Friday, October 3, 2008

99, 992 Recordings To Hear Before You Die...

...because, as Hamlet said, “The rest is silence.” Such is my reaction when I confront a title such as 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, a new book consisting of a long, annotated list of songs by music critic Tom Moon. Why not 99, 992? Is 99, 992 an “unrealistic” number? Too arbitrary? Why? Does a list of the daunting length 99, 992 demand too much of our time, require too much of a commitment, we who have just “one life to live”? Or, in contrast, does 1,000 represent a more obtainable, if more modest goal, than 99, 992—which is to say, you shouldn’t aim high, but aim low? But if you aim low, what’s the value of the list at all if you have just one life to live? What, precisely, does any sort of list offer to you in the short time you have?

More likely, the power of the number 1,000 resides in its promise that a certain, magical threshold has been reached. The number 1,000, like the number 100, seems to ring with the profundity of an absolute limit. Is it because 1,000 is a round number with multiple zeroes that it acts as a lure, offering one the promise of a liminal moment, a threshold point, a critical juncture in a cultural rite de passage that represents a conceptual breakthrough, an acute intellectual insight--nirvana? The promise of having reached a thousand recordings is rather like that moment when one's automobile odometer is about to turn over while reading 99, 999 miles--the illusion of a highly significant, monumental event in one's life.

The problem is, of course, that knowledge is not quantifiable: and in the case of music, the more you hear does not mean the more you know, except insofar as you have access to a greater list of proper names. Alas, the number “1,000” is just a banal convention within the publishing industry, and a book comprised of a numbered list is yet another effect of consumer culture, in which truths are no longer axioms but merely the expression of individual tastes presented in the form of nonfalsifiable, aesthetic judgments. As Jack Goody has pointed out (in The Muse Learns to Write), certain characteristic features of written or typographic culture, such as the list, encourage a form of thinking impossible for a purely oral culture. The problem, as Robert Ray has observed, is all but “the most conscientiously produced” lists are “organized around not concepts, but proper names” (130). From a publisher's perspective, lists are always provocative (they are a sort of "built-in" promotional device), provocation being one of the defining characteristics of a consumer culture in which taste has become one of the primary forms of political expression.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Riff

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, the musical term riff is probably an altered or shortened form of the word refrain, an ostinato (Italian, from Latin obstinātus, stubborn, past participle of obstināre, to persist, that is, to not go away) phrase repeated consistently at the same pitch throughout a musical number. Glen Miller’s hugely popular Swing tune, “In the Mood,” is a well-known example of a riff-based composition. A riff, though, is different from a lick in that riffs can consist of repeated chord progressions (The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”), while licks typically consist of single-note melodic lines. They share a similarity though, in that licks, like riffs, can be used as the basis of an entire song, as in The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Question: What happens when a rock musician tries to overcome the opposition governing the distinction between the riff—consisting of a repeated chord progression—and the clean melodic line of a lick? Answer: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, that is, the Hendrix sound.

“Purple Haze” (1967)
“If Six Was Nine” (1967)
“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” (1968)
Band of Gypsys, “Machine Gun” (1970)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Rare Album Collectibles

The November 2008 issue (#355) of the British magazine Record Collector presents the Top 200 of the most valuable albums of all time produced in the UK. As one might expect, a large number of the positions are taken by British artists, although some albums by Elvis Presley made the list. The most expensive collectible item according the writers: The Beatles by The Beatles (1968) that can go as high as € 9000 if you own one of numbers 1-10 of the first 10,000 numbered albums issued; 1,001-10,000 go for € 750.

Among the rare Elvis items listed are:

#178: The Legend – RCA 89061/2/3 3-CD (1984) - € 440

Released in 1984, this box was one of the first CD releases in the UK. RCA released the box in a numbered limited run of 5,000 with certificate and special booklet.

#101: Flaming Star And Summer Kisses – RCA Victor RD 7723 (1969) - € 690

Very high for a (1969) re-release, but apparently it is quite rare in the UK.

#57: Rock and Roll No 2 – HMV CLP 1105 (1957) - € 950

This LP is the most expensive Elvis item on vinyl in the UK. While there were many copies of this album sold, it is nearly impossible to find a record in mint condition.

I have not seen a complete list of the Top 200; if anyone has the complete list, or knows where it is posted on line, please let me know, and I'll provide a link.

Source: ElvisMatters

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: II

1. The collocations “art rock” and “progressive rock” are merely distinctions without a difference: both are attempts to assuage pop guilt.

2. Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, observes critic Harold Bloom, authored only nine poems that really matter, but what great and influential poems they are; in the history of rock, only Elvis alone sung nine that really mattered.

3. Improvisation is simply the name for the activity of privileging performance over composition, and avoiding being pretentious in the process.

4. For decades, the dictum, “don’t judge a book by its cover” was routinely violated by rock music fans; it’s why there are now books of album art.

5. The “reunion tour” is rock culture’s equivalent of purgatory--the waiting room to rock ‘n’ roll heaven.

6. To lift a phrase from Man Ray, the worst records I’ve ever heard have ten or fifteen marvelous minutes; the best records I’ve ever heard have merely ten or fifteen valid minutes.

7. When the music of Neil Young is imitated without inspiration or a sense of humor, it is called grunge.

8. If pop musicians were interested in honest self-appraisal rather than self-deification, the flip side of the Righteous Brothers’ “Rock and Roll Heaven” would be titled, in homage to Sartre, “No Exit.”

9. The albums of the Mothers of Invention represent the music of fans trying to be artists; the albums of Captain Beefheart represent the music of an artist trying to be a fan.