February 21, 2010

[Since this piece was originally posted I have written some alternate blogs that are a bit more thorough regarding metal: The 30 Greatest Metal Records of All Time: Part I , The 30 Best Metal Albums of All Time: Part II, part III is forthcoming. Also see: Metal! Addendum : Iron Maiden and 2010  I loved heavy metal music in middle school. I moved onto other phases throughout high-school and college, but always kept a few favorite metal artists and albums in rotation, but haven’t really listened to much of it in years. About a year ago I began to get back into it quite a lot, for whatever reasons. I can never exclusively listen to just it for long periods of time, about an hour at a time is sufficient. Yet I really enjoy it on an album by album basis or in a good mix now. Without further ado, here are ten of the most important and entertaining metal acts of all time (in my opinion), and they’re ordered chronologically.

1) Led Zeppelin

In the last years of the 1960s, Led Zeppelin took the blues riffs that every rock band in the world had been recycling for 15 years and added layers of distortion to amp it up “to 11” (to quote Spinal Tap). They used these cacophonies of sound to tell stories of “misty magic mountains,” and all other manner of nerd-centric interests, with nods to excess and partying so as to bring in their other target audience. Their numerically titled first four albums are spotless. “Stairway to Heaven” may have been thrown through the ringer on classic rock radio enough to almost kill it but it resiliently survives as the first and best epic metal ballad (don’t fault it for its poor imitators). “Dazed and Confused,” “Communication Breakdown,” “Immigrant Song,” “The Battle of Evermore,” “Heartbreaker,” “Black Dog”…classic song after classic song, incendiary live performances, mythic debauchery filled urban legends and truths, hated then but embraced by the  music press now, accused of witchcraft and satanism (as if they had the time between drugs and gigs)…if it’s related to metal’s history it started with Zep. The albums that followed those first 4 were no slouchers either…they really never released an album that wasn’t classic or very close.

2) Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath ARE heavy metal. There were bands playing close to this style before and concurrently with them, and Zeppelin should always get credit for kicking things in the direction that Sabbath propelled their work from, but it was in Sabbath’s first six records, released between 1970 and 1976 that metal got its first cannon with albums like “Paranoid” and “Master of Reality” and a slew of songs that are metal’s signature numbers: “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” “Black Sabbath,” “Supernaut,” “Evil Woman,” “Lord of this World,” Snow Blind,” “Sweet Leaf”…Tony Iommi’s down-tuned and murky guitar riffs became the metal riff groundwork the same way Chuck Berry’s chords did in early rock and roll. Combined with Geezer Butler’s thundering bass, Bill Ward’s apocalyptic drumming and Ozzy’s signature howl, Sabbath made the music replete with dark fantasy and horror lyrics of wizards, magic, demons and Armageddon that the genre nodded to forever after.  Buried under these were the occasional social commentary and world observation—such as anti-war statements in “War Pigs” and the not-too-celebratory look at drug addiction in “Snow Blind.” Sabbath would go on to make some lousy records, lose Ozzy and then make two great records with the finest metal singer of all time–Ronny James Dio.

3)  Queen

Queen’s first three records (“Queen,” “Queen II,” and “Sheer Heart Attack”) pushed towards what they became with their 1975 metal classic “A Night at the Opera.” Loathed by much of the music press, selling millions of albums and becoming second only to the Beatles popularity in England, Queen brought theatricality, rock-opera, dense and layered production, showmanship and sheer excess to the arena. Lambasted when Punk arrived to shred everything down to the basics again, Queen is irreplaceable in the history of metal as an iconic and entertainingly classic group. Freddie Mercury was arguably the finest showman a hard rock or metal act has ever had. It’s certainly apparent that Queen is sometimes like a polar opposite of Sabbath in immediate impression—they’re metal without the apocalypse-come-hence doom sound that thundered from every Sabbath riff—but really, following Sabbath they are the next most important metal band. Taking Queen and Sabbath as the tent-poles of the genre, it’s clear what ground metal can cover– sonically, lyrically, and emotionally. Many bands would weld together facets of these two bands, often mixing Sabbath’s doom with Queen’s operatics; concept albums are a metal staple and it’s hard to imagine them without Queen paving the way. “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” “Death on Two Legs,” “Seven Seas of Rhye,” “The Prophet’s Song,”—these songs gave metal some growing room (and some glammy attire).

4) Dio

Ronnie James Dio is about 5 feet tall but his voice is about 20 feet tall—it’s huge. It’s good too, he can hit the highest of high notes without causing you to raise a pencil and point it to your eardrums once. He’s maybe the best metal vocalist of all time, and the band he assembled to back him on his self titled project packed the chords and energy to match it. Dio sang on two great Sabbath records after Ozzy’s departure—“Heaven and Hell” and “The Mob Rules”—and no disrespect to the craftsmanship of Iommi and the rest of the Sabbath guys, but those great records may as well have been filed as Dio records. There’s an obvious shift in gears from the Ozzy years to the Dio years of Sabbath. But if you want to include those records with the band at number 2 on this list, Dio’s embark with 1983’s “Holy Diver” is reason enough to slot him at 4 on this list. The rest of the Dio albums in the eighties were quality metal too, though, especially “Dream Evil,” in 1987. Dio’s an important phase on this list because there was a distinctive era in metal that lasted for the first portion of the eighties until thrash, hardcore and black metal stormed the gates. The only other band to adequately signify the time-period and its sound would be Iron Maiden, and I’ll take Dio over those guys any day of the week. Even non-metal fans with an open mind and a love for high octane thrills and a sprinkling of cheese will thrill to the title track of “Holy Diver”—and hopefully stick around for great rock songs like “Straight Through the Heart” and “Rainbow in the Dark.”

