My Year in Lists: Volume II
Week Four
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's lots of self-reverential bragging, more tenuous rhymes than are usually permitted by law and, most importantly of all, an unshakably glorious celebration of being alive."-Melody Maker, on Licensed to Ill

One of the most surprising thing I have discovered in my brief tour of country music so far is how ubiquitous it is, how deeply ingrained in our culture it can be even while the critical consensus is that country music just doesn't matter. I may be deep in the "classic" era of country music right now, and that may be coloring my perceptions, but the mere fact that there is a classic era of country, and that it can feel as vibrant and enjoyable as it does, is a bit of a surprise. When our journey into the wild expanses of the genre began, I talked about how many of Hank Williams' songs have transcended their ostensible genre to become flat out American staples, and the further into the genre I tread, the more I understand the contention that country is the most American of genres.

Just saying that still sends a bit of a shiver up my spine, to be honest. I am one that often goes to bat for the American rock band (we've given the world The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, CCR, REM, and Nirvana, just to name a few), and I consider this country's musical heritage to be impressive across the board, even while freely admitting I'm an anglophile and that they have us beat when it comes to great rock bands (quick name check of some of their greats, for those who don't pay attention to the nationalities of rock bands: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Elton John, Queen, Sex Pistols, Joy Division, and The Stone Roses all originate from Britain). In fact, it is safe to say that all three of the genres I am covering in this feature are in some sense American: all have their origins here, and while other countries have contributed, and well, to each, these genres are all associated deeply with this country. Perhaps none more so than country, though.

Patsy Cline is a great example of this. She is, by any measure, one of the legends of country music. Yet on my first listen through Patsy Cline Showcase her penultimate release before her untimely death at 30 in a private plane crash, I was shocked by just how little country I seemed to be hearing. Cline has a stunning, bold, and seriously expressive voice, and it powers an endless stream of songs that are as memorable as they are powerful. The album's opening track, "I Fall to Pieces," is a song whose fame nearly transcends its excellence. It's a powerful song of heartbreak that feels quietly tragic while still incredibly catchy. If this is the sound of country music, then I am starting to see what fans are talking about.

"Foolin' Round," is a peppy, samba-like number that masks a pseudo-tell off behind a propulsive beat. Cline is telling her man to stop cheating on her, but she's also admitting that if he'll stop, she'll take him back in a second. It sounds spineless on paper, but it plays as anything but when Cline sings it. She is turning a weakness into a strength and doing so in a clever, wonderfully sing-able way. Cline's takes on two standards, "The Wayward Wind" and "South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)" contribute to the feeling that she is channeling a particular brand of Americana, even if neither is the songstress at her best.

"Crazy" was written by Willie Nelson, a country legend in his own right, yet it is a testament to Cline's inherent ability that the song is inextricably linked to her. Though it is yet another song in which Cline beats herself up over a man who has done her wrong, the pattern remains fresh simply for how powerfully she sells the material. Her take on the Cole Porter classic "True Love," trades in all the heartbreak for some idealism, and it pays off in spades.

Perhaps country music gets its reputation as the American genre because of its willingness to draw from any and every genre and its influence on subsequent developments. Early country singers like Cline nabbed show tunes (like "South of the Border" and "True Love" here), stole from blues, and didn't fear shamelessly covering hits, whether they were, strictly speaking, country music or not. And the rockabilly sensibilities of people like Hank Williams were essential to the development of rock and roll, just as much as some of the more soulful singers like Patsy Cline likely influenced folk music. Country music, at least in its nascent stages, had an unabashed love of exploration, a strong commitment to greatness, and a willingness to assimilate various different ideas and influences into a more diverse, coherent whole. In that way, at least, country music does sound a little bit like America.

At first blush, The Beastie Boys represent some of the things I hate most about hip hop: in their earliest incarnation they were a collective of frat-boy douchebags who prided themselves on their ignorance and misogyny as much as on their rhymes. This is a side of hip hop I despise, and one of the reasons I have shied away from the genre as a whole for so long. The original title of the group's debut album Licensed to Ill was Don't Be a Faggot, which is offensive even by "˜80s standards. The group didn't change the title due to a change of heart (though Adam Horovitz has since expressed regret, and the band has done much to distance themselves from their earliest insensitivities), but because Colombia Records flat-out refused to release a record with that title.

That was almost certainly part of the point. Giving hip hop its fair shake (which is difficult for me, reticent as I am to defend unabashed homophobes and misogynists), this sort of outrageousness was probably less a reflection of actual views and more a commitment to the shock value of those views. When rock and roll started to go soft in the late "˜70s, punks decided to burn down the house and take back their conception of what really rocked. A similar dissatisfaction underlines early hip hop, yet where punk rock was born out of a musical dissatisfaction, hip hop was, even in its earlier days, created more out of a cultural dissatisfaction. The "˜80s fetishized consumerism and created a culture of greed and excess that has been well documented elsewhere. So it makes sense that kids growing up with nothing in America's urban centers would stage their own form of rebellion.

The Beastie Boys cannot lay claim to many of the cultural justifications for the (lyrically) violent rebellion hip hop was primed to become, though. All three grew up in staunchly middle class homes, and as an all-white group lacked some of the well-earned discontent that African Americans weathering racial tensions could espouse. This makes it harder to like the Beastie Boys, who started their career as a hardcore band, becoming hip hop artists only after a sonic experiment garnered them a hit.

