Songs That Might Save Me From Vecna

I don’t think I can name a favorite song (unlike films and novels, my favorite songs are always in flux), but here are some that might do the trick for me if I needed to escape Vecna.

A Sort of Homecoming, by U2. This one comes first to mind. One of the best songs ever written, providing “a high-road out from here” (Vecna’s nightmare), with a melody and lyrics forming a perfect liberation: “And still we run, we run and don’t look back…”

Keep Me A Space, by Glasvegas. A song about childhood friends that drift apart but then come together again (very reminiscent of Stranger Things 4). Compulsive and drenched in emotion.

Pictures of You, by the Cure. I thought of this one when Max remembered all the images of the good times she had with her friends.

Ode to My Family, by the Cranberries. Like “Pictures of You”, but for family memories.

Disarm, by The Smashing Pumpkins. Child abuse is one of the many traumas Vecna loves to exploit in his victims, and this song is about an abused boy overcoming his retributive killer instincts.

Release, by Pearl Jam. The repeated cry of “release me” says it all.

Prime Mover, by Rush. This song feels liberating. “Anything can happen” involves magnetic needles “moving back and forth” (shades of shadow gates) and suggests limitless possibilities if you have the will for them.

— These three are probably too depressing for most people. For me they might work.

No Surprises, by Radiohead. About the “handshake of carbon monoxide”, or the way we live our unhappy lives which amounts to killing ourselves. Yet it’s so transcendent, almost purely so.

Graffiti, by Chvrches. An ode to childhood friendship inspired by Stand By Me, so it’s a perfect Stranger Things theme. But it’s about the disappointing fantasies of kids who want their childhood relationships to continue into adulthood. “I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old… And now we never will, never will…”

You’ll Be Mine, by The Psychedelic Furs. This one is risky. The clock theme (“like the ticking of the time”) and refrain (“you’ll be mine”) sounds like it’s Vecna’s song, especially with the eschatological overtones. But I like it so much, perhaps it would be like using Vecna’s own apocalyptic weapons against him.

If You Could Live (or Relive) Two Years in the Past

Here’s an interesting exercise: If you could go back in time and live out two full years in America, any two years between 1913-1992, what would they be? In other words, sometime after all continental states were admitted to the union, but before the World Wide Web was made public. My years of choice are 1925 and 1973.

The Year 1925

The mid-twenties in general were a time to be alive. It was the ultimate decade of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Presidents Warren Harding (1921-23) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) kept the nation out of war and needless costly foreign intervention. They raised the standard of living for millions. Technological advances and mass production made consumer goods affordable, and the spread of electrical power created a demand for appliances. Many people could buy cars, yielding a new world of paved roads and stores. New York became the largest city in the world, overtaking London. Child mortality rates dropped across the nation. Money was spent lavishly on public education. Women were now able to vote, giving the country 26 million new voters. People danced the nights away, to the latest music on radio. There was Prohibition, which was bad itself, but yielded the benefit of the black market with bootlegging and speakeasies; in effect the price of booze went way down. If there was a decade I could visit during the first half of the twentieth century, it would be the 20s hands down, and the particular year I choose is 1925.

Here are some of the note-worthies of 1925.

Great Books. Some say the greatest year for books was 1925. Books like An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby were hugely influential.

The First Motel. Hotels had been around since 1794, but the first motel opened in California in 1925, located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It charged a rate of $1.25 per night. Motels hinted that car culture would soon take over the American way of life.

Gitlow v. New York. This year the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling: that the right of free speech protects a person from state interference as much as federal interference. The Court had previously held, in Barron v. Baltimore (1833), that the Constitution’s Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, but Gitlow reversed that precedent and established that while the Bill of Rights was designed to limit the power of the federal government, the denial of these rights by a state government constitutes a denial of due process which is prohibited under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters. In this year the Court also held that children did not have to attend public schools. States that made such a requirement were acting unconstitutionally.

Scopes Monkey Trial. In the summer of 1925, the Scopes Trial was all the rage — staged deliberately to attract publicity. Tennessee upheld a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools, and fined Scopes $100, although the state supreme court overturned the ruling on a technicality. The nation would have to wait until 1968 for SCOTUS’s substantive ruling: that banning evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since the bans are primarily religious. But the Scopes trial itself was a benchmark in forcing the question of whether or not evolution should be taught in public schools.

Weird Tales and Adventure (“The Camp-Fire”). The pulp magazines became wildly popular in the 20s. Weird Tales — still regarded today as the most important and influential of all fantasy magazines — had launched its first issue in 1923, and in 1925 began publishing an issue every month. Adventure Magazine, started back in 1910, had grown so popular by the 20s that its letters page, “The Camp-Fire” (not to be confused with the youth development organization by the same name, that also started in 1910), had become a major cultural phenomenon. The Camp-Fire featured editorials and fiery discussions about all sorts of topics, usually about whether or not the author had the right facts in his or her story. Historical accuracy, geographical accuracy, the kind of weapons the characters used — all of these and more were debated with passion. By 1924, a number of Camp-Fire Stations — locations where Adventure readers could hook up — were established across the U.S. and even in other countries. In 1925 one of the Camp-Fire’s most fiery debates was over the character of Julius Caesar. The writers often embellished their lives, reinvented themselves with outlandish fictions (even in their bio sketches); some were con artists. By 1925 Adventure was unquestionably the most important pulp magazine in the world, let alone the U.S. I’d love to live in 1925 as a subscriber to Weird Tales and Adventure, and as a Camp-Fire freak.

Drag Balls. The tradition of masquerade and civil balls (“drag balls”) goes back to 1869 in Harlem. By the mid-1920s, at the height of Prohibition, they were attracting thousands of people of different races and social classes—whether straight or gay. We tend to think of Stonewall (in 1969) as the beginning of the gay rights movement, but decades before that, Harlem’s drag balls were part of an LGBTQ nightlife-culture that gave us gay and lesbian enclaves. What fun. Only after the Depression would this libertine culture fall out of favor, as many would blame this cultural experimentation for the economic collapse.

The Year 1973

The early 70s were gloomy and nihilistic, but that’s what generated so much artistic creativity and cultural progress. Disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage coalesced in the ’60s aftermath, yielding introspection and existentialism. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. The dress and hair styles were awful, granted, but aside from that, it was a groovy period. The best year in particular is 1973. I was alive that year, but so tiny and young that I remember nothing about it. I’d love to go back and live out the year as an adult.

Here are the note-worthies of 1973:

The Exorcist. The best and scariest film of all time is released. I’d give anything to see this masterpiece on screen when everyone was fainting in the isle and running from the theaters.

The Godfather. The epic film wins Best Picture, becoming the new Citizen Kane.

Selling England by the Pound. The best album by the best band of all time. Or at least, Genesis was the best band while Peter Gabriel was involved.

Dark Side of the Moon. The most important album by the most important band of all time. Even if The Wall is Floyd’s best, Dark Side’s influence can’t be exaggerated.

All in the Family. The best episodes — meaning the most offensive and insanely hilarious ones — from the best TV sitcom of all time come from the late part of season 3 and the early part of season 4, which spanned the year of 1973: “Archie Goes Too Far”, “Archie Learns His Lesson”, “The Battle of the Month”, “We’re Having a Heat Wave”, “Henry’s Farewell”, “The Games Bunkers Play”, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Wig”, to name the very best episodes.

Roe v. Wade. Landmark supreme court ruling protecting the right to abortions.

The Paris Peace Accords. After 16 years, American involvement in the Vietnam War ended. Peace at last.

The War Powers Resolution. The congressional resolution (vetoed by Richard Nixon but then overridden) limits the president’s ability to initiate or escalate military actions abroad. It states that “the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply” whenever the American armed forces are deployed overseas. Many presidents since then have failed to comply with this resolution, and for the worse.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. The American Psychiatric Association declares that homosexuality is not a mental illness or sickness, and removes from its manuals the listing of same-sex activity as a disorder.

