Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I did a piece for Complex called The Realest Shit I Ever Wrote: 20 of Your Favorite Rappers' Realest Songs, with some help from Insanul Ahmed and Angel Diaz.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I recently appeared on the latest episode of my brother Zac's podcast No Topic Required. Just a lot of talking, about some stuff I've written recently, a lot of silly stuff, some serious stuff about what's happening in Ferguson, Missouri. This is only I think the 3rd time Zac's had me on there as a guest, although he uses one of my Western Blot songs as the theme song for the podcast.

Monday, August 25, 2014

I wrote a post on the Baltimore City Paper's Noise blog about "A-List," Sisqo's new single featuring Waka Flocka Flame.

Sunday, August 24, 2014
The latest Short List.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The other day I contributed to a VMA-themed Rolling Stone list, and here's another one, the best opening performances in VMA history.

The Other Guy: Soundgarden's Ben Shepherd

Friday, August 22, 2014

I've always been an "other guy" guy when it comes to my favorite bands. When there's a clear pecking order, in terms of the one or two members of the band who front the band, and write and/or sing most of the songs, I always find it interesting to see what the other members bring to the table beyond just playing an instrument. You don't have to argue that George Harrison is a better singer or songwriter than Lennon or McCartney to take an active interest in his contributions to The Beatles (although hey, some have). And those kinds of dynamics are always interesting to me. In the past, I've made a mix of all of Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo-sung songs, and I kinda wanted to do more stuff like that.

Ben Shepherd is a relatively minor presence in Soundgarden -- of the four members of the best known lineup of the band, he was the last to join, and the least famous or recognizable (especially after Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam). He didn't write any of the band's biggest hits, although he sing parts of all the verses in "Spoonman," which he didn't write, and his only full-on lead vocal in their catalog, "Half," is a weird little 2-minute piece with pitched-up vocals. He led a band, Hater, during Soundgarden's hiatus, but has kept a relatively low profile, and has said he was sleeping on couches and struggling to get by before the recent reunion.

But I've always been intrigued by Ben Shepherd, perhaps because two of his few solo writing credits, "Somewhere" and "Head Down," were standout tracks on the first two Soundgarden albums I heard. He also, I think, has a pretty fantastic bass sound that has really come to be a big part of what I love about the band, that huge lumbering low end beneath the wall of guitars. Bassists never have an easy time standing out or being recognized for their worth in a band with more than one guitarist -- think about it, pretty much every particularly revered or well known rock bassist ever was in a one guitar group. No disrespect to the band's founding bassist Hiro Yamamato (who also had some vocal and songwriting contributions on the early albums), but to me the Soundgarden I love started with Shepherd joining the group. So I thought it'd be interesting to stack all his songwriting credits together and see how they sound, an alternate vision of Soundgarden where he's the primary creative force.

Soundgarden: The Ben Shepherd Writing Credits (Spotify playlist)

1. Somewhere
2. Head Down
3. An Unkind
4. Attrition
5. Half
6. Zero Chance
7. Face Pollution
8. Dusty
9. Never Named
10. Taree
11. Switch Opens
12. Ty Cobb
13. Non-State Actor
14. Been Away Too Long
15. Slaves & Bulldozers
16. Rowing
17. Black Rain
18. By Crooked Steps
19. Exit Stonehenge
20. Jesus Christ Pose
21. Jerry's Garcia's Finger

I arranged the mix by the order of what songs Shepherd had the most to do with. Tracks 1-5 were written solely by Ben Shepherd (the only 5 songs in the Soundgarden catalog that he wrote lyrics for). Tracks 6-13 had music written entirely by Ben Shepherd. Tracks 14-17 had music co-written by Shepherd and one other member of the band. Track 18 had music co-written by Ben Shepherd and two other members of the band. And tracks 19-21 were collaborations between all four members of the band.

