Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “I’ll Be There” (1992) by Mariah Carey ft. Trey Lorenz

Maybe I’m beginning to lose track of this Every Number-One Single challenge, but is this the first song I’ve reviewed on this project to have topped the charts by two different artists? I know that it isn’t the first single ever to do so – that distinction would go to Donny Osmond’s rendition of “Go Away Little Girl” (I previously reviewed Steve Lawrence’s ghastly original). Nor is it the first cover song I’ve encountered – “Maria Elena”, “Mack the Knife”, “Everybody Loves Somebody”, “Rhinestone Cowboy”, and “A Whole New World” have all accomplished this. Hell, this isn’t even the first Mariah Carey chart-topper about which I’ve written (see also: “Don’t Forget About Us”), nor is it the first composition intended to be sung by Michael Jackson (“Ben” and “Dirty Diana” came first). I’ve been doing this challenge for quite a while now!

It’s interesting that I’m starting with Mariah Carey’s version of the song, though. Doing so requires me to take this all the way back to square one and talk about the song itself before even getting anywhere near this single. “I’ll Be There” was written by legendary record executive Berry Gordy, along with Bob West, Willie Hutch, and Hal Davis. A delicate ballad about friendship, love, and commitment, it was passed along to up-and-coming pop group the Jackson 5, sung as a duet between Michael Jackson and his older brother Jermaine.  At the time of its release, the group were set to become the biggest pop group of 1970 – in that year alone, they accomplished three number-one hits in a row, “I Want You Back”, “ABC”, and “The Love You Save”. But while these three singles lay within the consistent confines of their pop-R&B style, “I’ll Be There” slowed its tempo to a more sentimental ballad style. This resulted in a beautiful piece of work, eventually becoming the Jackson 5’s fourth consecutive chart-topper and an eternally memorable song to boot.

Fast-forward twenty-two years later, and Mariah Carey is now among the biggest names in the industry. Specifically during 1990 and 1991, Carey had topped the charts five times; however, when “Can’t Let Go” and “Make It Happen” only reached #2 and #5 on the Hot 100 respectively, her label and audiences alike started to wonder if her superstardom was beginning to sputter out. Obviously it did not, and in many ways we have her March ’92 MTV Unplugged set to thank for this. Added into her set as a last minute addition, Carey performed it as a romantic duet with R&B singer Trey Lorenz. The popularity of this particular show number pushed Columbia to release a radio edit as a single – this version would be Carey’s sixth number-one hit. Co-produced by Walter Afanasieff, this would also be the beginning of a long collaboration between the two, as he would continue to produce even more of her hits in the many years to come.

Like the Jackson 5, Carey’s recording of “I’ll Be There” shone a light on a different side of Carey never before seen by audiences. Previous hits like “Vision of Love”, “Someday”, and “Emotions” were studio productions, polished by a variety of electronic instruments and post-production techniques. Moreover, Carey captivated audiences herself through the sheer power and range of her voice, demonstrated explicitly through each one of her singles up to this point. Her cover of “I’ll Be There” is much different, though. Being a live recording, the sonic quality of the track is relatively raw and intimate. The performance itself is pretty straight-forward – while Carey adds a bit of her own flair to the melody, for the most part it remains unchanged from the original. This also means that her vocals are pretty subdued themselves – she still shows off her impressive range, but without any of the bells and whistles (and whistle tones) that has become synonymous with her thus far.

I think what makes this particular cover song unique from those I’ve reviewed before is that, despite topping the charts, it is significantly less memorable and impactful as its original. Most of the cover songs listed in my first paragraph are powerhouse tracks that took the initial recording and morphed it into something else entirely to successful results (Bryson & Belle’s “A Whole New World” isn’t much of a powerhouse, but it definitely got more airplay than the original from Aladdin). Nonetheless, “I’ll Be There” is, to this day, far more easily connected to the Jackson 5 than it is Carey. It’s not simply that the Jackson 5’s came first, but rather that when it did come, it was huge. Its sentimental melody and the heartfelt lyricism behind it has practically made the song a standard of sorts. So if anyone were to come along and take a stab at their own recording of the song – even a star as bright as Mariah Carey at her peak – it could only ever be seen as a cover of a classic.

