OK, this isn't quite finished, but I wanted to back up a copy of what is finished now before I go any further.
1 Alien Sex Fiend I'm doing time in a maximum security twilight home
In the summer of 1985, I became an exchange student. After a two week orientation session in Much (Berghausen), Germany, I moved to Mülheim an der Ruhr, a bedroom community in the heart of the Ruhr industrial area, sandwiched between Essen and Duisburg, cities of over 500,00 inhabitants each. I was 15 at the time. Although I only lived with that first family for about two or three months, I somehow made friends at school. We'd stand outside in the schoolyard and smoke (for some reason, I was smoking Dunhills at the time; this was before I moved on to Roth-Händle cigarettes, which were of course far worse for me). After a week or two we somehow started talking about music, and I was privileged to hang out with these guys and listen to records (oooh, vinyl) after school. There was an upcoming concert at the Zeche in Bochum (a now-closed mine shaft converted to a concert space and club) - Bochum's a few miles east - and it was Alien Sex Fiend. I'd heard this 12" single after school and thought, hm, this is pretty cool - they'd just bought some kind of drum machine and the result was an odd mix of pretty stupid Goth-ish sensibilities with a nice crunchy-fuzzy guitar, layered over what was probably a Linn drum; I have no idea. The song still holds up pretty well even now; it's nice and flat-sounding, with a pleasant contrast between the obviously human singing and guitar playing and the impersonal, cheesy synth drums. I've never heard anything else from ASF that was so compelling. (Oh, and the show was pretty damned good, too. Stayed out too late, tried to sneak back home at two AM or something, got busted, and that precipitated a move to another family in a couple of weeks. Woohoo!)
2 Marc Almond Meet me in my dreams
For the first time since the breakup of Soft Cell, Marc Almond gets back together, more or less, with Dave Ball, with his Grid partner Richard Norris along for the experience. This is from a wildly uneven album obviously cobbled together from whatever was available at the time, but it's a wonderful song, glamorous and soaring and electro and everything else as well. Almond's always a difficult man to appreciate; although I generally like his style and persona, it can get to be a bit much at times. Here, though, it all works perfectly together and you wind up singing along, heart filled with hope, wishing you had something more fashionable than a T-shirt and jeans on... perhaps gold lamé platform shoes? :)
3 Aphex Twin Girl/boy song
OK, this song was a revelation. I dropped in at Mod Lang in Berkeley in the summer of 1996, and lo and behold, there was a new Aphex Twin release, the first thing out after I Care Because You Do. Thankfully, the CD player in my Saturn hadn't been stolen yet, so fwoomp, CD in the stereo, volume up... and then this. One of the first and probably still the best example of what happens when you take something that is indisputably beautiful and then overlay it with what could charitably be described as insanity-inducing hyper percussion. I'm not sure why this kind of percussion started showing up on records in 1996 - perhaps a new software package had been written that allowed people to jam 128 nearly distinct snare hits into a single measure? All I can say is that I'm eternally grateful; it's a wonderful collision between beauty and manic toe-tapping. Absolutely brilliant.
4 Aphex Twin Ventolin (salbutamol mix)
The first Aphex I actually bought, I only bought this because it was (a) cheap and (b) had a Designers Republic cover. I don't really remember what took me so long, but this CD was oh so worth it. I'll never forget putting this thing on back in our rented house in Belmont with Dan's friend Mark M down from Seattle; Mark has a musical taste that occasionally overlaps with set c (= my taste). If you haven't heard this thing, imagine that most annoying, piercing drone noise you've ever heard continuing unabated while all sorts of horrible sounds fall down on themselves between the speakers. I've always been impressed with music that is difficult to listen to (even dat politics' sous hit), or music that's horribly offensive (think You've Got Foetus On Your Breath), but this reached a level in pain not heard since, oh, Strategies Against Architecture. The thing is, though, is that there is some interest other than the physical affect on your bleeding eardrums - there's something else there that does have some beauty to it. I can't believe this was a single, can't believe it was released domestically, can't believe that there's a video, can't believe anyone bought this, can't believe anyone ever tried to dance to it, but I am impressed.