Yet Licensed to Ill is still respected as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. To a certain extent, I chalk that reputation up to the rose-tinted glasses we all wear toward entertainment that touched us as adolescents"”sometimes if you don't love an album at 14, you never will. I discussed this in the previous volume of this feature when I was bewildered by people's love for Weezer, and to a certain extent I feel the same way about Licensed to Ill.

For an album that opens with a track called "Rhymin' and Stealin'" the Boys also have tendencies to stretch the definition of a rhyme as far as it will go. There are plenty of cringe inducing lyrics here, but at their best, the Beastie Boys have a pop-culture referencing wit that earns them some of my respect. The boys reference Mutiny on the Bounty, Ali Babba and the Forty Thieves (seemingly only because of the word "thieves" and because they haven't chanted anything in a while), and bust out the completely awesome line, "My pistol is loaded, I shot Betty Crocker, deliver Colonel Sanders down to Davy Jones locker." At these heights, I see the charm of the band, but there are plenty of lows that leave me shuddering in between the highs.

There is enough here, though, for me to recognize why the album is perennially considered among the greatest hip hop albums ever, though I am at pains to point out that just because an album is full of "classics" doesn't mean it is particularly great. "Fight for Your Right" will always hearken the dawn of rap rock, in spite of the fact that it didn't invent the genre meld like it gets credit for. And while the song seems laughably silly to anyone over 18, I imagine the song is still an effective rallying cry for disaffected teenagers (except they are all probably confused over the reference to that time "your mom threw away your best porno mag."

"No Sleep till Brooklyn" is a song that will always be more memorable for a great title than for actually being a great song, and even that is just a spoof of Motorheads No Sleep "˜til Hammersmith, which is really more grammatically correct anyway. "Brass Monkey," which Wikipedia tells me is about "an alcoholic drink of the same name" (where do they come up with this stuff?) is another track that is so famous for its central refrain that I was singing it years before I ever heard the song. The beats and rhymes surrounding that refrain, though, feel little more than juvenile.

Which, to bring things back around, is kind of the point, isn't it? It would be a joke to say the Beastie Boys were aspiring to high art when they recorded Licensed to Ill (and considering the jokers, it would probably be a laugh line about the "high" in high art), or even that they aspired to art. At this point, the group has pretty much openly admitted they were stupid teenagers goofing around when they recorded the album, and that softens my reaction to it a bit. Sure, there's some homophobia, some misogyny, and some terrible rhymes on these tracks, but there's also an immature charm to them. I have no doubt that if the Beastie Boys had gone to my middle school, I would have hated them for all their toolishness and douchebaggery. But isn't that what middle school is sort of about, at least for those of you who did it right? I never really let go and unleashed my inner idiot (or at least, not with the braggadocio of these gents) back then, and if I had, it would have made different sounds. Yet there might be something to the idea of Licensed to Ill as a moment stuck in amber that, for better or worse (often worse) captured the idiocy of adolescence.

Jazz music, too, found its birth in America in the early 20th century, mixing blues and syncopation out of African musical traditions with the European conception of harmony, and adding in the all-too American ingredient of improvisation to create an entirely new sound. With its roots in songs of the slave trade and subjugation, jazz became a quintessential representation of freedom and all of the glorious benefits attached to it.
Usually I count on hip hop to bring a tendency toward bragging and a sense of grandiosity to this feature, but when Sonny Rollins named his sixth album as a band leader Saxophone Colossus it was with a sense of assuredness that he was bringing something great to the world. He was right. The opening track, "St. Thomas," is perhaps the most recognizable piece of music Rollins ever put on album, a Caribbean influenced calypso Rollins based on a song his mother sang to him in childhood. Rollins' cover of "You Don't Know What Love Is" is a decidedly bleak take on the material, with a somber beauty other versions rarely match.

"Moritat," known more popularly in other versions as the standard "Mack the Knife" is a ten minute opus that retains the sense of mischief (and slight portentousness) of the original version from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Three Penny Opera. Most American covers of the song have a carefree frivolity Rollins eschews in favor of a sense of mystery that carries throughout the track. The album closes with the simply titled "Blue 7," an eleven minute blues track composed spontaneously by Rollins that features three quietly searing solos that will stick with you long after the silence of the album's end has set in.

We will return, probably multiple times over the course of this series, to the idea of country, jazz, and hip hop as three quintessentially American genres. For now, it is safe to say that each represents a part of the American spirit, and an angle of our national character. Country music exemplifies our tendency toward myth-making and storytelling, our drive to expand and explore, and our willingness to take the best ideas from wherever we find them. Hip hop embodies a cultural dissatisfaction and distrust, but it also reflects a modern conception of the American dream in all of its gilded excess. Jazz music represents our quest for freedom, and, I'd like to think, a subtle recognition that mistakes of the past can be rectified in a future rife with the verve of improvisation. For better or worse, each of these genres can give us a view of our country and of the cultural roots from which we have sprung. If this week is any indication, we may find its for better.

Next week on My Year in Lists:
Ray Charles brings us Modern Sounds in Country and Western, Run-DMC are Raising Hell, and Stan Kenton lights a Cuban Fire.

Read more My Year in Lists here
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