5) Slayer

This is where things got really intense and really friggin’ hardcore. Not everyone can stomach Slayer—and those that can might spill past shock and go straight to laughing at the utter over-the-top qualities of their music. I was four years old in 1986 when “Reign in Blood” was released, and so I don’t have any recollection or memories of what it was like to hear that psychotic speed the first time when nothing quite like it had come before, especially to not know much about the band and how much of this darkness was for real. I’ve read plenty of rock journalism in my time though, including one truly hilarious piece I read in journalism school about a reporter doing a story on the band—in it the writer witnesses lead singer Tom Araya getting chewed out by his dad for not painting the house and for smelling pot smoke in his son’s trailer. The same interview displayed the guys to be normal, middle class, suburban teens and early twenty-somethings who pulled out all of the shocks to gain an audience and who privately espoused close to patriotic views. But to hear “Reign in Blood, in 1986 with songs like “Angel of Death,” “Criminally Insane,” and the title track, it must have been terrifying for some people and absolutely electrifying for a lot of teenage boys. Slayer had built to the sound over some albums that veered very similar in style to Maiden and the like, only beginning to hint at their unique sound with RIB’s predecessor “Hell Awaits.” They sped things up drastically with RIB, though. The debates continue to this day as to which is the best thrash/speed metal record of all time—RIB, Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” or Megadeth’s “Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying.”

But no metal fan doubts RIB’s place in the debate, and most come down on its behalf. Allegations of Satanism, Nazism and every other –ism plagued the band forevermore (and probably gained them crowds and sells), but if anyone can take a terrifying song like “Angel of Death” or “Altar of Sacrifice” as a call-to-arms and not realize the qualities that are so tongue in cheek in it, they’re more than a little damaged already. Araya had admitted that lyrically he writes songs to fit the sound—not much in the way of hearts and flowers could fit with the pounding aggression and manic speed that pours through their work. Even on slightly-slowed down albums like “South of Heaven” or “Seasons in the Abyss,” there’s an overwhelming doom mixed with testosterone and schtick. Occasionally the band drops the ball, occasionally they shock just for shocking’s sake and become unpalatable (as on “Christ Illusion” and it’s ill-thought out cover), but there’s no mistaking their place in metal’s history.

6) Metallica

The first real and pure metal band to be inducted in the rock and roll hall of fame, the most loved and most hated metal band by metal and pop fans, Metallica is remarkably consistent and enjoyable. “Ride the Lightning” paved the way for the excellent speed metal classic “Master of Puppets.” They followed that with “…And Justice For All” which featured one of the first real metal crossover hits, “One.” Then they angered every drooling metal-only fan by mixing a lot of melody in and getting massively popular with their self-title “Black Album.” Everyone who’s listened to rock in the past 20 years has heard “Enter Sandman” or “Unforgiven,” and despite some sort-of generic and uninspired lyrics, it’s still one of the greatest metal albums of all time. To make even more metal-only fans angry, Metallica had the audacity to OMG!—cut their hair! Yes, they cut their hair and possibly bathed before releasing “Load,” a truly great and accessible metal album that found the band simply being an authentic and unique band (it probably hurt some peoples feelings to hear an actual country song on Load–“Mama Said”). “ReLoad” was good and then Metallica released “St. Anger” after publically documented feuds and years of bad press for fighting with Napster and “losing relevance” with their younger fans. “St. Anger” is probably their most coolly received work, but I feel it’s their most under-rated one as well. It adds speed back to the mix, sounding closer to “MoP” than ever before, yet while also retaining chunks of melody and sensibility to the metal sounds of the time in which it was recorded and released. “The Unnamed Feeling” the title track, and “All Within My Hands” rank as some of their best songs. Last year the group released “Death Magnetic” and really zoned in on their eighties sound, which seems to have went over well with most of their fans and critics other than a debate over the quality of the sound mix that spilled out into a music-press discussion about modern CD and MP3 mix quality in general.