There is one Soundgarden song co-written by Ben Shepherd missing from this playlist, the compilation track "HIV Baby," which was lyrically regrettable enough that I'm not too bothered about being unable to include it. A couple of the tracks towards the end are clearly just loose jams that the whole band shared songwriting credit for (including "Exit Stonehenge," a goofy metal track with the lyrics "Jesus I can't feel my penis"). But "Jesus Christ Pose" is pretty amazing and Ben Shepherd definitely deserves some royalties for that bassline.

Still, I think some interesting stuff emerges by hearing all these songs together. I don't know if the guy would be able to write hits like Chris Cornell does routinely, but his stuff always tends to bring in different textures to their records -- the dueling drums on "Head Down," the viola and cello on "Half," the piano banging on "Never Named," the synth horn bursts in "Face Pollution," the mandolin and middle eastern scale-sounding melodies that pop up in a lot of his songs.

I'd started putting this mix together a couple years ago, before the band released King Animal, which of course added a few new songs to the playlist. But I didn't even realize until this week that Ben Shepherd actually released his first solo album, In Deep Owl, under the name HBS in 2013. Having heard only bits of Hater and his other work outside Soundgarden, it's pretty interesting, and definitely expands on the sound of tracks like "Dusty" -- he's worked a lot with Mark Lanegan, and at times he can sing almost just like him. Still, it's cooler to hear his songs with the full force of a great band like Soundgarden behind them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I contributed a bunch of blurbs to Rolling Stone's list of most outrageous MTV VMAs moments.

TV Diary

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

a) "The Strain"
This has been a real thrill ride so far, just not knowing exactly how far they're going to take the premise and being impressed by how many tiers they're moving the story forward on. I knew when Guillermo Del Toro was producing a show that it would look great, but thankfully there wasn't a huge difference between the look and quality of his pilot and of the subsequent episodes directed by other people (which was a huge issue with Alfonso Cuaron's "Believe" and some other shows where the pilot was done by a big film director). I just hope the story keeps spreading out interestingly instead of becoming a dull sci-fi soap opera like "The Walking Dead."

b) "You're The Worst"
The pilot was really funny and did a good job of establishing the leads as horrible people that are still watchable and even kind of likable, in a way that's more broadly satirical than, like, the post-"Seinfeld" sitcom formula. Aya Cash had a thankless role in the short-lived FOX show "Traffic Light," but she totally pulls off an unusual kind of character in this. Also, I really enjoy the whole subplot about her being the publicist for a rapper character who dresses like Tyler, The Creator and skateboards and gets in trouble for throwing around gay slurs. The kind of very specific meta gag that I feel like only a few people are going to find as funny as I do.

c) "Married"
FX has paired this show with "You're The Worst" as kind of a block of comedies that are deeply cynical about relationships. But this one is a little more situated in reality, while also being one of those overly bleak depictions of marriage that, depending on how charitable you want to be, could be put in the same lineage as "Married With Children" or "This Is 40." But Judy Greer is the best, I refuse to believe that being married to her would be anything but wonderful. So I dunno, sometimes this show has a lot of promise, sometimes it just feels like it's marking time and trying harder to be depressing than funny. Also, a little awkward that they didn't have the supporting cast in place in the pilot so they just kinda show up in the second episode. The whole thing with the really old guy Jenny Slate is married to turning out to be married to Paul Reiser is funny, though. I could see the ensemble coming together and this becoming a strong show eventually, but they've already pretty quickly started lazily doing A plots with Faxon/Greer and B plots with the rest of the cast that never meet up, which feels really lazy to me given.

d) "Legends"
I'm amused that Sean Bean's latest starring vehicle has a whole "Don't Kill Sean Bean" marketing meme, and I'm also amused that his hacker sidekick is played by the girl who was Mac, the hacker sidekick on "Veronica Mars." The show itself, not especially amusing, though, don't know if I'll stick with it.