The Endangered Species Act. The most comprehensive legislation enacted (in any nation) for the protection of endangered species.

Scores that still score

These are the scores I play most often when I write. Novels, essays, blogposts — so much of it inspired by the following music.

1. Conan the Barbarian, Basil Poledouris, 1982. The film is so operatic that it seems to have been crafted for the score rather than vice-versa — nothing like the cheesy fantasy films that otherwise plagued the ’80s. I watch Conan every year at least once, and listen to the score every month at least twice. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme recur, and a gothic choir creeps in almost unnoticeably on the slow melodies. Then there is the waltz, one of my favorite pieces, for the orgy scene, which reminds me of Ravela repetitive waltz that escalates to a Bolero-like crescendo. Conan is the masterpiece score, and I dare you to name one better.

Try these: Riders of Doom, Civilization, The Kitchen & The Orgy.

2. Fire Walk With Me, Angelo Badalamenti, 1992. This score blends smoky jazz, ’50s pop, and dark noir into a masterpiece that still could use more appreciation. In the ’90s Fire Walk With Me was cursed and reviled (everyone wanted a Twin Peaks film, not a psychological horror film) but now many Lynch fans consider it one of his best, if not his best, and that’s just as true of the score. Even the most subdued compositions are unnerving and menacing. Never has a saxophone gone through me like an awl. Julee Cruise puts in an appearance – as no Twin Peaks film would be complete without her – singing “Questions in a World of Blue”, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes (Laura at the bar) I’ve seen in a film.

Try these: Fire Walk With Me, Laura Palmer’s Theme, Questions in a World of Blue.

3. The Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore, 2001-2003. Howard Shore has always been a genius, and The Lord of the Rings opus is what he had been working towards his whole career. All the major themes sound exactly as one imagines the cultures of Middle-Earth to sound: the Celtic Shire theme with fiddles and whistles; the elegant Rivendell piece with violins and chimes; the unnerving Lothlorien tune with cellos and haunting choruses; the brass and percussive Isengard chants; the raw Moria theme that goes deeper and deeper; the horse-rider music of Rohan with the hardanger fiddle; the stately and grand anthem of Minas Tirith; the gothic Nazgul theme with the raging choir; the bittersweet departure at the Grey Havens. It’s nothing short of miraculous.

Try these: The Breaking of the Fellowship, The Fields of Pelennor, The Grey Havens.

4. Marco Polo, Ennio Morricone, 1982. This guy has scored countless films and TV series, and it’s a wonder that his output is top-notch quality regardless of how much he’s getting paid for it. Marco Polo was an ’80s TV series, and I doubt he was compensated for it as he deserved to be. The tones and textures are some of the most beautiful pieces I’ve heard — I’m surprised it’s not more widely appreciated. It’s only been released in Italy, and only available on vinyl through amazon, though most of the pieces can be listened to on youtube.

Try these: Mai Li’s Song, The Legend of the Great Wall, First Love

5. Passion, Peter Gabriel, 1989. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that it’s one of the worst Jesus films of all time. But the score is one of the best ever made for any film — as how could it not be, with Peter Gabriel composing? Here he mines Armenian, Egyptian and Kurdish melodies in order to bring third-world rhythms into a western ambit, and the result is pure gold. I think of the Middle-East and Africa when I listen to Passion — not in a religious way, but in the way I imagine Gabriel trying to honor its peoples.

Try these: Zaar, Open, A Different Drum.

6. Antarctica, Vangelis, 1983. I’m one of those fools who believes that Chariots of Fire is a bit overrated (both the film and the score), and that the lesser known Antarctica is what earns Vangelis his immortality. This soundtrack is simply spellbinding. You can hear ice in between the notes, and it sounds as cold, solitary, and vast as the South Pole itself. The film itself is okay; it’s about a pack of dogs abandoned in the antarctic, but not at all essential to appreciate the music. I often nap to it in the winter seasons.

Try these: Song of White, Deliverance.

7. Sunshine, John Murphy and Underworld, 2007. Sunshine is about a team of astronauts who take the suicidal step of trying to reignite a dying Sun, and the score — an onslaught of whooshes and blares — goes perfectly with the visuals. It achieves what most composers can only aspire to, ratcheting up tension with insistent themes that stay with you for a long time.

Try these: Kaneda’s Death, The Surface of the Sun.

 

Inspiring Covers

Here’s a collection of covers I find particularly inspiring. Most of them aren’t catalogued covers you can purchase for download; they’ve been uploaded to Youtube (click on the links) by talented artists who could use some appreciation.

1. When the Levee Breaks, covered by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and artists from around the globe, 2022 (Original artist: Led Zeppelin, 1971, and before that, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, 1929). This is part of Playing For Change’s Song Around the World campaign, and what better song to raise awareness for climate justice. It may very well be the best cover I’ve ever heard.

2. Losing It, covered by Brody Dolyniuk and Nina DiGregorio, 2020 (Original artist: Rush, 1982). I often lose it when hearing this song anyway (some days I think it’s my favorite Rush song), and as a tribute to Neal Peart it has extra power. The cover is simply flawless, and the woman on the violin especially nailed it.

3. Don’t Stop Believin’, covered by Halocene, Violet Orlandi, Lauren Babic, and Audra Miller, 2021 (Original artist: Journey, 1981). It’s been played to death (it became the first catalog track to sell more than 2 million downloads in 2008) that a cover might seem trite, but I have to hand it to this gang, they really, really put more soul into it than Steve Perry and Co. did. They performed this after a year of Covid, and let’s face it, it’s exactly the song we all needed to keep going.

4. Breaking the Habit, covered by The Broken View, 2020 (Original artist: Linkin Park, 2003). Starting this one soft works wonders. It builds to a crescendo with all the rage and pain to match Linkin Park’s, and I think this band may have even surpassed Park’s original.

5. Zombie, covered by Bad Wolves, 2018 (Original artist: The Cranberries, 1994). Some Cranberries fans objected to this band for releasing it too soon after Dolores’ death, but I thought it was a splendid tribute, and still do.

6. In the New Year, covered by Halley O’Malley, 2015 (Original artist: The Walkmen, 2008). “In the New Year” is one of those harsh-sounding songs that ratchets up the tension each round, and it’s probably impossible to do justice with a literal cover. This more subdued approach gets it almost just as good.

7. Take on Me, covered by Calpurnia, 2019 (Original artist: A-ha, 1985). An iconic ’80s song given a work-over by Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard’s band.

8. Here is the House, covered by Saga, 2012 (Original artist: Depeche Mode, 1986). It’s an instrumental cover that I sometimes put on replay when writing horror fiction. Stirs the imagination just right.

9. Let’s Go, covered by Double Life, 2020 (Original artist: The Cars, 1979). My final two are for nostalgia sake. I was obsessed with the Cars in my youth, and while I don’t care much for them anymore, I have to admit this cover of “Let’s Go” works a certain magic.

10. Shadows of the Night, covered by Project Kylex, 2017 (Original artist: Pat Benatar, 1982). This cover is by a 10 and 11-year old, but they do a hell of a good job, and I include it since “Shadows of the Night” was essentially the song that got me listening to radio as a kid, and exploring different sorts of music I hadn’t known existed until that point in my life.

The 50th Anniversary of the Nashua Public Library

This year the Nashua Public Library will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the months of November and December. The celebration will include an exhibit of library artifacts and a slideshow of photographs in the gallery, a banner and a special anniversary edition library card, and also special displays of material from the collection that were released in 1971 — books, films, music, TV series, and events. The library’s actual anniversary is September 26 (when the dedication ceremony took place), so technically the celebration should already be under way. So I’m doing my own personal homage to the library and the year 1971. Here’s looking back at what was happening that year: books that would leave their mark, like The Exorcist; rock ‘n roll masterpieces like Zeppelin IV; the debut of All in the Family and unprecedented political incorrectness. It turns out that 1971 was a critical year in many ways — it started the ’70s in the way 1983 started the ’80s — an important year (though I wasn’t old enough to appreciate most of it) and suitable moment to open a town library. There were shifts in the cultural milieu that would have lasting impact, and here are some of the highlights.

