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You, You, You Oughta Know (These Blogs)

Awards are wonderful.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a few wordpress award nominations this year.

While I’ve always appreciated the recognition, and I’ve hopefully thanked the nominator each time, that’s where my participation has ended.

I’ve been hesitant about the idea of singling out a few ‘best friends’ as I fear it can end up being more exclusive than intended.  I’m also reluctant to not pay it forward, to not show any gratitude to the bloggers I enjoy reading as, to quote Sloan’s terrific tune from Navy Blues, I Wanna Thank You.

So I have a vision!

In 2015, I plan on name-dropping/hyper-linking a bunch of the blogs I frequent within my posts.

Ideally, in a contextually appropriate way.  For example, if I’m reviewing Deep Purple, I’ll say check out ‘this blog’ for a more comprehensive look at the record.  Except ‘this’ will be a person’s name and I also intend on adding a moderately aggressive sales pitch on why you should link to his/her/their site(s) posthaste.

Some days there may be no links, some days there may be seven.

Chances are, many of you already read each others writing anyways so I can’t promise anyone will be inundated with hordes of new readers!

But I can promise that I appreciate you fine people taking the time to read/comment on/acknowledge my journey through the 1001 albums; please accept this name-drop/hyper-link scheme as a token of my thanks.

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This week I’m, much like the outstanding Ozma song, In Search of 1988.  The obligatory Top 5 is up next, enjoy!

Television – Marquee Moon (1977)

[Album 388/1001]Marquee_moon_album_cover

Title tracks tend to go one of two ways:

1.  The title track becomes more famous than its parent album, at least I Imagine that’s What’s Going On* with titles like American Pie.

2. “That?” (in the way Michael Bluth asks, “her?” on Arrested Development).  Solid records with less significant title tracks, such as Goo and 1984.  In these cases, the album names are likely more thematic, as opposed to highlighting the individual songs.

I’m not sure if Marquee Moon has an overriding theme (from what I’ve read, the lyricist isn’t even sure of much of its meaning).  That being said, what a choice for a title track.

Not many bands would put a sprawling 10+ minute track mid-set but the title track centerpiece here is also the album’s pièce de résistance.

I can find little to no fault with the rest of the record, except perhaps that it’s one of those Born to Run-esque instances where the album tracks lie somewhat in the shadow of the album’s namesake.

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When speaking with Hackskeptic about The Clash the other day, I was reminded of the notion of the spacetime continuum.

Television seems to have inspired a generation of guitar rock.  Does that make Marquee Moon one of those critical moments in the fabric of the universe?

If this album had never been made, would the trajectory of popular music have been different?

To at least put a cap on some hyperbole, I’ll concede I’ve managed to function (somewhat) for 3+ decades without being aware of this album’s existence.

But after listening, it’s evident that many of my favourite artists were much less oblivious of this album.

Without Marquee Moon, would R.E.M. have become R.E.M.?  Would Sonic Youth exist and if not, would there have been a Nirvana?

Fortunately, we’ll never have to know but I’m curious.

Imagine some time-traveler interfered with the spacetime continuum and Marquee Moon was prevented from being released in 1977.  What groups might find themselves erased from existence in the ‘Influenced by Television’ chart below?**

Influenced by Television

Television

 

*I recognize the Marvin Gaye example isn’t as strong.  I’ll sacrifice strength for wordplay any day!

**I enjoy that for years, pundits have claimed Television (the medium) is a bad influence.  Television (the band) seems to be anything but.

Steely Dan – Aja (1977)

[Album 387/1001]Aja_album_cover

One advantage of back to school? Witnessing the “A-ha” moment.

The sight of light-bulbs illuminating, the moment where students noticeably get it.

For the remainder of this post, I’ve decided to ignore Steely Dan’s pronunciation of the word Aja.  Instead, I’ll conveniently pretend the ‘j’ is pronounced like an ‘h’ as it is in Spanish, making Aja sound like “A-ha.”  As in the aforementioned “A-ha” moment.  Or “A-ha” like my favourite Norwegian pop trio.

They say the third time’s the charm.  In my case with Steely Dan, it’s true.*

After non-scathing nor praising reviews of Can’t Buy a Thrill and Pretzel Logic, my Steely Dan A-ha moment happened this week, as luck would have it, with Aja.

Though to give credit where it’s due, it’s partially due to the 2014 Canadian Men’s Olympic Hockey Team, a team I once named Canada’s finest ever.

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I had prepared a 2-tome comparative analysis (just kidding, but not really) of that gold medal team & Steely Dan.  Out of respect for your time here, I’ve boiled it down to the thesis: Steely Dan is that not-so-exciting-yet-talented-&-effective hockey team.

From what I gather, the band by this stage was really just two core guys accompanied by la crème de la crème of studio players.

There are no look-what-I-can-do solos.  The two band members (Donald Fagen & Walter Becker) may have been flashier in their solo efforts but here, their parts contributed nicely to the whole.

