January 25, 2009

NT's greatest hits, vol. 1

Way back when, I moved to New York to be a rock critic. There's a problem with that: There are very few pure critics. Most are journalists, meaning they have to report things, hang out at cheesy awards shows, ask submoronic pop stars stupid questions, etc. I tried all that; I was very bad at it.

More importantly, I discovered that while I loved music, I loved my music. I had no interest in or insight into music that didn't move me, which meant I was SOL when it came to 98 percent
of all music ever performed or recorded. So I switched gears, went to med school and became a radiologist. (No, wait…)

But…the music I love, that stuff I do so, so love. I suggested this when blabbing about my iPod. (BTW, thanks for the check, Steve Jobs.) Recently, I distilled things to their essence and built an iTunes playlist, very accurately titled "My Favorite Songs Ever." Thirty-four tracks in that collection, and I thought it would be interesting to talk about them here, two at a time. Why don't we let iTunes randomly select our first pair…

"OK Apartment" by the Oranges Band
We start off obscure. I know relatively little about The Oranges Band; they're from Baltimore, their frontman used to be in Spoon, they play shuffling, jangly, extremely hooky pop-rock sort of like The Feelies (making them two generations removed from the Velvet Underground). "OK Apartment" is a tense and speedy tune about a guy uncomfortably trapped in his apartment by his own desperation—I think, the lyrics are arty and vague—and it rocks fairly hard, which is a common factor among most of the songs on this list. It also has that displaced anthemic quality that really stirs me; I never get sick of it, and I never fail to be excited by it.

I discovered "OK Apartment" around when it came out, in 2003 or so, by listening to WOXY, an Internet radio station that is an excellent source for alt-rock discoveries. And I've since become a moderate fan of the Oranges Band—the All Around album is terrific, and The World and Everything in It is probably better, and a little strange (though I thought they gave a weak performance at The Mercury Lounge some time ago). But "OK Apartment" beats all: Watch the clever video, support this clever band.

"Just What I Needed" by the Cars
If I had to choose one song on this whole playlist to be my solitary No. 1 favorite, it would be this one. This is a perfect song: The arresting opening riff, an arch but unforced lead vocal, the icy synth hook, a razor-sharp guitar solo—everything. This song is amazing; Ric Ocasek can fuck all the supermodels he wants, as far as I'm concerned.

"Just What I Needed" also follows a common structure among my favorite songs: I call it "tension-release." The verses are tight, anxious, bottled up, but when the chorus hits, it's like the whole song opens wide, or maybe falls of a cliff, and suddenly there's all kinds of space; the tension has been alleviated (temporarily). It's reflected in the lyrics: In the verses, Ben Orr sings about his internal torture over his feelings for this woman (I love that she has "ribbons in her hair"). Then the chorus: He gains some awareness, and provides lyrical counterpoint—she's just what he needed; not his problem, but the solution to his problem. It's an arty new-wave synth-rock love song, really.

Anyway, this song is perfect, and it's a lot of fun to sing with a karaoke band. Go to iTunes and buy it now, please; if you don't own it, you're banned from the Big Quiz Thing for life.

More songs some other time…


Aaron Leichter said...

Ah, your "tension/release" structure. I prefer it to the "slack/slack" structure (commonly found in reggae music). Love the column, looking forward to reading about "Strawberry Fields Forever", "American Girl", & "Come On-a My House".

Hey, did you see the important piece of rock journalism in Slate? It's more of a hater piece than an insightful exploration, but its thesis -- Billy Joel sucks, badly badly sucks -- is hard to argue against.

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