7) Cradle of Filth

Cradle of Filth is a ridiculously amazing metal act. In all honesty, they’re a band that do everything to push away any sensible music fan. The average listener will never come near them and if they do, they’ll never get past the theatricality, occasionally offensive album cover and almost always offensive concert t-shirts or the blistering, dense, seemingly indistinguishable sound of noise. Yet if you enjoy metal and you slip on a pair of headphones and just listen to this band’s work, it won’t take long to hook you. Start with their classic “Dusk and Her Embrace” and listen to it, start to finish. Then listen to it again; the songs will start to take form. Hear the underlying classical music tendencies present in most of the heaviest forms of metal (after much of metal jumped away from blues-based riffs in the mid-eighties)—hone in on those underpinnings and get lost in the complex, intricate song structures. Then listen to the keyboards that pop in, often with a female voice singing in character for a portion of a chapter of the album’s unfolding story, really enjoy that unexpected melody. Then wait for an excellent, power chord melody followed by a thundering almost punk-like one. Hear the twists and turns in lead singer Dani Filth’s vocals—from cookie-monster argh to shrill pig-poked-with-a-stick eardrum piercers, to bass baritone rumbles. Then on a third listen just try to pick out some of the narrative pulling the album together. CoF is truly addictive; which doesn’t mean they’re high-art or that they won’t disappoint you by doing something inanely silly or pointlessly offensive for the sheer sake of offense. Yet at their heart, they’re seriously talented musicians with a great sense of showmanship. Albums like “Dusk and Her Embrace,” “Damnation and a Day,” and “Nympetamine” unfold like magnificent, spooky, thrilling horror films backed by a classical orchestra and a maniac metal groove. People that only listen to metal complain that the band’s drifted too commercial and bark asininely on about CoF not being pure “black metal”; mainstream audiences won’t touch them with a ten foot poll for fears of satanism. Eternal teenagers refusing to fully grow up can take them for what they are—seriously fun, enjoyable, heavy metal music- makers. The offense is sheerly for attention and may as well be taken with a grain of salt. And nothing will remove your fear quicker than watching a concert DVD of the group, seeing them lighting fire crackers with skateboarder Bam Margera and slugging mountain dew backstage before storming the stage in Europe with costumed gargoyles “springing to life” and prancing around the stage. No, throw on “Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder” instead, their 2008 record that tales the story of Gilles de Rais, the partner of Joan of Arc turned murderer and occultist, and be scared…and entertained.

8 ) Nine Inch Nails

NIN is Trent Reznor, the man behind the industrial metal springboard he used throughout the nineties and 2000s to express himself. Probably the only real industrial band to cut into the mainstream, NIN albums incorporated aspects of everything alternative and metal to craft a definitive sound. “Pretty Hate Machine” was a dance-pop merging of goth, metal and disco with which Reznor captured his every anger, doubt and thought at the age of 24  in regards to a failed romance, religion and society. “The Downward Spiral,” brought MTV and mainstream attention, especially “Closer.” TDS is an unrepentantly dark album, a concept record about a man who strips away every human aspect of himself in an attempt to stop feeling pain—society, religion, faith, relationships and eventually emotions. He then commits an unforgivable act and kills himself, wishing he could “start again, a million miles away,” in a song poignantly covered by Johnny Cash years later (“Hurt”). Luckily for Nails fans, Reznor didn’t stop with that work but came back with an ambitious and progressive record, “The Fragile.” Parts of hope and lightness begin to emerge lyrically, and sonically there’s a much larger palette of strings, guitars and ambience, all poured through Reznor’s computer. “With Teeth” proved Reznor could make a pretty straightforward hard rock record, and his last album to be released as a Nine Inch Nails record in a physical medium first (or for his label) came in 2007,  “Year Zero.” “Year Zero” was remarkable because it tapped into two things Reznor does great—anger and concept. He brought back his intelligent rage, this time aimed out from himself and onto systems of oppression and hypocrisy. He structured the album around a story, telling a tale of a future America under fascist control. Then Trent decided he could give away his albums and still be successful, as “Ghosts” and “The Slip” came around in digital version first, “The Slip” completely free. Nine Inch Nails are no more, according to Reznor. He will probably do more music, but he hasn’t said what. NIN were always great on album and great in concert; no matter how dense and technical an album was when engineered almost entirely by Reznor, he was always able to assemble a terrific band to take those tunes out on the road and recreate them live with full instrumentation in a truly great metal show.

9) Tool

Tool is proggy and they often release dense, multi-part, 10 minute plus song suites. They have a flair for a type of avant garde metal, they’re very devoted to the album as a whole and united work (I’ve never seen their music available from any authorized download service). A lot of these factors lead most bands to slip into sheer unpalatable cheese. Not Tool, they’re actually intelligent rather than just pretending to be intelligent. “Undertow” is perhaps the most straightforward metal record they’ve ever released, and it’s pretty amazing, but “Aenima” which followed three years later (1996) was really their breakthrough, commercially and critically. Which is odd, because it’s far from straightforward. Art-rock was mainlined into “Aenima,” and the results are revelatory. There’s a lot on it that won’t click on the first few spins, but gradually the entire record begins to piece together with further spins. The title track and the “Eulogy” for the late great stand-up Bill Hicks are highlights, but all of the music works. With “Aenima,” Tool developed their signature sound. The tight playing and extended metal jam sequences hold their next records together and mark them at unquestionably the product of Tool, but they never get stale or slow to experiment. Maynard James Keenan truly might have the best vocals in modern metal based on sheer sonic quality and range. “Lateralus” was five years in the making after “Aenima,” but delivered strongly, and then it was a full 5 additional years before 2006’s “10,000 Days.” You may have to wait awhile to hear work from these guys, but what they produce is always worth the wait. “Wings for Marie pt. 2” might be the most intensely personal emotional song in metal’s history. The entire album focuses on Keenan’s struggle to come to grips with his relationship with his mother and her death, and “Marie pt. 2” is the best summation of that search.

