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Popless Week 46: Confession Of Sins

After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.

One of the rules governing filmmakers who make Dogme 95 projects is that at the end of the production, they have to write out a statement confessing all the times they broke the rules. So in the spirit of those ascetic Europeans, I shall now do likewise with Popless. First a reminder of those rules, as laid out back in Popless Week 0:

"From January 1st through October 31st, I'm not going to buy any new music from record stores, online retailers, or iTunes, and I'm not going to listen to any promo CDs that come in the mail (including those I received and filed away unopened months ago). I'm not watching any new music videos or late-night TV performances by bands with new product to tout, and I'm not going to do more than a cursory scan of any reviews in any on-line or print publications. I've cancelled all my music blog RSS feeds, as well as my membership in a cherished music-nerd e-mail discussion group."

How well did I hold to that plan? Allow me to enumerate:

1. "From January 1st through October 31st…"

This is probably my most egregious sin. Shortly after I returned from Toronto in mid-September, I realized that I was on pace to finish up listening to my catalog a lot sooner than I thought I'd be. Knowing I'd need some time to get a handle on 2008 music, I started acquiring records and loading them on my non-Popless-dedicated iPod. On October 1, I started listening to those records in my car. Which means Operation Shutdown lasted a month less than I'd planned. Mea culpa.

2. "I'm not going to buy any new music from record stores, on-line retailers, or iTunes."

This is the rule I violated most often, for reasons I think are excusable. I tried to stick exclusively with the music on my hard drive and on the CDs I was just getting around to loading on my hard drive, but as the project went along, I realized that some key artists were missing, either because I'd lost their CDs, or DRM issues prevented me from transferring their files where they needed to be transferred, or because I only had their music on vinyl or cassette. When I deemed it necessary, I used my eMusic subscription or the DRM-free wonderland of Amazon.com to fill in some holes. I wasn't consistent about it—some artists I plumb forgot about—but for the most part, I only re-bought music I'd already owned. With one major exception. Prior to the week I wrote about Guns N' Roses, I'd never actually owned any GNR, on vinyl, cassette, CD, MP3 or 8-Track. My college roommates listened to GNR a lot, and some of my high school friends did too, so I did know all the albums fairly well. But I hadn't owned any, and since I knew I'd be hammered for that, I wussed out and bought the whole discography. Mea maxima culpa.

3. "I'm not going to listen to any promo CDs that come in the mail (including those I received and filed away unopened months ago)."

This actually wasn't so hard, since I convinced nearly all my usual suppliers to cut me off. Still, as late as a month ago, I was still receiving CDs from some publicists, along with follow-up e-mails asking if I was going to write about them. Which raised a question of professional courtesy: Was I required to respond to business inquiries posed by people who weren't paying enough attention to realize I was taking the year off?

4. "I'm not watching any new music videos or late-night TV performances by bands with new product to tout."

At the start of the year, I held fast to this, routinely zipping past any musical guests on Saturday Night Live or The Colbert Report or the like. By mid-year, I allowed myself to watch the first minute of a performance if it was by a band I really liked, like My Morning Jacket. Then when The Hold Steady appeared on Letterman, I broke down and watched their whole song, because it was killing me that I couldn't hear the album. From that point on, I was more lax. I didn't have that many opportunities to ignore live music on TV once the summer rolled around, but ever since SNL came back, I've been watching the shows from start to finish—including musical guests.

5. "I've cancelled all my music blog RSS feeds, as well as my membership in a cherished music-nerd e-mail discussion group."

For the most part, this is true. I peeked back in on that discussion group recently because my wife—still a subscriber—told me they were talking about what 2008 music I should check out. But while I stopped reading all of the music blogs I'd been reading prior to the start of 2008, I did pick up a couple of new ones, either because they were kind enough to write something about this project or because I stumbled across them and was taken with the quality of their MP3 postings. One of my recent favorites has been Armagideon Time, which combines three of my loves: politics, old comics, and old rock 'n' roll. The site's founder Andrew Weiss has just decided to cut back on the music posting, but once 2008 ends, I'll have about eight months of old Armagideon Time MP3 downloads to sort through.

6. "I'm not going to do more than a cursory scan of any reviews in any online or print publications."

Well, yes and no. If I came across a review of one of my favorite bands, I'd read it, because I was curious. But if I'd never heard of the band before—or if I hadn't seen their name pop up in a lot of different places—I didn't really pay attention. As a result, when The A.V. Club music writers started swapping their year-end Top 10 lists recently, I felt the way a lot of AVC readers feel each year when we reveal our master-list: Who are these bands? Why haven't I heard of them? They can't be any good if I haven't heard of them.

