Sunday, January 31, 2016

This and That

Just a few things I wanted to write today to clarify my last post.

Re/the Candice Night CD, I don't want to come off as too negative against it. Her singing is lovely, as always. If I was a new young mother, or a person with young children looking for an album to listen to with them, I'd be all over this. It's just that I wasn't really expecting an album of lullabies, and that's not really my thing. Her last solo CD, although it was really different from a Blackmore's Night CD, wasn't a specialty niche CD, and I enjoyed it a lot. But I can see this is where Candice's head is at right now, and that's fine.

I also wanted to expand on what I wrote about the dimensions of music. I was being a little simplistic when I said that the two dimensions of music are power and beauty. For me, these are the two main dimensions, but their are also some lesser ones that impact on whether I like a band or a song. The other ones I can think of offhand are cleverness and stylishness.

A good example of stylishness is Deborah Harry and Blondie. Harry's voice is attractive, but I don't consider it beautiful in the same way that Candice Night's is, or as beautiful as the voices of local singers like Tara Eberle of Iridesense or Ramona Spooney of Spoonwalk. Neither is it especially powerful. But Harry has a style that works for her, an attitude and a uniqueness. Consequently, I can't really picture Blondie fronted by any other singer. And because Blondie is also a band with excellent songwriting skills, it makes for a powerful combination.

When I talk about cleverness, I'm mostly talking about lyrics, and a sense of humor. Stephin Merritt and Morrissey are two songwriters who come to mind whom I consider to be very clever. Think about a song like Merritt's "Death Opened a Boutique." With lyrics like "The decor was delectable/The service impeccable" and "There was no reason to exist/If you weren't on the mailing list," the song is one of my favorites on The Future Bible Heroes' Memories of Love album. As for Morrissey, he has a talent for the unexpected, like the image of Joan of Arc's Walkman melting as she's being burnt at the stake in "Bigmouth Strikes Again." Even in a moving and serious song such as "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," there's a sad-but-noble humor to the lines "If a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die."

Song structures can also be clever. As I'm writing this right now, Denise and I are watching a TV clip of The Killers on Jools Holland's Later ... show, and it made me think of their song "Space Man" which is clever in both its lyrics and its song structure. Just give it a listen and see what you think.

I'm sure there a few other dimensions that make for good music. But these are the main ones that present themselves to me: power and beauty, spiced up by cleverness and stylishness.

The last thing I want to write about in today's post is a brief R.I.P. for three rock icons who have passed in the last few weeks. Since the start of 2016, we've had the bad fortune to lose David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Paul Kantner.

I've always respected Bowie, but in our house, my wife Denise is the big Bowie fan. She's always said that Bowie is the one artist she most regrets never having seen live. (Mine is Pink Floyd.) We actually almost used a relatively obscure Bowie song, "Wild Is the Wind," as our wedding song. Then I made a few too many fart jokes and inadvertently ruined it for her. But while I'm not as big a fan as she is, I'd consider a number of Bowie songs as must-haves for any rock music collection, including "Space Oddity," "Ziggy Stardust," and especially "Heroes" ( a song that has inspired some great covers, most notably the one by Blondie).

And no Christmas would be complete without the Bing Crosby/David Bowie video of "The Little Drummer Boy." (When my brother and I were young, we always fantasized that when Bowie veered into that whole "Peace on Earth/Why can't there be" section, Bing slapped him in the face, forcing Bowie to come back to a muttered and very resentful "Pa rum pum pum pum.")

I get my news from the Internet and TV these days, so I was surprised to hear from a friend that since Glenn Frey's death, there have been several articles slamming The Eagles, most notably one in the New York Daily News. Everyone has their own taste, but to the writers of these articles I present a huge middle finger. I suggest that The Eagles' Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 album is one of a number of spot-on perfect albums released in the '70s. There is taste and there is objectivity. By any objective standard, The Eagles were a hugely successful band, and deservedly so.

