My Year in Lists: Volume II
Week Three
My Year in Lists: Volume II chronicles one blogger's masochistic return to the feature that got him hooked on sonics. This time around, the feature will focus on three genres that got short shrift during the original feature: country, hip hop, and jazz. All three are oft-dismissed genres this feature plans to grant a second chance at a first impression.

"There isn't a more public-spirited natural leader on the frenetically competitive rap scene."-Robert Cristgau, on Afrika Bambaataa

"In the century since his birth, there has been no greater composer, American or otherwise, than Edward Kennedy Ellington."-Bob Blumenthal, The Boston Globe

The album holds a particularly alluring place in musical consciousness, one that is drawn both from reality and from a sort of romanticism-tinged view of art. On the one hand, it's easy to view albums as masterworks coming from the mind of your favorite artist. It makes sense to think of an album as a carefully considered, meticulously assembled piece of art that feels more complete than any single ever could, no matter how excellent. And this is true of most of the greatest albums out there. There's an apparent cultural consensus (at least, within the offices of Rolling Stone) that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the greatest album of all-time, in large part because of its unifying concept and the way it was designed as the perfect live set by a non-existent band. Rock operas will always hold a spot in the heart of album-loving music critics (and in my own), probably because the best of them, whether you prefer The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Quadrophenia or Zen Arcade seem to have a thematic through-line that nearly necessitates listening to them as a complete work. And many other all-time great albums communicate the inner workings of an artist's mind at a particular time better than a single track ever could"”Dylan's heartbreak is palpable on Blood on the Tracks, Van Morrison's nostalgia-tinged mysticism envelopes you on Astral Weeks, and you can almost feel Brian Wilson's sense of discovery and maturation over the course of Pet Sounds.

But no consideration of the album is complete without recognition of the fact that the album as anything more than a collection of singles is a relatively new concept, and one that is still not entirely adopted. The vast majority of albums since the inception of the medium consist of a few singles and a lot of filler, and this is the format albums will continue to take probably forever. A unifying theme is all well and good, but for the vast majority of music-history, the single has reigned supreme.

My own musical evolution over the past few years has lead me inexorably toward an album-centric view of music, to the point that I almost never buy a single anymore, unless it's to fill out an otherwise complete discography. But the vast majority of music consumers and fans know only the singles, and I would bet most ipods contain a smattering of greatest hits and singles that far outweigh the full albums. The "album-as-artform" idea is always on the rise, but for most fans of music, the single will always be more vital.
Afrika Bambaataa managed to take a middle road between these two poles on 1986's Planet Rock: The Album. Bambaataa lived a life of hip hop legend even before he started recording, coming up as a member of a Bronx-area street gang known as The Savage Seven and eventually becoming a "warlord" in The Black Spades, which would become the biggest gang in New York City under his leadership. Being a gangster would become an incredibly important part of hip hop culture, a sign of street cred that backed up any hip hop bon fides, but before it was a cultural touchstone for the genre, it was just life in the big city for Bambaataa.

Everything changed, though, when Bambaataa won an essay contest that earned him a trip to Africa, and showed him the potential strength of solidarity. When he returned to America, he founded the Bronx River Organization as an alternative to the gang life, focused on peace-making and community-building. He also began hosting hip hop parties, vowing to use the music to draw angry youth out of gang life and into something more productive. Bambaataa is also credited with naming hip hop, coining the phrase as a descriptor of a genre that incorporated DJ music, MC rhyming, b-boy dancing, and graffiti into a new social construct powered by street-level aggression but directing that anger into musical expression.

Planet Rock was released as his third album, though in actuality it is a collection of singles with a few new tracks. The title track was a minor hit at the time, but became hugely influential, not just within the nascent genre of hip hop, but also for the way it built on previous work and paved the way for advances in electronic, trance, and techno music. The song samples two Kraftwerk tracks (which later lead to an out-of-court settlement), but fuses them into a new melody. The lyrics to the song feel more indebted to the early hip-hop party boy style than to the darker, rougher stuff that was to come, but the song still feels forward-looking, as if Bambaataa knew he was on the cusp of an entirely new sound.

