No Alternative: A map of the universe

I came of musical age during the so-called alternative era, when "alternative" was more of an actual alternative to the mainstream rock/pop of the early 90s. However, due to my relatively young age and the relative cultural backwater of my hometown, the movement was well on its way to mainstream-ization by the time it swung through my burg. The year was 1993 and at the tender age of 14 I had already developed a healthy disdain for popular culture in general. Ah, teenage rebellion.

With the exceptions of Guns n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion(s) and Nirvana’s Nevermind, I had paid little attention to popular music in the previous couple years. Glam rock had lost its appeal (and I had enjoyed Def Leppard as much as a pre-teen could) and I had never really gotten into hip-hop or R&B. All in all, I just didn’t listen to that much music.

But that changed during the summer of ’93. I had completed middle school and was well on my way to becoming a big, bad high school freshman in a handful of months. The prospect of a new environment with new people was a major catalyst for expanding my musical horizons that summer. But the most crucial factor was that my dad, after years of resistance, succumbed to the pleading of his children and subscribed to cable television at our house. I was then exposed to that bastion of cultural awareness… MTV.

I spent a good portion of that summer absorbed in the channel’s programming, from The Beach House to Alternative Nation (which was is full swing) to Real Word California (Venice).

I suddenly couldn’t get enough music and soon joined both the Columbia House and BMG Record Clubs. My first order of CDs included albums by R.E.M., Spin Doctors, Stone Temple Pilots and Blind Melon, all groups that were high on the charts that summer. It was a wonderful time of musical exploration. By the end of the year, I was acquiriing new albums at a rate of one per week, a pace I maintained throughout high school.

I fiercely bought into the "alternative ethos," particularly concerning issues of authenticity in music and the need to stay politically and socially aware. To this day, I endeavor to avoid overtly commercial aspects of American culture.

no alternative girl

I never did look good in flannel though.

But there is one record that had more influence on my musical directions for that year and those that followed. No other record comes even close to the effect that the No Alternative compilation had on me. It was like a map of the universe, a branching point for all that was well and good in the music world. Almost all the bands featured would go on to notoriety and in some cases, stardom during the subsequent years.

Matthew Sweet’s Superdeformed is an rousing punch of indie-pop-noise. The Smashing Pumpkins’ Glynis is a sweet sweet gem that ranks among my favorites in the band’s catalog. This album also introduced me to Sarah Mclachlan which would have made the album worth it alone. Soundgarden puts in an atypically-playful song with Show Me while Goo Goo Dolls present a misleadingly good song with Bitch seriously, I got bait-and-switched on that one. And even though I never managed to discover more of Pavement’s music (despite all the group’s cred), I still quite enjoy their ode to R.E.M.: Unseen Power of the Picket Fence.

Thirteen years later, this record still has power. In fact, a listen has stimulated a completely new and original interest in American Music Club, a band that never made it onto my radar beyond No Alternative.

And now that the term "alternative" has come and gone, been co-opted and is now as mainstream as it gets, I realize that the title is wrong. Alternative does exist, and it’s right here on this record.

John Williams – Jurassic Park: Hold on to your butts

jurassic park

jurassic park compact disc jurassic park at itunes

Since the mid-1970s, John Williams has never been lacking in notoriety.

Jaws, Towering Inferno, Close Encounters, Superman, Star Wars… these film scores made him a household name, gaining fame and respect for work that is generally restricted to devotees and cultists only. The Star Wars album even managed to break into the public’s consciousness, becoming best-seller on the Billboard charts for 1977 and inspiring an awful disco/dance version of the main titles that went to number one on that same chart.

My dad even had the vinyl double-disc mixed in with his Beatles and Grand Funk.

Williams became as close to being a rock star as a composer of "serious music" could get. And he kept it up into the early 80s with popular themes to the Star Wars sequels and the Indiana Jones franchise.