5 Art of Noise Beat box
Being an early adopter of advanced telephone
technology in 1983, we had something few households had at the time: a redial
button. Wow. Think of the possibilities. Specifically, if you're waiting out
the summer before you start high school in the blisteringly hot sugar beet
fields around your childhood home in Stockton, California, and have virtually no
spending money of your own, then AM radio starts to seem like a pretty good
idea.... enter KJOY, home of ugly radio. It's hard to believe now but they
actually were in the habit of playing music that really had no place in a
Central Valley farming community - Art of Noise, specifically. I'm not sure, but
I do remember seeing videos on MTV that summer for things like Close (To The
Edit), but I definitely remember being enthralled by the simple inanity of
this wonderful song, a song that's mostly interesting in the sounds of the
individual components of the song itself rather than melody or lyrics or
anything more traditional. It was as if someone had recorded a drum kit
especially interesting because the bass drum sounded, well, much more like a
bass drum than a bass drum should have. Novel sounds, novel strategies of
songwriting. And thanks to the redial button, I didn't even have to pay for the
6 Atom™ feat. Tea Time Mis chiquitas
If it weren't for the fact that most rap music is lyrically stupid and musically inept (and I won't list the number of exceptions here, from De La Soul to Public Enemy), I would probably listen to it more because the anger and props can be interesting listening. This track was conjured up by German programming genius Uwe Schmidt, a/k/a Atom™, working in conjunction (if this is to be believed) with Chilean rapper Tea Time. Uh-huh. It's from a CD called 'XXX' - the conceit is that it's racy, smutty stuff, with songs like Perra mojada ("Wet Bitch") setting the general tone of things. But the most interesting thing here is this: what happens when you get an exceptional musician and programmer to come up with a rap album of sorts? This is exciting in the way that Rockit was - you know, that Herbie Hancock meets the wheels of steel stuff, but a lot later on. Uwe's got, like, computers and shit, so he's put something together that does things to a few of the usual markers of rap (scratching, bass, good beats), turning it upside down and reassembling it as something much more audibly interesting. But the real kick here is Tea Time's raps - I suppose it's as close as a rapper will ever come to some kind of Joycean multilingual play; on another track, he seamless switches between German, English, and Spanish, sometimes in midline, and it's just exhilarating. Still, nothing beats Mis chiquitas for the initial shock of the song, and the general wonderful goofiness of the experience.
7 B-52's Cake
Look, I know that most people don't enjoy Mesopotamia. I mean, it was that David Byrne produced EP that almost no one bought, and which was roundly criticized for being either incredibly stupid or wildly pretentious. But come on: Pretentious? Stupid? It's almost both. It's smart, it's fun, it's supposed to be a pleasant diversion, an amuse-bouche, a little something to enjoy and not think about too much. This was something I had to have when it came out in 1982 - I have no idea why, but at the time I thought David Byrne was really, really neat and I spent a childhood Christmas repeatedly playing Wild Planet on a cheesy JC Penney mono tape recorder. Understandably, I was excited by this, but the high point for me was the not very sophisticated (and probably terribly obvious) sexual suggestivity of Cake. I suppose parents should be terrified by their twelve year old son trying to sing along with Kate and/or Cindy, badly, but my parents either didn't notice or care. (They seemed more upset by Marc Almond and Yazoo, actually.) But I'll always have fond memories of driving around Stockton wailing away in the back seat of the car, glued to whatever shitty tape recorder I had at the time. (Yes, imagine long car trips with nothing but that JC Penney deck. Not pretty, but this was before car stereos were very common.) Mmmmmmm, takes a long time for it to rise...
