Sunday, October 17, 2021

Cumulonimbus Eleven I

"Devastate the Night Forever"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

My mixes have always been about having the exact right set of songs for any given mood.  If I’m feeling angry, Thrashomatic Danger Mix.  If I’m feeling morose, Tenderhearted Nightshade.  Sleepy is Numeric Driftwood; calm is Zephyrous Aquamarine or perhaps Moonside by Riverlight; weird and disconnected might lead to Smokelit Flashback, or Bleeding Salvador, or even to Cantosphere Eversion; creative depends on context: Shadowfall Equinox for work, Phantasma Chorale for fiction, Eldritch Ætherium for gaming.  But what about when I’m happy?  Well, again, it depends—there are shades of happy just like any other emotion.  If I’m in a bit of a party mood, it would probably be HipHop Bottlerocket; if I’m more bright and sunny, probably Salsatic Vibrato; if I’m more wordlessly content, Snaptone Glimmerbeam is a lovely choice.

But what if I’m really happy?  Just wanting to feel the pure adrenaline of music pumping through my body, every track an undisputed gem, played at the maximum volume your speakers will tolerate?  You know that feeling, don’t you?  Where, if someone wants you to turn it down, you’d rather just turn it off, because to listen to these songs at anything less than full volume feels fundamentally wrong.  You’re on cloud nine ... except this one goes to eleven.

This mix is where I put the songs that just make me ache for more music, make me wish it was possible to beam the sound directly into my brain, make me wonder how people can possibly survive in silence.  These are some of my all-time favorite songs from every decade ... although, being primarily a child of the 80s and a college student of the 90s, you can bet we’ll concentrate on that 20-year period more than the rest.

In point of fact, I really should be a child of the 70s: I turned 4 in 1970, and therefore 13 in 1979.  But I didn’t really blossom, musically, until the new wave and synthpop of the 80s, which would eventually become the “alternative” of the 90s.  So I’m not much, in general, for the 70s, musically speaking.  In fact, the only song on this mix which is technically from the 70s is the 1979 Cars hit “Let’s Go,” which I’m not sure I even discovered until the 80s anyway.  Certainly it is (like “Rock Lobster” and “My Sharona”) one of those 80s songs that just happened to come up a year ahead of its time.  With its percussive claps, surreal lyrics (“she’s so beautiful now, she doesn’t wear her shoes”), and strong synth underpinning, it’s classic 80s new wave, and the Cars would go on to be one of the biggest bands of the 80s, and one of the first two bands I ever saw live.1  But as big as their biggest hits off Heartbeat City were for me, “Let’s Go” will always hold a special place in my heart.  It was for me one of the major musical pointers that the music of the 50s and 60s (that is, the music of my record-collector father) was well and truly transmogrified into something completely different.  I just love the song.

Weirdly, the closest thing to a 70s song on this mix is from 1981: “Burnin’ for You” by Blue Öyster Cult was lagging behind it’s time.  Many people will point to “Don’t Fear the Reaper” as the pinnacle of BOC, and, while that is a very good song, there’s just something about “Burnin’” that I love even more.  “I’m livin’ for givin’ the devil his due” ... how can you not want to sing along to that?

But from there we go truly and deeply into the 80s, and I’ll start by talking about one of my earliest understandings of what music could make you feel: “Urgent,” by Foreigner.  While 80s My Way concentrates on my love of the alternative side of rock, there was a lot of stadium rock in the 80s too.  Some will point to “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey; some will rather choose “Come Sail Away” or “Renegade by Styx.2  And even those who want to go with Foreigner would probably pick “Juke Box Hero.” But there’s a reason it’s always been “Urgent” for me, and that reason is Junior Walker.  Mark Rivera does the fills between the verses, but that solo is all Walker.  You can hear the moment when they overlap: Rivera (who was no slouch himself and would go on to play with Billy Joel, Peter Gabriel, and Simon & Garfunkel) fades out, and Walker (leader of Jr. Walker and the All Stars, member of the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame, with 3 albums in 2 years in the top 10 of Billboard’s R&B charts) explodes into the song with a high note on the alto sax that other people can only dream about hitting.  It’s a note so unexpected and pure that it literally gives me goosebumps every time.  The song has a lot more to recommend it, including some synth work from Thomas Dolby, and some of Lou Gramm’s trademark high-pitched vocals, but that sax solo does it for me every time.

