Fuck you, nu-metal. Fuck you, "modern rock." We're taking it back to when A&R agents got paid to watch David Yow knot up his weiner and I didn't know what a titty felt like.

Rage Against the Machine: “Killing in the Name”

I had friends that knew of Rage when their first album came out. I didn’t get in to them until “Evil Empire” came out and Tom Morello sent me on an unsuccessful quest to learn how to use my guitar as a turntable. I was drawn to the socio-political commentary of Zach De La Rocha’s lyrics just as much as I was to the heavy sound of the band. I always had a passing interest in politics and social awareness, but Rage Against the Machine is what galvanized me, and set me on the ideological path that I followed to where I am today.

But before one goes on to study political science and history in college, they must first be a bit ridiculous.

I bought their debut, self-titled album shortly after buying “Evil Empire” and took immediately to devouring it. I read books and articles about Leonard Peltier at the library and wrote “EZLN” in huge letters on just about every notebook and textbook within arms reach at any and all times. Rage Against the Machine quickly became my favorite band, causing me to see myself as a future social activist, fighting injustice and racism and prejudice and sexism in all its ugly forms!

And my first fight against the man was a noble, one-man protest against the grave injustice of being grounded by my parents for not coming home from riding bikes when I said I would. What gave them the right to impose their will upon me? I was nobody’s slave! I would take this no longer! Go to my room? Fine, but not because you told me to, but because I want to! Screw you, Dad! Screw you, Mom! You guys are ROBOTS!

I went to my room, alright. Fuming with indignation, intent on making a statement. you may cage this body, but you will not cage this voice! I reached for the Rage CD with the monk that set himself on fire, skip forward to track 2 and slide the volume nob all the way to the max. I sat there as the song built to its climax, knowing my parents could hear Zach de la Rocha speaking on my behalf, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me. Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” So on and so forth.

My mom swung open my door and shot me with a look as if to say, “Really? This is your move?”, informed me that I was also grounded from my stereo, unplugged it, and closed my door again.

Touché, Mom and Dad.

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Soul For Real: “Every Little Thing I Do”

I am an unabashed lover of all R&B and rap music from the 1990s. I am not too humble to tell you I have a near Rainman-like memory for melodies, hooks, videos, guest appearances, so on and so forth. If it was on MTV Jams, I knew it. I loved Soul for Real. Who didn’t? Candy Rain? The oversized suits? The coordinated dance moves? The grooves, the hooks, the harmonies? Heavy D?! It was perfect. It captures the era and the vibe of R&B at that time. This is the stuff that I love. But as the years have worn on, I have lost some of what I remembered, despite being a part-time DJ that focuses primarily on this particular music from this particular era. To that end, I always appreciate the opportunity to rediscover songs that I had lost without even realizing it. Hearing them for the first time again is the best feeling.

Last year I went out on a first date with a girl I had just recently met. It was pretty typical as far as first dates go. We went to a show, grabbed some drinks, small talk this, small talk that, smile and laugh, try not to act nervous, don’t talk about your ex! At the bar later, there was a DJ spinning R&B from the 90s, and I sat there in my personal mini-paradise, combining some good music with a beautiful girl. It helped I had been drinking. We talked a bit about the music, I felt sly being able to recognize and identify each song that came on. We got nostalgic, talking about the time when these songs came out, I talked about being a DJ. Then the DJ started playing this song, the beginning of which I did not recognize — This was one of the songs that had faded from my memory. My date? She starts dancing in her chair just a little bit, a big smile comes across her face and she jumps in, right in time, “You. Are. On My Mind. You. Are. On My Mind.”

And with that, I was hooked. Never was there a more fitting song.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

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Sublime: “Santeria”

I’d never heard anything like Sublime when “What I Got” first popped up on my radio on one of the nights I stayed up late listening to alternative radio. Late at night, after Loveline, was when they would play stuff that MTV hadn’t gotten a hold of yet, and I was going through my phase where I wanted to be different than my friends, I wanted to discover new music before they did. I stumbled upon Korn and the Deftones and Earth Crisis before they did. I didn’t like that we all got in to 311 at the same time, so there I would be — up late in my bed, blank cassette in my radio, ready to hit record anytime I heard something come on that caught my ears.

This insatiable desire to be ahead of the curve actually turned me in to a little shithead. 

Bradley Nowell died in 1996, two months before this album was released (Thank you, Wikipedia), but people just hearing Sublime for the first time didn’t know this. I don’t remember how I found out, but it was a piece of information that lent more credibility to my “I heard them first” claim. I introduced a lot of my friends to Sublime, which they came to love, much to my join and self-satisfaction. I’m Cool Music Guy now!

No, just kind of a shithead.

On the school bus one day, I handed my headphones to the girl in the seat across the aisle from me. “Check this band out.” I played her this song, and she loved it. Her head started nodding.

"Who is this?" She asked.
"They’re called Sublime. They’re from Long Beach, California."
"I like it, it’s really cool."

(Here’s where I ruin it.)

