Now is the time when critics grace us with their selections of the year's best music. Heck, we'll be telling you what ruled in 2002 ourselves next week (a sample: Wilco, the Streets, Arizona's Michelle Branch, Johnny Cash). The older I get, however, the more I question the exercise. Are "Top 10" lists really worth a damn?
They're popular, anyway. Yet in most of these year-end wrap-ups, the emphasis is so heavily on "importance," my bet is that critics won't be playing half the stuff they list in a year or two. I fall into this category myself. In 1999, for example, I voted for Nine Inch Nails' double-album The Fragile as the year's best record. I considered it a sonic masterwork. But I admit it: I haven't listened to The Fragile in almost three years. A colleague of mine says that puts my vote in serious question.
I disagree. I still think it was the best album that came out that year. But maybe there ought to be another kind of Top 10 list -- one concerned less with significance than with how much you want to play the stuff over and over, no matter how mindless it is.
Here, I'll go first: I'm a KISS fan, dammit. Crank up "Hotter Than Hell" and its big-ass riffs, give me the nearest air guitar and get out of my way. But will you ever catch me defending "Hotter Than Hell" as a sublime composition or telling you it belongs in the avant-garde pile? Fuck no.
In that spirit, let's take a brief tour of the crappers shaking my rump:
"Amazing Grace," Yars Revenge: It's that "Amazing Grace" done as a wise-ass rocker. Who knew salvation could come in 69 seconds of awkward noise? If you didn't know the lyrics, you'd think all the snarling was an ode to sniffing glue. These local wretches may already be saved, but Yars Revenge, faithful to the punk tradition, sound like they could use a hell of a lot more churchin' in this rendition of a spiritual classic. The song appears on AZPunk.comp, Volume I, a 30-song, 73-minute love letter to the Valley hard-core scene by the three enthusiasts who run AZPunk.com, a Web site that features online radio, MP3 downloads, message boards and a scrolling calendar of upcoming shows. The album is big, it's dumb, it's fun and it'll piss off your parents.
"Do That," Baby, featuring P. Diddy: The most fun hip-hop song on the radio right now features three guys who can't rap. Two of them, "Baby" Williams and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, are flashy moguls who grew rich off the talent of Juvenile and the late Notorious B.I.G., respectively. The third, Mannie Fresh, is a producer whose machine-gun drum style and bawdiness thrust "Back That Azz Up" and "Bling Bling" into public consciousness. Together, they team to create the shallowest rap anthem in recent memory. It may contribute to the slow death of the genre's artistry, but you'll be too busy getting your pimp on to care. Baby and P. Diddy take amateur turns rhyming about their diamonds, their cars, their women and everything else you and I don't have, and they use every cliché in the process (didn't "twerk that thang" die in, like, 1999?). Fresh and fellow producer Jazze Pha supply a funky whip-crack beat and island chimes that promote ass-wiggling, and Fresh's drunken-hippo delivery on the hook ("C'mon, pretty lady, won't you do that dance?") only furthers the ridiculousness.
"Asajere," Las Ketchup: The way I figure it, you've achieved some sort of immortality if wedding DJs put you into heavy rotation. I remember one family wedding I attended a few years back when at least four different mixes of Ricky Martin's "La Copa de la Vida" ignited the dance floor, sending Italian ladies in their 50s into a leaping tizzy. I suspect those same ladies may soon be slinking to this catchy oddball, known commonly as "The Ketchup Song," and that it, too, will benefit from its own Junior Vazquez remix. I have no idea what these three Spanish sisters are saying in the lyrics, but their nasal harmonies, and the music's Andalusian backbone, are charming. While predictions the song would launch a mass dance craze have proved untrue, I'll take this one over "Macarena."
"What She Said," Haggis, from There Is a Light That Never Goes Out: I can't stand Morrissey, the brooding Smiths singer and celibate pop star. I like my confessional music much less self-serious ("Meat Is Murder," inspiration to vegans everywhere, is an all-time pisser) and much more ballsy (see: Weezer). I'll admit, however, that the Smiths' music had a certain kitschiness to it -- Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr were awash in lonely guy misery and enamored of the new breed of electronic instruments, so much so that the band's hook-heavy catalogue stands as a monument to the big-hair '80s. And as this tribute reveals, the Smiths also translate well into Italian comedy. I like this record for the same reason I like Beavis and Butt-head: It makes me laugh. While the well-meaning bands here are sincere in their worship, they indulge in high-pitched, androgynous Morrissey impersonations, often rendered in broken English, in equal doses by women and men (the women do a better job). A few don't even bother with the translation from Italian to English. Here's the weirdest part: Through industry contacts, Tempe power-pop band Haggis found its way onto the record, one of only two American bands to appear. Haggis covers the up-tempo "What She Said" with a rock 'n' roll swagger missing from most of the other covers. It also just sings the damn song with none of the phony-baloney emoting.
"Girls in the U.S.A.," Nick Carter: Carter, the youngest Backstreet Boy and the first to try a solo gig, likes "California Girls," evidently. He also likes "Pour Some Sugar on Me." His debut album, Now or Never, contains this splicing of the two. As popular as the Backstreet Boys were in the late '90s, they never showed this kind of nerve. Carter, living out his front-man fantasies, has a blast with his larceny. Over a Viking chant and thundering Def Leppard drum track, Carter swims against the "California Girls" stream and praises girls from city to city: "I got a little thing in the Denver hills/A real fine mama with the sex appeal," Carter yowls. As a final change-up, he invites dance-hall star Mr. Vegas to slap on a reggae touch.
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Classic rock block: Classic rock is dying. Luckily, it's at least been preserved as driving music, the perfect soundtrack for the highway on a stale day. On a recent taco run, I heard Phoenix station KSLX-FM (100.7 on the dial) play, in succession, Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls," the Guess Who's "American Woman" and Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak." How cool is that? A smile spread on my face as the riffs exploded from the speakers, and my engine raced as I thought about the era the songs represented (to the bus and SUV I almost hit -- um, my bad). All three bands featured singers who, when they took the microphone, conquered audiences with larger-than-life personas. The Guess Who singer Burton Cummings' voice resembled Robert Plant's but in its inflection made Cummings seem more deranged. Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy was a black Irishman, a powerhouse soul genesis that makes his sexuality that much steamier. And Freddie Mercury, well, he was just Freddie, the operatic icon. Lead singers today are content mostly to whine. They use the publicity line "It's all about the music" to justify their blandness. They don't perform, though, which is why I'll still take Mercury's call for big asses to get on their bikes and ride.
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