Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Ass Like That" by Eminem (2005)



Poor Eminem... what made him history's most respected white rapper? Well, if nothing else, I think people admired his conviction. He tried so hard to get that street cred, and the simple fact is that you can sense that under all the image, there's a dorky kid so eager to please that he realises that 'pleasing' can sometimes mean talking violent, degrading trash. Whatever it takes, right? There's that famous picture circling the internet of Marshall Mathers III in high school... that geek is still there. That's what makes him other than hateful.

That and the fact that, I begrudgingly admit, the man has a way with a song. He is a good rapper, and he has a good pop sense for a 'hook'. He's put out quite a few songs that are enjoyable to listen to, whether or not you pay attention to lyrics, that it's easy to forget how much run-of-the-mill stuff he's pumped out.

"Ass Like That" is neither. He's a puppet in the video, driving home the point that it's all a big cartoon, but that's no mitigation: I don't listen to the Teletubbies either. This is a load of silly nonsense spoken in a ridiculous accent. It seems beside the point to complain that this is misogynistic: you get the impression Eminem would wear such a criticism as a badge of honour. But it's meant to be a comedy track, and it's just not funny. That's what's saddest about the song. It feels like a desperate attempt at a 'party anthem', but it's just too pathetic to do the job. And of course, we get to the line "you make my pee-pee go da-doing doing doing", presumably onomatopoeia for an erection. Er... well, whatever. He plays with a slinky at one point. Er... well, whatever. There's lots of references to police and to urination. It's all... sigh. It's just sad, really.

Eminem seems to be attempting a comeback. We'll see if he can make it work. because songs like this pushed his expiration date forward way more than it needed to be.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

"The End" by the Doors (1967)



I don't expect to make many friends with this statement, but I have a hard time stomaching The Doors. Actually, I should qualify that: frequently, the three instrumentalists in the band are capable of pumping out decent music. It's precisely 25% of the membership of the band that I have trouble stomaching.

But before making it personal, let me add this caveat: the Doors did some good stuff. And I even mean with decent vocals. The dichotomy of the Doors, or one of several, is how they tried to be an AM band and an FM band at the same time: a pop band and a rock band. So pretty much every album released during Jim Morrison's life has a song or two that's two and a half minutes long and a song or two that's ten minutes long. The Short ones were the singles for the kids, the long ones were the 'statements' for the musos. "Light My Fire" was both. Give me the choice, though, and I'll take "Break On Through", "Love Me Two Times" and especially "Touch Me" any time. The longer stuff? I must just not be doing the right drugs.

The present song is a good example: this is the sort of song where everything goes wrong for the Doors. While the first minute or two build up a decently spooky musical feel, it quickly degenerates into noodly pretension. The musicians here are just as guilty as the singer: as the song goes on and on and on in an attempt to 'blow minds', it loses all sense of musicality and enjoyment value. It has ultimately become a suitable backdrop for...

Ugh. Jim Morrison. His grave in Paris has constant pilgrims, university kids put his poster on their dorm walls, he's mentioned in the same breath as undisputed 1960s greats. Why, I ask you, why? At his worst, or even at anything less than his best, I find him a fatuous quasi-profound blowhard. Gripping his mic to intone the tackiest of high-school 'poetry' in a heavy-handed baritone, the so-called 'Lizard King' is largely responsible for bringing pretense into popular music - for taking the formalistic advances spearheaded by the likes of Bob Dylan and leading them far outside the boundaries of good taste. For all his rubbish about the 'doors of perception', I've never gotten the impression that Jim Morrison had much in the way of worthwhile insights or vision. At best, he was partially able to crib ideas from minds brighter than his.

This particular song is a good example. At first, it's just some typical death-babbling. Ride the snake to the lake, etc. etc. After the song gets wibblier, Morrison does too, telling an incomprehensible story about a killer, with the famous 'Oedipus' lines tossed in there for no clear reason I can see. And ooh, big deal, swear words (sometimes). Yawn. It doesn't make any sense, which is no crime in and of itself, but like any of Morrison's more belaboured 'poetry' pieces, it is convinced of its own merits. It is quite wrong.

And it's twelve minutes long. Twelve minutes of your life you can never get back. Never.


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Saturday, June 12, 2010

"We Didn't Start the Fire" by Billy Joel (1989)



There's a special corner reserved in hell for the music of Billy Joel. I will accede that in his forty-year career he's put out, oh, five or six songs that are all right (just to prove my taste is suspect at times, I have a soft spot in my heart for “Allentown”). But there's also been a handful of songs so dire, so evil, so filled with hatred for the joy that music can bring you... that it defies description. With time, this blog will feature a good number of songs by this man.