Lastly, Paul Kantner passed away on January 28. Recently, I've been watching all of the big '60s rock festivals on DVD, and Jefferson Airplane was involved in most them. (Who can forget him getting into it with the Hell's Angels at Altamont in Gimme Shelter?) After The Airplane landed for good, he stayed with the band as they morphed into Jefferson Starship (who I finally caught live at Westbury Music Fair a few years back when they toured with Steppenwolf and Procol Harum). I think my favorite album that Kantner ever made, though, is a relatively obscure one he did with Grace Slick called Sunfighter, which has some great songs about cannibalism, Greek goddesses and being raised by wolf packs. It's still available for a really cheap price on, so if you get a chance, check it out.

Anyway, once again, farewell David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Paul Kantner. You each made the world a better place. Rest in Peace.

Next time, I'll get back to those Best Songs of the Decade lists that I posted in my previous post.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Best Albums of the Decades lists Part I

So we survived the big snowstorm last weekend. I spent most of the week running around like a chicken with its head cut off with my kids, so this is my first chance to get back to my music blog.

I'm still finishing my exploration of those last few CDs for 2015, but I'm getting close. The Candice Night CD is a disappointment. As always, she has a beautiful voice. But it turns out to be an album of lullabies and children's songs, not exactly my thing. She does do a beautiful cover of John Denver's "Annie's Song,"though, so that's at least one point in its favor.

I'm not really caring much for the new Squeeze CD either. The title of the album, and I guess the unifying theme is From the Cradle to the Grave, but the album seems to hover for awhile in songs about the teen years. And let's face it, these guys are working from really long-term memory here. I just have a hard time taking it seriously when a middle-aged guy sings from the viewpoint of a 15-year-old.

I do like the new Coldplay CD. It's the only one of this last group that has even a shot to make my Top 10 for the year. I need to get more used to it, though.

So as I work towards my Best of 2015 lists, I'm going to delve into the "dim and distant past," as Ian Anderson would call it, with some of my choices for the Best Album of the Decade for each of the decades in which I've been a music lover. (The present decade is excluded, of course -- hopefully, there's some great music still to come). Some are considered by a wide consensus of music lovers to be among the best albums ever; others are pretty obscure. I'm not claiming any were necessarily the most popular, etc. They're purely my own favorites.

First, though, I should just say something about the way I hear music. I'm not a musician. I can play a (very) little guitar, but that's about it. So I hear music from the front back instead of the way a musician would hear it. What I mean by this is I hear the vocals first, then I hear that things like the guitars and the keyboards. As important as they are, I only really hear the bass and drums if I really focus on them. (Unless they're screwed up, in which case I notice them in a bad way).

Also, I'm way more about the songwriting than I am about the musicianship. So a band like The Allman Brothers, for example, who are loved by musicians, as often than not bore me to tears. I'd much rather hear a band with great songs and relatively simple music than I would a band that can make their instruments speak, but have nothing to say songwise. (I'm not talking about lyrics here, just about hooks and the overall sound. Sometimes I care about lyrics, sometimes I love a song even if I don't know what the hell they're singing about).

I also have a theory that there are really two basic dimensions for music, power and beauty. Someone like, say, Janis Joplin, scores high on the power scale, but not necessarily great on the beauty scale. This isn't to diminish Joplin -- the power and the raw pain she sings with make her music totally worthwhile. But I mentioned Candice Night earlier. Listen to the sheer beauty of her voice. Her albums with Blackmore's Night are exquisite.

The same dimensions, power and beauty, also apply to instrumentation.  An artist who scores high on either dimension is an artist worth listening to. But it's really special when a band like The Who can do both. And while I value both, I tend to favor beauty a little.

So usually, I most enjoy bands with strong vocals (and good harmonies are a real plus). I also favor artists that employ keyboards and/or synthesizers at least some of the time. I love rhythm and acoustic guitar. And as far as electric guitars go, I'm usually only impressed by guitarists that have something distinctive about their style, like a Hendrix or a David Gilmour.