After that, the 80s offer us some other really great tunes, such as “Your Love,” one of the iconic one-hit-wonder songs of the decade.  The Outfield never matched the heights of this album again, but this whole album (Play Deep) is quite good.  But nothing can quite match the plaintive cry that Tony Lewis imparts to this ultra-classic: “I don’t want to lose your love tonight ...” Then, from London to Milwaukee: the Violent Femmes were another amazing discovery of the 80s, and their debut album is insanely good, with every track a winner.  For some reason, I always favored “Prove My Love”; it was never the hit that “Blister in the Sun” was, nor even as well-recognized by aficionados as “Kiss Off” or “Add It Up”, but there’s something about Brian Ritchie’s basswork on this tune in particular that always spoke to me.  And of course the Replacements, while perhaps not as well-remembered as the others, were quite inflential on a whole generation of musicians and music lovers alike.  They could do soft, pretty ballads, but they could also just flat out rock, and “I.O.U.” is my favorite of the latter.  It’s raw, in some way; it makes you feel like you’re just hanging out in Paul Westerberg’s garage.  It’s fast, and it has an F-bomb or two (as do several other tracks here, for that matter), and it’s just awesome.

And would it truly be the 80s without some INXS and some New Order?  Again, I went with some slightly more obscure tracks over the more recognizable hits, but “Don’t Change” (by the former) is a soaring track that snatches you up and takes you along for the ride, while “Paradise” (by the latter) is one of the best that synthpop has to offer: a glittering, multi-layered track with so much going on, and some beautiful lyrics (one of which you’ll find in our volume title).  Our final stop in the 80s is by the too-often-forgotten Dreams So Real.  This Athens GA band, overshadowed by the many other more successful acts to come out of that city (R.E.M., the B-52s, Guadalcanal Diary, Indigo Girls, etc), was actually pretty kick-ass.  I saw them live as well, and lead singer Barry Marler seemed to have an aversion to crowds; bass player and backing vocalist Trent Allen did most of the talking, and Marler spent most of the show staring at his feet.3  But his wounded vocals rang out, especially on “Distance,” and Allen’s interjected responses of “ten thousand miles ...” make this song one of my all-time favorites of theirs.

While I was in high school in the 80s, the majority of my college career was in the 90s.4  Perhaps symbolically, “Distance” leads perfectly into “Fall Down” by Toad the Wet Sprocket, which is one of those songs whose lyrics instantly make you know exactly what the singer is talking about even though the words don’t actually make completely logical sense (such as “she hates her life, she hates her skin, she even hates her friends; tries to hold on to all the reputations she can’t mend”).  While I’ve joked that Toad doesn’t really rock,5 this is as close as they come.  While “Distance” is more plaintive and reaching for something, “Fall Down” is almost operatic in a matter-of-fact way; it’s emotion is understated, but still enough to grab you and spin you around.  Great song.

Of course, the true ballad of the 90s for me is “Crush Story.” Coming out in the middle of my fourth semester back at school, by the summer it was everywhere.  It was never a big mainstream, but it was top 20 on the “modern rock” charts, and WHFS gleefully played it constantly.  Not to mention me quickly snapping up the CD and also playing it constantly.  With snarky vocals (“this is better than love, baby!”), gorgeous harmonies, and just a catchy-as-fuck hook, this song will always remind me of some of my favorite times in my life.