Where to start? Well, for the truly vile, there is the song that I ultimately chose. This shopping-list harangue shows up on a good number of 'worst song ever' lists for good reason. Ostensibly, Billy Joel was annoyed by the fact that his generation, the Baby Boomers, were being blamed for, well, for their wholescale raping of the planet and their blatant selling out of everything their generation was supposed to stand for (I'd like to add to that list their monopolisation of western culture far beyond the expiration of their collective creativity or relevance). Apparently he set out to defend his generation by shouting tunelessly for several minutes. “It's one of the worst melodies I've ever written,” he concedes, showing a remarkable degree of self-awareness. He's not on record as having anything to say about that toe-curling moment when hea pproaches the end of a verse bellows out, “JFK... blown away... what else do I have to say?” The most frustrating thing about his apparent assertion that, after crudely describing Kennedy's assassination, there is nothing else to say is that nonetheless he keeps on gibbering anyway.

Billy Joel is under the apparent belief that a list of newspaper headlines from across the decades constitutes meaningful lyrics. And, speaking of what I said above regarding expiration of boomers' creative relevance, he couches all of this in one of the worst musical genres out there: '70s artists trying to make their music sound current in the 80s'. It is my personal belief that the reason 80s music is so maligned by so many is because anyone who was making music in the early- to mid-1970s, suddenly by 1982 or so decided to suck, by using huge drums, squeaky guitars and cheesy synths (and of course the dreaded 80s saxophone) to cover up the deficit of tune or meaning in their efforts.

History teachers, boomers themselves convinced of the historical merit of their own lifespans, actually spent several years foisting this nonsense on schoolchildren, under the mistaken belief that real, significant acts of history reduced to sound-bite lists would make history more enjoyable for them.

The truth, of course, is that we now have a full generation of kids who have developed a knee-jerk revulsion of the subject of history. Those who forget their history are doomed to hold Billy Joel culpable for it.



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Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega (1987)



Is it really possible for an artist to release one of the worst songs in the world and one of the best songs in the world on the same album – in fact, back-to-back as the first two tracks? Well, if you're a New York folkie, undeniably talented yet sadly precious, clever yet too-clever-by-half, sensitive and senseless, it's possible. In short, if you're Suzanne Vega, it's possible.

A few years after the original, this song was transformed into a thing of beauty by a pair of British DJs, who put the vocals over the infamous Soul II Soul beat, with atmospheric synth noises and what sounds like a guitar, taking her adlib at the end and making it into a chorus. In short, this masterful reinvention stripped the song of everything – well, almost everything – that was annoying, and gave it what it so direly needed: songcraft.

The original is as pretentious as it is ridiculous. Completely a capella, solo without even an echo for accompaniment, with awkward silences between verses, it's a nursery-rhyme melody over which Suzanne Vega does nothing more than describe buying a coffe in a café. There's no poetry, no symbolism, no hidden meanings. Songs don't have to rhyme, but in the absense of anything else that would indicate it took her longer than two minutes and nine seconds to compose the song, a rhyme or two would be nice. It really does give the impression of someone pressing record onto a cassette player and singing whatever thoughts come into their heads.

Yet most people, upon doing that, wouldn't release it on A&M as the opening track of an album, put it out as a single (!) and make a video for it (just as low-tech and tossed-off). “Must try harder”, read countless high school report cards. I concur. If this is all you need to do to get released on a major record label...

I mean, obviously this isn't the song that got her signed (it's her second album). And she's quite capable of genius, nowhere more evident than on Solitude Standing itself, after this atrocity fades out and the next song begins. But 'quirkiness' is all well and good, but having no idea which of the material that you produce is worthy and which is just pretentious silliness is a big problem. One that all the coffee and newspapers in the world can't solve.


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Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Breakfast in America" by Supertramp (1979)



All these years late, it's nothing more than 'ho-hum' or even 'blah', but at one time Supertramp were kind of a polarising, love-'em-or-hate-'em kind of thing. They were revolutionary, or they were fatuous and overblown, depending on who you ask.

To me, all these years later: they're often twee, frequently disposable but sometimes have a lovely way with a falsetto vocal and a pretty little melody, floating kilometres above the song itself, in an atmospheric but somehow amorphous way. And, oh yeah, they did this.

Breakfast in America, the album, was super-huge in 1979, when prog bands were supposed to be on the run from punk bands but continued, in reality, to fill the stadiums and make the money punks could only dream of. It had four singles, one of which, “The Logical Song”, is frequently derided as terrible, but I happen to like.

It turns out that, according to Wikipedia, tensions between the two main people in the band started to heat up during this album. Rick Davies, it seems, didn't like the title song and didn't want it on the album. Roger Hodgson, his co-writer, seemed to like it enough to keep it on the album and name the album after it.

Yay Rick Davies, boo Roger Hodgson. One of those cases where skilled musicians completely forget about taste in an urge to make something 'whimsical' (hello, Paul McCartney), this song has a rum-pum-pum feel to it like some kind of, I don't know, polka or something. It makes 'ba da da da' into a vocal melody, and it presents us with lyrics about the singer's girlfriend, and about kippers.

