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Best tunes of 2000: #12 Radiohead “Optimistic”

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April 12, 1998. A date I will always remember for two reasons. First, it was the first and last time I ever worked on an Easter Sunday and second, it was the first and only time I ever saw Radiohead perform live. I remember it being a very quiet shift at the tool rental store at which I worked at the time, serving only a few customers, receiving more calls from other, busier store locations than actual customers, which all made for a very long wait before the show. It’s funny now remembering how much I was looking forward to it that day, considering the only reason I was going was that I loved the opening act and my friend Terry had an extra ticket. Björk was originally supposed to co-headline the show with Radiohead at the stop at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto but she had to cancel just prior to tickets going on sale and the vacant opening slot was filled by Spiritualized, who already had this job for the other stops along the tour.

It’s a point of fact that I had already seen Spiritualized at a small club called Guvernment the previous fall on their own headline tour in support of “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space”, a show that I loved and will always remember for many reasons (but that’s a story for another time). And so, I jumped at the chance at seeing them again; Radiohead, for me, was just a bonus. As it would turn out, Spiritualized were phenomenal, doing an admirable job of filling a half-empty arena with their space rock noise, but Radiohead was the revelation. I don’t know what their live show is like these days but in 1998, it was electric and made me an even bigger fan of their music than I already was.

I mention this concert in connection to “Optimistic”, a track that appears on “Kid A”, an album that would come out two years later, because of a (likely unfounded) theory I later developed that it was this tour with Spiritualized that changed everything for Radiohead. When “Kid A” came out, I think a lot of people didn’t know what to think of it. Prior to this album, Radiohead was an excellent guitar rock band and though “OK computer” really pushed the proverbial envelope, it could be considered almost pedestrian when set beside “Kid A”. To me, it sounded like Thom Yorke had spent a load of time with Spiritualized’s evil genius, Jason Pierce, adopted his love of droning rock, free jazz, and experimental noise and leapt off the high diving board without a life jacket. The funny thing is that though I love Spiritualized and everything they produce, “Kid A” and pretty much every Radiohead album that came afterward have never really done anything for me.

Until recently, that is.

(And before I go further, I just want to say that I am not one of those people that slammed “Kid A”, only to much later proclaim it the album of the year. I’ve never hated Radiohead’s later works. I’ve just always preferred albums two and three.)

This week, while listening to “Kid A” in preparation for writing this post, I feel like I heard something there that I hadn’t heard before. “Optimistic”, in particular, got me going with its thrumming and aggressive guitars and pounding drums. These two forces create a palpable tension while Thom Yorke pleads and wrangles with his listeners come along with him for the ride. I listened to it over and over again, each time turning it up louder, the increasing volume making things even more clear. And while I’m not sure I’m sure I’m quite ready to retroactively crown “Kid A” album of the decade or move “Optimistic” further up this list, I think I might be ready to give post-“OK computer” Radiohead another chance.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2000: #13 Oasis “Go let it out”

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When you get as big as fast Oasis did, there’s bound to be a modicum of backlash, especially from the tastemaker set. We saw a similar phenomenon with Coldplay and more recently, with Mumford and Sons, but in the case of Oasis, they didn’t really do themselves any favours. The Gallagher brothers’ constant squabbling was much publicized in the music press, as were their outspokenness and snarky potshots at other bands. It’s like they couldn’t keep their mouths shut and it only got worse as their egos grew. This attitude also found its way into the studio with them. You only have to listen to the all the bombast and navel-gazing on “Be here now” for a point of reference.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Oasis. Noel Gallagher is as great a songwriter as he is at repurposing hooks and melodies and Liam’s looks and attitude (when held in check) made him an all-star frontman. Their first two albums were brilliant rock and roll records but when it came to the third, I thought it all just way too much. Then, when “Standing on the shoulders of giants” was released in 2000, I didn’t even bother. I mean, just think about what that title means. I only finally listened to their fourth album in full close to a decade after it was released, just after the Gallagher brothers and the new look Oasis lured me back into the fold with albums five (“Heathen chemistry”) and six (“Don’t believe the truth”).

That doesn’t mean I never once heard “Go let it out” in the intervening months and years. How could I not? It was all over the radio, at the least it was on the only radio station I could stomach at the time: Toronto’s EDGE 102.1. My initial response was ambivalence. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it enough to make me want to check out the album. It has turned out to be a grower though and nowadays, it ranks up there with some of my favourite Oasis singles. It’s got that cracking drum sample that loops through the entire tune and due to the departure of both Bonehead and Guigsy, Noel does double duty here, providing both the muscular rhythm guitar and the fuzzy bass. Liam, meanwhile, is very present and provides his usual edge, a raw and raspy performance.

“Go let it out” is as stadium-friendly and anthemic as their other work during this period, yet it also feels somewhat restrained, at least as restrained as these guys could ever get (it’s almost two minutes shorter than the average song on “Be here now”). And yes, it has that raise your fist and pump it in the air kind of climax. Pure Oasis.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2000: #14 The New Pornographers “The slow descent into alcoholism”

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Track fourteen, the next stop on this short list of great songs from the year 2000 takes us to a hopping ditty off “Mass romantic”, the debut album by The New Pornographers.

But before I go there, I need to talk a little bit about “Fubar”, a Canadian indie film released in 2002 that has since amassed quite the cult following. It is the debut film by Canadian director Michael Dowse and was shot in mockumentary style on a digital camera and a tiny budget. The film focuses on two lifelong friends, Terry and Dean, metal heads, beer drinkers, and basically, hosers (for want of a better word). “Fubar” is as hilarious as it is sad and if it didn’t popularize the term “Giv’r”, it certainly didn’t hurt its proliferation in popular culture usage.

But why did I have to mention this film in relation to The New Pornographers’ “The slow descent into alcoholism”? First, because it’s a great Canadian film that could use another plug and reminder. Second, because its soundtrack boasted a playlist of classic Canadian rock tracks as covered by contemporary Canadian artists, including The New Pornographers’ rendition of “Your daddy don’t know” by Toronto. And finally, because Terry and Deaner appear in the video that Michael Dowse made for “The slow descent into alcoholism” (see below), doing what they do best: drinking beer and being hosers.

The New Pornographers formed in Vancouver in 1997 under the leadership of Carl Newman. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the band is really a collective and supergroup, and these days, even after seven albums together, all of its members (there are 8 of them!) still have other established projects on the go, some of them as well-known and successful as this one. What is so unique and incredible about The New Pornos is that they have lasted so long and that their sound is so cohesive, despite the different styles of its vocalists and principle songwriters: the aforementioned Newman, Dan Bejar, Neko Case, and Kathryn Calder (who didn’t join until 2005).

In trying to explain “Mass romantic”‘s immediate appeal and hook, critics have been quick to assign different iconic artists as comparison points to each song on the album. Apparently, “The slow descent into alcoholism” is David Bowie. And I suppose I can see a bit of glam rock and a touch of the theatrical in the verses and the way Newman delivers them. It’s a staccato rhythm driving the keys and vocals, all matched up with the ragtime drum beat. However, once Neko Case lovingly layers her soft and punchy backing vocals to Newman’s, all bets are off. Personally, I’ve never seen this band as derivative of any other sound and don’t really see eye-to-eye with those who take the lazy way out and shove them into the power pop pigeonhole. It’s a pop song, sure, and mighty powerful, but this group is one of a kind.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.