Much like Alice in Chains, Steely Dan has their own instantly identifiable vocal harmony.  Not to mention an equally distinct overall band ‘sound,’ regardless of who appears on the recordings.

Was it exciting to listen to Aja?  It was exciting for me to figure out that additional excitement wouldn’t make the record any less effective.

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*Wondering what an Aja/A-ha face looks like?  In the continuing Cupface tradition, here’s a recreation of my Steely Dan light-bulb moment. :D

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The Clash – The Clash (1977)

[Album 386/1001]220px-The_Clash_UK

March Breaks are wonderful for hundreds of reasons.

Reason #386: I had the privilege of spending a lot of time enjoying music with my 11-month-old Daughter.

The 2 main musical selections in our listening/singing/choreography rotation this week?  The fairly traditional pairing of The Clash’s The Clash and The Wheels on the Bus.

There was a wonderful worlds-colliding moment during Clash City Rockers when the lads sang the lyric, “Shut your mouth.”

Upon hearing “shut,” my daughter started repeatedly doing the “open and shut” choreography for the doors on the titular bus.  We paused The Clash’s debut album shortly thereafter to belt out her favourite public transit tune, a Capella.

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It’s neat watching an 11-month-old in action.

They can do a some basic things really well & they appear to have a bottomless supply of energy.  Of equal importance, anyone who spends time with them feels energized too & feels inspired to play along.  Observing their communication development, there are some hints of brilliance and you can tell they are full of potential.

But as much fun as this first year has been, it will be really interesting to see what happens over the next few years.

I have a feeling, they’ll use this positive first year experience to build towards something really special, outdoing their previous accomplishments in the process.  Maybe someday create some timeless moments, or even an iconic double LP.

Wait, we’re still talking about 11-month-olds, right?

Elvis Costello – My Aim is True (1977)

[Album 385/1001]

The story of Target’s failed expansion to Canada will be taught in business classes for years to come.

Up until 2013, Canadians flocked south of the border, their sights set on the retailer with the Bulls-eye logo.

Why?  From what I’d been told, “Target, it’s like Walmart – but awesome!”

So when Canadians learned Target was buying the leasehold agreements to 100+ Zellers stores (like Walmart – but smaller & more expensive), expectations were high.

Alas, those expectations were never realized.

The typical Canadian Target shopper review?  “It’s like Zellers – but bigger.”

The staffing did not seem to be an issue but everything else from inventory management, ineffective promotions, confusing co-branding (with premium-priced Starbucks), and the online experience all seemed to miss the mark.

Perhaps fittingly, even Target’s liquidation sales were miles from a direct hit: Canadian customers didn’t really agree that ‘10% off’ qualified as an everything-must-go discount.

Whatever Target was aiming for in Canada, they misfired badly.

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His aim may be true, but did Elvis Costello have better accuracy?220px-MyAim_isTrue

Like Target’s foray into Canada, I’d argue he didn’t have any direct bulls-eyes.

Fortunately for Costello, the similarities end there.

With the 13 tunes on my version of My Aim is True, he’s on the dartboard every time, typically inside the inner ring.

None of the songs necessarily merit a 10 out of 10 individually, but each of the tracks should be classified in the 7-9 range.

String a baker’s dozen of songs like that together, it makes for a nice package.

Interestingly, it feels like the order of the songs could be shuffled around and the overall impact would be unchanged.  In that sense, this is an album that feels like a compilation.  That doesn’t make it any better or worse, more just surprising as I’m typically an ardent believer in meticulously designed running orders.

Costello’s on the 1001 list a bunch of times, sometimes as a performer (I liked This Year’s Model) and other times as a producer (I liked Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash even more).  I’d place My Aim is True somewhere between the two, a solid A- record nestled between a B and an A.

All marks that would certainly be more ‘fridge material’ than those found on Target’s Canadian report card.

Finally, when it comes to wooing Canadians, he’s had much better luck than Target in that department as well: I know Mr. Costello better as Mr. Diana Krall.

The Uptown Funk 70/30 Principle

The Uptown Funk 70/30 Principle
How to Write an Accessible & Durable Hit Song
By Geoff Stephen

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Dad/DJ of The Year?

Uptown Funk is inescapable these days.  I couldn’t be more pleased.

For the past week or two, my daughter has been requesting Uptown Funk when we’re in the car.

Although not having an on-demand copy of the song might seem problematic, by quickly scanning the radio, I’ve been able to fulfill her request (without exaggeration) about 70% of the time.

The song’s ubiquity has made me appear somewhat magical, at least every 7 out of 10 tries!

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After these Uptown Funk-finding successes (I’ll put my DJ/Dad of the year commemorative coffee mug aside for the moment), I started to wonder about the song’s widespread & enduring popularity.

What is it about Uptown Funk?  Sure, it’s upbeat & catchy but the same could be said for countless pop hits.