If all this gibberish was a 'novelty song', I'd probably have to leave it alone. But the fact is that this lapse in judgement is still quite popular on classic rock stations, which sometimes exhibit a seeming lack of taste that stuns me.


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Saturday, May 22, 2010

"How am I Supposed to Live Without You" by Michael Bolton (1989)



The song itself barely matters, really: I'd like to nominate the entire recorded works of Michael Bolton for inclusion here. There's not really much I can say here: it's just an aesthetic I find almost physically repulsive. I have given a few of his songs a listen here on YouTube to make sure that this is the singlularly most offensive one, and I can assure you that choosing the worst Michael Bolton song is largely a futile exercise: you could just pull names from a hat. It's guaranteed to be bad.

One important caveat: for what he did to “(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay” and “When a Man Loves a Woman”, he ought to be imprisoned. However, this blog is dedicated to the worst songs, and those are, of course, wonderful songs, merely decimated by the overblown foghorn that is Michael Bolton's voice.

Michael Bolton, to me, represents the worst of plastic mainstream musical insincerity. He grunts, he groans. He winces and squeezes his hands tight in all of his videos. He sounds like the act of singing is causing him physical pain. And yet the net result is entirely lacking in credibility: he has the emotional commitment of Oscar the Grouch singing, “I Love Trash”, and nmo amount of overblown histrionics can change that. And certainly no amount of overblown histrionics can make music this clinical and artificial even apprach 'soul', no matter how much Bolton would like to think otherwise.

Ultimately, this song – presently being foisted upon us in the form of an ad for some prepackaged food – takes the cake merely because not only is it a bad performance, but it's also a bad song. One can excuse the horrible electric piano as 'a product of the times' (though nothing excuses that lead guitar towards the end) and concentrate instead on the vocal performance. Listen, and note the following: note that involuntary wince, that edge of panic you feel when the song approaches its chorus. A chorus is usually meant to be the peak of a song's excitement, but here it's where Bolton gets his screamiest. What amazes me is how vocals this unpleasant on top of a song this cliché were actually marketed as 'romantic' (to say nothing of 'soulful'). I'm trying to imagine using this screeching as accompaniment to any romantic activity whatsoever, and failing miserably.

Which brings to mind the word 'flaccid' – a perfect word to describe this song, which despite all of its huff-and-puff is as empty as a deflated balloon.


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Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Mrs Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter" by Herman's Hermits (1965)



The record industry was every bit as clueless back then as they are today. When the Beatles broke into the consciousness of America in 1964, the fact of their being English was seen as a big thing. On the one hand, it is true that certain darlings of the British music industry (Robbie Williams, George Michael) sell nil in the States, but on the other hand finding Brits on the Billboard chart is so unexceptional today that a good amount of Americans would probably be quite unable to identify, say, Coldplay or Leona Lewis as in any way 'foreign'. Plus, it's not like the UK is especially exotic. Let's see someone from Burundi or East Timor atop the Billboard charts: that's impressive.

Anyway, back to the 60s. The novelty of the Beatles' success was such that American record companies started scrambling for any Brisith product, and the so-called 'British Invasion' was born. To the extent that this marketing manoeuvre gave us the Rolling Stones, the Who, Dusty Springfield and the Kinks, it was a welcome development. But anyone with a discernably English accent was lumped in as the 'next Beatles' and marketed en masse to the Americans. Which led to stuff like this.

As a continuation of British music-hall and skiffle trends, Herman's Hermits might not have been that bad. It's perhaps not their fault that they were promoted to the rock market. But agony strikes listeners of oldies stations across the globe today when stuff like this is stuck in with the greats of the mid-sixties.

I mean, just listen to it. It's got a bleeding ukelele, for God's sake. Okay, Wikipedia tells me it's a muted guitar, and that's what the guy in this mimed YouTube clip seems to be doing. But it sounds like a ukelele, and behind those intolerably flat and affected vocals, it might as well be a four-year-old with elastic bands stretched over a tissue box.

Herman's Hermits, who made a few non-excruciating songs, recorded two affronts to public decency: this, and “I'm Henry VIII, I am”. The latter is a much stupider song than this one, but it's knowlingly stupid, a clever-clever pastiche that fits comfortably into the 'novelty' category. This ridiculous piece of nonsense ultimately got the nod for inclusion here because it takes itself seriously: it's a 'sad' song about a girl who has fallen out of love with the protagonist, who like a mealworm writhes up to her mother to complain about it. This video performance shows just how unmusical and lifeless Peter Noone truly was: a man with no evident musical talent who lucked aboard the Beatles' ship and rode it for a few years.

Of course, fate being what it is, “Henry VIII” and “Mrs. Brown” were both Billboard number-ones on the USA. This particular fiasco spent three weeks at the peak before being surpassed by the Beatles' magnificent, forward-looking “Ticket to Ride”. A changing of the guard if ever one existed.


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