1. The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. It started with the book in ’71, even if the film pushed it into infamy two years later. Not great literature by any means (unlike the film, which was a cinematic masterpiece), but Blatty presented demonic possession like no one has done since, and never scarier.

2. All in the Family, by Normal Lear. The best TV sitcom of all time hit its peak in ’73-’74 (the excellent third and fourth seasons), but it began on that fateful January in 1971 (you can watch the full premiere here), when Archie and Mike screamed at each other about racism over a Sunday brunch. The show would keep going to the tail end of the ’70s.

3. The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. The 50th anniversary for this one has already been widely celebrated. It was a book ahead of its time, making its urgent plea for preservation and a clean environment, showing how species disappear when food runs out or pollution is left unchecked.

4. Led Zeppelin IV, by Led Zeppelin. Yeah, this one. The opening “Black Dog”, the medieval “Battle of Evermore” (my favorite), the epic “Stairway to Heaven”,  the ballad “Going to California”, and everything else… hard to believe this masterpiece has 50 years under its belt.

5. Harold and Maude, by Hal Ashby. A morbid love affair between a suicidal teen and a 79-year old woman was widely panned at the time of its release, but today it’s much more appreciated it deserves. One of the darkest comedies ever made, and a fitting start to the ’70s era of creative cinema.

6. The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin. In the middle of writing the Earthsea Trilogy, Le Guin released this sci-fic tale of a world racked by violence and environmental catastrophe. One man’s dreams controls the fate of humanity, and a psychiatrist manipulates those dreams for his own purposes. I’m reading this now and lamenting that we don’t have writers like this anymore.

7. Hell House, by Richard Matheson. Stephen King calls it the best haunted house story of all time. Perhaps. It’s about two previous expeditions to the awful house that ended up with the investigators killed or going insane, and now a new investigation is under way.

8. The Monster at the End of this Book, by Jon Stone. It may sound strange, but this book terrified me as a kid. My mother got for me about three years after publication. Hysterical images like these petrified the shit out of me and kept me awake at night. I dreaded the monster at the end, even knowing it was just Grover. The things that scare little kids.

9. The French Connection, by William Friedkin. Known for the infamous car chase that could have gotten people killed (it was shot illegally without Friedkin getting anyone’s permission, or without even closing off the streets), the film was a landmark shot in the “induced documentary” style that put Friedkin on the map.

10. Nursery Cryme, by Genesis. Prog rock excellence from Genesis in their glory days. In the epic “Musical Box” a girl knocks her boy cousin’s head off with a croquet mallet, and his spirit returns to lust for her and assault her. In “The Fountain of Salmacis” Hermaphroditus is seduced by the nymph Salmacis and becomes fused with her. Great imagination on display here.

11. The Electric Company, by Paul Dooley. Sesame Street (launched in ’69) had pride of place when I was growing up, but The Electric Company (’71-’77) was my favorite and the reason I became a fan of Spider-Man. Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader was pretty cool too. This is his first appearance on the show.

12. Dragonquest, by Anne McCaffrey. Arguably the best of The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the second book involves complex storylines. In the first book Lessa traveled back in time centuries in order to bring an army forward. In this one F’nor takes on an even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread forever.

13. The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. Like The Exorcist, the book would be made into a successful 1973 film. It was also awarded on its strength as a novel, receiving the Best Novel Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. it’s about the assassination attempt of Charles De Gaulle, and it holds up well today.

14. A Clockwork Orange, by Stanley Kubrick. Kubric went for the jugular in adapting the 1962 novel, depicting a miserable journey through a world of decaying cities, psycho adolescents, and nightmare technologies of rehabilitative punishment. Viewers were stunned. Welcome to the ’70s.

15. The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, by Robert Foster. Before the age of the internet and Tolkien webpages, this was my go-to book for Tolkien lore (which I acquired, I think, in either ’79 or ’80). It was as complete as I could imagine a resource for Tolkien’s world. How little I knew back then.

16. Who’s Next, by The Who. A song like “Baba O’Riley” comes along once in a blue moon, and an album like Who’s Next? even more infrequently. I’ve never been a Who fan, but I do love this album, and I could play “Baba O’Riley” any day of the week.

 

As for events, in 1971…

17. The digital age began. We don’t tend to associate the early ’70s with that, but January 1971 is when the microprocessor was invented.

18. The voting age was lowered to 18. The 2th Amendment was finally ratified, after the drafting age had been lowered to 18 during World War II. The drinking age, of course, still needs to be lowered to 18 (if not abolished altogether).

19. Charles Manson was executed. He and three of his darlings got the death penalty.

20. Disney World opened. I’ve still never been and probably will never make it.

All was not rosy, however, in 1971. Probably the worst thing that happened was…

21. The gold standard was abandoned. Nixon announced that the United States would no longer convert dollars to gold at a fixed value, thus completely abandoning the gold standard. From 1971 onwards productivity increased as wages flatlined; Gross Domestic Product surged but the shares going to workers plummeted; house prices skyrocketed; hyperinflation increased; currencies crashed. The personal savings rate went down the toilet; incarceration rates went up by a factor of five; divorce rates shot up too, and the number of people in their late 20s living with their parents increased; the number of lawyers quadrupled.

Graphically, this is what happened in 1971, thanks to Nixon’s abandoning the gold standard (click to enlarge). The graphs come from the WTF Happened in 1971? website.

No denying that 1971 is a year to pay homage to, in more ways than one. Happy anniversary, Nashua Public Library!

Hands Across the Ocean: A Song Remade

When a band radically remakes its own song, it’s like stepping into a parallel world to hear it. I’m not talking about different mixes, which are common enough. I’m talking about an entire reconstruction, that takes the kernel idea and goes in a very different direction.

“Hands Across the Ocean” is the lead track on The Mission U.K.’s Grains of Sand album. It was a popular hit that climbed the charts back in 1990. Listen here:

🎶

Every time I think of you it’s like the last beat of my heart
The memory of leaving you is tearing me apart
No waves, no tears, no backward glance
But I’ll always hold you dear
Never regret but I’ll never forget
‘Cause there’s not enough heaven here

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean
Ocean

And every time I’m missing you I just can’t let it show
And every time I want to cry I just can’t let it go
Wine and song and masquerade and refuge holds me dear
Ribbons and lace and daisy chains
But there’s not enough heaven here

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water, reaching out for you
Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

Bangles, beads and lipstick games
And comfort holds me dear
Velvet and lace and perfumed sheets
But there’s not enough heaven
Not enough heaven here

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water, reaching out for you
Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

Ocean
Ocean
Ocean

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

You’ve probably heard that plenty if you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s. But years later a remade version of the song (sometimes called the Tim Palmer version) emerged and was put on the band’s 2006 Anthology compilation. Few people know of this version. It’s not just a remix shaking things up a bit differently; it’s a whole different thing that sounds almost nothing like the original. The chorus shares the same lyrics but that’s it. The melodies and tones are new. I wonder if the band members weren’t satisfied with the original (it is kind of a cheesy top-40 piece) and decided to “un-popularize” it, by starting over from scratch, it seems. Whatever made them do it, it is a much better song. Listen here:

🎶

Hope, hope springs eternal
I am a beggar and I need all the wisdom love endows
And I, I believe
In destiny, and all that will be will come to be

Some will score, come what may
Knock if they will, and some may say
I am a dreamer, and I got my head in the clouds
Cause I, I believe
In the sanctity of the love between you and me

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

Love is giving, knowing and forgiving
Love is you, and love is me
Love is all we ever wanted to be
Embrace this brave affection sweeping through your heart and soul
Lay your temples bare, and heed the sound of this calling call

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water, calling out for you
Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

There is no need for fighting
There is no worth in hate
There is no call for the dogs of war
And Armageddon must wait

There’s hope in the hearts of you and me
And sins in angels and holy men
That the deaf will hear, the blind will see
And the sky will be gathered together again

Hands across the ocean
Hands across the ocean

Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water, calling out for you
Hands across the ocean, reaching out for you
Across the waves, across the water
Hands, across the ocean

No-Filler Albums: The Ones I Listen to Start to Finish

I saw a meme recently asking for albums that have no bad or mediocre songs, in other words, the albums you often play from start to finish without skipping any tracks. I’m going to allow myself the leeway of a single bad or mediocre track in order to get a top ten list, otherwise I could probably only list half that amount. Even the best albums usually have a couple tracks that I’ll skip or omit from playlists. But not the following. These I often listen to from start to finish.