10) System of a Down

System of a Down began at a time not really ready for them– it sounds pretentious, but it’s true. The metal scene they arrived on was thick and profitable, pouring into high-schools and out of jeep speakers more often that it had in the previous ten years. The metal that was popular in the late nineties and early 2000s was grouped together as “nu-metal” and thanks to “purveyors” of it like Limp Bizkit and Korn, it was “macho,” aggressive, mixed with rap (and the rhymes came from very unfit for hip hop flows) and overwhelmingly dumb. The sound mixed thick layers of industrial sludge and computer “wizardry.” Amidst all of that soon to die crap, a few bands in the metal scene came along with creativity, unique vision and sound, and something new to say: Tool, The Deftones, to a certain extent Slipknot, and last and boldest of all, System of a Down. SOAD worked in punk and frenzied protesting activism in their lyrics and sound more than any metal band since Rage Against the Machine (the only band to ever successfully and excellently merge metal and rap). SOAD mixed in such abstract and codification in the lyrics (so much so that message boards still debate what some of their songs were really talking about) that the message was sometimes lost; sometimes they pulled back the curtain and railed it, though, like in “Prison Song,” “BYOB,” or “War?” The energy in their music is unbeatable. The debut album bristles to this day—“Suite Pea,” “Sugar, “War?” “Know,” every song builds on the last and at times it seemed impossible to do so. Their music takes on everything from food additives and poor sugar substitutes to fad religions, war and genocide to reality television and fast food politics. The average nu-metal high-school fan didn’t absorb much of this—they just banged their head. That’s okay, though. SOAD has always done a consistently good job of throwing world music influence into their metal, to unexpectedly toss out a ballad and a string of melody, to shift tone, meter and riff, to do things metal has never done right before throwing the gear into some of the heaviest modes it’s ever done on the regular. Good, good metal music at a time that first arrived at a time the genre seemed depleted. They haven’t delivered a bad album yet, and they haven’t copied their own formula or lost inspiration either.

Now, a few influential and important (but by no means exhaustive) moments in the history of metal by artists that didn’t make the top 10 list. “Songs” are in quotation marks, Albums are in italics.

AC/DC – Highway to Hell; Back in Black; Blue Oyster Cult – “Don’t Fear the Reaper”; Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak; Kiss – Alive; Destroyer; Love Gun; Alice Cooper – “Schools Out,” “Welcome to My Nightmare,” “Billion Dollar Babies,” ; Motorhead – “Ace of Spades”; Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast; Motley Crue – Shout at the Devil; Venom – Black Metal; Judas Priest – British Steel; Megadeth – Peace Sells, but Who’s Buyin?; Anthrax – Among the Living; Pantera- Far Beyond Driven; Meshuggah – Erase, Destroy, Replace; Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine, “Bulls on Parade,” The Battle for Los Angelos; Slipknot – Iowa; Marilyn Manson – Portrait of an American Family, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)”, “The Beautiful People”; White Zombie – Astro Creep 2000


Recently, I began thinking about what the ethics of a music fan might be in the digital age.  I love indie record shops, and my current city of Louisville is home to one of the most famous indie record shops in the country, Ear X tacy. They made big news lately in light of their current money woes; the lease they have on an enormous building in a prime location in the city is up at the end of March and it wasn’t (or isn’t fully still) clear if they will be able to renew it or be forced to move locations or consolidate space. It’s clear that some changes have to be made to stay viable in a weak economy, especially if you sell physical media in an increasingly digital age. When news broke of this and the owner called a press conference to rally support in efforts to keep the doors open, hundreds of locals splurged and bought tons of physical media. A facebook-based “Save Ear Xtacy” group emerged, quickly gaining thousands of fans–many made the “duh” observation that if all of these folks that want to save the business just bought one item per month from the store, the future of the business would never be in question again.

Yet many might be asking, why rush to save a store that deals primarily in physical media in the first place if their product is certain to become a relic any day now? A recent survey of internet users found that barely half of them thought music was worth paying for at all anymore. Wow. Those of us that are truly music fans though, realize music is of great value and that it adds to the quality of our life immensely. Digital piracy can quickly hurt a fledgling band’s career, because it takes money to pay road crews, producers, labels and to travel the country promoting music. A place like Ear X tacy is much more than just a place to buy CDs, it’s a place to catch live music, find art by local and regional artists,get concert tickets, see posters of upcoming events, pick up music on vinyl or on CD with a better sound, and to converse with other fans in person.

Yet I’ve noticed that in the talks since this came out, many people just argue about why digital is better than physical or vice versa. That’s a truly circular and pointless argument. I think it’s evident the benefits each has over the other– downloads are cheap, free if you’re pirating. Downloads are instant, easy and you don’t have to leave your house. If a record is coming out on a certain day, get up early that morning and go to a decent music download provider and for a few bucks you can get a decent quality download of it and be listening to it within minutes. With downloads you’re not forced to buy an entire album to get one song that you’re after, you can simply pick and click and get the highlights; if it turns out the entire album is worth it, you can go back and pick the rest up later. Now with physical media, there are still obvious benefits and a definite market. Vinyl has grown in popularity over the years, even as CD sells have plummeted. Vinyl offers a superior, warmer, better sound and it comes in large, nice, collectible packaging with liner notes, and often a free download version of the album is included. For those craving something tangible, vinyl fills a spot. To get up and flip the record involves just a little bit more in the process of paying  attention to the music; there’s very little lift and move of the needle for vinyl fans, so listening to the album as a whole cohesive work of art makes it more of an event and less of a background noise. Even moving away from vinyl, there is likely to be a niche market for CDs even if digital becomes the established norm. The sound quality of a CD can be approximated closely in MP3s if proper adjustments are made to the files when ripping or downloading occurs, but for a lot of work the CD sound is better than the digital version; and some people who came of age in the CD era will always enjoy the small discs, liner notes and artwork.