Nonetheless, if anything should be expected of Mariah Carey at this point in her career, it’s that she could churn out one hell of a ballad. The arrangement here is simpler (the opening harpsichord of the original is replaced by a simple piano; the backup Jacksons become a gospel choir), which frees up enough space for Carey to make the song her own. From start to finish, she croons her way perfectly through the ebbs and swells of the tune. Considering how powerful her voice is, it’s no surprise that she takes Michael’s high notes of the original and pumps them up to a whole other level. Even though she’s definitely the star here, the contributions from Trey Lorenz aren’t too shabby either. Sure, he has a lot less to work with, but he pays his dues and acts as an adequate complement to the shining lead performer.

Still, as I mentioned earlier, there’s so much to love about the original recording, the stripped-down version was bound to be inferior by comparison. There’s plenty to admire about this live recording on its own – for one, it sounds pretty damn good for a live recording, thanks to the power of production and the talents of its performers. Nonetheless, there are plenty other Carey recordings much more worthy of ones time, and “I’ll Be There” has fallen into the hands of much more superior arrangement. Classics are tough to pull off sufficiently, but it certainly is admirable that enough felt moved by this one to take it all the way to the top. Now, when am I going to actually review the original…?

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Lyzette’s Favorite Films of the First Half of 2018

Coupling with my albums counterpart, I also watched films this year! Significantly fewer films than albums this year, though. Once again, I won’t write about these in any detail just yet – you’ll have to wait for my year-end list for that! This is just what I’ve seen and loved from this year so far.

So far, I’ve watched thirty-nine feature films from 2018, and these are the fifteen I’ve enjoyed and highly recommend the most. Instead of arranging them by date seen, as I did with my 2018 albums list, I’ll just arrange this alphabetically. While it’s also too early to name a favorite from this year, I’ll be surprised if I find anything quite as perfect as Paddington 2.

Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)

Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler)

The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci)

Dirty Computer (dir. Andrew Donoho, Chuck Lightning, Emma Westenberg, Alan Ferguson, & Lacey Duke)

First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader)

Game Night (dir. John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein)

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (dir. Sophie Fiennes)

Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster)

Love, Simon (dir. Greg Berlanti)

Paddington 2 (dir. Paul King)

The Party (dir. Sally Potter)

The Rider (dir. Chloe Zhao)

Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)

Support the Girls (dir. Andrew Bujalski)

You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

(I have just now realized that three of my favorite films from this year prominently feature Tessa Thompson… so, yay for that)

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Lyzette’s Favorite Albums of the First Half of 2018

Since other folks and publications have already decided to put out some of their mid-year favorite movies and albums, I’ve decided to follow along with the trend. First, albums! I still have a lot of albums that I need to get around to, but for the most part, I’ve listened to all of my highest priorities (given the limited time I have between my other challenges). Unlike a lot of lists I tend to do, I won’t be writing about these albums just yet. Consider this more of a thread of recommendations than anything else – as well as a sneak-peek of what to possibly expect from my year-end list.

To date, I have listened to about 115 albums and EPs from 2018; these are my favorite thirty-three. These are not ranked in any particular order, but rather arranged in roughly the order in which I listened to them, from first to most recent. To be frank, though, Dirty Computer and 7 are in a close tie for best album of the year so far…

Ephorize – Cupcakke

Punken – Maxo Kream

Phantom Thread OST – Jonny Greenwood

Little Dark Age – MGMT

Semicircle – The Go! Team

By the Way, I Forgive You – Brandi Carlile

Twin Fantasy – Car Seat Headrest

In a Poem Unlimited – U.S. Girls

Make Way For Love – Marlon Williams

Crush EP – Ravyn Lenae

Transangelic Exodus – Ezra Furman

Musas Vol. 2 – Natalia Lafourcade

Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves

Historian – Lucy Dacus

Now Only – Mount Eerie

Cocoa Sugar – Young Fathers

May Your Kindness Remain – Courtney Marie Andrews

Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae

Isolation – Kali Uchis

Bark Your Head Off, Dog – Hop Along

Everything’s Fine – Jean Grae x Quelle Chris

Freedom – Amen Dunes

7 – Beach House

Mirror Might Steal Your Charm – The Garden

Miserable Miracles – Pinkshinyultrablast

Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett

Hundreds of Days – Mary Lattimore

Oil of Every Pearl Un-Insides – SOPHIE

God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty

Lost & Found – Jorja Smith

KIDS SEE GHOSTS – KIDS SEE GHOSTS

The Future and the Past – Natalie Prass

Childqueen – Kadhja Bonet

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Rockin’ Thru the Aughts: The Year 2000 Pt. 6 – The metal albums

Rockin’ Thru the Aughts is my revisit through the rock music I loved as a preteen and teenager. For a full list of what I will be covering (and have already covered) on this challenge, head over here.