Over the past month though, I've been doing my best to catch up, and I've found that a lot of those bands I'd never heard of are good—while others that my colleagues love have eluded me completely. Which is which? I'll put off the question for now. I'm going to take next Monday off so I can keep boning up on 2008, then when Popless resumes, I'm going to say a few words about the conclusions I've come to over the course of this past year, along with a few words about what it's been like to re-immerse after a long time wandering in the desert.


Pieces Of The Puzzle


Years Of Operation 1976-2005

Fits Between Split Enz and The Jam

Personal Correspondence I've learned a lot about separating form from content, lyrics from music, and artists' public personae from the art they create as I've tussled with XTC over the years. From borrowing a copy of Black Sea from a friend back in the mid-'80s to picking through the likes of Oranges And Lemons and Nonsuch, looking for the handful of songs that didn't make me want to bash my head in with a brick, I've spent over 20 years as an all-too-common kind of XTC fan: one who frequently can't stand XTC. Strictly on a musical level, they remain one of my favorite bands. Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding have good pop-rock voices—one spiteful, one sweet—and XTC's jagged guitars and bouncy rhythms may be the prime example of how to reconcile punk aggression with hippie beauty. But a significant number of XTC's songs come bundled with anti-authoritarian messages that Partridge and Moulding couch in condescending terms, as though they were singing to schoolchildren. I understand that there's an element of irony to XTC's presentation. Still, I once read an interview with Partridge in which he confessed he didn't like pop music much, and only wrote pop songs because he had a talent for it, and when I listen to XTC, I often hear contempt dripping from every line. And yet I love XTC—I really do—because of the way the drums keep kicking no matter how complex the beat, and because the guitars both chime and cut, and because Partridge and Moulding have written some of the most invigorating, catchy pop music of the 20th century alongside some of the purest and most beautiful love songs. I stick with XTC because Partridge is right. He is awfully good at his job.

Enduring presence? I was pleased when XTC started popping up as an influence for multiple British bands a few years back. (Dogs Die In Hot Cars, The Futureheads, Field Music, and Maxïmo Park, among others.) Even in derivative form, I can't get enough of that signature XTC sound, in which every strum seems to pull against every beat, as though the whole composition were stitched together by dissent.

The Yardbirds

Years Of Operation 1962-68

Fits Between The Rolling Stones and The Who

Personal Correspondence My fondest memory of The Yardbirds actually isn't my own; it belongs to Peter Bagge's comic book character Buddy Bradley, in the 1985 Neat Stuff story "Rock 'N' Roll Refugee." My earliest encounters with The Yardbirds were limited to a few songs on a compilation of British Invasion favorites, a few songs on Eric Clapton's Crossroads box set, and the band's memorable appearance in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up. Otherwise, I avoided The Yardbirds for the most part, because the songs I was familiar with either sounded too frothy or too trad. It wasn't until I picked up the Ultimate! anthology a few years back that the whole Yardbirds experience started to make sense, once I heard how radical those pop songs were in the context of the blues songs—and vice versa. Even at their simplest and catchiest, The Yardbirds planted mind-bombs under bridges, making pop songs into happenings. And when they ditched pop and just rode the roots train, they were the loudest, fastest, roughest band on the circuit—whether Clapton was on guitar, or Jeff Beck, or Jimmy Page, or who-have-you. I wish now that I'd been like Buddy Bradley, who in "Rock 'N' Roll Refugee" skips dinner with his family in order to walk downtown to a used record store and buy The Yardbirds' Greatest Hits for three bucks. After his parents bawl him out, Buddy storms up to his room and slaps the album on his turntable, grumbling, "Stupid fuckin' family!" In the last panel though, with his headphones on and the LP jacket resting on his legs, Buddy starts to smile and says, "Hey, this a pretty good record!" I believe I lived through that exact same moment about a dozen times in adolescence, just with different bands. It would've been nice to have had The Yardbirds in the rotation.

Enduring presence? Having devoured Ultimate!, I'm now willing to argue that The Yardbirds should be regularly mentioned in the litany of landmark British Invasion bands. (Actually, I think they are pretty firmly in the pantheon. But they should be higher up the list, on the same shelf as The Beatles, The Stones, The Who and The Kinks.)