8 Beastie Boys Shake your rump
I'm certain the most shocking thing about Paul's Boutique was that it was good. Really good. I mean, totally fucking wonderfully good. I really couldn't stand the Beasties before then - Fight For Your Right was ridiculous, annoying, juvenile. But all of a sudden, something happened, and they sprang this thing on an unsuspecting public. Rumor had it they had Capitol over a barrel, and did whatever the fuck they felt like, releasing different color cassettes, changing the Capitol logo, deciding to get the coolest instead of the most obviously commercial producers out there - God bless the Dust Brothers - and they produced a masterpiece. Between Christmas and New Year's Day 1989 I was in Budapest, Hungary; the Wall had come down, the Ceausescus had just been executed, everything was basically going out of control. I'd just eaten a Big Mac at the corner of Lenin Street and Marx Square, walked past vendors selling bananas and oranges, and headed into a state run music shop, suddenly crammed with bootlegs of all different kinds of Western music - of course, I had to get a tape of this, because my brother Tim, who occasionally has good taste, swore up and down that it was brilliant. It was. It was the first time I heard a bassline actually do something interesting with the air in the room, the first time I heard a bong hit used perfectly rhythmically in a song, and the samples used fit perfectly. At last, someone realized that the 1970s had something to offer, musically. Great guitar pedal use, timbale breaks, crowd noises, you name it. Still sends shivers down my spine.
9 Beck Beercan
Remember when you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing Loser? Well, I heard it about a million fucking times and thought, ooooh, novelty hit, not even gonna fucking touch this album, whoever this is. But, wait, once again the warehouse staff at CompUSA #297 come through, buying the Mellow Gold CD, playing it nonstop for about a week or so. And I happen to notice that... what the fuck? That's a Melvins sample. The drum solo from the last song on Bullhead. Huh? Does this guy know something I don't? Within a week, I've got a copy myself and find myself crooning "Everyone's out to get you, mutherfuker" driving across the Bay Bridge to work. Oh dear. And so it begins.
Bonus beats: the one Beck song I always wished had been released was his singing Jackass on Letterman, solo acoustic, or it might have been with Willie Nelson. Oooooooh.
10 Björk Hyperballad
Aside from being one of the most beautiful videos I've seen, there's just something about this song that is breathtakingly beautiful. Now, I've often noted that I generally don't like the sounds of women's voices, but this is an exception. There's a particular lyrical style that I'm very fond of: suggestive, rather than explicit lyrics, and this is one of the very best examples of that style. I'm not talking Cocteau Twins style nonsense, but something in between. Think Severed Heads, Beck, Melvins, Björk. I often hear folks arguing whether or not this song is supposed to be beautiful or sad, but that argument misses the point entirely: love is beautiful and sad. Any time you love someone, you pour your heart into a thing that is ethereal, because they can die, change their mind about your, you name it. It's wonderful, and it's deeply sad.
11 Boards of Canada Happy cycling
Every once in a while, you decide that buying every release on a single label will somehow give up a few gems among the crap. Nettwerk, Warp, Ipecac, Bong Load, whatever; you've done it before, and you swear you'll never do it again. But then, suddenly, the label throws out a few releases at the same time, and the packaging is all similar and very, very pretty. When Warp released a few CDs of John Peel sessions, in nearly identical Designers Republic packaging that looked vaguely like CD-Rs, I caved. I bought them. They sucked, but not the Boards of Canada CD. It was actually lovely in its quiet way. Although the first track is perhaps more instantly affable ("Orange!"), the second one is the one I grew to love. And wouldn't you know it, when the album was eventually released, my copy of it was one of the few that had the pressing error that left off Happy cycling. Oh well. At least I still have the Warp CD, the one with the beautiful typography.
12 David Bowie, Philip Glass, Aphex Twin Heroes
I'm no Bowie fan, even if John S has repeatedly tried to convince me of the merits of Mr B. Even the cheezefest that is Hallo Spaceboy didn't get me - maybe it was the trauma caused by repeated viewing of Blue Jean and China Girl back in my childhood. But there's something here that in fact does it for me. This is an Aphex Twin remix of the Philip Glass treatment of Heroes released as a bonus 3" CD single with Japanese copies of the Heroes Symphony. I don't like the original song. I don't like the symphonic version. But this, this, this is another matter entirely. Something about the tearing apart of the original, refracted back through distortion and orchestra finally makes the power of the original clear to me. I often wonder why it is that only an intentionally sullied version of some music first becomes appealing to me.