There are exceptions, of course. From what I wrote above, you think I'd hate somebody like Bob Dylan. As it turns out, he's not one of my favorites, but I like him enough to own five or six of his albums. And it's not just because of his lyrics, which I think are a little overrated. I can hear why some people think he's a terrible singer. His voice certainly doesn't have the classic beauty of a Joan Baez or a James Taylor. But raspy as it is, his singing is unique, and he makes it work for him.

So if you've stuck with me so far, all of the above should help explain my Favorites lists, whether it's my Top Ten lists for 2015, or my Best Albums of the Decade listings, below.

So without further ado, here are my Best Albums of the previous 5 decades.


Best Album: Tommy -- The Who
Runner-up: Are You Experienced -- The Jimi Hendrix Experience


Best Album: Wish You Were Here -- Pink Floyd
Runner-up: Quadrophenia -- The Who


Best Album: Talk Show -- The Go-Go's
Runner-up: Synchronicity -- The Police


Best Album: Memories of Love -- Future Bible Heroes
Runner-up: Nevermind -- Nirvana


Best Album: Riot! -- Paramore
Runner-up: Employment -- Kaiser Chiefs

Best Album of All Time:
Wish You Were Here -- Pink Floyd

That's all I have time for tonight. Next post, I'll talk more in depth about these choices, give a few honorable mentions, and talk at length about my choice for Best Album of All Time.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A (Very) Brief Update

I'm not sure if the goal I set in my last post was too ambitious, re/finishing my Best of 2015 lists by the end of January. Might be close, but I don't know.

Here's how obsessive-compulsive I am -- I have a whole system of how I listen to/review new CDs. I start by listening in my car -- I usually have a group of 4 CDs in the car, and I alternate my way through them until I've listened to them 4 times each. Then I give them another 3 listens on my iPod, and start to try to make sense of which are the best songs, where they are in relation to other albums that came out this year, etc.

It used to be crazy enough back when I was still actively reviewing CDs for different music papers. But it's embarrassingly batshit insane that I've continued doing this over the last few years when I've just been doing it for myself. But that's me. (That might be one of the reasons I started to write this blog -- if I'm writing about new music somewhere where other people might read it, maybe it makes me less crazy for going through all of this rigamarole. At least that's what I'm going to pretend.)

So anyway, I've got the last batch of CDs from 2015 in the car now, including the latest from Squeeze, Candice Night and Coldplay. And it will probably take a couple of weeks to process them through.

Luckily, the beginning of the year is usually a slow time for new albums. So it will be awhile before I start getting new CDs for 2016.

In the next day or two, I'm going to post a little about how I listen to and relate to music, and give you an idea of my tastes by listing some of my top albums of all time.

Until then, there's a big blizzard supposed to hit tomorrow morning here in the northeast, so stay safe everybody. Stay indoors, and listen to music.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Intro to my blog

My name is Rich Hughes. Although I have little-to-no musical talent of my own, I've been a music lover my whole life. And while I sometimes enjoy folk, classical music, opera and various other genres, my first love is rock.

I don't remember how old I was when I got my first transistor radio, but I do remember listening to it at night, sometimes long after I was supposed to be asleep. At that time, the argument raged between grammar school kids as to who was the number one band -- The Beatles or The Monkees. Yeah, yeah, I know which side history has come down on, and rightly so. But I was firmly on the side of The Monkees, and you know what? While I recognize the genius of The Beatles, I still like The Monkees, especially the Mike Nesmith numbers. (And in my defense, I have to point out that at this time, The Monkees were putting out singles like "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Daydream Believer", while The Beatles weren't in their best form with stuff like "Hello, Goodbye" and "Lady Madonna".)