I should preface this particular post with the fact that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a metalhead. Sure, the albums I will be covering below have all appeared to some extent on my music library as a teenager, and I did go through a brief phase wherein I listened to almost exclusive music within the metal genre. Nonetheless, most of my experience with metal hardly extends past the 80s and 90s, and when it did it was only the most commercially successful bands that often swept through my radar. Think Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and pretty much anything that played on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball and Fuse’s Uranium – and very little else.

This is just to say that I will almost certainly misspeak somewhere down the line in this post, or just generally make myself look like a fool. Feel free to correct me, but just know that this isn’t anywhere near my expertise.

Reinventing the Steel – Pantera

I’ll start off this week’s collection of reviews with an album from one of the legends of thrash metal. This would ultimately prove to be the band’s final album, as the band would break up a few years later. While much has been made of their classic albums from the 80s and 90s, particularly Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power, I’ve heard from more than a couple people that this is their best album. I will admit that, yes, I was very much into Pantera during my metal phase as a teen. While I never listened to Reinventing the Steel in its entirety, I did have “Revolution is My Name” in my library, particularly reveling in Dimebag Darrell’s sweet, heavy intro riff.

So going into this, I was interested in seeing just how well Pantera has aged for me after all these years. As it turns out… not well. Don’t get me wrong – Darrell’s guitar work throughout this album, even extending beyond “Revolution”, is grungy, cool, and ultimately enjoyable to listen to. It’s clear that had he not met his demise so suddenly and tragically, there would have been much more under his sleeve for many years to come. And I’ve got to take a moment to give it up for drummer Vinnie Paul, who just passed away within the past few days. His work on this record (and pretty much throughout Pantera’s entire discography) is consistently sharp, energetic, and just plain awesome.

What I didn’t expect from this record (though perhaps I should have) is how poorly Phil Anselmo’s vocals have kept up through the years. And it’s not even the fact that he’s a few years older now – if anything, he sounds just as I remember him from classic Pantera tracks I used to frequent. It’s more that his angry screeches, consistent from track to track, are just no longer any fun anymore – they’re just annoying. It doesn’t help that the lyrics of these tracks amount to little more than try-hard flexing, empty threats, and mindless curses. It’s the type of visceral anger I just can’t really get behind anymore, certainly not in real life but also not in music.

The thing is, though, I can see how Pantera fans would have little to no issue with this album. It stays true to the southern thrash sound off which the band has long made a name for themselves. It could just be that I can no longer stomach Pantera any longer. Thinking about it a bit more, though, maybe I just can’t stomach Anselmo any longer. Yeah, that’s probably it.

Best track: “Revolution is My Name”

Beethoven’s Last Night – Trans-Siberian Orchestra

I had to dig real, real deep in my memory banks for this one. If anyone knows Trans-Siberian Orchestra for anything, it’s more likely their symphonic metal-style Christmas music, the likes of which have become more and more popular as the years go on. They’re a novelty act for sure, but I still really dug them back in the day. It made me feel like I can still be cool for liking Christmas music, as long as it shredded. Of course, once I started recognizing their music in holiday adverts (especially their 2004 track “Wizards in Winter”), I decided that they weren’t cool anymore and basically cut them off. Still, the mere fact that they exist is just kind of awesome.

There are two immediate descriptors I can give to this album. First of all, it’s long – twenty-two tracks running at over seventy minutes in length, and while most of these tracks are agreeably short, the relatively large breadth of the album is definitely apparent and makes itself known. Secondly, this album is… well, cheesy. It’s a rock opera about Beethoven’s death and his subsequent battle with Mephistopheles to gain back his soul. Strewn throughout are modernized pieces of famous classical works, particularly Beethoven’s works, though most of the instrumentals are all original. Moreover, it’s all performed in true rock opera fashion: big, bombastic, lush, and very melodramatic.

Yet despite all this, this album is still just very, very okay. For as epic, layered, and multi-faceted that this album is, it feels very often that each and every track are cut from the same cloth. The performers and musicians here are all very competent and even quite good at points, but something tells me that this would be much better suited for a live environment. It really feels like so much of what’s going on here is flattened by the studo production, which is a damn shame. The goal of a lengthy rock opera such as this is to at least make some sort of an impression – yet by the midway point, I was pretty convinced that this wasn’t going to happen. By the end, I couldn’t remember any tunes on this album outside of the already familiar ones. It doesn’t help that the regular leitmotif of the Fifth Symphony does get rather old after a while, almost as if Trans-Siberian Orchestra is reluctant to push any slightly more obscure Beethoven works into the mix.