Years Of Operation 1968-present (off and on)

Fits Between Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Crosby, Stills & Nash

Personal Correspondence Yesmemories: Sitting in the back seat of my father's car, watching him and my brother simultaneously gesture with their hands in time to Steve Howe's "ching-ching" guitar noise towards the end of "Yours Is No Disgrace." Riding in the passenger seat of my brother's car while driving back and forth to our father's house for the holidays, singing the a capella version of "Leave It" together as though it were Handel's Messiah. Laughing at the goofy lyrics to the songs on Drama, even though I was digging the music more than my alt-rock-addled self could admit. Being secretly thrilled when I read that Mark Eitzel of American Music Club considered Yes an influence. Listening to my brother describe the Yes concerts he'd been to, and thinking it was cool that the band used to play Bugs Bunny cartoons on a big screen before their set. Laying on my bed at age 18, and again at age 28, and again at age 38, letting Close To The Edge wash over me, then floating away on the ripples of Chris Squire's bass.

Enduring presence? When it comes to prog, I prefer the bands who either knew how to work a good groove when it comes along, like Pink Floyd, or the ones who offer good value for money, like Yes. My problem with a lot of prog is that the complex multi-part compositions often contain stretches that aren't especially well-composed, and devolve into flat-out wankery. Yes succumbs to that temptation as well, but the best Yes songs from the early '70s—and I'd say 80% of their songs from 1970-74 fall into the good-to-great category—have intricate structures in which each individual passage is carefully crafted and entertaining. The attention Yes paid to melody and dynamics made them formidable. Wait patiently through the virtuoso stuff and you're rewarded with a triumphant return to an honestly memorable chorus. Listen enough times and even that virtuoso stuff starts to reveal flashes of wit and veins of emotion every bit as transporting as Jon Anderson's choirboy voice.

Yo La Tengo

Years Of Operation 1984-present

Fits Between The Velvet Underground and The Feelies

Personal Correspondence I've been both surprised and delighted by the way Yo La Tengo has endured so long, and become a staple of American popular culture in their own small way. I don't want to be one of those "I was there from the beginning" dudes, but I just about was. I bought a copy of the President Yo La Tengo EP after Robert Christgau praised it in one of his Consumer Guides, and then I went back and bought Ride The Tiger and New Wave Hot Dogs, so I was already Yo La Tengo literate before the wonderful acoustic covers album Fakebook came out in 1990 and made me a fan for life. A few months later, I had a disastrous interview with Ira Kaplan in advance of a gig in Athens. (I tried to ask open-ended questions like a good little journalism student, but he got frustrated with my vagueness and hung up on me.) Nevertheless, I went to the show—total attendance: about 9 people—and marveled at Kaplan, his wife Georgia Hubley, and their new bassist James McNew as they raged through the songs that would become the transitional album May I Sing With Me. At the time Yo La Tengo seemed like a band for connoisseurs only, and likely to disappear quickly. But then they followed up May I Sing With Me with the stunning Painful, where Kaplan's previous dabbling in drone became a full-on obsession. Suddenly Yo La Tengo leapt from being a critics' darling (that only a few critics were actually touting) to being a staple of Top 10 lists and rockophile iPods. My main quibble with the band post-Painful (or post-I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, more accurately) is that they've become so comfortable with what Yo La Tengo is and what their fans expect that they've become a little predictable. Still, I love the way Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew have written songs about listening to music and about playing music, about their favorite movie stars and about their favorite movie critics; and how they've referenced cultural ephemera ranging from The Simpsons to Thomas Pynchon novels. From Fakebook on, Yo La Tengo has excelled at finding something that they love and presenting it with their own low-key, backyard charm. They're the sum of their fannish devotions. If you want to know them personally, just check out their record collection.

Enduring presence? And yet, summing up Yo La Tengo a few years ago, I wrote: "New Jersey husband-and-wife rock critics Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley began Yo La Tengo in the midst of Velvets/Feelies-inspired college rock era, and stayed deep in the likable-but-slight jangle-pop vein for its first few years. Lately the band has alternated buzzy pop noise with wispily hypnotic ballads, offbeat covers, and a set of lyrical obsessions that rely on pointedly weird pop culture references and startlingly personal revelations. And yet it's hard to think of too many acts that are 'Yo La Tengo-esque;' and though Yo La Tengo has covered nearly everybody, hardly anybody ever covers Yo La Tengo. As great as the band's songs often are, they're so bound up in the vocal and guitar performances that it's hard to imagine anyone else tackling them. In fact, indie-rock in general has left little legacy, largely because the genre relies on individuals turning unique cases of rockophilia into sometimes-obscure personal statements. By making tiny models of the pop past they most want to live in, indie musicians haven't moved rock forward in any appreciable way." I don't necessarily retract any of that, but I think I was unnecessarily taking my frustration with a genre and an ethos out on a band that exemplified what I once loved about it. Yo La Tengo will always be square with me. I'll let Ira Kaplan hang up on me anytime.

