This week, as a bookend to last week's movie-argument question: What album have you spent the most time arguing about?
That's an easy one: Any album by Steely Dan. I adore them. My wife makes a face whenever she hears Donald Fagen's voice. At least I understand where she's coming from. I used to be a Dan doubter too. Then, thanks to the insistence of a friend, I gave a whole album a chance—the great Pretzel Logic—and got it. The fussy perfectionism, the mean romantic lyrics about burnouts and dead-enders, the instrumental alacrity, and the emotional messiness all balanced like elements on a Calder mobile. I've never looked back, but out of the courtesy of those yet to make the breakthrough, I mostly keep the Dan confined to my headphones, and bump them loudly on solo car trips. There's something to be said for private passions.
I could spend hours arguing with philistines about the greatness of Bloc Party's future classic A Weekend In The City, but let me drop an even bigger bombshell (and chuck my music-crit-cred card out the window at the same time): I think Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is just pretty good. Over the years, every time a slobbering tribute is written or another 25-disc set (featuring the "Brian just farted" mix of "God Only Knows") comes out, I've given it another shot at entering my heart and soul. And pretty much every time, I like it, but I don't love it. It sounds dated to me, and (gasp) kinda samey. I worked at a record store for a long time, and I used to drive my coworkers crazy by saying that it was the most overrated album of all time. I didn't necessarily believe that, but it was fun. But here's one I've had to convince people to listen to, and a record I listen to 10 times more frequently than Pet Sounds: Best Of Bee Gees. Recorded at roughly the same time as Pet Sounds (the mid-to-late '60s), the first three Bee Gees albums (whose songs make up the bulk of Best Of) have nothing to do with the Travolta-powered disco that made them super-duper famous. Instead, these songs are gorgeous, soulful precursors to slowcore, all pretty melody and melancholy. Here's "Holiday." Feel it.
I'm actually kind of disappointed/relieved that Josh stepped in front of the commenter bus by declaring that he isn't totally in love with Pet Sounds, which is probably the one album I've wasted the most time and energy arguing over with my obnoxious audiophile friends, in those conversations that mostly devolve into those bullshit "The Beach Boys were better than The Beatles" arguments that nobody ever wins. (Especially you, Troy.) But since I don't want to be a Mr. Me Too, I'll just say that I've still never figured out why OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was a such a big fucking deal. The year it came out, it seemed like everybody I knew—including people who "didn't like hip-hop," and were mostly into Blevin Blectum and This Heat or whatever—had this in their car for some reason, and were always bumping "Ghetto Musick" or "The Way You Move" every time I went over to their house. I just couldn't fathom why, no matter how many times I had to listen to it (which ended up being almost daily). Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against OutKast. I just happen to think pretty much every album the group released before Speakerboxxx was superior. Personally, I thought splitting those two up, while perhaps logistically necessary, highlighted their worst individual traits: I found Big Boi's side repetitive and almost entirely hookless, while Andre's side ("Hey Ya" aside) was a self-indulgent, sprawling mess of goofy faux-Prince vamping that stopped being amusing about 30 minutes in, with another 45 to go. Plus the chorus of "Roses" has some of the most irritating lyrics I've ever heard in my life outside of a Kid Rock song. ("Roses really smell like poo-poo"? Seriously?) Whatever… "Tomb Of The Boom" is okay, I guess.
Alternative Press currently has a Fall Out Boy cover story, where writer JR Griffin mentions how A.V. Club writer Aaron Burgess was crucified by "commenting hipsters who are usually preoccupied with exalting Rilo Kiley and Deerhoof" for giving last year's Infinity On High a B+. It even quotes Aaron! "I felt a little awkward about posting such a positive review of the thing. I don't regret it, though: I still think those first few songs are a triumph." And he's right. Last year, I converted from FOB naysayer to unironic fan, and I spent a lot of time pleading the record's case—at one point to a couple hundred thousand people on WGN Radio. I love pop with my punk and punk with my pop, and Infinity On High is almost the perfect amalgam. The numerous hooks quickly become earwigs, and there's a cleverness in the songwriting that Wentz haters tend to overlook. I understand their irritation (look at him shirtless in this video, c'mon!), but Infinity On High is a great pop record—though Andy and I are probably the only AVC staffers psyched about the upcoming Folie À Deux.