Though I’ve made it sound like I hated this album, let it be known that I found the experience overall worthwhile, if unremarkable, and I’m glad I went through it. I guess I would recommend this album to anyone who both enjoys rock operas and classical music, especially Beethoven’s works. Though preferably if they are tired of the same old classical arrangements done time and time again and wish for something a little different. I’m not quite sure how big this overlap is – but considering that this record was made in the first place, it has to be somewhat considerable.

Best tracks: “Mephistopheles”, “Mephistopheles’ Return”, “What Child Is This”

Follow the Reaper – Children of Bodom

Okay, now this is what I’m talking about! During the height of my metal infatuation, Finnish band Children of Bodom were among my most-listened bands of the genre. I’ve just always really dug their melodic death metal style that felt consistently aggressive and hard-hitting, as if it had blasted up from another dimension entirely. Of course, with everything else here, I’ve eventually grown out of the band and slowly gravitated away from metal in general. Still, this is one of the artists I am most excited to be covering on this challenge (trust me, though, there are a lot).

As opposed to the album directly above this one, this record is short and simple. Nine tracks, thirty-eight minutes. Every track here is  very consistent in its general style and tone – quick drums, shredding guitars, subtle but important keyboard inflections, and high-registered, yowling vocals. The star of the show here is arguably guitarist and vocalist Alexi Laiho (who also wrote the material). His energy and dominance here is unparalleled, and the rest of the band are seemingly forced to take his lead . That’s not to say that they aren’t great in their own right, though – keyboardist Janne Wirman is especially important in bringing about some electronic touches to the record, pushing the band’s sound into something more than the typical drum-and-guitar metal band.

Moreover, I’m just glad that the production on this record stays as vibrant and textured as the band’s performance itself. There’s so much going on here and there really is the risk of it sounding much too flat or cluttered, but the layers of the band’s sound are crisp as needed. I guess the one downside I have to this record are the lyrics which, plainly speaking, tend to suck from time to time. Though to be fair, I never much listened to Children of Bodom for their lyrics, and I certainly didn’t make that a priority this time around. I’m really bad at talking about what exactly I liked about this one, but I do know that I like this album a lot – maybe even more than I did back in the day. It just… sounds awesome.

Best tracks: “Follow the Reaper”, “Everytime I Die”, “Mask of Sanity”

Midian – Cradle of Filth

And now for something a bit more embarrassing! Indeed, during the period when my metal phase and my goth phase had a brief overlap, Cradle of Filth were the absolute shit. As I mentioned, I very rarely went out of my way to discover metal and hard rock that wasn’t part of the rotation on mainstream rock channels. So when I noticed a couple Cradle of Filth music videos air on TV (probably on Fuse), they immediately caught my attention. They were the darkest, most intense, unapologetically Gothic group I had come across at that point and they’ve certainly left an impression.

Midian is a good introduction to the sound of this group, which would cater more toward studio-polished mainstream metal as the years went on. It is based off a Clive Barker novel, which ties in with the band’s fondness for horror media and pop culture. One of the best compliments I can give this album is that it really knows how to set up one hell of an atmosphere. The first couple tracks automatically transfer the listener to a turgid wall of sound, composed by the machine gun drumming of Adrian Erlandsson, the ominous dueling guitars of Gian Pyres and Paul Allender, and – of course – the acrobatic screams of lead vocalist Dani Filth. In particular, Filth’s vocals have always intrigued me so much – to this day, I can’t decide if I dig his maniacal screeches more than his lower, guttural moans, or the other way around.

If one is looking for a wide array of experimentation from track to track… well, I’d suggest they look elsewhere. The sound here is extremely consistent, but the downside is that every track tends to sound indistinguishable from one another. After a couple listens of this album, I still couldn’t assuredly explain the differences between “Cthulu Dawn”, “Death Magick for Adepts”, and “Amor e Morte”, for example. And that’s another thing – it’s pretty clear that the band is just wearing their Satanic imagery like a costume, which is fine, but does cause the album as a whole to wear a little thin after a while. Still, the one track that embodies everything worthwhile about this album is “Her Ghost in the Fog”, which got a lot of play from me back in the day (and even in the present day, on occasion). Every member of the band is at their best in this layered, progressive track, with special attention given to keyboardist Martin Powell who just gives it his all here. The whole album may be a bit of a bore to slog through, but this particular track is as sharp as ever.