The Young Rascals

Years Of Operation 1964-72

Fits Between The Four Seasons and Booker T & The M.G.'s

Personal Correspondence In one of the rare cases of my high school self venturing off-canon, I bought a dusty copy of The Rascals' Time Peace at a garage sale, because I'd always had a soft spot for "Groovin'" and "Good Lovin'." The Rascals have never been disreputable—they're reasonably respected as a down-and-dirty garage-rock band with an R&B; fringe, and admired for demonstrating a level of craft comparable to their fellow New Yorkers The Lovin' Spoonful—but despite being one of the premier singles acts of the '60s, they're hardly lionized like Creedence Clearwater Revival or Sly & The Family Stone. That's probably because so many Rascals songs sound so frivolous and transitory, like a cheap thrill that no one feels bad about exactly, but no one really wants to talk about in public either. And yet, the first time I put Time Peace on my turntable, and heard the strangely structured single "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," I felt like I'd found something the rock history books had largely missed. (I later learned that The Rascals hadn't been missed exactly, just taken for granted.) They sang odd songs, pretty songs, and ridiculously exciting songs, all with a kind of inviting spirit that made them sound equally at home in elegant concert halls and roadside dives. The Rascals' genius was in the way they made everyone feel like they'd discovered something that only they could properly appreciate.

Enduring presence? I called The Rascals one of the premier singles acts of the '60s, but damned if their albums aren't pretty great too. I especially recommend Collections, a hard-edged R&B; record, and Groovin', which finds bandleaders Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, and Gene Cornish looking to push pop into the psychedelic era while simultaneously loading it up with some of the sophisticated elements that had charmed their parents decades earlier. Groovin' isn't some ungainly concept album; it's just a compact collection of catchy, rhythmic Top 40 fare, crafted with heart and skill. It's the very essence of "pop."

The Zombies

Years Of Operation 1963-67 (essentially)

Fits Between The Searchers and The Guess Who

Personal Correspondence The Zombies' essential 1967 LP Odessey & Oracle didn't become a hit until almost two years after its release, spurred by the belated release of "Time Of The Season" as a single. The album then entered the rock pantheon roughly two decades later, when a wave of psych-pop revivalists started claiming it as their own Sgt. Pepper's. For me, hearing Odessey & Oracle was a revelation, because I was amazed by how that record delivers one unpredictable but impeccably crafted pop song after another, and explores a variety of styles from baroque to sultry without ever sounding like anything other than The Zombies. It was just as thrilling to pick up The Zombies' The Singles A's & B's shortly afterward and learn Odessey & Oracle was no fluke. I was already familiar with the British Invasion standards "Tell Her No" and "She's Not There," but songs like "She's Coming Home" and "Whenever You're Ready" showed that Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent had a consistent vision for the band's sound right from the start. The Zombies' recorded legacy is slight, but it maintains such a high standard. They're like the 3-star bistro chefs of '60s British pop.

Enduring presence? Following The Zombies, Blunstone had a brief-but-successful solo career as a twee folkie, while Argent had chart-topping stint as a progressive hard rocker. The Zombies have reunited a few times, but the two ex-partners have fallen out of synch musically, and they now bear little relation to the band they once were. You know, "brief candles" and all that.

ZZ Top

Years Of Operation 1969-present

Fits Between Cream and The James Gang

Personal Correspondence I'm not sure I'll ever be able to think about ZZ Top without recalling the "Legs" video, which I watched over and over as a 13-year-old, studying the lingerie-tryout sequence especially intensely. Somehow, I don't think this association would bother the long-bearded boys (or the long Beard boy) of ZZ Top, given that adolescent double-entendres and adult raunch have always been a part of their shtick. In a way, the lecherous winks helped set ZZ Top apart from the teeming horde of blues-oriented boogie bands that roared out of scattered American bar scenes as the '60s faded into the '70s. It also helped that ZZ Top kept the same look and the same three-piece format throughout their run, and infused their boogie with pop, hard rock and Tex-Mex elements, all buffed to a dust-resistant sheen. ZZ Top have always seemed to know more than other bands of their ilk—from the best pirate radio stations to where to get laid—and the vision of the trio in their MTV heyday, helping young people to get their groove on, remains downright powerful. Oh, and Billy Gibbons is one of the best guitarists The United States Of America has ever produced. So there's that, too.