e) "Outlander"
A show in which a super hot World War II era British lady has lots of sex, then magically travels back in time to 1743 Scotland, and has more sex. It wasn't until I watched an episode that my wife informed me that it's based on a popular series of romance novels, which I suppose I should've saw coming. Not terribly compelling, but it is a cable show with lots of sex, so it's got that going for it.

f) "Rush"
The USA network seems to be trying to ramp up the explicit material in their original programming -- I'm pretty sure the latest season of "Suits" has had an uptick in swearing, and the pilot for this show has a scene full of a guy yelling the word "cock" several times. This really feels like the usual USA bullshit, though, handsome guy is some kind of special secret doctor for rich people and of course his last name is Rush. I hate that shit, shows where the title has a double meaning based on the main character's last name. Except for "Masters of Sex," that show's based on a true story so God wanted that pun to happen.

g) "Satisfaction"
Another envelope-pushing USA show, about a regular guy who becomes a prostitute. Except HBO already did that a couple years ago, and while they really don't want you to compare the two shows, "Hung" was a pretty funny, underrated show and this is just kind of earnest and stupid.

h) "Black Jesus"
Truth be told, I was never that big a fan of "The Boondocks," as a comic or as a TV show, it just felt like Aaron McGruder was more interested in being subversive than being actually funny. But this show is just the pits, lacking even the merits of "The Boondocks." I'm sure there's someone somewhere that finds this offensive, or find it refreshing and edgy, but it feels like the weak-ass juxtapositions of LOL JESUS AS A BLACK MAN IN MODERN COMPTON get run into the ground in the first five minutes and after that it's just the longest comedy sketch ever.

i) "Garfunkel And Oates"
I'm getting pretty sick of the latest crop of comedians getting TV shows and just make it about their lives as comedians, so my hopes weren't really high about this. But it's not as twee or obnoxious as I expected, and the 2nd episode in particular was just great, the whole Chris Parnell plot as well as the bit about them meeting the porn parody version of themselves.

j) "Soundclash"
I appreciate that VH1 keeps trying to make shows that are actually about live music, but ?uestlove and Diplo getting together and making a show about acts from different genres doing a mini-festival together that culminates in a wacky cover collaboration/mashup thing, I dunno, it's just kinda trying too hard, whole thing feels stilted and silly. Also the first episode had Sia doing that ridiculous thing where she sings with her back to the audience and someone else wears a wig that looks like her hair and mouths the words, that shit is the worst.

k) "The Leftovers"
I guess this show has become pretty divisive, a lot of hate-watching talk around it, but I've been enjoying it a lot. Sometimes the episodes that turn into mini-biographies of certain characters feel a little too "Lost," but I've started to really appreciate the cast and how some of the actors have pulled off great performances as really strange characters in situations that haven't totally revealed themselves yet -- particularly Ann Dowd, Michael Gaston and Carrie Coon. And really, with all the scary shit like what's happening in Ferguson right now, it's kind of working for me right now to have something this bleak to watch, I'm just kind enjoying watching the situation escalate but not sure where it's going.

l) "Tyrant"
I still have a lot of misgivings about this show, which is basically all the usual gritty American cable drama tropes dropped into the middle east, especially since I watched The Godfather recently and this really feels kind of transparently modeled on that story too. But so far it's pretty compelling and I'm interested to see where the story is going. Ashraf Barhom's performance is pretty consistently great and increasingly complex and unpredictable, also Moran Atias is gorgeous, I kinda would just watch it for her.

m) "Halt And Catch Fire"
Now that the first season is over, I'm still kind of on the fence about it, which is not really a good sign. It feels a little like "Rubicon," one of those times when an AMC show avoids big moments so studiously that it risks being boring, and of course that one only lasted one season. I liked it overall, though, by the end of the season they really succeeded in making Gordon and Donna's marriage the most interesting story, but the rest of the characters, they never totally got fleshed out and felt kind of like archetypes.

n) "Drunk History"
I still love this show so much and am so happy that it's on TV. But it's also true that if you've seen it once, you get the idea, and there's a bit of a law of diminishing returns with it. There have been some great episodes this season, though, and the casting often makes things pop. "Weird Al" Yankovic as Adolf Hitler was just legendary.