Although I'm known far and wide for being the least argumentative person who's ever lived, I have somehow found myself arguing about Ride's Tarantula an awful lot over the years. I don't know exactly why I've felt the need to defend it so much; Tarantula is far from the top of my list of favorite albums, and I probably listen to it once a year at most. I think I'm just sick of what I perceive as the knee-jerk, blindly followed consensus among Ride fans—that the band stopped being good after its second album, 1992's Going Blank Again. I'll agree that Ride's first two albums—which, in a nutshell, combine some of the best bits of The Cure and My Bloody Valentine—are the essentials of the group's catalogue. And 1994's Carnival Of Light, made while the group was full of itself and falling apart, was a spotty descent into class-rock necrophilia. (Although "Crown Of Creation" is just amazingly gorgeous, a track that could pass as a love letter from The Stone Roses to CSNY.) Tarantula, Ride's swansong, came out posthumously in 1996, and it was dismissed out of hand by just about everyone at the time. The classic rock of the '70s is cool now, but it wasn't so in vogue among indie-rock and Brit-pop fans back then; Tarantula's blatant nods to Rod Stewart and Lynyrd Skynyrd alienated all the folks with their noses up the ass of Pavement and Suede. Essentially a solo album by singer-guitarist Andy Bell (now the bassist of Oasis), Tarantula is a blob of sadness trapped in amber, a perfect little sketch of world-weary melancholy that listlessly masters the art of the pop confessional. From the opening detonation of "Black Nite Crash" to the beachfront comedown of "Starlight Motel," Tarantula instantly got to me—and then I became really bummed when I discovered I was the only one I knew who liked it. (The critics, of course, savaged it, too.) The older I get and the more crappy, shallow, clueless new indie bands I have to subject myself to, the richer this disc sounds. When I still wander into an occasional discussion about Tarantula, it's always with someone who hasn't listened to the album since it came out back in '96. I always cram this last word into the argument before stomping off like a whiny brat: "Go back and listen to Tarantula again, then we'll talk."
I bitterly contest my colleague Jason Heller's contention that he is the least argumentative person who's ever lived. I am clearly the least argumentative person that ever lived, and am wholly prepared to fly to wherever Mr. Heller lives and engage in a spirited round of fisticuffs to settle the matter. So I rarely get into arguments about records. In the summer of 2003, however, I felt like I was locked in a bitter ongoing argument with the culture at large concerning the merits of 50 Cent's ubiquitous, critically acclaimed, bazillion-selling major-label debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin'. The culture at large insisted that it was gangsta rap's most infectious, undeniable masterpiece since The Chronic. I, on the other hand, found it joyless, pandering, and wildly uneven. I seemed to be the only human in existence immune to the charms of "In Da Club." That song was everywhere in 2003, taunting me endlessly with its mind-boggling ubiquity. It blared from every passing car, could be heard from every club, and dominated ringtones. Yet I found the song dreary and depressingly indicative of Dr. Dre's fading production skills. Dre's early work boasted a density, wit, and sophistication worthy of the Bomb Squad. But by the time "In Da Club" rolled around, he'd embraced a lazy, reductive minimalism. True, the album was almost undeniably better than the dismissive review I gave it in these here pages, but a couple of good songs (my favorite being the brutally funny "Back Down") do not a masterpiece make. To be honest, I liked the confusingly titled, unashamedly poppy soundtrack to Get Rich Or Die Tryin' better than 50's supposed masterpiece.
Gang Of Four's 1979 debut album Entertainment! is unquestionably one of the most definitive post-punk records of its era, but I've always maintained that the band's 1981 follow-up, Solid Gold, is the superior album. (Other British post-punk bands of the time—Wire, The Raincoats, Au Pairs—also drifted to moodier, more introspective territory for their second records, but Gang Of Four's shift was the most jarring.) "Paralyzed," Solid Gold's sparse, plodding opening track—and the perfect background music for any slump-shouldered office drone shuffling his or her way to work in the morning—makes it clear from the get-go that the band had moved past producing upbeat tracks such as Entertainment!'s "Not Great Men," "I Found That Essence Rare," and "At Home He's A Tourist." In fact, the only song on Solid Gold to hit the singles charts was "What We All Want"—as somber a dance track as there is—in which vocalist Jon King asks, "Could I be happy with something else?" (A shame, really, seeing as how other songs, such as "Why Theory?" and "Outside The Trains Don't Run On Time" show that the band had lost none of its ability to make audiences simultaneously move their asses and flex their minds, even if King and company were more sullen about it this time around.) Apparently, Gang Of Four was happier with making the charts more often: Later, more slickly-produced songs such as "To Hell With Poverty!," "I Love A Man In Uniform," and "Is It Love?" were obviously written with the dance floor in mind. Though I would concede that Entertainment! is the more consistent record in terms of quality (Solid Gold's B-side has its share of clunkers, including "The Republic" and the closer "He'd Send In The Army"), the high points of Gang Of Four's sophomore effort eclipse those of its debut—an impressive feat, given Entertainment!'s many moments of shining brilliance, and enough to earn Solid Gold my vote.
I had no idea how many people read The A.V. Club's year-end best-of music lists until I started getting random emails from friends wondering how the hell I could include Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds on my 2006 list. While Timberlake has acquired a small mountain of critical capital since leaving N' Sync, there are still plenty of dudes who will accuse you of being a chest-waxer for thinking "Sexy Back" is a great song. Which is pretty moronic, because FutureSex/LoveSounds is the kind of record any real music fan should, at the very least, respect—it's an accomplished, weird, overly ambitious work that's bursting with (mostly good) ideas, made by one the leading lights of his chosen genre. According to some tastes, the record automatically sucks simply because it's "mainstream pop." That's fine, but not really a compelling argument for why I or anybody else shouldn't love it. Of course, this didn't prevent my friends from giving me tons of shit for calling FutureSex/LoveSounds one of the best records of the year. But it's nothing compared to the tongue-lashing I'd get if they knew how much I love Timberlake's first record, Justified, which is one of the best albums of the decade. (I'll find out soon enough, I guess.)