Enduring presence? Who are ZZ Top, really? The inscrutable Texans who crank out machine-tooled blues-rock, or the puckish virtuosos who produce desert-futurist party records? If you knocked on their door in the middle of the night, would they pack you into their Eliminator car and show you a good time? Or would they gaze out at you from behind their hairy faces and wait for you to utter a password in a language you've never learned?



Stray Tracks

From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….

Yatsura, "Kozee Heart"

This now-defunct Scottish combo—known as Urusei Yatsura everywhere except the U.S. and Japan—borrowed liberally from the slapdash punk irony of Pavement, so much so that this song opens with an admission that it was "inspired by Stephen Malkmus." I admired the cheek when I heard the band's singles comp Pulpo back in 1997, but even more than that, I appreciated their upbeat counter to Pavement's mid-'90s dalliance with mid-tempo grinders. Yatsura's singles were by no means classics, but they had snap, and were informed by a wealth of indie rock influences: The Fall, The Wedding Present, and Sonic Youth, among others. If nothing else, Yatsura's enthusiasm was all the more refreshing because it came from the UK, a rock scene in which the greatest sin is to admit that you listen to other bands.

Yaz, "Nobody's Diary"

In my experience, Yaz were appreciated most by high school theater geeks—gay and straight alike—who dug the romantic melodrama of Vince Clarke's techno-ballads, as well as the fact that Alison Moyet could actually sing. Clarke continued this mix of the synthetic and the dramatic with Erasure, while Moyet applied her pipes to more traditional pop, with varying degrees of success. But there's still something striking about Yaz's contrast of chilly electronics and the warm blood spilled from broken hearts.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Tick"

Of all the derivative bands that stormed out of New York in the early '00s, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have impressed me the most with how much they've been able to do with what initially seemed like not much. Their distorted, bluesy, how-loud-can-just-a-guitar-and-drums-be? aesthetic is familiar from countless indie-rockers, but YYY have an elevating element in lead singer Karen O, whose bratty taunts and worldly boho posturing melts together Chrissie Hynde, Lydia Lunch, and The Waitresses' Patty Donahue (or is it Romeo Void's Debora Iyall?). The band's records are assaultive but self-aware, and even vulnerable at times. I really started to understand the band when I saw them on MOJO HD's London Live, and experienced Karen O's pixie-ish stage presence and Cheshire grin. I had the band pegged as faux-toughs, but live they struck me as far lighter and looser. I confess: I fell in love a little.

Young Marble Giants, "Wurlitzer Jukebox"

So many indie bands have followed the YMG blueprint that the first time I heard Colossal Youth, I had a tough time discerning what was special about it. Eventually I started to find my way into the tight corners of songs like this spacey salute to music fetishes, but I'm still not entirely sure whether Colossal Youth is a great piece of music in and of itself, or if it's only remarkable for being so forward-thinking for 1980.

Young MC, "Bust A Move"

Here's a question that may or may not be pertinent: Would you classify this song as hip-hop or dance music? It's not like the genres are mutually exclusive; still, hardcore hip-hop so sharply defined itself as not pop in the wake of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer that party songs like "Bust A Move" now seem like a crass bastardization of an artform. Still pretty damned delightful though.

Yvonne Elliman, "If I Can't Have You"

Like our president-elect, Elliman is both a native of Hawaii and an historic first: She's the first artist of Asian ancestry to land a #1 single on Billboard's pop charts. This song—the #1 in question—was a gift to her from The Bee Gees, who chose not to release their own version until decades later. It's associated with disco, but "If I Can't Have You" is more like early-'50s pop with a swinging backbeat.

Zero 7 (w/Jose Gonzalez), "Futures"

Zero 7's debut album Simple Things gave those who loved Air's seminal chillout LP Moon Safari a place to turn once Air left behind warm romantic Euro-soul for chilly techno-art. Dressed up with muted brass hangings, supple bass, brittle electric piano, and the coolly fragile vocals of Tina Dico, Simple Things cast a spell not unlike hearing a particularly evocative piece of movie music—perhaps from some existential urban romance, full of heartbreak and renewal. The band has continued to deliver distilled shots of sophisticated relaxation—for jetsetters, or for those who just fantasize about being one.

Zero 7's third album The Garden captured the sound of youth turned old before its time, and featured a star turn by José González, the Swedish folkie whose cult hit "Crosses" received the Zero 7 treatment on The Garden, stretched out to almost three times its original length, with González's delicate finger-picking replaced by bongos, handclaps, vibrating synths, disco strings, and a background choir. The expansion wasn't necessarily an improvement, and certainly not in comparison to "Futures," which lets González's foggy voice play more simply across Zero 7's supple electronics, like a remix of some late '70s Crosby, Stills & Nash record.