That idea seems to be more manifest in "Looking for the Perfect Beat," a song that is openly about the quest for transcendent sound. There's a jazz-funk feel to the song, which isn't exactly inspired lyrically, but feels authentic in the way much of that "just some guys messing around" way that early hip hop had mastered by this point. "Renegades of Funk" adds a political message to Bambaataa's sound, linking the burgeoning hip hop movement to previous social revolutions while furthering experiments in synthesized sound. Synthesizers dominate the track, yet for the first time, Bambaataa seems to be letting lyrics drive the song instead of relying on the music.

Planet Rock feels like hip hop stretching its legs, pulling on various influences but also freely discarding anything that didn't serve the larger sound. It also feels like a bridge from the silly early days of hip hop and the rap-rock that Run-DMC would popularize soon after the singles that make up Planet Rock were released. Afrika Bambaataa gave hip hop a name and a sound that would influence both his successors and other genres for years. He has become an elder statesman of the hip hop community, even being nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

Duke Ellington is an unabashed legend of jazz, one of the names that is nigh-synonymous with the genre, the sort of person who is spoken of in hushed tones of reverence, and rightfully so. But that wasn't the case in the mid-"˜50s. Ellington was an early proponent of the jazz album, growing frustrated with the limits imposed by the three minute limit of the 78 rpm side. He released the full-length musical Jump for Joy on stage in Los Angeles in 1941, and weathered a storm of criticism as a result. Though the work was critically well received, Ellington was excoriated by much of the public and the play was shuttered in after only 122 performances, dashing Ellington's hopes of taking the show to Broadway.

As the music industry moved toward vocalists like Frank Sinatra, jazz shifted away from big band and toward bebop, and Rhythm and Blues started to pull youth audiences away, Ellington continued his course, alternating big band work with solo excursions and songwriting, though by the mid-1950's, he was no longer touring overseas or appearing in movies, and was relegated to getting by largely on one-nighters in various clubs. Ellington hoped TV would provide a new avenue for jazz, but those dreams were quickly dashed, and by 1955, Duke didn't even have a record contract.

It was his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, immortalized on the two disc Ellington at Newport, that brought Duke back into the mainstream. The album has a laid back feel, interspersing various introductions by festival hosts and Ellington himself with long, free-form jazz of the sort that was out of style when Ellington took the stage, but was somehow made vital again by this singular performance. Listening to it, there is no question why Ellington's career was revived by his appearance in Newport. "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," had been written and recorded separately on 78's in 1937, with "Crescendo" on side one. Ellington played it regularly from the time it was written, yet the near-fifteen minute version he played at Newport nearly caused a riot when Ellington told saxophonist Paul Gonsalves to blow as long as he wanted, and Gonsalves proceeded to do a nearly six-minute solo that worked the crowd into a frenzy. A woman leapt from her box seat and began dancing, the rest of the previously staid crowd joined in, and jazz folklore was created. The song is incredible and the solo phenomenal, so it's little wonder that these fifteen minutes helped to launch Ellington back to prominence. When I think of jazz, at this early stage at least, I still think of the smooth jazz of my grandparents, the sort of warm milk and cookies stuff that often gives the larger genre a bland name, but this duo, featuring many band members cat-calling and urging Gonsalves to "dig in!" is a different animal entirely, a vital, throbbing piece of performance art that feels alive in a way jazz's staid reputation doesn't and probably can't convey.

While that solo is what rocketed Ellington back to the stardom he would enjoy for the rest of his career, the concert is full of many other excellent moments. Earlier in the concert, Ellington pulled out his signature "Take the "˜A' Train," a song written by Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn based on Ellington's directions to his house by subway. Duke's ace alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges belts out two of his classics, "I've Got it Bad (and That Ain't Good)" a smooth, brassy ditty, and the peppier "Jeep's Blues." The concert ends with the beautiful farewell of "Moon's Indigo," over which Duke ends the show with his trademark sign off, "You're very beautiful, very sweet, and we do love you madly."

Ellington at Newport is nothing less than the sound of a career being revitalized, an excellently assembled set that reminded the world what it had in Duke Ellington and seemed to force people to remember the value and the potential for transcendence in big band. Within the space of a few hours at a small festival in Rhode Island, Duke Ellington made an argument for his vitality so strong, it powered him through the next two decades of his career.