Then something peculiar seems to have happened. Looking over his list of credits, starting in 1983, we see a sharp decrease in his film output. I’m not overly familiar with his biography, so I don’t know what all he did during that time, but he does appear to keep a rather low profile for the next 10 years (maybe he spent most of his time chilling with the Boston Pops?). And while many of the scores he did produce during that time have artistic merit, none of them can claim to have captured the same public zest as those earlier hits.

Even the scores to the hit films Home Alone and Hook failed to garner much attention outside of film score buff circles, despite the films’ mass audience popularity.

Williams never really disappeared, but in 1993, he becomes a rock star again. And the film that does it is Jurassic Park. Like Star Wars before it, this picture hit a critical mass in cultural awareness and became a landmark event in the history of movie making.

And as with Star Wars, Williams’ music for the film became a crossover hit. Among my peers, it was not uncommon to see Jurassic Park mixed in with Nirvana or Snoop Dogg.

And the reasons are obvious. With its sweeping themes and dinosaur-sized sound, this thing is a masterpiece. The majesty of the Journey to the Island suite is easily the high point of the score. But throughout the score’s entire length, it fails to disappoint. There is not a single bad note in its entire 70 minute length.

If you haven’t heard it in a while, I heartily recommend that you check it out.

Mudhoney – My Brother the Cow: mmm mmmm angst

my brother the cow

Mudhoney’s My Brother the Cow, I think, is a fitting bookend to the “grunge” era. And though I didn’t get into Mudhoney until the waning days of the movement, in retrospect it seems as though it was the most quintessentially grunge of all the big bands to come out of Seattle during that time. Nirvana was more pop friendly; Pearl Jam leaned toward hard rock; Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were imbued with a metal sensibility; but Mudhoney was the band the best encapsilated the grunge ethos.

My Brother the Cow was released at a time when the music world was leaving grunge behind. It was spring of 1995 and Cobain had been dead for a year. Post-grunge acts such as Better Than Ezra and Live were bringing a kinder, gentle form of rock to the masses.

But Mudhoney continued doing its own thing and produced this great album. I remember waiting especially eagerly for this record to come out.

In January of that year, I obtained a recording of "self pollution radio," a sprawling 4 hour radio show hosted by Eddie Vedder and friends. They had gotten together to spin some records and engage in intelligent conversation.

Those tapes three ninety minute maxells became my musical divining rod for nearly 2 years. The first song played was Sonic Youth’s Teenage Riot and I was instantly transformed from casually interested in the band to hardcore fan. As the set progressed, I was introduced to forms of music both new and strange.

I heard songs months, and in some cases, years before they were officially released, including some Dave Grohl demo songs that would eventually be released as Foo Fighters.

The best part of the tapes, however, were the live sessions. Besides all the vinyl spinning, Eddie and company had arranged for a bunch of their friends to play a handful of songs in a make-shift studio.

  • Pearl Jam itself put in 2 sets with mostly material from Vitalogy.
  • Soundgarden put in a set, delivering Kyle Petty, Son of Richard and No Attention, both of which sound better on this performance than the studio versions released 2 years later.
  • Mad Season was there too and their performance inspired me buy their album when it was released a couple months later.

Which brings me back to Mudhoney, whose performance really kinda blew me away. I hadn’t given the band much attention beyond their song on the seminal Singles soundtrack. but by the time the strutting bass line of What Moves the Heart had finished, I knew that I had to add this band to my collection.

I picked up Piece of Cake shortly thereafter and waited a couple months for My Brother the Cow. When I finally received it, I deemed it awesome and it quickly made its way into my frequent rotation. The music was great, but the thing that made it characteristically Mudhoney was the prankish sense of humor. My favorite part of the record was waiting for the last song to drain away to nothing, then come roaring back as the album started to play itself backward.

But just as this record seems to be the last defiant gasp of grunge, it was also Mudhoney’s last hurrah for me. I listened to them vigorously for a couple years, but by the time the group’s next album, Tomorrow Hit Today, was released in 1998 I had largely forgotten about them. But listening to My Brother the Cow again reminds me why I liked them so much in the first place.