Best track: “Her Ghost in the Fog”

Relationship of Command – At the Drive-In

(I know this album isn’t “metal”, don’t at me)

One benefit that I had hopes to receive through this challenge is to finally get around to a bunch of blind spots that I had inexplicably been avoiding all these years. This first occurred right with the first week of the challenge when I finally got around to the entirety of White Pony, and it’s now happened once again here where, at last, I listened to one of the most acclaimed albums of this year (at least in my circles).

Earlier in the challenge, I listened to Glassjaw’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence – to my disdain. While I greatly appreciated the band’s erratic style and weird time signatures, and generally respect its stance as an important album of the post-hardcore movement, the misogyny and just plain ugliness of this album really threw me off. Luckily for me, Relationship of Command was just around the corner. The raggedly experimental style of post-hardcore that I enjoy so much is all here in spades, thanks in particular to guitarist Omar Rodriguez and the energetic vocalist Cedric Bixler.

The sound of this record is raw, intense, and sometimes even fun; the emotions on display are all totally genuine, but it doesn’t make for half the jarring experience that Silence gave me. I mostly just found myself amazed by the unique guitar melodies, interpolated with drums and bass matching in intensity, and surreal lyricism that often don’t make a lick of sense but only add to the already fruitful experience. “One Armed Scissor” was the one track that caught my attention back in the day, but listening through this album in its entirety proves that this group has a whole lot more going for it. While anger is the driving force behind much of this album, there is no limitation to the creative, ultra-passionate twists and turns that run throughout. It truly is one hell of a journey.

I’m already well aware of the vast array of imitators that this band and especially this album had influenced throughout the remainder of the decade. I’m more than certain that I’ll run across more than a handful of them throughout the rest of this challenge, both for the better and… not so much. For now, though, I’ll keep this album locked in my mind for quite some time. It’s really a damn shame I never got around to it sooner, but I’m glad it’s here now.

Best tracks: “Arcarsenal”, “One Armed Scissor”, “Sleepwalk Capsules”, “Enfilade”, “Quarantined”, “Non-Zero Possibility”

This was a relatively shorter week. I didn’t have time to get through as many albums as I wanted to, and on top of that I posted this a few days late. Also, I didn’t have as many metal albums from this year that I listened to as a teen – these will come later. I’m still trying to figure out what theme to tack onto next weeks albums, but as the list for 2000 albums dwindles down, this makes it tougher to do. I’m sure I’ll figure something out, though. Thanks for reading, once again!

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Rockin’ Thru the Aughts: The Year 2000 Pt. 5 – Punk, pop punk, and garage rock

Rockin’ Thru the Aughts is my revisit through the rock music I loved as a preteen and teenager. For a full list of what I will be covering (and have already covered) on this challenge, head over here.

First of all, apologies for this part of the challenge coming a week late. I took a short trip to Chicago and fully intended on working on this post during my trip… of course, that didn’t happen. Nevertheless, I’m back on the wagon!

After the dreary ineptitude of the previous week’s albums, I’ve decided to take things in a bit of a different direction. While many albums from countless genres emerged from the 2000s, it is widely assumed that this decade is where pop punk had its peak. While such a case can certainly be made for the middle of the decade, what about the first year? The garage rock revival was also pretty big in this decade too, so I’ll cram that into here as well. We’ve already gotten an example of 2000’s pop punk – which wasn’t very good – so now’s a good time to check out what the rest of the year has to offer. Well, at least based on what I played in my library back in the day. Keep on readin’!

Stomping Ground – Goldfinger

Goldfinger were yet another band whose presence was very much a non-factor in my listening habits growing up. Much like Flogging Molly and Papa Roach, there wasn’t much about Goldfinger that I found feeling strongly about as a teen. Their biggest single “Here in Your Bedroom” definitely made its rounds in my iPod and “Superman” will always holds a certain nostalgia to me for its usage in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (which I played often). Nonetheless, I always saw them as just sort of an okay band – one toward which I never really put all that much thought (this will probably be a consistent theme going forward with this project).