o) "Suits"
Still one of my favorite shows on TV, although they've kinda hit that wall a lot of dramas get into where they're just moving around the chess pieces to keep it interesting. Mike was out of the firm, now he's back, he's mad at Rachel and then they're back together, now Louis is out of the firm. I would like a little less plot, some more of the character moments that made the show entertaining to begin with. Neal McDonough is always a great antagonist to throw into the mix of a show, though.

p) "How I Met Your Mother"
I tend to catch up on most shows On Demand at my leisure, especially since at 8 or 9 o'clock I'm usually giving my son a bath or reading him a bedtime story. And for some reason, "How I Met Your Mother" is the only show I watch that Comcast stopped putting new episodes On Demand in recent years, so I completely missed the last couple seasons. After the finale, though, my wife and I got the last 2 seasons and watched them all in a few weeks. And binge watching that last season was probably the right way to see it, since the whole weird conceit of cramming the whole season into one weekend was less irritating or difficult to follow that way. The show may have not ended at its peak, which is kind of inevitable when a show stays on for 9 seasons, but I'm glad I caught up. I liked Cristin Milioti as the mother, I liked the twist ending, I guess I see why some people hated it but it felt in keeping with the rest of the series.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Summer is almost over, and my series for Rolling Stone of the 20 biggest summer songs of every decade of the rock era recently concluded with the first 5 summers of the 2010s. Here are all the previous lists:

The 1950s
The 1960s
The 1970s
The 1980s
The 1990s
The 2000s

Friday, August 15, 2014
This week's Short List.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I wrote a list for Complex Magazine of The 25 Hardest Rap Beats of All Time. Had a lot of fun making this, happy with how it came out, got to fit in some less obvious selections along with some undeniable classics.

Monthly Report: August 2014 Singles

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

1. Clean Bandit f/ Jess Glynne - "Rather Be"
I first heard this a few months ago, when it was just one of those songs topping charts around the world that America was more or less ignoring. And it sounded really good then, but it didn't really grow on me until I finally started hearing it on the radio regularly. I like that it sounds really plush and detailed and modern, but there's something about the song itself that feels like a simple early '90s dance pop hit. I added all these songs to my running Spotify playlist of favorite 2014 singles, btw.

2. Kiesza - "Hideaway"
Another vaguely retro-but-not-too-retro house song that was huge all over Europe months ago that's just now getting traction here (same true of that okay Rita Ora song, although it's a bit more contemporary-sounding). I don't tend to be huge on this kind of stuff but I see why these songs blew up.

3. Bobby Shmurda - "Hot N****"
There's been a lot of justifiable skepticism towards the Bobby Shmurda phenomenon -- an NY kid does a video for a mixtape track over the beat from a Lloyd Banks song and then months later people notice how entertaining it is and the internet attention snowballs into a major label deal. It all sounds kind of silly, and it is. But at the same time, this very 2014 course of events has basically resulted in a kid spitting a bunch of bleak shit over a killer Jahlil Beats production with no chorus getting into mainstream radio rotation, which is fun. Rap songs that were clearly not written with radio in mind ending up there are a rare and precious phenomenon in this day and age. The fact that the label has already taken the original video off YouTube and thrown a completely unnecessary French Montana verse on the official single suggests that this could all get very boring and depressing very quickly, but at the moment it's a little fun and exciting to hear this on the radio.

4. Dierks Bentley - "Drunk On A Plane"
This is the kind of song title/premise that gets easy airplay in the era of bro country. But I have to hand it to Dierks, because he took the basic concept and teased it out with a backstory that makes the narrator into a sympathetic character, not just a drunken jerk, and it makes the silliness of the whole thing kind of winning and likable. I feel like this could and even should be adopted into a rom com.