The Zincs, "Rich Libertines"

One of the reasons I started this project was because I felt alienated from my critical peers for either ignoring or not fully appreciating good, non-gimmicky indie-rock bands like The Zincs, so it's wholly appropriate that they're helping me close out the year. The Zincs have a way of spinning a mood so precise and aching that it makes sadness seem sublimely beautiful. Even their most uptempo songs contain cores of raw emotion, pulsing with urgency and need. Bandleader James Elkington builds each track around a steady rhythm and an unfussy arrangement, allowing his little guitar flourishes and symphonic traces to stand out, like tiny jewels on a thick gold necklace. Elkington expanded on the dark, sweet jangle of 2005's under-heralded Dimmer with 2007's Black Pompadour, which offers a seamless stitching-together of Pulp, The Sea And Cake, and Steely Dan. A typical Zincs song builds from a foundation of humming organ, lightly buzzing and strumming guitars, and baroque imagery delivered in Elkington's deep, romantic croon. On Black Pompadour, The Zincs work that formula into steady-on toe-tappers like "Rich Libertines," which gives off the bright shimmer of clean-burning energy.

Zumpano, "Some Sun"

I thank The Trouser Press Guide To '90s Rock for helping me find Zumpano well before The New Pornographers sent the hipster-American community scrambling through the "Z" section of used CD racks. Zumpano's 1996 album Goin' Through Changes is one of the decade's best, taking a generation's borderline kitschy appropriation for Bacharach & David and rendering it straighter and more modern. The music is open-hearted but hardly naïve. Honestly, it's hard to believe that the Zumpano catalog is currently out of print—listening to it again this week, it was like the ideal soundtrack for this new era of hope.

The Zutons, "Valerie"

I've got major problems with The Zutons, whose debut album Who Killed… sounded like a hollow knock-off of The Coral (only more practiced), and whose sophomore LP Tired Of Hanging Around was an unappealing hunk of overbearing guitar-pop, goosed with faux-gospel, music-hall romps and bombastic homages to movie soundtracks. But damned if that second record didn't also contain one of the best songs of the '00s: "Valerie," a broadly theatrical, fun romantic anthem that's like the long-awaited (and now illegal) marriage of Bruce Springsteen and Elton John. Why does God put great songs in the hands of lousy bands? That's an eschatological mystery I'd like to see resolved.

Zwan, "Declarations Of Faith"

The Smashing Pumpkins made their reputation (and their millions) by fusing the overpowering ambition of prog-rock, the insular melancholy of post-punk, and the guitar fetishism of both heavy metal and shoegazer dreampop. At his best, guitarist/visionary Billy Corgan turned sour moods and self-aggrandizement into shiny little pleasures; at his worst, he made the Pumpkins sound like whiny soreheads. Corgan tried to start fresh with Zwan, whose debut album Mary Star Of The Sea didn't exactly set the world afire, perhaps because Corgan immediately undercut the "band" concept by not letting Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney or Slint/Tortoise guitarist/bassist David Pajo do anything. Nevertheless, I really liked Mary, and especially this song, which nips from the classic-rock lyric pool, insisting that "maybe we were born to run / forever" and "maybe we were born to come / together." Like the album as a whole, "Declarations Of Faith" is a big, melodic rock song with great guitar sounds, and that's enough to forgive Corgan's continued indulgence of shameless mythopoetics.

2 Live Crew, "Banned In The U.S.A."

Has there ever been a more ridiculous musician to become a cause célèbre for free speech advocates than Luther Campbell? And yet isn't that what makes this song in particular so fascinating, two decades after its release? I bought the cassingle for "Banned In The U.S.A." in 1990 purely as an act of solidarity—and because I was curious to hear how Springsteen would translate in a hip-hop context—but I still listen to it now for a reminder of the war on indecency during the first Bush administration, and the strange bedfellows it made. Also, I have to admit that around the third or fourth time the hook comes around, I start to get goosebumps.


The 5 Royales, "Help Me, Somebody"

The 21st Century, "Shadow Of A Memory"

One thing I'm going to miss about the process of going through my library each week is stumbling across great old soul songs like these two, both from compilations that I've bought over the years and then consigned to the untamed fray of my iPod (where their tracks only come up when the shuffle falls right). The 5 Royales track—from the Vee-Jay box set—is striking for the way it changes tempo and tone, emphasizing the lovelorn desperation in the lyrics. As for The 21st Century song—from the Funk/Soul Revival anthology—it's a breezy bit of Saturday afternoon pop, in which the sorrow of the lyrics take a backseat to a feeling of reassurance.