And even with as little mind I had paid this band for their third-wave ska material of the 90s, I gave even less of a damn for their later straight-forward pop punk material which all but abandoned these origins. I think you can guess which category today’s album fits in. For the most part, Stomping Ground follows two major themes from song to song: aggravated flexing and boasting aimed at some unknown third party (“Pick a Fight”, “The End of the Day”, and Bro”, for example), or post-breakup moping and commiserating (“Carry On”, “Don’t Say Goodbye”, “Counting the Days”). Nothing here is particularly ground-breaking in its sound or its lyrical structure – and yet somehow, the album as a whole is a pretty decent listen.

Much of this is due to the undeniable chemistry balanced between each of the band’s members. Although lead vocalist/guitarist John Feldmann has certainly seen better days, the most consistent performance is from drummer Darrin Pfeiffer, whose energy throughout this album is so damn admirable. Where this album tends to excel is in its hooks. Although the lyrics aren’t the strongest, I can’t deny that I had the melody of “Pick a Fight” stuck in my head for quite a while after it ended. Additionally, “Counting the Days” is probably the strongest example of their style when done right – juvenile and silly in its lyricism, yet catchy and oddly charming nonetheless.

Still, not everything is great. While there are more than a few perfectly fine pop punk tunes hidden away here, these are sadly undercut by an assortment of poor decisions. “End of the Day” is clumsy and confused in its structure, choosing to sample Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” for no apparent reason. “Bro” is initially enjoyable in its lampooning of hardcore punk clichés, but it very quickly gets obnoxious. “Forgiveness” is one of the tighter cuts that nonetheless rides with the “turn the other cheek” advice that is truly tiresome. Also notable is the cover of “99 Red Balloons” – unfortunately, it is the English-language version which, as I noted elsewhere, is inferior to the original German version.

Overall, I see no reason not to recommend this album to someone looking for some perfectly decent, passable pop punk – but amazing, this is not.

Best tracks: “Pick a Fight”, “Counting the Days”

The New America – Bad Religion

Bad Religion is one of the oldest bands I have covered on this challenge so far (beaten only by The Cure). To be honest, I never quite got into much of the band’s earlier stuff as a teenager – sure, I owned a copy of No Control which I gave a spin now and then, but I mostly gravitated toward their more pop punk fare of the 90s and 2000s. Even with my limited experience, though, there’s no denying how different the sound in The New America differs from their earlier, more hardcore punk tracks – every track here is far more polished, with the melodies given center stage, along with more refined, personal lyricism.

Yet even without the rough, rawness that defined much of their early music, there’s still a lot to enjoy here. One of my favorite elements of Bad Religion’s music has always been Greg Graffin’s vocals, and his performance throughout this record is totally impassioned despite what he might be singing about. Greg Hetson’s guitar work and Bobby Schayer’s drums are also undeniably good. I was actually the most shocked to realize that this album was produced by none other than Todd Rundgren! Not quite the name I would connect with Bad Religion, that’s for sure.

My one major complaint would be with the tendency for certain tracks to sound almost indistinguishable from one another. “It’s a Long Way to the Promise Land” and “New America” are the most obvious culprits, with similar tempos, identical lyrical themes, and the exact same “whoa-oh” vocal hook in the chorus. Numerous songs on here also seem to struggle with putting across its messages effectively, and much of the blame can be placed on poor production decisions. “1000 Memories” attempts to deal with the topic of divorce in a moment of personal reflection, but it’s hard to take it very seriously when it’s backed by peppy, excitable drums and guitar that undercut its very real emotions. Additionally, “I Love My Computer” is such a dated embarrassment of a filler track, with awkward robotic voices accompanying verses with lines like, “I love my computer, you’re always in the mood / I get so turned on when I turn on you”.

Still, all of these flaws can be forgiven by the performances that the band members give from track to track. Every song on here (well, except for “I Love My Computer”) is embellished with a particular kind of pop punk energy that is just so infectious, you can’t stop listening. For me, at least, the centerpiece is “A Streetkid Named Desire”, which combines this atmosphere with strong melodies and lyrics that could be fiercely relatable for any punk kid trying to find their place in the world. I loved listening to this track as a kid, and I still love it today, holding onto its testament as one of the strongest tracks in Bad Religion’s whole repertoire.