On the surface, the Louvin Brothers are everything I feared and disliked about country music before beginning this sonic odyssey. They are Jesus-loving preacher types with a self-righteous streak and the twang dialed up to 11. Hell, the album we're looking at this week is called Satan is Real and from the title track, which serves as the album's opener, it is clear that the boys believe what they're selling. They don't view Jesus as your buddy who just wants you to help your neighbors and be cool; no, to these guys, Jesus is a fighter in perpetual battle with Satan, who is doing his damndest to drag people off the path of righteousness.

"There's a Higher Power" has the sort of confidence that can only come from the born-again, and "The Christian Life" is nothing less than condescending, with its declaration that "Others find pleasure in things I despise, but I like the Christian life." This is the sort of thing that gets my blood boiling. Nothing makes me as angry as someone who is so convinced of something that it is impossible to know for sure that they are ready to condemn someone who doesn't think exactly the same way. It would be easy to dismiss the Louvin Brothers as a despicable sort of Gospel music, a dark side of country with an acrylic sheen, but that only gets at part of the story.

Ira Louvin came about his born again intensity honestly. He believed he had been created to spread the Word of God as a priest, and never completely absolved himself for choosing music and secular living instead. He was a man of many musical talents and nearly as many vices"”a prodigious drinker with a massive ego and a propensity for violence and womanizing. Ira was married four times in his 41 year-life, and his third wife Faye shot him multiple times in the chest while he was drunkenly strangling her. Moments afterward, she swore that if Ira lived, she'd be forced to kill him.

Listening to "The Christian Life" in that context, it seems even more to represent everything I despise about born again fervency: its judgmental, hypocritical, and, considering Ira never kicked his drinking habits, mostly a flat-out lie. Ira could tell himself he liked the Christian life, but what he did when he wasn't crooning songs of salvation seemed to indicate otherwise. "The River of Jordan" is jaunty and nears catchy, the brother's proselytizing at its best.

Satan Is Real is everything I don't want in my country music: twang to the point of annoyance, spirituality to the point of hypocrisy, and an extremity of arrogance that feels wholly unearned. The Louvin Brothers are fascinating as a study in contrast, with sinner Ira living a wild life and dying in a collision with a drunk driver at 41, and Charlie, the truly devout brother living a prosperous life and making it to the ripe old age of 83. There's little I enjoyed in my brief examination of the Louvin Brothers, and other godless heathens are likely to be just as adrift in their brutal spiritual world. Even deeply religious listeners are likely to raise their eyebrows at the tenacity of the Louvins' message, and unless they get profound spiritual satisfaction out of having their beliefs affirmed, I can't say there's much on this album musically that can't be found elsewhere in a better form. Hank Williams managed to balance twang and his own deep spirituality with a brilliantly commercial sound that exuded authenticity while remaining catchy and imminently listenable. If The Louvin Brothers were doing the Lord's work, God must only be interested in adding to the smugness of his most condescending followers, and in the endless battle between God and Satan, the brief 31 minutes of this album convinced me that whatever the stakes for my immortal soul, I'd probably be happier fighting opposite the Louvins than on their side. If Satan is real, he had some pretty effective recruiters in these two.

Afrika Bambaataa turned singles into an album that was a vision of the future and a synthesis of his various sonic inspirations. Duke Ellington achieved his dreams of popularizing long-form jazz and revitalized his career with an album culled from one legendary performance. And The Louvin Brothers discovered the potential power of building on a single theme throughout an album's run time, even if the theme they chose and the way they decided to convey it left me more worried about what I've gotten myself into here than either of the previous installments of this feature. If The Louvin Brothers are what country music looks like, the genre is everything its detractors claim, and I'm in for a rough road over the rest of this year. Though if these first three weeks have taught me anything, it's that every genre has moments of triumph, and along with those, of course, come moments of failure. If the former can continue to outpace the latter, this feature may not be the death of me.

Next week on My Year in Lists:

Patsy Cline puts on a Showcase, the Beastie Boys have a License to Ill and Sonny Rollins is a Saxophone Colossus

Read more My Year in Lists here

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