And ditto that for “Policy of Truth,” which was from the year before.  I was already a major Depeche Mode fan, of course, and I was just starting to transition from cassettes to CDs when Violator came out.  Although I had promised myself to buy only used CDs—I was replacing an extensive cassette collection with what was soon to be an even more extensive CD collection, and I needed to watch my finances—I made an exception for this album, which I just knew was going to be magnificent.6  Nor was I disappointed.  Like many of the ablums I mention here, every track is great, but there’s something about “Policy of Truth” that just makes me want to crank up the stereo ... is it the cross-fading synth work? or David Gahan’s deep, booming vocals?  I dunno.  Just turn it up.

I’ve already talked about my discovery of Natalie Imbruglia, and how “Torn,” while a great track, still manages to be the worst song on Left of the Middle.  But this is my first chance to truly show you what I mean.  “Wishing I Was There” is one of those songs that starts off kinda happy and then manages to step it up a notch to absolutely rockin’.  “Every night the moon is mine,” Imbruglia sings into an almost quiet moment, “but when the morning comes ...” and blam! we’re off.  It’s an empowered track that makes you want to sing along.  Also somewhat lesser known, Juliana Hatfield (late of the Lemonheads) released Become What You Are in ‘93, and, again, every song kicks some ass.  But, for me at least, none more so than “Spin the Bottle,” which maintains Hatfield’s riot grrrl edge7 and heavy guitar buzz, but somehow conveys an innocence and joy that’s lighter than its lyrics.  And let us not leave the 90s without touching on the subgenre that some think defines it: grunge.  Although there were many great choices here, most of them are more suited to the Thrashomatic Danger Mix.  But Alice in Chains came out with the amazing Dirt in 1992, and they closed that album with the amazing “Would?” It’s got great basswork (from Mike Starr), even greater drumwork (from Sean Kinney)—not to mention that iconic vibraslap—some driving guitars from Jerry Cantrell and some fantastic loud/soft/loud vocals from Layne Staley.  Its just everything coming together perfectly, and I wanted it to close this volume just at it closes out Dirt.

Of course, the ultimate 90s song is from the post-grunge period: post-Cobain, post-Nirvana, Dave Grohl went on to form one of the greatest manufacturers of music that makes you want to crank it to max volume, the Foo Fighters.  The first time I heard “Everlong,” I was just blown away.  Unlike many of the bands and albums I talk about here, I don’t love every song the Foo Fighters do, but, when they hit the jackpot, it pays off big time.  We’ll see them again next volume, but, for this first outing, you can’t really top “Everlong.” It’s powerful, emotional, both touching and uplifting, and plus it absolutely rocks.  If there’s a mix starter for this particular mix, it’s definitely this one.

But I also wouldn’t feel right leaving the 90s without hitting my two favorite local (to my college town) bands: emmet swimming and Ebo.  Both have several great options, although Ebo typically rocks a little harder than emmet.  But when emmet rocks, they rock, and “Arlington” is one of my favorite power-pop moments from them.  Plus the lyrics are cool.  For Ebo, my absolute favorite of theirs is “California,” which is an absolutely spot-on indictment of sleazy guys trying to pick up women in bars (lead singer Dave was a bartender at our favorite local pub, which was—not coincidentally—where I first saw both bands).  Both are really fun to sing along to.8

Cumulonimbus Eleven I
[ Devastate the Night Forever ]

“Bright Future in Sales” by Fountains of Wayne, off Welcome Interstate Managers
“Prove My Love” by Violent Femmes, off Violent Femmes
“Policy of Truth” by Depeche Mode, off Violator
“Wishing I Was There” by Natalie Imbruglia, off Left of the Middle
“I.O.U.” by the Replacements, off Pleased to Meet Me
“California” by Ebo, off Secret Weapon
“Crush Story” by Too Much Joy, off Cereal Killers
“Paradise” by New Order, off Brotherhood
“Everlong” by Foo Fighters, off The Colour and the Shape
“Someday You Will Be Loved” by Death Cab for Cutie, off Plans
“Don't Change” by INXS, off Shabooh Shoobah
“Burnin' For You” by Blue Öyster Cult, off Fire of Unknown Origin
“Let's Go” by the Cars, off Candy-O
“Ain't No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant, off Cage the Elephant
“Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men, off My Head Is an Animal
“Spin the Bottle” by the Juliana Hatfield Three, off Become What You Are
“Your Love” by the Outfield, off Play Deep
“Arlington” by emmet swimming, off Arlington to Boston
“Distance” by Dreams So Real, off Rough Night in Jericho
“Fall Down” by Toad the Wet Sprocket, off Dulcinea
“Urgent” by Foreigner, off 4
“Would?” by Alice in Chains, off Dirt
Total:  22 tracks,  80:25