13 Boxcar 900 hours (Tom E mix)
Similar to the Aphex Twin Heroes remix, this is an ordinary song that I never particularly cared for which has been rescued by an intelligent remixer, in this case Tom Ellard from Severed Heads. Sure, some of what he's done is almost textbook Severed Heads - what I believe Tom E would refer to as his secret Arabic background singer vocal effect or something - but dammit, it works. It works incredibly well, imbuing an otherwise unexceptional song with a poignancy you would never have thought you'd fine there. May the Arabic vocal trick never stop working.
14 Garry Bradbury 4 legs
Mr Bradbury was one of the founding members of Severed Heads, and was almost certainly a bona fide tape loop maniac at the time. This is from a solo album recorded in, I think, 1990, and it's clear that he hasn't moved far beyond the early SH days, preferring instead to remain squarely in the realm of the analog, the hand-manipulated. This sounds like a simple 4/4 beat, a broken children's piano, a possibly gamelan-derived melody, and, worst of all, the words seem to be taken from a very poor "Let's learn English" tape produced by Asians who are having serious difficulties with the whole L versus R thing. Now, repeat after me in your worst offensive-Asian-stereotype voice: The elephant's four legs were absolutely too long. That's right, absorutely too wrong. You get the idea. Giddy fun, if unsuitable for polite company.
15 Cabaret Voltaire No one here
From Code, perhaps the clearest example of how a good CV song should work. Nothing particularly exception here, except that they don't fuck it up (for once). CV were always one of the most flawed outfits out there, producing lots of records with a wide range of things seriously wrong with them that detracted from the pleasure, but on Code, at times they just went ahead and did it, without bad samples or bad backing singers or bad edits or bad lyrics or bad anything else. This still stands as CV at their finest, all of the pleasure and none of the cringe inducers.
16 Cabaret Voltaire Ex
This might also have been titled Theme from Technacolour on the UK version, but I really don't know that for sure. In any case, the US distributors have helpfully retitled this in a tee hee isn't that shocking attempt to sell it to a different crowd. Taken from the decline and fall of CV period - basically about the time Stephen Mallinder stopped singing and/or maybe left the band, who knows? - this is Kirk at his least self-indulgent, working at a strictly workmanlike instrumental that does everything you'd want in a late night about-to-close incredibly loud disco number. Amazing subsonic bass effects as well as some eerily touching passages.
17 Coil Infinite elsewhere
Now, you have to understand that I'm not a big Coil fan, but I've listened to enough of them over the years that I figured I had to put something of theirs here. I never enjoyed the dirge they made of Tainted love, never really got into their whole weird magick thing - I mean, what the fuck kind of name is Thighpaulsandra? - but one thing I certainly enjoyed was having the balls to release a 12" single with a totally fucked up, unplayable B-side. This isn't a song, it's a concept. And it will fuck up your moon rock needle. Big time.
18 Co Kla Coma Straight towards the American!
This is a Tom Ellard side project, ostensibly with a certain "Karen Elliott", although Karen Elliott appears to just be an self-perpetuation art-world project; do a Google! search on her to try to figure that one out. Basically, the original conceit here was to work in some obviously not electronic music-compatible source (think Glenn Miller), but by the time of the third CD, It's All Good, that seems to have gone missing. What we have here is an utterly sublime pop song, constructed with samples for lyrics, that would probably work well as a dance floor hit kind of thing, too.
19 Cylob Scram
This is the first cut from Lobster Tracks, which is pretty much a throwaway EP, but this is fucking amazing. One of these days I'm going to have to transcribe this thing to figure out what's going on here, meter-wise; there's something profoundly fucked up here that I can't put my finger on. There's also something very, very subtle about this: for the first couple of measures, the interest is held entirely but the subtly changing pitch (timbre?) of the percussion, which isn't taking up all the space in the track, leaving lots of interstices for other elements to intrude into the longer the track goes on. It's an additive sort of thing: add high hat after 32 measures, add farty Yamaha DX kind of thing after 16, and so on. It slowly complicates itself into something unexpected, and then the weird bass slides, cram-sixteen-beats-into-one stuff, radio interference squeals... My God, what an ugly thing of beauty.