Jim James, lead singer of My Morning Jacket and Louisville native, flew in to catch the press conference at Ear X tacy and made the comment that “people can’t even afford health insurance” at one point during an interview. It’s obvious that people can’t afford massive amounts of luxuries, it’s obvious that even for music fans needs and bills and rising costs of everything else take precedence, and if we can get something cheaper (or free) and enjoy it, we’re apt to make some concessions. But let’s assume the economy will eventually get better and people will have money again some day. Let’s also acknowledge that we live in a consumerist society, as much as we may want some things to be free.  For every multi-million dollar pop star raking in the dough there are a hundred smaller acts with great talent, growing fan-bases and average-to-little income. What might the ethics of music fandom in this day and age be, if we wish to keep music a viable and entertaining field?

1) Support the artists that brighten your day–

Sharing music has always been a part of music fandom. We’ve always made copies of albums for our friends whether it was taping a record onto an audio cassette or ripping mp3s to a USB drive. Sharing music that we’ve discovered is a natural part of loving music–we try to turn on others to the artists we’ve been turned on to. So in 2010 and beyond, every time you get a free download from a blog or website that’s promoting a roster of artists or when a friend gives you a copy of a band’s new album and you discover something great from that, find a way to support that artist’s work in some way. That means catch them in a show, grab a T-shirt with their logo, or buy another one of  their albums. If you download the latest Artist X’s album from a server for  3 bucks and love it, keep an eye out for it on vinyl (if you’re an audiophile or a wax-geek) and pick it up some day when you can spare the change.

2) Support Your Local Store, Label, Band, Scene

You don’t feel too bad getting Artist Y’s entire catalog for free because you just saw them on You Tube showing off their new Lamborghini and mansion. Understandable. But what about Artist Z, who just released a smoldering new EP that’s drawing rave  reviews but zero mainstream attention? You hear a track and love it but you see she’s still touring dive bars and coffee shops. Why not go to a local record shop (if you’re lucky enough to still have a locally owned music store) and buy that EP. Then you can listen to the entire thing in far superior sound quality than you would have if you’d ripped a copy in 192kbps and listened to it through your i pod? While you’re at the record store, keep an eye out for stickered recommendations of the staff and locally recorded and released vinyls.

3) Make purchases that focus the companies to strengthen their weaknesses and trim their fat

Sometimes albums aren’t “cohesive works of art.” Sometimes they really are just crap with 1 good song sandwiched in the middle. Download that one song and move on, then. But if you go online to buy one track and while you’re listening to sound clips from the rest of the album and it’s equally good, why not get the entire thing? That way labels can take a hint in the long run and realize that right albums aren’t dead in the any format, just bad albums are just dead. Also, when you’re doing your downloading, support smaller companies like ShockHound or Amie Street if the price is comparable and they have what you’re looking for. The big behemoth i-tunes has decided as of late that they can charge 1.29 a single and limit particular tracks from your individual purchase, so they don’t offer the best deal anyway. The general CD market will not stay around for 10 more years. It’s not going to happen; the industry has tried premium sound quality discs like SACD and DVD-audio in the past; the CD market needs to be pushed in that direction more fully. For people who continue to want physical CDs, offer them superior sound quality with a good mix, expanded and full artwork and lyrics, nice packaging, and a reasonable price. Don’t allow perennial classics to go out of print and don’t keep useless and unwanted albums always in print. Focus on digital as an affordable purchase method and offer it in high kpbs.

Anyone else have suggestions or thoughts?

Religious Literacy programs are a needed addition to general curriculum and a better alternative to the ill-thought out “prayer in school” campaigns. I’ve written about why crying out for the return of prayer in public schools is a misunderstood and negative request  (see:   ). To briefly reiterate the main point of my argument, no one in this country can stop anyone from praying anywhere or anytime, not in public schools or in the workplace. Not for prayer in the basic essence – silently meditating, conversing with your God or Creator. You can pray silently to yourself at any place you wish and address that prayer to whatever it is that you believe in. Now, we’ve seen in recent airport rentention scandals that if you pray using accessories on flights you might risk detention (such as the Jew who used the teffelin in his prayer on  recent flight being held and searched), especially if you’re of a non-Christian religion or of non-American nationality. But in the public school system any student can silently pray before a meal, before a test, before an athletic competition. What people shouting to bring public prayer back seem to want is school-sanctioned and teacher-led public prayer— a recipe for exclusion, prejudice, and tension that does nothing but make prayer a public show of “look at me” and allows any teacher to push their particular religion and theologocail viewpoint on an entire class, causing the religious minorities to be “set apart.”

No, what is needed, as evidenced by the detention of Jews praying on airplanes and fundamentalists rallying out for public-sanctioned prayer in schools, are religious literacy courses in public schools. I’ll admit at the forefront that these are tricky—initiating them anywhere is likely to cause controversy, and if they’re not put together correctly and fully monitored, they can slip into something very inappropriate.  But if planned and administered correctly, these courses could be very powerful, educational ways of increasing knowledge, instilling respect for diversity, and removing stigmas and prejudices.