Best tracks: “You’ve Got a Chance”, “A Streetkid Named Desire”

The Ever Passing Moment – MxPx

MxPx were yet another band that never left much of a blip on my radar, but I did have acquaintances in middle school and high school that were into them. My understanding of them was that they were more of a tamer sort of pop punk band – the kind that never cursed in their lyrics, played by most conventions of pleasurable music, and were generally safe to listen to around parents. I tended to opt for more of the harder, angstier stuff during my teen years, so they mostly flew right by me. Nonetheless, I did at one point have “Responsibility” sitting in my music library at some point – which means I gotta review its album. Those are the rules!

Basically, all of my initial hunches from when I was younger turned out to be generally correct. I just barely found out that MxPx are oft classified as a Christian band, and while I didn’t really get any of the spiritual vibes from any of these songs (except “It’s Undeniable”, mildly) the sound of the band definitely exemplifies the type of candy-coated naivety I often associate with Christian rock. It’s not that the themes at play aren’t universal – rather, I can only see them being relatable for a very distinct age group. For example, the big radio song from this album “Responsibility” states, “Responsibility – what’s that? / I don’t want to think about it; we’d be better off without it”. I sure wish that were even a modicum of an option in adulthood…

In all seriousness, though, the first thing I noticed from this record was just how infectiously positive so many of these tunes came off as. It certainly is a bit of a refresher coming off the heels of Chocolate Starfish. Moreover, this level of positive energy is carried from song to song in a remarkably consistent style and structure. Literally every song is an mid- to high-tempo slice of pop punk, carried primarily by Mike Herrera’s bass and vocals, as well as Tom Wisniewski’s prominent guitar work. And yes, the juvenile nature of these lyrics are certainly part of the appeal. They point to a simpler time when pop punk didn’t need to change the world – it just needed to be fun to hear live.

The consistency is admirable, but the problems start when it starts to seem like the guys are simply playing different versions of the same song again and again. Thus, the personality of each track feels flat and muddled after a while. There’s a lot here to like and appreciate, but not very much to love. Nonetheless, I can acknowledge that this album probably just isn’t for me. While my music preferences in high school often lay in the dark, dreary side of things, I’m sure these songs meant a lot for kids who really desire a solid pick-me-up. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Best tracks: “My Life Story”, “Responsibility”

Veni Vidi Vicious – The Hives

Even though I wasn’t all that aware of The Hives until the release of their next album, I also had a few earlier tracks from this album swimming around in my library. The revival of garage rock was also getting pretty huge in the 2000s, and this album was one of the spearheaders of this particular movement. The credibility of this revival is eternally up for debate, but there’s no denying that it did grant us some pretty damn good music. Even though I didn’t get into many of the other garage rock revival bands of the aughts until after high school, the rough, rawness of The Hives (and the band with which I’ve always confused them – The Vines) have always appealed to me in ways that a lot of contemporary radio rock bands never quite did.

To put it bluntly, this is a damn great sophomore record. Running at just under thirty minutes in total, it’s an absolute tour de force of ragged, rowdy rock goodness. The closest and most obvious comparison is to the 60s garage rock band The Sonics, to which the Hives are obviously attempting to pay homage (take a listen to their 1965 album Here Are the Sonics, for a good example). The sound of the band is heavily carried forward by the distinct vocals of Pelle Almqvist and the ear-grabbing guitar work from Nicolaus Arson. Sure, the songwriting might falter here and there, but maybe that’s also part of the attempt to recapture the authenticity of classic garage rock. In any case, it’s pure dynamic tension and release from start to finish, and it’s a real blast to listen to.

Yet even though their higher tempo cuts like “A Get Together to Tear It Apart” and “Outsmarted” are delightful bursts of punch-in-the-face energy, I find myself personally favoring their slightly slower, more polished tracks which really demonstrate their strengths. In songs like these, their riffs are consistently sharp and the tracks as a whole are undeniably catchy. The one outlier is, of course, “Find Another Girl”, which opts for a tropical, synth-laden sound that, while pleasant, really sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of the whole album.

From that point on, the tail end of the album tends to blend into each other from track to track – which really isn’t a bad thing, since it’s the same kind of powerful vibes we’ve already been used to. Ultimately, this record makes me nostalgic for this early time in the decade when rock bands weren’t afraid to look far backward for inspiration. It’s something that comes few and far between these days, and while that observation may end up dating this album, I’d say it’s all for the better. Check this out!