1. Achtung Baby, U2, 1992. When U2 reinvented themselves by “burning down the Joshua Tree”, they exceeded their ambitions with a masterpiece completely devoid of mediocrity. Its theme is lethal relationships, played to the tune of distorted vocals and guitars. “Zoo Station” takes the lead with this industrial edge. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” is as addictive today as it was in ’91. “One”, like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, remains widely loved and used at weddings, its bleak message thoroughly misunderstood. “Until the End of the World” is the brilliant conversation between Judas and Jesus; “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” a love-hate song that demands to be loved; “So Cruel” a just-as-good sequel. Then comes “The Fly”, showcasing the Edge’s finest guitar work ever. “Mysterious Ways” captures the bliss of physical love, and “Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is the next-day guilt trip that renews promises of faithfulness. Then “Ultraviolet”, which is the album’s absolute best. “Acrobat” is just sublime, and “Love is Blindness” caps off the album in haunting melodies of mystery. An album like Achtung Baby comes once in a lifetime.

2. Up, Peter Gabriel, 2002. Gabriel’s least accessible album is a raw and wildly imaginative series of meditations on death and grief, and is among the best music I’ve ever heard. “The Barry Williams Show” is a satirical piece that doesn’t belong, but aside from that one misfire, everything is excellent. “Darkness” is the raw opener, a prog piece with abrasive verses meshing with smooth refrains. “Growing Up” is the closest thing to a radio score, but still a bit cerebral for the Billboard charts. The rhythms of “Sky Blue” are as miraculous as those of “Red Rain” from So, and what a coup to use the Blind Boys of Alabama at the end. “No Way Out” is another precious gift and a prequel of sorts to “I Grieve”, the musing on death that Gabriel nails so perfectly. “My Head Sounds Like That” and “More Than This” put us on the road to some measure of recovery. “Signal To Noise” serves as the incredible climax, with haunting melodies, exotic percussion, and guest vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, rolling into an orchestra/percussion combo that builds to a raging crescendo. And finally, “The Drop” leaves us serenely pondering the mystery of death. There are days I call Up my favorite album of all time (if I’m in the mood to pretend Achtung Baby was never made), and aside from poor Barry Williams, I never skip a track.

3. God’s Own Medicine, The Mission UK, 1986. Talk about every track pulling its weight. The opening “Wasteland” broils with conflict between a strict religious upbringing and libertine freedom; in some ways it’s the quintessential Mission UK song. “Bridges Burning” has a hellish chorus screaming in torment; another gem. “Garden of Delight” is a deep sonorous piece set to a chamber orchestra, without guitar and drums, and a strong favorite of mine. “Stay With Me” is a top-40 sounding waltz that somehow doesn’t belong, and yet is nevertheless quite good. “Blood Brother” cries out in a raging homage to The Cult. “Let Sleeping Dogs Die” is infectiously dismal. “Sacrilege” celebrates that without any subtlety, to a racing beat. “Dance on Glass” casts a hideous spell of fever dreams. “And the Dance Goes On” is another great track. “Severina” has the haunting guest vocals of Julianne Regan, and is a beautiful ode to pagan ritual. “Love Me to Death” is a wonderfully oversexed trashy gothic ballad, and “Island in a Stream” cries out in the end for a vain rescue. I’m sure I’ve listened to God’s Own Medicine from start to finish over a thousand times.

4. Screen Violence, Chvrches, 2021. Still a new album as I write this, Screen Violence is the album of the fucking year, unquestionably Chvrches’ best, with not a single track cheating the listener. “Asking for a Friend” is a slow-builder about regret, and develops some of the most haunting textures I’ve heard in a song. “He Said She Said” is the popular screed against misogyny, with thick bass and perfect timings of beat drops in the chorus. “California” explores the dark side of living in that state, and people with crushed dreams; it has an incredibly dreamy chorus. With “Violent Delights”, it’s all the drums. “How Not to Drown” is the treat featuring Robert Smith of The Cure, with a macabre piano and synth. “Final Girl” taps into horror-movie tropes in a crowd-pleaser that evokes New Order. “Good Girls” blasts cancel culture (good for you, Lauren) through slow and persuasive rhythms. “Lullabies” is disarmingly lovely, and “Nightmares” rails about the challenge of forgiveness around futuristic sound effects. “Better If You Don’t” is the only track that sounds mediocre on a first listen, but it has grown on me considerably. This is about as perfect as albums get.

5. Automatic for the People, R.E.M., 1992. I’m not the strongest R.E.M. fan, but Murmur, Document, and Out of Time are solid albums, and Automatic for the People is a stupendous masterpiece. It’s the band’s darkest and most subdued and transcendent effort, and “Drive” announces this unexpected approach at the outset. Every track that follows delves deeper into the darkness: “Try Not to Breathe”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Sweetness Follows”, “Monty Got a Raw Deal”, “Ignoreland”, “Star Me Kitten”, “Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming” (which seems to blend the attempts of “You Are the Everything” and “Hairshirt” from Green, this time getting it right), and “Find the River”. All these songs are terrific and made R.E.M. one of the biggest bands on the planet. It remains a curiosity to me that the world was so receptive to these quiet brooding tracks that deal so heavily with death and departure. It was released while I was living in Africa, and a friend sent the cassette tape to me; I will forever associate Automatic for the People with living on my mountain in Lesotho, listening to every single song on the walkman while pondering depressing things.

6. Red, Taylor Swift, 2012. Don’t laugh. If you ignore her early country efforts, Taylor Swift is a major talent, and Red is a 21st-century masterpiece. “State of Grace” is the opening mind-blower that carries Swift way out of her own reach; I’m amazed that anyone (let alone a hitherto country-singer like Swift) could write this piece of excellence. “Red” is a song that keeps growing on you with shrewd vocal manipulations and understated rhythms. “Treacherous” is melodically sublime in its whispers. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is the classic rock track of the album. “All Too Well” is judged by many to be Swift’s best song of all time, though I say second best after “State of Grace”. “22” is something I want to get up and dance to every time I hear it. “We Are Never Getting Back Together Again” is the top-40 earworm that, surprisingly, never wears out its welcome (unlike her later smashes like “Shake It off” and “Blank Space”). “I Almost Do” is a throw-back to Swift’s country days but not bad at all. “Stay Stay Stay” has no right to sound as good as it does, with its giddy upbeat mandolin and handclaps, but damn, it’s compulsive. “The Last Time” is the only weak spot on the album, a duet that falls rather flat. “Holy Ground” is an awesome ripper that ends way too soon. “Sad Beautiful Tragic” is a heartbreaking waltz. “The Lucky One” laments the curse of fame in solid melodies. “Everything Has Changed” is a duet that gels perfectly (unlike “The Last Time”). “Starlight” fuses her old country sound with the new pop to pleasing effect. And the the closing song “Begin Again” is almost as strong as “All Too Well”. What can I say? I listen to Red quite often, from start to finish with no apologies.

