Now more than ever, pop culture is about the small stuff — an obscure TV show, a few notes in a pop song, a tweet. To celebrate a year of micro moments, every day a new Grantland writer will highlight one specific thing — a Big Little Thing — that we won't soon forget.
Is Juliette Barnes an antihero? We all know that for a modern TV show to earn the “golden age” designation, and therefore garner grandiose comparisons to the most operatic works of Shakespeare and De Palma, it must center on an ethically questionable yet stubbornly sympathetic protagonist. And on Nashville, the conniving counterpart to the Artist Formerly Known as Tami Taylor engages in all sorts of despicable behavior. We’ll do a thorough inventory in a second, but for now let’s just say she has interrogated morals while eliciting cheers. The final result doesn’t compute, though. Nashville is not golden. Barnes has been laudably bad, but she doesn’t get that Walter White/Donald Draper dap. What gives?
In an interview that appeared on Thanksgiving in The Washington Post, Peter Bauer of the fine indie-rock band the Walkmen announced that the group was taking a “pretty extreme hiatus” after its final scheduled concert tonight in Philadelphia. In the parlance of interpersonal band relations, “hiatus” is commonly understood to mean “breakup” — an interpretation Bauer seemed to be actively encouraging by affixing the “pretty extreme” modifier. (Like, if you were to take a “pretty extreme hiatus” from any part of your life, it would probably mean you were dead, right?)
I didn’t write about “Bound 2” when I reviewed Yeezus in June because I didn’t know what to make of it. The album’s closing track is obviously gorgeous and superficially reassuring as a callback to West’s soul-sampling College Dropout aesthetic. But given what comes before that song on Yeezus, I couldn’t buy into the popular theory that “Bound 2” was somehow a “happy” ending to an otherwise diseased, exorcistic record. To me, “Bound 2” was like a warped parody of the “good” Kanye that people prefer to the more authentic “bad” Kanye that presides over the rest of Yeezus. (Only in the context of Yeezus could a line like “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink / after that, give you something to drink” pass for chivalrous.) “This might be what you want from me,” he seemed to be saying, “but can you really believe this bullshit after everything I’ve just shown you?” Watching the overtly cheesy video for “Bound 2” — dig the omnipresent Ellen logo, which only adds to the flimsiness of the presentation — confirmed this theory for me. “Bound 2” isn’t a love song, it’s a garish pantomime of love scoring cheap visuals and stiff “romantic” posturing. It’s a phony denouement to a downbeat story that passive-aggressively rubs the audience’s nose in its fakeness. I know people want to laugh at this video, and they should, because it’s knowingly stupid. But never forget: Nobody exploits the public’s need to feel superior to Kanye West better than Kanye West. He laughs harder, and more bitterly, than all of us.
Welcome to Escape From Pop Purgatory, where we check out new music made by people who are more well-known than 98 percent of the oppressively “cool” artists over whom the media obsesses, and yet are commonly perceived to be years past the point of their cultural relevance. (Pop Purgatory is fame plus time.) Because we’re unwilling to let albums released by established if unfashionable pop-culture institutions come and go without a proper listen, we’re giving these damned souls a shot at redemption — or at least some much-needed publicity outside their respective fan bubbles. In this installment, we look at the new album by the most successful Christian metal band ever, Stryper.
Period of Peak Fame: 1986-88. There has never been a band that gave fewer fucks than Stryper. I understand that this might seem like a counterintuitive statement considering that Stryper famously fired Bibles into its audience while pointing a single finger to the heavens (rather than the satanic devil horns) and imploring fans to shout “777!” (instead of 666). When it comes to the never-ending battle between good and evil, and the unusual application of rock and roll against evil, Stryper did indeed give more fucks than most. But as far as caring about what’s cool, Stryper has always followed in its own perversely hallowed path. Seriously, is there a less desirable music genre than Christian heavy metal? As “Weird” Al has demonstrated, even Amish hip-hop has greater cachet. And yet, for a brief window of time in the mid-to-late ’80s, heavy metal was so popular (and feared) in Dungeons and Dragons–obsessed American culture that there was actually room for a bizarro alternative like Stryper on the radio and MTV.
Welcome to Escape From Pop Purgatory, where we check out new music made by people who are more well-known than 98 percent of the oppressively “cool” artists over whom the media obsesses, and yet are commonly perceived to be years past the point of their cultural relevance. (Pop Purgatory is fame plus time.) Because we’re unwilling to let albums released by established if unfashionable pop culture institutions come and go without a proper listen, we’re giving these damned souls a shot at redemption — or at least some much-needed publicity outside their respective fan bubbles. In this installment, we look at the new album by former Creed singer and popular rock punch line Scott Stapp.