The seemingly non-random preferences of my iPod

I’ve talked about this before, but it keeps happening and I need to remind myself that nothing nefarious is going on.

For the fourth time since I started the tunequest, I’ve had to question the randomness of my ipod. first, there’s cex’s being ridden and being ridden instrumentals, which were played pretty much back to back. Then there was Danny Elfman’s Batman scores. more recently, the device decided to play nothing but drum-n-bass for a while, despite that particular genre’s relative scarcity in my library.

Today however, no sooner had Nirvana’s unplugged session finished than i was presented with Pearl Jam’s performance of the same.

To be fair, I have to remind myself that these sort of coincidences are completely natural. Indeed, four instances within the 135 days of the project thus far is nothing to get choked up about. Still I always raise an eyebrow when I notice a new pattern. In today’s case, maybe the iPod just wanted to further perpetuate the music-media-manufactured feud between Cobain and Vedder.

But believe me, I’m not complaining. Both performances are mind blowing. Come As You Are sounds phenomenal on Nirvana’s unplugged record and Pearl Jam’s unplugged rendition of Porch is the best one in existence.

tunequest week in review

for the week ending may 20, 2006.

stats: a superlative week here at tunequest. 394 songs played over 25 hours and 40 minutes. a further 5 songs were removed from the library for a net progress of 399, a new record. frankly, i'm surprised by the results. an afternoon braves game and a couple of extented meetings cut into my normal office listening time and i didn't really expect saturday's listening to be able to compensate. not that i'm complaining about it. i'm thrilled.

highlights for the week include sharing the chicago symphony's performance of mahler's no 6 with the neighborhood, revisiting some  grunge and post-grunge rock from nirvana's bleach and soundgarden's down on the upside, appreciating the smooth grooves of the well-pollished idm of to rococo rot's hotel morgen, getting funky with morton steven's very compelling tv score to hawaii five-o (best tv theme song ever!), and finally finally finally finally getting through all those babylon 5 scores* (it took 7 weeks, but i did it), as well as enjoying a host of other really great music.

also mixed in this week were a couple of james bond scores (john barry's diamonds are forever and david arnold's die another day. both excellent) and william shatner's has been. now don't laugh at this, but that shatner album is some powerful stuff. he's got a very engaging spoken-word delivery as well as some respectable collaborators. the result is 11 songs that pack more heartfelt sentiment than all the songs on top 40 radio in the past 10 years combined. i mean that.

it was also apparently "records that time forgot week" here at tunequest. i only covered 7 albums in that short-lived series, and 3 of them managed to pop up this week: can's ege bamyasi, louis and bebe barron's score to forbidden planet and martin denny's space-exotica extravaganza exotic moog. as soon as i track down that file, i'll post it.

see this week's complete list of albums in the extended entry.

*technically, i have one album left, a compilation called 'the best of babylon 5.' it's currently not eligible for play because the tunequest-ipod is into the I's and it's not smart enough to ignore the "the" at the beginning of album names. artists yes, albums no.

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the day of rock

started the day off with pearl jam's live show in katowice poland, from the group's massive bootleg dump in the year 2000. in high school, i collected a number of pearl jam shows (including one i had been to–what a treat!), but petered out after no code as my teenage devotion transformed into adultly-casual fanhood. when those bootlegs were released, i thought it would be a good idea to try to collect them all (like grungy pokemon). i think i got about 10 of the shows before it dawned on me that i really didn't need 25 nearly identical concerts cluttering up my music space, so i cut the list down to 3 shows: london, katowice and milan. then just last week, i further trimmed the lot by removing the london show; that recording just felt a little flat.

which brings me to katowice. this show is amazing, from the choice of songs to the gravity of the performance to the quality of the recording to the energy of the crowd. the show is more than 2 hours long and packs in nearly every great pearl jam song as well as the ol' standby: rockin in the free word.

update 3:44pm: continuing that seattle sound with soundgarden's down on the upside. it's a good record; too bad they broke up.

and if that's not enough rock for you, hum's electra2000 was next on the playlist. while not as complex or sophisticated as you'd prefer an astronaut or downward is heavenward, that album has some very good pounding, straigh-ahead rock. 'scraper' will blow your doors off.

rounding out the day was nirvana's classic debut, bleach, featuring 'love buzz' and 'about a girl.' i don't think anything else needs to be said about that one. 