From the 90s to the aughts.  In the first decade of the new millenium, I was less often swept up by a new track, but Death Cab for Cutie managed to catch me with “Someday You Will Be Loved,” an anti-love song in many ways, with a martial beat, a buzzing guitar break, and Ben Gibbard’s buoying vocals.  Somehow I want to take whatever trip Gibbard is promising even while he’s telling me that my affection is unrequited.  Similarly, the first time I ever heard Cage the Elephant, it was “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” and it was so different from anything else, and so powerful, both lyrically and musically; also, I don’t think it’s possible to sing along (“I can’t slow down, I can’t hold back (though you know, I wish I could) ... oh no, there ain’t no rest for the wicked until we close our eyes for good”) without knowing you’re singing a great truth.

But the truly awesome musical moment for me in the 00s was the moment I finally broke down and got the much-touted Welcome Interstate Managers by Fountains of Wayne.  I mean, “Stacy’s Mom” is a fine song, sure, but could this album really be as great as its dedicated fans claimed?  Well, I’m not going to tell you every track here is a winnner, but the majority are, and it has the distinction of being the strongest opening four tracks of any album I can think of.  “Mexican Wine” grabs you immediately, and “Hackensack” puts you down gently, and “Stacy’s Mom” is in there too, but, oh my stars and garters, “Bright Future in Sales” is just magnificently transportative: it explodes into being (which is why I made it the volume opener), carries you raucously along, and demands you turn it up just a little louder.  It’s just amazing.

Finishing up in the teens, the times when I was really blown away were few and far between.  But then along comes Of Monsters and Men, sailing in from Iceland on a wave of joyous brass and percussive “hey!“s, and their smash hit “Little Talks.” The back-and-forth of Nanna Hilmarsdóttir’s and Raggi Þórhallsson’s vocals provide the perfect counterpoint for the explosive chorus, which assures us that “though the truth may vary, this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore.” Part of the 00s and 10s subgenre (which is as far as I know yet unnamed) of big bands with orchestral instruments,9 Of Monsters and Men have a feel for the operatic (just watch any of their videos) and also a keen sense of pop hooks.  This particular song is just a masterpiece.

Next time, we’ll join in the chant.

Cumulonimbus Eleven II


1 The other being Huey Lewis and the News, and I honestly can’t remember which came first.

2 Which of those you lean towards depends on whether you faovr Dennis DeYoung or Tommy Shaw.  I’m more of a Shaw man myself.

3 Not to imply that Dreams So Real is shoegaze, of course.  Like most of the Athens bands, they are jangle pop.

4 I took 3 years off after my sophmore year, and then went back for 3 more years starting in the fall of ‘89.

5 My standard line on this goes, if Toad the Wet Sprocket ever rocked at all, they’d be the Goo Goo Dolls; if the Goo Goo Dolls rocked more than they didn’t, they’d be the Replacements, and if the Replacements rocked constantly instead of only most of the time, they’d be Candlebox.

6 If my memory does not fail me, it remains the only one of my hundreds of CDs that I paid more than $10 for.

7 Which we’ll see most fully featured on a mix that we’ll come to in the fullness of time.

8 Fun bonus fact: both songs are mentioned in this short blurb from the Washington Post that I accidentally stumbled on while researching this post.

9 Others being Arcade Fire and the Decembrists.  Sometimes those two are referred to as “baroque pop,” but I’m not sure that really fits.