7. And Then There Were Three, Genesis, 1978. Genesis was at their best with Peter Gabriel at the helm, and the band’s unquestionable high points are Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Even so, those albums have tracks that I sometimes skip over. And Then There Were Three is the one Genesis album I play from start to finish every time. There’s not a single note of banality and every track makes me feel like I’m living inside an epic. It kicks off with the powerhouse of “Down and Out”, segues into the beautiful “Undertow”, then to the western-themed “Ballad of Big”, and then to another soft piece (like “Undertow”) “Snowbound”. The longest track is “Burning Rope” and is one of the best. “Deep in the Motherlode” is my favorite track and another western (“Go west young man”), and “Many Too Many” is pure melancholy. “Scenes from a Night’s Dream” picks up the pace with a fun narrative, and “Say It’s Alright Joe” and “The Lady Lies” hark back to the band’s prog years. The final song points forward, with the first Genesis hit to crack the top-40 charts, “Follow You Follow Me”. Jesus, the ’70s were the days that crowd pleasers were tacked on at the end, not front-loaded to hook the lowest common pedestrian. I adore every track on this album in the way a top-40 junkie adores Miley Cyrus.

8. Made of Rain, The Psychedelic Furs, 2020. Remember these guys? This is their long-awaited comeback, after 30 years of silence. “The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll” opens with aggressive atmosphere, and makes us realize how much we’ve missed the band. “Don’t Believe” has droning addictive synths, “You’ll Be Mine” is a strong favorite, and “Wrong Train” asks how we all get life so wrong. “This I’ll Never Be Like Love” is a wonderful slow-piece, the calm before the storm-trilogy of “Ash Wednesday”, “Come All Ye Faithful”, and “No One” — the best tracks on the album aside from “You’ll Be Mine”. Moody dark stuff. “Tiny Hands” is the only weak track, but it’s not really bad and I often listen to it anyway. “Hide the Medicine” resumes the compulsive beats and lyrics, and “Turn Your Back on Me” and “Stars” add up to nice exit points. Now that’s all worth a 30-year wait, when every bloody song pays off.

9. Hold Your Fire, Rush, 1987. To call this the best Rush album would be a grievous heresy (though I do say it’s the band’s fourth best, which many consider heresy enough). But it is the one Rush album I play start to finish without skipping anything. Yes, even “Tai Shan”. They’re all good, Rush fans be damned. It leads with “Force Ten”, a suitable opener with its heavy bass and distinguishing percussions. Then the ephemeral “Time Stands Still” which everyone loves, even if they can’t admit it. Third is the oxymoronic “Open Secrets”, with great guitar action, followed the come-down ballad “Second Nature”. “Prime Mover” is my favorite (it should have been a single), a rocking piece about an unmoved mover setting everything in motion, after which “anything can happen”. “Lock and Key” is a close second favorite, the album’s darkest piece, about the killer instincts in all of us, to a killer tune. “Mission” is simply gorgeous. “Turn the Page” is fast-paced with great guitars. “Tai-Shan” is a slow-moving spiritual song, beckoning us up the sacred Chinese mountain; ignore the haters, it’s a great song. And “High Water” ends on our mystical connection to the ocean. I love each and every one of these tracks, and won’t hold my fire against the naysayers.

10. Battle Born, The Killers, 2012. Hot Fuss is the best Killers’ album hands down, but there are tracks on it that I sometimes skip over. Battle Born I savor from start to finish. It opens with the forceful “Flesh and Bone”, then to the smash hit “Runaways”. The next two hit unexpected emotional highs, “The Way it Was” and “Here With Me”. Then the urgently satisfying “A Matter of Time”. “Deadlines and Commitments” is a favorite of mine, followed by an even stronger favorite, “Miss Atomic Bomb”. “Rising Tide” channels the Hot Fuss era, while “Heart of a Girl” comes down subdued and graceful. “From Here on Out” is a fun quick-hitting piece, and then come the last two gems: the incredibly moving “Be Still”, and the title-rack that goes out guns blazing. Battle Born is a severely underrated album; I love the entire thing.

Screen Violence: Chvrches’ Most Retributive Album, and Surprisingly Their Best

This is a record that decidedly speaks to the bullied and beaten down, but without the condescending sense of pandering that usually attends pop-star exhortations to embrace your special-ness, or whatever. Mayberry sounds like she’s been through the ringer, but is still ready to hand you a baseball bat and take on the assholes. (AV Club)

Lauren Mayberry has put up with a lot in her musical career – misogyny, rape and death threats, toxic expectations, you name it. But, as her duet with Robert Smith of The Cure suggests, she doesn’t let the shitheads grind her down. Screen Violence is a comeback album, after what many consider to be Chvrches’ weakest (Love is Dead), and I concur with those who call it the band’s best album to date. Though I have a hard time beating up on Love is Dead — it does, after all, contain the best Chvrches song and still does — there’s no denying a lot of its tracks pander to mainstream pop. Why the band brought in outside producers to help on that album I don’t know. They’ve always had the mojo to stick to themselves, and in Screen Violence they not only reattain that independent confidence, they go one better than what they’ve ever done before. There’s not a single song on this album that I skip over when listening to it, and I can’t say that about any of the other three.

If you have nostalgia for the old horror films of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, this album will be a special bonus. The band members are horror fans, and Mayberry evidently saw metaphors in women being stalked and slaughtered as she was writing songs for Screen Violence. The metaphors aren’t always subtle, for example, in the track “Final Girl”, where Mayberry alludes to the single girl who makes it to the end of the horror film:

In the final cut
In the final scene
There’s a final girl
And you know that she should be screaming

There’s a haunting aesthetic to the album, as Mayberry sings about loneliness and fear in a world full of assholes. Usually I’m left cold when bands get too retributive in their music, because that usually comes at the expense of good music. The politics overtake the art. If you’re U2 or Tracy Chapman, you can get away with it, but they’re exceptions. When Taylor Swift tried it, Reputation ended up a shitty album — and that’s usually the ordained result. But Screen Violence is another exception. For all its pissed-off overtones and social commentary, it’s actually a very mature album. But don’t take my word for it, listen to the entire thing. Here are youtube links to all the tracks, and my descriptions of what I think they’re essentially about.

1. Asking for a Friend – about personal regrets, lying and cheating, and penitence, but rising from the ash determined to do better

2. He Said She Said – a diatribe against gaslighting and the toxic standards placed on women; the album’s best track — which is impressive since it’s also the album’s angriest

3. California — freedom in failure; knowing when to give up because something isn’t working; in the context of California, it may seem like a dream state, but you might get mired there and die poor because you were a careerist ambitious person

4. Violent Delights — drowning in panic and paralysis; how the world takes its toll on you; Mayberry’s anonymous rape and death threats are in the background of this track

5. How Not to Drown — about not letting assholes grind you down, sung with Robert Smith; you can imagine The Cure writing a song like this

6. Final Girl — about perseverance and resisting pressures women face in the music business, while feeling powerless to change those pressures

7. Good Girls — writing off heroes who turn out to be assholes, and moving on; making peace with the way the world works

8. Lullabies — the nightmare of media culture; the link between real human suffering and our obscene consumption of that suffering in the news

9. Nightmares — the challenge of forgiveness; this track seems self-accusatory, given the retributive nature of the album

10. Better If You Don’t — the most uplifting song on the album, offering some hope

U2 after 40 Years

I’m four months late with this post. In October 2020 I’d meant to do something for U2’s 40th anniversary. Their first album Boy was released on October 20, 1980, and since then they’ve given us 14 albums, some better than others, three of them masterpieces, even a few stinkers. The web is flooded with rankings of U2’s best songs, but you know these lists, they always cry for clearance. Here are my essential 20, plus a bonus to celebrate Boy. In seven cases I prefer a live version over the original studio.