"Yeah, they’re pretty awesome. I’m going to go see them in concert here in about a month."
"Really? Cool! I should go too."
"Hah. Yeah right, they’re not playing. The lead singer overdosed and is dead now, so obviously they aren’t playing. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.”

She handed my headphones back and Cool Music Guy sat there by himself the rest of the way to school.

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New Radicals - Someday We’ll Know

All things considered, I shouldn’t still find this to be such a compelling song. The New Radicals never really stood out for most people beyond that video with everyone at the mall and the dude’s bucket hat. I liked this song when it came out, and it sort of faded into my memory from there, but the other morning, I was walking to work, hands tucked into my coat pocket to fight the cold, thinking about someone that matters very much to me, and this tune crept back up, ripe with new relevance. I’ll stop myself there because if I don’t I’ll go start writing in my livejournal. Just enjoy the song and its sentiment. 

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Guns N’ Roses - “November Rain”

This has to rank as one of the top 5 pop-rock songs of the 90’s, and if you disagree I will have you stabbed. The reason I post this in such haste is because I just learned that today is the 19th anniversary of the release of “Use Your Illusion I and II”, and they were the first albums that really exposed me to the dynamic range a real rock and roll band could have outside of the garbage I had grown accustomed to from the hair bands of the 80’s at such a young age. Who cares if “Get in the Ring” made me want to be a violent little shit, these albums were important for a budding music lover to own. I wore these tapes out, and my mother was not pleased. (Thank you, Columbia House.)

Sadly, a lot of the luster these albums deserve is forever overshadowed by what’s widely agreed to be an even more seminal and important record that was released just seven days after the “Use Your Illusions” in 1991: Nirvana’s “Nevermind”

God bless Axl Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagen, Matt Sorum, Steven Adler and Dizzy Reed. You introduced me to rock and roll as I know it, even if Nirvana stole your thunder.

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Usher: “My Way”

Never mind the unnecessary scream fight that almost ruins the middle of the song, the more important question here is What the hell is going on? In what bizarre universe does Usher have a dance gang that battles Tyrese’s dance gang for the affections of a woman in a junkyard while Jermaine Dupri perpetually interrupts with laughs and “yo yo yo yo” in the background. Spumoni ice cream themed outfits on one side, Arctic G.I. Joe on the other, let’s dance this out, friend, You suckas just got served. I love dance fights, especially when casual dating arrangements are at stake, but this is next level — there’s no way this particular battle happens on planet Earth, and that’s what makes it great. Where can I get a spray painted duster like that? (eBay. Someone check for me) Or even better, once I get that duster, who’s going to teach me how to moonwalk on my knees? The Warriors-cum-West Side Story-cum-Clockwork Orange universe in which women decide between potential mates based on their screaming, singing, running, and dancing abilities (as well as their ability to multitask) is one in which I want to live. 

Make it happen, Richard Branson.

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Black Sheep: “The Choice is Yours”

You know, this song was one of my aces in the hole when I would DJ house parties. It was used to escalate the energy on the dance floor as the sudden reminder of a great song often forgotten would induce ass shaking and fist bumps for the DJ. 

Now it just makes everyone think about dancing hood hamsters and affordable cheap, Korean motor box things. 

But, hey… the speakers light up, right? 

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Nada Surf: “Popular”

I just got Nada Surf. This song set off my state of the art teenage sarcasm detector when it came out, and (forgive my slight hyperbole here), it gave license for me to not be popular, and I finally gave up my quest to be soI hated our Johnny Football Hero (Frank M., I’m looking at you… on Facebook. I’m looking at you on Facebook right now.) This CD was the crown jewel in my CD collection for a long time, and though I was typically very protective of bands that I liked when the popular kids at school started listening to them, the irony of the popular kids loving this song was too great to ignore. Nada Surf made sense to me: the subtle angst, the dynamic writing, both lyrical and musical, hell, even the songs sung in French made sense to me. So I held them dear.

Then I got to meet them several years later and realized that I’m just an anxiety-filled music nerd.  

By some stroke of genius, my best friend was able to contact the band as they were touring to promote their second album after being dropped by Elektra. He had arranged with Matthew Caws to let us film their show in town and the band agreed to an interview for the video. This was before the age of youtube, so what Matthew expected to come from having a couple of high school kids film you and ask you inane questions, I have no idea. 

My friend and I showed up at the venue about 5 hours early. We (very poorly) filmed their soundcheck, helped them set up their merch table, requested songs for them to play during the soundcheck and the show, and pretty much just did our very best to stay out of the way and act cool. It didn’t matter that these guys, once the darlings of 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation, had showed up in one of the most beat up old vans I had ever seen, these guys were idols to us and they let us in. 

In between the soundcheck and the show, Matthew agreed to a quick interview. My friend was so nervous that he decided I should be asking the questions while he filmed. I hadn’t even interviewed my own mother, let alone a musician that I admired this much, so I’ll leave you to imagine the ratio of actual questions to mumbled ass kissing, but Matthew was incredibly gracious and humored us patiently for a good 15 minutes as he explained why their label didn’t like their second album, why he doesn’t like playing “Popular” live (not because it’s their hit, but because the verses are difficult to recite while playing guitar), and what his favorite Star Wars character is (God, I hate myself). 