5. AJR - "I'm Ready"
This is some kind of ludicrous would-be novelty hit that my local pop station has picked up a little bit -- a trio of brothers doing barbershop harmonies about "dancing 'til we're dumb in the dark" over squonky dubstep beats and a Spongebob Squarepants sample. I dunno if I would like this much if barberstep became a mainstream phenomenon, but as a weird little curio it's really catchy and kind of creative.

6. Migos - "Fight Night"
When Drake jumped on "Versace" a year ago and got Migos on the radio, it was widely assumed they'd forever remain in the 'biggest radio hit featured Drake' club, along with French Montana, A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz, and (sigh) Meek Mill. But a couple weeks ago "Fight Night" surpassed "Versace" on the urban radio charts, which in a weird way is a major milestone for them, and I think they realize it -- when I tweeted something to that effect a couple weeks ago, it got RTed by a bunch of people, including the official Migos account (it has since climbed to #10 on said chart). This is probably my favorite song they've put out to date, partly because Takeoff has a unique voice and it's nice to hear him dominate the track instead of Quavo, who sounds more and more like Mike Jones every time I hear him. This song exists in that kind of uncomfortable continuum of rap songs that liken 'beating the pussy up' to actual acts of violence, but at least it's not as bad as when Jay-Z made it into an Ike Turner joke recently.

7. Jeezy f/ Jay-Z - "Seen It All"
Every Jay-Z verse continues to be treated like an event, but it's only maybe once a year now that one isn't completely dispiriting and underwhelming, and right now it's "Seen It All." Of course, it's kind of an old-fashioned dope game Jay verse, and he labors it a little bit ad libbing "real shit" over and over, and Jeezy's story about Jay supposedly tearing up when he recorded his verse is a little ridiculous. Still, pretty good song.

8. Jennifer Lopez - "First Love"
That A.K.A. is one of the best pop albums of the year is still an opinion I'm sticking to that I'm sure I will convince few of. The second single was my gateway to the album and I really think it could've been a huge hit for anyone else with more career momentum than J.Lo. This song really just resonates a lot for me personally, as someone who's still with their first love.

9. Phantogram - "Black Out Days"
"Fall In Love" is still one of the best singles of the year and Voices is a pretty solid album, this was a good follow-up single choice, wish it was getting more airplay.

10. Pharrell Williams - "Come Get It Bae"
I'm always fascinated when an artist follows a gigantic #1 hit with something people dislike so much that it misses the Hot 100 completely, which is what happened when "Marilyn Monroe" was released on the heels of "Happy." This one is good for getting the album campaign back on track, though, even with Miley in the mix I find it pretty enjoyable. I really hope "Brand New" becomes a single eventually, though.

Worst Single of the Month: Big Data f/ Joywave - "Dangerous"
I think that alt-rock radio has been pretty good this year, as far as newer acts getting a lot of play that are generally pretty decent, but this song that recently topped the charts, has really irritated me both for the similarity of the bass/drums arrangement to "Only" by Nine Inch Nails and for how innocuous and half-assed the song itself sounds to me.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

One of the biggest project I've undertaken lately outside of my writing was running a poll of the greatest Classic Rock songs of all time for the I Love Music message board. These things are really just by and for the users of the board, but considering the amount of work I put into tabulating the 63 ballots and rolling out the results, and the fact that it came out pretty awesome, I wanted to post it here and share it with more people.

You can read the whole thread with all its chatter here, or go straight to the summary of the top 500. I also made a Spotify playlist of everything from the top 500 (that was on Spotify, anyway). The poll rollout also came with some amazing images this dude Grady cooked up, and you can see them all here.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

This upcoming Friday, August 15th, Boiler Room is bringing a bunch of folks from Baltimore up to New York for a live broadcast of Baltimore club music from Rod Lee, Scottie B, DJ Technics, Mighty Mark & TT The Artist. I've also been asked to come up to write about the whole thing for Boiler Room, so NYC folks, let me know if you want to come to the event and/or hang out while I'm in town for the weekend.