1. Where the Streets Have No Name (Live, Rose Bowl, 2009). There’s no doubt that the live performance is the ultimate U2 song, but there is every doubt in my mind as to which live version is the best. There are so many good ones. Put a gun to my head, I go with the Rose Bowl 2009 version, but supremely honorable mentions include Boston 2001, Slane Castle 2001, and Chicago 2005. The segue openings are sublime — “Amazing Grace”, “40”, “All I Need is You”, being typical choices. More than any song I know (let alone a U2 song), “Streets” has been elevated to mountainous heights from its studio version, which, like many Joshua Tree tracks, doesn’t do much for me. If I were limiting my rankings to studio versions, this song wouldn’t even make my top 20.

2. Bad (Studio, 1984). Many feel the same way about “Bad” as they feel about “Streets” — that live versions have transfigured the song into something much greater. I strongly disagree. The studio version of “Bad” is as perfect as the song will ever get. The slow build, the notes Bono hits, and pulsating sonics combine to convey the desperation of the heroin addict in a soft-edged miracle of lyric transcendence. The live versions are good, don’t get me wrong; but by making it more aggressive, something essential is sacrificed.

3. Ultraviolet (Studio, 1991). Someone should write a book about the “speak-sing trilogy” of Achtung Baby: “The Fly”, “Until the End of the World”, and “Ultraviolet”. (Called that because Bono speaks the lyrics as much as sings them.) They all make my top ten, and the last is the best. It was the overlooked gem of the album back in the ’90s, rarely played at concerts, but has undergone something of a reassessment since the 360 tour of 2009. For me, it was always the greatest. It’s the moment on the album (track 10 out of 12) when you can breathe a bit, after all the despairing songs about shitty relationships. “Ultraviolet” celebrates the trials and hardships of love, and holds fast to the wisdom of lighting the way and moving forward, even if it’s all ultimately in vain.

4. Kite (Live, Slane Castle, 2001). Bono knocked this one out of the park at Slane Castle. It was soon after his father died (and only ten days before 9/11), and the song plays to that, but it really plays to any theme about remembrance and loss. When he sings “I’m a maaaaaaaaaaan, I’m not a child,” he hasn’t nailed a note like that since the studio version of “Bad”. It’s an incredibly beautiful song.

5. A Sort of Homecoming (Studio, 1984). Whenever I hear this song, it’s almost like hearing it for the first time. I doubt it could be ruined by overplaying it. Lyric wise, it’s the best thing Bono ever wrote, and he was inspired by the poet Paul Celan. Celan described poetry as “a kind of homecoming”, and while the poor bastard ended up drowning himself, I don’t imagine this song provoking any suicidal tendencies in anyone. It’s a slice of ambient perfection from the Unforgettable Fire masterpiece.

6. Beautiful Day (Studio, 2000). AKA “The song announcing a return to form”. But after the horrid stench of Zooropa and Pop, All That You Can’t Leave Behind wasn’t just a return to form; it was a mid-career masterpiece. And while “Kite” is my personal favorite from the album, “Beautiful Day” is a close second, blending melodies and hooks from the ’80s albums, along with the electronic textures from Achtung Baby. It was certainly a beautiful day when this song hit the air in 2000, and it sounds just as fresh after two decades.

7. The Fly (Studio, 1991). The speak-song that burned down the Joshua Tree almost single-handedly. Every song from Achtung Baby took part in that fire, but “The Fly” was the first released, and I’ll never forget my reaction when I first heard it: That is not U2. It was a hoax and I hated it. Within weeks I was eating my words. Abrasive industrial textures have never sounded smoother, and lyrics have never called forth an alter-ego as memorable as Bono’s Fly. And it’s Edge’s best guitar solo of all time.

8. One Tree Hill (Live, Denver, 1987). The second half of The Joshua Tree is the stronger half by far, and “One Tree Hill” is the unsung masterpiece. It was performed live only once (for the Rattle and Hum album), even better than the studio version, but the song was apparently too emotional for Bono to get through ever again, so the band hasn’t performed it since the Joshua Tree tour. I can understand why: it has a poetic intimacy that goes through you like an awl, even if you don’t understand who the song is about (a friend of Bono who was killed).

9. Drowning Man (Studio, 1983). At least “One Tree Hill” was played live once. “Drowning Man” never. Each are the best songs on their respective albums, and “Drowning Man” is probably the darkest song in the U2 canon. It’s about drug addiction (like “Bad” and “Running to Stand Still”) but with a sense of personal injury, as it was written for band member Adam Clayton who was struggling with substance abuse at the time. The cribbed lines from Isaiah 40, amazing guitar strokes, and Middle Eastern-sounding violins, all add up to one of the best pieces U2 has ever recorded, though it’s hardly recognized as such.

10. Until the End of the World (Studio, 1991). And here’s the third speak-song from Achtung Baby: the story of Judas’s betrayal reworked as a love story. It contains some of Edge’s edgiest guitar riffs, and while the studio version reigns supreme, some of the live versions give it a run for its money (see Paris, 2015, for example). It’s one of the greatest biblical songs of all time: the first verse is the Last Supper, the second the betraying kiss in Gethsemane, and the third Judas’ suicide.

11. City of Blinding Lights (Studio, 2004). I’m not a fan of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, but this song is magical. The band was trying to write another “Where the Streets Have No Name”, and didn’t do half a bad job. (The studio version of “City” buries the studio version of “Streets” IMO.)  It’s about their love of New York, but I hear it as love for any big city where you can lose yourself in a good way. Brings me back to my years in Portland Oregon every time.

12. New Year’s Day (Studio, 1983). It was hard choosing between the studio version and the live from Slane Castle, but I have to stick to the studio. “New Year’s Day” is about as purely perfect as a recorded song can be, and this is the song that everyone’s attention back in the ’80s, hinting at mountains of potential that was indeed unleashed in the three masterpiece albums following War. There’s a lot on War itself that hasn’t aged well for me (If I never heard “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Two Hearts Beat as One” ever again, I wouldn’t care), but “New Year’s Day” hasn’t lost a dash of its power.

13. Mysterious Ways (Live, New York, 1992). While Achtung Baby is unquestionably the best U2 album, the Zoo TV tour is one of the band’s weakest outings, torpedoed in part by the inclusion of Zooropa songs, but also because of the gaudy “sensory overload” approach. The singular exception in that performance was “Mysterious Ways”, involving a belly dancer who served to tempt Bono. This was apparently a difficult song to write and nail down, but nail it down they did. It’s one of the most compulsive songs in the U2 canon, and watching the Zoo TV performance makes me want to get up and spin.

14. Red Hill Mining Town (Studio, 1987). The band members are often poor judges of their creations, and this song is exhibit-A. They never played it live (until 2017), believing it to be an overproduced and underwritten effort on The Joshua Tree. In fact it’s one of the very best tracks on The Joshua Tree, eclipsed only by “One Tree Hill” (and live versions of “Where the Streets Have No Name”). Bono howls and looses anguish in a way he has seldom since matched; it’s a song of social injustice and helplessness, and for my money hits stronger than the politics of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.

15. Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of (Live, Boston, 2001). Finally a gospel number that stands the test of time. In 1987 we all loved “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, but within a few years that song was setting my teeth on edge. “Stuck in a Moment” is a song about acknowledging fears, navigating them, resisting suicide, and waiting for the darkness to pass. The live version at Boston Fleet Center shows Bono and Edge at the top of their game. It’s only gotten better with the passage of time.

16. Mercy (Studio, 2004). Here’s another song that was judged mediocre by the band members, this time to the extent that it didn’t even make the album cut. If it had, it would have been the second best track on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. I stand in awe of how incompetent artists can be when judging their own work. Thanks to a fan with a bootlegged copy, we can all enjoy it. When I hear Taylor Swift’s “State of Grace”, I hear echoes of “Mercy”. It channels the energy of the Unforgettable Fire period.