I was the oldest kid in my family, but my best friend Bob had 2 older brothers who exposed him to more sophisticated stuff, and Bob introduced it to me. And within a relatively short period of time, I started hearing things like "In Held 'Twas in I" by my new favorite band Procol Harum, King Crimson's "In the Court of The Crimson King", and the record I still consider to be best album of the 1960s, Tommy by The Who. As an avid reader and comic book lover, this was a dream -- music that told a story more way more interesting than just "I love you, you love me."

My parents bought me my first stereo for my grammar school graduation, which led to a whole new experience, the FM radio. I listened devotedly to 102.7 WNEW-FM, delighting to gravel-voiced Scott Muni's "Things from England" show, the weird and eclectic mix played by Jonathan Schwartz (who had no problem mixing Sinatra in with The Rolling Stones), and the late night poetry of my favorite DJ of them all -- "The Night Bird", Alison Steele. Together, they turned me on to such beloved bands as Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Yes and Long Island's own Good Rats.

For a music-loving child, the 1970s was an amazing decade in which to come of age. When I look back now, I still can't believe how much amazing music came out of that era, and how many bands came into existence who have gone on deservedly to have multi-decade careers.  Now don't get me wrong -- I've done my best to continue to listen to and appreciate the music of the succeeding decades. My brother-in-law maintains that music just stopped existing after 1974, and I completely disagree with him. But I know what he means. The '70s had more high-level and nearly perfect albums than any other decade, before or since.

Nevertheless, when the '80s and New Wave hit, I was right there. The music was less complex instrumentally, but the pop hooks and use of electronics and synthesizers kept me interested. And while bands of this decade didn't quite replace my '70s favorites, The Police, Blondie, The Cars and The Go-Go's joined a growing list of new favorites. 

I was still right there in the '90s with bands like Nirvana (far and away the best band of the grunge movement) and The Cranberries (who satisfied my more melodic cravings).

But when the mid-'90s hit, and the music industry started moving back towards more prefabricated stars who didn't write their own material such as Britney Spears and The Spice Girls, I had to check out for awhile, shifting my focus more towards indie bands like Future Bible Heroes (and the other various projects of Stephin Merritt), as well as local Long Island acts like The Slant, Iridesense, The Basals and My Favorite.

As you might expect, I went on the get as involved as someone with no musical talent of their own could in my local music scene, which began when I married my amazing wife Denise and started managing her band The Slant. This led to managing several other bands, to promoting local shows, to writing music reviews in local papers like Good Times, Long Island Entertainment and Aural Fix, and to splitting duty on a regular monthly music column in the national magazine Inside Connection. 

With the advent of the Internet, I increased my involvement in the Long Island original music scene by starting an online message board for local musicians, and eventually founded an organization for the promotion of Long Island original music, the late-lamented Long Island Music Coalition. I also began to DJ a local music show on the college/community radio station for Stonybrook University, 90.1 FM WUSB, and to direct a couple of cable public access television shows devoted to local music, The Jill Morrison Show and LIMC-TV.

I've been away from the scene for a few years now -- my wife and I had the blessing to adopt a teen girl and her then-preteen brother about six years ago, and being a Dad became my main focus. But I never stopped listening to music, or loving it, or even obsessive-compulsively writing up my lists of favorite albums, songs, local albums, etc. every year. And happily, while their tastes are very different from my own (and from those of my '80s-loving wife), music is just as important to my daughter and son as it is to my wife and myself.

Hence this blog. So now I have a place to write about the music that's making my world a better place, and maybe meet some like-minded people.

I'm planning to write about my favorite local and national acts, past and present. My blog will probably be heavily weighted with posts about alternate rock bands like Paramore and Bayside, because these days, that's the genre of much of the music I love best. But there will also be straight-up rock and acoustic rock write-ups, with sprinklings of posts about pop and some heavier fare.

As of this writing, I'm trying to finish up my favorites lists for the year 2015. Sometimes it takes me until March of the next year to finish this process, but this year, with any luck, I'll be finished by the end of January.

And when I do, I'll post them here.