Here’s a perennial favorite that has come around again and again, becoming a hit every few years thanks to new artists covering it for a new listener generation. Everyone knows this song, though everyone most likely has a different version that they think of as being the definitive one. I think that it’s a pretty easy choice to say that Ben E. King’s 1961 original is the foremost and the best. It’s pretty dang hard to improve on any Motown original; Motown had the very best songwriters and musicians on payroll, rolling out hits with the professional efficiency of the auto industry that gave the label its name. The miracle of Motown was that, with the sheer concentration of talent they employed, it was impossible to make a bad record. That’s why, though not many people may remember Ben E. King’s name, they can recognize his biggest hit from the first notes. That’s the staying power that everyone else who tried to put their signature on the song was hoping for, with varying degrees of success. For me, the only other version worth listening to was John Lennon’s, which couldn’t match the funkiness but made up for it in sincerity.
I’ve never been an R.E.M. fan, although I did date one, so I know that they do exist, still. What strikes me is that, for a supposedly well-respected rock group with a long-running career, how many of their biggest hits sound like novelty songs. This song, Shiny Happy People, the one about the end of the world; they all sound like the work of someone like Thomas Dolby or The Proclaimers, one-hit-wonder types who couldn’t have serious careers because their best known hits were too silly. Yet R.E.M. managed to be taken seriously for a long time while releasing all these ridiculous silly songs. To be fair, they were also able to produce some seriously good songs that earned them their reputation as an important band. And, of course, in his heyday Michael Stipe was considered to be right up there with Bono, Sting, and Bob Geldof for being pretentious, insufferable and self-righteous. To fans, apparently, it’s a minor Greek tragedy that the clout R.E.M. earned for their edgy early work got burned away by the commercial success of joke songs like this one. It isn’t a shamefully terrible song; it’s a perfectly good song, for dancing to at an 80’s themed nightclub. Being a popular choice on 80’s Nite is fine for Thomas Dolby and the like, but that’s not what Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘best rock’n’roll band in America’ should aspire to.
Coming back to what I belatedly decided was one of the better albums of the 90’s, High/Low by Nada Surf. I’m aware that this band has made many more albums since then, including a 2020 release, and that they’ve been very consistent with their post-punk aesthetic. Also I know that there are still a lot of records from 1996 that I haven’t gotten around to hearing yet, just because I have this prejudice that I don’t like 1996. What? I was 13. Thirteen is one of those times in life when it’s very easy to convince yourself that absolutely everything in the world sucks except for the four or five things that don’t. Anyway. As far as what 1996 sounded and felt like, this is definitely one of the records that the cool kids were listening to, which means that I didn’t find out about it until the mid- 2010’s. Belatedly, though, I really like this record.
Here’s something that I’ve never listened to but should have been. Big Audio Dynamite is the band Mick Jones formed after leaving The Clash. I did not know this, but they released nine albums between 1984 and 1997. I guess that being a group of ace musicians who are not particularly well-known just playing whatever the heck they want wasn’t a recipe for popular success. BAD’s music was always too restlessly diverse to really find a niche. They played some of everything, mashing genres from all over the map together. Some of their songs sound like recognizable echoes of their punk rock background, some lean into reggae, soul and funk, some incorporate hip-hop elements like sampling, and some are an experimental combination of all those things.
Pop culture sometimes makes it hard to go on enjoying ‘the classics’ unironically. Popular works get repurposed over the years as symbols, icons, or just winking shorthand for a joke too complicated to explain. The music of Led Zeppelin, in particular, has been understood not as a product of the 1970’s but a representation of “The 1970’s” as a concept, and a handy symbol of a certain nostalgic brand of cool. Today’s impressionable youth get to enjoy the spectacle of Thor hammering his enemies to the dulcet tones of Robert Plant screaming about Valhalla, which signals that Thor is an old-school-cool kinda guy who takes pride in having really pretty hair, which we knew, and also relays the message that he is not only a golden boy but a golden god. That’s incredibly lazy film-making, but it’s a good example of the implied context of a well known piece of music being used to illustrate – in this case, hammer home, literally – the overall tone of the filmmakers’ vision. In layman’s terms, a Led Zeppelin song functions as a musical Emoji, to be deployed when writing out full words would take too long. Which rankles those who enjoy writing everything out without Emojis, so to speak, and who enjoy music for what it is and not for what it can be used to signal. One doesn’t ever need to justify a love for Led Zeppelin, but sometimes there’s a need to explain that the love is unironic and not linked to any pop culture “Emoji moment”.
Journey back to the very first Portugal. The Man album, before they ascended to realm of having shitty covers of their hits played in hotel lobbies. It was, as you would expect, a little weird, starting with the name Waiter: “You Vultures!“ a three-word grammar lesson. Other songs titles included AKA M80 the Wolf; Kill Me. The King; and Guns. Guns… Guns. Grabbing that LP at the record store, you would certainly expect a high level of pretentiousness, something self-consciously too clever and twee, something along the lines of Belle & Sebastian, perhaps. You would be pleasantly disappointed. Portugal. The Man is certainly clever, but just the right amount of it. If they hadn’t yet learned to polish up their hooks in 2006, you can’t blame them, and the unpolished quality of their earliest songs is endearing. They sound like they have way too many ideas about what it takes to make a pop song and they’re eager to deconstruct them before they’ve mastered them all the way.
If you grew up watching Betty Boop cartoons, you knew that the animators of the 1930’s were on the good hooch, and you were exposed to a lot of good music. Most of Betty’s whimsical adventures have gone down the memory hole, but the episodes with guest appearances by luminaries like Cab Calloway remain iconic. Those shorts were the first examples of what we now think of as music videos; their bright idea of working popular songs into the narrative of a popular cartoon was highly novel, elevating the often forgettable cartoon short format, and highlighting the song at the same time. The animation, of course, was trailblazing, surreal and an enduring influence on psychedelic art that was to come. Cab Calloway himself provided the soft-shoe dance moves for his avatar Koko. It’s interesting that Calloway, by getting in on unexpected projects like allowing himself to be animated or, much later, guest starring in the Blues Brothers movie, managed to remain in important cultural influencer for nearly a full century.