Like it or not, even an Atheist or someone of an anti-organized religion viewpoint must agree that America and Canada are both still largely religious countries. A study at Baylor University in 2006, “American Piety in the 21st Century,” featured statistics showing that 89 percent of Americans are affiliated with a denomination or religious group and of those non-affiliated, 62.9 percent claimed to believe in God or a higher power. Numbers for Canadians closely mirror these American stats as well.  So, even if you choose to practice no religion and have no personal spiritual beliefs, if you live in this country you are still surrounded by people who do. If you do practice a religion, even if you attend a church or faith gathering on a regular basis, chances are you or many of your fellow church family are lacking in much knowledge in  theology, church history, and the beliefs of those outside of your faith tradition and religion.

A good religious literacy program aims to educate students about religious history, differing theological viewpoints, and knowledge about the many faiths of the world. I believe this type of course is needed now more than ever. Knowledge of one’s own faith and the history of your tradition informs you to know when others invoke false claims about it. Politically, leaders call on religious concepts frequently, so a working knowledge of what they are invoking and if they are using or misusing it is necessary.  Living in America, knowing the religious history of this country is important—what have we done in the past? What did that cause? What can we learn about that to keep from making the same mistake twice? Also, religion works its way into much of classic and contemporary literature, music, film, and society, so having knowledge about Judaism and Christianity is important to fully grasp everything from American History to Shakespeare. But moving beyond this, we live at a time in this country when many faiths and traditions are now all around us. If you live in any medium-sized city, chances are that it’s now  populated not only by Jews, Christians and the non-religious, but  also Muslims, Budhists, Sikhs, Hindus, etc. The media and popular opinion are quick to misrepresent and stereotype those of other religions, especially at  a time when many Americans think only of jihad and war when they hear of Islam. Religious literacy is important by teaching what the “other” believes so that we can have a better understanding of our new neighbors and so that we don’t fall victim to stereotyping and disrespecting them.  Knowing the mistakes our own traditions have made in the past in regards to war, violence and misusing our texts can keep us from becoming too misguidely judgemental  to those of other faiths. A move to a more accepting, tolerant and pluralistic America is dependant on knowledge and acceptance of the myriad differences now present within it.

A positive Religious Literacy course must be taught fairly—without attempts to persuade the students to adopt one belief over another, without pushing the teacher’s own views, and without castigating any faith. Texts must be approached from an academic stance—so if the class is reading an excerpt from the Bible, the teacher must explain that different groups approach the text in different ways, that some may hold that biblical text is inerrant and without transmission flaw through its history but that others view it as a particular group (s) in history’s record of grappling with their view of God. So a bit of historical-context and criticism can be used and teachers can talk about non-biblical history that supports or dissupports biblical claims and point out that different people take such findings in different ways.

It’s a course that’s apt to find opposition from all sides of the polical spectrum when discussed, and tweaking it to appease one side will anger the other, but if it’s approached as objectively and educationally-minded as possible, such courses could do great things in our educational system—and would be much more productive and positive than state-sanctioned and teacher-led public prayer in the classroom.

The Watson Twins released “Talking to You, Talking To Me” today and they had an album release gig at Ear Xtacy in Louisville, Ky. The Watson Twins have been making great music for a few years now; I’ve been a fan since hearing them with Jenny Lewis on “Rabbit Fur Coat,” and I continued listening to them on their EP “Southern Manners,” a hauntingly gorgeous collection of indie-folk songs. Their first full-length venture, “Fire Songs” added hyper-catchy pop to the mix, especially on the single “How Am I To Be.” “Talking to You…” was available for preview in streaming format yesterday and for full download this morning. I listened to the MP3s a dozen times, caught the show, picked up the vinyl and listened to the whole thing once more—it’s really great, really soulful music. The Twins have broken into new areas, moved away from indie-folk somewhat in dousing most of these new songs with bass-heavy, blues-riffed, classic R&B-soul sounds. Of the 12 songs, only one slips past the five-minute mark (“Midnight,” my favorite cut on the whole album at the moment, but I could be persuaded to change my mind to album opener “Modern Man” any second now) and only one other one comes close (“Forever Me”). Most are 2 and a half to four minute pop songs reminiscent in structure and quality of craft to ‘60s pop gems. The Watson Twins deserve success with this one, they’ve become stronger, better, and more sure of themselves with each record– and they had a heaping amount of natural talent and originality to begin with.

The Watson Twins (Chandra and Leigh) performed several songs from the new record at Ear Xtacy in Louisville, Ky and the set was broadcast on 91.9 WFPX along with an interview about the creative process in the recording of the record. The Watson Twins are from Louisville originally, and since moving to the area last year I have been keeping an eye out to see if they would be back in their hometown to do a show. They’ve been holed up in a cabin recording this excellent record since I’ve been here, but I lucked up since they flew in from California last night ahead of the snowstorm that hit the city this morning. Their sold-out show in West Virginia a few days ago was snowed out, their scheduled show for Pittsburg tomorrow is as well, but the promotional kick off in-store performance went ahead as scheduled. Any ticket holders fretting at a missed performance can rest assured that when the postponed show finally occurs they’ll be in for a great show. As for other Louisvillians and folks from the surrounding areas, if you haven’t heard the music these women are making, you’re missing out on a native-Kentucky talent on par with My Morning Jacket. The band backing Chandra and Leigh on the record and on the road are great too—Russell Pollard, Elijah Thomson, J.Soda, Bo Koster—Pollard and Soda also produced the record.