The 5th Dimension, "Love's Lines, Angles And Rhymes"

I find The 5th Dimension absolutely fascinating for a lot of reasons: Because they were one of the few "sunshine pop" acts to crack the upper reaches of the Billboard charts; because they were such a sturdy vehicle for the songs of Laura Nyro; because they had more than a little Broadway in their sound; and because they were responsible for some of the most impeccably arranged singles of the late '60s and early '70s. Listening to this song is like taking a neighborhood stroll, lost in thought, yet letting all the external stimuli shape the mood of the day.

10cc, "The Dean And I"

Much like Blue Öyster Cult, 10cc were a band known by the public at large for a few hooky chart-toppers ("I'm Not In Love," "The Things We Do For Love"), but touted by critics for years before their breakthrough for their cracked sense of humor. I had no idea until I did a little reading on 10cc a few years back their early albums were held in such high regard. This song is a fairly typical of early 10cc, riffing on multiple genres at once—retro-rockabilly, beach party, Thin Lizzy, rock opera—while telling a story that's entertaining in and of itself.

12 Rods, "The Stupidest Boy"

I heard 12 Rods for the first time when a copy of their big mainstream push Separation Anxieties showed up in my mailbox, and because I had no prior experience with the band, I found the record thrilling, and didn't know until years later that hardcore 12 Rods fans considered Separation Anxieties to be a betrayal. I later heard the earlier 12 Rods material—of which this song is an example—and it's definitely artier and rowdier than the songs on Separation Anxieties, though the breathless pop rush and creamy melodies really aren't that different. Separation Anxieties just pulled to the surface the soft rock hooks and '70s FM sheen that were already there. Anyway, the failure of that album more or less killed the band, which is a shame. Based on their '90s output, they had a shot at greatness.

The 13th Floor Elevators, "You're Gonna Miss Me"

Here's further proof of why neo-garage, no matter how fun it may be, rarely approaches the quality of the genuine article. No matter how meticulous the copy, it's impossible to recreate the authentic regional flavor and genuinely untamed heart of this band of drug-addled, mentally deranged Texas rockers. Throughout it's two-and-a-half-minute running time, "You're Gonna Miss Me" can barely stick to one style. Is it folk-rock? Party music? Screaming blues? Shitkicker dance music? It is a thing wholly its own: an artifact of a time and place and state of mind.

60ft Dolls, "Stay"

1990s, "You're Supposed To Be My Friend"

60ft Dolls' debut album The Big 3 was a heartbeat-skipping jolt of '70s-style storm-punk, albeit cleaner-sounding than the original punks ever dared to be. The one-two punch of anthems that open the album—the ironic consumer manifesto "Happy Shopper" and the raging love song "Stay"—established the Dolls' backbeat-happy ethos from the jump, and the band's emphasis on simple, verse-chorus-bridge-solo song structures proved pleasingly familiar. The Big 3 would've sounded at home in any year after 1976. Unfortunately, 60ft Dolls had a paucity of memorable melodies, and were practically devoid of style, but their echoing, fist-pumping pop singles sounded great blasting out of a car window. Fast-forward 10 years, and the spirit of "turn that shit up" survives in bands like Glasgow's 1990s. Though more in the recent sleaze-rock tradition of Louis XIV and Morningwood than the neo-post-punk of fellow countrymen Franz Ferdinand, 1990s similarly favors sparkly riffs and chant-y vocals, chock full of strut and coo. (At times bandleader John McKeown seems to be parodying power-pop cockiness, taking the piss out of every drunken rock God who every ripped off The Stooges and the Stones.) A little of 1990s' debut album Cookies goes a long way, bouncy, witty anthems like "You're Supposed to Be My Friend" kick hard, whether they're meant to be ironic or not.

The 101'ers, "Motor Boys Motor"

I previewed Popless one year ago with an anecdote about listening to The 101'ers' Elgin Avenue Breakdown, and here the band is again at the end of the project. Back then, I wrote about my disillusionment with modern music and the process writing about same, and about how I wanted to spend a year listening to the songs that made me fall in love with rock 'n' roll in the first place. I have done that, but the curse of Popless has been that at the end of each week, I have to shelve the bands I've just written about and move on to the next batch. I still haven't been able just to pop on The 101'ers for pleasure at a moment's notice, because there's always something else I need to be listening to. But now that my collection has been streamlined—if only a little—I expect to move forward with my favorite songs and albums much closer at hand. I'm excited for '09.