In the end, the show itself was exactly what you’d want a show with one of your favorite bands to be: intimate, in a small space, performed on a very short stage, and sparsely attended. We grabbed a quick Q&A with Ira and Daniel after the show, spent about $100 on merch, and drove home. When they returned a year or so later, we left the camera at home, but they still remembered who we were and hooked us up with some free merchandise after the show. 

This was all just a really long way of saying that the guys in Nada Surf are incredibly genuine and grateful musicians who really seem to appreciate their fans, put a lot of love into what they do, and are willing to let their fans in and share the experience with them.

Basically: the exact opposite of Art Alexakis.  

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Stabbing Westward: “Shame”

Here is the thing it is important to remember, as adults, as we stare gape-jawed at the singles charts peppered with Black Eyed Peas and LMFAO and Ke$ha and the rest, eGrumbling at the futility of being culturally aware in these end times—culture overtakes us before we are ready for it. We do not have the array of tools at 14 to parse that by which we are engulfed; it simply engulfs, and we twist in its center, mutating—and it is in that larval state that we put our capital where our hearts are. Not after, when we gain a crumb of perspective and hastily push ourselves away from the singles charts and into the deeper waters of the Olympic-sized cultural pool, but during, when we’re porous and eager and, most importantly, secretly confused about the whole mess.

Take this song—I sure did, in 1996, from the radio to an ad-hoc tape mix and then around with me all day, bookended by “Closer" and "Backwater.” This video might as well have been science fiction to me, so insulated was I from such actual horrors as domestic abuse or stalking—the lyrics didn’t strike me as coming from an unreliable narrator, both because I didn’t know what one was and also because I wasn’t paying attention. The platitudes offered up by this song, though, tumbled into my lap, ripe off the vine—a phrase like “all that I believe I am” was as good as a punched ticket to the margins of my pre-algebra notes or (in rare and heady cases) the sides of my One-Stars.

Listening to it now in the clean room of my adult experiences and my (still-terrible, but) proportionally-improved attention span, it’s almost a totally different song—the production is still deliciously dense and it still kinda makes me want to get an underbuzz, but the content of the song now blooms out from that audial center, obvious now, no matter how unparseable then. Which is not to say that no teenager can understand nuance, but that the nuance can be beside the point, or, really, that the point is to have music to call your own in the first place, and to make valuations thereafter.

So naturally, then, I think about how I felt at 17 about, like, The Bloodhound Gang, or about Gravity Kills, or about Courtney Love, and the question that keeps resurfacing is: Why are we so incredibly concerned about the cultural input into youth culture when the cultural artifacts of youth culture are, by and large, just the window dressing on “being young?” The kids are alright — the kids are always alright — no matter whether their pop songs are about self-harm, immature desperation, unprotected sex, consumerism—or nothing. And, no, the purview of pop music is not limited to those who can’t yet buy Tanqueray, and yes, it’s always appropriate to demand transcendence, rather than simple convenience, from pop culture, but—

—but I keep thinking about the party in ninth grade where six of us stood in a driveway, domed by the arching pine boughs of nowhere, fastballing loose bricks at a Toni Braxton CD, over and over, until it was pulverized, running immediately thereafter back to the room with the stereo, away from songs about difficult love and easy lust, leaping and swaying into the hormonal fray of our peers, now blanketed by Hole’s “Gold Dust Woman,” a song so intensely about cocaine that Stevie Nicks can no longer remember whether it was about cocaine. Thinking about all the above like so: The purpose of the music was to create ownership of oneself; to separate oneself from one’s family; to create a private history; to finally participate. The details of that separation are under the purview of the individual, and god keep the children who interpreted these songs—any songs!—instructionally, and in the meantime there is the beat and the rhythm and the song. Just so.

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Nine Inch Nails: “Closer”

This song screwed me up. Then the video screwed me up worse. 

A friend of mine who was way in to metal bands that nobody else at school had heard of lent me a copy “Pretty Hate Machine” which was my first exposure to Nine Inch Nails. Either that album was tame or I just didn’t get it, but either way it failed to prepare me adequately for hearing Trent Reznor tell me he wanted to…. you know…. This was one of my earliest exposures to the unique combination of violence, sex, and religion and it was all wrapped up in a nice montage of monkey Jesus torture, strange rock gods dressed in all leather spinning in mid air, a butcher shop, dusty relics covered with spider webs, a silhouetted microphone that my teenage brain thought looked like a boob, actual boobs, and S&M. 

So there was the album, The Downward Spiral, and the song here, and the F-word and the feeling from the inside part, and then the video with all the stuff. I grew my hair, then shaved my head, then listened to Marilyn Manson, and started wearing more black, and bought all of the NIN CDs and rejected God, etc etc.How did I not turn out completely screwed up as an adult? 

Was it Weezer? It was the Weezer, wasn’t it? I knew it. 

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