Best tracks: “Die, All Right!”, “Main Offender”, “Hate to Say I Told You So”, “The Hives – Introduce the Metric System in Time”

All Hands on the Bad One – Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney are such an amazing, unique, totally terrific band… and I so wish I had known more about them when I was in high school! Indeed, my knowledge of Sleater-Kinney was limited to only a few songs here and there, which often got scrambled up in the mess of whatever else I was listening to at the time. While I can’t think of any concrete reasoning behind this, I’m sure I would have gotten way more into them had they been played more on the radio stations I frequented. I opted more toward the alternative rock, hard rock, classic rock, and metal stations, whereas I first heard of Sleater-Kinney through some chance encounters on the indie rock station, which I never frequented as much.

“You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun” was one of the first tracks from the group that I had ever heard and I was always charmed by how different it sounded from anything else. Of course, much of the distinction of this song, as I first heard it, is that it is headed by three totally badass ladies. All three members of the band – vocal/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss – bring their A-game to the track and the results are an awesome fireball of attitude. Lyrically, though, it’s much smarter than I think I understood back in the day. It’s a fierce kiss-off to the snobbish, hedonistic male rock stars that plague the industry like a disease. It’s a problem that few male-led bands are willing to admit, so having it so front-and-center like this is… so refreshing.

Of course, All Hands on the Bad One is just as fiercely feminist in its entirety as this introductory track would suggest. Not that I wasn’t already convinced when I listened through the band’s entire discography a couple years ago, but revisiting this certainly helps. Through slickly intertwining vocal melodies and sharp, powerful guitar hooks, Sleater-Kinney emits their consistently smart lyricism with equal parts bitterness and groovy fun. And it bears emphasizing that Corin Tucker’s vocal delivery is the best thing ever, and shades each track with a healthy portion of vibrant personality unlike anything else.

Though, it’s not like this album was in need of that as, once again, Brownstein and Weiss are fabulous in their own rights. There really isn’t too much more I could say about this one – it’s all the best parts of the riot grrl scene collected in a slightly more polished package that, nonetheless, doesn’t hamper its quality. I couldn’t be happier revisiting this album for this challenge – it’s easily the best album I’ve found from the year 2000 so far and I couldn’t recommend it any more highly.

Best tracks: “The Ballad of a Ladyman”, “All Hands on the Bad One”, “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun”, “Was It a Lie?”, “Milkshake n’ Honey” (they’re all great, though)

De Stijl – The White Stripes

And now for the second of four bands that made up the aforementioned garage rock revival of the aughts (I’ll talk about the other two later on in the challenge). It should come as no surprise that The White Stripes comprised a good chunk of my listening habits as a preteen and teenager. I was in my teens when the band reached the height of their commercial peak, and I do remember being a pretty huge fan of their sixth and final album Icky Thump (though I have no idea how well it holds up). Still, I had somehow never given a listen to their earlier stuff until this challenge, so it’s about time that I dive right into their sophomore album, De Stijl.

(I doubt that anything Jack White has ever done and ever will do will be as good as his bit on Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story… but I digress)

There is a lot to admire here, in particular the ways that the duo do a whole lot with so little. In comparison to their later stuff, which would get denser and more complex in instrumentation as the years went on, these songs are composed of just a few basic elements: Jack White on guitar and vocals, Meg White on drums and percussion. Nonetheless, each song carries on a life of its own, whether it be through strong electric blues influence or production more akin to the 60s garage rock or folk rock movements. This is best exemplified in their track “Apple Blossom”, which carries itself with a traditional-sounding melody and a strong, pronounced rhythm, even throwing some piano into the mix. It is also the one track that makes the best use of Meg White’s drumming, which tend to be watered down through the album in comparison to Jack White’s contributions.

And that goes right into what I consider to be a major downside to this record: Jack White’s writing. A good portion of the songs on this album have at least partially to do with (a) a woman in turmoil (or dead), or (b) a man whose life is inconvenienced to some degree by a woman. The album doesn’t ever delve into anything explicitly sexist, but songs like these are steeped in male entitlement that just take me out of the overall vibe of this record, if slightly. The fact that I am aware that the Stripes would go on to make much better music does help this go down a bit more smoothly, though. I guess I would recommend this album to anyone interested in hearing the humble beginnings of this soon-to-be-huge duo – it really is intriguing! Still, the musicianship would only improve from here, so let’s keep our chins up.

Best tracks: “Hello Operator”, “Apple Blossom”

From this point onward, I hope to make these posts more consistent and on time. Five weeks in and I’m still having a good time, which is very promising! Next week, I’ll touch upon records from the more metal side of things – considering that I listen to considerably less metal music nowadays, this will be interesting to revisit. Thanks for reading, once again!!

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