April 14-17 : 163 songs played. 25 removed

&t

last week was a good week for tunequest. not only is 381 songs a new weekly best, but i achieved a new daily best on april 10. this is precisely the pace i need to keep, but in retrospect it seems i spent all my free time working on this project last week and i hope not to burn out on it. as a bit of a bonus, i had a more productive than usual weekend contributing to this week’s gains.

and while i’m on the subject of progress, i made some new calculations that take into account the rate at which i’m weeding songs from my library, not just the rate at which i’m listening. so far, i’ve had a net decline of 5 songs per day. i’m fine with that; i know i’ve had detritus accumulating for years now and it needs to be cleared out. when those numbers are taken into account, it looks like i would be able to get though an additional 13,000 songs before the end of the year, a 1500 song surplus, which is certainly more optimistic than what the graphs are saying.

and while i’m on the subject of calculations (take that, segue!), i discovered that after 2 months of listening, the top 10% of songs are now responsible for 46% of the total playcounts, a 3% decline from when i started. this has lead me thinking about the iTunes library as a metaphor for economics and society. i imagine the total number of songs to be the population of a society and the number of plays a song has represents its "wealth." heck, this model even takes into account governmental directives; by listening to the lower-played songs, i’m "aiding the poor." this would be a fascinating essay to write. i may just do some research on it.

but enough meta, onward tunequest:

  • add n to (x) [avant hard]
  • michael andrews [donnie darko]
  • dennis mccarthy [deep space nine: the visitor]
  • dave grohl/foo fighters [dave grohl demos]
  • gorillaz [demon days]
  • glitter mini 9 [break up at the rock show]
  • philip glass [dracula]
  • golden shower GS [digital 2600]
  • four tet [dialogue]
  • nine inch nails [the fragile – left]
  • cibo matto [stereo type a]
  • howard shore [lord of the rings: the two towers]
Derided as self-indulgent by many, the fact of the matter remains that nine inch nailsthe fragile contains some of trent’s best songwriting, just mixed in with more filler. ‘the day the world went away,’ ‘even deeper,’ and ‘the wretched’ (especially that one) are among the finest in the entire nails catalog. most of the fragile’s strength is on the ‘left’ disc, though ‘right’ starts off well but quickly meanders, but that’s a topic for another post. •

the dave grohl demos bootleg i picked up in paris (at fnac, maybe) 10 years ago, when foo fighters were still very new and still "dave grohl’s new solo side project." it’s an interesting collection of mostly pre-nirvana material, much of which would be reworked for inclusion on foo fighters self-titled and the colour and the shape. there’s even a live performance of ‘down in the park’ (official version appears on songs in the key of x) where dave doesn’t quite know the words and a solo acoustic version of ‘marigold’ (titled ‘color pictures of a marigold’), the ‘heart-shaped box’ b-side and only nirvana song that dave gets sole writer’s credit for. •

quickies:
miho and yuka, please stop appearing on everyone else’s records and put together a new cibo matto record, stereo type a is brilliant and we want some more, dammit. and don’t give me any of that ‘"we’ve broken up" business. you’re good on your own, but you’re great together.
speaking of miho, gorillaz’s demon days is an ok record, though somewhat disappointing. ‘feel good inc’ and ‘fire coming out of a monkey’s head’ are superlative.
and finally, i have heard the soundtrack to the end of the world, and it is ‘revenge of the black regent’ by add n to (x).