Postscript: Matthew suggests it has an extra half beat per measure, as well as something tricky with alternating down and upbeats. Not sure what he means, though. He might be talking about the fifth track from this CD, come to think of it, which is rhythmically fucked way more up than Scram.
20 Depeche Mode Enjoy the silence
When I stopped being a teenager, a lot of Depeche Mode didn't sound so great any longer, but this one song still stands out, especially in the twenty-minute-mix version. It's got all the hallmarks of good DM - haunting melody, weepy lyrics, length, style - but none of the drawbacks - really weepy lyrics, style at the expense of substance, tedium, schmaltz, cheese. I wish they'd done more of this and fewer personal Jesuses, &c.
21 Devo Mr. B's Ballroom
Directly from my sixth grade show and tell to you, this was once a favorite of mine, although now I really don't care for it that much. Still, for a while it was a childhood favorite. Why? I have utterly no idea. Perhaps it was the combination of nonsense with funny voices? The simple fact that I had no idea what the hell it was all about? The cover art? The funny hats? Or perhaps it was just fun because it annoyed the other kids in the class? It sure as fuck beat listening to Mr Bojangles, though. :)
22 disc brave2ep
The basic problem with this is that it seems to lock up my computer for a couple of minutes if I even so much as insert the CD. This isn't a song, but rather an artifact, an object - the most wonderful thing about it is that a few people would work so hard at creating something so intrinsically fucked up. From the cover that you can't read very well - white type on a white background that makes you tilt the whole thing against the light in vain hopes of making anything out - to the jokey titles that vary from edition to edition of the disc - everything about this is annoying. Thing is, though, there's also musical value here, too, even if it's largely buried under thousands of miniscule samples and digital read errors.
23 Dukes of Stratosphear What in the world?
XTC with a different drummer and a very different purpose in life, the Dukes were basically a joke that lived on a little bit longer than originally expected. When I was leaving boarding school for the summer in 1985, I got my Dad to stop at The Record Factory or whatever the fuck it was called then in Pacific Grove, and I saw this... object. Garish, ugly-ass cover, bad '60s psychedelia. However, a store employee had stuck an Avery file folder label on it with a note: "XTC in disguise". Of course, I bought the thing. And I like it much, much better than XTC's records. What I liked most of all was the guitar solo on this song: it appeals to me because it's intentionally unfinished, unresolved. Most any guitar solo, you can hear the end point coming a mile away. You just know that at some point the guitarist is going to go for The Big Resolve, The Big Note and they're going to blow you away and bore you at the same time because you've heard it before. (If you're really unlucky, that guy from Styx will start singing along with the guitarist just before he shoots his tremolo-filled wad.) However, I don't know what got into the Dukes, but they gracefully stop and allow it to fail, to die, right before it should go for that final money shot. More power to them: it's all the more spectacular because they don't deliver the obvious payoff. What in the world, indeed.
24 Einstürzende Neubauten Hör mit Schmerzen
Would you ordinarily expect junior high school students in Stockton who know each other from Sunday school to trade tapes with this kind of thing on them? No, probably not, but there you are. Ever on a quest to find something more aurally exciting, more parentally annoying, my best friend Jesse came up with a copy of Strategies against architecture, a Jim Foetus-compiled monstrosity of German experimental noise-fucked-up-ness. Power saws, screaming, metal stressing, et cetera. Beautiful in its own way; a real instruction in the glory of the unexpected. Eventually, we progressed to songs like Armenia, which twenty years later compelled me to actually try to travel there (and that's a long story indeed).
25 Electric Music Kissing the machine
I suppose this is here because it's the perfect OMD song, albeit not by OMD.