010. Joy Division “Transmission”
This, if we must choose one, is as good as any other for the place where rock & roll died. (Long live rock & roll.) Joy Division is mostly remembered today for Ian Curtis’s suicide, the subsequent formation of New Order, and sounding more or less exactly like Interpol. But, of course, there was much more. Joy Division was the greatest-ever postpunk band, if postpunk can be thought of as a genre instead of a time period. Resolutely bleak in both tone and outlook, their sound was both chilling and agonizingly human (compare to, say, Nico’s 70s output, which sounds like ice and granite given voice). Peter Hook’s throbbing bass, Bernard Sumner’s doomy, atmospheric guitar and Stephen Morris’s fragmented, martial drum lines supported Curtis’s wavering baritone as he painted grim, despairing psychescapes with his lyrics — while they were undoubtedly a rock band, nothing of rock & roll’s original swerve and joie de vivre was left in their music; they were rigorously somber, expressionless, and austere. If rock & roll is basically about sex, then Joy Division was basically about death. And then, just to push the contradiction as far as it can go, this song contains the explosive chant “dance dance dance dance dance to the radio,” while a piano stutters and breaks down behind them. If you try, you can hear the vague beginnings of the morose dance-pop that acts like Depeche Mode and New Order (gee) would blanket the 80s with, but I prefer to think of it as the Beach Boys’ “Dance, Dance Dance” from the other side of the grave.
009. Blondie “Heart of Glass”
(Debbie Harry/Chris Stein)
Perhaps it’s ironic that the highest-ranking disco song on this list began as a goof by New York’s premier hipster-pop band and CBGB’s mainstay; but then Blondie set very high standards for themselves regardless of genre, and what was originally mockingly titled The Disco Song managed to capture and maintain the coked-out decadence of the Studio 51 era. In a decade of pop starlets who were famous as much for their hot looks as for their variable singing (Linda Ronstadt, Olivia Newton-John, Carly Simon), Debbie Harry was an oddity: not only the most beautiful woman in music, but a fiercely intelligent, considered vocalist who made up for her rather thin pipes with an expressionistic, dynamic singing style that has filtered down to become the basic pop mannerism of today. One of the most idiosyncratic of all pop starlets, she could (and did) sing bratty punk, cheerfully sinister hard rock, sighing girl-group, and bizarre low-culture riffs of the sort that They Might Be Giants would later make their stock-in-trade, but here she channels Donna Summer and uses a the silvery top of her register to float above the quirkiest disco beat to ever go platinum; Chris Stein and Jimmy Destri create odd, slightly disturbing sounds in the far background while Clem Burke does his best Keith-Moon-scared-straight impression. And Debbie gets away with saying “pain in the ass” in a #1 hit single.
008. Randy Newman “Louisiana 1927”
Good Old Boys, 1974
The strings play what sounds like a selection from the works of Stephen C. Foster, the first great American songwriter (1826-1864), or maybe it’s derived from the opening lines of Show Boat’s “Old Man River,” which goes “here we all work on the Mississippi. . . .” But then the piano enters, hesitantly as always with Newman, and it’s the 1970s. But he’s singing about the past, about the South, about the myths and histories of a people and a nation, as he does, honestly and sarcastically (both at once), “what has happened down here is the wind have changed.” Cut to summer 2005, to today, to a world of associations and tragedy that Newman could never have predicted but which now are indelibly part of the world of the song. Change the president’s name, change the epithet “cracker” to another one (which Newman fearlessly spent the first track on Good Old Boys dissecting), and suddenly it’s headlines, it’s Kanye West saying the president doesn’t care about black people, it’s everything we instinctively understood the aftermath of Katrina to mean even though we didn’t necessarily say it out loud, that we would rather not believe that race equals poverty and that “they’re trying to wash us away” doesn’t just mean the preventable failure of civil engineering but the haste with which we all changed the channel, Middle America just as much as FEMA. In this context, Stephen Foster and Jerome Kern, whose songs were blackface entertainment for the masses, look positively enlightened — and Randy Newman looks like the prophet Jeremiah.
007. The Clash “Complete Control”
(Mick Jones/Joe Strummer)
Funny thing about punk, it was never pure. Hardly an original observation, perhaps, but today the Sex Pistols just sound like hard rock with a North London sneer and the Clash were three-chords-and-the-truth for the space of what, two singles? Joe Strummer’s shout “you’re my guitar hero!” as Mick Jones solos (the horror!) was a pair of fingers to the ideological “loud-fast-simple” purists who were already threatening to bury a revolution underneath the weight of dogma and schism. Which is fitting, because the whole song is a pair of fingers to their record label (who just reissued it along with every other single in a hundred-dollar box; guess who won?), who had released “Remote Control” without consulting the band. But unlike most such pissing matches on record, it’s also a proper song — fuck that, it’s a miniature epic. Already the most American of the British punk bands, they went arena-sized with this thing, all soaring chords and galloping drums. You could even say that it laid the foundation for the kind of widescreen emoting that U2, and by extension every rock band on the charts today, would later take up. But the Clash were still pretty damn punk, Strummer’s vocals a tangle of glottals and moans, and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s rough, thick production made sure it would never be mistaken for a Boston song. Which is as it should be; punk might never be pure, but it’s not punk without the rough edges.
006. John Cale “Paris 1919”
Paris 1919, 1973
Rigorously trained in modern composition and theory, Cale was one of the rising young stars of minimalism in the early 60s until he was sidetracked by the cacophonous rock & roll of the Velvet Underground (you’ll notice that there was a sharp decline in unlistenable squalling epics after he left the band). He went on to produce Nico, the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, and Patti Smith, becoming one of the primary figures of underground rock. Meanwhile, he continued to dabble with experimental compositions with Terry Riley. And then he put out this album, without which huge swaths of (for example) the Divine Comedy, Belle & Sebastian, and the Decemberists would not exist. It’s literate indie-pop at its finest, and I do mean literate; listening to it is like half-overhearing a conversation between Henry James, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, and Dylan Thomas at an exclusive West End dinner party with a very good chamber orchestra sawing away in the background. But a chamber orchestra also versed in pop, like a grown-up version of the Zombies or the Left Banke. Cale’s reedy Welsh-accented tenor is perfectly suited to the cagey, understated ghost story of the title song (which only gets the nod above all the others because it was the one I heard first), which makes me think, perhaps inevitably, of The Turn of the Screw, but also of George Bernard Shaw, Gilbert & Sullivan, and even Mary Poppins. Cale, of course, never did anything remotely similar again.
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