At the end of the show, John Timmons, founder of Ear Xtacy spoke. Rumors came out this week that Ear Xtacy may be facing foreclosure; Timmons urged everyone to buy the Twins new record and said that he was having a press conference on Friday to announce the future of the business. He said the store had been around for 24 years and he hoped to make it 25. Everyone filing out appeared to be buying a Watson Twins record; it’s going to take more to keep the store open, though. Ear Xtacy is one of the top 10 record stores in the country; it’s an institution, a purveyor of what an indie record store should look like. Out-of-towners stop by due to it’s national notoriety, free shows by great bands have been a staple for years, all new vinyl releases are pretty much in stock. Hopefully something can come together to keep them around—everyone sees music sells going to strictly digital in the near future but places like EXT offer much more than a point and click. It’s a place to see a show and get an autograph, to buy vinyl and CD’s of local artists, indie label musicians, rare and hard to find music collectibles; a place to actually see and converse with fellow fans as you discover and purchase new music; a nexus for the local music scene. Vinyl has been steadily increasing in popularity again over the past few years; for folks who want something tangible with their songs, for collectors, for audiophiles and people wanting a warmer, more classic sound and mix. So if you have a taste for vinyl at all and live near Louisville, go pick up some records. If you were going to pay 10 bucks for a download from i-Tunes, go buy the CD instead. Go grab a T-shirt, a rare concert DVD, or a small label EP not available in a digital format. There are definite benefits of ordering from internet retailers or downloading cheap music; but it’s sad if that results in the closure of something that offers us more than we can get from our computer desks.

“Crazy Heart,” like “The Road,” was shaping up to be an elusive film—one receiving massive critical attention yet not playing at a single of the dozen-plus theatres in my city. “The Road” finally showed up for a week at a theater here in town and then moved to the discount theater, where I managed to catch it. “Crazy Heart” was finally listed at a local theatre—but for one showing, on a Tuesday night, while I was at work. Luckily, it came back with full rotation the following weekend. I caught it on Sunday afternoon at 1:30 in the afternoon. It was only showing at one theatre, so even at 15 minutes before show time it was on its way to selling out (which it did, three customers behind me in line). Entering the theater I was pointed to a seat between two large groups and I settled in to see the picture, wondering yet again why a movie with this much obvious interest was only showing in one theatre while “The Squeakquel” was everywhere (I guess because that turd was still dropping enough to remain in the top 5 in box office sells).

While watching “Crazy Heart” I couldn’t help but compare it to last year’s “The Wrestler.” Both films are massively entertaining, character-driven pieces about struggling, washed up, middle-aged men who are their own worst enemies as they struggle to piece it all back together and get a glimpse of redemption. Both films showcase terrific actors making “come-back” performances, i.e. roles in movies that actually catch the attention of the Academy and the like. Jeff Bridges knocks it fully out of the park as “Bad Blake,” an aging country music star who is reduced to touring the Midwest playing bowling alleys; Mickey Rourke delivered an equally devastating performance as “Randy the Ram,” an aging pro-wrestler resorted to working the deli counter at a supermarket to pay the bills and wrestling anywhere that will take him on the weekends. Blake’s a chain-smoking alcoholic and at one point an automobile accident lands him in the hospital where a doctor chides him on his general lack of health, telling him that his smoking and drinking will kill him if he doesn’t stop. Randy is so pumped up on steroids and medication with a body so ravaged that a heart attack ensues and a doctor tells him he will die if he doesn’t stop. Both men have been absent in the lives of their own children and realize only too late how badly they want to know them. Both films feature great performances by women as potential love interests – Maggie Gyllenhaal as “Jean,” a small town newspaper writer who begins to fall for Blake, Marisa Tomei as “Cassidy,” a stripper tempted to throw her don’t-date-the-customer rule out of the window for Randy. The women in both films are drawn to these men against their best instincts, both women offer the protagonist the redemption they seek, and both men prove they can’t help standing in the way of their own happiness.

It’s easy to point out that the story behind these films isn’t a brand new and innovative one—the comparisons between them show that they share an awfully lot with one another, even. The writing for both films is excellent though; it’s the attention to detail, the full immersion in the lives of these characters. Bad Blake’s history and place in life is real, authentic and captivating, at turns humorous and sad. The behind-the-scenes events in “The Wrestler”—from Randy chopping and hiding bits of a razor in his head band to use in cutting himself when down on the mat to make the match bloody, to the fellow wrestler selling him his steroids or the opponents choreographing their fight before taking the ring— these details make the script visceral. The performances each player brings to the role they are given in both of these films are what make great movies.  “Crazy Heart” gives us top-notch acting by Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and everyone else involved; “The Wrestler” showcased Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachael Wood and all others doing the same.

On the road to the Oscars and in the light of the Golden Globes disappointments, it’s worth pointing out the obvious—these are the type of films that deserve awards. These are the type of films that show the power film possesses. Actors giving performances that are superb; directing that gives us scope, feel, texture and beauty; soundtracks that coalesce into the work as a whole to give it that thematic kick; stories that resonate and stick with you. This isn’t to say that spectacle has no room for lasting value and that it’s incompatible with great and lasting films – “The Dark Knight” proved that all of these factors could come together with a healthy dose of special effects, technical wizardry and edge-of-the-seat action. “The Lord of the Rings,” the original three “Star Wars” films, and this year’s “Star Trek” remake proved that fantasy and science-fiction films, even those replete with costumes and make up can still leave room for great performances, intelligent stories, and exciting directorial vision. Whereas a film like “Avatar,” which I don’t doubt is amazing to look at, exciting and fun, doesn’t strike me as deserving of “Picture of the Year”—I’ve never been less interested in seeing an acclaimed film in my life, even though I’m a sci-fi/fantasy fan and an acclaimed-film junky, even though my favorite critics are urging everyone to give it a view (and I think everyone else has). Even the most glowing reviews of “Avatar” don’t mention “terrific performance by blue man number one,” most comment that the story isn’t that important (or original) for the enjoyment of the film, and the main directing Cameron seems to have done is dump more money than God into a project, affording him his pick of technical wizards to craft a brain-numbing experience that hits the pleasure centers of the brain like methamphetamine. But as you like it, I suppose.