Period of Peak Fame: 1997-2001. Before I dig elbows-deep into Stapp’s latest solo statement, I want to be clear about my intentions. Most rock critics are physically incapable of writing about Creed without immediately devolving into a douche-nozzle dismemberment device. The compulsion to ridicule this band is simply too powerful. (For instance, I have already implicitly called Stapp a douche-nozzle.) But I want to be better than that, and confront the new Stapp album on its own terms, the way my hero Roger Ebert would when confronted with a new Deuce Bigalow film.
Welcome to Escape From Pop Purgatory, where we check out new music made by people who are more well-known than 98 percent of the oppressively “cool” artists over whom the media obsesses, and yet are commonly perceived to be years past the point of their cultural relevance. (Pop Purgatory is fame plus time.) Because we’re unwilling to let albums released by established if unfashionable pop culture institutions come and go without a proper listen, we’re giving these damned souls a shot at redemption — or at least some much-needed publicity outside their respective fan bubbles. In this installment, we look at the new album by the ex–lead singer of the ’90s grunge band Live, Ed Kowalczyk.
Period of Peak Fame: 1994-95. Whenever rock historians discuss the end of grunge, Kurt Cobain’s suicide in ’94 is typically singled out as the turning point. But I’d like to humbly suggest a less heralded event from the same year: the release of Live’s second album, Throwing Copper. Along with Bush, Live was among the earliest adopters of post-Nirvana “bubblegrunge,” which infiltrated rock radio in the mid-’90s and paved the way for the eventual dominance of Creed and Nickelback. Live is the proverbial fleck of chromosomal goo that squirmed out of the primordial muck and eventually evolved into rectal cancer.
Steven Hyden: I’ve been given the impossible task of coming up with a list of essential Lou Reed songs. Here are 10 of them, in chronological order. I’m not arguing that these are Lou’s 10 best songs, and they’re not necessarily my favorite. These are just the first 10 songs that immediately came to mind when I heard that he died on Sunday. They may be essential only to me, but together they tell a story that informs my personal understanding of the man. I realize that some people will argue that this list is inadequate. To those people, I can only quote Reed himself, from an interview he conducted with Lester Bangs about his infamous 1975 album/provocation Metal Machine Music: “If they don’t like it they can shove it.”
Welcome to Escape From Pop Purgatory, where we check out new music made by people who are more well known than 98 percent of the oppressively “cool” artists over whom the media obsesses, and yet are commonly perceived to be years past the point of their cultural relevance. (Pop Purgatory is fame plus time.) Because we’re unwilling to let albums released by established if unfashionable pop culture institutions come and go without a proper listen, we’re giving these damned souls a shot at redemption — or at least some much-needed publicity outside of their respective fan bubbles. In this installment, we look at the new album by nice-guy ’90s alt-rockers Toad the Wet Sprocket.
Period of Peak Fame: 1991-94. Toad the Wet Sprocket wasn’t necessarily huge in the ’90s — in the realm of whimsically monikered pop-rock groups, Toad the Wet Sprocket lagged considerably behind Hootie & the Blowfish and Barenaked Ladies in terms of radio popularity and record sales (though it did rank ahead of Crash Test Dummies). But, as we’ve witnessed time and again in this column, it was absurdly easy to move units 20 years ago — so much so that Toad the Wet Sprocket had not one but two platinum albums, 1991’s Fear and 1994’s Dulcinea. The group essentially subletted from R.E.M. on the pop charts, utilizing the slightly quirky but still immediate pop of the latter's Out of Time period as a blueprint for hits like “All I Want,” “Walk on the Ocean,” and “Fall Down.”
Welcome to Rock Memoir Book Club! This is where I read rock memoirs — because there are suddenly a lot of rock memoirs — and encourage readers to follow along. It’s perfect for people who like to read but are ambivalent about books written by actual writers. So, gather your rock memoir–loving pals and let’s talk it out! In this installment, I look at Donald Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters.
When did the “Hey!” Folk invasion of pop music officially become unbearable? Was it American Idol winner/poor man’s Dave Matthews Phillip Phillips co-opting the sound that launched a thousand Mumfords on his ubiquitous debut single “Home” (which inexplicably pushed his album, The World From the Side of the Moon, to platinum status)? Was it that goddamned Lumineers song “Ho Hey” appearing nonstop in goddamned ads for goddamned Silver Linings Playbook? Was it Avicii's "Wake Me Up"? Was it this disturbingly harmonica-heavy Pitbull track?