17. Acrobat (Studio, 1991). Never been performed live, as the band members apparently believe it’s too depressing even by Achtung standards. Just when we get our second wind with “Ultraviolet” (track 10), “Acrobat” (track 11) pulls us down the hole of hypocrisy, alienation, and utter moral confusion. To which Bono can only offer the strained advice: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” I’m still hoping for a live outing, but it doesn’t look promising.

18. The Unforgettable Fire (Studio, 1984). The title track from the band’s first masterpiece is one that you feel in your blood. It harks back to the nuclear devastations of War, but with more maturity, and an ethereal buzz that stays in my head long after the song ends. Like so many songs from this album. Knowing that it was inspired by paintings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the bombing aftermath makes it even more effective.

19. Running to Stand Still (Live, Tempe, 1987). AKA “Bad, Part 2”, though a much more subdued piece. “Bad” escalates to overwhelming crescendos; “Running To Stand Still” keeps it reflective. It almost seems intent to find beauty in the pain of heroin addiction. It begins like a blues song then becomes more orchestral, then fades back to blues on the end harmonica. It’s a damn beautiful piece; the live performance in Tempe remains supreme.

20. One (Studio, 1991). Like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, this is played at weddings by heartthrobs oblivious to the song’s true meaning. It’s not about two people in love so much they are practically one. It’s a nasty conversation between two lovers who have been through so much conflict and grief that it promises the end of their relationship. Play this at your wedding, perhaps, if you anticipate a nasty divorce. In Bono’s words: “The song is saying, ‘We are one, but we’re not the same. It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive.” And in response to the song’s celebration at weddings: “Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!” It’s indeed a great song; just not for the reasons many people think.

21. Out of Control (Live, Slane Castle, 2001). A bonus song to celebrate Boy. At Slane Castle in 2001, the band members re-enacted their opening performance for Phillip Lynott in 1981: “I want to thank Phillip Lynott for letting us open the show… We’re a band from the north side of Dublin… We’re called U2, this is our first single… We hope you like it!” You can feel the energy of the audience feeding off the band members. This was a true homecoming celebration for the Irish boys, now men.

 

1. Where the Streets Have No Name (Live, Rose Bowl, 2009)
2. Bad (Studio, 1984)
3. Ultraviolet (Studio, 1991)
4. Kite (Live, Slane Castle, 2001)
5. A Sort of Homecoming (Studio, 1984)
6. Beautiful Day (Studio, 2000)
7. The Fly (Studio, 1991)
8. One Tree Hill (Live, Denver, 1987)
9. Drowning Man (Studio, 1983)
10. Until the End of the World (Studio, 1991)
11. City of Blinding Lights (Studio, 2004)
12. New Year’s Day (Studio, 1983)
13. Mysterious Ways (Live, New York, 1992)
14. Red Hill Mining Town (Studio, 1987)
15. Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of (Live, Boston, 2001)
16. Mercy (Studio, 2004)
17. One (Studio, 1991)
18. The Unforgettable Fire (Studio, 1984)
19. Running to Stand Still (Live, Tempe, 1987)
20. Acrobat (Studio, 1991)
21. Out of Control (Live, Slane Castle, 2001)

The Past Five Decades Ranked

In ranking the decades I have lived through (not counting the 60s, for which I was an infant at the tail end), it became clear that each era had its strengths. It’s not so easy to say which is best and worst — or at least not as easy as I used to think before working it through. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the 80s; though it ranks last, I’m glad I grew up in that period. Here’s how they line up.

The 70s: Rank #1

This was a gloomy and nihilistic decade, so it’s no surprise it’s my favorite. But I was too young to take it all in as it deserved.

It was the Golden Age of cinema, giving us masterpieces like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Alien. Even when a film wasn’t great, chances are that it was at least good. Blockbusters weren’t a thing yet, and scriptwriters actually had to come up with good stories; and they weren’t afraid to go dark. No decade has celebrated pushing the boundaries of free expression to its uttermost limit, thanks mostly to the consequences of ’60s liberation and outrage over the Vietnam War. Thus horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left.

These were the days when liberals stood for free speech, and when leftists were conversationalists, not snowflakes. Transgressive TV shows like All in the Family and films like The Exorcist could only have been made in the 70s — and will never, ever, be made again, let alone deemed acceptable in the mainstream. All in the Family‘s comedy reached many people and turned them away from their prejudices; it worked precisely because the comedy was so offensive. It remains the best comedy of all time, a withering social satire, but try posting clips of it on Youtube today, and they’ll be removed, by thought police who are catering to the feelings of the very people All in the Family was defending.

For music, the 70s was the best decade by far. It was the time of progressive rock — Genesis, before they sold out in the mid-80s; Led Zeppelin; Pink Floyd; Rush; Fleetwood Mac; and David Bowie. The music of this era was cerebral and not the most accessible, but it sure grew on you when you gave it half a chance, and it has aged better than any rock music in history, going back to the 50s.

Other stuff: Dungeons & Dragons was born in the 70s, ushering in D&D’s Golden Age (74-82) — the age of pulp fantasy involving morally ambiguous heroes like Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd & Grey Mouser. Parenting was hands-off, and kids had their independence. The only thing really bad about the 70s was fashion, and it was admittedly quite bad: the hair and dress styles were ghastly.

On the downside, it certainly wasn’t the decade of peace and prosperity. This was thanks to Vietnam and the economic purgatory left in its wake. Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia, and when he left office, his sins (and those of his predecessor Johnson) caught up and pummeled the American people with stagflation — something never seen before or since — as unemployment, stagnant growth, and inflation came together at once, and contradicted what everyone believed: that inflation correlated with growth, and that unemployment led to less inflation. Economics 101 went out the window, and no one knew what to do.

No wonder the 70s saw so much artistic creativity. It was the era of disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage. Thus the existential tone of so much of the entertainment. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. In sum, the decade was about ruined innocence — and while many people find that despairing, I believe it sourced a boundless creativity.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 70s: The Ice Storm, Ang Lee, 1997.

The 80s: Rank #4

I came of age in this era, so it’s “my” decade, but it ranks last. On the plus side, kids still had their independence; I never had to deal with helicopter parenting. There was no social media or internet, and while I enjoy online activities as an adult, I’m glad I didn’t have them growing up. It made me get outside. I played at the sand dunes, biked in the woods, and roamed the wilderness. I would have turned out a very different person (and not for the better) had I been micromanaged by a parent and stayed at home all day surfing the web. It’s true that as a D&D addict I spent a lot of time playing inside too, but it was old-school tabletop and fostered imagination and creativity. All that was the good part of the ’80s.

The bad was almost everything else. Aside from a few exceptions — and ’70s-styled layovers released during the early years of ’80-’82, like Road Warrior, Blade Runner, and Conan — film was awful. TV shows were even worse, Miami Vice being the singular exception. The music of the 80s was painful to the ear, and it’s aged even worse, aside from timeless bands like U2 and Peter Gabriel, and the more gothic artists like The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Mission UK. As for hair and dress, it’s embarrassing to look back on, and everyone makes fun of it today, though to be fair, anything after the ’70s was a fashion improvement. At the time, I admit I loved the light-colored pastels, and even bought a couple of Miami-Vice style suits.

It was a socially conservative decade to say the least — the era of Reaganomics, homophobia, the religious right, the cold war, the drug war (D&D players like me recall the fundamentalist war on D&D with particular disgust) and a “family-friendly” outlook that harked back to the ’50s. We almost lost the right to burn the American flag. All of this was opposite the transgressive ’70s, which the Reagan era “corrected” by resurrecting ’50s mores: the importance of the nuclear family, and a collective spirit to oppose the individualism that encouraged thinking too deeply for oneself. The 80s was also the “be all you can be” decade, promoting a naive optimism that being the lowest underdog was no obstacle to achieving your dreams no matter the odds. (How else could films like Karate Kid be all the rage and taken so seriously?) The despairing cynicism of the previous decade required medicine, and the 80s had an endless artificial supply.