One last note—for all of you bemoaning the Globe winners, in case the little reported winners of SGA and PGA didn’t reach you, “Inglorious Basterds” and “The Hurt Locker” cleaned up, shutting out “Avatar.”

Woe is Me, The Grammys 2010

February 1, 2010

Dropping the ball, making bad choices, and a few bright spots……

Expecting worse than I got, I remember writing a fairly moderate appraisal of the Grammys last year. I never expect much, so anything good is a plus—but I’m still amazed at the results sometimes.

No offense to Taylor Swift, who seems like a perfectly nice young girl, but “Fearless” is not album-of-the-year material by any respectable measure.  She shows promise, and she has obvious talent and massive appeal for a target audience. Giving her the top honors at the CMAs was too much considering she’s more truly a pop star, but giving her full album of the year is puffing up a young artist far too much, far too soon. She needs to grow a bit, broaden the scope of her diary-penned lyrics and show us what she really has. She’s a good 5 to 10 years away from a best album, but she will get there if she keeps it up; I just think she’s getting too much too soon, which hopefully won’t result in burn-out. The only nominee for best album worth its nomination was “Groo Grux King” (sadly mispronounced by John Legend in the reading of nominees), and it truly deserved the award; at least DMB got to give a good performance.

Best New Artist is always a joke—whoever wins usually disappears, never to be heard from again, so I guess I shouldn’t be too upset that MGMT lost to Zac Brown Band; MGMT was the only artist on the list of nominees with a near-perfect debut album, but I guess they were simply too hip for the middle-of-the-road Grammy’s. Zac Brown cheesed it up for the cameras, unfurling the American flag in a song shouting out to the troops, the veterans, cold beer, a mother’s love and “jeans that fit just right,” in a song penned strictly for middle-American success, but OMIGOD, is that Leon Russell, assisting them straight from brain surgery! A true rock-country icon enhanced their performance and probably went unrecognized by most viewers.

Best Rock Album went to Green Day for “21st Century Breakdown.” A fine enough album, but maybe they got the award belatedly for their true masterpiece “American Idiot.” Sadly, DMB didn’t get even this for “Groo,” and the amazing “No Line on the Horizon,” U2’s best in almost 20 years, didn’t either.
Best Rap Album, an award we didn’t even see given, apparently went to Eminem’s “Relapse,” an album so atrocious Eminem has even publicly disavowed it, stating that he had still been “getting the drugs out of [his] system.” In years past, yes, he would have deserved this award. But for a rehashed album of serial killing and pop star-baiting, no. At least the true best hip hop album of the year, “The Ecstatic,” by Mos Def, got a nomination.

Taylor Swift won the country award, over real country legend George Strait. Dylan lost the award for Americana album (which is like Jordan losing an award for basketball); other great nominees in that category (Lucinda Williams, Wilco, and Willie Nelson) lost as well. The winner? Levon Helm.

Tragedy of tragedies, the regrouped Spinal Tap lost to…Stephen Colbert (for comedy album).

The Black Eyed Peas gave a god-awful performance. How is this band this huge? It boggles my mind. I blame it all on Fergie—the rest of the group has talent. They added Fergie, dropped the talent and then they began to sell records. Fergie raps and talks about “I’ma be blingin” and I cringe— I get physically embarrassed for her and for her fans in light of her horrendous attempt at hip hop, her flow is horrid. BEP have become the hip hop version of Creed.

What was with Quentin Tarantino? Talking about a blues legend and then announcing the Hip Hop performance, Quentin proved once again that despite being a great filmmaker, he’s a moronic douche sometimes. Was that a faux urban, hip hopish accent he was going for? It reminds me of when he fought with Spike Lee and told Lee that he “knew black people and culture” better than him…hmmm….

Let’s move on, shall we? Bright spots?
Beyonce. I admit it, she’s crazy good. Big, fun, silly pop songs that are insanely catchy and that don’t quickly grow to grate on your nerves are her specialty. She makes fun songs, dances great, looks great and deserved the clean-up she made with her six awards. The performance by Drake, Lil Wayne and Eminem was pretty fantastic—or at least it would have been had it not been bleeped out to protect our sensitive ears resulting in us missing half of each verse. It was nice to see Em back, free of his Rehab fat and really spitting—here’s hoping Rehab 2 is actually good. Lil Wayne can cool off in jail and hopefully learn to write about more than pot and BJs, and Drake can continue his ascent to hip hop superstardom. Elton and Gaga together was entertaining—Jeff Beck on stage was cool. Kings of Leon won Record of the Year, Phoenix won alternative album of the year.

Okay, next year—let the winners give their speech, actually show their acceptance, and hire a more diverse group of voters. Please, Grammy’s?