808 State, "Pacific 707"

Remember that Greyhound Bus I mentioned last week, where I listened to Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger on a loop while traveling between Georgia and Tennessee? I also spent a long stretch of one trip listening to 808 State's album Utd. State 90, which, honestly, was not the perfect music for a long trip down America's backroads. I popped it on, immediately fell asleep, stayed zonked through about three plays of the record, and woke up with a headache. I like 808 State, but every time I see Utd. State 90's pink cover, my head starts to throb a little.

The 1900s, "Whole Of The Law"

The 1900s' debut EP Plume Delivery is full of evocative song-snippets like "Heart Props" and "Flight Of The Monowings," as well as multi-part psychedelic folk-pop songs like "Bring The Good Boys Home" and "Whole Of The Law," in which the Chicago collective finds the connecting point between Stereolab, Buckingham-Nicks, and high-lonesome bluegrass. I was disappointed with the 1900s' subsequent album, but I cling to this song as proof of what the band might become.

+/-, "Far Into The Fields"

In the early going, +/- songs sounded like Versus with the guitars turned down and the percussion more intricate—which made sense given that +/- was essentially a side project for Versus' second guitarist James Baluyut and drummer Patrick Ramos. But over time the band began to nod more to The Feelies and Unrest in their preoccupation with tight rhythmic patterns and dreamy vocals; and to the theatricality of Cursive and Arcade Fire in songs that swagger and stomp like a drunken actor. Balyut and Ramos have their weaknesses, as songwriters and performers. To borrow the parlance of Project Runway, their albums are like fashion shows with "not enough looks," as too many songs follow the same path, quietly pinging back-and-forth before erupting. The band's rock elements are too clean and hard, and the pop elements sprinkle down like fake snow. But when a +/- song works, the band sounds like modernist shamans, performing elaborate incantations to call down a rain of static.

!!!, "Me And Giuliani Down By The School Yard (A True Story)"

For a time, when iTunes arranged its alphabet so that symbols came before letters, this song was the first one in my library, and if I clicked the wrong button on my iPod—which happened roughly once a day—I'd hear the opening notes of this song, mutter a curse under my breath, then scramble to get back to where I meant to go. But I don't hold my incompetence against !!!, anymore than I fault them for their un-Google-able name. I do however knock the bi-coastal dance-punk ensemble for so far failing to come up with a song as sublime as this 2003 single. The band's subsequent LP Louden Up Now was a total whiff—too short, with a good chunk of its running time taken up by doodling interludes and a reprise of "Me And Giuliani"—though the follow-up Myth Takes was more rounded, taking !!!'s tautly funky jams down multiple generic paths. Yet the major stumbling blocks of !!!'s shtick still pertain. The band's lyrics are mostly half-assed slogans, and its method of building up songs through hours of jamming means that they all tend to fall into the same basic "everybody disco!" pattern. But on Myth Takes, those patterns are more complex and full, and capable of creating subtle moods, as on the single "Heart Of Hearts," which rumbles to life like the city streets at dawn. What "Me And Giuliani" proved—and what Myth Takes confirmed—is that !!! is capable of capturing the communal warmth of musicians playing together, adding one piece at a time until everything sounds all chummy.


Regrettably unremarked upon: You Am I, The Youngbloods, Ziggy Marley and The 6ths

Also listened to: Yacht, The Yachts, Yakuza, Yann Tiersen, The Yarrows, Year Long Disaster, The Year Of, Yeasayer, Yellowcard, Yellowsecond, Yerba Buena & Lennie, Yes No Maybe, Yesterday's New Quintet, Yndi Halda, Yonder Mountain String Band, The Yoshida Brothers, Yoshinori Sunahara, You Say Party I Say Die, Young Antiques, Young Galaxy, Young Grey Ruins, Young Heart Attack, Young Widows, Your Black Star, Yukari Fresh, Yves Montand, Zachary Richard, Zamfir, Zap Mama, Zapp & Roger, Zard, Zeca Pagodinho, Ziggydale Zigfried, The Zodiac Cosmic Sounds, Zookeeper, Zoot Sims, ZOX, Zuco 103, 1AM, 4 Non Blondes, The 5 Royales, 5 Spiritual Tones, The's, 5th Garden, 7 Year Bitch, 14 Iced Bears, 18 Visions, 20 Miles, The 21st Century, 31 Knots, 36 Crazyfists, 44 Long, 60 Watt Kid, 180 Gs, 311 and 999


In two weeks: The Grand Finally, Part One.