And though I rank it last, I’m actually glad that I grew up in the 80s. I was able to come of age without the helicopter parenting and social media, and then live long enough to appreciate, as an adult, the results of the tech and artistry booms when they arrived in the 21st century.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the ’80s: Stranger Things, The Duffer Brothers, 2016-17-19.

The 90s: Rank #2

The era of good feelings and abundance, and also the tech boom. It didn’t start so well, with the Gulf War and the recession of 90-92, but soon after Clinton took office, times were grand.

Film started getting good again: gone was the corny humor that suffused so many ’80s dramas; filmmakers went dark, and turned out instant classics like Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and Bound. Quentin Tarantino became a thing, and indie films became a viable alternative to the mainstream. TV wasn’t great, but it was an improvement over the ’80s. There was the brilliant Twin Peaks, the hilariously anti-PC South Park, and other game changers that showed thinking outside the box. For fashion, the 90s was basically an anti-fashion decade, with comfort trumping style: ripped jeans, bike shorts even for walking, windbreakers, bandannas, etc. Still, the anti-fashion of the 90s was an improvement on what passed for fashion in the 70s and 80s.

It was the absolute worst decade for D&D. Modules were railroady and uninspired. The best efforts came in recapitulations of products from the 70s and 80s — desperate attempts to relive the old glory. TSR died at the end of the decade, and by then I had lost interest in D&D to the extent I almost trashed all my rule books and modules. (Thankfully I didn’t.) As for music, the popular stuff was an improvement over the 80s, the good stuff about equal. The highlights were Pearl Jam, Radiohead, The Cranberries, and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Thanks to Clinton, the mid- and late 90s were some of the best years of American existence, full of peace, prosperity, and good will. It was the start of the tech boom, before technology enslaved people in the 21st century. The handwriting was on the wall for helicopter parenting — as parents become more territorial and paranoid about letting their kids explore and play on their own — but there remained a semblance of childhood independence.

The 90s saw many people shed prejudices without regressing into social justice warriors. When people were called bigots, it’s often because they really were bigots. The idea was that everyone should be treated the same regardless of sex and ethnicity, but you didn’t have to be hyper-aware of these issues at every moment, nor have everything traced back to male white privilege. Gay marriage was still in the future, and homophobia still a big problem, but the conversation was open; it was becoming increasingly uncool to be a homophobe. There was an LGB community, at least.

I can understand why those who grew up in the 90s defend the era so passionately. It was a time you could think life was great even when it threw its worst at you.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 90s: Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, 2012.

The 00s-10s: Rank #3

I’m sure there’s a school of thought that insists on major differences between the aughts and the tens, but whoever says that is spitballing. The aughts never ended; we’re still living them. (Though I suspect the impact of Covid will bring about a genuinely new era.) The present era has been going on for 20 years, shaped by a gaudy media landscape that has radically altered how we get and process information. 9/11 was the catalyst, and technology made it all possible, but these were just the ingredients that gave release to intense tribal feelings that had been building on both sides of the left-right divide. It’s been the age of echo chambers, alternate facts, walls of intolerance… and the blurring and utter failure of the two-party political system.

Make no mistake: There was no substantial difference between the Bush (2001-08) and Obama (2009-16) eras, despite that one wore the Republican label and the other Democrat. This was a first in American history, when a changing of the party guard amounted to no real change at all. Obama was a slight improvement granted (he did some good for the environment), but certainly not much. Under both presidents, peace was elusive; both waged war and got people killed for no good reason; they toppled dictators and made things worse, leaving the Mid-East in shambles; both used the failed Keynesian methods of bailouts and stimulus packages to “jumpstart” the economy, and analysts (well before Covid) had been predicting the bursting of another housing bubble with another recession; both Bush and Obama infringed on civil liberties, especially the 4th Amendment. Then came Donald Trump (2017-2020), a demagogue whose success owed largely to Obama’s failure in helping the middle class, but also as a fed-up reaction to the woke left that has become as puritanical as the religious right was in the 80s. Trump stopped us from waging war but otherwise served us disaster. To put it mildly, we haven’t had a halfway decent president since Clinton in the 90s, nor a good president since Carter in the 70s. The 21st century has been an uninterrupted steamroll of shitty politics, with still no relief in sight.

Artists, on the other hand, have pushed themselves to new heights in the past 20 years, almost as if to prove that artistry can atone for political sins. Right out the gate came Lord of the Rings, which single-handedly redeemed the fantasy genre that had made a laughing stock of itself in the 80s. More gritty and dark fantasies would follow, including Pan’s Labyrinth. Westerns were also revived in the 20th century, with results just as marvelous. In fact, every single genre has shined in the theaters, whether drama, romance, mysteries, or thrillers. Acting standards have come a long way; special effects are staggering; narrative plotting and storytelling techniques are now very sophisticated. There are way too many good films to name from the last 20 years; both mainstream and independent films have had plenty to offer.

As for television, who could have predicted that TV drama would ever be as good (and often better) than film itself? It’s been nothing less than a 20-year golden age of TV, which began with The Sopranos in 1999, and since then has cranked a stream of top-notch series, like Breaking Bad, Hannibal, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Twin Peaks: The Return, Tales from the Loop, Channel Zero, Dexter, Regenesis, The Fall, The Man in the High Castle, The Wire, and many others. TV now holds its own with cinema, and in some ways even outshines it.

Music has been a mixed bag. The popular stuff is bad as pop music has ever been, but alongside this, indie artists have exploded everywhere. Thanks to social media their music is easily accessible, and this makes music about an even wash for the 00s-10s. The highlights of this era are The Killers, The Walkmen, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Taylor Swift (her post-country stuff anyway), and Arcade Fire. But there are many, many great indie bands, some that are almost never heard of: Old Abram Brown, Tan Vampires, Mines Falls, to name a few. This has been the major boon of social media: musical talent that would otherwise go unnoticed.

On the D&D front: At first the game saw an impressive revival, the Gilded Age of 00-02, as Wizards of the Coast launched the 3rd edition that harked back to the Golden Age of 74-82. It rekindled interests in those who had given up on D&D in disgust in the 90s, including myself. However, this was followed by a downward spiral: first with the release of 3.5 in 2003, which injected more rule complexities than necessary; then with 4.0 in 2008, which was so combat focused it drowned the role-playing experience; and most recently with 5.0 in 2014, which millennials and the Gen-Z’ers love but I despise for (a) making things ridiculously easy on PCs (giving them almost limitless hit points), (b) leaning on a high-fantasy approach and none of the pulp influences that made 1e so good, (c) pandering to the generations which have grown up on video games and cheesy superhero films, and (d) allowing woke revisionists to kill the spirit of the game.

I’m glad I didn’t come of age in the 21st century; I would have killed myself under suffocating parents who never let me out of sight. I’m also grateful that I was schooled to learn from those I disagree with. The 00s-10s has been the era of conversational retreat from anyone having rival opinions. Tribalism is found everywhere, but especially on the left I’m sad to say. For the last 20 years I’ve felt increasingly alien among my own liberal-leaning associates. The cultural scene is simply a travesty: between the woke left and a Trump-loving right, I wonder if America can ever be great again. One can hardly differentiate between satire and real news (see here for example). Which pretty much mirrors the political canvass of the 00s-10s: there wasn’t much to distinguish a Bush from an Obama, any more than real facts from the “facts” we prefer.

The Score Chart

70s (30 pts)
80s (22 pts)
90s (26 pts)
00s-10s (23 pts)
Hair/Dress
        0         2         3             4
Film
        5         2         4             5
TV
        3         1         3             5
Tabletop D&D
        5         4         1             2
Music
        5         3         3             4
Parenting/Childhood
        5         5         3             1
Cultural Mores         5         2         4             1
Peace/Prosperity         2         3         5             1

#1: 70s
#2: 90s
#3: 00s-10s
#4: 80s