Best tunes of 2001: #25 R.E.M. “Imitation of life”

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And so here we are, all hallow’s eve, as good a time as any to start up a new series. You might have noticed that I finished up my Best of 2000 list a few weeks ago, and so now we’re on to 2001. This list is a bit longer than the one I did up for 2000 but I still haven’t quite gotten to thirty songs for the naughties decade (perhaps for 2002?). First up here, at song number twenty-five, is R.E.M. with their track “Imitation of life”.

As I’ve already mentioned already in this pages, I’ve been following Athens, Georgia’s finest since “Green” hit the charts when I was a teenie-bopper and would most definitely call myself a big fan. I recently endeavoured to narrow down my top five favourite tunes by R.E.M., a rough task, given their vast body of work, and posted the results on these pages. Looking back it at now, it’s noticeable that not one of the songs that made the final five were recorded after the end of the 90s. I personally found the early part of the 00s my least favourite period in R.E.M.’s catalogue, a period of albums that for the most part sounded like watered down versions of their best work, but still, there were some gems to be found.

One such example is “Imitation of life”, the first single off “Reveal”, buried deep in side two of the mix. It bears all the hallmarks of their sound. Peter Buck jangles and Michael Stipe hems and haws through half-nonsensical lyrics. Buck himself has admitted that the song feels like it is plagiarized from one of their early tracks. And yet, there’s something about it (isn’t there?) that begs for head bopping and singing along, especially at the bridge at the 2:40 mark when Buck and Mike Mills sit back, ease off on their instruments and let Stipe do his thing.

“This sugarcane
This lemonade
This hurricane, I’m not afraid
C’mon, c’mon no one can see me cry”

And lastly, if you haven’t seen it, have a gander at the neat-o video below. It’s the same twenty second shot played over and over, in forwards and reverse, simply focusing at different segments in the shot. Good stuff.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2001 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2000: #2 The Dandy Warhols “Bohemian like you”

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Thumping bass drums over a lovely bed of organs, the raunchiest of Keith Richards-ian guitar riffs is answered by a muscle-bound and growling bass line and then come the vocals, Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s uber cool delivery. “You got a great car. Yeah, what’s wrong with it today? I used to have one too, maybe I’ll come and have a look. See, we’re looking pretty cool.” And so begins the hilarious, but awesome rocker “Bohemian like you” by The Dandy Warhols.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

I saw The Dandy Warhols perform for the first time back in 1997 at the now-defunct Guvernment in Toronto, opening for The Charlatans. I didn’t really know who they were at the time, save for hearing their big single, “Not if you were the last junkie on earth”, quite a bit on the local alternative radio station. They didn’t do much for my girlfriend (now wife) Victoria, who was with me, but they made an indelible impression on me with their edgy and noisy, but indubitably fun rock. So much so that their name stuck with me (how could it not?) and when their third album, “Thirteen tales of urban bohemia”, came out in 2000, I jumped on the CD immediately.

It was for this album that the Portland-based four-piece shed some (but not all) of their atmospheric excesses and slacker/prankster sensibilities and I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but they produced a very tight, guitar rock album with some glam touches, here and there. “Thirteen tales” is great listening and after only once, I had deemed it necessary to share it with all my music-loving friends. I definitely remember one particular Saturday afternoon bringing it with me to my friend Tim’s place where it was one of many albums that we span during an afternoon/evening session of the board game, Axis & Allies. I pre-empted it by calling it “something we definitely would have been all over back in high school” because I noticed some questioning looks from my friends on account of the band’s name. But the album definitely made a mark on my foes for the afternoon, especially with my host, who, I think, saw them live the following year.

“Bohemian like you” is the ninth such tale from urban bohemia and is likely one of the tracks to bring them their greatest exposure, after placement in TV ads and appearances in countless films. As I mentioned before, it’s a hell of a rocker, like many of the tracks on the album. But this one, in my opinion, is elevated slightly higher by its ability to not take itself, nor its performers too seriously. The lyrics seem both a romanticization and an indictment of the hipper (or so they think) segment of the gen-x crowd, or the pre-hipsters, if you will. Playing like one side of a conversation between a guy and the girl he is courting, the guy talks himself up, offering to get her a free vegan meal at the restaurant he waits tables at, for instance. And ironically, shows himself as nothing much more than a great haircut.

All that to say, it’s a great song that begs being played and replayed and is second to only one other in this list of my fave tunes of 2000. Stay tuned for number one.

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

Best tunes of 2010: #22 The National “Conversation 16”

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Have you ever been sitting alone in a crowded cafe or pub and purposefully listened to people talk, catching snippets of conversations from the tables all around you? Of course, you have. We all have. In fact, one of my writing professors in university assigned this very task to us in my second year prose workshop as homework. We were to fill a page with real dialogue and bring it to class to discuss, not as a means to reveal the darkest secrets of strangers, but to get a feeling for how people really talk. As we all discovered (perhaps unsurprisingly), we don’t talk how we write. Phrases are rarely in complete sentences, plenty of “ums” and “ers”, and certain words used way too frequently, like “like” and a particular four letter word that starts with “f”. Many of these pages of dialogue that we read out in class were hilarious and disjointed, especially since they were, in many cases, culled from multiple conversations occurring simultaneously.

Now, it could be the song’s title, but it’s this very exercise I think of whenever I listen to The National’s “Conversation 16” with its scratching, reverberating guitars and ominous drumming. I’ve heard that Matt Berninger has said that he just lets the lyrics come to him as he listens to the instrumentation that the Dessner brothers create. In this way, the words are more for the imagery and the sounds, rather than any deep meaning. However, his conversational tone and the banal yet very disjointed phrasing on this track has me hearing it as snippets of conversations from all around me, cutting through the ethereal and dream-like haze of the music.

And speaking of disjointed, have you ever watched the video for this tune? It features Kristen Schaal (“The flight of the conchords”) as the US president and John Slattery (“Mad men”) as a secret service man that fantasizes about more than just guarding her body. She seems to be quite bored with her post as the most powerful person in the world until she receives a flirtatious invite to Russia by that country’s president. The video is a bit bizarre on the whole and not a little bit funny but it nicely puts a light spin on a song that features the lyrics “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, ’cause I’m evil”.

All of this adds up to the brilliance that has won The National a sizeable following. And if you’re not one of them yet, give this tune a spin and you might find yourself on the path to joining the club.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.