lars von Trier)

100. The Wrong Trousers / A Close Shave (1993-95, Nick Park)