Of equal importance, why am I not sick of it yet?  Most smash hits reach over-saturation pretty quickly but for me, this one somehow hasn’t been enhanced or diminished through repeated (and emphasis on repeated) exposure.

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People will talk about an elusive secret formula for writing a hit song.  Usually, I’d imagine this sort of talk is in jest.

But today, I jest you not – I think Mark Ronson & friends have actually stumbled upon that Holiest of Holy Grails in the music business: The Hit Song Formula.

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What Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars realized

For a song to capture a compulsive-channel-changing radio listener’s attention, it needs to sound familiar.  At least familiar enough to prevent them from hitting the next preset button.

However, if it starts to sound too familiar, that’s a problem too.

Too original?  Won’t get noticed.  Too derivative?  Will get noticed…by the lawyers representing the original artists & their source material.

So a mix of old & new then.

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The Uptown Funk 70/30 Principle

Although equal parts old & new might seem reasonable, the 50/50 split would inevitably sound like a compromise, it would sound middle-of-the-road and thus, sound forgettable.

Instead, a 70/30 split provides the optimal balance in 2 ways:

1. By giving the dial-switchers the instant pleasure (something familiar) that they seek, you’ve got their attention.

2. Once hooked, new ideas can be added to the existing framework.  These original ideas are what will eventually boost the song’s longevity.

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How They Did It

Sagely, the songwriters here borrowed from multiple sources.

If the lineage of the tune can’t be traced directly, the risk of litigation can be mitigated.  Admittedly, I’m not too well versed in copyright law, but I don’t recall a case where a plaintiff successfully sued somebody for inspiring 15% of a song.

The individual Uptown Funk percentages have yet to be formally disclosed (and I’ve intentionally avoided any sort of research into the actual Uptown Funk-credited songwriters), but I suspect the 70/30 mix went something like this:

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20% Jimmy Ray, Are You Jimmy Ray?
Don’t believe me, just read on.  Tubthumping notwithstanding, was there a bigger earworm in the late 90s?  Kudos to Bruno & co. here for their restraint in pursuit of a hit.  Getting in people’s heads is important but driving them crazy (à la Are You Jimmy Ray?) is less desirable in the long-term.

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20% Robbie Williams, Rock DJ
A large enough percentage to provide sufficient swagger but small enough to keep (appealing) confidence from deteriorating into (unappealing) conceited territory.  Audience participation through easily memorized call-backs never hurts either.

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15% The Commodores, Brick House
Perhaps the most immediate of the source material, carefully employed to set the tone without sliding into pastiche.

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15% Ray Parker Jr., Ghostbusters
Any more would be cheesy, anything less, to quote a 90s Charles Barkley commercial, would be uncivilized.

Which leaves 30% for purely original material, including a pair of song-making vocal hooks (“Don’t believe me just watch” and the “Uptown Funk You Up” breakdown).

Easy peasy!

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The Next Uptown Funk?

Your guess is as good as mine but I’d imagine if you deconstruct the eventual hit tune, The 70/30 Uptown Funk Principle will apply.

Now, there will always be exceptions to the rule, such as Outkast’s impressively (still) unique Hey Ya!, and the theory’s still a work in process of course.

Chances are, somebody’s already had a similar idea, perhaps my essay is unintentionally 70% not-so-original too?

In any event, the more I think about this (shoddily-researched/purely-speculative) how-to-write-a-hit-song-process, the more I think this 70/30 ratio works!

Top 5 (Non-David Bowie) Albums of 1977

Because it just wouldn’t be a level playing field if I included them.

Though it wasn’t exactly an off-year for these 5 artists either:

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5. Elvis Costello, My Aim is True
Review #385 to follow.

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4. Meatloaf, Bat Out of Hell
Fewer students appreciate my ‘2 out of 3 ain’t bad’ reduced fraction example each year. But I don’t intend on ceasing and desisting with the Meatloaf math quote anytime soon!

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3. Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel
Is there a more pleasant acoustic intro than Solsbury Hill‘s?

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2. Billy Joel, The Stranger
When I took a break from blogging in Movember, I spent much of the month listening to a pair of unrelated artists: weezer and Billy Joel.  His (surprisingly inexpensive) records haven’t drifted very far from the turntable since.

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1. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
A few years ago, a friend didn’t speak to me for weeks after I claimed Rumours only had one truly great song (The Chain).  I was meaning it as praise for the entire album, showing how impressed I was with the synergy of this collection of very good tunes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Fortunately, there’s a happy ending, I’ve since been un-shunned.

To avoid similar Dwight Schrute-esque shunning in the future, when discussing this 1977 gem, I’ll stick to my intended take-away message: Rumours is a great record.

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1977 is stop #3 on my Top 5 Duplicate Digit Years journey – Elvis Costello and Steely Dan reviews are coming up this week, enjoy!

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