No matter the precise moment of this Rubicon-crossing, I think we have finally arrived at the point where the hull of American pop culture can no longer admit any passengers wearing bolo ties and wielding banjos. Study the history of American pop fads and a familiar pattern emerges — let’s say it begins with people deciding that ska music played by Caucasian ex-punkers is not an irritant but in fact a worthwhile musical genre. Suddenly, bands that used to be relegated to Skapocalypse in the middle of Iowa have infiltrated the mainstream, thereby transforming the Skapocalypse into an actual apocalypse. After a few years, people come to their senses, and the only bands that survive are the ones able to transition away from this formerly hip trend and into whatever is the next cool aesthetic.
Herein lies the lesson for today’s folky bandwagon-jumpers: For every No Doubt, there are dozens of Less Than Jakes. Plan accordingly.
If so-called “nerd culture” is now considered “culture-culture” in movies (where comic-book heroes reign) and television (where characters named Sheldon and Daenerys do the same), when does the takeover happen in popular music? Is it possible that it has already happened right under our noses? Consider the long-running prog-metal band Dream Theater, which is basically the musical equivalent of a stupidly complicated 27-part Peter Jackson epic about fire-breathing dwarves and lovably plucky dragons. In late September — the same week most of the rock press was preoccupied by albums released by sexy young things like Kings of Leon and Chvrches — Dream Theater quietly released its new self-titled album (the band’s 12th studio release) and subsequently scored its third consecutive top-10 record. That’s right, Dream freaking Theater is one of the most successful rock albums of the past few weeks. It’s like your weird uncle up and won the town’s mayoral election.
On Tuesday, Pusha T will release his first proper solo album, My Name Is My Name. I write this with a reasonable expectation that the record will actually be out tomorrow, though you can never take release dates for granted when it comes to anything involving Pusha T. Delays have long been the enemy of his discography. (For instance, the first single off My Name, the Future-starring “Pain,” dropped a year ago this week.) I know it’s unlikely that every single semitruck delivering copies of My Name to record stores arrived unexpectedly in a ditch filled with CD-eating zombies, or that all digital copies have been mistakenly deleted and replaced with files from Sting’s The Last Ship. But with Pusha T, it’s not completely impossible.
On Monday, Montana newspaper the Missoulian ran an interview with Titus Andronicus's Patrick Stickles, who divulged the New Jersey punk band's plan to record a rock opera featuring more than 30 songs. He also discussed the plot: Basically, it's going to be about a guy who's descended from a cursed race of ancient superhumans and who falls in love with a mortal human girl. But it's really about Stickles's own manic depression. Titus Andronicus is already playing a song from this opus live, and it's awesome. The album and corresponding film are tentatively slated for a November 2014 release, and you can pre-order the package here.
This all makes me very excited, for three reasons: First, I'm a Titus Andronicus fan. Second, I love rock operas. More accurately, I love the idea of a band deciding to make a rock opera. There's just something so anachronistically epic about it. It's like announcing one's intention to ride a horse from Montana to Texas in order to collect the bounty on a dastardly cattle rustler.
Third, I have a half-baked rock-crit theory that all of the best rock operas are about mental illness.
When you get to be Steven Spielberg at the end of the Academy Awards with the Best Picture envelope in your hand, you don’t waste the public’s time with a long-winded preamble. You stare into the teleprompter and dutifully read off the mass-appeal entertainment product that garnered the most votes. So, here we go:
It’s understandable if you’ve never heard of the Wrens — the New Jersey indie-rock band hasn’t put out a new record since 2003’s The Meadowlands, and nothing in the Wrens’ discography has registered on the mainstream radar. But if you have heard of the Wrens, you probably love them. They’re just that kind of band — even a shred of knowledge requires a level of investigation that essentially denotes positive interest. And if you’re a Wrens fan, you’re also a very patient person: It took seven long years for The Meadowlands to arrive after 1996’s Secaucus became a cult favorite — the period was marked by record-label fights that threatened to cripple the band — but for many it was worth the wait, cinching the Wrens’ status as excellent purveyors of uplifting rock songs that generously dole out raggedly harmonized choruses and climactic guitar crescendos. A year before Arcade Fire released Funeral, the Wrens were synonymous with the sort of emotionally overpowering indie rock that can make closet-size rock clubs feel like Madison Square Garden.
The Meadowlands was acclaimed in its time (Magnet declared it the best album of 2003) and in retrospect (Pitchfork included it among the best records of the ’00s), but the Wrens have faded a bit even in the underground rock press, as the follow-up has wound up taking even longer to come out. If the Wrens have a franchise, it involves eternally delayed albums — the group acknowledges as much on their website, where the tagline is “Keeping folks waiting since 1989!” But with the 10th anniversary of The Meadowlands coming up in September, there are encouraging signs that the Wrens are finally ready to release new music. Guitarist Charles Bissell has been tweeting about the band’s progress on the record, which is now in the mixing stage. Signs appear to be pointing toward a 2014 release.